Buddhists in Bars with Balloons

Monday December 31, 2007

Balloon Sculpture

If you are out celebrating New Year’s Eve tomorrow night, as you are elbowing your way to the bar, listen out for the sounds of other-worldly chanting: it may be a cohort of Buddhists come to enlighten you as you relax with your friends.

According to the BBC website, Buddhist monk Hogen Natori and his companions have organised a regular spot in a jazz bar in Tokyo where they perform chanting for the gathered crowd, and then in the interval hang out with the audience, drinking and smoking, chatting and, er… making balloon sculptures. Hogen Natori is unconcerned by criticisms that such behaviour is unbefitting of serious Buddhists. Over a cigarette, he explained to BBC reporters that people “think Buddhism is very difficult, and deep and serious, but Buddhism is much more than that – exciting, funny even. I want to spread this kind of teaching.”

The pious can rest easy in their beds, however. According to my learned sources here at thinkBuddha (and I assure you that they are very learned indeed), there is no single Vinaya rule that specifically forbids the making of balloon sculptures.

I wonder if this raises an interesting question about the connection in the West between religion and high seriousness. But that, of course, is a terribly serious question. So instead of worrying about things like that, I’m going for a cigarette and a stiff whisky, and then I’ll have a go at making some Buddhas out of balloons.


Image of balloon sculpture courtesy of Wikipedia

# · Loden Jinpa

In Japan there are Buddhist priests who are not ordained sangha and therefore not monks. I suspect these guys are those types of Buddhists teachers.

Buddhist monks and nuns cannot take alcohol…just to be clear! :)
And of course this practice as I’m sure you already know, is not about “good” and “bad” in the absolute sense but, rather about facilitating a balanced life style in order to deepen one’s meditation. It is simply a skillful method.

# · Will

Of course, Buddhist precepts and Vinaya rules are very clear about alcohol (but not about balloon modelling) and you are right to point out the pragmatic orientation here – it is not about inherent badness, but rather about the skilfulness or otherwise or drinking, particularly in relation to meditation.

Nevertheless, it does seem that in some parts of the Buddhist world, it is not as straightforward as this. Take Ryōkan, for example – the ordained monk and poet who was fond of a glass or two (or three) of saki. The examples could be multiplied.

In the present case, as far as I know, Natori Hogen is a senior monk at the Mitsuzoin temple. Incidentally, Bernard Faure’s book The Red Thread gives earlier examples of Shingon monks involved in transgression of the letter of the precepts, for example the 11th century monk Ningai.

All the best,

Will :-)

# · Sandals

Will – Awesome, awesome blog, thanks so much for sharing with us :)

I’m a beginner student of Buddhism, and the part about smoking cigarettes really surprised me. I smoke, so it’s not something I’m outright uncomfortable with; I can understand there being some gray area in Buddhism as far as drinking — since the goal is skillful action, one could argue that a drink or two might not necessarily impair skillful action in someone who was particularly conscious of it — but cigarettes seem completely contrary to Buddhism’s goals. How might you reconcile an addictive behavior with Buddhism’s aim of overcoming desire?

# · Will

Smoking, I’m sure, is generally not a good thing, and I feel fortunate that I’ve never smoked myself (despite the quip in the post above!) But at the same time, there are lots of things we can be addicted to. Here are a few: checking email; reading books; watching soap operas; coffee; writing fatuous blog posts; the trappings of Buddhism. But luckily we do not have to be perfect to practice, otherwise we would never get started.

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