Back on the meditation retreat when I was a “poochaway” (like a volunteer retreat worker), we used to stay for three months at a time. The actual silent meditation retreats would last 10 days and there would be a gap between them for a week or so depending on the season. We would clean up and have odd jobs, admin, supplies etc whatever the teachers needed before 40 or so enthusiastic newbies bowled in. There was maybe 3-6 of us at a time from all over the world. The first three month stint I was very conscientious and well behaved and had a beautiful Australian girlfriend to keep me in line. By the time I had returned for the second three months I was back travelling alone and the group I was with just didn’t gel so well.
They were the driest of the dry, super focused and super serious and super duper intense. This bunch were determined to become enlightened by the end of the three months!
There was a problem though and that was me. Not normally known as a trouble maker these guys just asked for it. They had adopted some holier than thou approach and were critiquing everything from the teachings to the structure of the centre to the poor newbies.
Whenever they got on one with an opinion, I would deliberately adopt the opposite view (whether I believed it or not) and challenge them. This became fairly confrontational at times, much to my amusement and there was even tears. I ended up being reprimanded by the teachers and threatened to be kicked out.
In hindsight I realise that my approach probably needed some work ;) but the lesson in that stay was my interaction with those guys. I learnt that attachment and personal investment in any belief or opinion can cause great suffering. It wasn’t even a matter of right or wrong or better or worse, it was the identification with opinion that was at the root of the issue. One of the oldest parables in the Buddhist texts sums this up so well.
The parable went something like this:
In a distant village, a long time ago, there lived six blind men. One day the villagers announced, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”
They had never seen or felt an elephant before and so decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” And thus they went down to the village to touch and feel the elephant to learn what animal this was and they described it as follows:
“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.
“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” argued the second after touching the tail.
“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” the third man spouted after touching the trunk.
“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man feeling the ear.
“It is like a huge wall,” sounded the fifth man who groped the belly .
“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man with the tusk in his hand.
They all fell into heated argument as to who was right in describing the big beast, all sticking to their own perception. A wise sage happened to hear the argument, stopped and asked them “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.”
The wise man then calmly said, “Each one of you is correct; and each one of you is wrong. Because each one of you had only touched a part of the elephant’s body. Thus you only have a partial view of the animal. If you put your partial views together, you will get an idea of what an elephant looks like.”