Monkhood is ripe for reform

Monkhood is ripe for reform

When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation last month, the shock generated by his decision was soon replaced by global admiration. Here is a man at the apex of the powerful Roman Catholic Church which commands more than 1.2 billion members across the globe. Yet the 85-year-old pontiff dared to do the unthinkable. Citing his advanced age, he decided to step down to let the new pontiff take on the challenges which he admitted were beyond his physical capabilities.

Yesterday, the world rejoiced in welcoming the new pontiff, Pope Francis, whose well-known humility and dedication to the poor in his former capacity as Argentina's archbishop of Buenos Aires _ and also as the first non-European pope in the modern era, the first Latin American, and the first Jesuit _ has renewed hope for reform in the Vatican.

His decision to assume the name of St Francis of Assisi who was revered as the reformer of the Church also speaks volumes of his character and mission.

When Pope Benedict resigned, the Catholic Church suffered from many scandals ranging from child sexual abuse, reluctance to punish the perpetrators _ many of whom are high-ranking priests _ corruption and fierce infighting in the central bureaucracy, the Vatican Bank crisis, and declining number of the faithful who believe the Church has become irrelevant to modern times.

Interestingly, sexual and financial scandals, as well as fierce conservatism and gender prejudice, are not exclusive to the Roman Catholic Church. These are exactly the same problems that are plaguing the clergy in our predominantly Buddhist country.

Like the Catholic Church, our clergy operates in a deeply feudal hierarchy, but ours is in a much more unorganised structure. The members of the Council of Elders are all very old monks who are acting like an executive board of an organisation, but one without the management team to turn their policies into action.

There have been attempts by progressive-minded monks to amend the draconian Monks Act to set up the clergy's administrative team and to elect the administrators to ensure transparency and efficiency.

All efforts have failed.

As a result, our clergy is buried deep in problems. Worse, criticisms are shunned _ and harshly punished. Meanwhile, the power to award monks with ranks and titles does not only help silence criticism, it also brings the elders a world of privileges. The abbots are happy with the way things are because they have absolute power to run the temples and make money from the commercialisation of Buddhism without accountability.

To say that the public is fed up is an understatement.

This does not mean that public interest in Buddhism is declining. On the contrary. Meditation retreats are popular. So are dhamma books. Debates on Buddhist controversies and interpretations of religious texts and doctrines have also become common. These activities, however, are primarily led by lay Buddhists amid a widespread feeling the clergy has become irrelevant.

This is a shame. Monks are part of the "Triple Gem" in Buddhism. Their duty is to be living proof that it is indeed possible to live a life of equanimity free from greed, anger and delusion of self.

This spiritual pursuit is not possible when monks do not realise what the monkhood is for or when the clergy fails to provide a favourable atmosphere for spiritual practice. We should not let the current world focus on the need for change in the Catholic Church pass by without looking at our own clergy and thinking about our own necessity for reform.

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