Vancouver Sun: Tim Ward, author of What the Buddha Never Taught, says young adults should spend time learning what is meaningful to them alone
If you’re looking for the meaning of life, you’ll benefit from seeking it out yourself, said author Tim Ward, who spent time in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand in the 1980s.
“I think it’s really valuable for everybody, preferably in their 20s, to really come up against the question, ‘Where does meaning reside,’ ” Ward said. “I think that there is an answer, and that is that part of what it is to be human is to generate meaning.
Ward wrote about his experiences in What the Buddha Never Taught, which has just been released in a special 20th anniversary edition with a foreword by Canadian anthropologist and author Wade Davis.
“One of the things I look at with regret in our current society is that so many of those meanings are given to kids, they sort of just jump onto meanings without having to feel what meaninglessness is like,” Ward said. “They want a career where they will make a lot of money, so they can live in a nice house and drive a big car because that’s what successful people do. That makes me cry and tear out what last bit of hair I’ve got. Where’s your struggle to find the meaning that’s in your bones?
“If anything, that’s my hope for this book on its 20th anniversary that it will encourage younger readers to do that fighting for the meaning in their life, and not accept the values that are given to them.”
Ward, 52, lived in Vancouver for four years while completing a degree in philosophy at the University of B.C. in the early ’80s.
He’ll be in Vancouver for a pair of appearances this month.
“I love going back to Vancouver. UBC is kind of like a great, big family that I don’t get to see very often, and it just really thrills me to go back and be part of campus life again,” he said.
After UBC he travelled to Thailand and spent time in a Buddhist monastery, living life based on the rules of Buddhism.
His experiences practicing meditation, eating just one meal a day and learning to live alongside wild animals became the basis for this book.
“The time I spent among Buddhists really changed my view of the world, and my view of what’s important in my own life,” he said. “This is not a devotional book, it’s meant to be a journalistic account of what happened to myself and others while I was there, including the absurdities and the foibles and the institutional problems that you get when you try to run a community based on Buddhist principles.”
He says one of the key experiences for him was learning to live with creatures that we in the west tend to think of as vermin: tarantulas, scorpions, cobras.
“There’s one passage in the book where I describe walking along a path with a load of laundry and a king Cobra rears right up in front of me,” he said. “I did what we’re taught to do, be very, very calm, and the snake got that and it kept going down the path and left me alone. That was a key moment of realizing that nature was not out to get me.”
He said this experience changed him; he no longer saw the world as out to get him.
“Where this really counts is in the Buddhist view, the entire world of your experience is a creation of your mind.
“Whatever is out there in the world is in a sense a reflection of your inner self,” he said.
“If you see the world as out to get you, you are a house divided against yourself. A kind of inner hatred, loathing, mistrust is taking place within you when you have that attitude against nature.”
Today, he works as a consultant for an international development organization, which sends him to Asia several times a year, but he’s never been back to the monastery where he lived in 1985, when he was 26 and seeking meaning in his life.
He still practises meditation on a daily basis, saying he particularly enjoys Tai Chi, because it is meditation in movement. He was even doing it while we were speaking on the phone.
“I find meditation in movement an easier way to drop into your body and change your mind from left brain thinking to right brain thinking,” Ward said. “I make sure to do that at least once a day, even for just a few minutes, to make this shift into this calmer, silent part of my brain.
“I do this to remind myself that I am not my thoughts. When you can step outside of that, you can immediately feel calm and relaxed no matter how many things might go on in your life that North Americans would say were stress.”
He says dissatisfaction is a natural state of the human mind and that people are always striving for a new job or to get more money, a better car, better friends or a better relationship.
“When we get these things we may feel a moment of relief, but pretty soon our brains find a way to be dissatisfied again,” he said. “When you see that that’s the human condition, rather than try to change your life, you can just try to be with that, and enjoy the life that you’ve got.
“But, too much of that can be a bad thing. There are kinds of dissatisfaction that I think are important to pay attention to.”
He cites the situation in Tunisia and his first marriage as examples of where it’s good to pay attention to dissatisfaction.
Today, he lives near Washington, D.C., with his second wife and he has a 20-year-old son from his first marriage.
He says that although Buddhists might not agree, his connection to his son makes him more concerned about global warming and the future of the planet.
“Every parent gets this,” he said. “When you’re connected to your kids, what happens in 50 or 100 years matters way more. When you’ve got kids you can’t help but be concerned about the future.”
He’s hesitant to say what it is that the Buddha never taught, saying it is the key to his book.
“The heart of Buddhism is asking what is the ego, what is the self? Is it something that in the west we see as a great thing, or is it something that is a fault in human nature, which if only we could get rid of it, we would be happy,” he said.
Ward is writing a new book, Zombies on Kilimanjaro, which asks how to balance the blessings of the ego with its curses.
” I try to take a middle way on this. I think that although the ego may be a cause of a lot of problems, it is a part of our human nature,” he said. “I think Buddhism doesn’t give a satisfactory answer to why we have an ego if it’s something we need to remove.”
Ward is the author of five books, including three spiritual travel and adventures based on his six years living in Asia.
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