OK. Here’s the deal. I never wanted this blog to include bits and pieces of The Narrow Way manuscript. For one thing, I really hoped the darn book would be published by now and you would all have copies beginning their long lives of gathering dust on bookshelves across the country (Bookshelves? What are those?). For the other, it’s just plain lazy blogging.
But the thing is, I have been so frickin’ busy lately that I haven’t had time for any writing besides the novel I’m working on (first draft is now finished!) and helping with the remodel of Anyen Rinpoche’s Dharma center in Denver.
That all being said, I still feel horribly guilty (thank you St. Mary’s Catholic School) for not posting more regularly. So mostly for my own conscience, but hopefully also for your reading pleasure, I’m putting up this little preview of “the-soon-to-be-published-by-someone-anyone-please-memoir” that will, no doubt, change the world:
Be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuges, with the Dharma as your island, the Dharma as your refuge. ~ The Buddha
It is before Tushita, before retreat, and I am going to see the Dalai Lama. I am going to become a Buddhist. I just don’t know this yet.
The bus that will take me there is an hour late. Plenty of time to stare, dumfounded and open-mouthed, into the face of India as I wait by the side of the road. I am clutching a sweaty bus ticket while she stares back at me, unblinking and unashamed, with a hundred thousand expressions to fit a hundred thousand moods. She is the young leper girl without a nose in bright blue sari begging for rupees while she dances and twirls to tabla beats. She is the prostitute leading the young man into the abandoned, graffiti covered shack across the street. She is the cars, auto-rickshaws and motorcycles screaming endlessly by. She is the three legged dog covered in mange darting through the traffic.
This is not the face of India that I had expected or imagined. She is not draped in colorful silk or anointed with perfume. She is not sitting in the lotus posture chanting Om. There are no serenading sitars, no wafting clouds of curry and incense billowing around her and it is hard not to judge.
I watch as the shadows on her face lengthen and darken in the gathering dusk until the bus finally arrives. A young bus wallah leans out the door, collects the gaggle of westerners heading to Dharamsala and points us urgently to our seats. They call this the Deluxe Bus but as I look around I have to wonder at the name. Maybe they mean the air-conditioning system, a series of ancient fans hanging from the ceiling, all caked with dust, their frayed electric wires running off to no-where. Or maybe it’s the thin membrane of rotting yellow foam on the hard plastic seats that barely softens the blows to my tailbone as we lurch into the night.
I do not sleep as we barrel down the mad Indian highway all through the night. Instead, I gaze out at the wild, weaving traffic and strain to pick out the melody in the crazy tune of a billion honking horns. I endure parched mouth and swollen tongue as I imagine the five days of teachings to come. What will he be like, His Holiness, this simple monk, this Buddha in the flesh? Will I be blinded by the sight of him or will my heart just explode?
At five a.m. my head stops rattling against the window. Flat tire. I rejoice at the chance to close my eyes and dream, even if it means being stranded here in the middle of nowhere. But the driver and his helpers have done this a thousand times before on this broken old bus, on this deserted road. They change tire, wheel, axle, engine and all like a pit stop crew and too soon we are off again, up, up into the foothills of the Himalaya.
The sun is rising now and I stare out the window through bloodshot eyes. Green hills roll up into the morning mist. Concrete block homes plastered with billboard ads for Epson, Cannon, Castrol, Kodak and Coca-Cola give way to thatched roofed houses with buffalo tethered in front yard gardens.
The bus crawls up the mountain now, a gasping old mare, her tired heart straining, sputtering and groaning through switchbacks and hairpin turns. We cross gushing streams swollen from monsoon rains and the brakes hiss and steam in the freezing water. I think we are not going to make it, that we are going to tumble back down the mountain to a bloody and mangled end.
But finally, seventeen hours after leaving Delhi, we arrive at the bus stand, a meeting of four roads at the top of McLeod Ganj. It is eleven in the morning as I step off the bus into this “India Light”. I had heard someone call it that but to me there is nothing light about it at all. To me everything here is intense and strange.
It is the noise that fills me with joy and dread! The constant growl and buzzing of diesel engines and motorbikes. The haggling in the marketplace over the price of kale, fresh apples and rice. The clop-clop of cow hooves. And always, always the honking of horns. So many languages, so many bodies, so many faces! It is the air too, filled with a wafting wall of cooking smoke and sweat, dung and sewer, ripe fruit and rotting wood. I take in a deep breath of it and I find that I am not offended. Instead, I stand firmly in the midst of it all thinking: I am a traveler now, just like all these others, and I am wandering no more.
I stride down Bagshu Road, find my little room for two hundred rupees a night in the Green Hotel. The room is closet sized, damp and mildewed, painted yellow with cracked concrete floor. Mismatched curtains are torn and faded and I can see right through them into the busy street below. There is a giant spider in my bathroom, as wide as my open hand, and she gets red-eyed and cross when I take a picture of her. I set aside old fears, name her “Clarice”, call her my new roommate and just let her be.
The bed is a hard cotton futon mattress with a thin pillow and a dusty wool blanket at its foot. But as I look out the open door over the second floor balcony, down into the misty valley crisscrossed in prayer flags of white, yellow, red, green and blue I think this simple room is as good as a palace. I stomp my feet on the hard floor and clap my hands like some happy child. The Green Hotel is now my home.
All I want to do is lie down and sleep but I can’t, not yet. It is almost noon and I am late. The teachings have already begun but if I hurry I will be able to get my admission pass and make the afternoon session.
Back down Bagshu Road I run, following the black lines of the map that is burned in my mind, all the way to the building marked Security Office. I am on the tips of my toes, humming a little victory tune as I walk through the door. I have made it! Ten thousand miles on this long, hard road. There is no stopping me now!
But then, without any warning, I am stopped, suddenly and surely and dead in my tracks. A giant chalkboard hangs at the far end of the hall and I narrow my eyes in the dark to read and re-read the tall letters that spell out in clear and perfect English:
THERE ARE NO MORE PASSES FOR HIS HOLINESS’ TEACHINGS.
“There must be some mistake,” I say out loud.
I close my eyes, imagine the website that I had checked and double checked. Passes are only issued on the first day of the teachings, it said.
There is obviously some translation problem at work here, so I scurry from door to door peering into the tiny rooms looking for answers. But no one is home. Then I hear a stirring towards the back. In the very last office sits the only stern Tibetan I have ever seen. He gets up from a rickety wooden chair and looks me up and down. I have lost the ability speak so I wave and sign in unintelligible gesticulations. I try to tell him that I want a pass for the teachings; that I have just gotten off the seventeen hour bus ride from New Delhi and the fifteen hour flight from America. I pantomime the past year of preparations and planning and hard work. I explain in sweeping, arcing gestures all the magic and synchronicity that has led me here, to this very place, at this very moment.
He is unmoved.
“Didn’t you read the sign?” is all he says.
“Yes,” I manage in a whisper.
He turns shaking his head and leaves me standing there alone in the dark hall. There is no earth under my feet. There is no sky above. I do not know where I am or why I have come. All I know is that I am crushed, I am devastated, I am without hope. I am stuck in India for two months and already something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
To be continued…