What is Success?

The Monastery   |   Bhikshu Jin Chuan  |   November 29, 2011, 4:00 pm

[This is the third of a series of posts reflecting on how I found myself drawn to monasticism despite (or perhaps because of) my upbringing in the Bay Area and providing insight into how the relatively secular environment in which I grew up prompted me to look deeper into the meaning of life.]

My mom’s look of confusion and unhappiness upon hearing about my monastic aspirations had its reasons. She would often tell me, “You are too idealistic! How are you going to support yourself?” And when I tried to explain to her that being a monastic was actually really practical, she would only get more upset. And yet was there any more lasting profession in history? Talk about job security! And what was even better was that no one else wanted to do it, so there was no competition.

Finding that my reasoning and arguments were of no use, I decided to keep quiet. But, in my heart, I strengthened my resolve to become a monastic. The rebellious, independent, self-righteous kid had decided what he wanted to do, and he was going to get his way. Stubbornness runs in my family.

My mom began to regret supporting my interest in religions. She had bought me a NIV Student’s Bible from which I read a passage almost every night. She supported my regular attendance at Christian Fellowship gatherings. And she had given me books on Buddhism which she had gotten from a friend (which is how I learned about Ajahn Sumedho).

She began questioning the way she had brought me up, saying she thought she might have made the mistake of giving me too much freedom. She would tell me how one of my relatives would critically say to her: “你真麼可以讓他這樣之呢?他活在他自己的世界裡” (How can you let him be like this.? He’s living in his own world!). To which she would add her words: “Why can’t you be normal!”

(“What’s normal?” was my immediate response–and, I quickly learned, the wrong response!)

I was a bit of an embarrassment among her friends. When they got together to talk about their kids, other parents would talk about how this kid was successful in doing this and that one in doing that–and then there I was: the one who didn’t seem to be “successful” in anything.

I had a good answer for that though, one straight from Merton:

… the score is not what matters. Life does not have to be regarded as a game in which scores are kept and somebody wins. If you are too intent on winning, you will never enjoy playing.

A few years ago a man was compiling a book entitled Success wrote and asked me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success. I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me. I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success. If it so happened that I had once written a best seller, this was a pure accident, due to inattention and naïveté, and I would take very good care never to do the same again. If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. I heard no more from him and I am not aware that my reply was published with the other testimonials…

What I am saying is this: the score is not what matters. Life does not have to be regarded as a game in which scores are kept and somebody wins. If you are too intent on winning, you will never enjoy playing. If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.

Learning to Live, 11-12

To be honest, I was a bit self-righteous, because I could see no point in what the world called “success.” Looking around at the “successful” people around me, I noticed how many of them were unhappy. What does “success” even mean? A big house? The perfect family? Running a successful business and making a lot of money? I didn’t want any of those things. Instead, I wanted to be true to myself and what I believed in. Safe to say, I was (and still am) pretty idealistic.

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