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Incentivizing Asceticism in Buddhism and Jainism: A Q&A with Dr. Anne Mocko

June 14, 2016 • By Anne Mocko Incentivizing Asceticism in Buddhism and Jainism: A Q&A with Dr. Anne Mocko

Merit, a central concept in both Theravada Buddhism and Jainism, is a spiritual “asset” that accumulates as a result of acts of compassion, non-violence, or renunciation, and aids in rebirth and eventual salvation. Anne Mocko, Assistant Professor of Asian Religions at Concordia College, is conducting a comparative, ethnographic investigation into notions and practices of merit in these two traditions. She hypothesizes that even though Buddhists and Jains reduce or renounce lives of worldly pleasure, they can nevertheless experience their lives as being abundant in merit through these practices.

Read a blog post by Anne Mocko about Buddhist practices of merit-making here.

What was the seed or the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both?

My past research was about the deconstruction of the kingship in Nepal, which is different in a lot of ways. But the central argument was about how religious ritual shapes social ideas, and how religious practice crafts people’s identities, so there’s some theoretical continuity. This particular project comes pretty directly out of my teaching, one of my main courses called Religions of India. When I teach that class, I assign a project called the “ahimsa investigation,” where I ask students to take a day and catalogue all the violence they commit according to Buddhist ideas, which would be violence against only sentient beings. And the next day they catalogue violence they commit against life on a Jain theory, which would include plants and viruses. And on the third day I ask them to give up as much violence as they can.

What initially surprised me was how much students hate the project, because they feel so criticized by it. The American way of looking at things is that if you’re basically trying to be a nice person, you’re fine. To look at the world from a Buddhist or Jain perspective and see that you’re morally culpable for injuring beings on a daily basis, is upsetting. But it’s true: all of us are constantly impacting the lives of other living beings, yet our lifestyle allows us to ignore that impact—which is a comfortable and pleasant, but ethically questionable, way to live. 

So I wanted to understand better how these two religious traditions have convinced people to analyze their lives in these ways and give up as much violence as possible, for thousands of years, and how they have helped people build meaningful lives around values that critique them so profoundly.

How does merit work as a concept and as a practice in these two traditions?

Buddhism and Jainism are both asking you to do a big thing: to embrace non-violence and leave behind a life of attachment and consumption. My working hypothesis is that the thing that eases practitioners into this is merit. The idea behind merit is that when you do small acts that uphold the deeper values of the tradition—whether it’s going vegetarian, purchasing an animal that was destined for slaughter and then setting it free, or supporting a monk or a nun—in the long term you develop inclinations toward non-attachment and non-violence, but in the immediate context you’re rewarded with merit. As you give up the comforts of a regular life, you immediately get something back. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of consensus about whether merit bears fruit within your lifetime, or whether it affects you after your death. But there is this sense that every action that you take is instantly accruing rewards to your life "bank balance." And good acts are setting you on a better course and will yield better results for you.

What does “enhancing life” mean for you? 

In cultures that have been influenced by Protestantism, there’s a tendency to devalue practice and ritual. There’s a feeling that your moral qualities begin with your faith convictions. The Indic traditions teach that it’s the other way around. We start out as selfish and greedy, and we need to be trained away from those tendencies. It’s not that you realize that compassion toward others is important and then you give food to monks and beggars. You develop the habit of giving food to monks and beggars and as a result, you develop a commitment to generosity.

American culture often encourages daily practices that are consumerist and selfish and then we go out and say, “be more generous.” But if all of your habits are built around consuming for yourself, how likely are you to do it? Shifting our mindset to think about the importance of practice is crucial for enhancing life because it can have radical implications for our way of being in the world. 

How do public debates shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those debates?

I think this project has a particular application for environmentalism, and it’s related to what I was discussing before—the idea of habit and practice. The Western environmentalist movement tends to assume that if people develop a conviction that global warming is a problem, they’ll do something about it. But so many people know that there’s an environmental crisis and don’t change their behaviors, even though it’s past time for human beings to start voluntarily pulling back on their rates of consumption. So I want to look at two traditions that have successfully asked a ton of people to restrain themselves and give up self-indulgent consumerist habits. That’s tremendously valuable for thinking about how to live better in the context of environmental degradation.

You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?

It’s a funny question because I do travel a lot for research! I’m excited by this project because it’s allowing me to go to new places. In particular I’m excited to travel to Thailand next summer for research, and I’m grateful that this grant is giving me the opportunity to go.