In the late seventies and early eighties I would escape every few months from my political work in Jimmy Carter’s White House to play chess with my old friend and Buddhist teacher, Geshe Wangyal, in Washington, New Jersey. From dawn till night the long silences, laughs, and wild accusations of cheating could be heard throughout the house. Meditative serenity sought by those looking for the “Wisdom of the East” was hard to find in his retreat center.
Like many of my generation I had been lucky enough to sojourn in the psychedelic renaissance of the sixties. We had returned from our travels convinced that something fantastic lay beyond the reality of here and now. We believed that satori, the flash of enlightenment—Buddhist, Hindu, Judaic, Islamic, or Christian—was an intense, orgasmic experience and we searched for the path that would lead permanently through the doorway of this tarnished, ordinary reality to the white light of absolute enlightenment.
In 1971, I came to Geshe Wangyal from Harvard to escape the corruptions and compromises of the twentieth century, arriving on his doorstep macrobiotic, otherworldly, intoxicated by my rarefied notions of emptiness, and certain that he held a key. I was ready for meditation, study, and Zen asceticism. I wanted to be a monk.
But he shaved my beard, not my head, stuffed me full of boiled lamb fat and, after a few months of chess and construction work, tossed me back into the twentieth century, insisting that the door to enlightenment was to be found in the very stuff of ordinary reality. His mantra was not just to say “om mani padme hum” but to do something useful.
Over our games of chess, he coaxed me into politics. Compliant, I followed his advice and over the last twenty years have searched for the doorway in Carter’s Washington, Noriega’s Panama, Shagari’s Nigeria, Papandreou’s Greece, Donald Manes’ and Ed Koch’s New York City, Marcos’ Philippines, Chung’s Korea, Li Peng’s China, and the Cartel’s Colombia.
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