iPhones, Monks and the Images We Construct

tibet money

by Hannah Etchison

Hannah Etchison, a graduating senior majoring in Religious Studies with a minor in Asian Studies, spent six weeks of this fall in India, staying primarily at a monastery where she will learn from the women and help them with their English. This is her third post about that experience. See her first and second posts. 

Sogyal* struck up a conversation with me quickly. I had mentioned to another guest at the World Buddhist Centre that I was an English teacher.

“You’re a teacher? So am I.” He chimed in with clear but accented English.

“Oh, English?” I asked.

He informed me that he taught Mandarin Chinese for a school in Delhi, but he was in fact Tibetan. Upon hearing my intention to go to Shimla the next day, Sogyal informed me that he was planning to go to Shimla as well, but was leaving that night. I decided to leave with him so that I could enjoy India with less paranoia about solitary travel dangers. His destination was a Bonpo monastery above a city called Solan, an hour from Shimla. This is where I first surveyed the Himalayas as the sky began to lighten and we waited for the monastery to wake up, since we had arrived at five in the morning. We could clearly hear Hindu music coming from a village on the peak across the mist-covered valley.

Bonpo, or Bon, is usually defined simply as “the indigenous religion of Tibet” and it is difficult to distinguish the practices of Bon from those of Tibetan Buddhism. The most obvious differences between Bon and Buddhism are that Buddhist monastics sport crimson and yellow robes while Bon monastics wear crimson and blue (according to my own observation, although I did see Buddhist monks occasionally wearing blue as well). When Bon practitioners circumambulate a temple or important place, they do so counterclockwise, and so too when they spin the prayer wheels. Buddhists do these same things in the opposite direction. Both Tibetan religions venerate the Dalai Lama by hanging pictures of him in conspicuous places and draping them with white cloths. The white cloths are also used by both types of religious leaders as a welcome and blessing to visitors. I am unfortunately not familiar enough with the philosophies of Bon to compare their teachings, writings, or other details that typically make people classify either as a “religion.” The tea at the Bon monastery was nowhere near as delicious as that of the Buddhist nunnery where I would stay for several weeks. You may think that has nothing to do with the religiousness of either tradition, but who are you to decide what’s religious? I could only observe, since I speak no Tibetan and my translator only occasionally bothered to tell me what the senior monk was explaining.

He did, however, enjoy pointing out that many of the monks had iPhones, iPads, and other expensive electronic devices which he himself could not afford. It seemed to bother him, but not because he knew about the monastic vow of poverty those in the monastic tradition are supposed to follow. The image of a monk on a cell phone, or with a PC in his room, ruined the image of monasticism Sogyal had been hoping to see. He remembered his first meeting with his friend, a senior monk at the monastery, and the wonderfully serious conversation about Tibetan spirituality they had until it was interrupted by a phone call that the monk received on his mobile. “It ruined everything,” Sogyal told me “Here I thought was a wise man who spent all his time studying religion and praying, and then he pulled out an iPhone!”

Later Sogyal told me he was very disappointed and disenchanted with his visit to the Bon monastery. His expectations did not prepare him for the relative affluence of the monks. I certainly saw images there that made me grin at the irony, like monks and laypeople coming and going on motorcycles and two white women around my own age attending the prayer session in the temple along with all the monks. I wonder what he would have thought of the nuns I spent the next month with, who spent more time gardening and preparing their meals than reciting prayers in the puja hall. Does manual labor jive with the monastic expectation?

Call it globalization, modernization, corruption, or progress: these images have a real effect on people who have firm expectations of what spirituality looks like and acts like. While the technological advancement of monastics failed to shock me, I did find myself re-examining my idea of refugees after meeting Sogyal.

Perhaps the word just made me think of beggars or people living in temporary housing, but to find a Tibetan refugee staying at the same place I was staying was surprising. To hear that he, displaced by the Chinese occupation of his homeland, made his living teaching the Chinese language, surprised me more. And chatting with him in English while he ordered food in Hindi thoroughly shattered any idea that I, and probably most people in the West, had about Tibetan refugees.

It may seem elementary, but it is something that the pictures and documentaries do not relate strongly enough to us: not all Tibetans are monks, and the monks aren’t hermits. Sogyal dressed in western clothes, ate meat, drank alcohol, talked about his large family, his time in high school, his plans to start a business, the pretty girl he spent Diwali with, and anything else that a new friend might talk about in any setting. He also talked about his trek through the mountains to get from Tibet to India when he decided suddenly to leave his homeland. He talked about the Tibetan government in exile and his dismay that his younger brother didn’t even know it existed. In short, Sogyal was a person, and his separation from myself was as surprisingly small and un-exotic as his own separation from the Tibetan monastics. The “real” Tibetan community he had hoped to find was unfortunately just that: real. Monks need to contact each other from distances, register for conventions, and pay their power bill. Refugees start businesses, save up for iPhones, and utilize the skills they have to make a living.

The difference between Sogyal’s unfulfilled expectations and mine were the effect they had on us. Sogyal became disappointed and rejected the experience as bad, inauthentic, or somehow just not right. I saw Sogyal as a fascinating example of identity and the layers which make it up. The choices each person has of who or what they identify as are countless and often competing. The Tibetan / Chinese-teacher / businessman / refugee / Buddhist convert / city dweller / martial artist / cook that showed me around Delhi, Solan, and Dharamsala has as many layers as the American / English teacher / college student / body-modification fan / Christian / feminist / cat owner / Star Wars geek / pacifist that is writing about him. Every single person draws lines, appropriates categories and presents him or herself to the world, despite or in spite of the expectations, making absolutely any human a fascinating study of the workings of identity in culture.


* Pseudonym

Photo credit: Wonderlane (via Flickr) use permitted by creative common license

One thought on “iPhones, Monks and the Images We Construct

  1. The essence of Tibetan culture eventually points to a fact that nature of mind is empty. Meaning we, ourselves, are the ones who give it various colors or fill it with whatever limit of knowledge we have. That wisdom often helps me understand the paradoxes. I don’t know why I want to write 🙂 Often the identities we identify ourselves or others are very secondary or tertiary creation, almost like an artificial intelligence, an artificial creation. At the heart of the matter, we all seem very alike, similar, just made to feel different from each other because of someone’s politic! a different language and a geographical distance prior to industrial revolution. None of us have a blood color other than red flowing inside us regardless of how appear on outside in color, sound, manner….two hands, one nose, two eyes, one heart