We're talking at the Citadella reception about why the scientist son of the famous French philosopher could travel to India to meet a famous Tibetian monk and see something wonderful there, and we, the hotel receptionist and me, can't see anything we like in Buddhist monks. A guest slips in between me and the counter and says he needs another pillow for his bed. Israeli? I ask the receptionist, when pillow has been delivered and he has returned.
- He has a Hungarian passport. But yes, Israeli. How did you know?
- Israelis share manners with Buddhist monks. That's a little crazy, but there's good reason for it.
- In the beginning of Judaism, obeying god's rules is enough, if you do it within the group of others obedient to god. Making a show of your obedience to god is enough good manners. You don't owe anyone anything more. No offer of love, no story telling. No art of life. No manners. When I got my first look at Buddhist monks what impressed me most was lack of sense of humor. To make fun of something you have to care about it, at least a little. You put a partial distance between you and what you laugh at. You take a step back, but stay within sight. Buddhists care about perfecting themselves, and they can joke about that, but about the world, they are - what is the right word? - dour.
- Blank. Look at the Dalai Lama. There's nothing there.
- I tried looking at him, and at images of the teacher the son of the famous French philosopher found so charismatic. Nothing there either for me. I was thinking about this today, after reading the book of conversations between the French philospher and his Buddhist monk son.* The Buddhists say they love others, and think that perfecting themselves is enough of an art to help other people with. They don't perfect manners, they don't perfect tools, they don't perfect story telling, image making. They seem stuck at the level of the original Judaism, when it was only a matter of obeying god's rules, when merely doing that was sufficient to establish themselves within the group of others obedient to god. Later Judaism examined stories of how people attempt to obey the rules in their lives together. And in Greek philosophy, roughly contemporaneous with the origins of Buddhism, Parmenides wrote that although the truth was that change and divisions were illusion, it was necessary to learn about that world of illusion, learn how to tell stories and listen to stories about that world of illusion. Buddhism didn't following this path, stayed instead with telling stories only about the task of one's own purification, and there are some things to be said for it.
- Like what?
- When China invaded Tibet there were about six thousand monasteries, housing twenty percent of the population. That is a lot of people doing a lot of purification. On the other hand, in the West, in the history of philosophy there have been very few good philosophers, and none equal to the founding Greeks. Western wisdom is a practical failure, and Eastern wisdom a practical success.
- In numbers only.
- Yes, but then the monks answer, you say we should care more about the world, tell stories about larger life, watch our manners, but it doesn't work, you just admitted it. You don't show love for people asking from them something they can't do. And you in the West, in asking it anyway, have performed an experiment lasting now 2,500 years proving us right.
- And your answer?
- I'll stick to my side. There seems something false, some logical error, something fundamentally stupid in Buddhism. If the body deserves study in the process of purification, so does the body acting in the world with other bodies. If love of others is fundamental to the motivation to purify oneself, so is the study of how that love is lost in the lives people live with each other. How we talk to each other, our manners, the stories we tell, the things we make, all are models of a life, better and worse. All are teachings. All are expressions of love. How can the Buddhist tell me that only his kind of communication, making a model only of his own purification, is an acceptable story? I can't accept it. His purification doesn't look good, not to me.
- What about the argument?
- Practical failure? If I wanted to compromise, I'd become a politician.
- So you're saying the monks really are politicians.
- Isn't that the impression you get?
- In fact, yes.
* The Monk And The Philosopher