IT’S BEEN TWO YEARS since I left Pingyan Monastery, but every time my head itches I still think it’s that ringworm. It was the blind cat’s fault, or mine for getting distracted and feeding her and having a special feeling about her, as if her eyes full of blank green fire could see something beyond what there was—white stucco walls stained with the mud from the monsoon, beautiful brown people walking slowly up and down, meditating. Dust, mud, garbage, jasmine. Every single thing, different from here.
She first showed up at the end of the hot season, gray and black tiger, like a cat I used to have in California. I couldn’t tell where she’d come from; she was obviously from outside the orange-and-white gene pool of the monastery cats. Maybe she’d wandered in from the Muslim slum next door. She was so weak she fell down the steps into the basement that was given to us foreign women as a meditation hall, down under the dorm for Burmese lay women over fifty. There was a special building for older women, mostly devout widows who came to meditate after their familial duties were accomplished. We six Foreigner Women, all younger than that, had to walk through their quarters to get to the toilet. In the long oven of the hallway, there was mutual inspection. I’d peek sidelong into their rooms and see the grandmothers oiling their long hair or resting after lunch, always lying on their right sides because this was the posture in which the Buddha slept. They lay very still, often with their eyes open. Were they thinking of anything? Maybe not. They frequently offered me bananas or a little dish of fermented tea leaves fried with garlic and peanuts. They felt sorry for the foreigners, I think, because we had no families to come and visit us and bring us nice things to eat.
I was a nun, with a shaven head and four layers of pink, vaguely Grecian robes. I’d gone to Burma on recommendation from travelers I’d met in India. They said that Burma was a fragment of an older world, that in isolation it had worked out the world’s strictest, most effective technique for spiritual enlightenment. I waited a year and a half for a special visa, and when it finally arrived I was ready, primed: I told Pingyan’s abbot that I wanted nothing but complete freedom of the heart and mind. Because I’d meditated quite a lot in the past, he offered me the robes, a nun’s ten rules of conduct, and the name Sumana, meaning “Open Mind” or “Open Heart” (Burmese don’t make a distinction), and also “Queen of Jasmine.”
The monastery covered forty acres in a suburb near the British consulate, and had enough buildings to accommodate the entire bourgeoisie of Rangoon as well as devotees from places like Mandalay, Sagaing, and the Shan and Karen states. There were usually a thousand people meditating, both ordained and lay; four thousand during the Water Festival. As in any religion, females predominated in number, but there was a good minority of monks who were the authorities, as well as a dozen foreigners. We Foreign Women lived and meditated by ourselves and saw the men only at meals. After a while my eyes turned Asian, and Western males began to look like the barbarians on a Chinese plate, hairy and coarse, their naked pink skin like boiled shrimp.
Breakfast was at five and lunch at ten-fifteen. There was no solid food, then, until the next breakfast. The monks said eating at night causes lust. We woke at three to the clanking of an iron pipe. Each day there were seven one-hour sittings, interspersed with six or seven hours of formal walking meditation, pacing slowly up and down. At eight P.M. the abbot discoursed to the foreigners; Burmese got sermons only on Saturday. Every other day we had an interview, a completely formalized affair in which we described our meditation and the abbot instructed us about how to proceed. Bed was at eleven.
We didn’t talk, or make eye contact with anyone. We were told to keep the mind protected like a turtle in its shell, but to notice everything occurring in that field. Thus, when not sitting with eyes shut, we moved very slowly, minutely attending to sensations and avoiding complex, rapid movements. If strong thoughts or emotions came, we noticed their presence but discarded their content. This practice was intended to lead to the famous and misunderstood Nirvana, which the Burmese call Nibbana, Liberation, and the end of suffering—cessation was the word the Burmese used. I believed I could experience cessation because I was in Burma where, it was said, lots of people had psychic powers and the young girls would attain their first cessation during summer holidays from school.
I was taking a break one day, standing at the row of sinks in line with the other women, all of us mixing up glucose tea, which we drank in the afternoon to keep from getting dehydrated. My feet were bare and dirty on the hot black boards, the sinks were giving off their intense slime smell, and my four layers of robes were stuck to my skin with the heat, as usual. Now I heard a thin mew, turned, and saw this pathetic creature, all bones, tottering, then falling down the steps.
Next to me, my senior nun, Silanandi, slowly turned her head to look, slowly turned back again, and resumed her tea-making with glacial care. Do not be diverted, her behavior said. I watched her hand closing around the cup, its conical fingers perfectly familiar to me. In my mind I heard the abbot, our teacher.
One moment of kindness is greater than a hundred years of ordinary life. One moment of perfect attention is greater than a hundred years of kindness.
Slowly Silanandi raised the cup and drank.
The perfume of mindfulness rises even to the seat of the gods.
Indeed she was perfect, but I suspected she wanted all of us to notice.
Me, I’d already grabbed a spare jar lid and mixed up some glucose and my powdered milk from Bangkok. The cat didn’t know what it was at first, but I pushed her nose into it so that she had to lick it off, with a charming little sneeze.
The Swiss woman in our group came and crouched next to me, smiling intensely. I understood that she was enraptured by this feeding of the cat and also wanted an excuse to talk. This was one of the dangers of getting involved in events. There was a snowball effect. The most microscopic loophole permitted the world to draw me back into itself.
I smiled a tiny Buddha’s smile and moved my hands slowly, as Silanandi would, to show that I was meditating diligently in spite of what might appear. In other words, Scram.
Suddenly, my pretended concentration caught, and I was just noticing the little cat, the softness of her fur and the pain of her starvation. I felt it through me like a fire.
Her eyes were unusually glowing, like a florist’s green glass marbles, but I didn’t realize then that she was blind and this was why they were so luminous. She didn’t understand the milk, she just stood over it, weakly bobbing her head. Maybe, I think now, she couldn’t find it again.
I turned to go back into the meditation hall, but the kitten tried to follow. I took her up the steps and deposited her under a jasmine bush, together with the jar lid. Ten ants already had drowned in white. As I wet the cat’s nose one last time, a passing crone cried out her disapproval.
Animals are incapable of refined mental states. A gift to an animal is of little merit.
I scurried back into the meditation hall.
After that I didn’t see the kitten for a long time. If I’d thought about it, I’d have guessed she died, but I didn’t think of her.
Yesterday, sir, I sat seven hours and walked seven hours. I slept five. In sitting, the rising and falling of the abdomen was the primary object. At three o’clock, in the rising I noticed a movement and tightness, in falling softness and heaviness. Burning arose in the lower back. I focused on the burning, and it became unbearable.
Did you twist and tum to find relief?
The sufferings of life should be known. Do not move to conceal the truth from yourself. Grit your teeth. You can keep pain dancing in your hand.
Every Saturday I shaved my head. At a stale hour of the afternoon I would retire from the meditation hall to the green-tiled bathing room with its dark, cool tank of water. My equipment was a mirror, a thermos of hot water, a of blue Chinese soap, and a Gillette Trac II cartridge razor I’d brought in from Bangkok. Shaving took an hour, and except for the bliss of leaving behind the hall and my companions, suddenly comical in their diligence, I hated it. The textures put my teeth on edge—cheap lather like saliva, sandpapery stubble, sticky smoothness of my scalp. Next day, the back of my head always erupted in a thousand tiny pimples. Irritation, I suppose. Eventually I learned that a hot washrag cured this.
One shaving day I found a small, red patch on my right temple. By then I was used to various grossnesses of my flesh and found this one interesting. When I pulled my skin a little, it jumped into a perfect circle. There were few perfectly made things in that environment, and this roundness pleased me. But now it itched.
A few nights later, after the abbot’s discourse, I went to ask the monastery nurse about it. She was warden of the Foreign Women’s dorm, and so she lived downstairs from us.
Saya-ma Aye Shwe, Nurse Cool Golden, was sitting under her mosquito net. As she was deaf, I had to walk into her room and touch her on the shoulder.
“It ’tis a sunburn,” she breathed in English. “Leave it.” Her voice was deceptive, as soft as a baby’s sigh.
Though she’d trained as a nurse in East Germany and in Australia, Nurse Aye Shwe ascribed most physical ailments to faulty concentration, heat, or cold. She’d cured herself of stomach cancer by meditating alone in a forest hut, vowing not to come out until she died or attained enlightenment. Now it was her right to despise infirmity; one visited the clinic only in a mood of boldness. Westerners were too soft, always sick, always wanting pills.
A week later the spot was the size of the rubber ring on a Mason jar and itched so much I couldn’t sleep I returned to the nurse’s quarters, tilted my head to the light from her barred window.
“Is it ringworm?” I asked, but she didn’t have her hearing aid on. “Ringworm?”
“You are not used to our water,” she said sadly. “Try with Go-Min.”
“Go-Min!” I laughed, throwing my head back for Nurse Aye Shwe’s benefit. Go-Min was made in Burma, and very cheap, a rude little jar of pig fat mixed with aromatic oils. I had heard the nurse prescribe it for swollen gums, varicose veins, abdominal bloating, scabies, and mosquito bites. Weeks ago, she’d given me a jar of it for hemorrhoids; the most I can say is that it burned as if it were having a radical effect.
“Sister Go-Min, they call me,” Nurse Aye Shwe said with a smirk. “If your meditation is good, Go-Min will be very effective.”
Later that day I was doing walking meditation next to the Hall of the Diamond, where the Burmese women meditated. It looked like a cinema and was fixed up inside like Versailles, with mirror mosaics and a giant aquarium up front, enclosing an enormous white enamel Buddha with a gold-leaf robe and red smiling lips. Foreigner Women were forbidden to meditate there, which was a disappointment to me. Our basement hall smelled of rotting mud and had no Buddha. The Burmese women seemed to have more fun than we did. Every morning they chanted in a haunting minor key. Young girls did their walking meditation arm in arm, and no one was terribly serious about the rule of silence. When sad thoughts or terrifying visions came, the women groaned and wept aloud. “Oiyy! Oiyy!” Sometimes their entire hall would erupt in these lugubrious sounds, like a pack of she-wolves howling, and I’d wish desperately to be there, not cooped up with the grim Calvinists in the Foreigner Women’s Basement.
Suddenly I was at the center of a bunch of teenaged nuns who were giggling and rapidly speaking Burmese. They pulled me around the corner, out of sight of the women’s supervisor or any passing monk. I nearly fainted with delight. I regularly got crushes on these temporary nuns who came, like me, to ordain for a few months or a year. Physically they were lovely—supple bodies in the narrow elegant pink robes, faces exquisite in concentration.
One tall girl pointed at my ringworm, crying, “Pwe! Pwe!” It was so big now, they must have seen it from afar. A pudgy lay girl explained in English, “She bring med-cine fo’ you.” As we stood there, an old woman came up, as stout as a gnome and dressed in the brown laywoman’s uniform of sash, sarong, and jacket. She had diamonds in her ears, rims of gold around all of her incisors. She pulled a tube out of a ratty vinyl purse.
“My son,” she said, showing me the tube. TRIMOXTRIM, it said, USE ONLY UNDER THE DIRECTION OF A PHYSICIAN. “Put,” she said, shaking the tube toward me. When in Rome, I thought. I put on a tiny dab.
“Tomorrow, fie o’clack,” the fat girl said, pointing at the ground. The next day they were waiting, the dry, brown gnome amid gardenias. To meet them I had to cross the Burmese women’s walking ground, a no-man’s land of hard, broken dirt. Slowly, eyes downcast—I was in sight of the elder monks’ cottages. My shadow flew over dull rocks, smashed brick, eroded asphalt, struggling weeds. Two monks swished past on important business, as fast as Jaguars on a freeway.
The tall nun’s name was Nandasayee, Expert of Delight. She carried a long, flexible branch in her hand. “Lady gah-din, she find,” the interpreter announced. Nandasayee pulled off seven leaves, rolled a cylinder, tore off one end. She whispered to it quietly; then, puh, puh, puh, she breathed on it.
”’Life not life,'” the interpreter offered. “She tell to leaf.”
Cradling my head, Nandasayee now rubbed the leaves onto the ringworm, carefully following its outline counterclockwise. This stung a little. Later I learned that the leaves were from a hot pepper bush.
This could cure me of anything, I thought. I’d been there six months then, physically touched by no one.
“Tomorrow three time,” the plump girl said. “Aftah brehfass, aftah lunch, fie o’clack.”
Nurse Aye Shwe was in a mood of laxity. That night she beckoned me into her room.
“I have got! Burmese medicine for ringworm. When you are finish, please return me, unused portion.” It was a whitish, grainy cream in a hot pink plastic tub. I made the first application right away. It stung fiercely, satisfactorily. Its job must be simply to kill infested flesh.
Nurse Aye Shwe offered me hot plum concentrate in an enamel cup. “Soon cure.” Her face was a mask of satisfaction; I was filled with nostalgia for such certainty as hers, the same feeling as when I wish to have been born in some past century.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I lay under the mosquito net’s stifling canopy, too dizzy to sit up and meditate. Everything was breaking into particles, the itching at my temple, the passionate sounds of the night. Crickets sawed away, lizards croaked like colliding billiard balls; in the Muslim slum, a woman sang endless Arab vowels, the very voice of unfulfilled desire. I knew I’d miss these serenades whenever I went home.
Before the dawn mists burned off, Sister Nandasayee slipped into our basement and closed the door behind her. Nandasayee came at me with her leafy branch. I bent my head; she performed the little ritual of treatment. I felt like the birthday girl.
Last night, sir, I felt strange.
Objects appeared as streams of particles dissolving. When I observed the abdomen, I found no physical sensations. I was disoriented until I discovered a subtle sense of space. Happiness arose, then images of an event during the day.
How long did you dwell on the images?
Ten, fifteen minutes.
Too long. Yes sir.
When objects are subtle, be aware of their pleasantness or unpleasantness. If no other objects appear, do not try to find them. Do not ponder, do not ask yourself, “What is this, how is this, why is this?” If you think a thousand ways, you will find a thousand answers. Only direct awareness will show you the nature of the world.
Thank you, sir.
Good. Try to sleep only four hours.
Bigger now and not so weak, the kitten reappeared in the breezeway next to the Foreigner Women’s Quarters. I brought back food for her from lunch in a thick white teacup. Chicken gizzards, hunks of pork fat; I barely had time to get my fingers out of the way of her teeth.
A circle gathered. The older women frowned, the girls seemed delightedly scandalized. “Wet’tha, pig meat.Chet’tha, chicken meat,” they chanted. I realized this was better food than they’d had at lunch. Foreigners and monks ate the best foods—pork, eggs, mango, durian, birthday cake, ice cream—donated by the pious. Burmese nuns and laywomen ate in a separate dining room, directly beneath that of the monks.
Tomorrow I’d bring only bones and scraps.
Nurse Aye Shwe flew out, a dark, screeching gryphon.
“No yogi must have pet! This cup for monks, not animal! Very bad kamma for you.”
For two days, the nurse’s face was thunder. I persisted in feeding the cat but soon found occasion to donate my last bar of Thai disinfectant soap to the dispensary.
“Sumana is capitalist,” Nurse Aye Shwe said sourly, tucking the soap into her cabinet. But that afternoon she gave me half a coconut shell to use as the cat’s dish. “Pussy very t’in. Blind.” I wondered why I hadn’t noticed. The way she picked her way across the monsoon gutters, shaking her paw, surprised when she stepped in puddles near the outdoor bathing tank.
Soon Nurse Aye Shwe began to scrape her own rice bowl into the cat’s. I still brought food from lunch, even though it was a major complication in the closed and narrow circuit of my life. Choosing the scraps, wrapping the cup, finding the cat, enduring the watching, washing cup and napkin, remembering to return them the next day—it all stood out as tedious labor. Our teachers said there were three kinds of suffering. The suffering of pain itself, the suffering of the alternation of pleasure and pain, and the suffering of the cumbersomeness of life. I reported to my teacher that I understood this now. He laughed and said to be more continuous.
But I was bad, bad. I began doing my walking meditation under the shaded breezeway where the cat liked to sit for hours on end, her paws hidden under her chest. “She is meditating,” I told myself. When no one was looking, I would carry her the length of my twenty-pace walking, cradled in my arms. She was developing a belly, a hard little ball; though it didn’t look exactly healthy, it seemed an improvement, a justification for feeding her.
My ringworm was a pale ghost. Who knows which treatment was responsible? I used the Burmese ointment hourly; at ten, as I waited to join the lunch procession, the gnome in brown accosted me with frightening Western creams, halting tales of her son in L.A. And of course, Nandasayee, my goddess, came three times each day. We were all in love with her. We gave her mint tea, sugar, and chocolates, and she reciprocated with jasmine and frangipani. Once I brought down my camera and got Scottish Cathy to document the treatment. Nandasayee demanded formal portraits of herself holding hands with each of the foreigner women yogis. She stood very still, unsmiling, as if her image were a sacrifice she offered to the camera. I had several sets of prints made by the monastery photographer at fabulous expense and gave one to her in return for the treatment.
The next day she didn’t come, nor the next. I began to see her in the company of senior nuns.
“Your friend, small nun, very successful meditation,” Nurse Aye Shwe said.
Now I was galvanized by spiritual urgency. I felt I had been wasting my time in Burma, socializing and feeding a cat, when I could have been saving myself from endless rebirths in the ocean of suffering, the eighteen vivid Buddhist hells. Circumstances rearranged themselves conveniently: the hot season was coming to an end, and the young nuns were disrobing one by one to go back to Rangoon University.
Even as her contemporaries vanished, Sister Nandasayee was to be seen, still in pink, running about the nuns’ quarters. Her experience must have been especially profound, I thought. Yet, in my new mood, I was glad she came no more to our hall. The healing leaves withered, and I threw them into the monsoon gutter. In a spirit of divestiture, I gave the Burmese cream back to Nurse Aye Shwe and avoided the brown gnome of the squashed tubes. My ringworm must be dead by now, and if it wasn’t, I would keep the pain dancing in my hand.
I even stopped feeding the cat. The first rains fell, thundering on the galvanized roofs with a heart-stopping roar. My mind settled along with the dust.
As I notice objects, sir; I feel deep stillness, like a forest early in the morning. I am not looking for any paricular object. Sensations are mixed with calmness. Then I find nothingness as an object, more subtle even than pace. Afterward I try to remember it. I think there was some kind of knowing, but very subtle. When walking I feel light, barely existing.
Stay with the present. If your wareness vanishes, be with that too.
Am I close to cessation?
Ha, ha, maybe so.
Walking on the breezeway, I feel sun’s heat transmitted through iron roof. Left foot, right foot. I am trying to concentrate because in an hour, I have an interview.
A brown hand appears, waving in my field of vision: here are Nandasayee’s wide feet in red velvet thongs.
I look into her dancing eyes, this tall, strong, young woman. “My mother,” she says, indicating a vast coarse hag in brown. I smile and shake hands. Mother grins back genially. She must have come to celebrate Nandasayee’s finishing her meditation, from their home village a day’s ferry ride up the Irrawaddy, that village I had tried to imagine.
“Potograh,” Nandasayee insists, miming a snapshot. I go up to my room and load my last roll of fresh film into the Japanese idiot camera for this occasion in my friend’s life. I expect to take one or two pictures of the family, but she grabs the camera and I have no heart to refuse her. I am still trying to keep my mind like a turtle in its shell. I pretend nothing is happening, stalk up and down in a fury while Nandasayee poses her mother with a book, asks bystanders to photograph the two of them. Girls come out and learn to push the button, laugh at the automatic flash.
“Sistah!” I sit on the steps with my eyes shut, feigning meditation. Nandasayee pushes my chin up a little, then stands back and clicks the shutter. When all thirty-six frames are shot, she brings me the camera; I remove the film, hand it to her, wondering how she will find the cash to develop it.
Nandasayee explains that she will be a nun for life. I am happy for her. Her family is poor and she will now have the chance to go to the Thilashinjaun, nun’s school. Maybe she’ll even become fully enlightened and die, when it will be her time, into the unnameable beyond the suffering of name and form; maybe when she is cremated, her bones will reveal tiny crystals.
Time is moving slowly, sir.
For one who cannot sleep, the night seems long. For a lazy meditator one hour seems long.
I have been trying to make an effort.
Then there should be more activity in your practice.
This little nun came just now and disrupted my walking period.
You find many objects of interest in the body. Then you see that what is in the body is boring, of no interest.
“Pussy has deliver,” Nurse Aye Shwe announced.
“Your cat, is mother now.”
I had given up walking in the breezeway. When in the evenings I didn’t see the cat, I restrained myself from asking the nurse where she had gone. Now I was sent under the stairs, where my cat crouched in awkward defensiveness over two orange kittens nearly as big as she was. Aha. Now I understood her belly’s sad, hard bulge. One of the orange toms had often visited her on the breezeway. She’d snarled at him and cowered in the rain gutter. No wonder, I thought. But now I had to admit she seemed happy and fulfilled, as she curled herself, purring, round her suckling children.
At once I resumed stealing fat pork and giblets from lunch. I gave her Thai milk powder, full-fat. My effort to be perfect lasted two weeks. Now, I rationalized, if I couldn’t make it to enlightenment acting normally, I didn’t want to get there.
Silanandi wrote me a note, which I tore up. “I think I’m close! Subtle lights!” Her arms were sticks.
The kittens made wobbly appearances in our rooms at night, left runny piles in the hall. Their mother left them mewling to resume her vigils in the breezeway. The ringworm came back in two places on my head and one on my left breast. I asked for more Burmese cream, which was slow in coming. In the end, I had to go to a clap clinic in Bangkok and a doctor in Australia, and even now I believe the fungus may be dormant in my skin.
“You will never attain cessation with all your pets,” the nurse grumbles. “I will give them to ol’ lady. She will feed them, you can forget about.”
“All right,” I said. Silanandi was writing me notes of triumphant phenomena; I was determined to resume my progress. The nurse took the kittens away in a box and blocked the lower half of the Foreigner Women’s Dormitory gate with chicken wire. My little cat was confused; she cried heartbreakingly at the barrier day and night. I hardened my heart and remembered the nurse’s threat to report me to the abbot. The witchy sweeper was the new mother and would feed the cat only rice scraps. But walking at night in the breezeway, I watched the cat tease and kill a black scorpion and convinced myself that she could catch the food she needed, despite being blind.
One afternoon she dragged her children back and forth in the pouring rain trying to bring them back to the stairwell. The babies died, Nurse Aye Shwe told me days later.
I had known nothing; I was in the meditation hall.
Their mother forgot the kittens long before I did. I saw her meditating under the breezeway, paws tucked under, vacant eyes afire, as enigmatic as an idol of the East. I was tortured by guilty thoughts:
I never should have agreed to the eviction of the little family; my selfish spiritual desire had cost two infant lives. Finally, I realized there was nothing to be done anymore and I tried to follow the cat’s example, living on calmly with my share of pain. In a way, I thought, it was better for her not to have those mouths to feed.
It didn’t matter what I thought.
My teacher wanted me to work with resolves to strengthen the mind, but I was enervated, jumpy—after so much effort, neither able to make further rules for myself nor, much less, follow them. I asked for something new: the meditation on loving-kindness. He agreed and instructed me to repeat four phrases, constantly, in my mind.
May you be free from danger. May you be physically happy. May you be mentally happy. May you have ease of well-being.
Sir, should I listen to the sound of sentences? Should I think about the meaning? Should I consider the welfare of all beings, the objects of my good wishes?
Just practice and don’t worry. Send your loving feeling.
It was absolutely different. My mind was on rails, a locomotive. The body swung free, unconstrained by perpetual attention. But shortly after I began this blissful practice, I realized that the sounds I’d taken for taxis backfiring in the neighborhood were gunshots.
I went to the nurse and asked her to tell me what was going on outside the walls.
“They break the law,” she said, both vague and fierce. “Do not disturb your practice.”
No one wanted me to disturb my practice; but I went from one person to another, parlaying one tiny piece of information into the right to hear another. The day a machine gun shattered the air—the loudest sound I’d ever heard—I knew that the unarmed demonstrators were being massacred. The people of Rangoon had risen against the military government. During the time I’d sat with my eyes shut inside Pingyan’s high, thick walls, the prices of rice and oil had risen four hundred percent, so that a single measure of each now cost two weeks’ average salary. Yesterday, in the poor suburb of Okkalappa, men had beheaded police, cut out their hearts and livers, roasted and eaten them.
May you be free from danger. May you be physically happy.
A column of children, placed at the head of a peaceful prodemocracy demonstration had been mown down.
May you be mentally happy. May you have ease of well-being.
Curfew: we were forbidden to walk in sight of the main gate after five P.M. The food got worse: gray, thin gruel of rice with a few dried shrimp. Like what most Burmese have been eating, I thought. People went home; Nandasayee, too, vanished like some spirit, without a good-bye. Pingyan was nine-tenths empty, as lonely as the sky without the moon.
After sundown, bullhorns started squawking lies and threats; the nuns retreated into certain rooms, closed the shutters, and listened to the BBC World Service. I heard that Western embassy personnel were being evacuated; Air Force planes were on alert in Thailand to rescue U.S. citizens in the event of a general emergency.
Nights were a toxic yellow now, marred by the sound of troop trucks grinding into position for the next day’s massacre. Shooting began after lunch, politely at eleven-thirty A.M., and lasted three hours.
The air felt as full of passionate love as of disaster. People were willing to die for better lives. People were dying right next to us, even though we couldn’t see them, because of the monastery walls.
Sound is only sound, impermanent, ungovernable, a source of pain. Sound is a material object, a wave that strikes the sensitive consciousness at the ear door. Sound is not a story. It is not your thought, it is not the image you may see in your mind about what produced the sound. For hearing to occur, three elements are needed …
Each night, the abbot dryly dissected the process at one of the sense doors: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. But his discourse was cut to half an hour; then he disappeared behind the curtain, leaning on his translator’s arm. I knew he was going into his bedroom to listen to the BBC.
Then he became ill and stopped giving discourses at all. Interviews were left to a handsome twenty-two-year-old monk whose name meant “Uncle Beautiful.” He told me he was not qualified to instruct me in loving-kindness practice.
May you be free from danger. May you be mentally happy. May you be physically happy. May you have ease of well-being.
The phrases ground through my brain unlubricated; I began to wonder whether it was appropriate for me to stay in Rangoon. Who could possibly benefit from my presence? I went to the monastery’s vice president, who reassured me. “Don’t be afraid. Even besieged, we have rice and dried fish to keep you for a year. All Burmese respect a monastery, even the army.”
I wasn’t afraid for myself, but I imagined some U.S. Marine wading through a sea of blood to reach me, and dying—or the monastery officials gunned down for harboring me, like the doctors and nurses who’d rushed the doors of Rangoon hospital in an effort to protect their patients.
At last I went to the abbot’s cottage. First I stood on his porch a long time, wavering. His Chinese clock played the first bar of Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
When I pushed open the door, I’d forgotten that a bell would jangle. Come in, he said in Burmese.
He was alone, staring at the inner side of the monastery’s outer wall. “They kill those children,” he said.
He spoke in English; I hadn’t known he could.
How will anyone believe in us now?
No one disbelieves in one person because of another person’s unrelated crimes. As for me, my mind cannot be changed. It’s settled now, because of the meditation.
But I want to leave.
You want to give back your robes and your precepts of morality?
I don’t want anyone getting killed
on my account.
That will never happen.
My parents are surely worrying. I cannot stop the waterfall.
Thank you. I’m sorry.
We have not offered you a proper atmosphere.
No! You’ve influenced your students deeply—for life. Me, for example. I know there is no happiness to be found in outward things now. It’s
something deeper than mere belief. I’ve seen it for myself.
Then it should be easy for you to
remain celibate. For life?
I don’t know … maybe a year.
One year. Okay!
Wily old fisherman.
I held a meeting with the Foreigner Women and explained that I would leave on the first day it was safe to do so. No one wanted to come: they were in deep, practicing without regard for body or life. They didn’t want to lose their time. Silanandi was making resolves, finding that her mind obeyed her automatically. As it turned out, the shooting soon stopped: the army had suppressed the uprising, with four thousand dead.
But I’d already ridden to the airport with the British vice-consul’s wife and daughter. We were driven in a white Land Rover down a deblockaded road, lined with gray trucks full of terrified fifteen-year-old conscripts. This was the murderous army. Its helmets slid over its eyes, its rifles trembled at the ready. Even if I’d had film, I wouldn’t have dared raised my camera into view.
I took the long way home, stopping for a rest on the beaches of South Thailand, where the world’s most avant-garde sybarites go to play. There I ate well and lay in the sun, my body slowly thickening into concreteness. I didn’t know whether I was ahead of the game or behind it. Milanese women played in the surf, the tops of their bathing suits rolled down.
I could not stop the whirling of this world.
Was removing myself not, truly, the best that I could do? So the Burmese taught.
The Buddha said, “Long have you wandered, and filled the graveyards full. You have shed enough tears on this long way to fill the four great oceans.”
European chocolate. Fresh fish. Green salads. Long before arriving in the “United State,” I had confirmed Nurse Aye Shwe’s prediction: “Now your virtue will go down. You will eat at night, you will eat whenever you like.” Generous, she was. But I kept the promise I gave to the abbot of a year’s celibacy, and I dedicated any merit that might arise to the Burmese people.
After Burma I felt different, but not in any way I could grasp. This bothered me, subtly, pervasively. I might say it was as if now I had a hole at the bottom of my consciousness rather than any solid foundation; but this was difficult to assess.
I never lied, I didn’t drink a drop, I had no interest in sex or money. I lived in an apartment as small and dark as Nurse Aye Shwe’s rooms. I felt happy to think that I no longer was a candidate for hell or rebirth in the animal realm.
And I wrote letters to my senators, asking them to remember the plight of Burma.
Why had I gone to Burma? What had I accomplished there?
One night my father came to my city and took me out to a very good restaurant. He is a Republican businessman, but he’d found a way to be proud of my exploits in Burma by comparing me to some of the grand Victorian women travelers who “dressed in burnooses and went everywhere on camels.” At this dinner he proposed a toast to me and my adventures. I didn’t stop him from filling my glass with French wine. After he raised his glass to me, I took an experimental sip, just to see if I was capable. The first drop told me I was capable of anything.
That drop would have brought my kittens back to life; as I drank it, the monastery gates closed behind me. The most rigorous enlightenment system in the world shut me out. Or so I felt that night, not understanding my own rigorousness.
“Here’s to you, too, Dad,” I said, and drank the rest of the glass. I didn’t quite know how I’d go on living, but I knew that I must.