Thursday, June 04, 2009

Monasticism and morality

[editors note: some people are gonna hate this post but fuck it, here goes.]

Question: if you want to be a great basketball player, what should you do? Answer: play a LOT of basketball. Look great coaching helps, but Pele won his first championship without the benefit of ANY coaching or even shoes. He became the greatest player in the world simply through playing lots and lots of soccer with the other kids in his neighborhood.

Question: if you want to be great in bed, what should you do? Answer: fuck a lot. Listening is good, being curious is good, asking questions, maybe reading a few books on the subject. But mostly you just gotta log a lot of hours between the sheets. [That's for our 18 to 34 year-old reader demographic.]

Question: if you want to be a great writer, what should you do? Answer: write a lot. Most writers and writing instructors say one should write at least 1,000 words a day over the course of years and years (a lifetime really) to become a great writer.

That is just common sense right? There are no shortcuts in this life. To be great at something, one just has to put in the time. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers argues that to be great at anything one has to log at least 10,000 hours of practice.

Which leads me to my next question:

Why would anyone take moral or ethical advice from a Buddhist monk (or any monk for that matter but I'll get to Catholic monks in a later post, for the purposes of this discussion let's focus on Buddhist monks).

Yep, I said it.

I know, gasp! how dare me! whatever. But seriously, what are monks good at? What do they practice for hours and hours and hours? Sitting. Do you need help with sitting or are you already proficient at that? "Breathing" you might say. Okay, again you've been doing that your whole life, how's that working out for you? Pretty good? Okay. You want to breathe deeper, okay, breathe deeper. Done. "Stop being a jerk!" you might say, "it's about focusing on the breath to quiet the mind." Okay. Look I fully appreciate that for people who are experiencing depression or an anxiety disorder or some sort of mental illness, the mind IS a source of TREMENDOUS suffering. Indeed for people suffering from these disorders, quieting the mind is liberation. Point taken -- meditation is wonderful when applied for that purpose.

BUT, morality and ethics are about actions -- usually actions involving how we relate to other people in the world. And Buddhist monks, particularly the archetypal monk sitting in a cave for years and years, have almost ZERO experience working things out with other people. They simply have NONE of the training we would want for moral and ethical decision makers. Asking Buddhist monks about morality and ethics is like taking your broken computer to a repair person who has never seen a computer before.

Everybody says the Dalai Lama is a great guy. I don't know. But I would wager his skill on the international stage did NOT come from sitting alone and breathing, it came from negotiating and trying to work things out with other world leaders (and even that has produced NO results over the last 50 years -- other than building a large audience for the Dalai Lama brand itself. But I digress). I get that sitting and breathing helps calm the Dalai Lama in preparation for talking with other world leaders and that's nice. But that is not the SOURCE of his wisdom. The source of his wisdom comes from actually trying to work things out with other people in the real world. That's how morality and ethics are shaped -- by being in the game and playing with other people and trying to find a path that works for everyone. The notion that we can figure out how to get along with other people by separating ourselves, closing our eyes, and just stilling our minds, seems really quite nonsensical.

It seems to me that it's not just Christianity and Islam that have been exempt from critical analysis and critique over the years -- Buddhism has gotten a pass too. And even as secular progressives (as O'Reilly calls us) and the new wave of atheists (Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett) begin to unravel the absurdities of Christianity and Islam -- it seems that so far Buddhism has continued to get a pass (Harris in particular decimates all religions EXCEPT Buddhism). But really, on closer examination, I think we're gonna find plenty of irrational ideas and practices in Buddhism (ahem, like sexism and homophobia to name two) that are also preventing the world from moving forward in peace and harmony. And the sooner we can take apart ALL of these limiting beliefs and replace them with ideas that WILL actually promote conflict resolution, cooperation, and peace, the better. Peace, by definition, will involve getting along with other people and I don't see how we learn that in isolation with our eyes closed in a cave (or a monastery or a temple).

Update #1: See this post translated into French and then back into English again. It's kinda funny.

Update #2: Bam! just like that, Nicolai Ouroussoff of the NY Times says in one simple elegant sentence what I was trying to say above. He writes:
...enlightenment comes from the free exchange of ideas, not just inward contemplation.
Which I think is really what most of us believe in a democratic society. But then we see some dude in a saffron robe and we're all like 'oooh, he must have something figured out that I don't!'

Damn I'm full of snark these days! I probably need to meditate more or something...

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