Yesterday I learned, quite by chance, that a person very significant for me died in December of the last year. That person was Robert Harry Hover — “Mr. Hover” — who was my direct teacher in a meditation course that changed my way of viewing the world.
Robert Hover (February 22, 1920 – December 15, 2008) was an American aerospace engineer who went to Burma and studied Vipassana meditation under a teacher named U Ba Khin. U Ba Khin, in turn, was a lay teacher in a tradition going back through his lay teacher Saya Thetgyi to another noted meditation master, the monk Ledi Sayadaw — and from there back through the centuries to the time of the Buddha. U Ba Khin commissioned Mr. Hover — as well as several other individuals — to teach Vipassana in the West.
Robert Hover taught 75 Vipassana courses in 9 countries and in 15 different states in the U.S., from November 21, 1971 through May 29, 1988.
With Robert Hover there were none of the frills — no images or incense or pictures at his meditation course. There was only this Western man with a fringe of hair on the edges of his head, stepping onto a platform in front of us, wearing a Burmese-style longyi — a cloth wrapped around his waist — and seating himself with crossed legs to give us the Dhamma — the Way Things Are.
Seated there before us — a mixed group of rather shabby-looking individuals in a little retreat camp between Portland and the coast — Robert Hover proceeded to teach us basic Buddhism in practice, beginning with the fundamentals of existence — Dukkha, Anicca, Anatta — the unsatisfyingness of all things, the impermanence of all things — the absence of any permanent “I” or self. And he taught us the means for seeing into these things — the two meditation forms of anapana — attention to the in-and-out flow of the breath at the nostrils — and vipassana — awareness of other bodily sensations, which when practiced correctly and persistently leads to insight into the nature of reality.
I had never experienced anything so remarkable and beyond my ordinary experience.
And quite by chance I learned something else. Very early in the course, I developed a headache. For me, at that time, a headache usually lasted at least a whole day, perhaps as many as three days. When — no doubt feeling sorry for myself — I approached Mr. Hover after the group meditation, he very kindly invited me into his cabin, asked me to sit down in front of him, and proceeded to have me pay very close attention to my headache. Where was it located? How deep? How large was the area? How was it shaped? What was its texture? What were the edges like, vague or definite? He asked me to look inward and to describe it in detail, which led to a kind of inner seeing that I had not experienced before. He told me to be in that area — not outside my body, or thinking about it, but to literally BE in that area. Then he told me to position myself behind the “object” of pain, and then “Now, PUSH!” I pushed from my new, inside-the-body position, against the object in front of me. Instantly it slipped and moved right though my skin and outside the body, and my headache was gone — IMMEDIATELY!
I was astonished, to say the least.
The healing method he taught me — which was a particular interest of his in later years — was not at all a regular part of the course I attended. In fact, had I not had a headache and mentioned it to him, I doubt that I would have had any awareness that he could teach such a thing. I am sure that most if not all of the others who took that Vipassana course ended it and went home without any knowledge whatsoever of the healing method he so kindly shared. It was something he kept separate from his teaching of Vipassana, though the method was apparently derived from his experiences with Vipassana. It certainly came in handy for me at that time.
As for his Vipassana teaching, my impression was that he was deliberately conservative; that he took no liberties with what had been passed on to him, but seemed to want to stick very closely to what he had been taught by U Ba Khin in Burma. This extended even to such a culturally-conditioned (in my opinion) matter as asking students not to sit with the the bottoms of one’s feet pointing at the teacher, something which is considered very impolite in southeast Asian religious culture, where one never points one’s feet at a teacher or a Buddha image. Though it was no doubt a puzzlement to his American students, he maintained it in his course; and that he did maintain it is an example, I think, of his attempt to adhere closely to what he was taught in Burma.
During the course, we were taught awareness of the passage of the breath at the nostril area for several days (anapana), and just when I finally began to “get” it, we then moved on to awareness of sensations throughout the body, starting from the head and going down the whole body part by part. I expressed to Mr. Hover a certain reluctance to leave anapana so “quickly,” and his response was that anapana could indeed take one “all the way” — but that we should also learn the other method — I think he described it as having another tool — and my impression was that after having learned both during the course (the basics of both) one could then use either.
I talked to Mr. Hover by phone — rarely — from time to time (he was in one state and I in another), and I recall that during one conversation he happened to mention that he received “posthumous” teachings from U Ba Khin. “Posthumous” of course means “after death,” and when I asked him to clarify, in typical Mr. Hover fashion he did not go into detail, but just indicated that death is not the end.
That reminds me of two things I recall particularly about our conversations: he always seemed very moderate in his speech, and reluctant to talk about anything that might enhance him personally, always being very modest; and second, when asked about other teachers or rumors of “controversial” events among those teaching in the U Ba Khin tradition — events that puzzled students then and still do to this day — he would never say anything negative about anyone, remarking only that there had been a split in the Sangha, with no elaboration upon that simple statement. He never said a word to discourage one from studying under other teachers in the tradition. At least that was my experience.
Many years ago, in a memorial text to his own teacher U Ba Khin, Robert Hover wrote:
“I am indebted to Sayagyi U Ba Khin for the rest of my lives.”
I can say the same for my teacher, Robert Harry Hover, who gave a priceless gift whose value we unfortunately did not all fully realize at the time. But our personal shortcomings or failures in no way lessen the value of the gift, freely and compassionately given, or the merit of the giving.
Those who may be interested in Robert Hover’s method of healing will find his “how-to” book on the subject at: http://www.amazon.com/Internal-Moving-Healing-Manual-Instruction/dp/1418438855