Symphonic society

In many Buddhist traditions monks and nuns depend on the support of the surrounding community to survive. Thai Forest Monastery monks will walk to the local village with alms bowls in which villagers will place rice and fruit — which will be all a monk will eat for that day. Furthermore, monastics are not allowed to do many mundane tasks such as drive or handle money, and thus are dependent on the laity for non-spiritual support, as the laity depends on them for spiritual support. Thus, it is amazing to see successful monasteries (like Birken here in BC) and abbeys (like Sravasti in WA) operate with the support of their local communities, even though we are in a larger social context that barely acknowledges the existent of such places. Running a traditional monastery in rural Canada has fundamental challenges when compared to Thailand or Sri Lanka.

On his podcast, Ajahn Sona (abbot of the monastery where I do my retreats) uses the symphony orchestra as an illustration of how society supports endeavours of excellence. Listen to the short clip below:

This example can be extended to other endeavours, of course. I was reminded of this on the weekend watching an interesting documentary on the construction of the Kyoto State Guest House. The craftsmen involved we not just asked to complete a task (“put up a building”) but were respectfully asked to bring all of their expertise and creativity to bear — and they themselves wanted to create something that delighted people and would leave a legacy. As in Ajahn Sona’s example, it requires many different parts of society working in symphony: the buyer respects the craftsman’s experience and is willing to pay to support; the viewing public is willing to educate themselves thereby reinforcing respect for the craftsman, and also raising the awareness of quality within society; and of course the craftsman is willing to spend decades honing his craft, and to outdo himself every chance he gets. It is the complete opposite of society whose only values are convenience and cost performance. And it isn’t just limited to craft and art… think of health and education and the climate crisis as more examples that require a symphonic society, yet we are sorely out of tune.

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