So I got an email this morning from Lion’s Roar magazine. Part of the subject line was “Thich Nhat Hanh on ‘Growing Together’.” I clicked on that title in the email and it took me to the article itself.
It’s an introduction Mr. Hanh wrote for a book titled Love’s Garden: A Mindful Guide to Relationships by Peggy Rowe Ward and Larry Ward.
The introduction is full of fortune cookie type advice on how to have a mindful romance. “Beauty and goodness are always there in each of us.” “You have two gardens: your own garden and that of your beloved.” “We have to learn the art of creating happiness.”
There’s a massive audience out there for this kind of goop. I’m sure it will bring loads of money into Plum Village. Which is fine. We all gotta make a living somehow. If I was able to churn out this kind of stuff, maybe I’d do it too. I’m not even kidding. If I could do that I might not have to run unsuccessful fundraisers to start a center.
I’m sure the book will make some people feel good. Maybe they’ll take Mr. Hanh’s advice and it’ll help their marriage and that will be nice. Maybe some people will find Mr. Hanh’s advice just makes them feel inadequate for not being able to see things that way and they’ll get a divorce instead, and that will be sad. You never know how someone’s gonna take what you write.
But it begs the question; What does a guy who has been celibate his entire life know about romance? Probably as much as I know about lifelong celibacy. Which is not to say you can’t know anything at all about stuff you’ve never done. Often you can know quite a bit. But whatever you know, you only know from a distance.
To be sure, there are often advantages to knowing things from a distance. Never having been caught up in the emotional heat of a romantic relationship may give Mr. Hanh a unique and useful perspective. Yet there’s nothing in the introduction that indicates Mr. Hanh is offering his advice from that standpoint.
On the contrary, it makes me think of that line from David Bowie’s song Space Oddity, “The papers want to know whose shirts you wear.” The song is about an astronaut named Major Tom. Instead of asking him about outer space, the press back down on the ground asks inane questions about shirts. As if, by virtue of being famous, one suddenly becomes an expert on everything.
Just like Major Tom, Thich Naht Hanh is a big star because he is very good at one really specific thing. And that’s what we do with big stars who are experts at their chosen thing. We want to know whose shirts they wear. As if the key to their achievements is their shirt. I’m wearing an Underdog T-shirt today, in case you were wondering. Try wearing one and you too may become a minor writer about Buddhism!
In the previous installment of this blog I wrote about how I’d never done a 90-day meditation retreat. Elsewhere I’ve written that I’ve never committed to full-time monastic practice. The closest I’ve come so far has been 6 weeks at Tassajara and even that was during their summer guest season rather than during a meditation intensive. I spent more time serving food to rich people than meditating.
My teacher, Nishijima Roshi, had a very different view of what being a monk means than Thich Naht Hanh does. “Monks and nuns in the Plum Village tradition are celibate and make a life-long commitment to the community,” says the Plum Village website.
Yet Nishijima Roshi said that retreats lasting more than three days removed a person too much from what he called “daily life” and strongly advised his monks against participating in such practices, let alone making lifelong commitments to monastic communities. Instead, he wanted his monks to integrate their practice fully into their daily lives in the work-a-day world. I remember him being very displeased when a student of his announced he intended to devote his life to running a Buddhist center.
Nishijima’s was such a very different way of defining what a monk is that I still wonder if it’s even proper to call myself a monk. I do call myself a monk sometimes because I believe in Nishijima’s approach. Yet I hesitate because I know that using the word “monk” to describe myself might give people the idea that I’ve got a very different history than I actually do. Which is why I write so much on this blog and in my books about what I’ve actually done, the jobs I’ve held, the romances I’ve been involved with and all that.
In the comments section to my previous post, “french-roast” wrote about his experiences in 25 years of doing lots of long Zen meditation intensives. He spoke of the states of bliss that developed in those retreats and said, “But there is also something ‘wrong’ with this ‘state’ of bliss; you cannot allow this ‘state’ to be disrupted, and can be very nasty if someone comes around disrupting you, quite fast you can burst into anger.”
That, I think, is why Nishijima cautioned his monks against long-term practice. It’s my observation that the longer you cloister yourself away from “daily life” the harder it is to make the transition back. Of course I make this observation the way Thich Naht Hanh makes observations about romantic relationships, as an outsider.
Even so, I’ve seen this kind of stuff happen again and again when I’ve visited Zen places all over the world. You always have to transition back into the so-called “real world.” Even people who try to maintain lifelong monastic commitments can’t completely avoid encountering the “real world.”
To me, this is highly significant. I mean spiritually significant. Cosmically significant. To me, it says that my (our) real work is in that so-called “real world” — false and deluded as it so often is. To get all super spiritual is to shirk our real duty. Nishijima described one person he knew of who did that as “gleefully fleeing from reality.”
What I see with people who spend too much time in monastic settings is that they can get really blissed out and seem kind of cosmic and spacey, maybe even happy in a sort of goofy, glassy-eyed way. But at the same time, the more bliss-y and “spiritual” they get, the softer, weaker and gooey-er they seem to get in the areas of dealing with normal life. It’s like what happens to our feet in modern cultures.
When I lived in Africa as a child I knew lots of Africans who went shoeless pretty much all the time. Their feet were tougher than shoe leather. We more modern folks (for want of a better term) have very sensitive soft feet. Whereas those Africans I knew could walk across broken glass without much trouble, we can’t even stand to step on a pebble because we’re too sensitive.
This is fine as long as you can always wear shoes. And we’ve built up a society where that’s possible. So it’s not a major issue. But we have not built up a world yet where the kind of overall super sensitivity — both physical and emotional — one develops in a cloistered monastic setting is possible outside the confines of a monastery (or sometimes even inside). So people who spend too much time in such settings can become too weak to survive without tremendous help from the rest of us.
That, I think, can become a serious problem. The monastic can end up being a burden on society. Perhaps s/he can also contribute and thus make up for it. But not everyone who becomes a monastic is also able to translate that experience into something useful to others. If they can’t, they may end up as just a very blissed out drain on the rest of us. In which case I don’t see being a monk as that much more beneficial to society than being a strung-out heroin addict surviving on public assistance while refusing to give up smack.
Sure, such a person is a little bit more beneficial than a junkie, but not by much as far as I can see. The real point of monastic life, in my outsider opinion, is to leave monastic life.
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Registration is now OPEN for our Spring Zen & Yoga Retreat March 18-20, 2016 at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Mt. Baldy, California
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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!
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I’ve got a new book coming out soon! Stay up to date on its release schedule, my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page!
February 28, 2016 Houston, Texas Houston Zen Center
March 5-6, 2016 Austin, Texas Austin Zen Center
March 9, 2016 El Paso, Texas Eloise Coffeeshop/Bar 7:00pm
March 18-20, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California SPRING ZEN & YOGA RETREAT
March 25, 2016 Venice, California Mystic Journey Bookstore 7:00pm
April 8, 2016 San Francisco, California San Francisco Zen Center
April 22, 2016 New York, New York Interdependence Project
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat
September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England
September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat
October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab
October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany Lecture
October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany 2-Day Retreat
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
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One of the main ways I make money when I’m not blissing out is through your donations to this blog. I won’t get any of the recent Angel City Zen Center fundraiser money. I appreciate your on-going support!