Monday, February 27, 2012


Christians come from time to time – plump, with shaven necks, from a seminary that believes in exposing them to other religions. Some are wary but intrigued; some frankly delighted. Some are horrified: they can't believe that their own teachers have sent them into a nest of devil-worshipers who bow to golden statues.

When I recognize that we have a contingent of Christians, I generally forgo my three bows, though I love them: love the physical acknowledgment, love my forehead kissing the cool clean wood of the floor, love the heart's-ease of saying, with all my body, “there is something more important than the petty parade of wishes and fears, and I remember that now” – forehead to the floor – “and now” – forehead to the floor – “and now” – forehead to the floor. But the Christians have no idea what I'm doing, that my reverence is not for the golden trinkets on the shrine, nor even for the Buddha, but for what the Buddha in turn represents: the possibility of being awake. So I would have done without, but I was late and careless. Lama Michael was already speaking, and I was anxious to get to the cushion. I did my three bows and settled down to listen. On my left, a young woman I didn't know, gingerly holding a printed liturgy, stiffened.

“Oh, shoot,” I thought. “A Christian, and now I've not only done bows right beside her: I've cut off her clear escape to the door.”

Michael gave some meditation instructions, and we mumbled and moaned our way through three repetitions of the refuge and bodhicitta prayers. Tibetan, being a tonal language, lends itself admirably to this sort of droning chant: it's always melodic, and anyway in Tibetan it's mostly written in verse. Listening to Tibetan monks or nuns chanting is in itself a lovely esthetic experience, even if you have no idea what they're saying. The imitation of it in unmetrical, toneless English is a rather dismal, drawling drone, like schoolchildren, who have given up all hope of recess, reciting their lessons. I take inspiration from it, now, and I love the prayers, awkward, clunkily-worded translations though they are. There are even particularly gifted chanters who can make them beautiful, and sometimes you're lucky enough to sit beside one. But it would take a very generous outsider to guess at the beauty we old hands are experiencing.

Finally – I sometimes suspect that Michael, knowing how very long 50 minutes of sitting is going to seem to newbies, drags out these preliminaries a bit so as to give them an easier first ride – we settle into meditation, simple following of the breath, the sensation of the air moving at the end of the nose, tickle cold on the inbreath, tickle warm on the outbreath, the strangely erratic spaces of time between each. Sometimes no interval; sometimes almost a catch, and then a fall. Sometimes the deep even breathing that I used to think ought to be usual, but now recognize as, for me, a bit of an oddity. The usual discomforts, the usual panicky thoughts – “Oh my GOD I'm sitting STILL, am I going to DIE?” – acknowledged and sent to go play quietly with their toys in the other room. I love sitting shamatha.

The young woman on my left shifts and fidgets. Her fingers twitch at the liturgy on her lap. I imagine that physical contact with it repels her. Oops! Losing my attention on the breath. Back to the tip of my nose. Such a wonderful, reliable tether, the breath. Always there, always just interesting enough and not too interesting.

More twitching on my left. I imagine that this is getting harder, not easier, for her. “You have no idea what she's experiencing, Dale,” I tell myself. “And back to the breath, bucko.”

Five minutes, maybe ten minutes, pass, and suddenly she takes the liturgy out of her lap, lays it on the zabuton in front of her, and stands. She finds her way between me and the person behind me. A moment later the door opens and closes quietly. I imagine her taking deep breaths in the clear cold air of morning.

I don't move; I haven't moved even my eyes: my physical stillness is pretty deep at this point. A little sad. A silly fantasy of trotting out after her, reassuring her, bringing her back in. The worst thing I could possibly do, no doubt. And anyway, once I've set the intention to meditate, I'd damn well better do it: nothing is more destructive to practice than letting something – anything – override the intention. And furthermore, Mr Dale, this impulse is fueled in large part by her being young and pretty, isn't it? And you're losing attention on the breath. Back to the tip of the nose.

Part of my mind is still out on the porch, and going down the stairs, guilty and overwhelmingly relieved, running from the golden idols and the weirdly painted deities, the horrible bearded old men with their droning voices and smug self-satisfaction: getting out, out into the clarity of God's morning, weaving the story of the morning this way and that. I'm with you, dear. One faith is hard enough.


rbarenblat said...

the heart's-ease of saying, with all my body, “there is something more important than the petty parade of wishes and fears, and I remember that now” – forehead to the floor – “and now” – forehead to the floor – “and now” – forehead to the floor.

Oh. Oh, yes.

In Jewish tradition we only prostrate once a year -- during the Days of Awe, during one particular prayer -- and not everyone does it, but I do, and I love it. I always wish I could stay there.

Thank you so much for this post. You are saying all sorts of things I need to hear, today.

christopher said...

me too Dale, there are tears in my eyes, just a little bit at the beauty of the compassion here.

Lucy said...

A pity she won't see this.

I had the same sort of reaction to a Christian communion - it was in the abbey on Iona, a place I loved and wanted to be, and a person I liked very much passed me the chalice and said 'the blood of Christ...' with a hopeful smile, even though I'd said I didn't. I had to run away, and spent the rest of the day out on the cliffs, taking those deep breaths.

marly youmans said...

Great closure, fusing surprising and closing at once.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

H'm...yes. But would it have been so bad if you disobeyed your own intentions, and gone after her, and just had a chat, told her just what you wrote in this post? Not to convert her but just to connect? Isn't it OK to disobey one's self sometimes?

Dale said...

Oh no, no, Natalie! Think about what it would feel like to be pursued that way!

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Dale, I'm thinking, and to me it wouldn't have felt like pursuit but maybe I'm strange. Whatever thoughts she (I) had while she (I) was sitting there would have been worth hearing and surely she (I) would have wanted to know what it was like for you, a committed participant, since there was no way she could imagine the post you wrote about it.

Dale said...

Na, for sure I would have loved to know her thoughts!

Peter said...

beeWhen I've listened to the Divine Liturgy sung by Orthodox Priests in English, much more foreign to my post-Renaissance ear than plainchant, I wonder if it's what I need. To go back to the Episcopal Church and its beautiful liturgy and music would be as familiar as my childhood. But to the Orthodox's rather artless translation -- nothing appeals to me, nothing hooks me. That was the biggest draw.

I love your description of the imitation of Tibetan chants.