About Me

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I am a 60 something Californian, former world traveler of the back packing variety, a Buddhist, a writer, photographer, and teacher.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Facing Samsara

When I feel overwhelmed by the horror of the fate that has overtaken certain people in the news today, certain groups, or certain animals and even ecosystems, it helps me sometimes to walk my mind toward it rather than away. We have been born into a reality in which everything and everyone is impermanent. There is no person or animal that will not die after enough days have passed, most often in discomfort and fear. Samsara is a rough neighborhood. Looking around me, I remind myself that every single person i see will experience death within a hundred years. Most in far less. Every single cute toddler, wagging puppy, noble elephant, whispering pine. Every friend will be lost, or will lose me. Every bit of my youthful beauty, my possessions, my wealth will be lost. Even the memory of me in the mind of others will fade and disappear. It is the way this place works, the reason the Buddha left his palace, the first Noble Truth. He went out to seek an answer to the terrible realization of the suffering all around him. He finally grasped that holding tightly to whatever has come to feel precious and safe cannot help anyone in the end. What does? Loving others. Helping wherever we can. Seeking wisdom that is bigger than one lifetime. Gaining the rare and difficult power of focused attention. What else is there to do after all, with this time here we have been given?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

When Monsters are Real

It seems I almost died four weeks ago now. Though that realization has grown on me only slowly. A stomach ache came and went over a weekend in late September and then started to grow in earnest. An ambulance came to collect me on Monday night. I left behind my 95 year old mother with my cousin Patricia and went off to place my life in the hands of strangers. The monster I had dreaded since reading in my teens a vivid description of a medieval man's miseries with gall stones was now upon me. My doctor had actually warned me I had stones in there, but I had had them for years with no consequence. It seems 30% of Americans carry them. Not all, fortunately, will have to meet the monster. 

Oddly, there is a certain peace that comes with acute crises. One lives utterly in the moment, intent on the drip by drip revelation of new experiences.  "Beginner's mind,"  Zen priest David Suzuki called it. Curtains were drawn around me in the ER. I watched the staff appear and disappear as I listened deep inside to the ruin afoot. The nurses in the ER were brusque,  ever busy and matter of fact,  but also kind. The pain was growing. And nausea began. By the time i received a room, I had entered the full anguish of pain and vomiting brought about by an unknown foe. But even then, some part of me was able to simply watch, dispassionate and intrigued. Was it Buddhist training? Or what all people experience? I listened in the night to the mysterious sounds of my acute care unit, of others, unknown but nearby, suffering as I was. On the other side of a rigid plastic wall divider,  a woman next door moaned and then made phone calls to a lover and then a friend. I could feel the thick fabric at my shoulder shift as she moved against it. I vomited again. In the end, though we had listened for hours to each other's misery,  I never saw her. 

The drugs began Monday night after nurses had struggled to gain entrance to my apparently vein free arms for an IV connection. Bruises and blood.   Anti-nausea medication eased the worst then, and Dilaudid for pain. When they were administered in sequence, I floated and slept. But it was when I woke and lay with my eyes shut that the strangest part of my experiences there unfolded.  There were images behind my closed eyes, almost but not quite as visible as they would have been if my eyes were open. Several times I did open them to check if some shadow or change in light was affecting me but the answer was always no.   When I kept them closed, and focused my eyes on the imagery that came, I had a frontline seat to Dante's inferno.  Or perhaps, one friend suggested, the universal unconscious, or was it the bowels of creation?  I would very much like to know, because I was not causing these images. I had never seen or imagined them and indeed i could not change them even when I tried. The strongest element was  texture, darkly sparkling earth, or kelp or shag carpet or cliffs of moving dark tendrils. Water poured out everywhere, foul or muddied, torrents of excrement, mud with small rocks, or simply water. And everywhere there was heaving movement, fecundity, primal creation or decay. Half made faces emerged from the moving earth, pink flesh lumped and unformed with only an eye or a nostril fully made. Skulls, fantastically lined elderly faces with eyes closed, copulating couples, infants, demons, animals and innocents. The moving earth or waving tendrils of grass or fabric folded them ever deeper into crevices, or writhed slowly open, revealing them. The images were of intricate dark beauty, detail beyond detail. A goat appeared purple and blue, and then a fox with a fantastic fringe of carved ivory rising from his ruff. Faces dead or those being born, I could not tell. Eerie in  the luminous dark, like  the  cocaine dreams of a great artist.  What on earth was I looking at? Once the dark purples and blues and reds and blacks,  the muted greens, were replaced with imagery entirely of bronzed gold. A hill of sand lit by a hidden sun. Figures rose from the sand, made of sand, and the wind rose and blew them once again into non-existence, back into the hill.  These images occupied my mind for much of the time I was alone and awake in the  room. I could not make them stop and wondered if I was seeing the bardo. If I concentrated on changing them or even just lightening them, faint sparks flickered deep in the distance, that was all.

All was not grim, however. My nurses were kind. One in particular, Bob, is an old friend, a fellow Buddhist who is a nurse and has cared for my father on previous visits. His gentle humor and help with the temperamental IV made the suffering much less.

There were tests on Tuesday. A surgeon came, one, Bob assured me,  known for great competence. I later learned I was to be taken into surgery on an emergency basis on Wednesday morning. Blood tests showed the battle against infection was rising to critical levels in my body, though I had no fever yet. It was still contained, but now felt like something about to break open.   The surgery on Wednesday morning showed why. I was put completely under, unlike my joint replacements. As I came back to consciousness, there was no sense of time having passed. I only remember the staff muttering about how bad it - my misbehaving gall bladder - had been as they repositioned my limp body in the recovery room.  Indeed though no stones were blocking any ducts, the whole organ had had been black and gangrenous. A word to strike fear. The surgeon, Dr Brian Waddle, checked on me briefly, and assured me we do not particularly need gall bladders, and that mine was now gone, incipient stones and all. Amoxicillin would deal with the left over infection and so it has.

They sent me home Thursday, so weak I could barely walk, the new early release hospital policy in the age of Mrsa infections and merciless insurance companies. I was frightened to leave so early, but, indeed, it lifted my spirits and dimmed my Hieronymous Bosche eyelid show to sit on my front porch in the sunshine a while. In my absence, Patricia and George had managed, with considerable strain they later shared, to keep my mother going. But it was my brother Chris who arrived like the cavalry and stayed to save the day. After telling me he could not help, he had changed his mind and flown to their rescue all the way from a job assignment in Pennsylvania. For eight days he stayed with us, a perfect kind carer for both, even while maintaining his work schedule as a computer network tech from my kitchen table. He endured with perfect calm and kindness mom's dementia eccentricities (she often thought he was an old boyfriend) and incontinence and my inability to help for several days.  This was a brother, an ally, that I did not know I had. If this illness brought anything good, it was this above all, to regain that severed connection.

So that is my story dear reader. There were more tumultuous days before it all settled down. Wildly oscillating blood pressure, a drainage tube that left a pain in my side for days when it was  removed. More monsters scuttled under the bed for those days and left me sleepless far into restless nights. Would one of them emerge to become real? Twice I reached a level of panic that believed one had. But in the end, after a visit to Land of Medicine Buddha they all receded. Body and health returned. Hieronymous is back in the museum where he belongs. And I am left with my life, and  apparently even my health and a great gratitude to all who helped me recover it.

Friday, July 27, 2018


Child of Zorro


Life in my father’s house was life in a pirate’s lair, or the hideout of Zorro. Everywhere there were riches, the kind that fill a child’s heart and mind. There was a real shrunken head from the Amazon, with three inch black hair and a face like a walnut. From China, there was a wooden carving of stern-faced Kwan Yin standing within a tiny wooden house whose doors latched with brass. There were crabs, sealed in amber. There was a large picture of a serene topless woman emerging from a base of jade with a crown topped by a basket of fruit and flowers. Bookcases were everywhere, cobbled of giant grey bricks and golden cedar boards, bursting with books of art and stories and history. Mexican ranchero music or classical symphonies filled the rooms - Swann Lake by Tschiakovsky, rolling waves of basso piano by Rachmaninof and the heart rending violins of Sheherezade.  To go along with them, , were stories of princes and princesses,courtesy of my father’s imagination, Peter and the Wolf, or the classic tale of the Sheik’s new wife who saved her own life by her ability to tell endlessly fascinating stories. One day when i was only seven, he told me all about Noche Triste, when the Spaniards fled the Aztec army by night and died in the canals of Tenochtitlan, for my father was mesmerized by Mexico. At last, at bed time, “Hamp” would sit by my bed and make up another installment of the adventures of Cesca and her friend, Oscar the Octopus and engage in mock battles with me, our hands arranged with four fingers down for horses’ feet and the middle finger raised as a horse head, galloping across the folds of the blankets.

In the back yard were Hamp’s projects. One month it was all the objects he had gathered to try and seal those tiny crabs into wax  made to look like amber. This was a gruesome but, to me at three, fascinating failure, as the tiny crabs died in their bucket and disintegrated.  Months of stone pounding followed, as Hamp conceived the notion to gouge holes in basalt rocks and sell them as bohemian candle holders. One day, with hoots of triumph, he invented the submarine sandwich (though, alas, he never marketed his eureka moment). On Saturdays, he washed down  our car with a hose in the hot sun, and I stomped through the puddles and shrieked with joy when he turned the hose toward the sky and let it rain down on me. When real storms came, he would take my mother and me onto the breakwater, to hunker down as the waves crashed and sprayed us. He taught me to leap confidently between slanted rock faces almost as soon as I could run.
I did not know it then, but I was living with a man who had created himself in opposition to almost all he had grown up with. The life first handed him as a boy was anything but Bohemian and free, for my father was a child of the original Mormons. His great grandfather, Jonathan Hampton, was a carpenter with Brigham Young when they were both converted, and was among his original circle in their first migrations. He died of exposure guarding Joseph Smith. Hamp’s great-grandmother, Julia Foster, after Jonathan’s death and many travails, became one of Brigham Young’s wives. For a time, she was in charge of the “Lion House” where most of his 50 spouses lived. Her son by Jonathan was named after Brigham Young and served  as the sheriff of Salt Lake City through the years of turmoil when the federal government pushed hard into their polygamous haven. This Brigham Young Hampton himself had three wives and many children by them. He served time in his own jail more than once, courtesy of the feds. His last wife, a 19 year-old English girl who ran away to follow Mormon preachers, eventually served as warden of the city jail, after losing four children in two months to diptheria. In pictures of her in middle age, her mouth is hard as iron. They all seemed to have mouths like that, men and women both. It was not a time for free spirits or easy living.
My father’s first memories were of Salt Lake. He showed me pictures of a house on a hill down which he slid his homemade toboggan in winter and watched in summer as ice was delivered in cut blocks to his mother’s ice box,  wrapped in hay and carried in wagons down from the high lakes. The first black box telephones hung on kitchen walls. His father was a cattleman, a broker, who traveled the western states buying beefstock to send by train to the hungry cities of the west. His mother, a distant descendent of Scottish royalty, was a school teacher. And when the two argued on how best to raise him, it was she who won, giving him his first ecstatic taste of good books and classical music in the weekly radio broadcasts of the Mormon symphonic choir. His father, he told me, withdrew from the field and rarely taught him anything. This left him as an adult bereft of the handy skills most men of his generation regarded as normal. He could barely wield a hammer. I remember one of the earliest pictures of his childhood, a baby looking up round-eyed into the face of his other grandfather, David Crockett Stuart, a rebel calvalryman who had also converted to Mormonism after the Civil War. There is another, years later, of a gangly boy of 10 in overalls with a thatch of black hair and ears that stick out, standing in a field, the one which, in winter, he so proudly used for his toboggan.  

There were no snowy fields where he raised me, only sunny beaches. And both of those stern great-grandfathers were gone, as well as my paternal grandparents. There was no formality in our house, nor church on the weekends. As early as four I was alllowed to roam with great freedom. My friends and I chalked hop scotch grids onto the hot cement of the Manhattan Beach strand, a wide sidewalk with a low wall that marked the line between the beach towns and the wide white sand beach that fronts Los Angeles for miles. We swung on the baby swings on the sand near my house, my friends and I, or hiked off to what seemed then a formidable distance to the “big swings” two blocks away. On these we swung for an hour at a time, pumping upward into the blue sky and sliding back to earth hanging upside down, our blonde hair tickling the sand as we reached the nadir of each arc. To explore In the other direction was to come to the mysterious fogged windows of the Hilton Hotel “plunge,” a large indoor pool. We climbed up into the indented windowsills and tried to make out the misted figures of people unfathomably swimming indoors when the shining Pacific beckoned only yards away.
One day I went a bit further. Another half block to a children’s bookstore. Here I found a giant book called The Grasshopper and the Ants and settled down happily to read. When the owner realized how young I was, and unaccompanied, he called the police. When the officer urged me into his car, I hung onto this book and somehow it came with me, a kindness, I now realize, from the owner. I was only a few blocks from home, and not lost, but the officer drove me back and saw me home safe.
That night, my father and I poured over the giant pages and the vivid drawings, all about the grasshoppers and the ants. We laughed together about how we both would rather be the live-gloriously-for-today grasshopper than one of the dull industrious ants who had to take him in when winter came.  In every way this was how we were living. When Hamp went off each day to university and then to work, in those days selling encyclopedias door to door, or insurance, it was as if the human ants of the real world were determined to try and shape him into someone he wanted with all his heart not to be.
It was on the weekends that my father  recovered himself. Friends from college came over for raucous joyful parties, animatedly sharing talk of Picasso or Chagall or giggling over Sigmund Freud’s pronouncements on sex. They listened to jazz and endlessly flirted. In the summertimes, there was volleyball and beer and red wine on the beach and for me, long culinary experiments with stirring sand soup at the water’s edge, or dripping it into castle battlements. In the winters, as the big swells thundered onto the shore in front of us, Hamp, would take me out to the seawalls to duck as the waves shattered against the breakwater and spray drenched us from above. He began to bring home the first of hundreds of children’s books from the library for me to devour, a half dozen every week. I was four when he and my mother began to bicker over money and his flirtations with other women. Their marriage ended eventually and they began to live a few blocks apart.  But I moved back and forth between them almost weekly and, loved so well, remember no suffering from their parting.

It was when he was 11 years old, that my father’s Salt Lake City childhood had begun to darken. His beloved mother, Stella, developed a headache that would not abate, and took to her bed. She was never to rise from it healthy again, though her invalidism lasted two years before she died. It was determined at her autopsy that her tumor could indeed have been excised safely if they had taken the chance, but they did not. The loss of his safe world and the loving, educated  woman at the heart of it affected my father profoundly. He became withdrawn, and barely spoke. He also suffered horribly from migraines caused by allergies to both chocolate and safflower oil, though it was years til he realized the connection. These migraines left him sick and stunned many days each month, and cut him off from other boys his age. The medicines doctors gave him put him into a mental fog, unable to perform at school. His classmates, ironic in their cruelty, nicknamed him “Speed.” His widowed father at last left Salt Lake City behind, taking Hamp and his younger sister Bernice to Long Beach California to start a new life. With cattle train cars to monitor, he took his children to live with his sisters on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles as he himself found an apartment on the mainland.
In spite of all these traumatic changes, Catalina was the making of my father. The island was wild then, a windswept landscape of scrub-covered hills and ravines, eucapyptus and vivid blue bays below tall cliffs. Giant wild goats roamed  the hills, and in the south, there were the surviving remnants of the buffalo, brought there to recover their numbers. The Wrigley family owned the island then. They and everyone else who lived on Catalina were all in Avalon. True wilderness waited beyond the ridges which circled the town.
Hamp’s  aunts doted on him and his sister Bernice. He found friends and began to roam the hills, growing stronger by the month, and wilder. The migraines receded and as a teen, he found himself tall and wryly good-looking, with a sharp intelligence and a physical prowess that startled the boys who had once called him “Speed.” He kept the nickname, but now they meant it. With these friends, he would earn money when the tourists on the big ferry threw sparkling coins into the crystalline waters of Avalon Harbor and clapped their hands in delight as the lithe island boys dived for them. With his best friend Paul Shonafelt, Hamp took his love of the sea further and began to dive for abalone. They rented a large open boat that came with a primitive dive suit topped by a metal head piece that filled with air pumped from above. (So risky that its owner later died while using it). When that palled, they hunted goats with rifles and cooked them over open fires. When they were home, these handsome beach boys of wild Catalina also drew the attention of young women coming over on the yachts. Sixteen now, with the worldwide tumult the 1930’s seeming far away, my someday father regularly took girls from the yachts to the weekend dances in the great round of the Avalon ballroom that still overlooks the point. By the end of those last two years on the island, he told me,  he had made out with a girl in every alcove of the upper balcony.

This self-reliance and love of nature  gained on Catalina became part of the heritage my father passed on to me. As I grew towards adolescence,  I remember no rules about where I could go when I left my front door. The untamable Pacific held my riveted attention from the very beginning, a refuge from all the tangles of human life at my back. When I was about ten, my mother fell in love with a man named Charlie Farrell and became pregnant by him.  He was a Catholic and neither his family nor the church would approve their union without a formal papal dispensation. Amidst the years of painful dramas that followed, I moved in with my father full time in Manhattan Beach.
We lived at first in a sandy lot in a round-roofed quonset hut, a left over from WWII.  I remember at age ten washing the dishes, looking out of its windows at the beach far below, marveling to consider I was now the “lady of the house.” I had never willingly washed a dish before. Now the act seemed cloaked in new dignity.  I went mad and even made my bed and then his. Each afternoon after school, while my father was still at work, I turned on our record player to play musicals like The King and I and Kismet and learned every role and every song. These I sang at the top of my lungs doing the dishes.  Sometimes I enacted whole plays by myself. I felt myself a free woman, not a child. I was mistress of our house.
As I grew older still, I roamed for miles along the enormous sweep of beach below, riding my bike with my best friend Susan West and her brother Peter. Some days, I ran with a pack of dogs who came together to explore the shore in the mornings. In the summers, I swam with my friends at least five hours a day with no parent in attendance for any of us.   My father made a stab at getting me sitters sometimes, as he very often went out to parties in the evenings, but to me their presence was only puzzling. I remember one night, bored with lying in my bed, I peeked out of my room about 10pm to find my unwanted sitter asleep. I stole out of the house and went happily down to the long abandoned beach, gleaming in moonlight. I walked along its shore a mile north to where an oil tanker pier reached out from the city of El Segundo. It was not made for pedestrians, and certainly not for the public. To walk on it meant holding onto water pipes as I ducked under a roof that held rail cars and placed my feet carefully along the top of the great rounded pipe that held the oil. I made my way out to where the waves broke just below the oil pipe, spraying my feet in their charge through the pier’s stanchions, exploding in foam at one set of pillars after another. When I had had enough, I climbed back under the pier and then back along the empty mile of shoreline. By midnight I had slipped back into my bed, the sitter still unaware. I was eleven years old.

My father left Catalina when he was 18, but  the seeds planted there had already defined his life to come. One was a fierce yearning to be more than the cattlemen and ranchers and country sheriffs he came from. He wanted no part of the missionaries sent time and again by the church in Salt Lake to woo him back. He studied the lives of the islands’ visitors, and what moved him most was their education, the sense of a wider world they brought to the island. He yearned to go to college, to study history and art and know more of what they knew. And from them he learned about beauty and about love. Indeed, he fell in love over and over as the young women came and left. In the great symphonies of the time, the music of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky Korsakov and Glazunov, he heard his own secret heart. Finally, with talk of a possible war in Europe finally reaching even the island, he learned to admire military strength. One afternoon in 1936 he was riveted by a submarine that rose for a day of R and R in Avalon harbor, and  only months later he left the island as the navy’s newest recruit.
For three years he sailed with them, feeling the thrill of loading the big guns of the destroyer West Virginia and learning morse code so well in the radio room he could decode incoming messages as easily as words being spoken. He also learned the sting of humiliation as, in port after port, middle class girls scorned his status as a lowly navy private in favor of officers with college educations. It only reinforced his determination to pull himself up by his bootstraps.   When his tour was over, he was demobilized from the West Virginia in New York and made his way back to Long Beach, burning with the need to start college. He worked for his father from time to time, riding rail cars full of lowing cows back to the distribution centers of LA. He learned how to fly a small plane and got his pilot’s license. And at last, he attended Long Beach City college and then got accepted into The University of California at Los Angeles. His first major there was Latin American studies, for he had conceived a dream to own a plantation in Brazil.
Hitler and Tojo, however, had other ideas  of course, ideas that derailed the dreams of half his generation.  My father never made it to Brazil. It was war on two continents that instead dominated his youth.  Their impact on him, however, was not the story you may be expecting. Though he was already a trained veteran and an eager soldier, and was to follow the doings of soldiers all his life, my father was handed a startlingly different fate for the times.  By the end of seven years of military service, he had never served a day overseas, even all through WWII, nor fired a gun in anger. When the attack on Pearl Harbor came, his destroyer, the West Virginia, was the first boat sunk (with very first Japanese bomb actually blowing through the radio room where he had once worked), but Ralph Hampton was not sitting in it. He had already been demobilized.  Attending college, in the weeks following Pearl Harbor, he assumed he would be called up again. Having just got out of the military, however, and so very hungry for learning, he kept on at his classes, intensely following the news, and waited to be called. Months went by and no call up came. Still it was only a matter of time.
At last in 1944, wanting to serve but also to avoid the infantry, he applied to the Air Force, keeping to himself the affliction of his migraines - now down to one every month or two.  When they loaded his system with the shots given to new recruits, however, he fell ill with the worst one of his life and only confessed what it was after three days when his doctor began to speculate that brain surgery might be called for. Thus was the door to a pilot’s life closed.  The infantry it was. And yet the army, for some reason known only to its overworked clerks, overlooked his previous training and started him off from scratch again. He went to several training locations until at last, in 1944, he was sent to Fresno California. And here his life took another unexpected turn.
At 26, my father was already a romantic to the most intense degree. He had already been in love several times, each time rocked to his adolescent socks. Yet still, he once confided to me, even in his mid twenties, he was a gentleman and a technical virgin, yearning, as he was to yearn all his life, after the image of a perfect woman. When he was posted to Fresno, for a time at least, he found her. In the library of Fresno State College, he and his friend, on a day leave from their base, came upon my mother, Lenore Patricia Joint, working on her homework. Here was a red haired blue-eyed beauty, a smart girl going to college, a lively funny charming girl who totally swept him into euphoria, for she returned his instant ardor. Every day he could get away he came to see her, taking her for long bike rides and sodas at the Five and Dime. The fact that she had a beau already serving in the military did not faze him. “All’s fair in love and war,” he wrote her. “I’m going to keep heckling you.” He was in love. On weekends, when he could manage, he also went down to see his father in Long Beach. He would travel back in his father’s most recently disgarded old Lincoln, the poetry of Omar Khayyam perched on the wheel spokes as he drove north, memorizing the verses with the wind in his hair and my future mother in his heart.  “Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse - and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness - And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”
He was driving home from such a trip, pushing his luck by being AWOL a few hours, when the call came for his unit to ship out. Now. The buddy who was supposed to call him to come back in time should this happen wasn’t even able to get to a phone.  When my father arrived back at the base, still starry-eyed from his journey, all the friends he had trained with for months were gone, on their way to the bloody forests of the Ardenne to try and hold the embattled front line at the Battle of the Bulge. Novice soldiers thrown against veterans, most of them died there. Back in Fresno, my father sat stunned in the empty barracks, hoping to be sent after them but, after a reprimand and brief punishment, he learned he had simply become a man without a unit. After weeks of consternation, his final assignment for the duration of the war became a lonely telegraph station in the desert near Tucumcari New Mexico. Here he worked at night under a sky brilliant with stars, passing messages between ships at sea and military units in combat - feeling the terrible hum of war all over the globe and yet utterly apart from it.  It was a frustration that stung him all his life. Had his life NOT gone this way, however, I would never have been born. Had he not had the unique childhood and youth that he had, I would not have had mine.

Child psychologists in America today tell us a stable home life is essential for children’s mental health, a house number that remains ever the same, routine in all things, standardized “consequences” and layers of security. They would wrap children in a comfort blanket of familiarity and boundaries and have parents follow neat algorithms for punishment and rewards and endless planned activities. I cannot imagine a childhood more different from my own and I am deeply grateful these ideas were not even close to what my Hamp or my mother Lenore followed.  They just loved me. They trusted my honesty and my abilities and let me know it every day. They listened. My father’s parenting was simply the passionate wish to share all that had come to hold beauty and meaning for him as soon as I could grasp it. We shared it together. Zorro became my very best friend and stayed that way all his life.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

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.