Religious Society of Primates
Where the crowd is, therefore, or where a decisive importance is attached to the fact that there is a crowd, there no one is working, living, and striving for the highest end, but only for this or that earthly end; since the eternal, the decisive, can only be worked for where there is one; and to become this by oneself, which all can do, is to will to allow God to help you—“the crowd” is untruth. (Søren Kierkegaard, On the Dedication to “That Single Individual”)
One feature of being a primate that I enjoy the least is the way we primates tend to organize our social groups hierarchically. Our penchant for hierarchy is perhaps most obvious in institutions such as the military and the Catholic Church, but it manifest in some way every time more than one primate is present. All one need do is go to a public place such as a coffee shop and watch the interactions within a group of people. This observation is most effective either when the group being watched is far enough away that one cannot hear what they are saying, or if they are speaking a language one cannot understand. Then one has nothing to focus on but body language, which is quite revealing of social hierarchy. If a couple is carrying on a conversation, chances are very good that one of the pair will be doing most of the talking; the other may or may not be listening. In a crowd of three or more people, most likely one person will be a de facto leader, a maker of suggestions and decisions. (Some people made fun of George W. Bush when he said “I’m the decider,” but in fact when more people than one are present, it will soon be evident that one of them is the decider.) This is a tendency one can see even in very young children. There are a few leaders, and the rest, whether they like it or not, are followers. As is the case with chickens, so with it is with us taller bipeds: we have a pecking order, and whosoever gets out of order will soon be pecked back into the proper position. This is a process we call socialization.
Anyone familiar with the academic world will know about the administrative hierarchy of president, vice presidents, provost, vice provosts and a battery of deans, and all the faculty rankings from professor to down lecturer. What some students may not realize is that if the salaries of the instructors were divided by the number of classroom hours, some of their most effective instructors turn out to be paid considerably less than others, have no vote at faculty meetings (and may not even be invited to attend them), are rarely consulted on matters of policy and may be sharing an office with several other instructors at the bottom of the totem pole. There is very little justification for this setup other than that this is how universities were organized in the fourteenth century, and by the time somehow has risen to a position of privilege, there is little incentive to make the system more equitable. People at the top of totem poles see no virtue in horizontal poles. I recall one senior professor commenting on a petition for better working conditions that came from seriously underpaid graduate student lecturers, “They want to be where we are, but they don’t want to be where we have all been.” In other words, he had to suffer substandard wages for several years, so why shouldn’t they? After all, being at the bottom of the dog pile builds character, no? How else will one learn how to behave when one gets to the top of the pile if one does not spend time at the bottom?
It could perhaps be argued that there are situations where a hierarchical structure serves a purpose. When confronted with a raging fire, for example, it is no doubt to everyone’s advantage to have a captain who assesses the situation and assigns specific tasks to others who then follow orders without question or complaint. An emergency is no time to have everyone sit in a circle and to wait until the talking stick is passed to him so that he can venture a suggestion that will be carefully and respectfully weighed along with other suggestions and eventually decided by consensus. Fire brigades, police departments and battalions probably work better when there is a hierarchy and everyone in that hierarchy knows exactly where his or her place is. But not every situation is emergent. In most of the ordinary situations in life, there is no need for a hierarchy. And in some, a hierarchy can be a real obstacle.
The one enterprise in life that least needs hierarchy is the very one from which the word “hierarchy” comes, namely, religion. The word comes from two Greek words, hieros (sacred) and arkhein (to lead, to rule), and it originally meant a system of government in which the ruling was done by priests or holy people. Although few countries these days are hierarchies in that original sense of the word, most religious organizations evolve into hierarchies in which those deemed most spiritually advanced are the deciders. This fact, I would argue, helps account for why most religious organizations end up being a grotesque caricature of the very doctrines and values they were founded to propagate.
Many years ago, I was on the board of directors of a Zen Buddhist temple in North America. As a registered charitable organization with tax-exempt status, the temple was required by law to have a board of directors and a constitution. Our constitution specified that the Zen master was president for life of the board and that the president had sole authority to decided all spiritual matters, while the board had the authority to decide secular matters. At one meeting of the board, the order of business was to renew the constitution—another procedure that was required by tax laws to be done periodically. I was unprepared to vote for approval of our constitution until I could be helped to understand what exactly differentiated “spiritual” from “secular” matters. What eventually became clear to me was that whatever decision the Zen master wanted to make, even down to the color of napkins at a potluck dinner, was automatically spiritual. Anything he did not want to be bothered with was secular. It became clear that the entire structure of the organization was designed to preserve the absolute power and authority of one man and that the principal task for everyone else was to learn to be subservient and deferential. Once that was clear to me, it was also clear to me that I must resign from the board of directors and leave that entire organization. As much as I enjoyed, and perhaps even benefited from, the practices of Zen, I did not undertake those practices for the purpose of learning to accept the absolute and often arbitrary power of a fellow human being.
Over the decades I have given a good deal of thought to the question of how best to organize a spiritual community. The more thought I have given to the matter, the more clear it has become to me that the best interests of a spiritual community are served by having no organization at all. Jesus of Nazareth was reported by Matthew (18:20) to have said “For where two or three gather in my name, I am there in their midst.” Now, I have never been a Biblical literalist, but my understanding of this passage is that when a fourth person shows up, Jesus finds somewhere else to go. Four is a good number for a barbershop quartet or a game of bridge, but it is one too many for a spiritual community. When numbers grow, so do perceived collective needs, and before one knows it there is a building and grounds committee, a fund-raising committee and a hospitality committee—not to mention a spirit of rivalry among the committees and hard feelings on the part of those unfortunate congregants who are overlooked to serve on them. In astonishingly short order, all vestiges or spiritual practice have vanished in the ensuing chaos of primates jockeying for position in a social hierarchy.
Institutions have a way of providing a constant supply of distractions. They tend to promote what Indian Buddhists called habitual distraction (abhyasta-vikṣepa), which in turn promotes delusional thinking, a condition that obstructs peace of mind. Distraction (vikṣepa) is a name given to having one’s thoughts scattered (vikṣipta-citta). Each time one allows oneself to be distracted, the tendency to be distracted again is reinforced (abhyasta), and eventually distraction becomes the usual state of one’s mind. Distraction makes it more difficult to be aware of the constant flow of changing perceptions, internal dialogues, judgements and motivations, which in turn hampers the process of stopping unproductive thinking before it leads to troublesome behavior.
Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.
The Buddha said in a number of places that the social condition most conducive to having a focused mind (samāhita-citta, also known as samādhi) is isolation from other people. Being around others, especially others who talk much and scurry about getting things done, makes mental focus difficult and makes distraction easy. Given that a good deal of what people collectively set out to accomplish is simply not necessary, and given that this is no less true of spiritual communities than of mahjong clubs, the best way for most people to keep their minds safe and sound is to avoid congregating, even into spiritual communities and organized institutions.
My conclusion, then, is that not only is the best organizational structure of a religious community no organization at all, but the best spiritual community for an individual serious about spiritual practice is no community at all.
What I have said here has been based on my experience. Others may not be similarly constituted, so their experiences may be different; I cannot know for sure, since the only mentality available to me to observe directly is my own. I offer these reflections in the spirit articulated well by Śāntideva:
atha matsamadhātur eva paśyed aparo ’py enam ato ’pi sārthako ’yam
If another whose constitution is like mine should see this, then this person may benefit from it. (Śāntideva, Bodhicaryāvatāra 1.3)