About ten years ago, a man gave me a copy of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. He leaned into my face and in a low, conspiratorial voice, said, “This book will change your life.”
With the stroke of that well-intentioned invitation to enter the dharma stream, every bone in my body braced itself against all things Buddhist.
I was just finishing college; the man was a teacher’s assistant for a course on American history, and during that semester I fell in love with Thomas Jefferson. My idealism about the United States was evidenced in everything I said and wrote.
So the way I interpreted this man’s gift was not just on a personal level. It wasn’t that I thought that Jefferson would save my life, but I had absorbed a worldview, a system of thinking, and a sense of myself within history that provided a comforting continuum and even, as I prepared to leave the university, a compass point that might lend direction to my uncertain future. For this teacher, who was writing his own dissertation on The Federalist Papers, to throw me a lifeline book written by a religious teacher from Tibet felt like a betrayal. I left my final paper in his office and skipped my last two classes.
Warding off Buddhism didn’t come easily, especially when, a couple of years later, I followed a dot.com boyfriend to San Francisco, where the Dalai Lama draws bigger crowds than most rock groups. One evening we were visiting friends, and one of them took me into her bedroom to show me a handmade quilt. On her bedside table was a book called Buddhism Without Beliefs. I pretended not to show too much interest, but that weekend I went out and bought it. A couple of days later, I was lying on the couch, browsing through the book, when I read:
…things are empty. They are not as opaque and solid as they seem: they are transparent and fluid. They are not as singular and straightforward as they seem: they are complex and ambiguous. They are not only defined by philosophy, science, and religion: they are evoked through the play of allusions, paradoxes, and jokes. They cannot be pinned down with certainty: they trigger perplexity, amazement, and doubt.
Fat tears began to wet the pages. Soon the book was on the floor and I was rocking and crying with my arms wrapped around myself in some instinctive attempt to hold myself together. What I remember most is the fear that my limbs might simply slide away, like the soft separation of meat from the bones of a stewed chicken. And then I remembered something else: that I had always known that fear. It started as a childhood game, lying awake in the dark and trying to concentrate on exactly that place where my skin stopped and the air started. I would try it on the long stretch of a leg, and at the tip of my nose, and against my cheek, my tummy, my palms. But it was never there, this separation. It could not be felt. It could not be known. And so I began, in my child’s way, to know that the physical “me” was not distinct from everything in the world. I could not trust myself to know where I ended and the world began. And so I entered the adult world of lies, pretending to be a separate entity.
What remains a mystery is how I acquired the perfect understanding—however unconscious, however I fought against it before the Jefferson scholar stepped forth—that Buddhism held the key to places that scared me. Where did it begin, these vague, inchoate associations to Buddhist teachings? When? Who said what? Once I had a quote from St. Bruno on my wall about silence and someone said, “That sounds just like a Zen master.” Is that how it began? Or at the dinner table when my kid brother, a Bruce Lee fanatic, stumbled through an explanation about how the samurai, the person he kills, and the sword are all essentially empty—and my father asked about the blood? Or did it all begin for me with the Zen funnies that someone published in our high school paper?
People tell stories of coming to Buddhism after being in an accident, facing death, losing a loved one, getting a divorce. But that’s never the whole story either, for there are always choices, hundreds of choices. I don’t know what made me finally pick up a book and start to read. Perhaps there’s never a true beginning to anything.
I read dharma books for the next couple of years and occasionally went to public talks. One evening I went to an introductory talk by a Tibetan lama. I understood pretty well but hesitated to sign up for the weekend workshop. Afterwards, I waited as people went up to speak to him. Finally I introduced myself and said that I was just starting out and asked, “Is the weekend workshop beginning teachings?” To which he replied, “There’s no such thing as beginning teachings.” I thanked him and walked to the sign-up table.
The seeker who sets out upon the way
Shines bright over the world.
But day and night
The man who is awake
Shines in the radiance of the spirit.
Do your work, with mastery.
Like the moon,
Come out from behind the clouds!
—From the Dhammapada
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