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Andeas Heumann/Getty Images (Stone)

Sometime in the early eighties, I spent a few weeks in Hawaii, living in a cabin near the crater of the volcano called Kiluaea. Trees, flowers, and birds were all about. The daylight had a kind of spiritual purity. Nights had a softness that was not pure, but sensuously heartbreaking. Best of all, where I lived, high up near the crater, the nights were too cool for mosquitoes, so I slept deeply, undisturbed. I’d never lived in a lovelier or more potentially violent place. The cabin was close to the rim of the crater, which was still active, seething wisps of steam. I looked into the crater every day on my walks. Rock walls dropped steeply for hundreds of feet, forming a wide and awesome hole. The effect was magnificent, terrifying, too tremendous for the mind to assimilate. It was what people once called the “sublime.” We don’t use the word that way any longer, but in general, we also don’t respond to natural phenomena in a quasi-religious, romantic, visionary manner.

I loved the place and even thought about living there permanently, but my happiness was spoiled by a number of anxieties I’d brought with me from the mainland. The worst was a book review that I had agreed to write for a political magazine. It was a review of a book of letters by two modern writers, and it was edited by a colleague of mine at Berkeley. The letters were witty and learned, a pleasure to read. My colleague’s editing job was first rate, but he admitted that he failed to understand a certain phrase in one of the letters. I understood the phrase, a charming and funny play on words. It was not an important phrase, but because I understood it and my colleague didn’t, I pounced on it, I relished it.

I wanted to quote the phrase in my review and explain it to the world, but I would make myself look clever, and my colleague, who was also a friend, would look dull. He wasn’t dull and he was much superior to me as a scholar. But I felt competitive desire. Like an eager academic jackass, I wanted to seem more clever than my colleague and friend; however, I couldn’t do it, and I began to feel ashamed for having thought to do it, and also for not doing it. It occurred to me, in my shame, to throw myself into the volcano. A fleeting, silly thought. I would have forgotten it except that a tourist from Australia, that very day, threw himself into the volcano. Perhaps he slipped and fell, but I doubt it. I didn’t know him, but his death was extremely upsetting. It seemed, because of my violent suicidal thoughts, I had sacrificed him to the volcano. Every anxiety I felt was intensified, and I lost all heart for the book review.

One evening at a dinner party, a man mentioned a Buddhist monk who had built a temple nearby. It stood at the edge of a sugarcane field. In praise of the monk, the man told us about a mad girl who lived on the grounds of the temple with him and his adepts. The mad girl was incapable of living in ordinary society, but when near the monk she was peaceful and performed practical daily tasks. Everyone at the table except me knew the monk. They talked about the monk’s beneficent charisma and urged me to have an interview with him. I didn’t know what I would say. They said it didn’t matter.

It was raining the day I went, a noisy, thick, silvery rain. I had trouble seeing through the glistening, streaky blur as I ran, bent forward, sloshing across wet ground from my car to the temple. Inside, I was struck by silence and shining, freshly painted red walls. The monk appeared a moment later. He was average height and bald, with strikingly white perfect teeth. We sat crosslegged facing each other on the floor. A Japanese girl sat to one side of us. She served tea. I’d heard that the Japanese girl had learned Tibetan under his instruction at amazing speed.

Somehow I began talking. Words flew out as the rain fell down. I thanked the monk for his hospitality, and said that I hadn’t come to him for psychotherapy. I wasn’t interested in analyzing myself, and it wouldn’t interest him either. I didn’t want to waste his time. The girl repeated my words in Tibetan. The monk gestured to say go on.

I wondered what he thought of me, and supposed he’d never read Freud or taken classes in psychology. My categories of understanding people were not his. I had no evidence of how he thought, but I believed we were absolutely alien to each other. I felt more than confused, really at a loss. Why, if I didn’t want to talk about myself, was I talking about myself? Why was I here? What did I want? The girl repeated everything in Tibetan, and the monk took it in and urged me to continue, as if to say, yes, I understand, get to the point.

But I had no point.

Finally, I said that I am a person who makes mistakes. I probably meant that this interview was a mistake. Then, in a rush of wild sincerity, I said I made bad mistakes. That seemed to interest the monk. The girl asked me, at the monk’s instruction, what sort of mistakes did I make. I told her that my worst mistakes were in what I said to people. Sometimes I intended only to be amusing, but I made them angry. I also made mistakes in what I did from one day to the next, buying what I didn’t need or even want, or promising to do what I didn’t want to do. I also made mistakes in the decisions that affected the course of my life. Everything had begun to seem like a mistake. My life was a huge mistake. Then I repeated what I had said in the beginning: I am not interested in analyzing myself.

The question emerged: What interests me?

I don’t think I am living my own life, I said, and others must think the same about themselves. I have a good job. I support my family. I’m essentially a normal person. I love my children. I have plenty of friends. But nothing seems to have a real relation to me except my mistakes. As I talked I seemed to enter a trance, but I heard the girl interject softly several times, “That is in the literature. That too is in the literature.”

She was about eighteen years old, fluent in two languages, and apparently a master of the literature. Her charismatic teacher stared at me as I raved. It was not a moment of great personal dignity. When the girl said, “That is in the literature,” it came to me that I wasn’t very original. According to her, the literature had my number. I didn’t consider myself unique, but it surprised me to hear that I wasn’t.

The monk said there are people who cannot correct their mistakes, and there are others who can. Which was I? He didn’t wait for my answer. He talked for a moment about the course of life, and said there is a time when the opportunity for change arrives. One man will see it and act. Another man can neither see it nor act. He then told a little story from the literature. There was a learned doctor in ancient Tibet who knew the remedies for every disease. One day his dearest friend became ill. The doctor examined his friend and prepared an herbal remedy appropriate to his illness, but it didn’t cure his friend. It killed him.

Later, after I had slogged back to my car through the rain, I sat thinking about the story. Rain banging the metal shell of the car enveloped me in noise, as if I were inside the barrel of a drum, an emptiness bounded all about by horrendous and ceaseless agitation, but my mind was undisturbed. I thought of the fatal doctor and the last thing the monk said. Just before we said goodbye, I had asked him, “Do you know me?”

“Yes. We met long ago on the wheel,” he said.

What comes to mind now, many years later, is the Buddhist comment: “Though one should live a hundred years without seeing the Deathless State, yet better, indeed, is a single day’s life of one who sees the Deathless State.”

Maybe I saw it for an instant, but as I try to put it in Western terms, I must refer again to the experience of the sublime, an experience for which there are no terms. Strange, wonderful, transcendent, terrifying—each term instantly cancels the value of any terms.

The magnificent horror of the volcano, and the blinding, silvery beauty of the rain were there long before terms. The main achievement of the human presence, which is fairly recent in the natural world, is the invention of the definite article. But the article “the” is not as definite as it wants you to believe. After all, nothing exists except in relation to another thing. In the relation, and not in the things, or illusory definiteness of things, one sees deathlessness.

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