She said “now what they’ve taken away limbo” sounding a bit depressed, “not that you proceed express to the ferry dock, but that was a snap, all you were carefully taught is suddenly wrong or irrelevant. “It would be like Isaac,” I say, “climbing Mount Moriah with Abraham finding a ram tethered to a waiting altar.” My mother wants to know how I can claim to be once Jewish as though the moyel also took my freedom of religion. “We have no hell” she reminds me “at least after death.” I silently respond and try to tell her that I still don’t have a hell, at least not as she conceives it. “But I read,” she says, “the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and hell is very, very real.” I tell her my Buddhism is Chinese through a fine Japanese filter and it is the next life in which I will pay for this one. She says “I wouldn’t want to come back again,” and on that point we find the beginnings of common ground.
In Tibet there are more than 80 words to describe states of consciousness, several words to explain the sound of prayer flags rustling in a Himalayan breeze that reaches up to the crest of the peaks that lick at the slowly gathering clouds, all of these words never uttered. There are no words in Tibet to describe the soft brush of your lips across my cheek, your hair pressed into my chest. There are no words in Tibet to describe the faint bouquet of soap and morning coffee as she dries herself slowly in the mirror that runs along the sinks. There are no words in Tibet to describe the sound of her laugh half giggle as we watch the kitten roll on her back, paws up reaching for the mote of dust dancing on the heat rising from the fireplace, pressed down by the lazily spinning ceiling fan. There are no words in Tibet to describe her eyes as they dart after the Monarch that flits above the deep purple Sedum that stands in silent prayer to the sun. There are no words in Tibet to describe how she cringes at the sight of the buck lying alongside the road eviscerated by the fender of the car, long gone, his horn buried in the shallow dirt. There are no words in Tibet to describe the ripples of her spine as I run my finger down her back while she curls, grasping at the margins of sleep. There are no words in Tibet for all of these, no words to fill the room, to blanket the lumpy mattress on which I sit staring at the blank screen of the TV, reflecting the neon light of the 24 hour diner that flashes through the gauze curtains of room 4218 of the Hyatt, merely the echo of another plane lifting out of the San Jose airport.
Birth, he said, is the first and only real terminal disease. You only realize that, of course, when it is far too late and there is nothing at all you can do about it. Cancer and all manner of diseases merely shift the timeline, but once you’re on the path, there is only one way off, and that is a step few are willing to take. For some, this is a source of terror, for others it is no more than a slow walk around the block, with the promise you’ll eventually arrive back at the place you began, although it is no longer the place you began but one from which you begin, not again but anew. Again. This is what the Buddha said 3000 years ago, more or less. He confirmed that the just the other day, outside the soup kitchen. “Hey,” Buddha said, “even the once or twice enlightened need to eat from time to time. Join me?”
The last stitch is sewn, the loose threads trimmed, the pincushioned fingers are swaddled in bandages, bits of brown thread plucked from sofa, rug and shirt. It is done, save for every other stitch you now want to pull and resew, the mocking voice of the needle convincing you otherwise. All that is left is the turtle sewn by another, and the inscription of a name picked from a short list that whispered to you pick me, I’m yours, I’m you. The robe of liberation is wondrous but putting aside the pins and the needle you lovingly cursed so often is awe-inspiring.
It always seems odd that the teacher asks me to think about my practice when the heart of my practice is learning how not to always think about things. But the heart of practice is exactly these oddities, for nothing is exact. In the fourth vow I strive to attain the great way of Buddha, but I know, as the Heart Sutra reminds me, that there is “not even wisdom to attain, attainment, too, is emptiness.” And so I sit in confusion each day, and bits of delusion fall away, like the hair on my ever balding scalp.
You will, or may see something today that may surprise you. It may reveal itself in a quiet moment, it may be nothing more than a fleeting thought or image, which you are at first uncertain. There won’t be Magi not even magic, though on reflection, it may seem somehow magical. It will happen openly, but most will miss its occurrence. Only the rarest among us will contemplate its revelations, but for those who look too closely it will be an empty feast.