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.


  1. When I was in the south I was amazed at how many “fake” monks were around begging. The city I lived in in the US before coming here had a character rightfully named Father Fraud.

    Same idea really. Just wanted money using the Christian guise. I would guess there is a lot of that here too.

    Another thing I can recall is that there was a man who had died on the street in Denver a few years back. His body lay there for two days before anyone cared to do anything for the guy. By then it was too late.

  2. I passed on visiting Luoyang for this whole ‘fake monk’ reason. Meh, at least they’re all coming back as colon parasites.

    When the wife and I went to Thailand for our honeymoon it was the first time she (a Chinese) had any exposure to “real” Buddhism. She found it, oddly enough, enlightening.

  3. Perhaps it takes a bit more understanding of the culture to comprehend what you witnessed. I’ll cut to the chase: the Chinese don’t do good Samaritan deeds for fear of getting burnt in the ass. This is a common occurrence in China, often reported in newspapers, TV news reports, etc.

    Example: That kind looking old woman could easily turn around and place blame on you, file suit, and demand monetary compensation. The burden of proof is upon you then, that you did not cause the fall and bodily injury. Oh and if they meet a kind looking laowai offering assistance, they could be wondering how much they can wring from your rich wallet.

    Another example: a few bicycles fall down from strong winds. A kind fellow comes by to put them back upright. The owner comes out demanding compensation for the damage done to the bike because you fell them over!

    Yet another: A taxi driver is driving and finds a man laying unconscious on the sidewalk. He renders assistance to the man. The man wakes up and immediately accuses him of causing harm and injury, and demands compensation.

    Anyhow, what you perceived as callousness is actually a culture trained to mind their own business.

  4. Yeah, but it’s cynicism run rampant. Though there’s some truth to the false law suits bit… the fact is, it’s a cop out as much in China as it is in any other country.

    China doesn’t have particularly worse private litigation laws than a good number of other places with sketchy legal structures, yet you don’t see this same sort of thing. And for men of a religion that generally subscribes to good nature to all humanity, and the karmatic value of things, I don’t think the monks could hide behind “but I might be sued” if they were in deed real men of the (yellow) cloth.

    There’s a canyon-sized gap of a difference between minding your own business and reaching out to someone in need.

    I think this come a lot more down to what is emphasized by our different cultures on how we “should” act. The truth is, very little emphasis is put on helping others (outside the familial unit) in Chinese culture … the media (operating in this culture as well), of course supports these ideals – why wouldn’t it.

  5. @Bernard: that’s some good cultural background. i’m pretty much aware of those points, especially how being part of a street ‘scene’ implies involvement, which implies guilt, which brings the danger of mercenary compensation being demanded.

    to get to the point, i guess i was thinking that monks would be above all this, and would therefore rise above social constraints and reach out a hand. but, alas, not…!

  6. I had this discussion once with a friend in Korea regarding a couple of us Americans being the only ones to come to the aid of a woman being hit right in public by her boyfriend. My Korean friend told me that in Korea one does not usually help in this situation because the girlfriend might get mad (???) but also because it is viewed as the role of the government or the police to assist, not the public.

    Might the government will do it be a factor in China as well?

  7. CLB,

    I think so. I’ve had the impression that enforcement of laws (whether in terms of legal laws or morals/values/etc.) is to be carried out by authority, ie, government, whereas in America, it is less cut and dry.

    When somebody cut me off when I’m trying to cross the road, I gave a knee-jerk reaction of yelling at him. No big deal, right? But a friend of man, Chinese, asked me why I thought I had a right to chew him out, since I wasn’t a cop. (I technically had the right of way, TECHNICALLY, but that wasn’t sufficient). When I explained the concept of “citizen’s arrest” in america, he was flabbergasted. Leave law to lawyers and police is the impression I get here.

  8. @ Chip

    Yes, but what about the two hour arguments that ALWAYS ensue whenever there is a car wreck? I have always thought those were a substitute for the fact that nothing is going to happen within the legal system.

  9. We used to say, that if you were being murdered in your own apt., the Chinese neighbors would call the cops, just to complain about noise…

    One thing, your letter started in talking about people’s uninterest in assisting those in need, and then it switched to religion all of a sudden. You should both focus more on why both monk and people don’t help out, what is keeping them from acting benevolently.

    About the religious. Buddhism emphasizes self awareness, wisdom, selfless compassion towards others, perfection, knowing logic and debate, etc. It is not based on worshipping any god or creator. Now in China, it seems like it has deteriorated much, the Chinese have even made Tibet look like Disney land. Buddhism is not out give you what you want, it’s designed to help you to have enough clarification to figure out what steps are best to take, in relation to your surroundings, and who exactly is doing all this anyway.

    Whatever happens, don’t blame the buddhist teachings, they do make sense, just blame the person who cheats. The teachings have give a step by step lifestyle, and if you don’t have assumptions about what they mean, then perhaps you’ll be able to understand them.

  10. I agree, it is not so much buddhism that caused these monks to avoid benefitting these people, it is their selfish minds most likely. Monks are not all perfect beings, enlighted and pure, though after many years, most gain much wisdom. If we hold the aspect of them as pure, then we hold them in higher regard. We have the ability to learn from everything, so even if they did something we don’t like, we should thank them for helping us learn something. *Helping someone is not always a physical task you know…

    Instead of our quickness to complain, we should be more active ourselves in the virtue we do to others. As Gandhi said, “Be the Change you want to see in the world.”

  11. @Tom, and Stephy,

    good to hear your considered responses.

    based on what i saw, and years of immersion whilst living here, the scene was not really surprising, and very mundane. there is room for a wider social critique on the subject of benevolence and acts of charity in this country, but that would take some serious research.

    just read on Danwei.org that a new Bodhisattva Guanyin will be built as a cynical tourist trap, at a cost of 30 million yuan. it goes to prove that it’s not the religion that’s sick, it’s the misinterpretation and misuse of it that’s a dis-service to the people.

  12. @Steven: Well said. I think Steph and Tom seemed to have missed the point, as I didn’t at all feel that criticizing the monks was criticizing buddhism. The truth is, Buddhism in China shouldn’t really be called anything even remotely like “religion”.

    It also could well be that they were Daoist monks (often pretty similarly dressed – and equally as responsibly for misrepresenting their stated “beliefs”.

    @CLB: My wife, Chinese, says the same thing about getting in the middle of domestic disputes. It still makes my stomach turn.

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