Here’s a quick peek at The Narrow Way. I hope you enjoy it! If you’d like to get a copy for yourself or a friend, please click here.
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. ~ The Buddha
Venerable Jampa Dekyi faces the altar in the gompa at Tushita and there is no doubt, no fear and no shame in her eyes as she bows. Before her is the massive golden statue of the Tibetan saint, Tsongkhapa. He looks down at us with wide eyes that stare out from the illumination we have all come here to taste. He is adorned in saffron silk robes and offerings of snapdragons, apples, incense and chocolates, all the bounties of this life, have been lovingly scattered around him. Other Buddhas hang in the form of thanka paintings on the high walls and I try to pick them out from my studies. My tongue gets twisted in knots as I sound out the strange Sanskrit names to myself: Maitreya, Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Vajrasattva. I watch and wait as the nun prostrates herself to all of these, laying her body out full length and flat on the floor three times before taking her seat.
Oh how the sight fills me with awe and admiration! To believe! I mean truly believe! Twenty years now running away from faith and belief, trapped inside in the Temple of Me, following the rites and insane rituals of the Doctrine and the Church of Me. Where did it ever lead me? To more and more suffering. To hopelessness. To the needless punishment of myself and everyone around me.
But today I stand apart from the rest of the group. Today I am not merely a seeker. I am a Buddhist now. And though I am still uncertain, still kneading the tough heart of disbelief that stands on the edge of the great commitment, I am almost ready.
So when the teacher finally sits I begin my own bows. I bow to her with all the reverence I can muster, as if she were the Buddha himself manifest here before me now. I bow to the words she is about to speak, the Dharma, the teachings that lead to liberation. I bow to the Sangha, the community of those who have followed the words and attained the ultimate freedom from suffering for themselves. I bow with all my faults and short- comings of the past, present and future, held out as an offering in my open hands. I bow for every unkind word I have ever spoken, for every piece of bread I ever stole, for every time I betrayed myself, abandoned myself, gave up on myself. Yet through all of this I bow without a trace of self-pity or loathing. I am simply me, faults and all, and that is good enough.
When I take my seat again I am filled with gratitude. I am here! I am alive! How many times did I wish for my heart to simply stop beating? How many times did I try to step into that great void? Too many.
But now I look up at the nun and the thankas and all the students sitting around me furiously taking down notes and trying so hard to understand. We are all trying so hard to under- stand. Suddenly I don’t mind the pain in my knees as much any more. The boredom gives way to a growing joy and I think that this would be a good way to spend a part of my life. To sit and quietly listen for a change. To devote myself to learning as much as I can. To slough off the arrogance and false pride of the addict and finally concede to the possibility that someone else might just have a few of the answers.
“When did your mind begin?” the nun asks. She smiles at us now the smile of an old Australian grandmother as her eyes sparkle through thick rimmed glasses. There is not a trace of arrogance behind them, only certainty. She has asked the question of herself many times before. She has spent long days and nights searching for the beginning of the mind and after shining the bright light of concentration on it has discovered that each moment of mind depends on a similar, previous moment. Tracing back the cause, she has found that our minds stretch far back into inconceivable, beginningless time.
I follow the line of reasoning myself, checking my own experience. I stretch my memories back as far as I can. Then, when I can’t remember anymore, I let my imagination take over. I go all the way back to the darkness and heat of the womb, all the way to the point of conception. But there, I stop. Where was my mind before that? What caused it to be in the first place? Was it the coming together of sperm and egg? Or did it just spring out of nowhere without any cause at all?
“Our minds are beginningless,” she says still smiling. “Our mind streams continue on and on, taking new rebirths again and again. In fact we have been born countless times in countless different forms.”
And so the old nun tells us a story with no beginning or end. She tells us the story of our minds, confused and deluded, grasping at phantoms and ghosts and things that were never even there. She tells us how we cling to a self that we believe is real. We cater to its endless desires; indulge all its petty whims. What’s more, we believe that this self is the body we inhabit. We cherish it and protect it and serve it with every ounce of energy we have. But then, without warning or notice, the body dies leaving the mind untethered and afraid. Desperate, we search for another body to be born into and in our great fear, it doesn’t matter what kind of body it is. It could be an animal, an insect, a fish. All we care about is finding some solid, permanent place where we can feel safe again and rest.
But there is no rest here in samsara, this endless wheel of cyclic existence. Instead we wander eon after eon feeling alone and lost, thinking we are unique and separate, thinking that we are the only ones who suffer, that we are the only ones who truly matter.
“I want you all to imagine something now,” Jampa Dekyi says. “Just assume for a moment that all of this is true, that you have been born countless times before. Let us also assume that there are countless beings in countless universes who have also been born countless times. If all of this is true then it stands to reason that each and every one of those sentient beings has been your mother an infinite number of times.”
This is the vast view of Buddhism and our minds collectively explode.
“Now let us meditate on the kindness of your mother in this life,” she says.
My teeth start to grind until I wonder when they will crack and shatter. My muscles tense. I thought I made peace with my mother before I came here. I thought I forgave her and asked for her forgiveness. I thought I had already sifted through the rubble of the past and found a new foundation to build on. But here, in India, ten thousand miles away, I find that all of that brick and mortar has not yet set.
So cautiously I meditate on the kindness of my mother taking careful, unsure steps into this old house. At first, it’s like poking the hornets’ nest of all my anger and resentment. Kindness? Mother? For years I never put those two words in the same sentence. It was my mother who was to blame for all the tragedy of my life and I had laid that blame squarely at her feet for years. She was not a source of comfort to me, but the cause all my suffering. She was the one who had made me hate myself. She was the one who made me ashamed for being gay. She was the reason I drank and got high and wanted to die. If only she had tried harder to understand. If only she had…
But I stop myself and return to the sound of the nun’s steady voice.
“Try to imagine the sacrifices your mother made for you all the way from the time you were conceived,” she says.
So here, I stop resisting. I stop playing the old loop that’s been droning on for so many years. I go back in my mind, trying to imagine what it would have been like: the sickness, the weight gain, the discomfort. I imagine her, night after night, trying to turn herself over in bed, unable to get comfortable. I imagine the kicking and the turning, the prodding and poking of the life inside of her. Then I try to imagine the pain of childbirth itself and though I come up short, I begin to understand a little. At least I know what pain is and I realize that I have never really endured it willingly for someone else. I imagine all the sleepless nights my mother experienced after my birth, how she got up whenever I cried, without hesitation or thought for herself. Then I remember that there was always food on the table and a warm, dry place to sleep. I remember her defending me against bullies and Irish setters, risking her reputation and even lying for me to protect me. Even when I rebelled against her and tried so hard to hurt her as a way to call attention to my pain, she still loved me and to the best of her ability and wisdom gave me all the care and support that she could. At the very least, no matter what her faults, no matter what mistakes she made, I am here right now mostly because of her.
“Now generate the wish to repay that kindness,” Jampa Dekyi says. “Even if you think it would take your whole life to do so, make that sincere wish.”
It is a tall order but I try anyway.
“Now,” the nun says. “Let go of all the limitations you think you have and apply that feeling to all beings, remembering that every one of them, every human being, every fish in all the oceans, every bird in the sky, every frog and every insect, has shown you infinite kindness throughout your beginningless lives.”
My heart opens and a little bit of light begins to creep in. I imagine the presence of all those limitless sentient beings around me, all my kind mothers of the past, present and future, all of them suffering in their own way. They don’t seem so much like disembodied strangers anymore and just by admitting this to myself, that there are others out there besides me, I feel a huge relief. Here is the purpose I have been seeking in a purposeless life! Here is the potential to be of help to others who are suffering just like me, who want happiness just like me. And what’s more, Buddhism claims to show me how to live this way.
The meditation comes to an end. We untwist our legs, massaging the knotted muscles and joints. As I look around, I see that everyone’s faces are glowing with crescent smiles and faraway looks and with a quiet, little laugh I realize that I am not so unique or alone after all.