Flexible Zen Author Tim Ward speaks to Buddhism of today

T im Ward may have spent the last 20 years engrossed in Buddhism and writing extensively on the subject, but he’ll be the first one to quote the Buddha in saying “trust only what your own experiences show you.”

By Danielle Pope

T im Ward may have spent the last 20 years engrossed in Buddhism and writing extensively on the subject, but he’ll be the first one to quote the Buddha in saying “trust only what your own experiences show you.”

Yet Ward, the Canadian journalist who penned the book What the Buddha Never Taught, will be making a special appearance in Victoria on Friday, Feb. 11, to chat about the re-release of his book, which has become one of the most popular Buddhist books with a North American spin.

“Buddhism sees that, by running after things in life, you cause your own suffering. The message, which we have to arrive at on our own, is to stop following all the distractions and just be with the present moment,” Ward says.

Dissatisfaction of the mind is something any North American consumerist is eerily intimate with. These days, it’s hard to picture a moment we aren’t preoccupied with our to-do lists and mental taxes. But does that mean we shouldn’t have goals? No. Ward emphasizes that Buddhist ideas as they are found in monasteries are not the same as those we can enact in our everyday lives.

The North American translation of Buddhism must be different in order to stay relevant to our culture, he says. And that’s what is keeping his non-fiction read so popular.

“Introducing Buddhism to North America is like finding a mosquito frozen in Jurassic amber — all the secrets have been there all along, but we’re still trying to figure out where to look,” says Ward.

The book was first published in 1990, after Ward spent time at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. Since then, over 50,000 copies of the book have been sold, and some Buddhism courses in the U.S. even list it as recommended reading. The book was re-released in 2010, in an effort to reiterate its message to a hungry audience.

Why so popular, even today? While Buddhism is relatively new to North America, Ward believes we’re still looking for something that hasn’t yet been realized — at least on our continent.

Ward’s tale takes the reader on his adventures through Thailand where he is surprised to be faced with bureaucracy, drudgery and dogmatic laws. As a Westerner, he isn’t fully ready to embrace a life of rising at 3 a.m., chanting, meditating until his legs are asleep, walking barefoot on gravel roads and eating only once a day. But he does come away with some heavy lessons: the power of self-control, the redemptive nature of laughter, and the fact that some trials are just plain hard.

“One of the biggest things that changed for me while working on the book was my view of nature. North Americans have a very antagonistic view of the natural world, but a monastery rule is ‘do not kill any living thing’,” Ward says, commenting on the bugs, vermin and serpents that live in those parts of Thailand. “This requires a lot of focus, but you realize these creatures are not out to get you.”

Where that philosophy ties into Buddhism is that our minds create our own reality, he says.

If you see the world as hostile, that’s what it will become. If you see the world as benign, but protective of itself, one experiences a whole different world.

What the Buddha Never Taught has been criticized for needing a sharp edit to reduce redundant scenes, already-reached realizations and a few technical and spelling inaccuracies that have Eastern experts clenching their teeth. Ward himself said he would be tempted to rewrite the entire story if allowed, but with the exception of a few language tighten-ups, the book was left largely untouched.

“I do believe the message is still as important today: we need Buddhism in our consumerist culture,” he says. “Look at the world — our minds and our environment depend on us doing something different.”

So what is it, exactly, that the Buddha missed? You’ll have to read the book to find out. M

Tim Ward will be speaking for free on Feb. 11, from 1:30 p.m. to 2:20 p.m. at UVic’s David Strong Building, Room C116. Then, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Metchosin’s Pearson College Max Bell Hall.

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