Tonight we had a teaching about the meditation practice related to Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. Shamarpa is considered an expression of this fundamental wisdom and compassion, and this is the practice we’re doing daily for the forty-nine days between his death and his cremation.
The practice is vibrant: the alter full of offerings, the text full of music, the meditation full of imagery. Sitting in the Institute, listening to all the merits of this practice, the qualities that can be developed, the good that can be accomplished, I felt a sudden rush of loneliness. I checked myself to find its source. A little tired, a little achy, but not really stressed, and surrounded by people I love. What’s the deal, self?
I glanced up at the photo of Shamarpa, nestled in his place on the throne that he fills/filled when he is/was here. I got hit by a wave of missing-feeling mixed with the memory of his confidence and gentleness. The loneliness subsided some, and I had this thought:
Maybe all this loss I feel, for some one who isn’t really gone, but just present in a way I can’t see with my eyes or touch with my hands…maybe when I feel his absence, what I am actually feeling is the gap between me–here and now–and everything I wish I were capable of.
I don’t have an infinite light. I’m just a little, sometimes light. Often I’m hazy and muggy with confusion. Honestly, sometimes it’s kinda dark in here. And all of this loneliness for some one wiser and stronger and surer than me; it’s a little misplaced. Technically, the wise and the strong and the sure are never apart from us. Wisdom and strength and certainty are with us whenever we open our minds to them. I’m not lonely for the masters or the Buddhas or even the relative reminders of other people’s love. Those things are here for me. No.
I’m lonely for the part of me that remembers how to be infinite.
**This post is part of a larger project culminating in a week of creative journalism in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal chronicling the cremation of the Tibetan spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. To find out more or make a donation to this project, go here.
Last night most of the Western world gained an hour’s sleep. I woke to chatter of birds rather than the subtle sound of early morning darkness. I woke rested, which I needed, and spent most of the morning working on a new drawing. I haven’t made time for art in the last couple weeks and the simple fact of curling into my corner chair and spreading colored pencils across the teeny expanse of my desk (a scrap of chip board nailed to the wall of my caravan) felt nourishing in ways I can’t explain.
This is a strange phenomenon I often undergo. An inability to devote time to things that support clarity of mind when I don’t understand what their purpose is other than that and when I don’t understand what it is about them that centers me. Like meandering walks in the woods and through the micro-villages speckled across our nearby hillsides. Until last Wednesday, I hadn’t taken a walk just to walk in months. Rambling amongst the old stone houses and mossy rocks, I let go of tensions and expectations I hadn’t even realized I was holding onto.
Often in the Buddhist world, we talk about how the goal of meditation practice is not “peace.” It is the ability to rest with the nature of mind–be it calm, be it tempestuous, or be it otherwise. Because I’m not totally sure whether certain things fall into the “peace” category or the “nature of mind” category, I often hesitate to devote time to them, fearing I could be using my hours more wisely.
In one of my classes this week, we talked about the simple (but generally ignored in the daily unfolding of life) fact that death can arrive at any moment. It was a bit like the Buddhist version of the first time I heard the statistic about how many people die in car crashes every day, and all of a sudden I realized, “That could be me. Now.” It is easy to forget, it almost seems necessary to forget, in the moment-to-moment activity of being a person.
And yet, when I forget this fact, I wind up trying to hold on to everything. All the information I might need in a day. All the tasks I could accomplish. All the wisdom I could develop. To forget that I can die, that I will die, that I might die today, is to believe that, instead of dying, I might be able to hang on to all of my interests, all of my dreams, and all of my desires with no end in sight. Which is heavy, that.
Which leads me to a place where–even when I am engaged in an activity that clearly counts as “productive,” like studying or working on planning for the kitchen–in my head I’m all over the place, trying to keep track of a million things at once, and often devoting half of my energy to agonizing over the fact that I might be failing to do so accurately.
Sometimes, rationalizing what is good and why is not helpful. Sometimes, it’s just a trap, a way to keep running in circles, feeling like we are getting somewhere because we can’t see that the course only loops back on itself. Sometimes, our belief in the future becomes a reliance on the future, which then becomes a habit of putting aside activities that ground us in the present because we don’t know what value they purport for said imagined future.
It bothers me that I don’t know what art is for. It bother me that I can die, that I will die, that I might die today. And it also bothers me that I don’t really know how to integrate that information into the business of living. But since I can’t turn back the clock more than one hour a year, it seems the best approach is just to keep working on it for the time that I’ve got.
I took a picture of you laughing. It’s grainy because the light is low in the kitchen. You laugh at me often: when I squeak at unexpected occurrences, when I dance while I’m cooking, when I try to convince you to do what I want when it’s not what you want. Your laughter. It’s how I knew that you remembered me when I came back from six weeks in California. You chuckled and said, “She always tells me, ‘Don’t eat that. Don’t eat that. Don’t eat that, Lama!'” In your particular mix of Tibetan, French, and Old Age, it sounded like “Pomo, Lama no mangiez; no mangiez; no mangiez!” I laughed too, and I was glad that you remembered me.
There are a lot of things you don’t remember these days. Then again, maybe it is more precise to say you remember certain things, and only those things now. You remember practice. You remind me every hour, “Mahakala. Mahakala,” until five o’clock rolls around and it is, indeed, time for that ceremony. You remember that the rest of us would do well to practice also. You interrupted me in the middle of this paragraph, closing my computer, pointing toward the temple, and saying, “Go. Go.” I nodded acquiescence and snuck off to the office to keep writing.
You remember where the spelt flakes are in the cupboard, so that when you are hungry–which is all the time–you can find a snack. I know if you’ve been by because I’ll find a trail of errant flakes, sprinkled newly on the counter since the last time I wiped it clean. You remember that you are not allowed to eat sugar, but that you love it above all else. The first week we met, you tried to stick your fingers straight into my birthday cake and grab a mouthful before I whisked it to safety. We have these confrontations often and mostly I win, because I don’t want you to drop dead on my watch and also because I’m, um, a little vain of my baked goods. Don’t go putting holes in my cake, Lama.
Every now and then I sneak you a cookie. A small one. I’m not supposed to. None of us are, but you’ll find them on your own if we don’t give them to you, and fortunately your diabetes hasn’t come back, and the amount of joy these little treats bring…I guess it’s a question we each ask ourselves. How much longer might you live without a biscuit or a peach or a bite of cake? How much more joyful will life be for the time you have with a biscuit or a peach or a bite of cake?
This is a gift you give us, along with your laughter and your dedication to the path: the cognizance that life is fleeting. You live on the border now. I see it when I’m with you. You drift between languages, between times and countries. Some days in your mind it is years ago in Tibet. You talk to me about the masters that you know, the ceremonies held. I only catch a word or two, a name sometimes, but your devotion envelops me. Sometimes you forget that I am here, struck as you are by the color of the sky or the sound of a bird. When you catch me by your side, you say, “Pomo, look,” and point at the thing of beauty with awe.
You remind me that the world is awesome. That I am blessed to be in it. To be granted a life to devote to understanding. You remind me to use it well, for it will leave me–this birth, this body, this place and time and context. In all likelihood, you will leave me first.
I carry the knowledge heavy, but with gratitude. For that, I remember to laugh instead of despair when you open the pot of rice before it’s done cooking. For that, I stop whatever I’m doing to help you find your prayer beads when their location has slipped into the mists of your memory. For that, I make loaf after loaf of bread until I hit upon the one that’s good enough to make you happy as well as healthy. For the love of you, I do my best to make my own life count.
I fell off the radar for a minute here. I couldn’t help myself. I could say I fell headfirst into life, and was so busy being busy that I couldn’t spare a thought for this fine corner of the world. But that would be quite untrue. I didn’t fall into the activities of the wide world. No. I fell into books.
First, it was The Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham. Then I found Wuthering Heights, the sole narrative opus of Emily Brontë. Lately, I’ve just begun A Tale of Two Cities, of the Dickensian canon. What am I doing reading books by dead British people while I am in India, you may ask. Being subconsciously colonial? Perish the thought. I certainly hope not.
It’s just. It’s just…there’s a kind of inspiration that only the well-wrought word can offer. The world of literature is a better lens for life than life itself often is. In the nature of a character and the drama of a story, we can see the riches and foibles we fail to notice in ourselves. A meditation treatise is not the same thing as a novel. These just happen to be the novels I can download for free on iTunes and read on my phone.
Class is still a source of great richness, but sometimes a person needs new inspiration, from unexpected corners. Today we were going over the remedies to distraction during meditation. One of the primary antidotes to a wandering mind is to focus on the cost of being distracted. The unaware mind engages in unaware action. When we are distracted, we can be thoughtless, short-tempered, and unkind. When we lose our grasp on what’s happening here and now, we can become neurotic or morose or hyperactive. Ouch all around. But even as I list this, it’s a tally in my head. Remember to stay focused, otherwise you will do unfortunate things that will lead to suffering and it will be a bummer. Makes sense. It’s not terribly potent though.
But then. Then you read Wuthering Heights. And you meet Heathcliff. Ah, Heathcliff! A demon of a man. Driven almost mad and definitely robbed of his humanity by what he would have us believe is love. But you could only call the source of such cruelty love if you had forgotten entirely what love is meant to be. Clearly, Heathcliff had never met the dharma.
Ah, so what is needed does come around. In the roiling, raging hearts of three generations of imaginary English people, I rediscover the reason why I meditate. And in the meantime, the mind is lush with prose and sadness. And though I am reading by myself in the park, I am reminded that I am not alone, that every human has a heart that rages. For all our aspirations of equanimity, we are karmic beings yet, imprinted with the untamed ramblings of our countless, forgotten lifetimes. What can we but do than hold court together in our given world and seek to see instead of judge what is?