MOKSHA

I.

Rumor was you could still find enlightenment in Nepal, and for cheap. There were back rooms down the spiderwebbed streets of Kathmandu where they wired you in, kicked on the generator, and sent data flowing through your brain for fifteen thousand rupees a session. It was true, Jeff from the co-op had assured Abe, though passport control could be a bitch when you returned to the States.

“They pulled my buddy when we hit Newark,” Jeff had said, sipping maté from a gourd. “But he was showing. His third eye was completely open and he wanted to hug everyone. Just think about porn and you’ll be fine.” Jeff had handed Abe a crinkled business card. Namaste Imports. “Go to this place.”

So Abe had saved his money, bought the ticket, and traveled the endless hours, numbed by bad sleep and bland airline food, to find himself in Kathmandu. Finding Namaste Imports, however, had proved impossible. The streets had no names and looking up, all Abe saw was a tangle of electrical wires and lights blinking on in the dusk. Around him, masses of tourists, heavy with backpacks and vacant looks, milled about. And amid all this churned a perpetual stream of cars and mopeds, nudging their way around pedestrians, honking, yelling out of windows, and raising endless dust. It all seemed far from enlightenment.

By ten that night, the shops had shut down. Abe wandered back to his hotel to the sound of Beatles cover bands filtering down from terrace cafés. A couple skinny Nepali teens emerged from the darkness. “Hash, Pollen, Sex?” they asked, but when Abe asked for Moksha, they turned squirrelly and retreated back into the doorways. So Abe returned to his hotel room, stretched out on his bed, and wondered if it was all bullshit and Jeff had sent him on a fool’s errand that’d cost him his savings.

Moksha, it turned out, wasn’t bullshit. It’d just gone into hiding ever since the twenties, when the U.S. cracked down on Nepali distribution. There had been nonstop busts at yoga studios and health spas in the U.S. An oxygen bar in Sedona had been found with makeshift crown plates hooked up to an old Sega Genesis console. The CIA had confiscated the equipment and sentenced the owners, a gray-haired, dreadlocked couple, to life. By the time Abe was in high school and just starting to get interested in experimenting with enlightenment, it was impossible to find. The U.S. government had strong-armed Eastern religions. Transcendental meditation classes were raided, tai chi groups disappeared from the parks, and churches began burning esoteric Buddhist texts. The closest Abe had come to scoring any enlightenment was when some seniors, troubled kids with a penchant for Lao Tzu, had cannibalized an old iMac and built a crown plate out of tinfoil. Abe had placed the foil cap on his head and closed his eyes.

For a moment, sitting in the kid’s garage on a nylon beach chair, Abe had thought he felt something. He sensed a dull light behind his eyes, fuzzy and warm, and his heartbeat expanded. The sound of the air-conditioning unit kicking on droned into a melody, and he’d had a vision of his mother asking him, as though he were still a child, if he wanted her to pack him a lunch. Light streamed through the window over the kitchen sink, and for a split second he saw her sadness. Then something in the makeshift machine popped, sending a curl of plastic smoke into the air. The seniors had yelled shit and poured their Pepsi on the electrical fire, and Abe found himself back in the dank, oil-stained garage, as unenlightened as he’d ever been.

Later that night, in the safety of his room, Abe thought of how stupid he’d been. The DEA had scanners to pick up the bioenergetic emissions of neighborhoods. He’d risked his freedom for a split-second vision of his mother in the kitchen. And so he’d shaken his head, looked at his psychedelic black-light poster of the Dalai Lama, and told himself he was a fucking idiot.

And yet, here he was in Nepal, having gambled everything on this trip, approaching yet another tourist shop to ask for Moksha. The store was crouched down a narrow side street behind Durbar Square, far from the streets of Thamel, where shops sold colorful yak scarves and were filled with desperate tourists looking for cheap prayer flags. There the shopkeepers all shook their heads when Abe asked for Moksha, telling him to buy a thangka painting instead. But here, amid the collapsing buildings, where the kids played on piles of rubble and bricks, was a small storefront. An old woman sat on a stool, barely visible amid the stitched bags and prayer bowls.

“Namaste,” Abe said, and she answered by putting her palms together. “Moksha?” he asked.

She looked at him, her eyes silver between the lids. For a long time she said nothing, and Abe was about to give up when she asked, “How long you stay in Nepal?”

“Three weeks.” That was as long as he’d given himself to find enlightenment.

“Why you look for Moksha?”

It was the first time he’d been asked directly, and Abe realized he had no real answer. She looked like she was about to shoo him away, so he settled on, “You can’t get it in America.”

She looked at him again and then closed her eyes. “Twenty-five thousand.”

Jeff from the co-op had prepared him for the haggling, which wasn’t simply expected but a kind of courtesy here. “Fifteen.”

The old woman shook her head. “For fifteen you get peaceful insight instead.”

“No, no, I want Moksha,” Abe said. “Seventeen.”

“Seventeen no good. Moksha use too much electricity, very expensive.”

“Yeah, but my friend bought Moksha for fifteen thousand.”

“This store?”
“Well, no, but—”
“Not same quality. Your friend only find lower stages of enlightenment. Here we have total enlightenment, better quality.”

“No, my friend said he was totally enlightened,” Abe said, though he had to admit, for all his talk about kundalini, Jeff from the co-op hadn’t really seemed that enlightened.

“For you: twenty-three thousand. Best price. We go lower and I lose Moksha. Come.” She rose from the stool and led Abe through the back of the store, which opened to a courtyard, and then into another building and up a dark, wet stairwell to knock at a closed door on the second floor.

Behind the door were the sounds of shuffling and the distant chirp of dial-up connection. Then the door opened and a spiky-haired kid, no older than sixteen, stood in the doorway in a stained Bob Marley T-shirt. “You wait,” he said, and closed the door. There was more shuffling; then the door opened again, and a white kid, his blue eyes shining, emerged with the light of rapture. Upon seeing Abe, he wrapped his arms around him for a long moment before whispering into Abe’s ear, “Yes, brother, yes,” and disappearing down the stairwell.

“You, Moksha, next,” the spiky-haired kid said.

* * *
Long before he bought his ticket to Nepal and dropped out of the dumpy state college, he’d met Sandra. They’d seen each other in the basement of a record shop, at an underground dharma class run by some renegade anthropology students. Abe and Sandra drank sake and talked about Zen Buddhism until the shop was raided and the university expelled the leaders for practicing walking meditation on campus. Later that winter, she’d told him how much Moksha scared her. Her father had become addicted when she was in middle school.

“He stopped talking for days at a time,” she confided from beneath the sheets in Abe’s dorm room. “He’d just sit on his cushion, wired up to our old Xbox, whispering om mani padme hum.

Abe took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly. “So, you don’t want to go to Nepal and become liberated?”

“My dad wasn’t liberated; he thought finding enlightenment was more important than his family.”

“Maybe he’d transcended attachment.”

Sandra got up and dressed. “Whatever. Go to Nepal; become a self-centered asshole like my dad. I love you, but obviously that’s not enough.”

Abe had watched her, concentrating on his pounding heart to keep from speaking. After she left, he consoled himself with the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Sandra was just a hungry ghost, he told himself, offering the kind of love that kept people bound to the cycle of rebirth. All the same, he couldn’t shake the fact that he’d probably never again wake with her in the small concrete-walled dorm of that unenlightened college town. That, and he wished they’d had sex before he’d talked about liberation.

* * *
“Okay,” the spiky-haired boy said, “You sit there.” He pointed to a corner in the darkened room.

The room was filled with gutted laptops, stray mice, and a cluster of computer towers interconnected by cables. There was a beauty salon chair next to the towers, an old model from the seventies, and the cables had been fitted into the blow-dryer crown. In the other corner of the room, near the blackened windows, two old men sat on the floor eating chal bhat and smoking cigarettes.

“Okay, Moksha,” the kid said. “Get in.”

Abe hesitated. Until now, he’d imagined he’d never find enlightenment. Faced with the beauty salon chair, he wasn’t sure he was ready. What if, like Sandra’s father, he became one of those modern-day sadhus who ate only raw food and talked about kombucha? He asked if he needed to do anything to prepare. Meditate? Breathe properly?

“No, just sit. We take care of Moksha.”

Abe nodded and lowered himself into the chair. The kid dropped the blow-dryer cap onto Abe’s head, logged on to the laptop by the side of the chair, and hit Enter.

The jolt of Moksha was immediate. One moment Abe was sitting in the chair, watching the men eat chicken curry and wondering what enlightenment would feel like, and the next second their bodies transformed into bands of light. Where Abe had seen a dark cluttered space, it became apparent that the configuration of computer boxes, the pile of plastic water bottles, and the mess of disemboweled laptops formed a sacred geometry whose mandala spread outward past the walls. Abe could see through the bricks to perceive the entire city. Every shop shone brightly with its display of a hundred bronze Buddhas, and the taxis that cut their way through the crowds sent a chorus of honks into the air like birdsong. He saw the kids playing in the bricks, the white kid who had hugged him standing on the corner haggling for a yak blanket, the words leaving the kid’s mouth as illuminated air currents. He saw the light of their hearts beating beneath their skin while above, and around, and inside them was a force so bright that to look at it directly was blinding. He told himself to look away, but it was too late; his limited ego that tried to hang on was of minuscule value in comparison to the illumination of the infinite. Abe turned his inner eyes to the blazing light, and in that moment there was nothing left: no Abe, no Kathmandu, no Buddha; all names burned in the fire, leaving only a vibration that could best be described as love.

Abe was certain he had died, but then he heard the kid’s voice from far off. “Okay, all done.” He felt the dryer lift from his head and found himself back in the room.

“Oh my God,” he uttered and grasped the boy’s arm. “Yeah, okay, goodbye now. Next customer waiting.”
Abe was lifted to his feet and he stood wobbly, feeling a great urge to hug the young boy, who was already leading him to the door. On the other side stood a frazzle-haired girl in yoga pants wearing dozens of beaded necklaces. Abe saw the Western pain in her eyes, and his heart blossomed. He threw his arms around her.

“It’s okay,” he whispered. “You’ve already got it. We’ve all got it.” He would have hung on, but he felt her fear, so he released her and made his way down the dark, wet staircase with his palms open to the world and the glorious sunlight of Kathmandu.

II.

Enlightenment, it turned out, didn’t last long.
By the next morning, Abe could already feel the hooks of samsara tethering him to the bed. He worried about his return to the States and his menial job brewing lattes at the co-op. He found himself irritated by the noise of Kathmandu, the dust, his dirty clothes, which stank of sweat, and the humidity that already drenched his body. And so he dressed and returned to the small shop to pay his twenty-three thousand rupees. He tasted Moksha again, only to come crashing down later that evening, realizing with deep terror that, at this rate, he wouldn’t have enough money to last him until the end of the month.
That evening he ended up drinking at a rooftop bar, where he poured his heart out to a Dutch tourist with enlightened eyes and a Ganesha tank top. “You can’t find real enlightenment in the city,” the Dutchman said. “You need to go to the Muktinath temple in the mountains.”

“And they have M at the temple?”

“No, it’s just an old temple. But find the Muktinath Guesthouse. Amazing M, much cheaper than here. Good masala tea, too,” the Dutchman promised. And Abe, who had begun to sense a kind of spiritual emptiness, felt hopeful again.

To get to the fabled city of Muktinath proved difficult. It required a ten-hour bus ride, followed by an early morning flight into the Annapurna mountains. From there it was another three-hour jeep ride and finally a half-mile walk through the dusty mountain village to the Muktinath Guesthouse—a damp, rotting wood hostel filled with stoned backpackers carrying ukuleles.

Up here, far from the watchful eye of the CIA and Kathmandu police, things were more lax. The Moksha Room was full of computer stations, where old and young alike reclined day and night, getting data shot through their crown chakras for five thousand rupees a pop. The guesthouse had upgraded its equipment, allowing users to add music to their enlightenment sessions. Abe could choose from acid jazz, Afrobeat, and dub reggae, the music crescendoing as his ego was peeled away, and he would emerge onto the upstairs balcony, beneath the starry sky, to find fellow Moksha-fueled backpackers giving impromptu lectures on the bardo realms of reincarnation and the benefits of coconut water.

The guesthouse proved to be the kind of communal ashram that Abe had always imagined. He, who had read a contraband, alligator-clipped, Egyptian Book of the Dead beneath bedcovers in high school, was now lounging with international backpackers and smoking hashish on the outside deck; drawing diagrams of the chi meridian system in the back of Lonely Planet guidebooks; and singing devotional songs to Shiva.

It was true, Abe admitted to a beautiful young woman from Santa Cruz, Moksha was the best. “Have you heard of Satori?” she asked. Abe hadn’t. “You can only get it in Tokyo. You use goggles and totally perceive nothingness. Kind of like Moksha but black-hole style, if you know what I mean.”

“Cool,” Abe said, though he wondered if he fully understood. While most of the guests at the lodge spoke about nothingness, Abe increasingly found himself returning to a deep something he couldn’t shake. Perhaps it was the spotty connection.

“Moksha’s fun but kinda boring. I mean, compared to Sufi Trance, there’s no comparison. I would do Trance any night. You just spin and spin and spin,” she said.

“Wow.”

“Yeah, it’s super sexy.” She took a drag of her cigarette, the wetness of her lips catching the moonlight.

“You know, I really like you,” Abe said.

She kept her gaze focused on the moon. “That’s sweet,” she said, “but I only go for saints and sadhus. It’s nothing personal. You’ve just still got a long path to walk.”

Abe wished she’d say more, but she didn’t. They were in the post-Moksha space, where words were superfluous and creation reverberated in his ears with the echoes of dial-up. So Abe consoled himself with the knowledge that they didn’t need to have sex to be eternally connected as sacred partners, and this turned out for the best, as she left the next morning to catch a plane to Goa, where she’d heard there were really amazing Trance raves.

Excerpted from CHILDREN OF THE NEW WORLD by Alexander Weinstein.  Published by Picador. Copyright © 2016 by Alexander Weinstein.  All rights reserved.

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