Monday, September 08, 2003

Evening at KCC. Martha and I have come for the evening sit. It's the first Sunday of the month, so it's been already an all-day sit for many of these people. Lama Michael has been teaching since 9:00 this morning, and there is not a trace of weariness or dullness in him. Some new people are here. He gives shamatha instructions geared to newcomers -- simple, pithy, unmistakable. And entirely new: I've never heard him introduce shamatha this way: it leads me into the hour's meditation with a new spin on it. Seven years I have been taught by Michael, and every time it's new. I'm sitting right up by the shrine, and some of the flowers smell distinctly, sweet, decaying a little, an odor strangely like pumpkins. I've never used scent for my meditational tether before. So I try it.

The hour glides past. The direction I breathe -- I don't know how else to put it -- changes the scent of the flowers. I breathe in backwards and it's flowers; downward and it's pumpkins. How have I lived forty-five years without ever knowing there are different ways to pass the air over my palate, different ways to smell?

Before I have been impatient once, before it's occurred to me to long for the end of the session, comes the bell, the sweet, pure tone, lingering in the air. We murmur the dedication prayer. The bell rings again. Silence. The bell. Silence. The bell.

People stir, ease their legs, shift, stretch. Bill and I scoot back to the side of the shrine room so we can lean against the wall and face Michael. It's question-and-answer time.

The first question is a highly technical one about the eight consciousnesses. Another technical question about offerings in an unusual Tantric practice. I become anxious about the newcomers. I suspect Bill does too, for in a pause he asks, without looking up, "why do we make offerings?" Bill, of course, could speak for two hours about why we make offerings. The newcomers sit up straight and focus. Michael begins to speak.

He is "on," tonight, as Martha and I put it. Someone asks why you'd make offerings to the buddhas -- who, after all could need offerings less? Out of this question Michael shapes a beautiful teaching on perfect generosity, letting go of gifts. He is spellbinding, Every thing he says is simple, obvious, grounded in years of practice. And it turns the world on its head. Often the best offerings, he says, are the slightest ones, the ones we can give with no regrets or strings attached. The water in the offering bowls. The insubstantial gift of a rose we see and silently offer to the buddhas, multiplied into a million roses in our mind. Wherever we are there is something beautiful we can find, and give away.

I say spellbinding, but that's not right. There's no spell on this crowd. We laugh and joke like old, old friends at a reunion. But the thread of discourse never falters.

The discussion is about to end, and suddenly I am anxious. I have questions, urgent questions I want to ask before it's over. But we've left the question and answer format: everyone's chiming in, and no one's raising their hand. I raise my hand. Michael doesn't see me. I raise my hand again. Michael misses me again.

What is my question? It changes. At first it's the question about this journal. Should I be keeping it at all? Should it be public? Then as the discussion washes past my dismay grows. I don't want to ask Michael. He doesn't understand words the way I do. He's always impatient if I start to "close-read" a text. When Martha suggested that we read aloud from a text during a study group, Michael plainly thought this a waste of time. We'd already read the words -- our job now, plainly, was to grapple with the meaning. The words were just symbols: it's the meaning that counts.

I am sinking into loneliness. The love of words themselves -- that each word has its own lilt, heft, and tang, that each casts a different-shaped shadow in the mind -- the desire to loose "my" words into the world (not mine, not mine at all) -- suddenly I'm sure that Michael will see none of this. He'll tell me bluntly, plainly, to keep my practice to myself. It's not for parading on the street.

The discussion has moved to blessings, asking blessings from the buddhas, from the guru. A sort of corollary to the topic of gifts. Now I know what my question really is. Again and again I have found myself formulating questions to put to Sarah, only to realize that they're not really questions. I just yearn for contact. But her time is precious, not to be wasted on false questions. So I leave the questions unsent. I know what the real issue is: I just want her blessing. I want to stand a moment in her mind's eye, in the full light of that radiant compassion. That's all. So now I know my question for Michael. Is there some formal way that people ask for blessings from their teacher? Just a momentary request, with a quite formal response, which wouldn't unfairly eat away her time?

But now my thoughts are stumbling over each other. Is that really what I want? How might Michael feel, if he learned that I chose Sarah over him? Do I want to reveal that fact to him -- to the Sangha -- to anyone? Is this, itself, a real question, or just a similar play for the limelight? Is there a Dharma component to this desire to ask questions at all, or is it just that most heinous of felonies, in my family's culture, the high crime of "wanting attention"?

The session is ending. It's moved organically, naturally to a close. I give up on asking my question, look down at my folded hands. Kathleen says something to Michael that I can't catch. Michael says "It's just come to my attention that Dale has had a question for a while." Everyone looks at me. I feel my face going red. I feel stupid. The conviction that Michael is indulging the weakest, flabbiest, most unpromising member of his Sangha washes over me. I respond by sitting up straight and lifting my bearded chin, and saying firmly, "It can wait. It should wait." Someone says, "Now everybody's curious." Michael looks inquiring, inviting. I hate them all. "I should wait." I say decisively, dismissively.

So people are getting up. Someone asks me whether my question needs an immediate response. "Oh no," I say grimly. "It'll keep."

It'll keep all my life, I think to myself. I make for the door. Martha looks at me. "Are you all right?" she asks. "I'm fine," I say, but I don't manage to smile. I take my shoes and escape to the porch to put them on.

The night is cool and wet. I put on my shoes and walk back and forth on the sidewalk, waiting for Martha to come out. Other people come out, and I wish them good night, warmly. I'm recovering a little. Martha comes out after a while. We walk to the car, arm in arm. "Do you want to talk?" she asks gently. "We can talk, or we can be quiet, if that's better."

"I think quiet is better," I say. After a few blocks, I add, "not quiet, necessarily. But I don't think I want to talk about it right now." So we talk about other things. But I'm under the shadow, for the rest of the evening. Read aloud to Martha and the kids. Then to bed.

Woke this morning at 5:00 and did my practice. Vajradhara is coming back a little. It's all still pretty faint and ghostly. Buddha Shakyamuni turned golden and bright, though, toward the end. And I feel all the benefits of the practice returning to me. One of them, after all, was my turn of alienation last night -- not the alienation, I mean, but my clear awareness of it. I feel stronger than ever the conviction that there's no way to back out of this practice. There is only forward.

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