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The Monk And The Mission

John David Pressman

In my post Tumblrism: The Injustice League I conclude by telling the reader they’re “not a bad person for finding the strength to start telling people no”. A reader might nod along with this and then ask “But say no to what?”. Part of what I meant is perhaps best illustrated by a story that comes to us from the Buddhist tradition. In it a monk collects money to publish the Sutras, a religious text. Each time he gets enough money, a natural disaster occurs and he gives up the funds to save others from disease or starvation. Since it’s an old koan the story is both short and public domain so I’ll quote it in its entirety below:

Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the sutras, which at that time were available only in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking. Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task. It happened that at that time the Uji River overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting. Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people. For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing blocks which produced the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto. The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.

The moral of the story is meant to be that there are more important aspects of Buddhism than piety. While that might work for a Buddhist monk, for most of us virtue lies in doing just the opposite. We must resist the urge to divert resources dedicated for a mission to the immediate alleviation of poverty or suffering. I think most of us understand this when it comes to money, but it’s true of organizations as a whole. One of the traps of Tumblrism is that it insists your institutional wealth should be spent on alleviating the plight of underecognized, marginalized people. Certainly if you’re in a position to do this it would be admirable, but an organizations mission is almost always more important.

Perhaps the connection is harder for people to see because hiring someone who’s been discriminated against doesn’t seem like spending. And ostensibly, it isn’t. However the problem comes when appeals to diversity stop being a practical way to make you better at doing your mission and start to become a self-flagellant form of charity. The constant moral appeals to put social justice causes at the top of high performing organizations priorities is a literal erosion of civilization. It’s precisely the ability of some organizations to avoid having to deal with immediate concerns of earthly tragedy that gives them a shot at creating new wealth. And even the exotic horror stories that come to us from Tumblr are just another form of earthly tragedy.

The Universities are built on a genius financial instrument that originates with Marcus Aurelius, the endowment. By only spending a fraction of what you have, it’s possible to fund your organization largely off the returns from your investments. This kind of rigorous budgeting is painful however, especially when one looks in the coffers and sees a bountiful pile of treasure staring them back in the face. But the rewards are even greater. Such rigor frees a University from the financial toils of ordinary private enterprise. It puts them in the position of unmoved mover that can mount expeditions into endeavors which benefit our entire society, but no one else is in a place to fund.

As a consequence, good universities should be especially insulated against the ebb and tide of earthly tragedy. However sometime during the 20th century things became topsy turvy, our universities became among the institutions most concerned with a certain kind of earthly tragedy. Like most things, it started out with the best of intentions. As unmoved mover, they would be in a position to help people that no one else could. And certainly I think the endeavor has probably enriched us all, but at a bitter cost. This politicization and stoop to the affairs of the dirt has stained higher learning, their magnanimous gesture near suicidal in the long term course it set for them. As Jonathon Haidt tries to reverse the blood loss of viewpoints which has resulted in academia’s near-monoculture, perhaps we should be taking a different moral from the story of the monk:

What could have been 10 years of work was accomplished in 20, and by the time the Japanese had occasion to tell their children the story of publishing the sutras the first two had faded to invisibility against the 3rds longevity.