Monday, March 07, 2011

A Spontaneous Asylum

(notes from a monastery guesthouse on the edge of McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India.)


Here at the monastery there is a one-eyed orange tomcat who teaches me the dharma. I met him two years ago, when he was a one-eyed kitten. Presumably we have spent many lifetimes together. One of us is always the stupid one; the other is the cat.

A few nights ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and needed to piss. But to get to the toilet I had to go down the hall, down the stairs, outside, up more stairs and around the corner.

I can piss off of the porch, I thought – who’s going to know?

Next morning, first thing, the one-eyed tabby is at my door. Soon as I open it, he darts in, ducks under the bed and pisses. Gives me a little meow, exits.

Karma, according to this cat, means you do not get away with anything.

Another thing: Why do I always have be the stupid one? When do I get to be the cat?


Beside the dumpster, on the way to Dharamkot, someone has thrown away a bag of tsampa. The monkeys are shovelling it into their mouths, so that they all appear to have white tsampa beards, and to be wearing white gloves.


Perhaps he is mad, I thought, when I saw the man at the next table. That or a drunk. But, no, the Danish gentleman, with his ravaged face and blonde mop of hair, has simply taken on the quality of everything here at the monastery guesthouse – sturdy disrepair.

Everything that was broken when I was here years ago is still broken – but it is not any more broken. It all still works, basically, in a makeshift way. You just have to remember to turn on the faucet using the knob on the floor.

The cook offers the Danish man an umbrella. He appears offended, “You know how I feel about umbrellas! It just rains! It is a natural process! No interference is required!”


The extent to which everyone in the monastery guesthouse is half-cracked is – remarkable. Astonishing, nearly. It is as if we all spontaneously decided to come together and create a lunatic asylum.

I’ve gotten quite full of myself actually, since I just move my lips a lot and write compulsively on three-by-five cards. Whereas most everyone else here talks to themselves out loud. This distinction makes me pleased with myself. I’m almost too sane to be here, I think.

Then I correct myself.


For example, at the other end of the hall, there’s a French woman with spiky blonde hair. She sashays when she walks and sings to herself and whenever she’s even slightly pleased with someone she pretends to kiss them, twice on each cheek.

This was how she acted when the guesthouse manager came by yesterday with butter tea and thick chapati to celebrate Tibetan New Year. How lovely it was that they included us, the riff-raff foreigners paying two bucks a night.

Ten minutes later the guesthouse manager came back and made clear he’d like to get those kisses for real. When she refused, he offered her ten rupees.

“He thought I make a living from my body!” she said, delighted and aghast.

“He only offered you ten rupees!” I said.


The knot in my chest says I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what I ought to be doing. I don’t know how. I am wasting my time, I have always been wasting my time. Twenty years have passed and I have learned nothing.

(Hailstorm! I hear the woman say o-leh, o-leh and now it turns to pouring rain and the dogs come running home.)

I know what to do. What I really want is some kind of guarantee that I will always be fed and loved. That there will be beauty and someone will notice. But that guarantee will never be forthcoming.

But I know what to do.


The dilapidated Danish gentleman used to be a junkie. He smiles radiantly out of his ravaged face. “Thirty-five years. Now, I have been clean two years, ten months and some days.” He is here at the monastery guesthouse completing a hundred thousand prostations; I hear him sometimes in the room above mine, sliding repeatedly across the floor.

I admit to him that I sometimes feel like a lost cause.

“Never a lost cause!” he says. “I am here to learn, that’s what I always say to people. If I was a buddha I wouldn’t be here!”

We sit and discuss addiction, two experts in the field. I ask the same question I always ask.

“No,” he says. (I always get the same answer.) “You can do nothing. Nothing! He has to do it himself.”


The man with one foot is not quite crippled enough to succeed as a crippled beggar. So he has chosen to expand operations and don the clothes of a holy man. His saffron robes are very fresh, he’s got rudraksha beads, and his beard is a work in process.

He completes the ensemble with a rainbow colored umbrella, which he holds tilted coquettishly as he begs on the side of the road in the rain.

Hey, baba!


Almost twenty years ago, I lived in a retreat center above McLeod Ganj and wanted to be a monk. There were two of us, actually. Two promising aspirants. Ingo went ahead and became a monk. I decided I’d go back to Denver first. In a few days I had a job as a towel boy in a sex club. I’d get blue airmail letters from Ingo sometimes, news of Sera monastery, while I was busy at the Swim Club, breaking local and regional records for promiscuity.

For fifteen years I hadn’t been back to the retreat center. Then yesterday I went back. I stood in the garden looking at the stupa and I shook.


“We lie to ourselves!” says Venerable Robina. “We lie to ourselves so much it becomes the automatic way we perceive the world. We act as if we aren’t supposed to change. Like death is something that shouldn’t happen, or not until we are 97. It’s all a lie we tell ourselves!”

Venerable Rita is sitting in the audience. Ani Rita, the knife-throwing nun, whom I adored for years. She used to tell a story about being a cook in Switzerland: she got so angry she was about to throw her chopping knife across the room at a man who’d pissed her off. She talked about how lucky she was to not have thrown that knife.

Because Rita is a helluva tough lady, I’m telling you. Anyone she’d thrown a knife at would not have survived.

Ani Rita taught me to sing Guru Puja, to offer water bowls, to make prostrations. She was always kind and funny and never the least bit impressed with me. “You look like an ironing board,” she’d say. Or, when I came back to the center after a few months, “Didn’t expect to see you again!”

One day at lunch, many years ago, I heard a young woman blubbering as spoke to Rita. “Ani Rita,” she said. “I had a terrible vision! I had a vision that I’m going to die in one year!”

“In one year?” Ani Rita said. “Are you kidding me? You could die tonight!”


I decided I wouldn’t say anything to Ani Rita. It was enough for me just to see her. I didn’t need to go up to her, try to remind her who I was, say oh you meant the world to me when I was 19, 20, 21, say aw shucks.

As Ani Rita was arranging her robes to sit down, she looked across the crowd gathered for the free teaching.

She recognized me at once. She grinned, mimed her surprise and pleasure. I beamed at her, for a second. Then it was too much for me. I pinned my chin to my chest and cried.

Ani Rita had to leave before the talk was finished. She was running a retreat for people about to be ordained. I didn’t get a chance to speak to her.


My first evening back at the monastery guesthouse, I glanced up to see a monk peering into my window. I opened the door to say hello. He was was wearing an orange cap. His face was young and wrinkly and bright. He was holding a balloon animal. It was yellow and black.

I said I was surprised. “Surprised!” he said.

He asked where I was from. I said, “America, I guess. Japan, too.”

America!” he repeated. “Japan!”

He shook my hand and, because my hand was cold, he went on shaking it. First my right hand, then my left. He warmed my hands in his own. Then he thanked me and charged off, still grinning and holding his toy.

The Dalai Lama says that everyone should have fun at Tibetan New Year. Even monks.

I stood there at the door, feeling as though a row of candles had been lit within me. I didn’t feel cold at all anymore, not even in this cement cell with its rusty metal door.

How convenient this happened the very first day, I thought. Now all I have to do is tell people this story -- and anyone who is ever going to understand, will understand. Of course I had to burn my bridges and come back here again. It was the only possible decision, if I wanted to go on living.

The monk was holding a balloon animal. A honeybee.

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