Coming to America was like dying and being reborn in the Tusita heavens. In Buddhist mythology, people who have progressed towards enlightenment went to the Tusita realm where they could continue practicing until they reached enlightenment. There, as in heaven according to Christian and Muslim tradition, existence is easier. No illnesses, no pain, just the cycles of ignorance that keep them from enlightenment. Coming to America, before I even started practice, changed my karmic burden.
But I needed to come. In the Philippines I was like a fish out of water. No one understood what I was thinking so I kept my thoughts to myself. It was very isolating. Others may have experienced a similar phenomenon even with their families or most intimate friends. No one seemed interested in what concerned me, like history, philosophy and comparative mythology. This was why I decided to go to the New York area, why I chose to go to post-doctoral training in New Jersey instead of Indiana, two places where I was accepted to the teaching programs. I loved the intellectual life in New York City. I spent my free time there. But I found out it was not enough. I still felt isolated, not intellectually but emotionally.
So I came to Indianapolis where intellectual life was arid and almost non-existent. Here I learned that isolation was something I needed to work on within myself. Here I learned I didn’t need the validation of others for what I was finding out about life. I can validate what I am finding in my own life if I paid attention.
I am not Buddhist but Buddhist practice has been an invaluable aid. At one time, in the 1980s when I first started seriously investigating Buddhism and Buddhist practice, I could have become Buddhist. In fact, after a weeklong retreat with Ruth Denison I was ready to become a monk in the tradition. I spoke with the retreat manager about my desire.
More sober thought decided me against taking the step although going back into the “world” was difficult. It took about a year working with the surprising help of a Carmelite nun with whom I met irregularly. Using her own experience and from the works of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cruz, she helped me understand what I had experienced and paved the way for me to adjust to life in the material world.
Today, twenty-seven years later, I have completely re-adjusted to our world. I may even have forgotten how powerful that experience in Barre was. I had gone on to study various religions and decided their cosmologies were a metaphor for understanding this world. This is where the action is. The most profound of these religious traditions provided wisdom, that rare glimpse into something beyond what we learn from workaday experience, and painfully sometimes, sometimes with uncommon joy, we make our unsteady way through the stages of living a human life with the help of these guides along the way.
We re-invent what they say, based on our experience, that we hear what they are saying that is applicable to our present life, to our unique, personal circumstances. Wisdom, like the very heavens these documents of people’s striving now long gone, is intangible, a mistake we all too often make as neophytes on the journey when we take them literally without reflection, without translating metaphor (from Greek meta and phero, “I carry across”) into our concrete world of today.
Since then I have come to see religions as bearing gifts as well as dangerous weapons to further ignorance and intolerance. Since then I’ve concluded we each must find the tools we uniquely require to make sense of what we experience that we can make reasonably helpful choices, helpful to us, helpful for others. This means finding a tradition or system of thinking that has the tools that we can employ to help us make what choices we do have in going about the business of living.
For me, one of these tools is meditation. Meditation provides me a way to STOP thinking. Even momentary breaks from the incessant thought patterns that cyclically repeat like endlessly spinning wheels give glimpses of how thought can be delusional, how thinking creates so much of what we call “reality”, and that this “reality” is created more by the mind than by the external world which in fact it shapes.
Just this is enough sometimes to keep me from personalizing situations. There are forces at work every second of my experience that are beyond comprehension. I must know what I control and what I don’t. Being able to move into objectivity from subjectivity one can see details beyond what we usually see. Those added details have proved immeasurably helpful.
Other people have their own tools. Over time we may have to review their usefulness. That’s just the way it is. In a world of flux we have to recognize we too are part of that flux. Change is the vehicle whereby we live. Even in heaven, as least the heaven I’ve come to know, change is inevitable. Knowing this we learn to flex with time, to soften our core of beliefs that we can flow with change. Maybe, more than anything, realizing this is key to becoming more fully human. The essence of being one is, like everything else, change.
But we have choices, not many but choices. This is where we need wisdom, not the inflexible rules from ages past, but guidance re-invented every moment so that we need these temporary exiles into the various heavens of no-thought so we can navigate paths where they don’t exist.