Monks with guitars

I’m still working on a follow-up to the previous post on religious music, and in that vein thought I’d offer a comparison point from Chinese Buddhism.

As far as I can ascertain, this is what traditional Chinese Buddhist chant sounds like:


But in searching for Chinese Buddhist chant, the majority of videos are this kind of thing:


The modern musical influences are pretty clear. It’s basically Chinese ballad-pop with a Buddhist twist. They even have a video of Faye Wong singing the Heart Sutra at a concert held in a temple. That’s a bit like a non-skanky version of Madonna singing the Gospel of Mark in a cathedral:


But as promised, here’s a video of monks with a guitar. To their credit they look quite uncomfortable, and I’m fairly sure the whole thing is viewed as an anomaly, kinda like “OMG! Real monks with a guitar!”


My all-time favourite remains this collaboration between Japanese Buddhist monks and a Czech Gregorian Schola:

If only my music were popular…

Throwcase has posted a passionate and entertaining condemnation of a set of cliches pertaining to the popularity of classical music.

Classical music has always been the music of the educated classes, but today, despite the much more equal distribution of education in first world society, it is seen by many as stuffy, irrelevant and unappealing

This is so offensively stupid I can hardly contain my rage. Saying that other people see it a certain way does not constitute an argument. It does not represent a truth. It is a useless, pointless, meaningless thing to say. If Clive thinks it is stuffy, he should say so, and not hide behind the views of others. If he thinks it is not really stuffy, he should say so, and help dispel a misconception. Quoting what he perceives to be an established view merely reinforces a worthless bit of gossip.

I’ve been meaning to write something on the chant, and this piece by Throwcase has reminded me of similar debates that erupt in the context of liturgical music – a domain perhaps even more fraught than classical music, where misinformation and prejudice mean that an ancient and beautiful musical tradition has been simply abandoned in favour of typically inappropriate, often second-rate pop/folk music.

If you won the lottery tomorrow…

An exercise that is meant to sharpen the mind and clarify ones’ motives:

What would you do if money was not an issue?

Taking money out of the equation is supposed to help us discover what we would really like to do with our lives.  But it’s a rare individual who interprets this question in any manner of useful way.

Me? I tend to interpret it as “what would you do if you had an infinite supply of money?” to which the answer is “a whole lot of extravagant, indulgent, expensive, money-driven pursuits and acquisitions.”  If money were really not an issue, I would spend my time spending it.

Perhaps a better question to ask is: What do you value in life apart from money?

For a Melancholic idealist, this is indeed the better question to ask, sparing us the confusion of trying to imagine what we would be like if we were rich. It’s hard enough knowing what we’re like at present, let alone in unrealistic hypothetical worlds.

It turns out there are a lot of things I value, appreciate, and enjoy a whole lot more than money.  Spending money on a thing is, after all, a very practical indicator that I value it more than the money I spend.  Basic necessities, a home, a car, clothing, a computer, an internet connection, and so on.

Then there are the things I value that can’t easily be expressed in terms of money.

I value philosophy.  I value the long, difficult journey of learning a rare Chinese martial art.  I value writing articles, the thrill of a new idea or a fresh insight, and the near-transcendent feeling of truly understanding something significant, complex, and deep.  I value the accomplishment of finally mastering an intricate piece of Gregorian Chant, and the powerful resonance of chanting it together in a group.  I value my thoughtful and reflective conversations with friends, as we each grapple with the pitfalls of our strangely disconnected way of life. I value recognising I am different from the norm, and having the freedom to continue being different and not succumbing to the stultifying rationalisations of other people’s lives.

It is these varied and engaging adventures that enrich my life far more than actual money ever has.  In that sense, if I had to choose between relative poverty with the freedom to pursue these riches, versus relative wealth at a cost of acceding to a narrower vision of life and meaning, then I hope the choice will always be as obvious as it seems right now.

Having gone once already down the wrong path, I hope this painful lesson is well learned.

Unfortunately our society is so compelling in its embrace of utility, it is hard to even think about things like studying philosophy or freelance writing without considering value in monetary terms or career prospects.  We timidly embrace our ‘hobbies’ and ‘pastimes’ as though all the serious intellectual and moral content of our lives takes place in the confines of a conventional work environment.  We are not used, despite ancient rhetoric, to seriously defending the claim that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’, without instinctively grasping for some utilitarian apologetic to the effect that ‘philosophy graduates have highly translatable analytical and problem-solving skills’.

If you find yourself, poor melancholic, in an uncomfortable state of career dishevelment, reflecting on the financial irrelevance of your deepest and most sincere pursuits, I urge you fret not.  If a career path or ideal job has not yet emerged to satisfy you, then perhaps it is worth admitting that no ‘job’ ever will.  You’ve most likely already found two or three key themes, pursuits or ideals that give genuine meaning to your life; in that sense you already have the answer.

We’re often told that the luckiest people are those who love their job, or who get paid to do something about which they are truly passionate.  But we are rarely told how lucky it is to be passionate about something meaningful and worthwhile in the first place.  It’s so lucky, in fact, that we shouldn’t feel bad about working any kind of job to make ends meet.  We shouldn’t feel as though we ought to love our ‘careers’ when we’ve already found something we love more than any salaried position.

The answer by now ought to be clear: make time, give yourself the opportunity to do the things you love, the things that define you as a person and enrich your life.  While this will mean having a career on the side, doing whatever work you have an affinity for, it will also mean that the work is never central, never overshadows the true meaning in your life.




Communicating Value

The Master said, “If the search for riches is sure to be successful, though I should become a groom with whip in hand to get them, I will do so. As the search may not be successful, I will follow after that which I love.”
– Confucius, the Analects (7:12)

The previous article declared that:

the idealist dream is to find a way of earning a reasonable living without compromising his ideals.

But this ‘dream’ is itself a form of compromise, in recognition of a fundamental divide between wealth and ideals.

In comments on the previous article, Jack Saunsea presented a different angle on this intersection of wealth and ideals:

For me, the question is not whether or not my “idealistic” endeavors can be used to make money; rather, if I do find them valuable, as is it likely I would find them to be the most valuable, am I communicating their value to others? Are others finding them valuable? If others do find them valuable, then my needs in life, whether being provided through monetary gain or simply through the relationships that the value I offer benefits, will be met.

This is, quite appropriately, an ideal vision of how to make a living. Rather than seek a compromise between the pursuit of ideals and the need for wealth, Jack has identified what they have in common: value. Both money and ideals are premised on value, value to oneself and value to others in relationship. The exchange of money for goods and services can be further summarised as an exchange on the basis of perceived value.

Indeed, there are plentiful examples of talented artists or craftsmen – idealists who do excellent work but fall into the melancholic trap of doubting the objective value of their creation. Their failure to set an appropriate price for their time and labour arguably reflects a general failure to honour and communicate the value of their work. Melancholics are typically more afraid of over-promising than under-selling, confident that the true value of their ideals and creations will shine through in the end.

But what if it doesn’t? Or rather, what if we are neglecting to examine how we communicate the worth of our ideals? It is typically idealistic to think ‘let the results speak for themselves’, but the reality is that we ourselves are a part of that ‘result’. The melancholic harbours a fear, or better yet: a self-consciousness, that he is a poor exemplar of the ideals he values, and that presenting himself as a product of his ideals will somehow tarnish those cherished ideals in the eyes of others. He will experience shame and humiliation, something the melancholic dreads.

As we discussed in the previous post, it is in the nature of most skills and disciplines that as we make progress, we find that there is always more progress to be made. By its very nature, attaining skill makes one more aware of the greater horizons and hence the limitations of whatever skill is attained. This is especially true of philosophy, where the search for answers brings with it an ever expanding awareness of the unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, questions.

It is counter-intuitive for someone in the midst of their philosophical journey to turn to others and say “You see how much I have gained? You see the skills I have developed and the rewards those skills have brought me? You see how satisfied I am in my pursuit of philosophy?”
Instead the philosopher is intent on the horizon, on the limits of his understanding. It is hard for someone always focusing on his limits to start telling others about his strengths.

But the answer may lie, as Jack suggests, not in telling others how great you are and how philosophy or some other ideal made you popular, famous, rich, and attractive; but in taking stock of how the yet-unattained ideal has enriched your life and brought value to it. You may not have answers to your philosophical questions, but you have the great enjoyment of losing yourself in the consideration of matters far beyond the trivia of everyday life. If that is something you value, perhaps you can do a better job of conveying it to others?

And if you find (to your melancholic horror) that you are not, for example, an impressive exponent of your martial art or a thrilling performer of your ancient chant, perhaps it is time to consider whether you have directed sufficient time and effort toward achieving -or better yet: expressing– in your own person the things you value in your discipline? It is, after all, typical of the melancholic idealist to forget in private enjoyment of his interests that there is a value in communicating that enjoyment to others; and that letting the results speak for themselves can mean, at times, that you are the one doing the speaking.

There’s No Money in That

Sometimes it almost seems as though the melancholic idealist is drawn to things because there is no money to be made from them.

There’s an element of truth in this: money attracts all types of people, and the utility of wealth tends to degrade the subject matter, whatever it may be. Money is the lowest common denominator; when the idealist sees the crowd scrambling for money, he naturally wonders what else there is to life.

In a society fixated on money, this can be self-defeating, because no matter what our ideals are we do need a basic wealth in order to survive and a more than basic wealth to flourish and be meaningfully engaged in society. Hence the idealist dream is to find a way of earning a reasonable living without compromising his ideals.

But what if, by his early thirties, an idealist has somehow managed to invest himself almost totally in financially useless skills and interests? What if, perversely, the very things that attracted him to those skills and interests are the same features that repel others and make them monetary dead-ends?

The rare, gruelling martial art that must not be taught commercially; the ancient religious chant rejected as foreign and elitist by the religious mainstream; the difficult philosophical quest for meaning and purpose neglected by mainstream culture — it’s hard to market yourself to people who fundamentally have no idea what you’re talking about, and no real interest in finding out. But lest we fall into the melancholic Catch-22 -twisting ourselves in knots trying to monetise the ideal- it is vital that we remind ourselves of the context of our ideals, and why we were drawn to them in the first place.

The context is, after all, a little humbling: you left the popular, commercialised martial art in part because the new art was rare, exclusive, and not commercialised. You pursued the ancient religious chant in part because it had been rejected, forgotten, and overlooked. You delved into philosophical inquiry in part because your society and culture could not readily provide the answers. To complain at this point that your interests are not feted by the wider community would be a little embarrassing, wouldn’t it?

The other part of the ideal is even more important: the first impression, the beginner’s point of view, the ideal of the ideal, the perfect form that drew you in from the start. It faded and waned over years of practice, but is still there in the background and still has the power to inspire and restore.

We get bogged down, somewhere along the way, and lose touch with this source of inspiration. We forget to take a step back and consider our progress: how far we have come along the path to our ideal, whether it be the power, form, and self-mastery of the rare martial art, the haunting beauty of the ancient chant, or the wisdom, knowledge, and clarity of the philosophical search for meaning.

In some sense these ideals will never be achieved, and the beginner’s first impression naturally gives way to the realisation of the adept that there is always farther to go and more to learn, and others whose knowledge and experience dwarf anything you have attained. And so there is a risk of ending up with neither wealth nor a sense of accomplishment, perhaps regretting our seemingly naive idealism and wishing we were more money-minded.

Such doubts are normal, but if the melancholic temperament is real then holding such regrets is a pathetic place to be. Just accept that you are not money-minded. Just accept that you are an idealist, and ultimately your ideals mean more to you than money ever will. You will have to make a living somehow, and it is impossible to say whether you can find a means of income that satisfies your idealistic temperament. But you stand a far, far better chance of doing so if you pursue your ideals unashamedly, and without reserve. Ideals are, after all, what you are good at. There is an inherent dignity and enjoyment in doing what you are good at, even if the rest of the world neither cares nor understands.