From the Overlander Project: Traveling Blind
It began when i was still a child of seven or so, I cannot now remember exactly when. It continued into my twenties. When I woke, still standing in a dream, the feeling would start, a piercing of the heart, a yearning, an anguish. It was not there every morning, but frequently, and when it was, the sensation could become so strong at times it was almost physical pain - but not quite. It was so demanding of my emotions it was like fresh grief - but not quite. While it lasted, it was so unsettling that the sensation itself was a kind of pain. I would lie there asking the feeling to reveal what it was. Was I sad? Sorry? Guilty? Sick? I had, and still have, no words to offer for it. In a few minutes the sensation would fade, even as I still stretched my mind toward it, trying to understand the message - in vain. The only way I can explain it is that it is what I imagine a person might feel who had fallen perfectly in love with someone, and then suffered amnesia. Great loss - without the hint of a referent. It was only when i began to study Buddhism that the mysterious feeling stopped. Interestingly, when I slack off on my practice for long, it returns, a bodily signpost.
Buddhist lamas have a teaching story of a giant sea turtle who swims the oceans of the world. On the surface is a golden ring, tossed in waves, swirled in currents, drifting endlessly. The turtle is not looking for the ring; indeed, he is blind. His chances of encountering it are further reduced by the fact that he rises to the surface only once in a hundred years. Yet given the vastness of time, and the endless nature of the experience of consciousness, the day will come when, without knowing where he is, the turtle will rise to the surface and find his blind face lifted precisely through that golden circle. That is the likelihood, the teachings say, that a person living at random will experience a “perfect human rebirth,” a birth in which one is born into that very precise set of situations in which one might be able to find a true path to Enlightenment, appreciate its value in time, and practice it to its end.
We do find our way to birth, of course, again and again reaching blindly for life. The lamas say we are born as insects, as animals, as hell beings, as hungry spirits, or even as long-lived gods who are condemned to exhaust their wonderful karma in the course of long pleasant years and descend again to a hellish next life. Once in a very great while, we take birth as a human being. This, they emphasize, is the most fortunate of births, for it provides the critical elements of incentive and choice that the others lack: the incentive of enough suffering that one yearns to find a way out of it, and occasionally, a real chance to change one’s course, if only one can figure out which way to go. Being born into a human life, it is as if the tortoise, just a little, cracks open those blind eyes and sees where he was, yet still has no knowledge of even the existence of a gold ring, let alone its whereabouts. And human birth contains its own perils. One may be born in a place of constant danger, warfare or criminality. One may be born crippled, or ill, or into great poverty, where one’s only thought each day is to find a way to live to the next. One may be born with ordinary comforts, but waste the precious days of life pursuing phantoms of desire or anger, or simple trivia, clutching at appearances with no more essence than smoke until the day one’s own body fails, and in hours or days, is turned again to dust. One may be born rich and comfortable, but into a family or a culture which places no value on wisdom. In many human situations, one may be encouraged, even forced, into actions which take one down again, to the the lowest realm of that endless sea of births and deaths. And the misery goes on. When I look back on my life, therefore, I see it as rare good fortune to have stumbled upon the signposts I did. I was, after all, traveling blind.
Signpost #1: It is 1971 and I am 23 years old, leaning against a wall in a bus station in Amsterdam. In my lap I hold a book by the Bengali poet Rabindinrath Tagore. I smile with pure pleasure as i visualize life in ancient India by the flickering light of his imagery and metaphors.
Ah, who was it coloured that little frock, my child, and covered
your sweet limbs with that little red tunic?
You have come out in the morning to play in the courtyard,
tottering and tumbling as you run.
But who was it colored that little frock, my child?
What is it makes you laugh, my little life-bud?
Mother smiles at you standing on the threshold.
She claps her hands and her bracelets jingle, and you dance
with your bamboo stick in your hand like a tiny little shepherd.
From Rabindinrath Tagore “The Unheeded Pageant”
I have never found a writer who delights me more. I have carried the book with me for weeks, my secret treasure. But on that day, distracted by the crowd as I rise, I lose it. Yet even as I mourn, that very same day I find another book, left behind by another traveler. It is Evans Wentz’s Tibetan Book of the Dead. In the end it is this second book I carry the rest of the journey, and struggle to understand when I read.
“O nobly-born, listen. Now thou art experiencing the Radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality. Recognize it. O nobly-born, thy present intellect, in real nature void, not formed into anything as regards characteristics or colour, naturally void, is the very Reality, the All-Good. Thine own intellect, which is now voidness, yet not to be regarded as of the voidness of nothingness, but as being the intellect itself, unobstructed, shining, thrilling, and blissful, is the very consciousness, the All-good Buddha. Thine own consciousness, not formed into anything, in reality void, and the intellect, shining and blissful, -- these two, -- are inseparable. The union of them is the Dharma-Kāya state of Perfect Enlightenment.”
From The Tibetan Book of the Dead Or the After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane
English translation by Lāma Kazi Dawa-Samdup Compiled and Edited by W. Y. Evans-Wentz
Signpost 2: It is 1973 and I am 25-years old, living in Hermosa Beach, California, in a house I share with my father. Curious, I have purchased a book called The Pillars of Zen and read a few pages. I close the book, pleased with its clear instructions, and prop it in the windowsill of my tiny gabled bedroom window. The breaking edge of the Pacific is far away and barely visible, the restless immensity of the ocean lost in the dark beyond. I am alone in the house, my father out for the evening, but I think I have the idea now, of how to meditate. I straighten my back, setting my legs and hands in the cross-legged pose described by the book. I lower my chin to gaze with half-closed eyes in front of me. I light a candle and stare into it, hoping for magic. The room blurs. The fire grows large and fuzzy as my staring eyes grow moist. My heart pounds briefly with expectation. The angels stay away.
Soon after that I began the second of my long journeys. This time I headed west, across the Pacific, working my way towards the Asia. I was 26, and had $2000 dollars I had saved to round the world. My parents fretted, but traveling like this as a young person without a real itinerary or a plan is a rare opportunity to open oneself to change, to possibility, even to a kind of magic. You skim above myriad set lives, each rooted in place as solidly as if their legs extended into the earth, while you feel your own self so remarkably unbound, the whole fixed world wheeling beneath you. There is an endless array of dangers as well of course, and any door you walk through at that age is likely to shape your entire life to come. But you don’t know that yet.
I went to Hawaii, to Western Samoa, to Fiji, and at last to New Zealand where I worked in a hospital for brain-damaged children in Nelson for three months. I lived in a ramshackle old house at the head of the sound, sharing with, a vibrant, kind, gay man I had met long before on the kibbutz in Israel. Eventually, coffers replenished from the expenses of the first leg, I took off, hitchhiking the country.
Signpost 3 I am on the North Island, working my way northwest, towards the ancient Kauri forests and Land’s End, a spit of sand that extends like a god’s finger, pointing north. It is mid-afternoon and I know I must stop soon. I look up the next youth hostel in my tattered traveler’s book. Not far. A car stops for me, a bright-eyed man at the wheel. “I live nearby, he tells me, “several people and I, on a commune.” I am intrigued. He asks if I would like to see it and, with the fearlessness of youth, I readily agree. In a movie, perhaps, he would turn out to be an ax murderer, and I a fool. But in real life, good people are far more common than in movies, and he certainly is one. He drives me up the long drive, and on the way he begins to tell me his story. He established this place, he says, for those who, like him, are looking for the way to Enlightenment.
I frown, not at all sure what this means. More than blurry candles?
Recently, he continues, he had a life-changing experience with meditation. For years he has practiced what he knows of the Zen tradition of Buddhism, gathering ideas from books. And then one recent day - staggeringly, he found himself standing at some inner brink. He knew, without doubt, if he went one step further, he would lose himself forever. After so long an effort, he did not hesitate. He went the final step.
I study his face as he struggles to express what that moment was like. “Like dying,” he manages at last, “and like finally waking up.”. There is joy in his wide open eyes, as if the experience still fills him from within.
“Do you want to stay here with us?” he asks abruptly.
A feeling is growing in me, a powerful emotion I can hardly name. I open my mouth to say yes.
But then he hesitates. “No,” he says. We should wait for a sign that it is right.” He turns the car around and goes back to the drive entry point. “Stand back on the road and hold out your thumb,” he instructs me. I’ll wait just back here. If the next car does not pick you up, you can stay.”
I get out, clutching my backpack and stare at his backing car and then at the road east, the road from which I have come. Wait for a sign? I want so very much to be allowed to stay with this magical person. To learn what he means by “waking up.” All day I have hitchhiked, and each ride has been preceded by a hundred or more cars that did not stop for me. I look now at the darkening highway and see the the lights of someone coming. Obedient to my new friend, I hold out my thumb, willing the approaching car to ignore me, to pass by. But it does not pass by. Horrified, I glance back at the Zen man as a couple opens the door for me and gestures. I cannot see his face as his car engine starts up, but a hand comes out of his window to wave good-bye. The door of my ride closes me in and only with the greatest difficulty do I manage to tell them I need to go to the youth hostel. The piercing feeling, for the first time, has come at night.
I have written elsewhere in this memoir, of my first real lecture in Buddhism in Thailand and the overwhelming effect it had on me. But even after that, the turtle was still traveling blind. When I arrived in Nepal in the spring of 1973, my future teachers of Tibetan Buddhism were only a short bus ride away, and even as I arrived, were starting a now historic course for westerners on a hill called Kopan. Most of the community of people I now call Buddhist friends attended this course. Yet when I heard of it, in a hotel in Kathmandu, I was not aroused to investigate. Instead I curled up on a cushion on the rooftop lounge area, reading the book provided by Phra Khantipalo. After a few days, I went north to Pokhara and there conceived a naive desire to hike in the Himalayas. With, in hindsight, an astonishing lack of preparation, I did not even carry food with me, nor a tent, nor purchase good shoes nor a real coat. I started up the two week trail to Jomson, a half way point to the Kingdom of Mustang, in my flip flops, long dress and a sweater carried in a light backpack. confident the occasional tea shops along the trail would provide and, even more foolishly, that the mountains would be as warm as the valleys. Fortunately for me a handsome young man named Scott Taylor soon became a fellow walker. He shared his plastic tarp when it rained, and his onions and potatoes, boiled in a pot, when we did not always make it to the next tea shop.
My fragile attraction to Buddhism was set aside by a growing infatuation for Scott. We made it only four days up the trail. Then, plagued by hail storms, and for him, stomach troubles, we doubled back to Kathmandu. Instead of mountains, we explored the medieval streets and the ancient wooden temples where saddhus gathered with tridents and red-hennaed hair, staring at nothing with their otherworldly gaze. We smoked hashish with other western travelers on rooftops, where Scott pulled out the violin he carried and sent passionate string music up to wheeling flocks of starlings and out to the distant white peaks of the Himalaya. I fell in love, and when he left, unwilling to form a more permanent liaison, I staggered under the loss. I slept for three days, got up to walk for miles, and slept again. All thoughts of Buddhism left my mind. The turtle had lost her way again.
Still in taciturn mourning, I made my way across India and the Middle East toward Europe, traveling first to Delhi with a group of cheerful English boys, and then west with a Finnish couple in a VW van. With them, I explored the Taj Mahal, and a mosque in Peshawar, helped pay off bandits who stopped our car in the outback of Afghanistan, and watched Mt. Ararat recede in a moonlit sky as we entered Turkey. At last, from a Greek youth hostel, I waved good-bye as their battered VW turned northward toward Finland. At each stop I had written long hopeful letters back to Scott and waited fruitlessly for poste restante workers to search through boxes holding travelers’ mail. Once, in Athens, I thought I saw him on a street, though whoever it was did not acknowledge my startled wave and disappeared in the crowd. My mother arrived and I went with her on a tour of Greek Islands ending in Crete. While we stayed in a pleasant Cretan hotel, we learned that the Greek government had declared war on Turkey, and from the top floor of the hotel, we searched the horizon for sign of the US 6th fleet sailing by, headed for the main battleground off Cypress. Restaurants stopped serving Americans, banks closed, ferries stopped. Trucks from the mountain villages roared by filled with young military recruits. A week later we were evacuated as war refugees as the Greek military dictatorship fell. On a day during which the entire population of Athens walked to the airport to greet the triumphantly returning politician Karamanlis, my mother and I, oblivious to history in the making, caught a train north. We crossed Europe, crossed America, and finally, at long last, came home to California. Now exhausted, ill, and without funds, no longer a traveler, I finally received Scott’s answering letter. “Where are you? He asked cheerily from Italy. Want to get together again and travel somewhere?”
It was another wrong door not taken - though clearly not by any choice of mine.
Signpost #4 It is 1975 and I have been home for a year, working at a string of barely tolerable jobs, living with my father in Hermosa Beach. Reading the LA Times one morning, I stumble on a column. John Schwartz, a minor director in Hollywood at the time, has talked to a young man, Chuck Thomas, newly returned from India with a riveting tale of young western backpackers, traveling the exotic orient at random, who had encountered a Tibetan Buddhist lama and invited him to come and teach in Los Angeles. Indeed he is giving a talk that very night, in Westwood near UCLA where I had gone to school. I decide to go.
I still remember that first talk, the overwhelming effect on me of the gentle laughing man who sat in front of the room. Lama Yeshe’s English was barely serviceable in those early years, yet his ability to speak directly to the hearts of young westerners was already spot on. For long minutes he would sit in silence, eyes closed or rolled back, and then return to the room with a roguish smile and rake our faces with a fierce loving gaze. He spoke of dissatisfaction, of the suffering of our restless lives. Everything we now struggled to gain would, he told us, eventually be lost: relationships, pleasure, status, belongings, even our memories of beauty. “I love my chocolate! I love this flower!” He would say, holding up an imaginary blossom and nearly swooning with delight. Then his face would fall into melodramatic sorrow as the visualized flower wilted and its petals fell to the ground. He invited us to think not only of our pleasures but our own lives as this flower. This was hard to believe with conviction at twenty something but we tried hard. He talked of a path out of sorrow and dissatisfaction, one he would walk with us if we dared trust him. He challenged us, the children of an age steeped in scientific agnosticism, to try belief and faith. He knew how hard it would be for most of us to accept what he had to tell us at face value. “Eventually, I want you to check everything I tell you against reality, just as a man checks for real gold in the market. But for now, put your doubt on the shelf,” he urged us. “Allow yourself to try out the teachings as if everything I say is exactly true. Give yourself a year, pretending they are true, and see what happens.” It was exactly the key I needed to begin.
I went from that talk to walk alone on a nighttime beach where two years before I had started my long stumble towards Buddhism. My whole body was humming. I felt, as Annie Dillard wrote in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” I went to the retreat at Arrowhead that Lama Yeshe had urged on us and later attended another at Yucca Valley when he returned for a second visit. Though I moved to Mt Shasta for a year after that, as I described in another story, this time I did not forget Buddhism. In 1976, I came south again, and eagerly helped in the first stages of the establishment of Vajrapani Institute and the coming together of the the community that would sustain it.
Thus, in encounters ever so unlikely was the ring found. And ever so gently has the ring settled, slipping over my head and onto my shoulders. The turtle found her way home.
Thus, in encounters ever so unlikely was the ring found. And ever so gently has the ring settled, slipping over my head and onto my shoulders. The turtle found her way home.