A Clean Room

From time to time I read Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I didn’t read Walden as a teenager, I didn’t read it in high school; it was never assigned in the school I went to. I didn’t really read it in college. I didn’t read it till I got to graduate school, and in graduate school I was doing a course in American Lit, the first half—they divided it into halves. They were doing a seminar with a professor, and it was in—I think I was getting my Master’s—and I encountered Walden by Henry David Thoreau and I read it, and it had a great effect on me. I immediately got in my car and took a friend and drove up to the lake, to Walden Pond, and it was about this time of year, March. It was very cold. I brought a sleeping bag and I hiked in after dark, which you’re not supposed to do, to approximately where Henry’s house had stood. They’ve located the foundation. If you’ve been up there, you might know the little sign and some stones marking where his little house once stood, and I spent the night there. It was freezing cold, and you could hear the traffic from 2A or whatever that is. But anyway, I woke up in the morning and of course Henry made this big deal about jumping into Walden Pond and how invigorating it was.

So here it is, it’s early March in Massachusetts, which is colder than early March in New York by about ten degrees. I think the ice had just thawed the day before I got there. But I was young and impressionable as I am now, and so I always wanted to try things. Having successfully evaded the security forces of the Massachusetts Police Department and spent the night there, I, at sunrise, got out of my freezing sleeping bag and went down and jumped into the water—because Henry talked about it and he made it sound really great. Obviously. He got me to do it. And it was very cold, as you might expect. Freezing I think is the word. I’ll never join one of those Polar Bear Clubs where people go bathing in arctic waters. And I stayed in for a second or two, and being, you know, a foolish individual, swam around a little bit, got out of the pond and went home after walking around the area a bit and things like that.

I read Walden once in a while. I don’t tend to go up to the pond. I go up once in a while. Once in a while life drags me up to that little hole in the ground called Walden Pond where you can see the boys and girls in the fall come to hang out there and neck, and in the summer they use one end of it as a beach, and in the winter it’s pretty quiet, pretty quiet. But I read the book once in a while—maybe less travel, mental travel. I read the book once in a while because it brings me back to an interesting place. I see things a little bit differently. I think we all see things a little bit differently, but it brings me back to a certain place, and it’s a place that I think of as keeping my room clean.

Henry Thoreau was very influenced by Emerson. Emerson was very verbose, a lot of ideas. Henry went out and did things. Emerson did too—a couple of Harvard boys. But Henry just reminds me of a place that I call keeping my room clean. It’s very important to keep your room clean. It’s a central theme for living, and it’s something that we can get away from, and the consciousness I feel that emanates from Thoreau, through his writings, is that consciousness. It’s a very pure, simple, extremely intelligent and intellectual awareness of how to keep one’s room clean.

The way you keep your room clean, the way you keep your life clean, is by not letting a lot of clutter in. You keep it simple. The more complicated you make it, the less clean it is. So Henry built a very small house because it was his belief that if you built a big house, you spent half your life cleaning it and maintaining it instead of enjoying it. And I think maybe that’s a good way to look at life sometimes. It’s necessary to keep our room very clean, and we get involved with a lot of ideas about everything that’s going to make life wonderful. But I think really, what’s necessary is just to keep one’s room clean.

I do that from time to time. I clean my room. I go through everything in the closets and throw most things away. If I’m not wearing it, why keep it? Throw it away. I go through books and throw things away. I throw away everything on a fairly regular basis that I’m not using. And then, every once in a while, I throw my room away and move to a different room.

Life is a room that we live in. Our minds are occupied with the moments that we spend in that room. And really, as Buddhists, our only task is to keep our room clean. If we do that, we’ve done everything. You can forget that, so that’s why I keep Henry—keep the book out and once in a while I pick it up, maybe once every two weeks, once a month, I read a couple pages, and it brings me back to that place. And then I look around at the complexity of what appears to be one’s life and I just look at it and realize that it could all be done a lot more simply, with a lot less “us” in it and a lot more life in it.

The Buddhist mindset seeks to eliminate the self. That is to say, what we want to experience is life, not self. And when there’s less self and more life, we’re very content, and when there’s more self and less life we’re quite unhappy. So we want to experience life, not self.

What prevents us from experiencing life is self, but what self is, essentially, is clutter. Self is clutter. Self is just a great deal of clutter, and the clutter in our lives is a reflection of the clutter in our minds. What else could it possibly be?

Buddhist monks, when they live in ashrams and in monasteries, Buddhist monasteries, they live in rooms. It depends on the monastery. You might share a room with a couple of monks, you might have one by yourself. I always got one by myself because I couldn’t stand the other monks. And well, I just, I have trouble with another person’s mind. If you don’t have one, if you’ve purified yourself to the point where you don’t think and you’re in a room with somebody else who still thinks, you think all their thoughts. And so, having gone through all the trouble to get rid of my thoughts, I didn’t see any point in sitting in a room with somebody else’s thoughts, particularly since I liked my thoughts better when I had thoughts.

So I always got a room in a monastery that was private. Sometimes, you know, you’re in a dormitory situation. That was fun, I liked all the guys, they were a lot of fun. They’re funny. Buddhist monks are funny people. All the ones I knew anyway in Tibet, Japan. And as a Buddhist monk, you don’t have a lot of possessions. You have a couple of things you wear, a few books, some writing materials, that’s about it. You might have a couple images of the Buddha. You might have a thangka—unless you’re a teaching monk. If you’re a teaching monk, you have all the paraphernalia of teaching, but you really don’t have a lot. But it’s amazing how you could still get your room completely cluttered. The lack of possessions does not imply a lack of clutter.

You can fill your room up with all your ideas. I mean, I walked into some rooms in the monastery that were so full, even though there was nothing in them—I’d walk in there, and there was a solitary Buddhist monk sitting in front of a meditation table. Not much of a table, actually—a little incense burning. Some of them didn’t even have writing materials. And there was nothing in the room, but the room was so crowded I had to get out right away for fear of being crushed to death by all the thoughts, all the people in that room. Everybody he knew or had ever met was in that room with him. He was carrying them around inside his mind—there were men in there, women in there, his parents, relatives. And there were all kinds of monsters in there. Whatever he feared was in the room. I could feel all these monsters. And there were all kinds of wonderful, beautiful things that he was seeking in his meditation, in his life, and they were all in the room too. Between the monsters and the angels and the relatives—I just couldn’t, you know, it’s like I was never good at parties.

I can throw a great party, but I don’t know how to go to one. I can throw a party because when you throw a party you just work all the time to make it a great party. But I could never go to a party because I wouldn’t know what to do. If I’d go to a party I’d immediately find the kitchen and start to serve food because I wouldn’t know what else to do. I’m never good at socializing. It doesn’t—I don’t understand it because, I don’t know, it’s just not my way. But I observe that most people do it and enjoy it and it’s a good thing. It just doesn’t happen to be an option on the menu that I was born with. So I tend to go to the kitchen. You also get to eat more there too—which seems to me the best part of a party anyway. Say what you will, if the food is good it’s a good party, and if it’s not, the party sucks.

So when I read Walden, it reminds me of a clean room. Because as I go through his thoughts, as I experience his mind, his mind is very clean, very clean. And I think it’s good to pay a lot of attention to cleaning our room. It’s something that we forget. Our room, the place we sleep, is really ourselves. The posters that we have up, the pictures, reflect us. Everything in that room is a part of us. We’re the ones who put it there. There are the things we see and there are the things we feel. And our rooms are always too cluttered. We have our whole past in our room. We have our whole future in our room. We have our whole present in our room. I just don’t know how we fit it all—so many things to fit in a room.

It’s good to clean your room and I like to do that. I like to clean my room. I like to simplify it because then I can see eternity. Whereas with all that clutter, there are so many guests at the party that after a while all you do is—it’s just smoky and noisy and people are talking about things that are consequential to them, I guess, but sometimes I would just—after serving food I would just go outside and look at the sky for a while because I like the way that feels. Again, I like parties. I throw great parties. Boy, do I throw a great party. No, really, I throw a really great party. I like having parties. But I don’t like having people in my mind. I don’t like having thoughts in my mind. If they’re there, I don’t know what to do, I mean, I don’t know how to talk to them.

So it seems to me that what Henry creates is a very simple house. His entire idea is that a simple house creates a simple life. A complex house, which we have to spend a lot of money on, causes us to go make a lot of money. And then we spend our whole life making money. Then we have to spend the money, and then we have to get things that have to be taken care of. What he is saying, in other words, is that everything is a reflection of one’s mind, which is, of course, a very Buddhist thought, Emersonian thought, Henry David Thoreau-ian thought. And it’s true. Everything’s a reflection of your mind.

The answer is not necessarily to get a small house or not to make a lot of money. The answer is to clean your room. And if your room is clean, that’s about that. We seek to do that as Buddhists when we meditate and when we breathe and when we live and when we talk and when we interact and when we’re alone. Because we like the way it feels when the room is very simple and very clean because there’s no clutter. It isn’t that we appreciate that there’s no clutter. No clutter opens the window so we can see outside and see eternity, which is very full and very beautiful. But if there’s too much clutter in your room, you can’t see the room anymore. You see the clutter, you see. If you’ve ever seen the mind in its immaculate state, in its perfect state, you really don’t want to have it all cluttered up because you just see all the clutter.

Now, I ask you, do you see your minds? I don’t think you see your minds. I think you see your thoughts, you see your desires, you see your relatives, friends, lovers, enemies, you see the monsters in your life, your fears, you see the beauty, the hope, your desires or what you hope the desires will bring. But I don’t think you see your mind. You think of the mind as the clutter. The mind is not the clutter. The clutter’s the posters on the wall. It’s the crowds that are in that room every day and every night. Wherever you go, your room is there. Your room is your mind. And you need to clean it on a regular basis.

I forget that sometimes, because, I don’t know, I just do. But when I pick up Henry, I’m reminded because it’s so obvious that his mind is so clean that it reminds me to just check and see how clean it is. How good it feels when you can see the stars, I mean, feel the stars. Oh, you can go outside and look at the stars. But you don’t see the stars. You probably haven’t seen the stars since you were quite young. Because when you see the stars you see them through your relatives and through your friends and through your hopes and through your fears and your ambitions and your desires and your frustrations. You see everything through that. It’s what we call aura. It’s your aura. You see everything through the aura. And after a while, after you’ve lived for a while, God, you pick up so many objects from your travels and you bring them back, you get so many things in your room after a while that you’re like the lady who had a thousand cats who stayed in her house. I can’t give you the punch line, it’s obscene. But—anyway. (Rama laughs.) I’ll let your imagination wander.

Your mind can get cluttered up by all kinds of things. You could be like that lady. Anyway, so yes—Henry David Thoreau kept a clean house. Wherever he went, it was clean. And you can see that that mind state he found, which is inside all of us—all mind states are inside all of us—you can find it. Walden is an advertisement, essentially, for that mindstate. He’s recommending it to you. That’s why he wrote the book. He’s saying, “Look at how I live, it’s very pleasant. You might enjoy this.” It’s like a review of a Club Med somewhere. Somebody said, “This is really great, I had a fabulous time, it was a great weekend. I go and come, I recommend it, and here are some thoughts I had on it.” Travel review. So Henry’s reviewing a place that he found. It’s not Walden Pond.

I went up there, and it’s a nice place. It’s a beach in the summer now, and there are a lot of people who hang out there in the fall when all the pretty autumnal colors are filling the trees. You see a lot of couples walking hand in hand, enjoying each other’s bodies. But it’s just a place. The water was cold and refreshing. Then I went home because I realized that he wasn’t writing about Walden Pond, he was writing about having a clean room. He was writing about when your mind is empty.

And once I was young and impressionable as I am now, and I went to Walden Pond and threw myself into the water because it seemed like a good thing to do. And it was cold. Like the mind. The mind is cold. It’s clear. It’s perfect. It has no background or foreground. It has no perception. It’s always been as it is. The mind has always existed. It’s eternal. Redwood trees mean nothing to the mind. They’re not that old. Mind is eternal. Your mind has always existed in one form or another. But you don’t see it because of the clutter.

The stars in the sky last for billions of years. That’s nothing to the mind, nothing. It’s an instant, a millisecond. The mind doesn’t even know time because it’s deathless and birthless. It shines radiantly forever. But we don’t see the shine because of the clutter. What a pity. Now of course we could say, “Well, who are we? I mean, I thought I was the mind. But if I can’t see the mind because of the clutter, am I someone else?” No, you’re the mind. The mind can’t see itself—isn’t that strange? Because of the clutter.

The mind can’t see itself. No, you’re the mind. Today, anyway, you’re the mind. In this conversation you’re the mind. So it’s necessary to get rid of the clutter. And anybody can do it if they want to.

I used to live in Buddhist monasteries and I finally had to leave them because they were just too cluttered for me. They were cluttered up with too many thoughts about Buddhism, too many thoughts, too many plans, dreams and schemes. They’re nice. I like those thoughts. I mean, I could spend eons in Buddhist monasteries. I love those types of thoughts. They’re very noble—spreading the dharma, sharing enlightenment with everyone, young monks, new monks, new middle-aged monks, old monks, talking about enlightenment, the samsara, the sangha. I love that stuff. That’s my world, it’s great. I love the guys. Guys are great. But it’s crowded. It’s filled with all these ideas about enlightenment, and those are nice ideas as they go—I’ll take them above all others—but ultimately there’s not much enlightenment in the monastery any more than a clean room exists at Walden Pond. It’s not the place, it’s the mind. That’s what you learn.

After a while we learn that the trappings of the monastery are not necessary. They’re good if you like trappings. It’s just decorator colors. If you like the decorator motif of the Buddhist mindset, then monasteries are great because that’s what you get. It’s like Disneyland; there are different rides. A monastery is just a ride, and there are different ones and they vary. But the better they are, the less they are. The better they are, the less self, the less crowded they are. It’s hard to find ones that are empty. I’ve been to a few that are empty. Actually I’ve been to some abandoned monasteries that were still quite crowded. They’re very filled with all the ideas of the beings that were once there. I guess they come back, maybe because they liked it so much. They come back—the souls come back and wander around there in between incarnations because they liked it there, they had good moments. There are good moments.

No, it doesn’t really matter where one is, as long as one is in a place that is happy for you, where the energy is optimum. What matters is life. It’s like Number 5 says [in the film Short Circuit], “Life is not a malfunction.” People begin to think after a while that life is a malfunction—“Oh, it’s painful, it’s difficult.” Not at all, not at all. That’s only because there’s too much clutter in the mind. Life is not a malfunction. Life is all there is and it exists forever. You can’t get away from it. If you run away from it, you’re running to it because that’s all that exists, and you’re—what’s running is life also. Life is not a malfunction. It’s beautiful. But if you do not see it that way, it’s simply because your room needs cleaning. If you clean up your room, it’ll look beautiful again.

I would say that in the practice of Buddhism you shouldn’t get too caught up in anything that isn’t fun. Enjoy it. But once in a while, even Buddhists clean their rooms. If they’re good Buddhists. They even clean Buddhism out sometimes. We go directly to life without “isms” and words and names. No thought. Clean mind. Clean room.