“We hope for more non-conformists among you, for your sake, for the sake of the nation, and for the sake of humanity.” —Paul Tillich, at a university graduation ceremony in 1957
This is going to be a tricky one to write. I intend to write what may be called my final offer to the Western World. I have been advised, though, that calling it a “final offer” sounds overly dramatic, and that nothing is really “final” anyhow. But some things really are final, or so it seems to me. Funerals, cremations, and lost virginity are pretty much irrevocable, for example. The main trickiness comes in making the offer in such a way that some people seriously consider it, and are motivated by it, while I remain honest while writing it! I’ve made numerous attempts in the past, adopting various approaches, including cheerful optimism, cynical criticism, joking, teasing, taunting, and even some virtual double-dog daring; and thus far nothing has really worked. So this is challenging. One thing I do know is that even though a positive, friendly attitude has not been really effective in this particular case, it is still much better than a negative one, if only for me personally. But the felt necessity of being strictly factual may result in the general tone being no better than affectively neutral. All we can do is the best we can. And the offer itself is a positive one.
A big reason why I make this offer is that, simply stated, Western civilization as it is, is not conducive to genuine happiness, or to wisdom. Two reasons for this are that the Western perspective deals mainly with the superficial appearances of things, with society rarely encouraging anyone to penetrate past the surface; and that Western culture is heavily based upon desire, which according to Buddhism is the cause of all suffering. It’s practically the same as suffering. So it could be invaluable to Western people to question the authority of the West and to gain a working understanding of some fundamental Eastern wisdom, which can allow a better understanding of mental clarity and happiness; and it could be helpful and very interesting to have a nonconformist philosopher around to point at what is really beneath the surface. I consider myself to be extraordinarily qualified for this, at least in some respects. I encourage, and can teach, enough detachment from the system that people are less entangled in it, more “empowered,” and more able to make wise choices with regard to the strange tangle Western life has become. It is very difficult to improve a situation when you are entangled in it. It’s like trying to fold your clothes while the clothes, and you also, are going around and around inside the dryer. From a more holistic or “touchy-feely” point of view, I feel that teaching Dhamma/Dharma in the West would be most conducive to a “positive flow of energy,” for the benefit of everyone.
Anyway, the offer is this: I would be happy, possibly even overjoyed, to stay in the West and teach Dhamma/Dharma under the following conditions. First, that a person or group of persons (ideally more than one individual) provide an empty house, an empty building, or an empty apartment, preferably with no furniture at all except maybe for a table, with a bathroom that works, for at least one month. There should be one room large enough to accommodate everyone who wants to meditate with me, or listen to talks, or discuss Dhamma/Dharma. Also I would require someone to offer one bowlful of food at least six mornings a week. During this time I would be happy to meet with people and teach or discuss what is of interest, presumably with an emphasis on Buddhist meditation and philosophy. We could have group meditation sits, with instruction beforehand for beginners if necessary, and days or weekends of more intensive practice. And once per month we could have an intensive meditation retreat, the discussion of which deserves its own paragraphs.
Here’s my idea—The retreat would be 15 to 21 days long, with everyone participating full time, from the first day. For the most part it would be intensive Vipassana, or mindfulness meditation, similar to, say, the Mahasi tradition of Burma, but without much traditional Burmese Theravada Buddhist ideology being emphasized as interpretation. We would be there to discipline ourselves, meditate, and experience whatever happens in the moment, not to attain some goal described in a book, with less theory and perhaps more “meta-theory” (i.e., detached examination of whatever theory comes up). There would be interviews, preferably group interviews, with the instructor (me) at least twice per week, and every day if the meditator likes, with “emergency interviews” available if called for. I consider myself to be qualified for facilitating this sort of process. What would make it more interesting and more useful, though, would be the first day and the last few days of the retreat, which would be largely for the purpose of helping everyone to integrate Dhamma practice into worldly life, helping us to take what we gain home with us.
Most intensive retreats in an orthodox Theravadin context require the meditators to keep silent and mind their own business, not even looking at each other any more than is necessary. Intensive introspection pretty much requires it; and that is what we would be doing most of the time. But on the first day everyone would introduce themselves, explaining concisely who they are and why they are there, and we would have a rather personal group discussion for clarifying what we as a group are doing, and where we are at. So although for most of the retreat we’ll be indulging in minimal interaction, the first day will help to establish a feeling of “us,” a lingering reminder that we are all together in the same boat, so to speak. Although we’ll be turned inward, there should be a context of mutual support, or community, or “tribe.”
Also, the last few days will be dedicated in part to mindful interaction. I have some ideas for this, and hopefully others can give input to help shape the practices involved. For example, before the end everyone at the retreat would practice eye contact meditation with everyone else there, meditating while looking directly into the other’s eyes, for at least one session of, say, twenty minutes. There would be no artificial mettā meditation, but more opportunities for spontaneous, genuine mettā. There would be more sharing of personal experiences during these last few days. There would not necessarily be any actual physical touching, except maybe for optional mindful hugs at the closing ceremony. I feel it could help to bring mindfulness and deep compassion out of the empty building and into society, where it is much needed.
One possible complication is that such intensive interaction might be too much for some Westerners to handle. One time a married couple came to me and were telling me of their troubles together, and I advised them to try my brand of eye gazing meditation, which can be really beautiful; and although the wife was quite willing, the husband couldn’t manage it. It was too intensely personal for him, even with his own wife! For that matter, the intensive retreat itself, including the more traditional mindfulness practice (walk, sit, walk, sit, for many hours a day) may not be for beginners. Buddhist practice can be challenging, with the more radical stuff being not for everyone, but it’s well worth it, even invaluable.
Another practical consideration is that I do not like the idea of charging money for a retreat, or for Dhamma/Dharma. I consider what I have to offer to be priceless, and for anyone who wants it, completely setting aside the fact that it is against the rules of monastic discipline for me to charge money, or to consent to that. But if the space is already available, then the only issue would be food, plus maybe utilities. I suppose the issue of supplying the space, etc., would be taken care of by others before I arrive.
A more subtle one is that although I love and revere Dharma and am glad to share it, I am no evangelist. If people come to me, or invite me to their place, that’s great, but I have no desire to go door to door or to market or hype myself, in order to find people who can appreciate what I’m offering. And I tend to avoid being a chronically smiling, politically correct Dharma politician. Simply being as conscious as possible, and following one’s conscience, is good enough. I have been a reclusive contemplative philosopher type for many years, which is appropriate for a Theravada Buddhist bhikkhu. But I still think the empty house idea, with the monthly retreat, is a good one, and a bargain offer. I think it could even be fun.
Anyway, if nobody accepts this offer by the end of February, approximately, then I will officially throw up my hands, give up on living in the West, and begin making arrangements to acquire a plane ticket back to Burma, in order to stay in my cave (yes, I live in a cave there) indefinitely. Even if I go back to Burma I wouldn’t be totally deaf to invitations, if, that is, they were substantial ones that were too good to turn down; but I will have stopped trying. It’s been years already.
In 2011, after years of feeling that I should return to the West, I flung myself back into America, ready or not. It turned out that I was ready, more or less, but that America was not! I have been told, several times by several different enthusiastic people, that America, or the West in general, “needs” me. I can agree with that at a philosophical level; but if it is true, then America and the West have not yet realized the necessity. Even the good people who tell me this, most of them anyway, tend not to do much about it.
But the people of the West, as they become more and more committed to extraversion, materialism, and superficiality, become more and more stressed and unhappy. It seems that the best science can do to promote happiness (as opposed to superficial pleasure, comfort, and convenience) is to invent antidepressant medications. But the very purpose of Dhamma is happiness. The modern West invents extraverted sciences for figuring out and manipulating the world, while the ancient East invented profound introspective techniques for understanding what is inside, and keeping one’s mind clear and free. But the West is so invested in a non-dharmic world view that Dhamma/Dharma, and to some degree happiness itself, are dismissed or ignored, or else accepted in only very limited ways. But I’ve written plenty about this elsewhere.
What I can appreciate now, which I hadn’t fully realized before my return in 2011, is that starting a career as an itinerant philosopher and empty house sitter in the urban West entails essentially diving into the proverbial shit storm. But, as Confucius is said to have said, contemplative philosopher types are most needed in shit storms. And although I’m introverted by nature and could appreciate going back to my Burmese forest and living in relative peace and quiet, with fresh air and more physical exercise, still I feel that the challenge of the West would be a better use of my abilities, and would be good for me as well. There are things I could learn from interaction with other Westerners that are hard to come by alone in a cave. Also I’d be participating in the retreats, which would be good practice for me. So I think everyone involved could benefit greatly, including me. So long as I am skillful enough not to be overwhelmed by a shit typhoon. But I like challenges. Trouble I can handle; but living without food or shelter is something else.
I suppose all this talk of diving into shit storms deserves some clarification. I have lived my life in such a way that I just don’t suffer very much. That’s what Buddhism is all about: living your life so that you don’t suffer very much, ideally living your life so that you don’t suffer at all. It is only since coming back to America, ironically, that I have seen just how much unhappiness there is in the world. Most poor Burmese villagers are actually pretty happy people. So I know how to disintegrate unhappiness with Dharma, yet I have relatively little experience in dealing with really vehement cases of it. There have been times when I’ve been so miserable that I felt like I was dying, especially from seemingly endless, sweltering hot weather; yet there is always a detachment, a level of mindfulness, so that I don’t fully identify with it. Troubles are worldly phenomena, arising and passing away, as all phenomena do. Most of the suffering comes with vehemently identifying with suffering, really believing “I am unhappy,” even insisting upon it. And in the West there is quite a lot of this. Hence the storm.
The following may be bad salesmanship, but so what: Can you guess how many regular American supporters I have after all these years? By “regular American supporters” I mean U.S. citizens of European ancestry who offer some physical support, or at least offer to offer some, at least once every three months. Can you guess? No, c’mon, guess. The answer, my friends, is two. And an excuse for one of them is that he married an Asian woman, so he was introduced to a relatively unwesternized form of Buddhism. (I’m not starving, however—Asian Buddhist people supply my needs very generously.) Considering the obvious value of Buddhist philosophy and meditation, and the aforementioned alleged need of the West for people like me, I have often wondered about this. It’s interesting. One theory I came up with in the shower a few days ago is that I have deviated so far from the Western mainstream that I have become like a ghost or sasquatch, living at the verge of materialist reality, with only a few people even able to see me, or like the legendary Spanish Conquistador ships that were invisible to Mayans standing on the shore, because they were so different from anything they had previously perceived. Whatever the reasons, maybe including my own obnoxiousness, I feel that Westerners are blowing a golden opportunity to be guided away from the mainstream, and into a deeper, more reflective, more satisfying life. Anyway, if you are sick and tired of my repeated offers, this is probably the very last one. Which I will now repeat.
So here it is. If you, or someone else out there, provide me with an empty space with minimal furniture, a bowl of food approximately every day, and access to a bathroom, I’ll provide you with access to something invaluable, and a magnificent opportunity for deep Dharma practice with an experienced, intelligent, and somewhat radical teacher, and, ideally, a supportive group environment. And if it doesn’t happen relatively soon, I give up. Either way, be happy, because that’s what we’re here for.
(Thanks to Eline for helping me to soften this up a little.)