Spiritual building masters of Durban

Master Lenny Govender’s teachings for spiritual benefit of glorious homeowners of Durban (2006)


There is a common misperception that Durban is a city of gross materialism, with everybody, White, Black, Indian or Coloured only interested in getting a newer and bigger luxury car or SUV than their neighbour.

But the last twenty-odd years have seen the flourishing of a new species of home-grown spiritual teachers – again of every race. This is a chronicle of my spiritual progress over the last few years, under the guidance of two of these home-grown teachers – Master Saul Watson and Master Lenny Govender.


Never since starting out on the spiritual path have I evaded hardship – in fact no challenge was ever too big for me. I had a penchant for choosing the most difficult masters in the most demanding schools. Not for me a comfortable North American Zen monastery. My experiences included three years in a Buddhist monastery near the Himalayas, where we would sit in meditation for sixteen hours a day, and where the pain in my knees, back and neck would often make me feel faint. In the winters the outside temperatures would go down to –40º Celsius. Inside the unheated monastery, the tea laced with rancid Yak butter and the semi-cooked barley paste would be the only defence against the drafts howling through the meditation hall. During my two year silent retreat in a Japanese Zen monastery my mind worked ceaselessly on the koan given to me by the Zen master: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”. Every time I thought I had found the right answer it turned out I hadn’t, and I would get a mighty whack from the Zen master’s stick. I won’t bore the reader with stories about my hallucinations while suffering from dysentery in a Thai forest monastery, or seeing my once proud frame reduced to 52 kilos after contracting cholera in a country tact requires me to be silent about.


To cut to the chase, after 18 years of rigorous spiritual training I started suffering – I now realize, older but wiser – from spiritual pride. I thought that steeled as I was, I was equal to the challenge of any spiritual practice available on the face of this earth. Not for me the delusion of thinking that life is stable, and predictable. I was like the monk confidently expecting to win the award for “most modest/humble monk in the monastery”. Having travelled to the ends of the earth to gain enlightenment, imagine my surprise when I discovered what great spiritual masters were hiding in the woodwork of our own, unpretentious, and apparently oh so materialistic Durban! Little did I know that everything I had withstood in monasteries throughout the Far East would pale into insignificance compared to what I was about to experience right here in familiar old Durbs!


Looking back, I can now see that whatever one experiences in a monastery can serve as no more than a preparation for the far tougher lessons one has to face in real life. The hardest monastery is real life. This is where the Durban teachers come in, especially the two it was my privilege to be taught by extensively, Saul Watson Roshi and the Venerable Lenny Govender. Not for either of them the easy route, the route which allows the pilgrim to cling to the comforts, expectations, and verities of bourgeois life. Before I come to my most recent spiritual experiences, with the Venerable Lenny Govender, a few brief words about that other, hardly less formidable, teacher Saul Watson Roshi.


The wise and loveable Spinoza ground lenses for a living. Mahatma Gandhi wove cotton cloth. The great Dae Sun Su Nim repaired washing machines when he went to America. These teachers, however, have a different calling: the noble art of building. Whereas the other sages mentioned used their craft simply to earn a living, these great local teachers make of building the very medium of instruction, to brilliant effect. The reader may now want to conclude that these teachers make their students themselves engage in building, as a way to cultivate spiritual qualities like mindfulness, patience, a disregard for bodily comfort, and the like. If this were the case, their teaching method would not be very original, as physical labour and handiwork have been part of monastic life since time immemorial. The startlingly original technique used by these teachers, part of a larger movement in Durban and the rest of the country, is to take homeowners who want additions done to their home, as students. The spiritual seeker in this case thus has a highly unusual guise: the bourgeois homeowner, with enough mullah and material ambition to want additions or renovations done to his or her home. This is the context in which the traditional spiritual virtues are inculcated: patience; the realization of the impermanence of all things, that life cannot be controlled and that it is fundamentally unpredictable; overcoming anger and one’s attachment to material goods; and the like.


As with many spiritual teachers (think of the famous Zen and Sufi teaching stories), these teachers’ modus operandi involves always catching the student off guard. This way the student’s ego is gradually broken down. At first (and also later, and later, and later …) this seems to be a purely destructive task, as the student, unable to function in his or her accustomed way, is reduced to a gibbering wreck.


But let me be more concrete, to give a flavour of these masters’ teachings.


Saul Watson Roshi was the less subtle of the two. I will generalise his technique from my own case. First the hapless student is reassured with promises of quick and easy results. A collaborator is engaged to lull the future student into trusting Saul completely. (At this stage the student is under the illusion that Saul is no more than a builder, and a reliable one at that, whose aim is simply to put down a solid building in a reasonable time at a reasonable cost). The student’s dog-like slumbers last right into the first phases of building. Everything goes fine: progress is rapid, the mess around the house is cleared up at the end of every day, and so on. Gradually the thumbscrews are tightened. In no time the students find themselves being subjected to character building ordeals on a daily basis. In my own case, for instance, the roof of the house having been removed for the addition of an extra floor, a new roof was unforthcoming. At no extra cost, Saul extended the character building exercise to my wife, 15 year old daughter, lovesick 26 year old daughter home from varsity, my visiting brother in law, his wife and two year old son. The reader will have heard of the Zen way of teaching the art of swordsmanship. The apprentice is given a wooden sword. The master can attack the apprentice at any time of day or night, and the apprentice must respond immediately. This way alertness is cultivated. Now Saul Watson Roshi uses a very similar technique. Not only did my family and relatives spend the time around Christmas in a house leaking water from all sides, carefully wending their way on the wet, slippery floor between the seven inflatable children’s pools I had bought at Game in a vain effort to keep Roshi Saul’s aquatic teachings at bay – waterlogged ceilings also had a habit of coming down in the middle of the night with an enormous crash. The unwary student had to simultaneously dodge the falling ceilings and the bricks left lying there by the Roshi’s assistants, which could catapult in any direction. In fact, this was only one instance of potentially lethal falling objects being used to teach us alertness. In all, Roshi Saul so arranged things that there were fifteen times a member of my family or one of Saul’s assistants could have been killed by falling bricks, hammers and the like. A teaching that was especially memorable because of its disconcerting nature, was the time a brick had been placed strategically on the tarpaulin stretched over the house – to give us the illusion of having the equivalent of a roof over our heads (fools that we were, forgetful of the words “the son of man hath not a roof over his head”). When a gust of wind shook the tarpaulin, the brick curved through the air in a parabola, crashing through the balustrade of our sundeck where my daughter had been standing just a moment previously. What a brilliant way to impress on us the impermanence of all things, the shortness of our stay before casting off our mortal coil.

Roshi Saul’s teachings, like those of most of the new generation of builder-teacher that has sprung up in Durban and other parts of our beloved country, were to a large extent focused on teaching us patience. The new floor, started in October, was to be finished around Christmas, perhaps – in any case the roof would be up by then. This became February, then March, then April. May arrived, and Roshi Saul’s unforgettable final teaching went as follows: the workforce slowly dwindled, as did their activity. Finally, for a few days there was just one of Saul’s assistants, doubtless engaged on a task especially geared to the specific point he had reached on the Path, knocking away at some plaster with a chisel. As I remembered it, the knocking didn’t stop suddenly, it just slowly petered out.

And then, with a shock, we realized: the Master has left us! With a wailing and a gnashing of teeth we mourned his departure. As his final gift to us, he had left without warning. Like Krishnamurti, he saw the dangers of dependence on a teacher, no matter how good that teacher is. All our hopes were dashed. At first, still thinking of Saul as no more than a builder (old habits die hard), we bemoaned the fact that he had pushed off with some fifty grand worth of work for which we had paid him, still undone. But later we rejoiced, realizing that this was all part of his wise strategy to show us the dangers of attachment. What is fifty grand? Filthy lucre. Irrelevant to the salvation of the soul. Better to be freed of it. In his wisdom and infinite compassion Saul had unburdened us of this serious hindrance to our spiritual good. Had it not been said that “it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”? In our bereavement, we naturally tried to find back our beloved Master. But he had disappeared from Durban without a trace, having freed not only us, but also several other individuals and companies of their delusional attachment to money – two grand here, thirty grand there, and so on.


Much though I learned from Roshi Saul, the Venerable Lenny Govender turned out to be an even subtler teacher, with an amazing sense of timing, and an uncanny ability to test the limits of his students’ endurance. Finally I was really getting the challenge I had missed all my life. I now realised that in all those years in the Zen monastery doing impossible koans and being hit over the head with a stick, in the freezing monastery in Ladakh, despite the dysentery and cholera I had never really pushed the envelope, never really been forced out of my comfort zone. Retrospectively, all of these, even Roshi Saul, seemed fake. Lenny Govender was the real thing! I can’t think back of him without being amazed by his subtlety. In fact, amazement was a constant feature of the time I spent undergoing his teachings. I had been impressed by the power of the “sound of one hand clapping” koan to cut through everyday illusions and forge path to enlightenment. But now, in my ceaseless state of amazement at the tricks of Master Lenny I discovered the even greater power of the “sound of one jaw dropping” koan.

Master Lenny would set you up. “Yes, I’ll be there tomorrow, nine o’clock”. “Yes, I promise the work will be finished in one month, finished on 4 December to be exact, weather permitting”; “… before your guests arrive on 15 December”; “… before your daughter arrives on 20 December”; “… before Christmas”. In January: “only one week and the work will be done, don’t worry”. In February – but you get the drift. Master Lenny would look you straight in the eye as he said this. Every time you would think: “I can trust this man”. And of course you can trust him, only not as his facade for the material world suggests, a builder, but as a citizen of the spiritual world, a teacher – and what could be more different? You can trust that he will teach you patience, the futility of trying to get other people to behave the way you, from your limited egocentric position, would like them to. The need to surrender to the flow of the universe, however mysterious it may seem to you.

At other times you would do that most unspiritual of things: try to bargain with the universe. Master Lenny would show you that it was all to no avail. The universe couldn’t care less. Now Master Lenny may sound strict, but this was just the expression of his compassion. Desperate diseases require desperate measures. By way of illustration, an anecdote: with another of his students, suffering from cancer, Master Lenny “promised” that his building teachings would be completed before she would be operated on. On it went, through the operation, through her recuperation from the operation, and right into the period in which she underwent radiotherapy daily. A lesser teacher, swayed by sentimentality, would have chosen the soft, and ultimately uncompassionate option, but not Master Lenny!

Master Lenny is also a master at harnessing anger for spiritual purposes. Short and slight as he may be, he must have tremendous physical courage. I was reminded of the Zen master who was asked by a Samurai warrior about the gates of heaven and hell. Instead of answering the Samurai directly, he provoked him. When the Samurai could bear it no longer, and whipped out his sword to dispatch the Zen master, the latter said calmly; “Here open the gates of heaven, here open the gates of hell”. The Samurai, abashed, sheathed his sword and became the Zen master’s disciple. Master Lenny similarly regularly provoked me to such rage that I felt capable of murdering him, or more often, just punch him. He must have known in what mortal danger his teachings often placed him, but he persevered, undaunted. His timing and dosage were always such that I never went over the brink. Similarly, I am sure that he often brought me to the verge of a stroke or heart attack. Such brinkmanship is a sign of the true master.

His uncanny ability to read the mind of his students and adjust his teachings accordingly, comes out in the following anecdote. I am a real landlubber; the briefest time aboard a boat – or even imagining that I am on a boat, turns me seasick. I had said that I wanted the old ceiling in our servant’s quarters replaced. When I see the new ceiling, which I had expected to be flat, it is so wavy that my old weakness manifests itself: I feel seasick. I look away, the seasickness subsides, I look up again at the ceiling churning wildly around the lamps, and the nausea is back. A lesser teacher may have left it at that, and indeed replaced the wavy ceiling with a flat one, thinking that its didactic purpose had been served. Not so Master Lenny. He shows no sign of having heard me when I beg him to remove the revoltingly undulating ceiling. Will he leave it? Will he remove it? Impossible to say. Every time I enter the room, the nausea returns. After a month or two, one part of the ceiling is replaced with a flat ceiling. Now comes the big test. Instead of just waiting receptively to see what the universe will do next, I buy into a new delusion: the expectation that the ceiling as a whole is being replaced. Well, the cornices all round have been removed. But that proves nothing. And so, gradually, a slow realisation dawns on me: that the universe is not going to behave the way I want it to, even if the part of the universe is a builder I have paid to behave the way I want him to.

A beautiful lesson I also learned from Roshi Saul and Master Lenny was gleaned by just observing their employment practice. Each seemed to be saying “Come ye to me, all ye lame, blind and moronic. Rejoice, for even though none other would have ye, ye are welcome to join our community of spiritual work”. What I saw there, defies belief. Plumbers with ten thumbs, carpenters with two left hands, and most amazing of all: the painter without hands. How does a painter without hands paint? With his feet? No, with his – forgive the expression – with his arse. A wonderful system had been worked out whereby the handle of the brush was inserted into the said painter’s rectum (let’s call a spade a shovel), and the paint was then applied by vigorous sideways movements of the backside. Now you may think this painter was only used for the rough work, say the central area of a wall that was generally out of sight. But no, this very same painter was used to do the finest, most difficult jobs. (When I told a friend about this he said that he thought the painter in question was just being exploited by our purported Spiritual Builders, that these builders were getting work equivalent to that of an able bodied person at the reduced salary usually paid to the disabled. Now I don’t know what this builder’s salary was, but I can attest that my friend was all wrong, as he had to admit himself. When I showed him the painting work, he exclaimed: “But this looks as if somebody has painted it with their …”- as of course it was. So no invalid was being cruelly expected to perform above his capabilities. These teachers’ employment practice also showed a bighearted sense of fairness: so that everybody would get a chance, each invalid would soon be replaced by a new one.


Roshi Saul and Master Lenny had also cunningly arranged to have me trained, by degrees, to be my own building contractor. Roshi Saul started off in a modest sort of way, but when Lenny Zen Master took over, the gloves came off: I was being taught relentlessly to supervise labour, to spot sloppy work, to make lists of things to be bought and done, to remind Lenny Zen Master, to remind him again, and again, to remind labour. Never once did Lenny Zen Master’s resolve waver in this. Not once did he take the path of least resistance, and himself tell one of his staff that this ceiling was skew, this paint job was sloppy, the hole in this wall should be filled in flush with the rest of the wall, and not protruding like a refractory haemorrhoid. No, soon I got the message: only if I personally took responsibility, checked every piece of work, repeatedly cajoled his staff into doing what was undone or redoing what had been botched, would the job get done. Do the supervision yourself, or take the consequences. Spiritual teachings have always aimed at making us self-reliant and independent, and thus these teachings were as spiritual as they get.


But the big lesson I learn out of all this, is humility. I had prided myself on the notion that I was well progressed along the spiritual path, well on the way to enlightenment, having mastered the virtues of patience and forbearance, having grasped impermanence, and having overcome greed, anger and delusion. I had thought of my time served in the Himalayas, the steaming Thai jungles, the Japanese Zen monastery with its iron discipline as having turned me into number one spiritual practitioner. Master Lenny teaches me that thinking this is number one mistake. He sends me back to square one. He gives me the greatest gift there is: Beginner’s mind. Thank you, Master Lenny.