I’m writing to you from Plum Village, a monastery in the south of France founded by a Vietnamese Buddhist called Thich Nhat Hanh. If you’re reading this in my voice and had trouble pronouncing what you just read, just say Tick Not Hon in an American accent. Related note: yes, Americans, you do have accents. And when I say ‘writing’ I mean this literally; I’m sitting in the corner of a stone building opposite a sleeping dog with a notepad and a pen writing this all down before dinnertime begins in one hour. I intended to write this in the gap after lunch, but I ended up climbing a tree and eating figs off its branches. That’s kinda how things go here. I asked one of the monks today, “what’s your favourite moment of your days here?” and he chirped back, “the present moment!”
This morning I was fortunate to participate in the recitation of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing. Essentially these are the Ten Commandments of Plum Village, except there are more of them – they didn’t get lazy and stop at ten like in that rubbish Bible =) Plus at no point do they mention oxen, so two-nil to the Lotus Master. (I imagine that’d be the Buddha’s pro wrestling name. I’m now having loads of fun imagining names of his special moves – the Lotus Palm, I think, is the best I’ve come up with so far. See how easily our minds are distracted from our task? Mindfulness, Alex, mindfulness …)
The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are not moral directives, but are more akin to Aristotle’s virtues – to explain briefly, a bloke from Greece called Aristotle tried in the early days of thoughtful civilisation to come up with an objective summation of morality by dividing human traits into virtues and vices and, you know what, Google it, it’s not important. Here, they include things like Freedom Of Thought, Awareness Of Suffering, Reverence For Life and Non-Attachment To Views. It’s essentially a list of community values for the monks of the monastery. Anyway, we went for a walking meditation just before lunch and I started thinking about the internet, because as you may have gathered, my life has been so drastically affected by the internet that I ended up at a fucking monastery, bowing to each bowl of rice I’m about to eat before I eat it. Do you know how hard it is to eat rice with chopsticks? I’m digressing again – what I thought about with regards to the internet is that it doesn’t have any common values. The only thing close to it that is in any way all-encompassing are the Terms of Service for websites like YouTube, but “be at least thirteen and don’t upload porn or TV” is hardly an extensive moral framework to base our ethical lives around. It made me realise that a set of community values is what makes a community what it is; communities can’t really exist meaningfully without them. This is why, I think, things like hashtags and subreddits (and on YouTube, communities like the nerdfighters and the Hopefuls) continue to thrive; they know their values (or, in the case of some hashtags, the common acceptance of the lack of them). For anyone participating in an online community, or trying to strengthen or rebuild one, establishing (or perhaps reaffirming) the values of the collective would be beneficial to all who participate in it. Are you part of a community that believes in neutrality, or in bias towards the victims and alleged victims of misconduct, or in bias towards those with power, or towards those you are most familiar with? Do you believe in rehabilitation, forgiveness, or exile, for those accused of causing such misconduct, or should such things be judged case-by-case? Is punishment up to the accuser, the accused, or the community as a whole to decide – if, that is, punishment is even necessary?
These questions, and questions like them, are ones I think communities should be trying to come together to answer, because establishing those common values is what helps people realise what their communities are really based on. Some would have you believe these answers are clear-cut, in which case the process shouldn’t take you very long at all, but if this were able to happen without moral righteousness and with a willingness to learn from and be kind to everyone involved, I think we would all find the way forward much more pleasantly.
I have a responsibility in that these words will reach many people, and my hope is that a community of sorts will form for the people on my mailing list. I’m looking forward to thinking of new ways to bring us all together to do cool things (and I already have some ideas on how to do so); what you and I (and many others like us) have in common are that we’re still here, and in the weeks and months to come I hope I can cultivate that into something new and fun for us all =) (Forgive me for sounding so zen. I’m in a monastery. If it gives you any perspective, I found out today that one of the monks has Instagram. The fucking monk has Instagram. I don’t even have Instagram. This is a Buddhist in brown robes with a shaved head whose most precious possession is the bowl he eats from, and I’ve never felt so out of touch in my life as I did hearing the words “iOS 8 is so awesome!” coming from his peaceful mouth.)
When I first began exploring the internet eight years ago (with no values of any meaning to speak of), my subscriber count was zero, as it is for everyone. Now, as I begin anew, I have a mailing list of over three thousand people, so already I have a head-start on my last endeavour =) Who knows what the next eight years will bring?
A monk is ringing a large bell in the main square, which means dinner is served! Time to go. I believe I have some rice to bow at.
Here’s to beginning again, again.
NOTE: The above was written two months ago for you, more-or-less exactly as it’s been presented above. I stumbled upon it today in a notebook of mine, so I thought I’d share it =) It’s especially relevant today because the founder of Plum Village – the aforementioned 88-year-old Thich Nhat Hanh – had a brain haemorrhage earlier today and is in a state sensitively described by the other monks since as ‘fragile’, so it felt like a good time to put these words out there, coming as they did from such a peaceful place.
I’ll get in touch soon and let you know how my book’s doing but I wanted to say thank you in the meantime to everyone who’s so far given me the courtesy of reading or listening to my words (and apologies to anyone still waiting for my book, which I’m packing and shipping by hand so it’s taking a while!). I’ve sold two and a half thousand books, and my smile is longer than the District line!