So far I haven’t gotten anyone to join my campaign against images of boy monks. They are all over Facebook, the various Buddhist magazines and probably posters and calendars. I got flamed for saying those images shouldn’t be on Facebook’s “You know you’re Japanese American when…” page. I said photos of boy monks don’t reflect current Japanese culture and they have nothing to do with the non-monastic Buddhism of Japanese Americans. Although historically in Japan and still in many Asian countries, orphaned boys were raised in Buddhist monasteries, people should be aware that the lifestyle of asceticism is not a great way for children to grow up – there’s very little freedom for the creativity and expression of play and having interaction with the larger community (i.e. female family and friends). When I see pictures of boy monks, I feel sad about how restrictive their lives must be, not being able to enjoy just being a kid.
And my disdain is extended to those cute and cuddly “Buddha Doodles” by Molly Hahn. Once in a while her cartoons show a female character (and occasionally, a person of color), but for the most part she draws one or two Caucasian figures with baby faces and in open-jacket monk garb (bare chested to indicate their maleness) and shaved heads. If you see enough of those drawings, you can understand why Shinran scowls for his portraits. He wants to remind us that Buddhism deals with the nitty-gritty of real life and is not about floating around in some cotton candy dream world.
[“Daruma” faces colored by our temple’s Dharma School students]
But my main beef is that images of boy monks do a disservice to our Dharma School students who even from a young age will readily identify themselves as “Buddhist.” I don’t want people thinking, “Oh you can’t be Buddhist – you don’t look like the Buddha Doodles. You have hair, you wear regular clothes and you’re (female, dark-skinned, disabled, not-so-cute etc.).”
I think our Dharma School students got it together much more so than any boy monks – they live with the challenges of the larger society of school, neighborhood, family and organizations such as the temple they attend. Yet they have time, even during Dharma School class, to feel free to express themselves, play around, and participate in fun group activities such as games and music performances. They learn lessons about Buddhism through stories and hands-on productions (for example, my husband has taught the kids about impermanence through having them do science experiments and cooking), not from spending hours in grueling meditation and chanting marathons. They don’t just recite “The Golden Chain,” they know what it means to live it in a diverse society of living beings. It’s easy to think you’re being kind and gentle if you stay within the walls of the monastery, but our Dharma School students have seen “those who are weaker than myself” means the people right outside our temple doors who are homeless, suffering from physical and mental illness and struggling to survive. One time the Dharma School kids were just leaving the temple and the police pulled up and threw a group of young men against the squad car. I heard one of the mothers explain, “They’re being arrested for DWB, ‘driving while black.’” Of course, we don’t know if the police were justified in roughing up those men, but at least our kids see in the real world you could be picked on just for how you look.
I hope those of us involved with Jodo Shinshu and the other traditions such as Nichiren and Soto Zen, that came out of Kamakura-era Japan when Buddhism spread among the non-elites, will show more and more of ourselves and our children to the world. Then the common image of “Buddhist” will be an adult or child with hair on their head and dressed in regular clothes, but with that expression of joy and liberation that you don’t see in the photos of the boy monks smiling for the camera while trapped inside the cage of enforced conformity.