In my view the most interesting thing about TikTok is the proliferation of subcultural communities that flourish on it – WitchTok, BimboTok, KinkTok, NunTok. The most unfortunate thing about TikTok, conversely – well, aside from the alarming power it gives the Chinese government – is that there is no real way to find these cultures on the platform, you just hear about them on the news. This week, I happened to hear in that way about one such subculture of particular interest to me – and that is MonkTok.
In Cambodia, that is, younger Buddhist monks are now making videos on TikTok and getting famous for them, drawing up to half a million followers. From what little I know about this phenomenon – basically drawn from one article this week – I have mixed feelings about this.
The monks interviewed by the article say they’re doing it to spread the dharma, the Buddha’s teaching. I am, of course, all for spreading the dharma! Getting more people into Buddhism is, in itself, a good thing.
Where I get a bit more nervous is with the means that the monks use: singing, dancing, posing with cash. These are things that, according to the vinaya (monastic code), monks aren’t supposed to do. And I think that there’s reason for that.
I love singing and dancing, and I have little patience for ascetic texts that tell ordinary people, householders, to avoid such activities – which is why I have such a deep dislike for the Sigālovāda Sutta and its injunction against theatre. But monks are a bit of a different story.
The point of being a monk, as far as I can see, is to voluntarily subject oneself to a much more stringent set of rules and restrictions than ordinary people face. Some of those restrictions are just there to maintain the good reputation of the saṅgha (monastic order) – a rationale frequently cited in the Pali texts – but that rationale obscures the more important question of why there should even be a saṅgha in the first place. And that, as far as I can tell, has to do with being more committed to Buddhist practice than laypeople are – voluntarily foregoing both the joys and concerns of household life, from sex and dancing to money-making, in order to focus one’s wandering mind most fully on the quest to liberate and be liberated from suffering. When I went on a ten-day Goenka vipassanā retreat in 2005, I learned more from its monastic restrictions than I did from the meditation sessions themselves.
So, the question then follows, if you’re not going to follow those extra restrictions, should you even be a monk at all? Should you be encouraged, or even required, to leave the order?
The vinaya’s answer to the latter questions is a pretty clear yes, with a full legal code on what should happen to rule-breakers, from public confession of minor violations to expulsion for major ones. In practice, we know that most living monastic traditions don’t actually follow the vinaya all that strictly. (Most notably, the vinaya says monks aren’t supposed to touch money, but in practice they do all the time.)
So too, people’s actual reasons for becoming a monk are not always what they’re supposed to be in the texts either. In Thailand, there’s a social expectation that every young man join the monkhood once temporarily, for one rainy season (three months or so); men who don’t do this are often considered unmarriageable. I’m not sure whether Cambodia now follows the same custom: their traditions are similar and closely related, but things may have taken a different turn after the Khmer Rouge’s horrific repression.
Still, insofar as people are joining an institution devoted to asceticism, it seems reasonable to require a certain amount of asceticism from them. The reason former monks are considered more marriageable in Thailand, as I understand it, is that they’ve learned better to restrain their desires – or at least that’s the theory. Being a monk is supposed to be pleasurable in many ways, but it’s not supposed to be fun. And I would be particularly worried to see young monks parlay their rains retreat into a career as a social-media influencer: that seems rather the opposite of what they’re supposed to be there for.
I don’t know enough about the situation to have a firm opinion or definite answers; I’ve just read the one article. So I don’t want to make any firm pronouncements here about whether this is a good thing. As with so many cases, the devil is in the details. Maybe MonkTok really is a sincere promotion of the dharma, and maybe that’s worth it. It does seem to me that senior monks would do well to at least question the junior monks’ TikTok presence, and perhaps place controls on it if they’re not satisfied that the practice is for the best.
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This “monks on social media” story reminds me of the title of an article I read recently, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s “Vice Signaling” (Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, 22(3), 2022, 295–316). It sounds like what the transgressive monks are doing is different from what Táíwò wrote about (which was mostly about deliberately transgressing the norms of an out-group), but I wouldn’t be surprised if some maverick Buddhist monks do some vice signaling: here in the USA, I think of punk-rock Zen priest Brad Warner, who has been vice signaling for a long time (it comes with the “punk rock”). It’s a way of connecting with people through a shared “profane” culture.
More generally, the Buddhist debate about behavioral boundaries on social media (both in consumption and production) doesn’t seem to me to be too different from mainstream debate on the same issue in the West (for example, to cite one of many sources on the same theme, Jaron Lanier’s 2018 book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now).