From my reading, I begin to understand that Siddhārtha Gautama, the real-life man who would become known as Buddha or “the one who woke up,” was something of a D.I.Y. neuroscientist. He realized that if he remained silent, and paid close attention, he could observe how his mind worked. During his meditation, the present moment was free of activity, his body motionless and, yet, he could watch as thoughts arose like stories, their plots unspooling as if real, triggering genuine emotions. He discovered that to sit in a state of awareness of the thinking process was to grasp important truths about the experience of being human. This was how one started on the path to enlightenment.
This simple fact was the core of what he taught during his lifetime. Some of his students single-mindedly sought the answers this practice provided, retreating from ordinary society to dedicate themselves to this endeavor. Others decided to investigate this source of wisdom but to remain among the general public with the purpose of helping regular people like me understand what Siddhārtha Gautama was talking about. The goal of this second type of devotee is, according to an oft-used metaphor, to help transport as many humans as possible over the river of life on the raft that is the Buddha’s teachings.
The monk who answers the doorbell I ring is one such ferry captain. Roughly 24 hours after my first official meditation experience, I arrive at what appears to be a regular house in a residential area near campus. Upon closer inspection, a little sign distinguishes it as a Buddhist priory. A middle-aged man with a shaved head and long brown robe opens the door. It takes me a moment to register that he is white, not Asian; with his shaved head and smile lines, he more closely resembles a bald, laughing Buddha than an average Joe. As he greets me, I assume he knows what I am here for, as it is just a minute or two before meditation instruction is set to begin and, well, here I am. But he stares at me expectantly, nothing taken for granted. His blank-slate expression throws me off and I think I have gotten either the wrong time or place.
“I’m here for the meditation instruction?” I say.
“Yes.” He smiles. “Follow me.”
We walk through what was once a large living room, but is now a sanctuary with a shrine and meditation cushions arranged along the walls. He takes me through a kitchen and beyond into a small room with a single book case. “Wait here,” he tells me, “we’ll start soon.”
I take a seat on one of a few folding chairs in what I imagine was once a child’s bedroom and the monk leaves, robes swishing. Like the monastery I visited the day before, this one offers morning and evening meditation periods. Once a week, an orientation is provided just before an evening meditation so that beginners can stay and practice what they’ve learned.