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All photos courtesy Robert Rath

In Thailand, Buddhist Monks Grapple with the Meaning of Video Games

Robert Rath

Robert Rath

Discussing games and reincarnation with Monks at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

All photos courtesy Robert Rath

A zombie rises from its grave. Withered arms tangle in the cables of keyboards, and laptops, holding him to the earth. Sunken eyes and yellow teeth stare at the viewer.

The zombie is just one part of a poster at the One Pillar Pavilion, a Buddhist temple in Hanoi. Broken into panels like a comic book, the banner depicts the karmic consequences of various actions. People who mock the Buddha go insane. Those that work diligently are reborn in better circumstances.

And the zombie? He’s paired with a group of gamers at an internet café, yelling at computer screens.

“Waste Time in Playing Games,” the poster warns, “Barely Reborn Into Human Life.”

The poster in question.

Game journalists have intimately studied Christianity’s reaction to games, from religious developers that co-opt the medium to evangelical groups that condemn them as a tool of Satan. But there’s been less focus on how other faiths engage—and on occasion, clash with—video games.

Which is strange. Games, after all, are a global phenomenon. Having traveled widely in Asia, I’ve yet to find a country where games don’t have a foothold. I’ve chatted about Overwatch with tour guides in Vietnam, and watched novice monks play Candy Crush in Thailand. In Namche Bazaar, a supply town sitting at 11,286 feet in the Khumbu region of Nepal, I met a young man who plays Clash of Clans. Mobile titles fit well into a life spent walking between mountain villages.

But this Vietnamese poster was the first time I’d detected a religious backlash to video games. Intrigued, I started to dig, reading internet comments about phone-addicted monks. I studied interviews with the Karmapa Lama, the second-highest ranked Lama in Tibetan Buddhism—and an avid FPS player.

Yet none of these provided an on-the-ground discussion of how video games interact with Buddhism. How hard was the backlash? Was there really an epidemic of game-addicted monks? Had the experience of gaming changed how these budding religious scholars looked at the Eightfold Path?

For answers, I went to Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Wat, or temple, is a historic site seven centuries old. The cornerstone for the soaring, pyramidal structure was laid in the 1300s, but an earthquake in 1545 toppled the structure’s top half, leaving the original structure a picturesque ruin.

Despite its glory days being long past, Wat Chedi Luang remains one of the largest temples in Thailand’s second-largest city. Its newer structures are a center for worship, study, and outreach about Buddhist teaching.

Every day, the temple hosts a “Monk Chat” program, where foreigners can ask questions about Buddhism and allow monks to practice English with a native speaker.

Over the next two days, I spoke with three men in different phases of the monkhood—a monk, a novice, and a former monk—about how games intersect with a lifestyle of dedicated Buddhism.

While I expected some reluctance to talk about video games, I instead found three men with deep, considered opinions on what place Buddha’s teachings have in a technological world—and how our interconnected era impacts their attempt to live a life of mindfulness and meditation.

“Video games distract junior monks, [they] cause problems,” answered Veerayuth Pongsiri, a former monk who has continued serving the temple as a layman. He points out that it’s mostly novice monks who play games, which makes sense, since novices often enter monastic life as children. Novices range between seven and nineteen years of age, and like many young people, they may lack in impulse control. “Sometimes they’re ten years old, and their maturity is not enough.”

“Video games distract junior monks, [they] cause problems,”

For Pongsiri, the epidemic of novices playing too many games is very real. But rather than risking karmic punishment, as depicted in the Vietnam poster, he sees it as a threat to their studies.

“This [period in the monkhood] is their time to practice meditation,” he says. “If the junior monk pays attention to a game two hours a day or five hours a day, that’s less time for learning Buddhist teaching. He cannot manage the time.”

However, Pongsiri also points out that it can also be a problem of personal conviction. In Thailand, the monkhood is not a lifetime commitment. In fact, most novices will eventually leave the monkhood. And a large number—particularly boys from the rural villages—join because it’s a chance at an education. For talented scholars, the monkhood can open a path to a master’s degree or a PhD, not just in Buddhist studies but also in English. These education-minded novices, he says, are more interested in the practical benefits of the temple life than any sort of religious journey.

“They study the Buddha a little bit. They use the Buddhist religion as a stairway to other education,” he says. “They do the chanting and the sitting meditation but do not understand.” Such novices, he claims, are more likely give into temptation and open Realm of Valor in between classes.

But Pongsiri isn’t anti-game. Indeed, he thinks it’s perfectly fine for monks to play. They can be relaxing, and even beneficial since it lets them connect with young people outside the monkhood.

“In my opinion, if he plays one hour a day, that’s ok,” he says. “But only one hour. What do you think?”

Triphop Suttarchai

Across the table, Triphop Suttarchai—a novice monk in cyan robes—waggles his head in a so-so gesture. “One half hour,” he counters.

Suttarchai entered the monkhood at fourteen, when his mother noticed his interest in Buddhism. After the standard three-month stint—a service, it is said, all Thai men should do—he decided to stay in order to gain more mindfulness and curb his judgmental nature.

Now 21, he could be ordained as a full monk, but has decided to wait until he’s passed a set of grueling religious examinations. Doing so will net him a rare honor—an ordination by the king himself, who remains a revered figure in Thailand.

Indeed, as we sit discussing video games, we can hear the buzz of chanting from the main temple. Monks are preparing a ritual marking the first anniversary of the previous king, King Bhumibol’s, death. One year later, twenty-foot tall portraits and mourning bunting still drape every public building.

According to Suttarchai, it’s not unusual to see monks playing games on cell phones, laptops, or even a dedicated gamepad. One friend of his, he says, suffered academically because he spent too much time playing games about football rather than studying.

Indeed, Suttarchai himself used to be a fan of the Japanese online RPG Dragon Nest, but quit because it was interfering with his studies.

English chatting practice.

“It’s fighting,” he says. “You destroy to get more levels. But now I stopped playing for three or four years. As long as I want to play that [game], I waste my time. I want to be Number One, but I cannot let the game control my life.”

“It doesn’t mean we cannot play the game,” he clarifies. “Playing a game is ok for relaxing.”

But many do go overboard, he claims. “One of my friends did a report on how many hours monks spend on Facebook and smartphones. He said it was a lot.”

Yet he points out that, even for monks, Buddhist rules are not necessarily a blanket ban on behaviors. A prohibition against drinking is less about staying away from alcohol, and more about ensuring that a person can keep their mindfulness and control their own actions. A monk crosses a line, however, when they cannot stop playing, or begin to draw their happiness from a game. “Your happiness is not dependent on anything external. You do not give the key to your happiness to anyone else.”

Pongsiri, the former monk, agrees. The danger in playing a game is not the game itself, but the desire it may cause—since in Buddhist thought, desire is the cause of suffering. “If you lose or win, you want to do it again and again. You’re always thinking about the game. If you cling to that mindset, it causes mental suffering or physical suffering.”

This danger of competition and desire are why monks are generally not allowed to play sports. (Though, to be honest, I’ve seen more than a few novices playing covert soccer games.) Sports offer many benefits, both men agree, but if they become too much about winning or lead to bad feelings it can damage attempts to attain enlightenment.

Indeed, Buddha himself rejected games for exactly the same reason, making a list of games he would not play because they were a waste of time better spent seeking enlightenment. Interestingly though, the monks I spoke to had never heard of this, or at least, knew it under a different name than the common English-language title of “Buddha Games List.”

Yet both Pongsiri and Suttarchai also argued that a monk’s duty is not to shut himself away, but to learn about the world so that they can help spread the Buddha’s message. Most people, after all, don’t live as monks, and Buddhist clergy have to meet them on their own terms. Therefore, knowledge about games can help a monk connect with young people and create a message that helps further Buddha’s teachings.

While discussing this, I brought up a personal pet theory—that respawning in a multiplayer FPS mirrors the Buddhist cycle of death and rebirth. Everyone starts a match inhabiting an avatar, and no matter how many times that avatar dies, the player—or in Buddhist terms, the consciousness—gets reborn into a another form, still retaining the knowledge it gained before death.

“If we go like this we go the wrong path, people shoot you,” says Pongsiri, indicating a path with his hand. “So then you go another way after rebirth, this is good to learn. This is the benefit of the game, we can learn.”

Suttarchai agrees that it could, theoretically, be a way to teach reincarnation. “In the game, you simulate and practice in your mind. Last life you do wrong, so you have to correct and take another path.”

Of course, that would mean using a violent game to teach a nonviolent religion—but it seems that may not be a barrier at all. As mentioned, the second-highest authority in Tibetan Buddhism, the Karmapa Lama, believes FPS games are a safe way to discharge aggression without hurting anyone.

But when asked the monks whether killing in-game causes karmic damage to the player, the monks had a nuanced answer.

“It depends on your intention,” says Suttarchai. He explains that for a killing to have karmic consequences, the act has to meet a series of prerequisites. First, the target has to be alive, and second, you have to understand it is alive. Third, you have to actually make an attempt to kill it, and do so with the knowing intent to harm. “So I think playing a game doesn’t affect karma, since they’re not alive.”

But they can cause attachment, he warns. So if you get heated in a match and start playing with the intention to hurt another player, that may impact your own soul. In other words, playing a game isn’t sinful, but griefing might be. And of course, if Grand Theft Auto habituates a player to crime and cruelty, that will have karmic consequences.

“You steal cars in the game, then steal a real car,” says Suttarchai.

America and Thailand are worlds apart. Yet it’s somehow comforting to know that, even here, GTA is the go-to symbol of moral concern.

With this opening, I showed them the “zombie gamer” poster from Vietnam and asked that they explain it to me. What did it mean, when they said addicted gamers would be “Hardly Reborn into Human Life?”

When Suttarchai saw the photo, he recoiled and groaned. Pongsiri hissed. In Southeast Asia, depictions of gory karmic punishments are no joke. After the initial reaction, both zoomed in and studied every detail, fascinated.

Suttarchai shook his head. “This is Mahayana Buddhism,” he said, in the same tone you’d use to apologize for an overly-Evangelical cousin. “It’s different. We are Theravada Buddhists.”

But he did try to explain, as well as he could. In Theravada Buddhism, he said, people can be reborn into higher human forms or lower animal forms depending on their karma. Animal rebirth seems strange to outsiders, but it makes logical sense in the Buddhist conception of the soul.

Buddhists follow the Five Precepts: an order to abstain from harming living things, stealing, sexual misconduct, intoxication, and lying.

Every time someone violates the Five Precepts, Suttarchai explains, he loses 20% of his soul, becoming less human and more animal-like. Animals have no wisdom or mindfulness. They’ll kill and steal without remorse, doing whatever it takes to get what they want. Humans are only above this because they have wisdom, and are mindful of their actions and behaviors. To throw that mindfulness away, he says, is what makes someone less than human.

The inference, then is not that game addicts will rise up as zombies—but that they could be reborn with an incomplete soul that’s less capable of attaining enlightenment.

Rhythmic chanting brings our talk to a close. Over in the main wat, the monks have started a ritual commemorating the anniversary of King Bhumibol’s death. As I drift over, watching monks and white-jacketed officials mourn their beloved monarch, I’m still unsatisfied with my answers.

Thanks to Pongsiri and Suttarchai, I have a handle on what monks think of other monks playing games—but what about the the people these monks minister to?

The next day, I return to the temple and find Phra Artit Dhammabani, a person that seems tailor-made to answer this question. Dhammabani is a new breed of interconnected monk. He uses Facebook and Twitter to teach about Buddhism and give outsiders a window on monastic life. Like Pongsiri and Suttarchai, he believes that video games are no problem in the monastery, provided that monks don’t spend too much time with them.

But as he speaks about the wonders and dangers of games, his words start to accelerate like a train leaving the station, fast enough that I struggle to take notes.

“Games can give you life, community, happiness,” he says. “You can get benefits … if you can manage yourself, your life, your game.”

But, he councils, it’s important that gamers don’t isolate themselves.

“If you don’t care about eating, sleeping, bathing… you are not living in the present, you are living in the game. You are the only person in this world.”

Dhammabani also warns against the illusory feeling of accomplishment games provide. “You think: If I can go to the target, I can be happy. I can be a winner,” he says. “But you lose your health, your study, your family, and one day when you come back [you will] wonder: What am I doing?”

But for anyone lost in that isolation of the game, he says, there’s still hope in reaching out to others.

“If you are alone in the game, you can come back,” he says. “Play games with your friends and family, they will understand you and love you.”

You might even say it’s like returning from the dead.

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