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.

7 thoughts on “Ferry captain

  1. I have a big grin on my face because, in this moment, I feel so proud of you for being willing to do what you are doing. Part of me wants to say that only a “None” would do this or someone who was willing to know a little more about Buddhism than a book or cursory glance. The room you speak of reminds me of a time a few years ago when an article appeared in our local paper about a Buddhist nun who had opened a Buddhist Center for meditation. I went to visit her to ask about bringing a group of students who could ask questions as well as be given a brief class on meditation. It turned out to be her living room which she had arranged with a statue of Buddha and low lying tables with thick cushions. I was teaching a class on Self Mastery at my church and I thought the students would enjoy observing the Buddhist way. They did and so did I.

  2. Corinna, a couple of years ago I joined a meditation group which was guided by a very competent, well-trained woman. I couldn’t continue with the group because of a conflict with another activity, but reading about your experience made me swing back to that time in my memory and to remember how much I liked being able to calm the chatter in my brain.Those of us who do inner processing often have too much going on about what might be, what could be, what could have been, what will probably never be….you know what I mean. Being able to refocus my inner attention to my breathing instead of to that incessant talk was a relief. It makes me realize that I want to find a different group to join….I need that “ferry captain” to get me where I need to go in terms of helpful instruction, I guess I would say. Thanks.

    • Hi Merrill, They say we can learn to do this meditation thing on our own, but I think at least in the beginning it really helps to have a guide and a little positive peer pressure of others engaging in the practice. It’s sort of how I feel about yoga…I have my own mat and, technically, I could do it on my own but unless I have an instructor and others around me doing it, I just won’t challenge myself.

      • Yes, and I suspect that’s one of the reasons why people join a church. We are all capable of “doing it on my own” but want to be challenged by an instructor (minister/rabbi/priest) and feel supported by “others around me doing it”. I’ve been watching some interesting t.v. interviews with ministers and educators about how the current generation is changing to be more inclusive in their religious or spiritual thinking and open up to others who worship differently from themselves. I like this. Not always easy. I’m thinking of the Methodist minister who performed the marriage of his gay son to another man and how the Methodist church wants to defrock him even though they accept gays into the church, they don’t want them getting married. Another “challenge” for many. Also enjoying Christiane Ammanpour’s CNN Sunday evening special on traveling through the history of Bible lands and their application to the stories…..or not…..I wonder if some think that if they became more inclusive they would lose that special relationship they feel with Jesus or God. I think they might be surprised to learn that the relationship with either one would, instead, be greatly enhanced.

        • Hi Frank, I’ve been noticing the same thing about stories of younger people having that impulse to be more inclusive, both religiously/spiritually and in terms of gender/race/identity. There’s a story making headlines here in Washington about a Catholic high school that just dismissed its much-beloved vice principal for marrying his (male) partner. The students are staging protests and the students from other Catholic high schools have joined in with their support. They say it probably won’t get him reinstated (apparently he violated a contract) but I find it so beautiful that young people are showing older people the way on this and other human rights issues. However, for every story I read like this, there’s a Duck Dynasty to make me realize there’s still a ways to go….

  3. Hi Corinna: I thoroughly enjoyed the explanation as to how Siddhartha began to practice meditation….I’ve done something like that…very insightful. It seems to me there is so much noise in our society that it makes it even more difficult to seek peace…aggressively or otherwise! I was listening to a couple psychologists discussing the physiological changes in the brain because of increasing and overuse of technology, especially by our young people…very much like an addiction.
    I AM very much thankful for the technology that allows us to communicate here!! 🙂
    Here’s to a more peaceful new year!

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