Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Selfish Monks

Today someone asked this question on our forum, just thought it would be useful to cross-post my answer here, since this does tend to come up again from time to time:

Are Buddhist monks selfish people?

I was talking to a few friends today about how I want to ordain in the future and they asked me why. I did not have an answer to give them for their reasoning because it stumped me. So I'm hoping to get some insight on this topic.

Basically some people around me are not being supportive in my future decision to becoming a monk because of two reasons.

The first one is that they don't think Buddhist monks help others in the way that other religions do. Without naming names, some examples of this are charity runs or orphan adoptions, feeding the poor, donations, building homes ect ect.

The second being that they feel like I'll be "running away from life's problems" I guess they feel like it isn't fair that I can go live at a monastery and not have to pay taxes or worry about a job and responsibility for the most part.

Ultimately they find it to be very selfish and call it a glorified homeless person who doesn't help anyone but themselves. This really threw me off guard, so any insight I can get on this I would love to have because I didn't know what to say honestly.

Lots of good answers, check them out here:

Here's mine, crossposted:

  1. Industry doesn't have a direct correlation to benificence - an Adolph Hitler who does absolutely nothing is a lot more beneficial to the world than an Adolph Hitler who carries out his wrong views. (c.p. Spanish Inquisition for a nice religious example)

  2. Beneficent industry is only beneficial if the mind of the benefactor is benevolent :) without working on one's own mind, one can't hope to help others in any substantial way, as is evinced by NGO burnout, for example. See this paper:

  3. As the above paper quotes him, Tolstoy says, "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." The question is, what really helps the world, hospitals and homeless shelters or mindfulness and meditation? If you feed someone, do you make the world a better place? Maybe... maybe you just empower someone to do more evil. If you teach someone mindfulness, do you make the world a better place? I'll leave this latter question as open to this forum to answer :)

  4. You can only do the work you have trained in. Even if the goal were to help other people, the only way we could do it is to really know what people need to be happy. The only way I am able to truly help the people I contact is because of my own meditation practice and training. I know this for myself. If I spent all my time teaching meditation, what would I be teaching, really?

  5. Ayn Rand became famous showing how silly altruism is; why do you really help others if not to be happy with yourself? Why shouldn't you find happiness for yourself if you would have others be happy? What harm is there in someone living in the forest in peace and happiness that makes us all burn with self-righteous indignation? Self-righteous envy might be the proper name for it...

    attadatthaṃ paratthena, bahunāpi na hāpaye.
    attadatthamabhiññāya, sadatthapasuto siyā.

    one’s own welfare for another’s, no matter how great, should one not discard;
    with higher knowledge of one’s own welfare, intent upon self-benefit should one be.
    – Dhp. 166

Finally, an anecdote. I used to do maple syrup harvesting with my father, and one year, the year I dropped out of university, I think, I offered to do it for him by myself. I spent many hours in the forest, sometimes just sitting listening to the sounds of the forest and the sap hitting the bottoms of the pails. One day, something struck me very hard about what the animals of the forest were engaging in that humankind in general had missed: minimal, positive impact. We think we have to do great things, and yet we see that the world has ever developed balance and harmony not through the developer who cuts down the forest to build houses, or even the tree planters who build rows of trees, but by the squirrels and the birds who scatter the seeds and rebuild the forests. Their impact is minimal, and therein, I thought on that day and to a good extent still think now, lies their greatness. Monks may not vote or petition governments, but in the end, even kings bow down to these home-free, unpaid dharma bums.