So the other day I got to dinner in Dewick with my friends about 10 minutes late. Nothing weird about that, but as soon as I sat down, they said, “Oh good, you’re here. Could society survive if everyone was a Buddhist monk?”
This is just another example of how I have managed to become my friend group’s resident expert on religion. As a religion major, this makes sense. I do know more about most religious groups than they do. In fact, one of my friends who is Catholic tells me I probably know more about Catholicism than she does.
But paradoxically, the most important thing I’ve learned about religion is how little I know about religion. This is because everything is particular. So while I can wax poetic about the philosophy of soul and self espoused in Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, I also understand that this is not primary, important or even true for many Hindus and even for some practitioners who consider themselves Advaita Vedanta Hindus. All religion, like politics, is local.
While people like to think of religions as these massive, monolithic, static entities that bring people together in a vast unity of belief, the opposite is often more true. The variations within traditions are often more interesting and important than the variations among traditions. And so, as the great scholar of religion Jonathan Z. Smith said, “the historian’s task is to complicate not to clarify.”
This to me is exactly what the humanities are really about. While learning about religion in high school (when I did learn about religion), it was usually things like all Muslims believe Allah is the only God and all follow the five pillars of Islam. But in college we have more interesting questions. For example, there are Muslims in India who believe in Allah as the supreme god and in the gods of Hinduism, like Vishnu, as lesser deities. Are they still Muslims? Are they Hindus? What does this mean for Islam and Hinduism? What does this mean for the way in which we see religions as separate? And these are the types of questions that really fascinate me.
So I did answer the question. Considering many Buddhist monastic orders are celibate and the lifestyle of most monks does not allow for enough time to produce the food needed to sustain a large population, my answer is probably not. But I say this while knowing that somewhere in the world, there is a Buddhist monastic order that could probably prove me wrong.