The Monk and the Householder

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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9 thoughts on “The Monk and the Householder

  1. I loved those anecdotes. My favorite was the one about the guy who went to talk to the Buddha after his father died and insisted on doing a ritual so his father would go to heaven.


    • I loved them too. I was trying to store them up in my memory. Was that the one involving pebbles and ghee and an earthen vesseL? I also loved the one about the new widow and her quest for a sesame seed. And the non-parable part when he talked about the Board’s reaction when he announced he wanted to run free retreats — free food, free accommodation — in the middle of an Indian city full of starving people, and what they said when he proposed the same for the West.


      • Yes, that’s the one.

        FYI, I got the entire set of discourses on tape. I called the centre and asked them if it was possible. They put me in touch with a couple who provided the tapes but not for sale (i.e., contribution, just like the sessions). You could probably get copies that way in Melbourne as well.


      • They’ve gotten a bit more organised; at the end of the retreat they gave us a list of book and tapes we could buy for a small amount. I’ve been tossing up whether to buy the discourses or even the chants, which I never thought I’d want to buy. Either way, it’d be lovely to hear his beautiful voice again too.


      • I think now offers mp3’s of the morning chantings for a donation. I listen to the 10 day course morning chanting during my morning sits. And the hindi chantings on my walk to work.

        The discourse stories are in the book The Art of Living, also available on the Pariyatti website.


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