No TV Huh? Part I

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I remember when I moved into my new place in Old Greenwich, CT. It was a duplex house and I had the bottom floor. I was within a Frisbee throw into the heart of the charming Old Greenwich village.. (not to be confused with “The Village” of Manhattan). I was also near the train station which would take me to Manhattan if I wanted. I could run to the beach park and back as part of my 4 mile exercise route. It was a nice place, I could afford it, and things were going well as far as lay people are concerned during my life back then.

After I moved in, I did not have any curtains for privacy, nor much furniture either. I had a twin bed mattress I threw on the floor, a microwave stand, stereo stand, and a folding table with a chair. My upstairs neighbors took a peek inside and later said hello to me. They said something like this, “Hey.. How are you? We are your neighbors upstairs.. we took a look inside through the windows. Looks OK… But no TV huh?”

Before I moved to that place, I was living in the master bedroom of a house that was located in South Salem, NY. My bedroom was in a waterfront house that overlooked Lake Oscaleta and it was breath taking, like entering another realm or something. It was the most beautiful place and spiritual place I had ever lived in up until that date. The famous song “The Cat’s Cradle” was recorded in the basement of that house and there was even a gold record propped up in the living room. This place was where I had the very first thoughts on becoming a monk.. but that is another story.

I had moved there because I had just gotten a job as a contractor for QSP, which was part of Reader’s Digest in the next town of Ridgefield, Connecticut. QSP was a cushy job, even for a consultant, and they only worked a half day on Fridays. On that day, we, the computer geeks would go out to some type of bar and grill for lunch or something. On one of those days, the conversation opened up with a topic of Seinfeld. Seinfeld was the subject of many conversations back then, and I would just simply listen-in with a blank stare when that happened. About halfway through the this conversation I decided to interrupt and said something I probably should have never said. “I keep hearing about this Seinfeld all the time… What is this Seinfeld?”
The response was classic.. it was like the music in the whole place had stopped and everybody was staring at me while my boss spoke on behalf of the whole table, or the whole restaurant and said, “YOU DON’T KNOW WHO SEINFELD IS?”

It was the mid 90’s and The Seinfeld Show was at its peak. It was the most watched show on television during that time and it was on Thursday nights, the night before we would go out to eat on Fridays. It was always the topic of the day, and I was never comfortable with that. After my boss found out that I did not know who Seinfeld was, I explained that I did not have a television which made things all the more awkward. I felt so out of touch.

I lived with a family in that house which I adopted as my own or maybe they did the same to me. I still keep in touch with them to this day and I am eager to send this story to them too. When they came home, I told them the story about not knowing who Seinfeld was, and about my embarrassment and the teenage girl invited me to watch Seinfeld with the family on the following Thursday night. I was a little bit scared.. you know.. television is bad and I was so against television, but I watched it with them. I took some mental notes and then went to work the next day prepared to be social for the Friday lunch break. When we arrived at the bar and grill, the conversation opened up with “Hey.. who saw E.R. last night?” I did not let the conversation continue and I broke in and said “Now wait a minute.. what about Seinfeld?”
“Ahh..that was a repeat,” he said, “So who saw E.R.?” and the conversation went along again without me. Sometimes you cannot win.

Back in the 90’s there was no Internet…well not anything you could reasonably watch videos with. The TV was the center piece of everybody’s “family room”. If you were to travel back in time, or see a room today, you will notice that the furniture is placed so everyone can look at the TV and not each other. The TV was the center piece for American pastimes. If you wonder why the West is so messed up… then read this paragraph one more time.

So yes, I did not have a television and I was quite against TV’s. Yet there was a time where I was so addicted to TV that I might not even hear my father ask me to clean my room or whatever else he said to me. Y’see I cannot remember what that other stuff he said was because I was glued to television, and getting brain injected by the people “up-top” in the marketing departments. I was being programmed to become a super-shopping-never-satisfied citizen with all of the side-effects.

Many people ask me how I became a monk. It is a long story and I usually refer them to a 200+ page document I wrote in 2006. Yes, it is that long a story. However, [cough] I forgot one story. It is a classic Subhūti story that I have told many times again and again. It is the story of how I stopped watching television.

Come back with me to the early part of 1991. (Swoosh!)
I was in college then and after some time, I thought it was time to get my own place. The only place I could afford without a roommate was a small two room apartment connected to a house. It was next to the Boys Club of America, and also across the street from the Welfare Office and the local Latino club. I looked at the place during the daytime and decided it was nice, quiet, “not so bad” and decided to take it. What I didn’t know, was what happened at night. The Latino club would blare mega salsa music inside or outside their club…. but not only that, it was in the heart of a red light district!

Have you ever seen a real red-light district? I had always imagined something like I had seen on the 80’s television show called Miami Vice. This was my first reality test to understand that TV was not real. Miami Vice was a show I had religiously watched in my teens when I was a TV addict, and in that show, you would see all of these hot babes walking the streets in those nice little mini-skirt thingies… But real life was not like that. These women [?] were really “down and out.” They were scary looking. Some only had just a few teeth left. Some were probably men in womens’ clothes. My place was luckily in the back, with a yard, so I did not see much, except for when I parked my car inside the property. Every so often you would see one of these ugly women get dropped off by some old man in a pickup truck, and then they would start “walking” again. Does that sound appetizing? So living in a red light district was certainly not a happy experience, especially during the height of the AIDS scare in the early 90’s. Sometimes, when I turn into my place, the “girls” might think that I was “shopping.” I would run inside my place and shut the door quickly. I never spoke to them and they figured out that I was a local quickly enough unless it was a “new one.”

Besides the cheap rent, I am not sure I ever told my parents about this until now. Nevertheless, they knew I did not have a television and told me that I would need a TV. My parents and grandparents gave me extra birthday and Hanuka money in advance so I could purchase a television set.

I went to a local but famous stereo shop and bought the same model my parents had: A 19” Toshiba. It was the first television that I had ever owned and the store had a seven day cash back deal. “7 Days Cash Back if you are not completely satisfied! No questions asked!” They also had a Thirty-day exchange policy if you figured out you did not like it later on. During that time, it was not so common to have such a good customer service policy which is now the norm for the mega stores of today. So I bought the television set with a free mind, knowing that if I did not like it, or if something were broken, then I could return it. It was the same set my parents had which I used to be glued to day in and out. There would be no surprises.

I returned home around 7:30 pm with my new set and I decided to do what my father does when he buys something new and expensive. He opens the box and carefully unpacks everything in case he needs to return it. Before he plugs it in, he sits on the couch and reads the manual. I sat on the floor and read the manual since I did not have any furniture. After a short skim…(I was 20 year old), I plugged the television into the wall only to realize that I needed an antennae. “Bummer!” I said to myself. However, off in the short distance of my mini two room apartment was a coaxial cable sticking out of the wall. I thought, “Well maybe this can help act as antennae?” I plugged it in, and lo and behold, I had free basic cable. My place was a small apartment attached to the side a house and a family member used to rent this apartment from the owners before they evicted him. So free cable here we go!

So, I had around 15 basic non-premium channels with clear reception. At 8:30 pm, I sat on the floor about 5 feet away with the remote and started surfing with my new toy. The time quickly went by; 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00 am 1:00 am 2:00 am! At that point, I was surfing between Dr. Gene Scott, a Christian Televangelist who smokes cigars and waits for money to collect before speaking, and a 30 minute car polish infomercial.

The latter was more interesting, and they had some short guy with a British accent and a bow tie talking really smooth while throwing all sorts of stuff on top of a car hood and then wiping it clean with a single swipe. The audience would applause with every swipe that showed the reflection like a near mirror polished surface. Then came the finale. He put this and that on the car hood including bird poop, and then squirted lighter fluid on it and set it on fire and started to talk! His co-host was begging him to put the fire out, but the Brit was blabbing away about the formula of the car polish, its great qualities, etc… After the Brit finished his monologue, he finally wiped the hood of the car clean, and there was no mark where the fire was. “Wow!” I said to myself while the time was approaching 2:30 am.

Then.. and I am glad for this “then,” I sort of “woke up” and said to myself.. “Hey.. you are actually falling for this stuff. It is after 2:00 am and you want to buy overpriced car polish! You are an idiot and you will never graduate from college with one of these televisions!” I turned off the television and went to bed and in the next morning, I carefully re-packed the television into its box. I went back to the store with the receipt in-hand and said, “I have a return. What do I do?” They instructed me to drive around the back and to see the cashier. I went around the back and met a lady behind the cashier window who handed me a return slip. The return slogan said no questions asked, but the return form was asking me questions. Name, address, phone number, name of product, cost, and the last question was “Reason for Return.”

I was an honest guy. I could have said “It sucked,” “It was not what I thought it was” or “It looked better inside the shop.” No, there was no honest excuse except to tell them the truth and see what would happen. I told the truth, risking it all and testing their return policy, which had already gone back on its word of “no questions asked.” I answered the “Reason for return:” question with: “Because I watched it too much.”

The truth was plain and simple without the need for further interfacing. I handed the completed return slip to the lady behind the counter, hoping she would not read the last question. As she read my answer, I got one of those looks with her eyes inclining upwards accompanied by a disapproving smile. After those painful few seconds, she gave me my money back. It was certainly a moment of painful shame, but I got my money back. Not only that, I originally paid with a check and got cash back too! Sweet.

That is not the full story. I did not hate TV just yet. I was just a person who knew I should be without one. So I was without a television for some time until the Gulf War happened. It was the first one that nobody except me really remembers. That was because the main part of it lasted only three or so days before it was more or less over.

If you are a smoker, you do not notice the smell of other smokers when they walk into a room after a cigarette break outside. If you are a “non-watcher” and do not watch television, you can see the bad habit and how TV controls people in a similar way. The live coverage of the war and stupid propaganda was at its worst. I could see right through it. I remember the fancy graphics they had which would drop the 3D letters of “Operation Desert Storm.” It was like an adventure reality show or something. I couldn’t believe what was happening and people were watching it as entertainment and eating popcorn at the same time. In our student union building, we had three television rooms. We had one television room for each network. Fox was not a real network then but CNN was in the Cafe. You could see it all happen, and I couldn’t believe how sick the media or the students watching it could be. It was not like a movie where fake people were pretending to get killed by fake bullets. There were real people getting killed with real weapons and college kids were watching it whilst eating popcorn at the same time! It was at this sickening moment that I was completely sold on the dangers and brainwashing capabilities of television. I was now a full-on anti television person.

I was so against television that I used to wear a smash your television T-Shirt. I believed you should not give your television away. You should smash it ……like a smoker who has “had enough” and wants to quit flushes his cigarettes down the toilet. A TV is not fit for anyone, just like cigarettes. In my case, I got my $200 bucks back, but it was before I was a convert to the anti-television beliefs. The 19” Toshiba was the first and last television I had ever owned.

So.. back to 1997, when I moved into Old Greenwich, the neighbors said, “No television huh? I said “No” with a grin on my face, like a proud man who knows the dangers of smoking and does not smoke. “Nope.. no television,” I was proud and continued to wear a peaceful yet triumphant smile on my face until some time passed by.

I think back on these events. I still watched television sometimes after my first Seinfeld show. I had even watched a few more Seinfeld episodes at a friend’s house.. maybe quite a few of them and the Simpsons too. But in the end, I did not have a television where I lived, and that was a huge difference from a sporadic visit to a friend’s house here and there.

When I look back and analyze what came over me to want to become a monk, I think that not having a television was a major influence. Actually, it might be better to say that not having a television removed the influence to stay normal. You see, in order to be a monk (and be happy), you need to see the world going in its direction and wishing to find another way. That is what wishing to join the Saṅgha is all about.

I believed that there has got to be more to life than “this” and “this” was the normality of life. “Normal People” do not question if there is more to life than this. If you have asked this question, then maybe becoming a monk was a flash in your mind. If you think about that question long enough, a tipping point occurs. Sure, people want “more”, but more or less it is just “more” of the same worldly life. You do not get a chance to realize that until you become wealthy. I could have bought more or less anything I wanted, but it just wasn’t my thing to do. So when I asked the “There has got to be more to life than this?”, it was not the normal stuff which has no end to it. Normal people do not wish to become monks and it is even more abnormal to follow through and become one. The normal people in the 90’s had televisions and I chose not to have one. I saw the danger early on when I was in school. It was probably the best lesson I had learned.

 

*With some research, I got only 90% of the car commercial right. Nobody’s perfect.  However, there are several of these logged into youtube and perhaps the one I saw and remember was left out…  You can follow this link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71W2pzmBuCg

 

 

The Smash your television T-Shirts are still available.  You can find them at:  http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/SMASH-YOUR-TV-anti-television-holywood-anarchy-pirate-bay-anonymous-T-SHIRT-/361420352472

Article by Bhikkhu Subhuti

Bhikkhu Subhuti is an American Buddhist Monk with roots in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar Forest Traditions. He currently resides in Myanmar but his heart sometimes floats back to Kauai, HI where he spent six months in 2015.

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