Twenty years after its original publication, Tim Ward’s What the Buddha Never Taught has been reincarnated in an anniversary edition—and we’re all so lucky it’s back. This honest, humorous and irreverent memoir tells the story of Ward’s three months at Thailand’s Wat Pah Nanachat, the monastery for westerners founded by Ajahn Chah.
Ward, a young seeker and traveler, decided to become a pakhao, or precept holder—to wear white, shave his head and abide by the grueling monastery schedule. Rather than glorifying the monk’s life, Ward keeps it real. His lively voice spares the readers no details: from copious insects to constipation, from aching knees to TMI about monk’s undergarments, Ward pulls no punches.
And that is what makes this narrative so charming. He combines the dirty details: the endless leaf sweeping, ant-traffic clearing from water tanks, barefoot (ouch!) alms rounds, with his own ruminations about Buddhism. He talks a lot—endless philosophical discussions with his sometimes-annoying fellow monks and novices—as he grapples with Buddhist philosophy, expectations and his own hopes. (Sometimes I wanted to mindfully smack him and tell him to go meditate.)
If you are expecting details about meditation practice, they are scarce. The charm of this book lies in its record of Ward’s day-to-day exploits. As the abbot straightforwardly explains, we don’t teach meditation here; liberation comes through following the vinaya, or the monastic rules. Ward struggles with these rules but beneath it all and despite his skepticism, you can feel his love of the dharma. He is a true seeker, clearly wanting to understand and find awakening through this hard-core spiritual practice.
Having spent time myself in a monastery in Burma, I frequently laughed out loud with recognition. I too struggled with bugs, spiders, snakes, confusion, loneliness and dogma. It’s heartening to consider the universality of these challenges for Western practitioners. And I eagerly read each new misadventure. Twenty years later, this story is as fresh as ever.
Diana Winston is the author of Fully Present: The Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness (Da Capo, 2010), and is the director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.
From the Spring 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 30, No. 2)
© 2014 Diana Winston