2 April 2008

Letter From a Monk

December 31, 1966
Calcutta, India

Dear Steven Michael,

My congratulations to you on the happy event of your birth. Though you have received prior attention from relations less distant, and shall certainly receive future attention from others (particularly, you will find, from those who want to convince you that your happiness is dependent upon owning their product), my congratulations are sent to you as an uncle's to his first nephew. As such, I await the day when you will be able to reply.

It's fitting, perhaps, that this letter, written at the end of a year eventful for both of us, should be sandwiched between the messages of others, for your birth was similarly sandwiched between two other events. The day following it was the second wedding anniversary of your parents (and I hope you will give them my congratulations), while the day preceding it was the day I was ordained as a monk of the Buddhist Order -- also a sort of birth, if you care to look at it that way.

I have no concern for your future success, Stevie (is that what you will be called?), for I know that that will be difficult enough for you to avoid. My concern, and what I shall be watching for, has not to do with what you will make of yourself, but of what you will not make of yourself, for this must be a guideline to life in your America. In a country where everything is ready-made, pre-cooked, pre-tested, and pre-decided, I caution you against being pre-pared. Keep your skin to yourself, both physical and mental, and you will be better able to avoid that complex of naturally and artificially produced desires that carries with it, at least, those vague fumes of dissatisfaction that rise from the sanitary corners of every American household. Don't allow yourself to be made to admire and seek that which is most ephemeral and thus you will remove yourself from that sphere of ephemerality also. Ignore the pleas that to possess more -- material, status, fame, etc. -- is the only way to be happy, for you and I know that this isn't even one of the ways. He is richer who needs less. Don't be duped. Don't be committed. It makes little difference whether you are committed to an office, a factory, or a prison. None of them are of use, except to kill time. As if you could kill time without injuring eternity (not to mention yourself)!

Live a life that is praiseworthy, not merely praised. Remember that there is no quantity of things that can be possessed that can bring about a real and stable satisfaction. The only way to that lies within us, and we know -- don't we? -- that desire (one of the dominant factors on which American civilization literally depends), which arises from ignorance, is the source of that dissatisfaction you/we see everywhere around us, but which you -- and I -- know how to avoid.

Finally, question most closely those ideas which are most frequently and insistently presented to you.

I introduce myself to you with this subject because of my own present happiness, and because that happiness is the most basic thing that can be achieved. Since I've spent all my years before your birth in discovering its source, I wished to inform you at once: You can achieve happiness to no greater degree than you can extinguish ignorance, craving and egotism.

Now, with the completion of this little lecture, and before the completion of this little aerogramme, let me offer you an exchange. If you'll ask your parents to send me a photo of you I shall, in return, send you a photo of myself as a monk. My robes will be saffron-color rather than white and a bit larger than your diapers, but of the same material, of the same squarish shape, and for the same purpose. We are, I expect, equally bald. All of us, then, begin in the same Order.

May your achievements in that Order be of a high degree.

With fondness and hope,
from your uncle, Bob

No comments: