Monks and Brothels

Dec 10, 2019

A number of years ago, I found myself celebrating Christmas in the depths of Kyoto’s red-light district. The club was a time capsule of the bright and brash 1980s, albeit sparingly decorated in 100 yen store-bought tinsel, draped over the neon lights.

Amidst the flash and frivolity, we found a seat. My host was a high-ranking Buddhist monk and club regular, clearly as much a part of the furniture as the entertainers themselves. I felt uncomfortable, but this was his way of entertaining me whilst I was down in Kyoto. I didn’t know him well – a casual acquaintance of his from Tokyo – and I felt I knew him even less in this environment. It jarred with my preconception of what it meant to be a pious monk. Surely such a lifestyle was against every Buddhist notion of reaching enlightenment through shedding worldly desires?

“Isn’t it strange that a monk would be in a Kyabakura?” I asked him.

“During the day I am a monk and fulfill my duties as a monk wholeheartedly, but when I take my robes off I am no longer one. I am just a man,” he responded.

This reply might be jarring to a Western onlooker. Indeed, it reads as disingenuous. Surely a morally upright monk must devote his entire existence to his calling, in order to be true to it? How do you shrug off what could be seen as a paradox at best, hypocrisy at worst? Shades of grey are not fundamental to the fabric of Western identity. Rather, we lean towards oppositions: heaven versus hell, Democrat versus Republican, love versus hate. To take sides is important for your identity, and to be loyal to the side you have chosen is a strength of character.

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