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.

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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.

My fortune

Dora is excited for me to have my fortune told. After a lunch of stir fried tofu served soup-kitchen style in a back room, I follow her back to the main sanctuary. The rows of little sitting benches have been put away and Dora drags out a bigger prayer bench. This one has a slanted top allowing for an easier up and down movements required for sequences of prostrations. She positions it in front of the altar.

“Remember I told you how to talk to Buddha?”

I nod. I hadn’t realized she intended me to use those instructions today.

“Good. You do it. At the end, ask an important question.”

She points at the bench and I assume the position. I rest my knees on the platform and bend at the waist so that my forehead rests on the taller edge closest to the altar. I turn my cupped hands palm up as if I were holding the feet of baby Buddha. Just as Dora explained, I formally introduce myself. I provide the year and location of my birth, my current whereabouts, and a few details about my home life. I wrack my brain for a significant question. Finally, I decide on an issue that’s been weighing heavily on me: should I write about these religious experiences I’ve been seeking? So far, I’ve taken a few notes here and there, but I haven’t committed to undergoing the long, arduous effort of arranging it on paper. I feel extreme trepidation. As a None, is this even a topic about which I have a right to write?

When I open my eyes and come up, Dora is standing before me with a jar filled with small bamboo slats, a big grin on her face like she is presenting a bouquet of chopsticks.

“Pick,” she commands.

I pull one out and look at it. Burnt onto the tip is a number.

Dora takes it. “Come,” she says.

I follow her into an adjacent room. Along the wall is a series of little drawers like you might see in a garage to organize nuts and bolts. She opens the one with the same number as my stick and pulls out a slip of paper no bigger than a receipt. She studies it before letting me look. On it, are the Chinese characters for a Buddhist Sutra; even if I could read it, there’s no guarantee I’d understand if or how that ancient poem answered my question.

“Let’s get a nun,” Dora suggests. “She’ll tell us.”

I try to keep up with Dora as she hurries around, scanning for a particular nun. We find her out front, wishing visitors well as they depart. Dora hands her the piece of paper and points to me. I hadn’t been planning to put too much stock in the outcome of this exercise, but now I start to worry. What if Buddha puts the kibosh on this subject? I hadn’t realized how excited I had become about the possibility.

For several minutes, Dora and the nun go back and forth. Dora looks very serious, and the tone of their conversation seems heated. This cannot be a good sign, I think. I suppose if Buddha says ‘no’, I’d still give the endeavor a shot. I mean I can’t just throw up my arms in defeat based on a sutra I got from pulling a random bamboo stick from a jar. That would be bonkers, right?

Finally, Dora turns to me. I brace myself for the news.

“The answer is ‘yes’,” Dora announces.

She continues, “But so much work. So hard. You must be strong for it to be ‘yes’. Otherwise, it’s ‘no’. So much struggle. Barriers to overcome. So hard.”

All the way home, Dora repeats how difficult whatever it is I’ve asked will be, how easily it could tip to “no” if I’m not tough as nails. She seems apologetic, as if she wishes I had received a rosier fortune on her watch. But I’m satisfied. I never expected it would be an easy undertaking. Already it’s been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done—and the most rewarding. I can only imagine how much more challenging it will be to try to tell it in some coherent fashion.

I’m happy with a hard-earned “yes.” Thank Buddha.

Desire is bad

Inside the jewel-box sanctuary, Dora spots two free benches side-by-side and we squeeze our way down a row and take seats. Women in monastic robes mill about, preparing for the service to begin. I am the only non-Asian present. I feel privileged to be a guest. For her part, Dora seems very pleased to have brought someone, especially someone so inexperienced. For each person who turns to look at me, she puffs a bit with pride. She makes a fuss to secure a folder of the phonetic versions of the prayer sutras. She hands it to me with great aplomb, as if to accentuate to all that she has obtained this item on behalf of her clueless guest.

The service kicks off with chanting. Perhaps because the sanctuary is full and the room is not so big, the sound of the voices is particularly powerful. Dora turns my folder to the right page, but it is just a long series of phonic fragments (NA MO HO LA TA NA TO LA YEH YEH, etc.) that every once in a while fall into an arrangement that could mean something in English (CHER LA CHER LA). I’m amazed that everyone here has committed this complicated sequence of syllables, with its intricate intonations, to memory but, then, this is the heart of worship. This exercise improves karma—not just of people in the room; it’s for everyone in the city, the state, the country, and all around the world. I chime in when I can, but even when I have the correct pronunciation, I don’t have the tone just right. Luckily, my mistakes are drowned out by the collective. Certain syllables resound so deeply that the walls seem to vibrate.

On the other side of me is an older gentleman whose full head of dark hair is salted just so. Age has bestowed upon him the rugged good-looks of an Asian Marlboro Man. During the chanting, when he notices I’ve grown silent and Dora’s not looking, he points to my open page—as if my failure to join in were as simple as having lost my place. He continues to make sure I know exactly where we are in the chant. At first he does this surreptitiously so Dora doesn’t notice. Eventually his effort grows more brazen and Dora shoots him a look. He gives her one back, as if to say, “It’s not my fault you’re slacking on the job.”

This little power struggle continues through the dharma talk, for which my Marlboro Man elects himself the superior translator. Perhaps because he better understands the Cantonese in which the talk is given, Dora concedes. It takes me a while to determine that the person giving the talk is female. Her head is shaved and her robe is a variation of the ones worn by the nuns who have hair. Baldness is a great gender neutralizer as are robes, for that matter. I imagine she is the abbot here or some other high-ranking position. She is the spitting image of the founder of this sect, whose picture hangs on the wall, and I notice she is addressed as “Master.”

“She talks about desire,” my Marlboro Man tells me about one minute into her speech. “It’s not good for you.” He goes silent, so I elaborate in my mind. I imagine she’s explaining how that feeling of wanting, craving, grasping—anything other than satisfaction with your immediate situation—removes a person from the present moment. Several minutes go by and I’m tempted to ask what she’s saying now, but I decide not giving in to that impulse is sort of the point of the talk. Finally, he leans over. I can see him struggling to find the right words. “She says desire is bad…” I wait for him to elaborate, to offer some new twist or detail, but he doesn’t. Fifteen minutes go by and the speech winds down. My Marlboro Man shrugs. “Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much.”

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.

Buddhist beauty parlor

The dharma class that I’m joining at the Tibetan Buddhist center is taught by one of the founder’s long-time devotees, who is both a westerner and a woman. It’s a beautiful, sunny day and I’ve been told that we will convene on an outdoor patio. As I make my way to the backyard, I catch a glimpse of a bright red gazebo that appears to contain some sort of merry-go-round. I step into a wonderland: blooms sway, water trickles, birds chirp, sunlight bounces off bright surfaces. A footpath wraps around a coy pond and, upon closer inspection, the gazebo is a carousel—only the riders are more prayer wheels. Against the hillside sits a shiny stupa, a memorial statue to Buddha that is believed to generate good karma; it doesn’t show a figure, but looks like a jaunty crown for some larger-than-life being. Its presence adds to the playful, otherworldly vibe.

On a wood deck, several students have gathered. They are mostly women, all ages, a few Asian. I join them. As we wait for the instructor to arrive, the group alternates between polite chatting and stark silence. Five minutes turns into ten, and ten tick-tocks toward twenty. I begin to doubt that our teacher will show. In college, we had a firm, unspoken rule: if a professor failed to show up in the first ten minutes of class, the students made a celebratory, mass exodus from the room.

Today, no one seems fazed by our leader’s tardiness and because they remain seated and content, I do the same. The enchanting yard and karma from the stupa must be affecting me because I have never in my life been so unbothered by lack of punctuality. After 30 minutes, our instructor comes up the steps. She mentions something about traffic and apologizes. She laughs and says that having to wait is the best beauty treatment: all the anti-aging serums in the world are not as effective as cultivating patience. “So, you’ve all just paid a visit to the Buddhist beauty parlor!”

I think there must be something to what she is saying because she is radiant. Objectively, her looks are ordinary. Perhaps nearing 70, her hair is white and her features are makeup-free and yet, somehow, it adds up to stunning. Her eyes are clear, her smile is wide, and her face is animated with interest. For several minutes, she covers the day’s message about dharma. What is she saying? I hardly notice because I am so focused on how she says it. It’s as if each phrase she speaks is being uttered for the first time—like the words astound even her. Every time her eyes land on something, she seems to take in the sight with fresh curiosity. I’ve heard people explain about “staying in the present” but I’ve never seen it so clearly demonstrated. She is not flogging herself over the past or worrying about the future: she is right there, occupying each new moment. She is the lesson.

The center

The Tibetan Buddhist center occupies a once-majestic fraternity house; steps up the hillside to the front door offer a small taste of trekking the Himalayas. At the top, I pause to catch my breath. Above the gracious porch, squares of cloth in primary colors hang like scarves drying on a laundry line. From up here, I can see for miles toward the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve been so busy looking inward, hemmed in by the tight confines of my own being, that to look out at such great distance feels like emancipation. I almost don’t want to turn away and go in. But I must. They are letting me sit in on a class that starts soon.

Just beyond the ample foyer sits the base of a grand staircase. The wood floors are beautifully worn. I try to imagine how much beer was consumed in this space during its previous incarnation. The ghosts of keggers past have been cleared in favor of a reception desk and a couple of comfy chairs. Off to the right sits a dining room with long, family-style seating. The wavy glass in the old windows makes the outside world appear to be dissolving.

I hear a repetitive mechanical churning, and am drawn to the long, thin sun porch beyond the dining room from which the noise originates. Inside, a series of over-sized spools spin. These are shiny gold Tibetan prayer wheels with small script along their facades. They look like the drums of a printing press designed to emboss words on a surface—only the paper is missing and the writing goes around endlessly, adhering to nothing. The turning is meant to help disseminate the sentiments contained in the text. The movement is key (before electricity, Tibetans rotated their prayer wheels mechanically and many still do). The same principle applies to the squares of fabric that dangle and the numerous flags hanging from poles around the property; printed on these are important words from Buddha’s teachings. The wind animates the ideas, more effectively sending them out into the atmosphere.

From a newcomer’s perspective, these are the biggest differences you notice: saturated colors everywhere you look, the constant, creaky hum of prayer wheels turning, the dance of fabric. If much of Buddhism as practiced in the United States is conceived as something that subdues with its neutral tones and natural materials, here is a brand of Buddhism that goes the opposite direction. Buddhism like Zen is considered cool and calm, but this kind is fiery. Though the road may be hotter, the destination is the same.