Many philosophers and scientists, including Einstein, have pointed out that who we believe ourselves to be is a fiction. We think of ourselves as having a solid body with a fixed “character”, and as being separate from all other beings. However, this “I” we’re so in love with, so zealous in service of, is a delusion and the root of all unhappiness.
On the retreat I recently attended we were entertained each night by a DVD of a discourse given by the brilliant S N Goenka, the man who brought Vipassana to the world. Goenkaji is a man of rare drollery and wit, and among the cornucopia of stories and anecdotes we enjoyed my favourite concerned a monk navigating his way through the shoals of “I” and “mine”.
This is my re-creation of Goenkaji’s story.
Some years ago, when Goenkaji was leading a retreat in India, a Tibetan monk who was the head of a particular order, joined the retreat.
During retreats, the teacher or assistant teachers make themselves available for a period each day to answer any questions participants may have. The monk approached Goenkaji and requested an extra-long question time of 30 minutes. Now, Goenkaji was reluctant to grant the additional time because he feared the monk wanted to discuss various philosophical points with him and Goenkaji was opposed to philosophy for philosophy’s sake. So he told the monk he wasn’t interested.
The monk assured him, “No, no, I don’t want to discuss philosophical points with you. I only want to discuss the technique.”
So Goenkaji agreed and the interview began. Sure enough, after discussing questions of technique for a few minutes, the monk began to steer the conversation in another direction. Only it wasn’t questions of philosophy he wanted to discuss. Instead, he wanted Goenkaji to speak on his behalf to an important person whom he felt would be impressed by Goenkaji’s fame.
The monk started his petition in earnest.
“Your monastery is severely threatened”, he told Goenkaji. “If you don’t speak to X and have him save your monastery, your monks will certainly suffer and be sent away.”
Goenkaji was confused.
“My monastery?” he protested to the monk, “my monks?
“Yes, you must save them,” said the monk.
“Good God, man, what are you talking about?” Goenkaji asked the monk, mystified. “I do not have a monastery. Can’t you see that I am a householder?”
“What more colossal evidence can I provide than this?” he said, drawing large circles in the air in the direction of his wife sitting beside him with characteristic phlegm, and generally seen in the DVDs scratching her nose or looking askance at her husband.
A little while later, Goenkaji said, the penny dropped and he understood what the monk was about.
“I remembered something about the people of Tibet and in particular the order of which the monk was a member,” he said. “In that country and that order the concept of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ are so disagreeable and potentially dangerous the use of the terms is forbidden”.
Thus, he divined that the poor monk was obliged to perform certain circumlocutions, and because he couldn’t say “my monastery”, “my monks”, had settled on “your monastery”, “your monks”.
Goenkaji didn’t reveal if his or his monastery was saved.
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