September 15, 2015
“What kind of Buddhism is this, Otto?”
In A Fish Called Wanda (1988), Kevin Kline’s felonious “Otto””as stupid as he is sexy”preps for yet another soon-to-be-bungled illegality by performing a “tantric meditation technique” he claims “the monks used to do before they went into battle,” thus prompting that verbal raised eyebrow from his titular partner in crime.
It’s a great line in a movie jam-packed with them. Well, I used to think it was great. When I first saw the film, I shared the incredulous Wanda’s conception of Buddhism as the jazz of religions”an esoteric, rarefied belief system embraced by wise, mute, highly disciplined folks whose most aggressive behavior amounted to only very occasionally setting themselves on fire.
My peacenik friends and I used her character’s question as a multipurpose catchphrase, and even people who hadn”t seen the movie “got” it. At the time, the Dalai Lama was a year away from getting his star-making Nobel Peace Prize, but “Free Tibet!” was already very much a “thing.”
It was just Buddhism’s latest, well, incarnation here in the West. From William James and Herman Hesse to the Beats and the Beastie Boys, Buddhism has long appealed to a certain type of post-Enlightenment Westerner”the one who yearns to fill his “God-shaped hole” with anything but God, that uptight, bossy old guy with all the boring rules and hang-ups (man.)
Buddhism”which looks from the outside like agnosticism but with cooler tchotchkes“is the obvious choice.
Now, Americans in particular take a lot of guff (see: “I forgot my mantra…“) for seeming to prefer trompe l”oeil religion”what Flannery O”Connor had her Hazel Motes concoct: a “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” That’s probably not surprising considering you”re a country cofounded by deists.
But while it’s funny to witness lily-white lapsed Catholics, still supposedly stinging from Sister’s ruler, sitting in Zen meditation classes where they”re sure to be slapped with an even bigger stick, let’s remember that Buddhism was an Eastern religion first. It’s like Pearl Harbor: They started it.
And “they” aren”t all the unadulterated egalitarian Klaatus of our Big Sur wind-chime fantasies. Buddhist scandals”both sexual and fiduciary”receive only a slender sliver of the media attention and resulting popular scorn that, say, Catholic ones do. (Oddly enough!) Stand-up comics don”t crack jokes about perverted Theravada monks.
Yet lists of Buddhist big-shot malfeasance include such karma-killers as spreading AIDS and drinking oneself to death. And that’s just in America.
Over in Thailand, the “top Buddhist authority bars women from becoming monks,” but some are now insisting (stop me if you”ve heard this one) that female ordination is just the enema the nation’s corrupt and constipated religious authority needs most.
Thai women have gone ahead and donned forbidden saffron robes anyhow, citing what for all I know is totally fake ancient historical precedent. (Cough.)
But then again, who can blame these broads for flouting local Buddhist authority when
Monks in Thailand have been convicted of everything from murder to wildlife trafficking. Sexual depravity is frequently reported. One former abbot, fugitive Wirapol Sukphol, faces charges of drug use, money laundering, fathering a child by an underage woman and illegally amassing millions of dollars. A photograph shows him seated in a private jet wearing aviator sunglasses.
The Supreme Sangha Council, the religion’s ruling body, is under fire over the mishandling of corruption allegations against prominent abbots, including one of its own members. The allegations include embezzling funds intended for the cremation of an abbot’s predecessor and the investment of $1.2 million from donations into the stock market.