(An essay requested in 2006 - and alas, rejected - by Mandala Magazine; i would like to thank Land of Medicine Buddha in Soquel CA for the statue component of the picture)
Come to think of it, my Asian travels started early. At least a certain westerliness began to manifest. It was a near midnight in Hermosa Beach, California in the summer of 1952 when I got my first yen to travel. I packed a pillow slip with bear and cookies and set out, first bidding a polite good-bye to my parents - who had the unusual presence of mind to wave back. They didn't seem to take it personally that I was leaving, and they said nothing about the lateness of the hour or the impracticability of my plan. Instead they followed at a distance, curious, no doubt, to find out what I would do next. I struck out west, to the edge of the wide beach that fronts LA, and then wandered a good three blocks along the strand of sidewalk that parallels the beach, farther than I had ever been alone at age four. At last I settled myself on a bench, stubby legs swinging, and stared out at the broad star-spangled back of the quiet Pacific. I was yearning, though I had no notion yet of geography, in the direction of Asia. Even now, 52 years later, I remember the faint tug of that view, the sense of something out there, pulling. But childish weariness overcame the urge, When I had begun to keel sideways onto my cookies and bear, my parents carried me home.
I remembered that midnight journey when I first heard the Tibetan Lam Rim - "path to Enlightenment" teachings on the rarity of a perfect human rebirth. Imagining oneself special, of course, is a common seduction of the star-spangled Tibetan Buddhist path, with the appearance of Western "tulkus" - both those formally chosen or those self-appointed - now a common feature of meditation courses in both east and west. Fortunately for me, from my first days of practice, it was plain as concrete that my cautious, ever prone to doubt mind was anything but a manifestation of tulkuhood.
The teachings on the specialness of a perfect human rebirth, however, were a little harder to resist. They provided at least a possible explanation for those first yearnings, and as they are designed to, gave me and many of those sitting around me seriously enlarged self-esteem, at least for a time. It was a state of rare good fortune the lamas described, a PERFECT rebirth the ego could pounce on like pastry. To paraphrase their favorite metaphor, "A blind turtle coming to the surface of the world's oceans at random every hundred years has a better chance of accidentally popping his head directly through the center of a single storm-tossed floating ring than your average sentient being has of being born into a perfect human rebirth." This novel thought can produce a certain psychic fatness that has to be whittled down to humility again in long sessions of meditation on endless time and death and hell and other less sanguine topics. Yet even if one has been able to leave self-patting behind, Dharma remains the sweetest and rarest of gifts, for to receive it and make use of it one must be born healthy, in a life with leisure, at a time in which the teachings of a fully awakened Buddha are still remembered, in a place where they are still respected. One must be fortunate enough to encounter a teacher who has the full range of qualifications to teach them, and have the good sense to listen when the Dharma is presented. I guess that is what still intrigues me about my own life and the lives of other Asian "Dharma bums." What distinguishes us, if anything does, from those who do not find Buddhism of special interest, is that unlikely eagerness to listen when the first real teachings are encountered. For many, there a sense of recognition, a coming home. The heart resonates. Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek nailed the feeling precisely when she wrote about her own first spiritual experience, "I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck."
For me that moment came in Bangkok in 1973. I was alone one afternoon in the palm-fringed patio of a low-end hotel, recovering from a fever that had landed me a week in a hospital. In those years I had become one of those modern gypsies who cross Asia overland, traveling rough. We called ourselves "travelers" and did our youthful snobbish best to break free from the banal parade of ordinary tourism for more adventurous, not to say impoverished and perilous modes of travel. More frequent illness was a price we were willing to pay for experiences of otherworldly intensity. And like me, many of us traveled alone, seeking comradeship or help as needed from those we met along the way. When I had become ill on the island of Ko Samui halfway up the Thai peninsula, an Australian nurse I had met on the deck of a freighter from Djakarta made sure I made it to a hospital and loyally stayed through my crisis. Once it was clear I would be okay, she and other friends of the road moved on, leaving me alone to recover in the hotel.
Two days later, I spotted a small card propped against the hotel cash register. "Lectures in Buddhism in English" it read. "7pm Tuesday." Since it was Tuesday, and I had nowhere else to go, I memorized the address on the card. The words remain carved in my brain to this day. When the sun had set, I left the hotel to find "Wat Baworn, Banglamphoo."
What is it about one short lecture that could have so altered my life's course? Phra Khantipalo, was the name of the lecturer, an angular bald-pated 30-something Englishman in the saffron robes of a Thai Buddhist, supported by an amen chorus of robed American ex-soldiers who beamed through his talk and confided when it was over that they had seen Buddhist mantras stop bullets in Vietnam and that meditation was "better than acid." But it was not their colorful company that moved me so deeply that night. It was the Dharma itself, a simple classic teaching on Sila, morality, followed by a few minutes silent contemplation on loving-kindness toward all beings. The hour left me vibrating with joy. I walked home through the tropical dark, looking frequently back at the white bulk of monastery's pagoda beside the river, laughing out loud as a soft warm rain began to fall and soaked me through. It felt like an essential beginning. I did not yet know of what.
Over the next 15 years, I would complete three world-spanning trips all together, each lasting from one to two years, each more intensely focused on Buddhism and eventually on Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet in general than the last. Yet oddly for all this, it was the teachings I was to receive in America that helped me move forward most after that first essential, riveting contact.
Now that I seem as rooted to one spot as a barnacle, I can see that life as a "traveler" is a rich and even dangerous state of life, for your moorings have been cut. You can end anywhere. Wandering the back streets of the big cities of Asia, idling in villages that had rarely seen a western face, I flowed down my life like a small craft on a powerful river. No day was predictable, and a myriad of other lives could have been lived if a choice here or there had been different.
Not that I made any more helpful choices that first trip. From Thailand, I kept my nose deep in a book lent to me by the kindly Khantipalo, I managed to miss entirely the two men would become my most important teachers. I ignored Lama Thubten Yeshe's 1974 second course for westerners, which was in session as I passed through Kathmandu, Nepal. I remember hearing, and ignoring, advice to visit the Dalai Lama's hill station in Dharamsala. Home again, the year that followed was a lost year, life as a shadow, without direction. But karma had a second chance for me. One day an article in the LA Times caught my eye, an interview with Chuck Thomas, a "traveler" who had just returned from Kathmandu. He had become a Buddhist there he said. The lamas he studied with were in LA to give a complete introductory course in Buddhism at Lake Arrowhead.
The seed planted in Bangkok took hold, and finally I did not hesitate. I went to listen to Lama Thubten Yeshe speak, and the impact of two weeks with a fully empowered teacher on my beginner's mind was a hundred times as "resonant" as that first glimmering in Asia. More courses followed. I joined with other students of Lama Yeshe to help found centers in LA and Santa Cruz and Boulder Creek CA. We invited teachers by the dozen and the years passed in a state of dreamlike intensity as we practiced, created courses for others, and built Vajrapani Institute. It was a revolution in my normally cautious and skeptical approach to life, and I could never have thrown myself so fully into the exploration of any religion if it had not been for one key idea Lama Yeshe gave us early on that first course. "Just for awhile, pretend it is all true," Lama Yeshe advised. "and pay attention to what happens." It was permission to put aside skepticism, to live in the "now" wide open and trusting. And what a time "now" was.
Looking back with a better knowledge of history, I see there was some desperation about those first Tibetan teachings to eager westerners. Fresh from the horrors of invasion and exile, expecting cultural extinction before the end of their lifetimes, the Tibetan lamas held back almost nothing. They handed us Dharma whole, like a mother in a burning village tosses her baby into the arms of a stranger in a passing train, trusting fate that someone will love and care for it when she cannot. I compare this with the hard won opportunities of 19th and early 20th century westerners to obtain even a taste of "forbidden Tibet," and it's clear this avalanche of teachings and initiations in the 1970's and 80's was a priceless opportunity. Yet sheer bounty created its own unique aftershocks. "Hasten slowly" in learning Dharma, Milarepa warned. In those first frantic years it was impossible to go slowly.
"The motivation for practice must not become entertainment," the lamas tried to warn us over and over. Yet Tibetans can hardly avoid their own dramatic and over-awing effect on western disciples. Who can resist consorting with kings or having tea with monks who still celebrate their conversion of Kublai Khan? The Tibetans came to us out of a medieval world still echoing the legends of Shambala, trailing tales of 16th generation tulkus and flying lamas, goddess consorts and rainbow bodies, and yogic hands that burn pure love into stone. In the summer corn fields of Wisconsin in 1981, Tibetan monks raised their 10-foot long horns before dawn and lifted sleeping farmers straight out of their beds as the Dalai Lama himself came to perform the Kalachakra tantra for four days - something until then done traditionally only once in his lifetime - and awed a Midwestern community unused to the scent of incense or the sight of fellow Americans wearing the black wigs of ancient Indian goddesses, or summer storms changing their course to create a perfect circle of rainbows and thunder around the God-King of Tibet as he administered tantric vows to his awed disciples.
And yet Dharma as entertainment will not hold, and the Tibetans know it. "What you will keep in the end," Lama Yeshe warned us, "is what you have actually experienced for yourself." He was right.
I returned two times more to live in Asia after I had become a Buddhist. Researching a novel, I lived among Tibetans in both Nepal and Dharamsala, I even made my way across Tibet itself and saw the steady devotion and fearful lives of the monks and nuns left behind. The effect was to gradually release me from the spell of the exotic - though I have not lost my admiration.
I found Tibetans at any level of society, no surprise, can be as cantankerous or ordinary as the rest of us. Yet among them, Like pearls out of the abrading sand, they still produce true saints who have realized bodhicitta, and more. Travel just taught me I must wait and listen to know which they are. The Dalai Lama loves to tell the story of Atisa who waited 12 years to be sure of the caliber of a man he thought to ask to be his teacher.
I think that was what has held me. I stayed not only for my own transient glimpses of understanding, but because of the bodhicitta shining in my teachers' eyes, and the Olympic caliber humility of those who have genuine religious insight to share. Tibetans, bless them, firmly believe anyone who puts up a shingle announcing sainthood is likely to be anything but. After 13 centuries of seeing it all, they should know. "I am a simple monk," the Dalai Lama tells reporters, and despite all his clearly evident attainments, means it.
The presentation of Dharma in the West is calmer these days, more deliberate and deeper. Those who come to it now are not given quite such a magic carpet ride, but perhaps their practice will be closer to the sane pace the Buddha intended. The journey, after all, is not about the thrill of novelty, or finding oneself a bit player in the drama of history, or entertaining former royalty, still less about a fancy new way to feel above others or develop an interesting wardrobe.
These days, when I walk beside the great Pacific and look out toward Asia, the urge to go there has nearly gone, though the urge to keep following the path of Dharma has not. My manner of progress, however, is very different now. Years ago, the stretching rubber band of "pretend it's true" finally needed to relax. There came a day I knew I had to stop receiving more initiations and advanced teachings for a time. I had built too high on concepts I didn't understand well enough to remain intellectually honest. I needed to absorb and practice what had been given before accepting more. "Check everything you have heard," Lama Yeshe also told us, "as if you were buying gold. Challenge this old monk as long as he lives." When new students wonder aloud why an "old student" still asks basic questions, I wonder why they do not ask more.
My life today is so prosaic it would have terrified my old gypsy self to hear of it. Not even a Buddhist bureaucrat anymore, I only rarely visit centers. I am a teacher, writer, and photographer. A daughter to an aging mother. A friend to my friends. A frustrated Democrat and environmentalist. Yet because of what the lamas finally were able to give me, as I live the hours of each day, I try to apply the teachings on emptiness, to be aware of the processes of mind that solidify my world out of infinite possibility. I read the news and try to notice if I begin to demonize another human being. I too rarely take time for sitting practice, but when I do, I apply ton len, giving and taking on the breath to those in pain - and there are SO many, in SO much pain. Surely it does nothing for them yet, but little by little I know it will make compassion easier, more familiar. Mine is the simple imperfect practice of an ordinary laywoman right now, trying to live with morality and patience, trying not to be too selfish, trying not to harm. And trying above all trying to keep alive some semblance of dharma practice in this great Monopoly game of midlife. "Nothing will happen," the famous western nun Patricia Zen advises her students, "if you don't practice every day." And now I can see in my Dharma community that those who have lived this path daily for many years with real energy and integrity are developing truly wonderful inner qualities. And that is my goal now. Before this jewel-like opportunity of Perfect Rebirth is lost, before the next life with all its confusion comes, I want to learn to love and help others more selflessly. I want to see deeply into the way mind creates reality in every moment. I want to wake up.