When I first moved to this town on a sweet summer day now long forgotten a well-meaning neighbor knocked on my door. When I answered it she asked if I would be interested in attending the weekly bible study at the local community center. I told her no as I shut the door in her face. She has never spoken to me since.
These days I do not belong to any formal school of study. The priest at the church where I do the building maintenance wondered if I was a practicing Catholic. I didn’t see as if it was any of his business so I acted as if I didn’t hear his question as I went about my duties. He walked away. I could feel his sorrow radiating to heaven at not having saved my soul.
If I had the words I would have told him that of all causes of sorrow there are none as great as the death of the mind; the death of the body is next. People make small changes but they do not lose that which is natural to them. If I were to disgrace my freedom to settle on the smallness of one thought that would be a true cause for sorrow, not the fact that I ignored such an invitation.
If I had the words I would have told him that when I walk I do not know where it is I am going; when I stop to rest I do not know what to occupy myself with; when I eat I do not know the taste of the food; all this is accomplished by the influence of heaven and earth, not by my actions.
There was a time when I thought I might like to learn to quiet my mind, to still these rampant thoughts cascading one after the other in an endless stream of nonsense and bickering like marauding baboons chasing one another through the forests of my intellect. But when I tried to sit quietly in the way the books that I read suggested the chatter in my head grew ever louder until in desperation I gave up.
During the summer of my thirtieth year not knowing any better I attended a retreat at a Buddhist monastery. It was a sparse place under a high mountain that seemed to glower down on me. I felt like a white person sitting at an Indian pow wow, out of place and in foreign company. I didn’t understand their ceremonies full of meaning for them and yet bereft of significance for me.
Their beds were low to the ground which made rising at four o’clock in the morning even more of a chore. The food consisted of a tiny bowl of rice and a cup of weak tea which made my belly rumble. The mat on which I sat was stiff without any give to it which made my ass ache. No one was allowed to say a word to anyone else but for the head monk.
He took me aside one day to sit beside him in his chamber. The head monk wondered if I had any questions. I shook my head no. I didn’t. He said I should sit until questions arose but the longer I remained silent the greater the knowing became. The wind spoke my name; the trees sighed in unison, the mountain continued to glower.
Finally the retreat was over. All the other participants seemed happy to be able to talk amongst themselves once more. Their chatter erupted like the singing of birds welcoming the new day.
I sat apart, alone and silent. The words would not begin again.
He saw me sitting there. He waved at me with a movement of his chin to follow him into his chamber. The head monk said I should accept disgrace willingly. He said I should accept misfortune as a way of life. I thought he must be talking to someone else, not to me. I had always been taught to hold my head high at my position in society and to look on the bright side of life. His words could not have shocked me more had he hit me over the shoulders with his keisaku stick.
I was no longer sure of myself.
I crept off like a wounded animal. As I drove home I sought solace in the stillness of meditation. As my thoughts began to quiet I realized I was as unimportant in the madness of the universe swirling around me as a single grain of sand on an endless beach buffeted by the waves of infinity. And since I was unimportant I no longer found myself concerned with loss and gain.
As my thoughts became as nothing so did my body. I was a mote. I was the nothingness that overcame me. I knew viscerally that without my thoughts or my body I had no misfortune.
When I got home I accepted disgrace as I surrendered myself to the universe.