A Higher state
In nineteen sixty-eight I was part of a Hindu meditation group that included Alan Ginsberg. Earlier, Jack Kerouac and others had brought an awareness of Buddhism into popular culture. A flood of influence was coming from the east. At the core of it was the idea of bliss, that it was achievable through practice, dedication, and discipline.
In our monthly meditation group in lower Manhattan we repeated the mantra « Ram » silently and sat in meditation. Swami Kumar, a philosophy student from India, told us about the goal of « realization ». At one point, he asked our group of about twenty-five aspirants, « Who among you believes he will be realized in this lifetime ? » I was the only one who raised a hand, naively maybe but still… Kumar looked shaken and asked me to explain my answer. I backed off and mumbled something about « to the extent that I can » or some such thing, which made him relax a bit. But truthfully, I raised my hand in sincerity, the hand of an idealist, someone who has slipped the grasp of this world to an unusual degree.
This is not to suggest that I, at age twenty-four, felt perfect in any way ; quite the contrary. I felt lost, struggling, confused, not sure of myself, and mal adapted to the adult world I was suppose to be joining. And yet I was aware of something untouchable by the world and a sense that no matter how bad things got in this life it was still ok. How to explain that ? Where did that come from ? I expect it is something all people have in common but mostly without being aware of it. Speculating about that makes no sense. It is hard enough to know our own truth. My interest has always been in my own experience, my perceptions, my reactions to the world. It sounds selfish, but for me it is all I have.
There was nothing egoist in my gesture at that meeting, just a reaction, but one that now seems particularly interesting after forty-eight intervening years, years which have included the practices referred to above, to study, to time spent in monasteries, to conversations with priests and poets, a lifetime of years.
The pitfall of this topic is self glorification. I know a man, a pastor, self-appointed, an ex alcoholic who was saved by Jesus and has dedicated his life to spreading the gospel. He runs workshops and evangelizes all around Southeast Asia. He is intense, intelligent, and knows the Bible very well. At a gathering recently, we ran into each other and I mentioned that I had taken on reading every word of the Bible, something that seemed important to do for many reasons. If nothing else, the Bible qualifies as an essential part of a classical education in the same way that knowing Homer does.
I mentioned to him that I felt there was a benefit beyond knowledge to this activity I had taken on, that there was a mystical type of support coming from the activity itself, something I felt. He laughed and said, eyes gleaming, « Thanks for telling me, Ha Ha Ha », the idea being that I couldn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know and better than I did. He went on to say, in so many words, « When, like me, you can see it all from the other side, then you will know something ». He followed up with, « I don’t mean to say I am better than you or other people », but it was too late. The ego had already reared its head. Spiritual superiority is insidious and ugly.
So, what is this really all about ? I long had the suspicion that « realized » people were among us and not necessarily sitting on pillows surrounded by tambura music, incense, and « followers ». They would be barbers, maids working in houses of rich people, teachers, farmers, anybody. And it is not clear that they would even consider themselves « realized ». The only thing the Buddha said about the state he achieved after huge effort was, « I am awake ». It wasn’t the epileptic ecstasy we think of as a nirvanic state. I use that term because I witnessed epileptic ecstasy.
For many years, I was a serious squash player. I knew a man whose son had extreme epilepsy, something that could not be controlled by drugs. He was sending him in for surgery to have the doctors cut into his brain to stop the seizures. It happened that, at a quiet time in the afternoon when I used to be on the courts by myself practicing, the boy showed up and wanted to play. At the time, I didn’t know who he was or about his problem. After a few points he dropped his racquet, his eyes rolled back, and I had to hold him up, support him off the court to sit down on a bench. He was in absolute ecstasy and it was very obvious and it was obvious that it was something he somehow wanted to share.
It reminded me of a picture I kept for many years of a pre-Columbian sculpture from South America, a catalog cover from a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It showed a kneeling figure with eyes shining like diamonds, wide eyed, pointing to something only he could see. It was so clear, clear to him what he saw, and clear to us that he saw something wonderful even if we could not.
That is the way it was for this young squash player. All I could do was be there with him. Soon his father showed up and took him away, later telling me about his son’s unusual condition. I saw the boy another time on court and we played again and the same thing happened. I felt somehow a part of it and I began to wonder to myself if anybody, by surgery, by drugs, by any means, should take that away from him. I began to think of it as a gift, though of course it would make it impossible for him to lead a « normal » life. The great Indian poet saint of the nineteenth century, Ramakrishna, had those same ecstatic revelations but, in that culture, they were accepted and revered as spiritual gifts.
My thoughts about what it means to « be realized » has changed and matured partly because I have not noticed any seekers achieving bliss even after an eternity of spiritual practice. I have come to think of it as maturation, ripening, coming to fullness. Here in Indonesia the fruit sellers advertise mangoes and avocadoes « masak di pohon », « cooked on the tree ». Life is the tree ; we are the fruit.
When I was a young man working with a carpentry crew in the wilds of New Hampshire, the contractor I was working for told me something I have never forgotten. I had nagged him about wanting to do « finish work » which meant fine carpentry : door casings, window sills, kitchens, things like that. On the roof of a house we were renovating I was nailing through metal flashing and hitting my thumb as often as I hit the nail, so it seemed. He said to me « This is finish work. When it is done, it is finished ».
To be continued
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