A quick thought experiment for you. You can take a pill to extend your own life by six months. Alternatively you can give the pill to a stranger who is similar to you and add five years to their life.
Which would you choose in this hypothetical test of generosity?
This question was posed to a number of groups, including Tibetan Buddhist monks, non-religious Americans, American Christians, ordinary Buddhists in Bhutan, and Hindus in India.
You’d think that becoming a Buddhist monk would make people particularly compassionate and generous, but it turned out that this wasn’t the case, and that the monastic Buddhists were less willing than any of the other groups to give the pill to a stranger.
I’m stunned. The Tibetan monastics were more likely than any of the others involved in the study to embrace the idea that the self is not fixed. The study was in fact intended to find out whether embracing this Buddhist teaching would affect the fear of death. It seems it did, but in the wrong direction, making monastics more attached to living and more afraid to dying, to the point where they would choose to live at someone else’s expense.
I’m a bit disturbed by this, although it was pointed out that these were novice monks and not people who’d been meditating for years. But this point remains that these monks were less ethical than average Buddhists with far less practice under their belts.
It makes me wonder about who is attracted to monasticism in the first place. Could it be that it attracts people who are more self-centered than average? Or does being a monk make you more selfish, perhaps because of the status involved?
In a different part of the Buddhist world, a western monk, Sravasti Dhammika, pointed out that the “excessive reverence surrounding monks” in the Theravadin world tended to make many of them “complacent and proud.” Monks in Burma have been complicit in genocide against the Rohingya people, and monks in Sri Lanka have advocated violence against the Hindu Tamil population. Things can get ugly.
Anyway, I do find this study fascinating and rather disturbing. One of my social media friends said that it shows that becoming a monk doesn’t automatically make you a better person, but the problem is that it appears that in some respects it might make you less ethical!
As for myself, I think of what it would be like to live for six months knowing that I had deprived someone of five years of life. I’d rather not have that experience. You’re welcome to my pill!
But also, there are definitely times that my practice has made me more selfish and uncaring. Sometimes the notion of having a “higher” calling can lead you to neglect important relationships, and the idea of “non-attachment” can also become an excuse for unkindness.
The main lesson I take from this study is the reminder to keep checking that I’m being kind.
PS. I wrote an email to one of the leaders of the study, suggesting another possible interpretation of the results. Here’s what I wrote:
Dear Dr. Garfield.
As a Buddhist I’m very open to the possibility that at times Buddhist practice may make us more selfish — I think many of us have misused teachings on “non-attachment” in ways that have hurt others — but I have a sincere question about the “Death and the Self” study.
I gather that the monks were novices, and my question is, given that novices may have recently (how recently in this case I don’t know) left home and entered a community of which they are the lowliest members, might your findings actually be measuring the effect of what may have been a deeply unsettling change in their social connections? I can imagine that such a change might provoke an anxiety that might overwhelm impulses to generosity.
I’m assuming that the other groups were not selected on the basis of having recently gone through such a profound dislocation in their lives.
Of course I may be misinterpreting the term “novice.” Perhaps these monks have been living in a monastic context for years. Anyway, I thought I should ask the question.
Thanks for your time.
And here’s the reply I received:
Our group included novices and fully ordained monks with a range of years in robes. And we didn’t see any effect f length of time in robes or age. The interesting question in my mind is still, what happens when we look at seriously long-term meditators; I expect a reversal of the effect.
Yours as ever,
Maybe there’s an idea or “goal” of perfectibility being pursued that leads one to overvalue an imagined, perfected self he or she is becoming *albeit ironically if the ambition is to transcend self-oriented thinking?
That sounds quite possible!
Interesting. Perhaps they think 6 months of meditation and practice can benefit humanity (especially if it brings realization) more than 5 years of others living in the corporate world or working in say a liquor store or something perpetuating the illusion. Who knows. Not me nor you nor anyone else. Many young monks in the east are sort of thrown into it I’ve noticed when spending time in monasteries in India and Nepal. It’s not a choice for them and many are foster children with much suppressed and many more steal and do other unethical acts while wearing the robes. I think a follow up to ask these monks why they have chosen this answer is in order to be able to report objectively.
I can definitely imagine circumstances where six months of one person’s life (say a surgeon who saves children’s lives) is more important than the average and that might seem like a fair trade.
However the exercise here involved imagining that the other person was similar to yourself, so that disparity of “worthiness” shouldn’t in theory exist.
Right. Guess it just goes to show that humans are humans with all our good and flawed qualities. In fact, in my experience those drawn to monastic lives usually are more “screwy” than the average cat. It’s their delusion and suffering that usually brings them not always the altruistic want to help others. I alway enjoy your posts and writings, keep them coming. I refer to your fake Buddha quotes at least a few times a month. Here’s one I think the Buddha said that might benefit these young monks, “Try not to be a dick” I’m pretty sure that was his. ;)
I can speak from the experience of having run a retreat center that although many people wax lyrical about how wonderful it must be to live and work in one, very few people actually want to do so, and many of those who do are trying to escape problems. The difficulty they (and everyone else working there) face(s) is that their problems involve their own minds. I’d imagine monasteries are similar in some ways to that situation.
“Try not to be a dick” might be a reasonable summation of the precepts!
My first thought was my ego telling me that I meditate daily for the world, all beings etc. I interact with folks daily in a way that I think will make the world better if only every one could be like me. But, then I thought the 5 years at the liquor store might be some “low bibe guy” does to go home and take care of Grandma, who mails the check to the orphanage in Africa where lives are saved and so on and so forth….I would take the 6 months knowing I had to outperform any possible achievements another person would make in those 5 years. So for me, intent is the key, If I take the 6 months, then I have to give to all, always, or pass on it and let it go. Peace out.
In the Buddhist countries I’ve lived in (Cambodia and Thailand) it seems to be expected that most men will spend at least a year as a monk. Since being a monk is so common, they might be getting the same response they would have gotten from the general population.
Hi, David. If these monks were just in the monastery for a short time then you might indeed expect to see their responses being similar to the general population, but one problem is that their responses were different from the general population (and not in a good way!), and another is that these monks occupied a broad spectrum from novices to people who had been ordained for years. And there was no significant difference depending on the length of ordination. It’s a puzzling study!
Western psychological research often runs into problems when trying to integrate non-western subjects into their work.
I found this to be a useful discussion of the problem, where they point out that “a randomly selected American undergraduate is more than 4000 times more likely to be a research participant than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.”
It’s true that many studies are carried out in universities and the participants often consist of undergraduates. In this study however the westerners were not recruited on campus, but through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
Thanks for the interesting article.
Could you clarify why think the choice reflected “they would choose to live at someone else’s expense.”?
There’s is no expense for anyone, everyone continues to live as long as they would have.
If the experimenters had wanted to test your statement they would have asked a different question, one that involves taking from another.
If I’m given the choice either to give five thousand dollars to another person or get five hundred dollars myself, and I opt for the latter, then I’m choosing to deprive another person of a benefit because I want something for myself. In other words this question tests selfishness versus generosity. Or at least it’s meant to. It occurred to me that it’s possible that the monks in this study were simply more honest than the other groups, who might have been trying to impress the researchers!