Sunday, August 30, 2009
What I Found When I Was Lost
Chants (and Rants) from Zilnon Kagyeling
I wake to the sound of cymbals crashing in the gompa upstairs, a man chants softly in the room next to mine, and my eyes open on the walls of Room #5 here at Zilnon Kagyeling Monastery. Sky blue walls are spotted with mildew, one window is busted, the window above the door must be propped open with a bottle. The fog has slipped under the door and into bed with me. It feels like happiness – and it smells damp.
Wonderful, I think. Lucky. Why can’t I make good choices more often?
Years and years ago, I often stayed at Zilnon Kagyeling. The first time it was very basic: two buildings, a small gompa, a few guest rooms. At Losar (New Year) they invited us into the gompa for a ceremony and afterwards fed us beautifully. There was an African-American nun staying here then, in three year retreat. She glowered at us and said we should all go away. She knew the value of what we were being given. She didn’t reckon we deserved it.
When I returned a few years later, Zilnon Kagyeling seemed like just a big guesthouse, with a few monks attached. White walls, hot showers, and rules. A dozen years later, the place is in disrepair, and most of the tourists have left. Now it seems like a boarding house for wayward monks. I feel very much at home.
I should not say wayward; I should say independent. Most of the monks I’ve known have been Gelugpa – and those Gelugpa always seem to be on a schedule.
Strange things used to happen at Zilnon Kagyeling. There’d be shouting and windows broken, and the next day someone would be walking around muttering about black magic. These are Nyingmapa monks, remember -- you don’t want to mess with them. They understand the nature of reality and they know how to manipulate it. They have a reputation for being magicians. This monastery is said to use tantric rituals to influence the weather, to make seasons turn, to prevent hail storms, et cetera.
All I can say is -- if these monks are doing rituals to make the rain come -- they are succeeding big time. If I were a little more brave, I might go upstairs and see if I could talk them into fifteen minutes of sunshine. My laundry is about to dissolve.
I sit in my little room and recite the mantra of Guru Rinpoche, who brought the dharma to Tibet and is especially revered by the Nyingmapa. I visualize his bulging eyes, his red tricorn hat, and his moustache like Salvador Dali’s. He is warm and tender and tough. Guru Rinpoche bears down on me like a rainbow.
Hopefully the monks will peek in my busted window, spy me slouched on my meditation bench in front of a Guru Rinpoche postcard, and put in a good word for me with the dharmakaya. This despite the fact that delusion, anger and desire (desire!) continue in me unabated, and my Buddhist Report Card clearly reads: Shows No Sign of Improvement.
On the other hand, an entire month has gone by, and I haven’t once wished I was dead.
Lucky, lucky, lucky life. Allowed to travel, allowed to write and to read. And my husband. Absolutely first-rate. What are the chances that someone so adorable would also have such an excellent heart? Why can’t I celebrate all these things – and accept that Tokyo is the price of them? Why?
Return to the breath. This moment. Now. This is what I am taught. Here in India, how easy it is come back. The present moment accosts me. Now insists. Speeding Maruti van, smell of cow shit, shoeshine boy, an old monk stumbling down the road clutching a fresh head of lettuce. India issues me continuous invitations, in the form of warm brown eyes and uneven pavement.
Returning to the present moment in Tokyo, I find myself alone. Even on a crowded train. Especially then. Who wants to be present in Tokyo? Who wants to be aware? Look around the Namboku Line, look on the platform at Meguro. See how we clutch our phones and stare dead-eyed into space. Who needs to be aware in Tokyo? The train will arrive at 8:11, exactly as if did the day before.
We are encouraged not to be aware. Drugged cattle are more easily transported. Should you happen to regain consciousness while riding on the train, you will find yourself staring at an advertisement for beer.
All day in Tokyo I move like a capsule through a tube. Like a ghost. If Tokyo were a picture, the caption would read: Let’s pretend none of this is going on.
Hopefully in time there will be monuments and museums to honor Tokyoites, who sacrificed their lives, and their children’s lives, to comfort, efficiency and convenience. Please disagree, if you like. But I have been watching for seven years -- and I do not intend to play dumb now.
The city of Tokyo is devoted singlemindedly to testing a hypothesis. It’s the largest experiment in the history of the world. The MacArthur Hypothesis, let’s call it – that happiness is achieved through ever-increasing amounts of technology, isolation, predictability and consumption.
Supposedly this hypothesis is now being tested all around the world. This is completely unnecessary. We in Tokyo have tested it already. We have taken it very, very far. And the results are clear. Happiness does not result. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work!
Generally it is enough to disprove a hypothesis a dozen times, or a hundred. But we go on and on. We disprove it 30 million times. And then we try again. And we are shocked when it does not work. How about more? More speed! More consumption! No matter how much it hurts, we go on, destroying our environment and wasting our lives, trying again, no matter what it costs us, no matter how much it hurts, like an alcoholic who is already coughing up blood, like an aging sex addict waiting to get fucked in the sling.
How can these monks believe that they can change the weather by waving a bell in the air! Then again, maybe I’m not one to judge. I come from a city where women believe they will be fulfilled by handbag.
As for the spectacularly dumb things I’ve done in pursuit of happiness – well, just scroll down.
I don’t have the answers obviously. (Actually, I was hoping we could work out the details together.) All I know is -- it’s time for something else.
Write in with suggestions, won’t you?
In the meantime, I’ll be here kneeling in front of a postcard, and trying to let the rainbow bear down on me.