Selfish Monks

I had often contemplated going to a monastery high in the Himalayas and studying a higher cause. To devote myself to meditation and find true happiness. Or perhaps, acquire a small cabin in the woods and write pensive poetry à la Walden. Over the last little while I have decided that such endeavors are both a demonstration of weakness and selfishness. I am not saying that there are not merits in living a pious, isolated and simple life, there are; but, by doing such things you are denying the world and humanity of your talents.

In China, you often see monks traveling by airplane, enjoying the benefits of modern medicine, and doing other such things. I will not deny that they take nearly nothing from the earth and any worldly possessions they do amass are donated to their temple or local population. But, where would we be if everyone did such things? We would be in a country like Bhutan where people are extremely happy, but terribly impoverished. Now, before I get ahead of myself, do not confuse wealth or consumption with success. Those two vices are at the root of pollution, global warming, war and pain.

Nor, do I propose that everyone should be scientists and researchers. The world is composed and needs an infinite assortment of people and tasks. Yet, the value that is placed on higher education, science, and research are at the root of the improved living quality the west currently enjoys. We should in fact take many of the monks’ doctrines and apply them to science: build a fuel efficient car, a clean factory, or a proper wealth distribution system.

Yet, all those things cannot be accomplished by sitting in a monastery. Of course some important scientific work WAS done in monasteries (namely the discovery of alleles by Mendel in the mid 1800s), but in today’s high-tech, highly specialized world, this is no longer possible. That is why I feel that going to a cabin to write poetry or traveling to a remote location is in a sense, giving up, throwing in the towel and saying, there is nothing I can do: go kill yourselves. One comment that struck me was by Owen Wilson (yes, the actor), he said that when he went to a speech by the Dalai Llama when he was at University; the Dalai Llama was asked what the solution to world hunger was and he responded, “sharing”, and Wilson properly labeled the response as ridiculous.

What I really want to say is that the people who should be treated as “good” human beings are indeed those who make sacrifices and who stay and fight. People who do not need to do what they do, but they do because it is right. People running refugee camps, doing development, putting their lives on the line for people they would never need to meet if they did not want to. Yes, this is a simplistic view. People who amass great wealth and then donate it (Rockafeller, Gates, Buffett) have great merit too and it is hard to say which is more powerful. But, I have concluded that secluding yourself from society to find a higher cause is equivalent to running away from a fight.

Published on October 26, 2005