The trial

The religions I’ve explored all have central figures that faced a period of deprivation. Jesus retreated to the Judean Desert for 40 days, consuming nothing but water. The Jews experienced 40 years of isolation and adversity in the desert. Guatama Siddartha sat for 49 days under a Bodhi tree. In each case, this time of hardship is an essential component of the story. It precedes a breakthrough, a vital step before a vision is clarified, the homeland is reached, or enlightenment is achieved. The suffering is designed to purify and to prove. It forges the key actors into who they are supposed to become: Christ, Israel, Buddha.

I didn’t go anywhere, but Ramadan had brought the trial to me. I had walked through a desert of my own creation for 30 days. I had spent hours with my cheek against the bathroom floor. I went days with dogs as my only company. I shed copious tears. I came face to face with despair. I emerged, several pounds lighter and a bit weary. But I was tougher and more fearless.

After Ramadan, I redoubled my efforts to find a mentor who could help me with the practical aspects of Muslim worship. This time, I emailed my appeal to the president of the Muslim Student Association on campus. I explained a little about myself, that I was exploring religion, and that I was looking for someone to teach me to perform the daily prayers. Then, just in case he wasn’t sure I meant business, I wrote that I had completed the most recent Ramadan. He wrote back immediately. Within a week, I had plans to meet a female graduate student from Egypt.

Via email, Mandisa suggested I come to the mosque at 8 pm on Saturday night. I wasn’t sure what to expect—if it would be just the two of us or if I was showing up for an already-planned event. Either way, I wasn’t about to quibble. I told her I’d be there.

I pulled into the parking lot a few minutes early. I had only ever seen one or two cars here and now it was full. People were also arriving on foot. I sat frozen watching for several minutes. I had dressed in what I hoped was appropriate attire: a skirt to my ankles and a long-sleeve shirt. It was the same outfit from my time spent among Orthodox Jews. I had also brought a plain white scarf big enough to cover my hair and hang past my shoulders. I tossed it into my bag just in case. I thought if the circumstances seemed to demand it, I’d drape it loosely over my head. Now I could see that all the women had their heads wrapped tightly. I pulled my scarf out and used my rear view mirror to put it in place. When I was done, I hardly recognized myself.

I finally got out of my car. I noticed an older woman standing nearby, staring at me. She must have watched me struggle with my scarf. She looked like someone’s sweet granny, her ample frame obscured by bundles of fabric, only the precious moon of her face exposed. She smiled and said, “You go this way.” Thank you, I responded and went in the direction she pointed.

The women were streaming toward the back of the building, and the men to the front. I got in line behind a few women and ahead of a couple more. I walked right in and no one said a word. I thought it must look like I belonged—that my attire was communicating the fact that I was a Muslim—and I was suddenly worried. I was donning this garb as a gesture of respect, but now I realized it might also function as misinformation. Were my clothes telling a lie? What I thought I was saying and what I was actually saying weren’t necessarily the same. It was problem I hadn’t considered until now.

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.

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.

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.

How to pray to Buddha

“This is how you pray to Buddha,” says Dora, who hails from the Philippines. She is an acquaintance who has offered to take me to a service at her temple. We are in her car, driving to Oakland. As I strapped into the passenger seat, she showed me the laminated picture dangling from her rearview mirror. “Medicine Buddha,” she said.

“You bow. You tell Buddha your name.” Dora seems excited that I’ve agreed to accompany her. She is in her mid-40s, a single mom to a teenage boy. She works as a care-taker to an elderly gentleman, an atheist who gives her Sunday mornings off, but playfully teases her for wanting to use them to attend religious services. “You tell Buddha where you live, the year you were born, if you have kids, remind him. So many people on earth. You jog Buddha’s memory.”

I smile. I like this idea. This is the first I’m hearing of engaging in dialogue with Buddha like a Christian might God.

She glances at me, very serious. “After you introduce, then you talk. But don’t ask Buddha for material things. Don’t say, ‘Buddha, I want money.’ You ask for ‘success,’ you ask for ‘piss.’”

I turn to her. “Piss?”

She nods emphatically. “Yes, you ask Buddha for piss. You say, ‘Please, make me pissful.”

“Oh, peace.”

“Yes, piss.” She gives a look like, boy, does she have her work cut out.

Dora’s temple is part of a Buddhist order that prides itself on practicing a version of the faith that integrates many types of Buddhism. It accommodates monastics, both male and female, and caters to laypeople all over the world with universities and schools. Its temples may hold services on Sundays and engage in many similar practices to the Buddhist church I attended, but here the Pure Land concept gets an official tweak. Instead of worshipping with the hope of being reborn in paradise, the goal is to create a Pure Land here on earth by working to improve oneself and society. This Buddhism is sometimes referred to as “Humanistic” and some scholars say it marks a turning point—a sort of “reformation” in which the faith addresses the needs of a modern world. Using the goodness of the human Buddha as a role model, the leaders in this sect promote social responsibility and religious dialogue.

I marvel that so grounded a vision of Buddhism can be flexible enough to oblige Dora’s way of thinking—which, from my perspective, is somewhat “magical.” Apparently, this is not uncommon among the faithful whose previous belief systems merged with Buddhism. Dora speaks casually of spirit beings visiting her in the dream realm. She explains that burning incense opens a channel, either to an upper-level world or to a lower-level world, depending on the intention with which it is lit and if proper prayers are offered. She warns me to be cautious: people who use incense just because they like the smell may end up on a slippery chute to some place they never intended.

We come to a part of town where the street signs are Chinese characters. As we park, Dora points to a small square structure with a pagoda-style roof. The sanctuary’s doors open directly to the street; they are open and the activity spills on the sidewalk at a busy intersection. We pass through smoke rising from a large metal bowl holding incense sticks and then we are standing inside. The room is packed with people squatting on low benches arranged with a single aisle down the middle.

The altar at the front of the room is occupied by a tall Buddha statue, just as I’ve seen in other locations. Here, the main figure has a buddy on either side, smaller versions or other incarnations.

Around these are fresh additions: impressive pyramids of mangoes and apples. Everywhere, my gaze falls upon a new, stunning object, some item like a flower or a tree cast in metal or carved in stone. Bright, fantastical images adorn the walls. I’ve entered a life-size jewel box, a tiny patch of Pure Land.

The big ME

After the talk, it’s time for a bit of walking meditation. This is a different style of walking meditation than the more militaristic type I experienced at the Zen center. Today, our instructor explains, we should make our way slowly around the garden, each according to our own whim, pausing every few steps. She tells us to look around, and try to gaze upon everything as if we have never seen it before. “Each time,” she tells us, “create a never-heard story for how that vision came to be.” I’m not entirely certain what she means by this, but I get the gist: we should practice moving through the world like she appears to.

My classmates and I set off in all directions like dazed sleepwalkers. I begin my trek toward the coy pond, stopping along the way to take in the golden curves of the stupa and a flag with squiggly script. “What is this amazing new sight?” I ask myself. It’s not so hard, I find these items fascinating. I try objects that are more familiar: an open rose and, then, a stone from the path. “Wow, look at that,” I tell myself.

I try to feel all the wonder of seeing something like the Grand Canyon for the first time. A flower, a chunk of rock—these things truly are remarkable if you look at them like that. It’s good to remember. But what would happen if I tried this with mundane things from my everyday existence like a piece of junk mail or an empty skillet? For a moment, the spell is broken. I think how nuts this group would look to an outsider who saw us meandering the yard like overly-medicated patients of a funny farm. Then even that gets lenses through which nothing has a set explanation, and I slip back into my hallucinatory dream.

When the class reconvenes, it’s time for seated meditation. I get comfortable in a plastic deck chair. I lower my eyelids to half-mast and focus on the sensations playing all around: the breeze against my skin, the gurgle of water, the rustle of leaves. I don’t know if it’s sitting outside or if the teacher’s example has nudged me forward, but today I see more clearly the essential dichotomy of being human. Each of us has a “little me,” what we conceive of as a distinct self, hungry for us to believe that’s all we are. The contours of its identity strengthen when we are caught up in ideas; memories of the past, worries about the future: the highway of thoughts is its domain. When we step away from the thinking and plant our feet in the present moment, we become a part of something immeasurable: the “big me.”

Suddenly what I feel is more expansive than the view to the ocean out front. I see that I can choose to let the “little me” have the power, or I can challenge its authority. I breathe in a beautiful state of bliss. All around is space and I am a part of it. I am nowhere and everywhere. “Here it is!” a voice shouts. I feel like a runner who has been struggling for miles and then, miraculously, hits her stride. I could go and go and go. Has it always been this easy? I want to hold this feeling forever. What if I can’t hold it forever? A thunderbolt of panic rips through me. My chest constricts and my heart beats wildly. I had been falling with no end in sight and now the ground has risen up to smack me. It’s awful to have the bliss slapped out of me and, yet, a part of me is relieved.

The zendo

For most of my life, I’ve conceived of my past as something as solid and real as a ladder, and the events that comprise it as true as rungs underfoot. Frequently, I paused to consider the lowest treads, the particulars that had made it a difficult climb—the broken home, the financial insecurity, the frequent moving, the spotty schooling. In college, I clung tightly to the rails. I had to work harder than everyone else, I told myself. I had to hold down a job and study twice as diligently. I couldn’t let my white-knuckle focus lapse for even an instant, or I might lose footing. I was nudged forward by the sorrowful plot points. In a sense, the story was living me, not the other way around.

I was not fond of the ladder on which I stood. I thought if I changed my environment then everything that had led up to that moment might be transformed, that I might shed my story like a snake does its skin. I remember junior year I decided what I needed, the one thing that would brighten my existence, was an apartment with an outdoor space where I could sit. So senior year I moved into a place with a patio. But it was just a concrete slab with a few sad plants; I was no happier. My stupid story had followed me there.

To pursue Buddhism where I went to college is a funny task because it is here where my investment in “the story” solidified, where I fine-tuned and polished it to sparkly gleam. And it is just this sort of attachment to story that Buddhism attempts to rid us of by encouraging us to always come back to the present moment, to learn to release the steady stream of thoughts on which the story is built.

Still, being in Berkeley, a part of me can’t help but feel teleported into the past, to sense my ghostly doppelganger dangling precariously from her ladder. I see something and suddenly I’m looking through the lens of the 20-year-old me. This is exactly what happens when I enter a Zen center with a lush exterior courtyard. “This is just what I had in mind,” I think, referring to the outdoor space I thought could miraculously soothe me senior year. As this thought putters by, I am aware of how silly it is. Even if time collapsed and the old me somehow had access to this sumptuous garden, it wouldn’t have mattered. My interior terrain would have remained unchanged.

This particular Zen center is on a residential street within walking distance to the places I lived junior and senior years—the one without, and the one with, a patio. It is made up of two houses next door to one another and their separate backyards have been combined to create an oasis of serenity and to accommodate other structures. One is a zendo, a traditional Buddhist meditation hall that looks like a Japanese gingerbread house and adds to the charm of the courtyard. Long wood steps lead to the zendo’s porch and offer a perch for removing shoes.

When I arrive, the sun is only starting to rise. I’m 15 minutes early for the seated meditation that begins at 6 am. I enter the yard quietly, cognizant of the fact that several people live in these houses—a couple of monks who run the place, one of whom is married and raised his children here. As I sit on the zendo’s steps, the garden slowly illuminates, and I hear the reassuring rustle of people starting their days.

Sangha

Tonight I’m participating in a group, or “sangha,” that meets regularly to meditate. Like Christianity and Judaism, Buddhism emphasizes the importance of people coming together to practice. Whether this speaks to the transformative alchemy of multiples or the importance of learning to put up with the guy with sniffles, or both, is hard to say.

Many sanghas are formed by the regular meditation periods held at the various Buddhist centers, but others are less formal groups of ordinary people who assemble on their own. I’m surprised to learn how prevalent these gatherings are—at the coffee shops and Buddhist establishments I visit around campus I pick up half a dozen little flyers advertising the different sanghas in the area. Some groups cater to a specific demographic, or life-experience, such as age range or gender or interest.

Others, like the one I select, are more general. Anyone who wants to meditate is invited to this one. It is held once a week, hosted in the office space of a nonprofit organization during off-hours. When I show up, about 20 people are already sitting cross-legged on the carpet in a big circle. The majority here are males who appear to be in the first few years after college. They have that particular dishevelment of young men newly introduced to the regular work week. A smattering of young women breaks up the monotony of bedhead.

I join them on the floor. For several minutes, as we wait for a few stragglers to arrive, I feel exceedingly awkward wedged shoulder-to-shoulder between two strange boys. I fear that at any moment someone will pull out an empty bottle, place it in center, give it a whirl and I will be forced to endure the most uncomfortable game of Spin the Bottle known to humankind. Thankfully, this does not happen. The facilitator, a young man whose crisp shirt lends him an air of authority, announces that it is time to begin. He claps together two wood rods and everyone settles into stillness.

The soft focus of my gaze falls mid-circle; I can make out my fellow meditators along the periphery. It’s a new challenge to see those bodies, but not let them distract me from the task. I watch my thoughts approach and recede, resisting the urge to let them sweep me away. I start to enjoy the rhythm of my thinking, how the ideas rise and fall, rise and fall, like the surface of water.

I’m so relaxed. I’m floating on the sea. I think of the popular Buddhist analogy of the ocean: each of us is like a wave. We think of ourselves as distinct and separate entities but we come from, and return to, a common source. At this exact second, I understand this sentiment not just as an objective concept; I feel the absolute truth of it at the core of my being.

But it’s too big a thought and suddenly it scares me. A tingle of panic moves from my belly to my chest. It begins to block the air to my lungs. I think I’m about to pass out. Maybe I’m dying. I’m on the verge of grabbing the guy on my left and begging for help. He will understand. He will tell me to lie down and put my feet up. Everyone will stop meditating and come to my aid. One will fetch a cup of water; another will say it’s going be fine. The thought of the aid from my fellow meditators is enough to slow my pulse. I hang on another few seconds and the anxiety eases. I take a deep breath and the lightheadedness lifts. I’m going to be okay. Tears of gratitude come to my eyes; they don’t even know how much they helped me.

Ferry captain

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.