Aquabuddhism is a joke. But it is not just a joke.
But before defining aquabuddhism, let's deal with a more basic question: what is Buddhism?
I'm no Zen master, Tibetan lama or any other kind of Buddhist teacher, so what I'm about to say comes with a health warning. But here goes anyway.
The Buddha said, "I teach one thing and one only: that is suffering and the end of suffering." The point of Buddhism, therefore, is to bring about an end to suffering. It's as simple as that. But how?
Conventional approaches aim to end our suffering by satisfying our desires. The Buddhist approach, however, aims not to satisfy but to tame our desires.
The way to tame our desires is fleshed out in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. I'll leave their exposition to someone more able (or Google!). Essentially though - and I here I must re-emphasize the health warning, above - it boils down to three things:
training our minds; and
learning to see the world as it really is.
On his deathbed the Buddha said, “Impermanent are all compounded things, strive on heedfully.”
Not even mountains last forever. They were not always there; they arose as land masses pushed together. And in the distant future they will disappear. The trouble with mountains, though, is that their pace of change is too slow for us to perceive.
To ‘KNOW’ (as opposed to merely ‘know’) impermanence we need look no further than water. Water’s impermanence is obvious; it is always in flux. As Heraclitus observed, “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” Water is a speeded-up example of the impermanence that is characteristic of all things.
As a corollary of water's 'extreme impermanence' it is also ungraspable. Buddhism warns us that grasping leads to suffering. Water teaches us that grasping, as well as being inadvisable, is not really possible; have you tried grasping water? If grasping makes us unhappy and is also impossible, well, why bother trying?
But as I say, I’m no Buddhist teacher, so I’ll hand you over to the founder of Aquabuddhism, Fish Nhat Hanh. This is an interview I conducted with him in June 2011.
Warning: Not everything you are about to read is entirely true.
A little over a year ago no one had heard of aquabuddhism. That all changed with the breakdown of Katie Price's latest marriage to daytime television presenter and gardener, Alan Titchmarsh. He had tried to drown her during an aquabuddhist ceremony, so the lurid stories splashed across the tabloids' front pages claimed. Since then aquabuddhism has seldom been out of the headlines and hardly a week passes without news of at least one new celebrity joining the ranks of the aquabuddhists. Only last week rumours emerged of Bruce Forsyth, David Walliams and Lady Gaga having been spotted enacting a bizarre watery ritual in a remote mountain rockpool in Skye.
But what is aquabuddhism? What do its adherents do and why do they do it? I caught up with founder of the movement, Fish Nhat Hanh, to find out.
We had arranged to meet at a secret location on the County Down coast, in Northern Ireland. "Let's swim before we talk," he suggested. A few minutes later, as I stood on a boulder wearing only a pair of Speedos, a rubber hat and goggles with the frigid sea at my feet, I wondered why I had been so easily swayed. At Fish's instruction, I leapt off the boulder. In mid-air I suddenly decided this had not been one of my better ideas, but by then it was too late. Splash! When I returned to the surface, gasping from the shock of the cold, I tried to climb out. But Fish, gently but firmly, held my shoulder and said, "Wait. Give it a chance. You will enjoy it." And do you know what? He was right!
Afterwards, over a cup of tea in the sunshine, we spoke.
Patrick: So, Fish, what is aquabuddhism?
Fish: It is a form of Buddhism that emerged from the Zen tradition. The central idea is that we allow water to teach us the dharma, the wisdom of the Buddha. Water really is a wonderful teacher.
Patrick: Go on.
Fish: Well, let us first think about getting into the water. Oh, by the way, I really should have checked with you that you could swim before telling you to jump in. Apologies.
Patrick: Oh, don't worry about it.
Fish: So, let me ask you how you felt as you jumped off the rock into the water. How did the rock seem? How did the water seem, before you entered it?
Patrick: Mmm, well, the rock seemed safe, secure and the water seemed. . .
Fish: This is an illusion. The rock was not safe, not secure. The rock was not always there and in the future it will crumble into the sea. We tend to go through our lives putting our trust in things that are like rocks: relationships, jobs, good health, religions. We think that these things give us security. They do not. None of these things last. Perhaps they erode very gradually or perhaps they fail suddenly, like an avalanche. We cannot be happy while we cling to insecure temporary things. These things provide no security.
Patrick: Okay, I think I understand. But surely the water provided even less security.
Fish: Mmm, yes, Patrick. I understand why you say this. But let's think about this a little more. As you entered the water what did you feel?
Fish: Apart from cold.
Patrick: Well, I wondered how deep it was. I didn't touch the bottom, so I didn't feel anything solid, just the water.
Believe it or not, Fish is able to swim in his ceremonial robes. In the water he moves with the languid grace of a very large black Siamese fighting fish.
Fish: Yes, Patrick. You left a place of apparent solidity, solid rock beneath your feet and also you could have held onto features in the rock if you had wanted to, and you entered a place where nothing was solid. You let go and jumped in. Once in the water there was nowhere solid for you to stand; there was nothing solid to hold onto. Just the water. This is much closer to what reality is really like. We think we are on solid ground, but we are deceived. We are in a sea. Everything is in flux. A scary thought, perhaps, until we realise how the body behaves in water. You jumped in, you went below the surface, and then. . ?
Patrick: I resurfaced?
Fish: Exactly! People float! What a wonderful discovery! Here we are in the water, without any security, the water slips beneath our feet and between our fingers, and yet we float. Millions of water molecules hold us afloat, but think about this. At the beginning of your swim, how many of the molecules holding you afloat were still holding you up at the end of your swim? None! Not one! Each and every one of the molecules was unreliable and completely indifferent to you. But as one molecule departed, another arrived, unannounced, to take its place. This is our life. Every individual thing in our environment is completely unreliable, but that doesn't matter. As one molecule leaves, another takes its place. If we learn not to grasp we can be happy and secure, knowing that the conditions we need to stay afloat are always around us. Does this make any sense?
Patrick: Yes, well, mmm. . .
Fish: Also, it may be helpful to think about the activity of swimming. Is water a barrier that you must break through by beating it with your arms and kicking it with your legs? Or is it a gentle kind thing that holds you up and lets you glide along joyfully?
Patrick: A barrier, unfortunately, I think in my case.
Fish: Okay, for now that is maybe how things are. But you can learn. We can all learn. Who is the better swimmer: the one with the most powerful stroke or the most streamlined one? If we learn to be streamlined as we swim through life little strength is required and we move with a feeling of freedom.
Patrick: Well, I think I'm going to need some intensive coaching.
Fish: Well, all that is available. But there is no substitute for getting into the water and letting the water teach you directly. And here's another thing the water can teach. Swimming, even efficient streamlined swimming, requires some effort. Now some people think that Buddhists are very passive people who just accept whatever is thrown at them, never, for example, opposing wrongdoing. This is quite wrong but, in a way, understandable. Yes, we let go of everything, all those things that make false promises of security. But that's not the end of it. We let go, but we also jump in. We engage with the world, as we engage with the water, energetically and joyfully but without grasping it.
Patrick: Oh, I see.
Fish: And another thing. Think about your own body. So much liquid inside! You are in the sea, but the sea is also inside you! Oh, but perhaps this is enough for today. Why don't we jump back in and swim over to that big rock?
Later, as I bade farewell to Fish, I had to admit, I was beginning to see the appeal of aquabuddhism. Aquabuddhist centres are springing up throughout the country so, if you're interested in finding out more, you shouldn't have to travel too far. The only question is: will you attain nirvana before the onset of hypothermia?
I won't go into all that here, but I would like to explain why taming, rather than satisfying, our desires is a more sustainable way to end suffering and achieve lasting happiness. There are at least two reasons:
as Mick Jagger sang, you can't always get what you want; and
even if you do, unless you train your mind, you'll probably find that your satisfaction is short-lived because before long you'll have set your heart on new desires. There is a danger, therefore, of imprisoning yourself on a treadmill with happiness always just out of reach.