The Monk Who Telegraphed the Fullness in Emptiness Story

It was in Iowa City that I really opened to meditation.

This is an excerpt from A Friend of All Faiths.  

∞ ∞ ∞

The Monk presided in a second-story classroom in the Universalist Church, directly below the makeshift yoga studio.  Like me, he too had only been in Iowa City two days earlier.  There the resemblance ended.

I had long hair; rebelling against Wall Street, and reveling in my newfound freedom as a student again, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—I had eighteen months to study creative writing before returning to the law firm where I had interned as a summer associate—I wore my hair down to the shoulders, and shaved intermittently, just enough to keep a little “grunge.”  The Monk was, of course, clean-shaven, including his scalp, and wore the familiar robes of the Tibetan order. I fidgeted, my knees crammed into a self-imposed pretzel prison—perhaps mirroring the prison of thought. The monk, sent by the Dalai Lama from his monastery-in-exile in India, sat cross-legged on an octagonal, purple cushion, looking airy and light, and entirely content in front of the room.

For the first hour he lectured, using the few words of English he had learned on the plane.  “Space … sky … no mind.”  His pronunciation made the words difficult to understand; he said “I-guy,” for example, instead of “sky.”  His voice flowed in a soft, soothing monotone.   “No self.  Self illusion.  Maya.”  He seemed quite insistent on this point.  I strained to catch the thread of ideas.  “Clouds,” he continued.  “Clouds.  Go, come.”  He emphasized this again: “Go, come.”  What did this mean?

I adjusted the cross of my legs, the cross of discomfort; the cramps in my calves were becoming unbearable.  The Bulgarian professor, ahead of me sat upright, a serene smile floating on his face, or so I imagined. He apparently understood “go, come.”  I had no clue. Perhaps it was the command one would give to a dog—the mongrel monkey mind, no doubt, wandering hither and thither. But this meta-commentary did no good, I supposed: I was supposed to seek Higher Awareness.

The Monk continued: “Nothing … is.”

Suddenly his eyes bored into mine, as if to illuminate the message.  “Nothing is,” I repeated to myself over and over, hoping for a revelation.  I looked at him and slightly raised my eyebrows, as if to say, “I appreciate your teaching, but I don’t get it.”  He smiled, and held the silence, as if the message could penetrate through the gaze. Nothing is? I wondered. Existential philosophy? Zen-like contradiction?

“Not self … and yet Self.” Again, he looked past the Bulgarian’s eyes and into mine—maybe something hidden in him, some secret teaching, wafted across the airwaves, riding a wave of light.  Einstein had invented relativity by such flights of fancy, and perhaps in the recesses of Being, I too—whomever “I” was—would inherit a more deeply relative, and hence truthful, personal perception of space and time, and the epistemological equivalent of Einstein’s objective revelation would take root in my subjective soul.

Clouds go, clouds come; nothing is; no self; what did it mean?

I relaxed a little as I noticed people around me closing their eyes.  The room was so hot.  Stifling so: my head, bobbing up and down; a recognizable word, here and there, mixed with Tibetan.  No self, and yet Self.  Searching vainly for English translation; beyond the window, overgrown cornfields; the Bulgarian, transfixed with a smile.

Now meditate.”

The command floated in from somewhere beyond the cornfields: it was the Monk’s voice yet not the Monk’s voice; the command of his master, the Dalai Lama, supposedly (allegedly, we lawyers would disclaim) an embodiment of the Buddha—or a luminescent relative thereof; yet not the Dalai Lama; it came from India yet via Iowa; it came and went, like the clouds, into space, into sky, into the no-mind that my mind had become. More and more receptive to the truth—to the freedom that lay beyond the cave of the mind, the thought-forms that attached and melded to Maya (the illusion) like wild subatomic particles searching desperately for a spin-compatible partner.

The instructions wafted in, pleasantly.  “Inhale white; exhale black.  Inhale white; exhale black.”

My head bobbing; the Monk’s face came into focus. The face posed before my closed gaze—a form of my own face: the koan, what was the face you wore before you were born? He was: Calm, steady, clear-eyed, shaven, a bright contentment.  Head floating in air, the face before faces existed.  “Space, sky, no mind, no self.”  Thoughts came and drifted like clouds in the sky. “Illusion.”

 Behind the thoughts, an awareness.  A Presence.  My Self?  No self!  Deeper in.

Soon, the eyes opened, returned to a condition known in common parlance as being “awake.” And it had been made into such a metaphor, this thing called wakefulness.  The problem remained: could one be awakened, yet still asleep?  Intellectually, the Monk’s broken English made no sense, gave no lasting theology, offered no cosmology I could fathom.  The teachings I could learn from the Bulgarian professor, but there was not enough to grab onto. Yet as I was walking through Iowa City the day after the meditation, something had shifted.  My brain was different after the experience. I was engaged in ordinary activities: walking, talking, shopping, yet somehow had the added dimension of seeing deeply into people, behind the mask of language and social pleasantry. I was reading emotions viscerally—and sometimes in the form of symbolic information.  Sometimes creative energies literally created shiny sparks around people; in other cases, spirits of fear, greed and lust seemed to speak through those huddled around a table.  I also found these things in myself, seeing the oneness of humanity in the ways others were reflecting my own self. 

One of my first workshop classes: many classmates looked like hungry, devouring ghosts: these were the energies I saw through them, behind the shell.  Real demons leaped out and sucked their energies into dimensions of anger, sadness, and pain.  Had the Monk transmitted something, non-verbally but nonetheless palpably? Or were these my own ghosts of anger and resentment, mere projections of hidden shadows? Then again, if he had left some of himself in me, or of the Dalai Lama, and I had no self and he had no self, then who had transmitted what to whom?  And what did one monk say to another in the cave of silence? 

Cognitively, I had no explanation; yet my whole phenomenological sense of reality had shifted.

 

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