Secular Saint

img_0532There was this man in the monastery.  I first noticed him in the head monk’s office one afternoon.  We went there once a day to report.  Reporting just meant that you shuffled in on your knees, prostrated before the Buddha shrine three times, shuffled over to Ajahn’s small, raised desk, prostrated again, and then spilled your guts.  Well, sometimes you didn‘t have to spill your guts.  There were days when I went in smiling, and when he asked me how my experience was, I told him it was just fine. No problems.  No questions.  He would look at me curiously, wondering if that was really all, and then perhaps dispense a little Buddhist wisdom, nonetheless.  Sometimes I went in in tears, frustrated and afraid, glad to have five minutes to talk and listen.  Usually I was somewhere in between.  Reporting was an integral part of the day, the glue that connected one day to the next and allowed me to feel grounded for at least a few minutes.  I usually left Ajahn’s office with a smile on my face, even if it was through tears.

On this particular day, I heard the little bell tinkle from inside his office, signaling that one student was finished, and that the next could now enter.  I watched the doorway as the student who had just finished shuffled out.  He appeared before the Buddha shrine, and bowed down deeply, three times.  He had a set a plastic sign down beside him as he prostrated.  It said, Do Not Disturb.  In Determination. I know these signs too well.  They mean that you are in the process of Determination, the three day marathon meditation, that lasts for seventy-two hours straight, no sleep, and leads you to revelations, frustrations, tears, ecstasy, and anything and everything else in between.  They are transformative experiences, but transformation can be painful, so whenever I saw one of those signs in the hands of a student, or hanging from a door, I just said a little prayer of goodwill for that person, and tried not to worry too much about my own impending Determination.

I noticed this man because as he raised his face from the first prostration, he was beaming with joy.  A huge smile was spread across his face.  He was unbelievably happy.  You only see that kind of smile on a child who has just been given a cotton candy, a new puppy, a shiny red bike, and tickets to that night’s carnival all at once.  No joke.  Only this man’s smile sustained, and seemed to pulse and expand into an entire energy field around him.  I stared, transfixed.  I was sitting on my hands, swinging my legs, my flowy white pants billowing out gently as my legs swung.  I was chewing nervously on my lip.  Watching, watching, watching. He backed out of the office on his knees, stood up straight, and walked out of the office beaming.  I turned to watch him leave, craning my neck to watch through the screened windows, and when I finally swung back around, I probably had a curious look on my face.  I had never seen someone like that before.  I had seen many, many people at peace here, usually the monks and nuns, but no one so blissfully happy.

Several days later, I saw him outside the dining hall.  Breakfast had just ended, and people were streaming past on their way to the back station to wash their dishes.  Others had stopped at the hot water hut to make cups of tea and coffee.  I was about to fill my cup up with steaming water when I saw him walking toward me.  Instinctively, I smiled.  I associated him with a creature in bliss, ready to give and receive some of that same energy.  Strangely, he didn’t smile back.  He just looked at me intensely until I felt uncomfortable and looked down.  I have no idea what he was thinking.

I tend to tell myself stories about people.  He’s a little bit schizo.  He’s a good guy, just a little crazy.  She’s a happy girl.  She kind of dresses in revealing clothes, but she’s good nonetheless.  This one is bored with her life and her job.  She’s just wondering when she can leave and go somewhere else. When that guy didn’t smile back at me, I wanted to tell myself a story about why.  I really had no idea, though.  Did he not like me?  Was he just weirded out that day?  Had his bliss faded a bit?  I couldn’t come up with a good story, so I just started avoiding his gaze.  I decided that we had a “weird relationship.”  (I tell myself all sorts of crazy things when there is no one around to talk to for twenty-six days.  I become my best friend, worst enemy, and personal comedian.  The little things have to amuse you.  So I amused myself by decided that we had a weird relationship.  Whatever gets you through the day.  Whatever makes you laugh a little bit.)

From that point on, I peeked at him covertly to see if he was still in divine ecstasy.  He was.  He would walk slowly around the place, smiling at nuns, holding gates open for pilgrims in white, sipping ecstatically at his tea.  He seemed to emanate bliss.  But for some reason, I was skeptical of him.  It had to be the smile, or lack thereof, that he didn’t offer me that morning.  Another morning, he was standing in front of me as we did the dishes.  I remember seeing his eyes opened wide, joyously drinking in the scene, the morning.  He seemed to ripple with happiness.  The air he breathed was a tonic of joy, and his eyes couldn’t open wide enough to take it all in.  A thought came unbidden to my mind and made me laugh quietly.  He is ablaze with the spirit! And he was.

One day I was doing a walking meditation in the back courtyard.  I had walked the length of it, and turned, slowly, slowly, slowly, to face the other way.  He came into my line of sight.  He was moving like a Tai Chi master.  It was amazing to watch.  In this instance, a video would be worth a thousand words.  He moved like liquid, never stopping, but moving oh… so… slowly.  It was entrancing.  He would have hypnotized a child.  His head was shaved and reflecting the sunlight.  He lifted one foot, paused, moved it through air, paused, lowered it with precision, paused, touched the stones with a toe, paused, and then slowly placed the whole pad of his foot on the ground.  He did this step by step, along the entire length of the courtyard and then back.  As he did this, his arms were constantly moving, but very, very slowly.  They would wrap around his front, then one at a time, would lower to his sides.  Then they would lift up one at a time and rise behind his back, folding, one arm holding the other.  The whole thing was so rhythmic, it was lulling.  Occasionally, I would get a glimpse of his profile, and see that his cheekbones were lifted in a blissful smile.  It seemed to roll through him in waves, this bliss, softening his movements and manifesting on his face as a huge, indestructible smile.

I was busy trying to do my walking meditation, but next to him I just felt clumsy and fast.  I teetered a bit here and there, mostly because I was trying to watch.  I wondered if you could imbibe some of that ecstasy just by watching.  It was certainly calming.  I wasn’t trying to be anywhere else just then.  It is rare that you see someone so at peace, so blissful, and I had trouble looking away.  A sight like that is a novelty.

On the last night, we had our closing ceremony.  There were many students in the room.  It was held in Ajahn’s office, the same office where I had first noticed this guy in ecstasy.  There were two rows of people there, some of us doing our closing ceremony, others doing their opening ceremony.  Mr. Bliss was two people down from me.  I couldn’t resist sneaking a few peeks at him.  Had his bliss lasted?  Yes indeed, it had.  He seemed washed in it, gently rocking forwards and backwards, serene, unchecked smiles softening his face, parting his lips.  He seemed entirely unaware of anyone else in the room, in some sort of deep communion with the spirit or the joy inside of him.  He seemed like an ecstatic saint, every little flurry of air making him smile, every sound inviting a happy sigh from his lips.  I couldn’t believe it.

I sit here today in Chiang Mai thinking about it.  And some part of me has to admit that that kind of bliss makes me afraid.  Of course, this is ignorance talking.  I remember before I ever traveled outside of the country.  My parents told us that they were going to take us to Rome that summer.  I was fifteen, and just entering high school.  I had made it onto the drill team, and I wanted to stick around all summer so I could practice.  The last thing I wanted to do was go to Rome… where was Rome, anyway?  I was utterly disgusted with my parents for forcing such an unwanted experience on me.  This, coming from the person who now loves to travel, and has been deeply shaped and affected by her travels.  But at fifteen, I didn’t want to go.  I wanted to hang out with my friends.  I wanted to practice Drill!  But that trip to Rome changed my life, if for no other reason than it set me on my course.  I never looked back.  I wanted to be out in the world forevermore after that.  There was no turning back.

I guess I can compare my fear of that man’s bliss to my earlier fear of traveling.  You don’t know what you’re missing until you’ve tried it.  Then you can’t believe you never tried it earlier.  His bliss scared me because he seemed so detached.  Didn’t this man ever care about getting out of the monastery?  Did he have a family at home?  Did he love them?  Would he ever go back to them, or would he continue to shave his head, walk in ecstasy, and be a monk for the rest of his life?  Would he float away like a balloon and never return?  I had no idea.  It looked so good that I couldn’t imagine real life comparing, unless he somehow took this into real life, and was able to sustain it.  I suppose those are my attachments speaking.  Like I’ve said before, I am in the habit of always wanting to be somewhere I’m not, including wanting to be at home when  I’m away, so the prospect of getting so lost in your bliss out here scares me, even though it shouldn’t.  I suppose I’m afraid you would detach and float away, forgetting everything and everyone you had previously loved.  Ignorance, ignorance, ignorance. I know.  But I’m still learning.

Any thoughts?

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3 Responses to Secular Saint

  1. Sheila says:

    I think I might not be afraid of the bliss because part of what that blissful man is, is his past – everything that led to his stay in the monastery. He couldn’t have reached that stage of his journey without having journeyed through all that led up to it. That sounds very simplistic, and it’s coming from someone who has never experienced a monastery meditation; but I still think I might not fear the bliss.

  2. Charlie says:

    Living in the present allows you to experience the joy in what you observe. A writer and philosopher, such as yourself, sees more than most people and you can revel in it.

  3. ben says:

    You are doing well.

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