Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Idealizing the Spiritual Life

Arun has an excellent post about perceptions of monastics by people outside of the monastery - which includes most of us here in the Buddhist blogosphere. The post addresses a monk in China was was photographed while on a caster board - which looks like a skateboard. Some observers have been shocked. Others suggest that Buddhism has been corrupted by modern influences. Arun points out the following:

The criticism here stems from misplaced perceptions of monkhood. As a spokesperson for the skateboarding* monk’s temple put it: “People get their impressions from TV or movies, where monks are praying all day long, without any motivation or desire […] But these days monks also enjoy sports like badminton, table tennis and skateboarding in the spare time, as well as praying. They even use the internet and mobile phones to promote Buddhism. This is not contradictory to Buddhism but actually is part of the Buddhist spirit.”

As modern Buddhists practicing an ancient religion, the contradiction blossoms when we expect ourselves to be modern, but our religion ancient.

I personally think it's kind of boneheaded to assume that monks, nuns, or anyone is going to spend their entire lives just sitting in meditation and/or studying sutras. I'm guessing that even old Bodhidharma, who reportedly sat for 9 years in a cave, probably had a bit of fun in his day.

Although it may seem completely unrelated, Uku's current post points to a reality that a lot of us forget when it comes to how we view so-called "spiritual" people - namely, that they've very much as human as the rest of us.

Yesterday and last evening and last night I had quite nasty vomiting disease with nice diarrhea (shits) and when I now say something, I'm sounding like Bonnie Tyler. Throat feels baaaaad.

Although feeling like shit (literally) can makes us feel lousy, those situations can also be very educational, we can learn something new from them. Our mind and body are one and when I had to shit, I had to shit. When I had to puke, I had to puke. There's no way to escape that fact. Sometimes life is not so happy and Buddhist practice can help us to deal with these awful situations.

I like that Uku just says it in all its messiness - shitting and puking. Who amongst us hasn't spent time consumed by these activities? When you reflect on that monk in China, who was probably out just enjoying the day, is he somehow immune from the messiness of the body simply because he's a monk?

Even though it's only speculation on my part, I kind of suspect the same kind of thought process that leads us to believe in superhuman, robotic spiritual images of monastics are behind the millions of dollars being sunk into get enlightened quick programs, especially ones that also tell people they can get rich in the process. The issue of Bill Harris' Holosync program, which is supposed to allow a person to "meditate deeper than a Zen monk at the push of a button!” is one such example. Here is a post about Harris' recent threats to sue a blogger who wrote a piece criticizing Harris and Holosync. Maybe people are benefiting from Harris' expensive programs, but going to a level of defense of said programs that includes threatening lawsuits on individual bloggers should make anyone question the goals and intentions behind them.

Going Back to the bigger point, when you look at the thought processes behind both of these issues, there seems to be a lot of similarities. Wanting to get enlightened quickly, and have that enlightenment be a ticket to riches, is a complete idealization of the spiritual life itself. Behind it is an assumption that, to use a line from the capitalist board game Monopoly, all we have to do is pass Go to collect our enlightenment. And once enlightened, we'll be showered with an ability to see through walls, stop our shit from smelling, and make buckets and buckets of money. Seeing monks and nuns as people who never have fun, who are always serious, and are beyond things like making mistakes is just another take of the same kind of idealistic nonsense.

Here are some wonderful lines from Sokei-an Sasaki that point at the nature of perceptions and our suffering from believing in mistaken perceptions:

"Samsara - I could not understand it! Then one day I took my dog to the beach; he barked at the waves as they rolled in on the beautiful ocean strand. I realized that all this was reflected in the mind of my dog; he felt it in the dog's samsara - and expressed it."

Woof! Woof! May you see through your delusions.


Anonymous said...

AHA! That lady from the Huffington Post kept on asking me what I thought about the skateboarding monk. My reply was "It would have been cooler if it were a pogo-stick"

I stand by that comment. Who would be pissed by seeing that sort of thing? It seems so silly to consider mons any different than ourselves. They need to have fun and cut loose too.

You go "Sketeboarding Monk"!



Duff said...

I like that you took on both poles of the duality. The logic of Bill Harris and James Arthur Ray and their "Secret" club is the first half (worldliness is ok), but forgetful of the second (and suffering and responsibility are still there too).

Sara said...

great comment - I've just spent a month in a Buddhist monastery and had a lot of time to think about the way I perceived the monks and nuns who lived there. (no skate-boarders there!)

For further reading on this topic, I'd really recommend Sujato's Blog. Bhante Sujato is the abbott of the monastery where I stayed and is very down to earth. Spiritual materialism is one of his hot topics. In a recent post he said, 'As a monk, I am all too aware of how I offer a field for projection. '

It's at ,if you're interested!


Algernon said...

Few of us understand what a human being is, and most of us don't even consider the question.

That many of us expect monks to be inhuman, because that's somehow a good thing, indicates something about the person doing the thinking; it has nothing to do with the monk.

Having lived with several of them in Zen Centers on both coasts, I am grateful to have known them, and the fact that I had my idealistic fantasies about monastic lives sandblasted off my brain by watching them in action takes nothing away from them. I found almost all of them to be inspirational people in one way or another, even with the human bullshit.

When somebody said to Seung Sahn that monasteries were bullshit, Seung Sahn replied, "Yes! And when you attain bullshit, the whole world becomes a beautiful monastery."

Nathan said...

Seung Sahn's sense of humor was awesome - I loved reading his teaching letters.