(Italicized text from The Waves by Virginia Woolf)
The young monk sinks easily into the asana, or lotus, position. He is Caucasian, tall and thin with large dark eyes and a friendly smile. I guess him to be in his thirties. Over a plain, long-sleeved cotton shirt, he wears the traditional Tibetan Buddhist robe—a maroon cotton cloth wrapped across the left shoulder and another wrapped around his waist, floor-length. His short black hair is in a tight knot at the center of his crown, sleek as if gelled to control stray curls. Before him, on the tiny puja (prayer table) sits not an ancient scroll in Pali or Sanskrit but a laptop. The glowing Apple on its open cover seems especially incongruous; I wonder if he is ever tempted by all the seductive fruit of the Internet.
His website bio says that he has a degree in English literature and Religious Studies from Columbia University. I wonder, does he still seek or find consolation in literature, does he reach to the bookshelf for, as Virginia Woolf said, “another sip of the divine specific,” or has Buddhism become his sole source of solace and enlightenment?
There are about a dozen of us on mats and yoga cushions in rows before him, ages from twenties to sixties. I am the only one with a pen and notepad. Is note-taking frowned upon? In my initial search of Buddhist etiquette, I found only one reference: “do not take copious notes during a temple service.” Too inflexible to sit cross-legged for long, I soon fold my legs back underneath me, the sitting child’s pose in yoga.
The monk, whose title is Lama, Tibetan for teacher, begins speaking softly, explaining in simple terms the practice of meditation, which, with right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration, promises insight and clarity. Like water, he says, becomes cloudy when stirred and then clears when the silt settles to the bottom. Taking notes helps me stay focused, but I find myself thinking of the little Buddha shrine I’ve made at home—is it worthy?—and then noticing how the sky through the small, high window has dimmed and taken on a pink tinge. I am no mystic; something always plucks at me—curiosity, envy, admiration, interest…and the like bring me to the surface.
He names the four norms or marks of existence: suffering, the cause of suffering, emptiness or non-self, and liberation or Nirvana. It is all very basic, things I already know but, as is common with Westerners, cannot fully grasp. Buddhist scholar Edward Conze said that the more important a Buddhist doctrine, the less readily intelligible it generally is. Even having read as much as I have about the history and basic tenets of Buddhism, the numinous character of Buddhist terminology makes it abstract and elusive. Anything I say about Buddhism seems to negate itself.
The Lama pauses and asks if anyone has a question. No one speaks. Maybe the room, with its shrines honoring the Buddha and the Dalai Lama and walls covered in silk draped tankas, makes us hesitate. Maybe we are like deer caught in headlights, transfixed by the idea that what we think is reality is merely hallucination. Or, worse, the incomprehensible idea of no-self. …without a self, I said. With dispassionate despair, with entire disillusionment I surveyed the dust of my life, my friends’ lives…clouds and phantoms made of dust too, of dust that changed…this way and that, mutable, vain…. How can I proceed now, I said, without a self, weightless and visionless, through a world weightless, without illusion?
The Lama pauses, smiles, closes his eyes, and rocks slightly, waiting patiently, indifferently. I like this dispassionate invitation to speak. I appreciate the non-coercive nature of Buddhism, so different from the conversion zeal of the Protestant religion of my childhood. I appreciate that the impulse toward Buddhism is not motivated by fear or guilt, that Nirvana is not some idealized place, and that the word ‘sin’ is never used. The strongest criticism the Buddha had for wrongful acts was “unskilled behavior.” Although, “unskilled behavior” can be just as immitigable, particularly when I consider how many times my actions have been hurtful, how often I have failed those I loved. Those are the thoughts that will wake me leaping in anguish in the middle of the night—the crimes for which one would do penance in all the markets of the world bareheaded. Then comes the terrible pounce of memory, not to be foretold, not to be warded off—that I did not go…. That claw scratched; that fang tore, I did not go. In spite of his impatiently protesting that it did not matter…. Still, I did not go.
“To go beyond oneself,” the Lama continues, “we must first understand what the false self is made of” and begins explaining the five skandhas, a set of psychological-physical aggregates. This sounds to me similar to deconstruction, a theory of literary criticism that uncovers inherent instability by questioning traditional assumptions. Similarly, Buddhism deconstructs conventional ways of organizing experience. The Lama says there is no ‘self’ to be found in any of these parts. Does my false self sit here pretending to take notes; are the pen and pad merely props? How can I know my true self? …these attempts to say, ‘I am this, I am that,’ which we make, coming together, like separated parts of one body and soul, are false. Something has been left out from fear. Something has been altered from vanity. We have tried to accentuate differences…have laid stress upon our faults, and what is particular to us. But there is a chain whirling round, round, in a steel-blue circle beneath.
Later, when the Lama asks us to think about our reasons for being here, my first thought is that I am here hoping to develop a spiritual practice, a way to spend less time in the disturbed surface and more in the still depth, some measure, however small, of clarity. The Lama goes on to say that the true reason is to alleviate suffering. Yes, I think, that is why I am here, ultimately; he has expressed it more succinctly. But is my false self hiding something deeper? Was there no sword, nothing with which to batter down these walls, this protection…this living behind curtains and becoming daily more involved and committed with books and pictures?
When we meditate, I try to empty my mind but can only stare fixedly at the cushion of the person in front of me, watch its color change from purple, to blue, to green in hallucinatory waves. I hear the woman breathing next to me. What is her suffering? Has she, too, lost someone important, someone who fell suddenly and never regained consciousness while doing something mundane, like putting air in the tires of her car, for her? Did she, too, exist in a kind of limbo for years, still disbelieving when she walked into the silent room and saw the eyeglasses still on the desk, still specked with dirt from that fatal fall? What torments one is the horrible activity of the mind’s eye—how he fell, how he looked, where they carried him…the bandages and the mud…. My own infirmities oppress me. There is no longer him to oppose them.
The last gong of the singing bowl ends our session. We rise, re-stack the mats and cushions, put on our shoes, and place our donation in the box as we leave. I try to be mindful on the drive home, observe the traffic and passing landscape, streetlamps and lonely sidewalks, the darkening trees, the full moon through inky clouds. What is the phrase for the moon? And the phrase for love? By what name are we to call death? I do not know. I need a little language such as children speak…. I need a howl; a cry….
Is anything real…am I? I don’t know. In Zen Buddhism, not-knowing is called beginner’s mind, so maybe I am where I should be. Already I am thinking of what I will do in the future—eat the leftover chicken salad, watch the DVD, tomorrow buy cat food, maybe stop at Gourmet’s Market and look for the ever-elusive verveine tea. I saw my own indefatigable busyness—how I had rushed from one to the other, fetched and carried, traveled and returned, joined this group and that, here kissed, here withdrawn; always kept hard at it by some extraordinary purpose with my nose to the ground like a dog on the scent; with an occasional toss of the head, an occasional cry of amazement, despair and then back again with my nose to the scent. What a litter—what a confusion; with here birth, here death, succulence and sweetness; effort and anguish; and myself always running hither and thither…. I, carrying a notebook, making phrases…. I have done with phrases…. From this moment I am solitary. No one will know me now…. Now then is my chance to find out what is of great importance, and I must be careful, and tell no lies. About him my feeling was: he sat there in the centre. Now I go to that spot no longer. The place is empty.