A couple of weeks ago I saw something that I’ve been trying to make sense of ever since. Here’s what happened: I was on a bus here in Suzhou, which drew up to a set of traffic lights at an intersection. To my right, on the corner of the road, I noticed on old woman had fallen off her bicycle, and was sat in the road, unhurt, but somewhat dazed and bruised.
I’m not sure why the old lady’s accident had occurred; but since her bike was in perfect shape, and she was unhurt, I guess she had just lost balance and come down to earth with a bump. None of the passing cars stopped to help, as can be expected in a culture where only immediate family is worthy of concern and intervention, as evidenced in the old Chinese story of the man who did not sweep the snow off of his neighbour’s house while he was up on his own roof as his only concern was with his family.
Then, across the road, came two Chinese Buddhist monks, in their mustard-colour robes, grey felt slippers, and burgundy sling-bags. Ah, I thought, surely these two monks will come to the assistance of the old lady, as she still sat forlornly on the side of the road besides her over-turned bike. The two monks proceeded to walk past the old lady. One gave a cursory glance downwards. The other made no look in the old lady’s direction.
Somewhat shocked, as I stood there inside the crowded bus, looking out on this curious cultural tableau, I wondered ‘what is the point of the supposed “men of God” if they will not lend a helping hand to a human in need of assistance?’
It’s often dangerous – or pointless – to make direct social comparisons across widely varying cultures, but I really could not see a vicar in England, or a venerable Thai Buddhist monk, failing to help up an old lady who had fallen. The idea of a ‘good samaritan’ may hail from the Bible, but it is not a concept exclusive to Christianity, and Buddhism’s notions of altruism are embodied in the Bodhisattva as much as they are espoused by Jesus.
It’s certainly noticeable in China that monks are often despised by ordinary people – this is in stark contrast to the devotion and high spiritual acclaim of monks in Thailand, and other Asian countries – and Chinese friends and acquaintances have often regaled me with stories of Chinese monks who possess cars, property, and fortunes which they have, allegedly, selfishly and thoughtlessly acquired. Indeed, the only contact that many people have with monks these days is when pestered to donate money in exchange for faux-golden buddhist cards. Where the money goes is not immediately clear.
With so many people in China in need of some well-meant charity – be it in the form of financial assistance, food, or moral support – it’s not clear to me what role, if any, Buddhism is serving at the moment. Surely it is the more traditional, older folk – such as our old lady in this scene – who visits her local temple regularly, and slips bank-notes into the wooden boxes that sit prominently in every single building in every temple, who underpin Chinese Buddhism and the monk’s devotional lives. And yet, when in need of some support – when in need of a very real helping hand – Buddhism in her own country failed her, and presumably many other people too.