Beth: People are fidgeting. Kristin has arrived to my left, Marcia to my right. Even without seeing, I feel who is there. I know them, I know the space. I know the vibrations they send, the way the air changes when they sit. Someone starts to breathe very deeply, rhythmically, behind us, some new student who can’t find her breath. She’s heaving like a bellows. We are preparing for vipassana, preparing to work diligently all day long: the in-breath, the out-breath. Across the lip. For half an hour at least, nothing but the breath. In and out. Preparing. A silver stream of breath parting an ocean of deep water. A silver lifeline through the dark. Somewhere it must reach the surface. Somewhere it must connect with the future.
Silence. My chest is rising and falling. Without breathing I watch myself breathe. It’s such a gentle movement. A slight rising and falling of the chest, the diaphragm. The sea has calmed and the water is lapping ever so gently on the sand, rising and falling ever so gently, like a kiss, a caress. In the darkness the faces begin. A woman’s face, distinct in every feature, generous mouth, pale skin, grey eyes in a web of wrinkles. Now a black man, a real Negro, looking up from far below, below the floor of the Metta Hall. He’s resigned, tired, sympathetic. Now a little girl with honey blonde hair, right close up. A snub nose. She’s about to smile, she’s about to shake her head. If she does her hair will touch me. All these faces are very distinct. Very calm, very knowing. Is it me they’re gazing at? I’m not sure. Maybe at someone beyond me, behind me. They appear and fade. Now a young man, now a Chinese boy. They’re not there, then they’re there, then they’re gone. Faces glimpsed between the stars. You are lying on your back by your tent on the dunes. You know you shouldn’t have come. You really shouldn’t have come on holiday with a man you don’t love, you shouldn’t have told him you are pregnant. He is so happy. He is so near his goal. You look up and find a face in the stars. Why did you tell him? It’s already gone. But each face is too real, too present to be imagined. Who are these people? I don’t know. Do they have anything to say? They are silent. Are they my past lives, come to watch over me? For Christ’s sake! Are they lives to come? An old black man? Are they friendly? I feel they are. Friendly and equal. Yes, I feel they are all equal. No, they’re the same. I’m not sure how it can be, but in a way they’re all the same face. I am one of them. We are companions on a journey. I’m the same too. My face appears to them as they appear to me. Are we the Sangha? Sangham saranam gacchami. I take refuge in the Sangha, in the community of meditators. They appear and fade. I understand now why our teacher Mi Nu wouldn’t speak to me when I cried for help. To blather out your story would plunge you deeper in. Isn’t that what happens when you start to tell? You make things worse. You plunge deeper. Writing is forbidden here. If you have chosen to sit in silence, you have chosen well. So sit in silence. Don’t ask for help. When you have betrayed and broken a lover’s heart, then you have betrayed and broken a lover’s heart. There is no remedy. When you have been betrayed and your own heart is broken, then you have been betrayed and your own heart is broken. You cannot have it back. When you have killed, you have killed. There is no help. Sit in silence and be still.
The world as it is, as it is.
Geoff. Signed up for appointment with the retreat leader, name of Ian Harper. Pure curiosity. Not expecting him to help me really. A ten-minute slot in his bungalow living room. Guy seeing him before me wouldn’t meet my eyes as he came out. Sombre, with heavy jowls, bushy eyebrows. Harper in an armchair. Pink and proper. Grey jersey. Personnel officer for Waterstones sort of thing. Ordinary middle-class decor, table chair sofa, shelves with CDs. Somehow old-fashioned. Not sure why. Me in an armchair opposite. He asks how I’m getting on. Can I feel the breath on my lips, can I move my attention through my body finding sensation on all its various parts, can I keep still in the hours of Strong Determination?
Vipassana for Dummies.
When I open my mouth to answer I wonder if any sound will come out. I haven’t spoken for days.
It depends on my mood, I tell him. My voice feels thin, a bit high-pitched. I say I’m experiencing drastic mood swings. Euphoria. Depression. Sometimes I can hold the position, cross-legged, if I manage to concentrate on my breath, or some sensation somewhere. Then it’s quite pleasant. There’s a pleasant glow. Sometimes I have to move every few minutes. I’m in agony. I can’t understand how I ever sat through ten minutes, never mind a whole hour. I can’t understand those people who sit there seraphic, as if time didn’t exist. They are already in eternity. The leader on the women’s side, that Asian woman. Like a statue carved in air.
He nods sagely. He’s bored.
“The truth is,” I confide, “there’s a bit of a crisis at home at the moment, with the result that I keep on and on thinking of what I’m going to be getting back to when I finish here. It’s hard to concentrate.”
Silence. He doesn’t want to go there. He doesn’t want to hear about my marital crisis. Hard to blame him. Absolutely neutral, he asks me what I do for a living.
“I run a small publishing company. Unfortunately, we’re on the brink of bankruptcy.”
He does his sage nodding again. He doesn’t want to know. I can’t tell if he’s really watching me very carefully or if he’s just waiting for the ten minutes to be up. Why does he do this job? Is it a job? Does he get paid?
I ask: “Is there any way the meditation can help me? I tend to panic and I’m afraid I’ll really panic next week. Then I’ll do the wrong thing. There will be tough decisions. Can meditation help me?”
He blinks. Maybe I’ve finally come into focus.
”Did you come to the Dasgupta to run away from this situation?”
It’s an aggressive question, but he manages to make his voice relaxed and peaceful, as if it hardly mattered.
“Let’s say, to get some distance, before the shit hits the fan.”
“You suffer in these situations?”
“Well, who wouldn’t? I’m losing everything I’ve ever worked for. It’s my company. I built it from scratch” Then I tell him: “At the same time I’m splitting up with my wife. I’m going to lose my home.”
I wish I knew I was splitting up. I wish it was decided and done. Over.
He sighs. After a short silence, he asks: “Do you know the story of the Buddha and the second arrow?”
I’m beginning to feel angry.
“A student asked the Buddha a question very similar to the one you have asked me.”
His voice is precise, bureaucratic, as if recorded, but I suppose there is something kind in his face. It’s hard to describe. An impersonal kindness, if that makes sense. I try to pay attention.
“The Buddha replied to the student with a question of his own: ‘When someone is struck by an arrow, is it painful?’
“‘Yes,’ said the student.
“And then another question: ‘When this someone is struck by a second arrow, is it painful?’
“‘Of course it is,’ said the student.
“Then the Buddha said, ‘There is nothing you can do about the first arrow. Life is dukkha. You are bound to encounter suffering. However, the second arrow . . .’”
“‘The second arrow is . . . optional.’”
He stops, end of story apparently. I have the impression he has told it a million times.
“Optional? The Buddha said optional?”
“I’m surprised the word was around. In those days. In Sanskrit?”
Harper raises an eyebrow. He smiles. “Optional,” he repeats. “The second arrow is optional. Meditation can help you with that choice. You can decline the second arrow.”
Long silence. Maybe a whole minute. Finally he says: “You have four more days to work. Maintain sila. Develop samādhi and paññā. Above all, build up your equanimity in the knowledge of anicca, the law of impermanence. Work hard and you are bound to feel the benefits. Bound to.”
I could have strangled him.
Beth: “Was it the kitchen?” Mrs. Harper asked. “Was there some kind of problem in the kitchen, Elisabeth?”
Yes, there was. The kitchen is too close to life, Mrs. Harper. In a kitchen things start to happen. Words get said. A boy looks at you with doggy eyes. A woman bothers you with her pride. A man irritates you with his laziness, his snacking. You tease the boy you trick the woman you snub the man. Reaction reaction reaction. Sankhara sankhara sankhara. Your mind begins to buzz, to burn. The tomatoes are too red. The carrots are too bright. The beetroot stains everything. A girl arrives and you begin to like her. She takes the mattress off her bed. You want to win her over. Why? Because she suffers? Because she’s dignified? A woman arrives and you begin to hate her. You want to show your contempt. Reaction. Reaction. You try to bless her but you can’t. You can’t bless her farts. Time to bail out. You are not ready for the kitchen. You open a door and find a man’s diary. You can’t resist. He adores his daughter. The thought drives you crazy. The girl has chosen the wrong man. He writes a letter to save her from her stupidity. He can’t finish it. His head is full of his own mistakes. He is too full of himself to help his daughter. You ask a man what he does for a living and he tells you he gets paid to make dying children laugh. Children are more in tune with life. Children can laugh while they die. How can I get in tune, Mi Nu? How can I enter the stream?
Is that the question?
She is here now. It must be getting on for six. When Mi Nu arrives I open my eyes. Only for her. Only for a moment. She tosses her shawl round her shoulders and in a single movement sits and is still. I love to watch that. It’s a graceful movement that accelerates to stillness, the way a good song swells to silence. A single moment, a single movement, and she is wrapped in stillness, cloaked in silence. Watching her, the words fade. The chatter fades. The questions fade. Now I am walking by a stream, wearing a long gown. My feet are bare in deep grass. The water bubbles through the grass, fresh and pure and full of life. It’s beautiful. I’m happy. There are no banks, just the grass and the clear, bubbling water. I’m tall, straight, solemn. Oh, I’m so beautiful. My gown is bright red right down to my bare feet and a small smile curls my lips. I’m smiling. With each step I take the hem of my gown brushes the grass and dozens of tiny, startled birds fly up all around me. They fly up in twittering clouds of turquoise, gold, and white. They’re very brightly coloured. And the twittering of the birds is the bubbling of the stream. They’re the same sound. They fly up from my feet in the cool grass. Beautiful twittering thoughts. The green grass and the red dress are one. How can that be? How can green be red? Birds be bubbles? How can my feet be my hands and my hands be my feet?
The chanting has begun. The oats are going into the pot.
Don’t tell yourself there’s only half an hour to go. You are here for ever.
Dharama kī nirvāna-dhātu. Dasgupta’s throaty voice. Chanting and singing. I’ve no idea what it means. I’m suspended, floating in the sound. Dharama dhātu, bodhi-dhātu. Absolutely still, but not fixed. I’ve expanded across the whole hall. It’s blissful. And I’m in pain again. I’m floating in blissful stillness, but my ankles are crushed on the floor. This is vipassana. The blissful suspension comes from the pain. It is the pain. Floating above the ground is being crushed to the ground. The chanting is harsh and guttural. The singing is sweet and fluid. The chanting is the singing. To say what I feel, I talk nonsense. I say a thing and then its opposite. This is what I feel. Deep down this is what I have always felt. I was always a thing and its opposite. I am Beth and I am not Beth. The in-Beth, the out-Beth. Something very distinct and very indistinct. I am everyone who is not Beth, everything that is not Beth. And I am Beth. Sabake mana jāge dharama. I must stop using these names, Beth, Elisabeth, Marriot, Jonathan, Carl, Zoe. Names are shallow, names are divisive. We are all one. The chanting is in my pulse, the singing is in my skin. My body dissolves and flows. It flows from my cushion with the outgoing tide. Though my knees are burning rocks. My knees are fucking killing me. Roma roma kirataga huvā. I know this recording backwards. I know exactly how long is left before breakfast time and porridge and cereal and prunes and toast. I am here for ever. Now the verse Dharama ganga ke tira para. Ten minutes left. Five. The chanting goes on forever at the Dasgupta. It was here before the Metta Hall was built, and when the institute is forgotten and the recording lost the chanting will go on. Whether Dasgupta is dead or alive makes no difference. Dasgupta was always dead. Dasgupta is always alive. Saba ke mana ke dukha mite. The chanting came from long before and after. I don’t know the words but my lips move to them anyway. My lips know the words. In a few moments it will end and the meditators will rush for their bananas. It will not have ended. There will be no bananas. The porridge will be terribly real, the smell of the porridge, above all the lumps in the porridge. It won’t be real at all.
How can something be what it is and its opposite too? How can it be free and trapped? How can it be hard and liquid? How can life be blissful and terrible? How can that be, Mi Nu? How can a man adore me and not want me? How can love be hate and hate be love?
Saba ka mangela, saba ka mangela, saba ka mangela, hoya-re. For the closing verses a woman’s voice joins in. It’s as if she were there walking beside her man as he chants in his harsh, guttural voice. She sings beside her man, fluently and sweetly. I can see her swaying in her sari. Saba ka mangela hoya-re. She’s not in time and she’s not in tune, but it’s absolutely right. It tears at your heart. How many times did I say about a song: a hair’s breadth out of synch, a suspicion out of tune? It’s through that tiny gap that life pours in, yearning pours in, passion pours in. That tiny wound between being in tune and out of tune. Tears are pouring down my cheeks. I will not cry in the Metta Hall. I am not crying. I am perfectly perfectly happy. I am no one. I can live at the Dasgupta Institute forever. I can be free forever of all attachment, free of all aversion. Bavatu sava mangelam. May all beings be happy. May all beings be peaceful. May all beings be liberated liberated liberated.
Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu.
Tim Park’s “The Day Is Coming” and “Grey Matter of Words” appeared in Little Star #1. Read about his own highly skeptical journey into Buddhism here and here on Little Star, and in his book, Teach Us to Sit Still. Notably, he is also the translator of Roberto Calasso’s Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India.