Kham and Oregon
I lay on my back, my head on a meditation cushion, a mug of tea resting on my chest. My feet were stretched out towards Michael. I thought briefly of how shocked a Asian Buddhist would be, to see me sprawled in the shrine room, with my feet pointing at a teacher. But my back was tired. I'm an American, and so is Michael. I lay there on the zabutons, squinting occasionally over my nose at Michael, resting peacefully.
Leah, beside me, was asking a question. Her eyes were fixed on Michael. Her short-clipped hair frizzed tight on her round skull. The proportions of her head have always fascinated me -- there are two spheres struggling to establish themselves, the sphere of her skull and the sphere of her face, creasing together at the line of the eyes. It's a strong but unsettling face.
We had been talking about persistent thoughts, things that returned again and again. As Leah spoke I became aware that this was a real question, and I focused. "...you said it was not like having a bullet in your arm. But some thoughts are like a bullet in the arm. Some things that were established when I was a child. Memories that won't go away, things that got set up a long time ago, and they're part of myself, they were there when my self was being formed --"
She broke off. The apparent vagueness of her question was only apparent. There's a memory of violation behind this. There was no one in the room, suddenly, but she and Michael: everything else was dark.
"So is there any hope for getting rid of it?"
The pieces of Michael's answer built up gradually. Karma, said Michael, never repeats. It's never the same thing over again, no matter how much it looks like it. No mental state remains fixed, by its own power. If it stays there, it's because we're holding it there somehow.
This is a place, he said, where Western psychological traditions and Dharma traditions diverge. We look for the whole establishment of our psychology to have occurred in this life, and so tracing things back to their origins in childhood is terribly important, and we see our childhoods and our relationships with our parents as formative. But the Buddhist psychological tradition sees the origins as stretching back over countless lives. Most of the karma that comes to fruition in this life was incurred in other lives. We will never be able to trace it back. Our early relationships and experiences are indeed paradigmatic, but not because they were formative, but rather, because we chose them, because we were drawn to the relationships and experiences we already knew.
We will never be able to trace it back, but we are ultimately responsible for it. Which means that we no longer have the luxury of blaming anyone else for it, but it also means that it's within our power to get free of it.
And there are two ways to do that. One is simply to purify each moment as it comes. Every time the supposedly persistent thought arises, and we don't react to it, we're done with one piece of karma, done forever. But of course to purify it all takes about as long as it took to incur it all, thousands upon thousands of lifetimes. So the other thing to do is to learn to see through it. It still will arise -- nothing, absolutely nothing, prevents karma from ripening once it's been planted; not even a buddha escapes karma. But once we have learned to see through it, it loses its power to inflict suffering. It arises like the events of a dream; we see it as dreamlike. It comes and it goes, the emotion rises and falls, but we are no longer rising and falling with it.
Leah's face was intent, but unreadable. A banked fire.
A murmur of voices. I'm accustomed to hearing emotional tones, rather than words: my hearing is not very good, so I often have no idea of what has been said, but I recognized the tone of wrapping up. I slowly sat upright. Set my empty cup on the floor. Put my hands together and softly intoned the dedication of the merit. Waited for the the three slow rings of the bell. Bowed.
I stopped on my way out and look back into the shrine room. Leah was -- unconsciously, I take it -- crouched in front of Michael in the posture of someone taking their refuge vows, one knee down and one knee up, forearm resting against the up-knee, hands together, talking earnestly. Jef was carefully emptying the offering-bowls into a pitcher. Above him was the trembling scrawl of Kalu Rinpoche's Tibetan calligraphy. Rinpoche was very old when he wrote it. The letters trail down the page -- awkward, child-like. Suddenly the distance opens in front of me. The distance between Kham, seventy years ago, and Oregon now -- the distance between old age and middle age -- the distance between Tibetan and English -- the distance between Feudalism and Capitalism. These shaky letters. One old man.