Islam

As I wrapped up my trip through Buddhism, I started to get nervous. I knew the time to explore Islam was fast approaching. Unlike the places of worship of the previous religions that had allowed me to tailor my explorations to ease into a particular faith by degrees, theological variations among Muslims are less apparent. Perhaps this is especially true in the United States, where congregants who gather under one roof may hail from a range of countries and represent a spectrum of belief. In all likelihood, I would have no way of readily identifying the individuals whose convictions put them at the extremes of Muslim faith.

Back at home, I gave the matter more thought. My tiny town serves as home to a surprisingly diverse Islamic community, many of them young men and women from countries across Northern Africa and the Middle East who earn degrees from the university. The absence of a busy urban environment seems to render them more conspicuous here and I watch with interest. One day I witnessed a man and his two young sons pause to offer afternoon prayers at the local mall. They knelt on small rugs facing a Bath and Body Works, their backs to the walkway. I wondered about the trust it took to assume such a vulnerable position in public. Their faith was as enveloping as the sweet fragrance from the store.

Phil and I encountered a group of Muslims at a remote county park. Ours was the only car in the lot when we arrived but after our hike we encountered two picnicking groups. One was a cluster of men sitting and eating. Several hundred yards away, several women were stretched out together on a blanket in the grass laughing and relaxing. We knew they were Muslim because of the scarfs fastened securely at their chins. So unexpected was this sight that I felt Phil and I had entered the forest in rural Washington state, but had emerged somewhere on the other side of the planet.

I was forced to consider what seemed like an irony: Islamic female garb may be worn to conceal, yet it never fails to identify. This might not be the case in places where the population is predominantly Muslim, but in countries where this is not the case, Muslim women stick out. Often, if it weren’t for the women, the Muslims in my midst would have gone unnoticed. A guy in the pasta aisle at Safeway was just a regular dude until I spotted his wife in a hijab draped from ear to ear; she had a bare band around her eyes like the opposite of a masquerade ball. Her face may have been hidden, but the collective identity to which she belonged was on display. I wondered what it must be like to bear the brunt of public scrutiny, to have your presence function as a symbol. I once walked behind a woman wearing a full burka that rendered the woman inside as invisible as a ghost. The fabric of her garment rolled and snapped so wildly that it appeared to contain its own weather pattern. Outside a breeze blew gently; underneath, a storm raged.

Reincarnation

I’ve read that Zen Buddhism is as much about unlearning as it is learning. It offers a process of removing “the veil.” We can begin to see the world with fresh eyes, without all the interpretation and beliefs we’re accustomed to glopping on top of everything. I think all religion, at its best, strives to offer a path to a new perspective. There’s a saying about this. Before studying Zen, mountains and rivers are mountains and rivers. While studying, they are no longer these things. Further down the path of enlightenment, they are again mountains and rivers.

Yet, I’m not ready to abandon my thinking—the jurisdiction of my “little I”—altogether. Like my Zen master pointed out, I need it and her. What would I write about if not for the realm of ideas? How would I get it written? But I can see the importance of coming back to the present moment, which offers an alternative state of awareness: my true nature is more than a “little I.” Maybe, then, she panics and lashes out because it is like a death for her—and what if I never come back? Inevitably, I do. Something draws me away from “the now”— some dissatisfaction or distraction. I return to the thoughts, and my “little I” is reborn. These cycles of awareness may happen a few times a week, or many times a day.

When I started this exploration of Buddhism, I thought the concept of reincarnation was cut and dry: a person’s body died and their consciousness or soul would appear in some other life form. I would be me, only looking out from the eyes of, say, a turtle. But this path encourages realizations inside of realizations. Now I see, like karma, it can be more subtle, and more complex. Perhaps Buddha was referring to cycles of awareness when he said every life contains countless deaths and rebirths. The thoughts and actions in one affect the thoughts and actions in the next, and so on down the line, because nothing arises independently. The influence of each of our lives ripples out based on how we live. Jews have history and story passed through generations, Christian’s call it “eternal life,” and Buddhists see a web of interdependence in which a separate self is an illusion. In all of them, our existence continues to matter long after the body is gone.

Killing ‘little I’

The Zen master invites me to sit opposite him. “Do you have a question?” he asks.

I nod and search for the right words. “I’ve noticed that sometimes when I’m meditating…” I hesitate, wondering if what I’m about to say will make any sense. “…something will happen. I’ll be really aware of my breathing and the present moment and then suddenly I feel like I’m about to have a panic attack. Do you understand why this happens?”

He nods knowingly. “That’s your ‘little I.’”

“My ‘little I’?”

“You begin to occupy the space of the ‘big I’ and then your ‘little I’ gets scared. Before, the ‘little I’ is who you thought you were and now you have the understanding that you are more. She is threatened. You are making progress and you might not need her. That feeling of anxiety or panic is her tool. You have no choice but to come back to her.”

I’m amazed at how effortlessly he presents his answer, as if this issue was brought to him regularly. Then I remember a small detail I read about the Buddha. In recalling the years leading up to his enlightenment, when he was meditating in the forest by himself, he said fear and terror became his “constant companions.” They could be aroused by the smallest things like “a peacock dropping a twig and the wind blowing the fallen leaves.” That must have been Buddha’s ‘little I’ rebelling against his increasing awareness.

So maybe these sensations aren’t a sign of my going backwards, as I had believed. I think back to the moments of panic, not just on this trip but at other times in my life too. Perhaps they were all fueled by the dawning realization: I might be more than this individual identity. Maybe I was starting to sense the vast space outside the thought highway.

“So how do I get rid of her?” I ask my Zen master.

“Who?”

“My ‘little I’? How do I kill her off for good?”

A look of concern washes over his face. “You don’t.”

“I thought that was the point.”

“No. You need her.”

“I need her?”

“She takes care of you. She gets things done. Be compassionate toward her.”

“But…” I was about to say that I thought she was the enemy when it occurs to me what a bizarre thing that would be to admit. She’s me…

“Be aware of her. That’s enough.”

I’m staring at the patch of nubby white carpet between us trying to recalibrate my perspective when my Zen master asks, “What is all that exists?”

I look up. It’s a koan, a Buddhist brain-teaser meant to slap me upside the head so I can see things with fresh eyes.

“Truth?” I say.

He slams his open palm against the floor, making the thwacking sound I’ve been hearing all afternoon.

“If you can name it, you’ve limited it,” he says. He’s been transformed into a Buddhist drill sergeant. “This…” he hits the floor again. “Is all there is. It has no words!”

He tries again. “What do you see?”

Now I’m worried. I don’t know the answer. I’m looking into his eyes. “A soul?” I say. The second it comes out, I know it’s wrong.

He looks disappointed. “You see a soul?”

“Uh…”

“Come on!”

“Love?” Another stupid answer.

He bulges his eyes out at me. “What…do…you…SEE?”

“Eyeballs! I see your eyeballs!”

He smiles. “What color are they?”

“Grey.”

He looks pleased. “That is what you see.” He smacks the ground. “All there is with no thinking.”

The energy hose

It’s not difficult to imagine the Zen center’s main sanctuary as an old-timey classroom like the kind in Little House on the Prairie where kids of all ages sit together. At one end, where a chalkboard might have hung, sits a simple wood altar with a statue of Buddha. The school desks have been swapped for cushions, offering occupants a shift in perspective, one in which the windows on both sides look exceptionally tall and the ceiling far away. The floor seems to stretch endlessly and must be from an ancient Red Wood tree because it glows a rich rosy patina.

Today will be the longest I’ve sat in meditation at one time, though the hours will be broken up by periods of walking. What’s in store is nothing compared to the agenda of some retreats, which can go on for days but, for me, today is a challenge because I’ve never spent so much time cross-legged as I have these last couple of weeks. You wouldn’t think sitting could be so physically demanding, but doing it with nothing to lean against requires a surprising amount of strength in the muscles of your back and belly. I’ve realized this the hard way—by discovering my core is extremely achy. By the end of the first hour of the retreat, I’m eager for the part where we get up and move around the perimeter of the room in a line.

In the middle of the second hour, my spine droops and I begin to question whether I can sit upright for much longer. An older woman across from me has dragged a folding chair to her spot and I consider doing the same. The discomfort becomes so acute that I even think about getting up and leaving—just walking out the door and not looking back. Forget trying to watch my thoughts, I’m just struggling to stay seated; I’m barely holding on, inching from one painful second to the next. Then I remember a tip the Zen master told us in the meditation instruction a few days earlier. He said when your energy flags, sometimes it’s helpful to imagine a hose—a big one like the kind firefighters use—going into your stomach. He explained that this shouldn’t be too difficult if our arms are in the traditional stance with the tips of our thumb and fingers of one hand lightly touching the tips of the thumb and fingers on the other; this forms a loose circle that rests just below the belly button. He told us to picture this as a feeding tube of sorts, one that can nourish us with energy from the universe. In my moment of desperation, I try it. I imagine it like a pipe pumping fuel. I breathe in a tiny bit of strength. Slowly, I feel my spine straighten and a second wind blows into my core.

The Zen master isn’t in the sanctuary with us. He’s in a small room that shares a wall with this one, accepting his consultations. When a person returns, the next goes. In the meantime, the rest of us continue our meditations. At some point, I begin to notice a crashing noise that sounds like a two-by-four being dropped. At first I think there must be construction going on nearby. But, no, it’s perfectly silent in the space between crashes. No hammering. No buzz saw. Just, “thwack!” out of nowhere. It dawns on me that the crashing might be coming from the room where the meetings are taking place. If this is the case, I hope it is a technique reserved for the most advanced students. As people reappear, I surreptitiously study them for signs of trauma.

My turn arrives. I bow to my cushion upon standing and again to the altar as I leave the room. I enter the dark hall, where I open the meeting room’s door. The Zen master is sitting cross-legged on his cushion. I scan the area for a two-by-four but see nothing. I walk in and perform the “sandwich bow” that the abbot showed me earlier. It is comprised of two bows at the waist with a single prostration of forehead to floor in between. Although it is optional, I was told it is the traditional way of greeting a master. I am hoping this lessons the severity of my beating should one be in store.

The master

I don’t know what to expect from a private meeting with a Zen master. Part of me hopes it will be like sitting with Buddha himself. He will say some phrase that will ping around my skull releasing profound wisdom. Or maybe he won’t say anything, just put a hand to my head and pass on enlightenment via touch. I’ve been told that my “dharma interview” is a chance for me to ask a question, which seems like good timing because I have one that’s been gnawing at me.

I want to see if he understands why, at times when it seems I’m finally getting a hang of this meditation thing, I’ll be rudely yanked out of my peaceful contemplation by some awful sensation. It’s the sharp crack of panic, or some other random thing like the explosion of itches. They come out of left field, in response to nothing; I’m not considering anything troubling when I’m stricken with the anxiety. In fact, it happens when I’m especially absorbed in the meditation practice, which is why I find it perplexing. The Zen master will probably say I just need to ramp up my efforts to stay on the side of the metaphorical “thought highway,” firmly planted in the “big me” zone. When I get lazy, I must wander into the on-coming traffic.

This particular Zen master is a Jew by birth and psychotherapist by trade—two characteristics that apparently lend themselves to being a good student of Buddhism; I’ve found they are not uncommon among practitioners in the area. My consultation with him is part of a one-day meditation retreat. I became familiar with this opportunity and the master a few nights earlier at the weekly lesson for newcomers held at this particular center, which occupies an historic school house in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The Buddhism practiced here hails from Korea and often employs seemingly mysteriously combinations of words or strange little questions as part of the path to enlightenment. The master told us that during his own meditation he favors a silent statement for each inhalation and exhalation. “Clear mind,” he says, breathing in; “Know nothing,” he says, breathing out. He invites us to use these words or come up with others.

This Buddhism bears a resemblance to the type I experienced at the other Zen center I visited earlier, which came to the United States via Japan. At both, those further along in their practice are distinguished by robes, bowing is frequent, decorations are subdued, and walking is orderly. However, seated meditation here does not take place facing the walls. The cushions are set up so that we sit side-by-side facing the middle of the room. I’ve watched others coming and going, so I know to bow as I enter the main sanctuary and then again before I sit. Today, I am assigned a spot between two more experienced practitioners. I bow to my cushion and take my place.

Loving-kindness contemplation

All this thinking about karma makes me wonder about what I left for the students who came after me; I’d like to make it better. I’ve come to campus today to try a “loving-kindness contemplation,” an exercise to improve both personal and shared karmas.

I was introduced to the contemplation a few nights earlier during a “joy class” at a center directly across the street from campus. This particular organization teaches a version of Buddhism tailored for a secular audience. While its founders claim that the practices are rooted in the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, they have been tweaked and elaborated upon to appeal to Westerners, particularly those who might want to focus on the benefit to society at large. Individuals are taught a variety of contemplative tools not just to promote their own joy and peace, but to help create a culture of kindness, generosity, and courage.

They call those who engage in this work “spiritual warriors.” I can see why they say it requires bravery: to do it properly one must face painful realities. I had thought reviewing my past behaviors and actions would be the hardest task but I see now that those never existed in isolation. My private dramas were unfolding alongside these communal events, their causes and effects crisscrossing and overlapping in mysterious ways. Did those events influence me? Did my thoughts and actions contribute to them? A Buddhist would answer “yes” to both—though no one can know precisely how or to what extent.

Having come to the end of my recollections of my college years, my heart feels a bit battered and sore. This, I am told, is a good place to start. In my joy class, I learned that spiritual warriors are those willing to wade through the muck turned up by their own tender hearts. It is important to keep going even when the journey gets tough, to learn to dwell in the discomfort. This is fertile ground for compassion.

A loving-kindness contemplation transforms the pain into something positive. You might channel it as contentment or good will or the absence of suffering, but the idea is to share the feelings that radiate from an open heart in some systematic fashion; experts generally suggest starting with a recipient for whom it is easier to summon kind feelings and move out from there.

In the version we practiced in class, guided by the instructor, we were told to start with ourselves by thinking these words: “May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.” For about a minute I concentrated on that sentiment, but I couldn’t feel any tenderness for myself. My heart softened when we were told to repeat the statement, but replace ourselves with someone we love. Then we were instructed to direct happiness to those for whom our emotions are “neutral” and, finally, to those we find “challenging.” I was able to scrape up a sense of compassion for both categories—certainly more so than I had for myself.

Sitting on Sproul Plaza, I put my own spin on the exercise. My recollections have left a delicate ache in my chest, and I know I must use that sensation. As uncomfortable as it might seem, I must kindle it—cup my palms around that spark and see if I can’t help it ignite. Because I’ve been thinking of the earthquake and the fires, I turn that raw softness to the victims of those tragedies. I expand my feelings to encompass everyone affected by those events, all who were attending school here at the time or lived in the region. Then I think of the participants in my joy class, some of whom seemed so sad, and I send them this warmth that oozes from my broken heart. I offer it to all the students, every drop of the river that continues to flow through this institution. The flame of my tenderness is stoked; now I picture a map of the United States and I see it spread out from where I sit. I send it across the land and over the ocean; it travels North, South, East and West. I keep going until the light that emanates from my heart wraps around the entire globe.

At the end, I have one person yet to be officially included: me.

Then I realize there’s no reason to treat myself separately. By extending my compassion to everyone, I’ve included myself. I’m part of the network of humanity. When I see it like that, I feel a surge of sympathy for the girl I was and the woman I am. I’m just another person doing the best she can.

Karma

I can track my college career by tragedies. A few weeks after the start of my freshman, a violent earthquake collapsed a section of the Bay Bridge and part of the freeway in Oakland. It flattened houses and set businesses ablaze. I was walking to class when it hit; I tripped and blamed the uneven sidewalk.

My sophomore year began with a fire in a fraternity house that killed three students. Just a couple weeks later, and within a few short blocks, a terrifying situation took place in a popular bar. A psychotic gunman held hostage 33 people, most students. After seven hours of terror, police managed to bust in and the deranged man was shot dead—as was a student who took a bullet to the chest.

How does that kind of fear and destruction affect us? Some are touched directly. The victims whose time was cut short, their family and friends—those lives are obviously altered to some degree or another. What about everyone else? The quake killed 63 people, injured almost 4,000, and left many homeless (some estimates of those needing shelter were as high as 12,000). But in ways difficult to fathom, none of us was left unscathed. Aftershocks of that and the other tragedies rippled out.

Fall semester of my junior year, another fire tore through the Oakland and Berkeley hills. I watched its progression from the window of my second-story apartment south of campus on Telegraph Avenue. The tenets of my building were asked to prepare for evacuation. We waited for further word, our radios dialed to pick up what our eyes couldn’t. I saw the fire come around the bend from Oakland toward the houses on the hills above like some hungry dragon laying waste to everything in its path. It was sneaking up on a house I had always admired, a Victorian painted crisp white against the dark hillside. I told myself the fire would stop before it got there; that house was special, it deserved to survive. Then the trees around the house ignited as easily as birthday candles and a few seconds later the roof was smoking. Too soon, it was nothing but the outline of a house, everything but its frame consumed by an inferno within, leaving a skeleton against a bright white light. The only other time I can remember feeling as helpless, horrified, and heartbroken as that moment was watching live footage of the twin towers collapse on September 11, 2001.

I still recall the pieces of burned things that rained down for days after the fire was contained. Even after the sky began to clear, slowly turning from dark grey to hazy orange, bits of blackened stuff floated through the air. I snatched one of these items as it fluttered past me on campus. It was part of a page from a book, charred illegible and so delicate it crumbled in my hand.

Had we somehow brought these events upon ourselves? Related to Buddha’s theory of causation, is the concept of “karma.” It’s the application of Buddha’s theory on a personal level: an individual’s actions and thoughts affect the events that occur in that person’s life. According to this idea, the students and the people of this community, area, and region were responsible in some way for the misfortunes that were befalling us. Had the 25 people killed in the fire done something awful to deserve their fates? What about the thousands whose homes were destroyed? Taken too literally, the concept of karma can seem to blame those who suffer tragedy. Cancer patients grow their own tumors. Jews caused the Holocaust. Thankfully, I’m told that’s far too simplistic a take on karma. There’s personal karma, but there’s also collective karma, which are social and historical forces too broad and complex for sorting through and allotting culpability. Personal and collective karmas crash and mix in unpredictable and mysterious ways.