Mid-afternoon, twenty-four hours into a three-day vipassana retreat, I entered the teacher’s cottage for my interview. Although I had attended many meditation retreats with lay teachers, this was my first interview with an Asian monk. Hesitant, bowing, unsure of etiquette, I walked in, sat on the floor, and waited for him to speak.
He waited for me to speak. Noting awkwardness. “How’s your practice?” he asked finally, quietly, smiling.
“I am experiencing much boredom, sir. The hour-long sits seem to be taking three hours.”
“Yes,” he smiled. “I think perhaps you are not in the present moment. You are wondering always, ‘How soon will this be over?’ Thinking ahead.”
“Yes, that is what I am doing.”
“When you note that thought, come back to your breath, or whatever experience predominates at the present moment. Place your mind fully there, and you will not be bored.”
I nodded. Suddenly something small and quick ran up my right thigh under my pant leg. I placed my mind immediately, completely there. The monk was right. I was not bored. I pressed my fingers on my thigh and made light rubbing motions, trying to block the bug from moving up higher. Breathing deeply for control, I went on with the interview.
“I see many, many images.”
“Just note ‘Seeing, seeing.’ Do not chase the images. Do not be frightened by them. Just note that they are there.” The bug made an end run around my hand and ran farther up my thigh. I pictured it heading for my crotch and chased it nervously with my fingers, frightened of its destination. I decided to stand, grasping at the hope that gravity would deter it.
“Thank you, Bante. That’s all the questions I have right now.” I stood, bowed, and walked slowly out of the cottage and thirty yards down the path into the meditation hall.
As soon as I had arranged myself in a cross-legged position I felt a quick movement on my thigh again. Noting revulsion. Noting aversion. Noting extreme aversion. Noting absolute end of tolerance.
I opened my eyes and looked around the room; twenty-four pairs of eyes were closed. If I was quick, I could do it without being immodest. I placed the thumb and forefinger of my right hand around the shape of the bug and held it firmly in place under my pant leg. With my left hand I raised my pant leg up over my knee and reached far up my thigh to my right hand. Careful, careful. Do no harm. Gently, mindfully, I cajoled. Finally, I held up before me a spider, about a quarter-inch in size.
Placing it on the carpet next to my cushion, I studied it for signs of battle damage. Too tiny to discern. It didn’t move. Had I killed it? I tapped my finger next to the spider and it scurried half an inch. No, still alive. I closed my eyes and finished out the hour of sitting.
For the next three hours I walked, sat, and drank juice. Boredom was less present as I increased my effort to come back to my breath, back to my steps. At seven o’clock I noted my intention to sit, and arranged myself again on the cushion to listen to the dharma talk. Half an hour into the explanation on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness my eyes fell upon a small dark spot next to my cushion. The spider had not moved for hours. Dead. Had I stepped on it? Had someone else stepped on it? How careless! How heedless of life! What if the monk knew? I leaned forward and tapped my finger. Ah, no, still alive. Just meditating. I tapped again until it had moved to the front of my cushion, out of danger of careless footsteps. Noting relief. Noting pride. I returned my attention to the dharma talk.
The next morning I rose at the 4:45 wake-up bell and remained sleepy and dull-minded for the next few hours. Then, as I sat down, I suddenly remembered my tiny companion. Just in front of me, about six inches from where I’d last seen it, was the motionless spot. As I studied it, slow horror crawled up my back. Finally the spider had moved. Obviously it was trying to get out. This was not its environment. It could not survive in a carpeted room. It needed food, water, fresh air. It moved only with my prodding, or its desperation, so clearly I had injured it. And having committed the injury, I had left it in this room to die miserably.
The monk had entered and was bowing before the altar. I had to get the spider outside quickly, but it was considered disrespectful to leave in the teacher’s presence. I breathed deeply, debated briefly, then decided that alleviating the spider’s suffering was more important than etiquette.
Placing one hand flat in front of the spider, I tapped with the other to prod it into my palm. It darted around me. I tried it again. Bante had started reading from a Buddhist text. Blocking the spider’s pathway with one hand, I reached forward with the other and tried to press its body gently between my thumb and forefinger. The spider darted again, tilting and wobbling now. All that I held in my fingers was a detached leg. Okay. Don’t panic. One more try. Careful, mindful, compassionate. And then it was in my hand.
Once outside I wondered if I should kill it, but knew the monk would say no. I had taken a precept not to kill, no exceptions. I put the spider on the pavement under the leaves, next to the soil.
Not until that night, as I moved in and out of sleep, did my obsession return. Images and voices cascaded. Bless me, Bante, for I have sinned. No, no. Different path. I saw myself bowing at his feet. Bante, I have heedlessly caused a sentient being to suffer. I could not help myself. It was driving me crazy. But now it will die from its wounds. Tell me what I should do.
The first morning sitting was at 5:30. The sun had not fully risen. For the next hour I watched my mind. Dull, thick, forgetful. No thought of the spider. Then suddenly attachment. My spider. My spider. My spider is suffering. And then again, no thought of it at all.
At 6:30 the bell rang and I walked slowly out into the light. The spider was gone.
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