Coherence vs. friendliness

A tweet showing Buddhist monks in Laos turning away from a dog being doggish recently went viral.

Reactions to the video mostly think it’s funny, or weird – because you wouldn’t see this in America or other Western countries. But what strikes me most is its coherence. Cultural coherence is a natural social phenomenon, it fulfils human need. Many of us feel lost without it.

Lao culture forms a unique brand of Theravadan Buddhism. Buddhist religious practice underlies the political economy and is embedded in governance structures. Monasticism is central to the Lao way of life: monks are involved in the production of fortunate rebirth for themselves and society, teaching the life of the Buddha and the law of Karma. Buddhism is a significant contributor to whatever degree of coherence exists between the Lao nation, society, politics, and culture.

Traditional Theravadan Buddhism turns from emotions, regards the passions as defilements. The goal is to achieve serenity; this requires detachment from emotional turbulence. The Pali canon, the collection of scriptures that form the basis of Theravadan Buddhism, is clear and consistent on this point.

The monks turning away from the dog engaging in its gross, animal realm instincts, are acting according to Buddhist scriptural doctrine, applying the principles of Theravadan Buddhism. Their action is coherent in that it fits congruently in the Lao Theravadan Buddhist system and worldview. It’s not friendly, and it’s not nice. It’s more in keeping with a Kegan stage 2 or 4 object-relational map than 3 or 5.

Recent versions of Theravadan Buddhism, influenced by Western psychology and modern values, changed the meaning of detachment.

Practitioners of contemporary, Western-influenced refactorings of Theravadan Buddhism might therefore react differently. Most practitioners of Theravadan derived meditations in our culture wouldn’t think twice about petting a dog, encouraging a tail wag, talking human-dog speak, making a connection. Western influence has re-written detachment to comply with worldly, social functionality, and a particular, Western version of individual health. Meditation is supposed to lead to mental, emotional detachment, in its turn to peace and inner tranquility, but without renunciation of emotions, relationships, social involvement. The functional connection between inner detachment (often re-written as ‘non-attachment,’ a less stringent version), personal serenity, and worldly engagement is not strictly delineated. Whereas monastic life in Lao provides a well-defined social boundary for the practice of detachment, Western life does not: it’s messy, complicated, and mostly left up to the individual to figure out what non-attachment might mean and where to draw the line in context. Western versions of Theravadan Buddhism are sometimes incoherent in principle: if you poke at them, their internal contradictions quickly reveal themselves; individual judgment supersedes Buddhist law. But they are friendly, communal, open to intelligent interpretation rather than dominated by rules: more fitting with the Kegan stage 3 or 5 paradigms.

Coherence is safe, though it may be choiceless. Niceness is constructive, though it may be kitsch. Increasingly, meditation practitioners seek technologies to navigate a smorgasbord of contradictory cultural influences with both coherence and connectedness.