A flutist’s fingers and a gecko’s tail!
From the world of literature, there is a very nice Egyptian proverb which says: “Death befalls the flutist, but not his jiggling fingers!”, that is, even death won’t stop them. And from the world of biology, there is the tail of a gecko which, having been severed from the rest of its body and thus become a lifeless object, continues to wiggle for a surprisingly long time afterwards. Right there is the manifestation of kamma as a psychological phenomenon; the generation and reinforcement of a behavioural or physiological habit so deeply to the extent that nothing can stop its recurrence, perhaps eternally!
In our case we are talking about habits that are also emotional and cognitive: the skills acquired throughout one’s life before going-forth, are not worthwhile or worthless because of any inherent features of them; but only in so far as they correspond appropriately to a certain goal. The very reason we highly regard many of the occupations and skills which you’ve mentioned in your previous post, is that they are useful in mundane settings, not in absolute terms. Not only do they not necessarily correspond to the goal of transcendence, but they may possibly be even contradictory with it. For example, by a very modest estimation, I may have spent about 15000 hours of my life studying music and exercising my effort in mastering the piano. Now having become a monk, it is an offence even to listen to music! There is no way to reconcile whatever skill I have mastered in playing the piano, with being a monk; that skill is something that is to be forgotten and abandoned, even as my fingers continue to jiggle spontaneously and habitually, and frequently, with such most articulate and dexterous movement that will probably never stop in this lifetime, and which may be all that another mundane person wishes to cultivate and acquire at the same time as I abandon and relinquish them. Now please recognise that, also, I may had spent much more time, over a decade of my mundane life, working in the field of precisely social development, in such severe social conditions as characterised by an extent of suffering that is generally hard even to imagine, and that the professional experience and skill and knowledge that I have acquired in this field is in fact sought and called for by many others, and that I could confidently say that I know enough about not only the rewards, but also crushing frustrations, of devoting one’s life to “helping others” and the like.
This is a simple, but vivid picture of renunciation. And the gradual abandonment of the mental habits associated with one’s professional life, or even natural skills, is actually the more easy part of the practice, at least when compared to the abandonment of such fundamental evolutionary habits of what constitutes life itself, such as lust, fear, craving, aversion, and self-obsession. To embark on a quest like this without having what it takes to put up with its requirements, in terms of appropriate motivation and skills, is an act of folly, similar to that of venturing the highest uncharted peaks without ropes, winter clothes, and other essential provisions.
Now I too eye the success of young practitioners on the path, but I hope for their success on the renunciate path and not on another! That the task is not readily doable or easy, does not mean that we should then change its nature or substitute it with another task the achievement of which will be easier; for in this case, those practitioners will have become successful in something other than what they are supposed to be practising! It is just as when someone fails in physics, for example: he does not shift to another field of study that he can more easily master, while continuing to regard himself as a physicist! And the great thing about our path of practice is that you do not even need to go all the way into the practice of renunciation in order to be a sincere Buddhist practitioner, but you can practice it sufficiently, and with substantial results, within the margin of your capacity and not beyond that; just as the failed physicist can continue to interest himself in physics and learn a great deal about it, without having to continue his desire to become a master of the field and a scientific authority in it.
This brings us back right to the main topic: why become a monk? Why ordain? Why renounce? Especially when you already know that you can’t do it, unlike many monks, who lived as renunciate monastics since the age of 6 and never had a choice! You know, I do not blame those, or anyone for that matter, for turning away from practice and pursuing (“doing”) other things; they are amongst my best friends, and so you too, friend @UpasakaMichael may well be when you ordain and pursue a “socially-engaged Buddhism”. Though I will still probably jump down the throat of any such friend the moment they equalise theirs with a more fully renunciate path, which has never happened before. But I will still say that it’s much more understandable with one whose parents sent him forth at childhood than it is with you, or with those dissatisfied western practitioners of the forest tradition to whom you refer, and who have freely chosen that path with full awareness, if not even inspiration, and who, besides that, already have other options of life from which they have chosen to depart, and to which they can easily return as they please! And this is so because, indeed, the difficulties which we encounter across the path of practice can be handled and managed, not by “doing something”, but by “doing certain things”, things which are themselves practice and which conduce to the transcendence of those very difficulties rather than their perpetuation, if not even intensification; things which lead to the transcendence of the very fundamental kamma which makes us need about anything in the first place. Social involvement and engagement is not one of those things that we should do, simply because social impulses, and the very social self, is one of the things that we must train to transcend, whole and complete, without remainder. Sadhu!
That we are not yet able to do this practically doesn’t mean that we should neglect such renunciate cognitive stance and understanding; because it is precisely such renunciate cognitive foundation; faith, that supports the very possibility of an actual experience of transcendence, sometime, in the future, and without which not even hope for progress is possible. That’s why it is important; there is a reason, because it is necessary!
And this is the real deal, to which friend @Mat refers. The basic reason for failure is not circumstantial, but psychological: The inability to understand and relish in the solace and bliss of renunciation. Instead of seeking it with all one’s might, practitioners want to escape from it; they fear it. Why? Not because the path is difficult, but because it is lost, and because the right practice and exercise of motivation and effort has become obscured, and because the immediate freedom and bliss of this path of practice, and which is originally an inherent feature of it, has become rare to find and extremely difficult to learn and acquire. What serious and sincere practitioners suffer from and seek to avoid is not the Buddhist renunciate path, but something that so desperately attempts to resemble it!
This does not make such path an easy thing that is suitable for everyone, and even with Buddha as the living teacher, there were those who failed in finding solace and comfort in it. But our task and duty as the Buddha’s sincere and purposeful followers is to recreate the reality and vitality of this path, which is not an easy task. But if we can’t do it, then at the very least we must not promote an alternative path as if it was of equal worth, value, meaning, effect, or purpose, or fail in warning that such alternative path comes at a cost, and may even be contradictory with what the original path requires. That’s precisely what I will always be actively opposed to, and for a very good reason: I do believe that the path will not die out or disappear, and that at a certain point in the future it will rather be revived in its fullest reality and vibrancy. It MUST.
Friend @UpasakaMichael, I’m satisfied to learn that I am able to stimulate a thoughtful conversation through my contribution here, which is what this forum is really all about. Sadhu.