Skillful means: Virtuous gateway drugs, and the founding Buddhists on whether DJs are musicians

by Jeremy Sherman, Ph.D., Psychology Today, May 9, 2010

Virtuous gateway drugs lead us to good harder stuff

San Francisco, CA (USA) -- I'm a practicing jazz musician--practicing because I'm nowhere near as good as I want to be. I didn't start out interested in jazz and getting good, I was interested in rock and getting girls. Rock didn't necessarily take a lot of practice. During my teens I was satisfied playing the same simple riffs over and over through my flatteringly loud bass equipment.

My father, a classical oboist and pianist called my electric bass a toy. Earlier he had me play bassoon which had eight keys for the right thumb alone and required making your own reeds with a micrometer-very fussy. He was right. Comparatively speaking, the bass was a toy.

Musical equipment just gets easier and easier. Now you don't even have to know any simple riffs to sound like a virtuouso. With electronic keyboards you can rest a finger on any key and a whole band pumps out a steady glorious sound. DJ's claim to be musicians. In the old days people who said, "Yeah, I play music; I play the record player," were kidding. Compared to an electric bass, these new instruments are toys.

Musicians debate what easy access to easier instruments will do to musicianship. We hope these easy instruments won't set a new low standard for musical achievement. We hope instead they'll be like gateway drugs.

That's what the flatteringly loud bass equipment did for me. It affirmed me early on, whispering "You're a pro, you're really doing this," in my ear while I closed my eyes, kicked back my head and wailed away for hours on those same simple riffs. But like a gateway drug it eventually lead me to the harder stuff like bebob and altered dominant scales.

Of course for some, the flattering new equipment doesn't have the gateway effect. They're easily impressed by their prowess. The get complacent and don't bother to learn anything more sophisticated, not that there's any reason they should have to.

After all, life is short. We should all be so lucky as to experience the pinacles of human achievement, even if only by simulation. Fake musical instruments, virtual reality games, movies, fiction, even pornography--are we going to begrudge the talentless a chance to pretend to have talent, the timid a vicarious experience of fictional heroism, the homely a chance to experience sex with attractive people?

Mahayana Buddhism emerged in India around four hundred years after Buddha lived. The word Mahayana means "great vehicle" in several senses, but the key sense comes from the alegory that justified the pivotal Mahayana update on Buddhas' teachings: A father's house is burning down and his two children are in it. He wants them to run out of the house but they don't see why they should. He entices them out with the promise of little toy wagons, a different one for each child. Excited, the children rush out to their father and the presents but when they arrive father admits that he didn't have the two little wagons really. He has something better instead, one large wagon, a great vehicle that would carry them both.

The traditional interpretation is that the little wagons the father promised were the earlier schools of Buddhist thought to be replaced by Mahayana Buddhism, the great vehicle that would carry all people. Though these earlier schools couldn't take you to nirvana they are to be appreciated for motivating people to take the first step toward Buddhism. They did not deliver as promised but they demonstrated the earlier teacher's "skillful means," which from what I've read sounds like a euphemism for the seductive skill of leading people toward virtue, in effect, selling good gateway drugs, drugs that will eventually lead people into addictions to truly worthy commitments.

As with the easier musical instruments that led me eventually to dig deeper into music, the fabled false promise of toys was a gateway drug to the worthy harder stuff-Mahayana Buddhism. If the false promise of toys is what it takes to free lost souls from the burning edifice of unenlightened attachment then the false promise of toys has merit.

A few weeks back I wrote a piece about designing moral systems. It got me into a conversation with one reader about her appreciation of Buddhism. She said it had something for everyone, including basic principles so simple that people can experience Buddhism even without becoming intensive practicioners.

That reminded me of a principle in language evolution. We evolve to learn languages easily, but languages also co-evolve to be easily learned. For a language to survive, it has to be accessible and assimilatable by the youngest among us. And when we help little babies and foreigners learn our language we don't insist on them getting all the fine points of grammar and prounciation at the beginning. We start with some gateway encouragement.

This is true not just of language but of every social institution introduced in childhood, including religion. There has to be a Cliff-notes Sunday-school version of the teachings. As with language, we cut newcomers slack for not getting all the fine points of the teachings and doctrine. We could call this the Inclusivity Principle: Praise the newcomers even if they don't get it all. Bless their little pointed heads, maybe they'll never get the finer points or maybe our praise will motivate them to get the finer points eventually. Regardless, include and encourage them."

Inclusivity Principle applies to political affiliations too. You've seen me struggling with the modern Glen Beck, Sarah Palin, E-Zee, Cliffnotes Republicanism that has all sorts of people acting like their authoritative political theorists and moral philosophers without having given politics much thought. The Left has had its share of these too of course, naïve hippies, pacificts, communist sympathizers who thought they knew what it would create political heaven on earth just because they had read a few books. It's dangerous. The voice that accompanies the Cliff-Notes gospel whispering "You're a pro, you are really doing this!" is wrong.

Religious and political leaders are ambivalent about the gateway teachings. On the one hand, the Inclusivity Principle encourages tolerance. On the other hand, you don't want a bunch of amatures out their espousing the Cliff Note teachings as though they were the full teachings. It gives theteachings a bad name. It dilutes the doctrine. We could call this the Quality Control Principle.

We can imagine perfect harmony between the Inclusivity Principle and the Quality Control Principle: Praise only those whom praise motivates to dig deeper. Those who don't have the capacity to dig deeper, let them enjoy the simplified version but fully aprised of their amature status. And with those who embrace the simplified version as though it has made them pros, enforce quality control assertively.

In practice, it is hard to administer such tailored standards.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making. See full bio