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,