The tortoise

Out in the countryside beyond the palace, Siddhārtha studies with various wise men, and practices different techniques. He stays with a group of ascetics who attempt to achieve understanding by eating as little as possible. In diminishing the physical, they hope to strengthen their grasp of the metaphysical. Siddhārtha starves himself to the brink of death, but this strategy only perpetuates his pain. He comes to see it as another expression of his discomfort with the “ever-present problem of life and death.”

For six years, Siddhārtha continues in this pattern of discontent, unhappy with his life and miserable at the thought of death. He learns to make some concessions to his physical needs—sufficient food and a few creature comforts—but he still struggles with accepting things as they are, with feeling at peace in light of his human condition. He finds a pleasant spot under a tree, close enough to the trunk that he can lean against it if he needs to, and makes a nice place to sit with a bed of straw. He commits to staying put until he finds a way to put an end to his suffering. For a time, he falls into old habits: he gets caught up in the past; he worries about the future. Finally, he manages to subdue those thoughts, to plant his feet firmly in the “now.” At last, at the age of 35, he arrives at nirvana or “the extinction of all concepts.” He sees things just as they are, not filtered through memories or projections or ideas. His search for a more suitable place to be comes to an end. He settles into the simple peace that only the present moment can provide.

This newfound perspective transforms Siddhārtha into Buddha and eliminates his trepidation about life and death by providing him with a deeper understanding of the human condition. To communicate this insight to others, he used a number of analogies. One in particular involves a single blind tortoise swimming in a vast ocean on the surface of which floats a gold ring. The tortoise comes up for air only once every 100 years. It is rarer, said the Buddha, to be born human than for the turtle to come up for a breath with its neck through the ring.

The tortoise helps lift a burden I hadn’t realized I was carrying. From the Bible, I knew others had characterized the gate to life as narrow, but to have it acknowledged as so infinitesimally slender further illustrates the unimaginable odds. To sense this, and not put words to it, is to feel overwhelmed, even to perceive its enormity as a burden. But to acknowledge it is to bring it into the open, to begin to embrace those slim chances, to start on a path from fear to gratitude. At the same time, the analogy hints at the countless eons before and after the turtle emerges to breathe the air; the time it may spend with its head through the ring is a brief flicker in a larger story.

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Siddhārtha

In the accounts we have of many religious figures, the events that occur after the person has embarked on their primary mission are what matter most. The story of Jesus really takes off when he leaves his life as a carpenter and begins a nomadic existence teaching and helping others. The Moses narrative gains momentum once he gathers up the Jews and leads them out of Egypt. For both men, we have some biographical information about who they were before they became who they were meant to become. But details about their emotional states in the months or years leading up their choice to act, to change their lives completely, are left largely for us to speculate. I can only imagine that neither made their decision lightly, that whatever tug they felt in their hearts was the result of careful consideration, sleepless nights, and probably tears. Perhaps they even put off the final verdict until the prospect of not acting was more terrifying than facing the unknown that lay ahead.

In the story that’s passed down of Siddhārtha Gautama’s life, the part before he becomes “Buddha” is emphasized. Like what we know of Protestant reformer Martin Luther, his private suffering takes center stage.

Siddhārtha’s father, the king of the region where they lived in India, wanted so badly for his son to be enamored with his life. He didn’t want his son to face any of the unpleasant realities of the human experience. The king built a high wall around the palace to block out the muck of the surrounding city; only vibrant people were permitted entry. If someone was injured while on the royal grounds, they were whisked away and not permitted back until fully recoverd. On the few occasions that the prince was allowed beyond the wall, attendants were instructed to prepare the route to prevent any chance encounters with disagreeable conditions like old age, illness, or death. The streets were swept clean, the facades coated in fresh paint, and the elderly asked to stay indoors. But small cracks in the shiny veneer do not escape Siddhārtha’s keen eye. He spots a wizened, hunched man. Later, in another outing, he happens upon a desperately sick person and, eventually, sees a dead body being cremated in a funeral pyre. When he presses for answers, his attendant admits that no one is exempt from these fates.

The greater the effort to shield the prince, the more pronounced his suffering grew. What had been a twinge of dissatisfaction deteriorated into full-blown misery. He was terrified at the thought of his life one day being over and, at the same time, tormented by the very existence he was afraid to see end; he was bored by the pursuit of superficial pleasures, all the lounging and gazing upon dancing ladies. On an outing, Siddhārtha encounters one of the many religious vagabonds who wandered the kingdom. “Who are you?” he asks the man. The vagabond replies, “I am a recluse who, terrified by birth and death, has adopted a homeless life to win salvation…” Something in this response rings true; Siddhārtha leaves the palace to spend time like the wanderer searching for a solution to what he calls “the ever-present problem of life and death.”

God-like zone

As I begin to meditate, it’s not hard to imagine my thoughts as cars because the sanctuary room is near an actual busy street, providing the appropriate sound effect. It’s much harder not to hitch a ride, especially when what I think is a flashy one passes—something that promises to sweep me away into a scenery of self-loathing.

Like this time when I was an undergrad and a handful of people showed up at my apartment—invited, though not by me. They filed in and sat in the living room, happy and friendly. I was annoyed at them, and at my roommate, which I made obvious with my cold, standoffish demeanor. I had just made a large tart with a sack of figs from a tree out front. It was hot from the oven and big enough to share, but I refused to offer one bite. I set it on top of the fridge and harrumphed around the kitchen within earshot of the guests. In a flash, I am back at that afternoon, only now it is accompanied with an unpleasant physical sensation, heaviness on my shoulders and constriction in my chest. I breathe and realize I have been carried so far from my place at the side of the road. I am in the next county. I make that stupid jalopy bring me back to the present moment and drop me off. Go! I shout as it sputters away.

As I watch the taillights on that particular thought recede, it occurs to me to question what is going on here. If the road is my mind, and the cars are my thoughts—and I am standing off to the side, apart from both of those things, then where am I? How is it that my mind can observe my mind? Do I have two minds? Or two parts of one mind? I seem to have a narrower one—represented by the road—and then something much bigger—the version that encompasses everything outside of the road, the one that can watch over the other one. It’s this vaster version I come back to when I refuse to let my thoughts take me away and opt instead to stay firmly planted in the present moment.

In Buddhism, no deity exists in the way that many Westerners conceive of God, as a separate entity or creator. But I’ve noticed some Buddhists speak of an infinite source from which everything derives, of oneness and unity, descriptions that sound similar to how many Christians and Jews speak of the divine. I’m seeing how this spot on the side of the road, the present moment, is a God-like zone.

Instruction

From where I sit in the house-turned-Buddhist monastery, I can see through to the kitchen. I watch a cat saunter across the linoleum and rub its neck against a corner of cabinetry. This sight triggers a chain of thoughts: I wonder what it’s like to be a pet among Buddhists. I chuckle at the idea that it pretends to be a regular pet around the monastery but offers spiritual guidance to the neighbor cats in the alley like some feline guru.

My story is interrupted by a mellow-looking college-aged guy walking into the room. I wouldn’t peg him as someone in need of meditation, but he’s followed closely by a frazzled woman I would. She looks stunned to have made it on time, her blonde hair sticking out in all directions.

The two newcomers join me on the folding chairs and the monk begins his instructions. Mostly he tries to undo what might be our pre-conceived notions of meditation. You don’t have to sit top-half ramrod straight, bottom-half twisted up like a pretzel. You should be comfortable, find a position that works for you. That might be cross-legged on the floor, but you can also use a little bench with your legs tucked underneath, or even a chair. Think of your spine more like a stack of coins than a broomstick, and just breathe naturally. You don’t need to take giant, lung-bursting breaths—though if you want to take a few of those, that’s fine. You may also want to focus on your breaths, the gentle inhalation and exhalation of air into and out of your lungs. The fingers of both your hands should come together roughly at your abdomen—ideally, thumb to thumb—so that your arms form a gentle loop, as do your fingers. Ideally, eyes are open, but relaxed—kind of a soft focus into the middle distance.

All of this is preamble to the most important part. Your mind doesn’t have to be “empty,” he tells us. The idea is neither to pursue nor push away the thoughts that arise. He provides an analogy, further elaborated upon in a handout he gives us. Imagine yourself standing on the shoulder of a freeway and the cars that pass are your thoughts. You see them coming, but then you let them go. You may suddenly find yourself riding in one, and that’s okay. Just try not to get too far down the lane. When you notice yourself being carried off, return to your spot on the side of the road.

It sounds a lot easier than it actually is, at least for a beginner. I know because for the next hour or so I try it. Out in the sanctuary, the other newbies and I join several seasoned meditators who have arrived during our orientation. We each select meditation pads. Here, it is customary to face the wall during meditation, not the altar. I settle on a half-lotus, cross-legged but with one foot tucked beneath my thigh, the other resting on top. I wedge a sturdy round cushion under my tail bone until my back feels sturdy. I practice a gentle gaze at the tiny nubs of white stucco. A small cymbal pings.

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.

The bucking

Before I entered the main sanctuary of the Buddhist monastery, I had obeyed a sign requesting that I remove my shoes. Other than that, I wasn’t sure what to do. I understood that it was okay for me to be here because the monastery hosts a public meditation hour every morning and evening. It also offers classes and interfaith roundtables and provides a home to a handful of monks and nuns.

But I’m the first here on this particular evening, so I take a seat in one of a few chairs at the back of the room. From this vantage, I can watch as people arrive, bowing even before crossing the threshold of the room and then, once they enter, bowing again toward the altar. Each selects from the stack of mats and cushions along the wall, and then arranges them on the floor before taking a seat. After several minutes, a gentle gong sounds and everyone settles down, growing so still and quiet inside that it seems to magnify the sounds from the street. Rap music spills from a passing car and a woman stands nearby chatting on her cell phone.

All I know about meditation at this point is that it’s meant to induce a tranquil state of mind. I command my thoughts to settle down, but they defy my orders and grow more active. I feel like I’m riding one of those mechanical bulls. I yell, “Slower!” and it speeds up instead. At times, I grow so deeply embedded in daydreams of my past it’s like I’m living them again—except through the filter of greater understanding, making them all the more painful. I feel guilty and upset at the angsty, angry young woman I was when I went to school here. Waves of sadness wash over me, and tears sting my eyes. At moments, it’s almost too excruciating to bear and I teeter on the verge of running from the room to find a private spot, a bathroom stall somewhere, where I can bawl my heart out.

Mercifully, the hour comes to an end with me still planted in my seat. People rise and stretch and return their cushions to the stacks. Their serene expressions seem to indicate that they’ve enjoyed a reprieve from the day’s chaos. As I stand, I feel quite the opposite. I’m relieved that the bucking has stopped and I am walking away in one piece.

Later that night, I organize the pile of books I brought and work out a flow chart of Buddhist centers I plan to visit. Any large university will have lots of places of worship nearby, but Berkeley has an inordinate number of Buddhist options. They surround campus on all sides and represent derivations of the faith from Korea, China, Japan, Tibet, and Thailand. Some, like the monastery I visited earlier this evening, offer a hybrid approach, emphasizing various aspects of different traditions. Most provide instruction sessions—orientations, classes, talks—throughout the week and I hope to attend as many of these as possible. I’ve decided to take an aggressive approach to getting peaceful.

Buddhism

I am sitting in the sanctuary of a Buddhist monastery “meditating.” I put that in quotes because what I’m really doing is resting in a chair, thinking. I’ve decided to stop in Berkeley, California on my way back to Washington state from Los Angeles. The route home had me passing right by on the freeway and then I was offered the use of a guest room, free reign to come and go as I please for as long as want. I tried to come up with a good reason to decline but could think of none. I plan to stay for a few weeks to explore Buddhism, which feels appropriate not just because the Bay Area is a hot spot for this particular faith, but also because of how I behaved when I was going to school here. As long as I’m going back and staring down old demons, I suppose it’s time to face the crappy karma I left in this particular place.

As a college student, I was not what you would call “lots of fun.” I was the person who hissed at people for talking in the dorm hallway past 10 p.m., who scowled at merry pranksters for laughing too loudly. I was very anxious about my grades and about proper behavior. I was an “old soul”—but not the beautiful, wise kind you hear about; I was more the grumpy, frowny kind. I suppose it was evidence of that old river of shame—the potent mix of fear and anger that had gone dormant in me for a time—bubbling to the surface again. I wanted everyone to suffer with me.

Wherever I was, I always thought somewhere else would be better. When I lived in the dorms, I imagined how much happier I’d be living in a student-run co-op; when I moved to a co-op, I thought I’d really start enjoying life once I had my own apartment; when I had my own apartment, I thought a different, more happiness-inducing apartment was the answer. This discontent clung to me year to year, month to month, second to second. I would reflect on moments that were infinitely better than the one I was currently occupying, perhaps a moment I had lived in the past that hadn’t seemed so great at the time, but now, in retrospect, took on the romantic patina of life lived right. Or, always, I longed for that fantastic future moment that I just knew, once I came to it, would offer up bliss as sure and solid as the ground beneath my feet. Of course, once I got there, happiness eluded my grasp like a phantom.

The monastery in which I am sitting is just a few blocks from my alma mater. The building is actually an old church, the white steeple a reminder of its former incarnation. The pews have been removed from the sanctuary and the tall windows that line either side of the room have been filled with various stained glass depictions of Buddha, some standing and some sitting. The altar remains, but now it has a gold Buddha statue several feet tall sitting on an intricately carved wood table. On either side is an orchid plant, the likes of which I have never seen; each boasts at least a hundred miniature yellow faces grinning out.