I found Buddhism in the bookstore, as I happened upon one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s short books. I found some solace in meditation. By chance, I found out about Plum Village’s upcoming seven-day retreat. My wife liked his poetry and probably thought she could spend her week writing.
A double-latte of frustration
Day One. Five-fifteen. Three bells suspend sleep. I sit on the edge of the bed and pull the small window curtain. One adamant star melts into the corona of blue-and-yellow dawn. I watch the bell-ringer monk floating on to the next victim’s dorm. The monk gently strikes his thunder-clapping Tibetan wake-up bell. I’m no lover of Buddhist mornings.
Arise. Dress. Wash face. Brush teeth. Find the communal toilet. Move bowels, but not chop-chop: “Mindfulness is the awareness of every breath.” Whatever. It’s 5:25 a.m. I don’t like communal toilets, army latrines and especially porta-potties.
I begin writing in my fresh journal. Midway into the first paragraph, I’m interrupted by a stranger’s knock on the flimsy door. I write, “Please Go Away!” I loudly rip the page out of my journal and slide it under the door.
The note returns, “Don’t be selfish. Hurry Up!”
I wonder, “Who is this person?” I write back, “Hey, do you have The New York Times Book Review?” I hear vanishing, wait another minute, then flush the toilet. One of my screwball public bathroom phobias is letting anyone hear me flush.
Buddhists never hurry, and walking meditation is so gradual, a cop would mistake it for loitering.
I step into the fall chill, peer-pressured into walking meditation. Buddhists never hurry, and walking meditation is so gradual, a cop would mistake it for loitering. I follow 200 head of cattle. They follow a high-ranking monk who moves at the enthusiastic pace of a dying snail.
In the book that I read, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we be flower-fresh: Inhale, feel like a flower; exhale, feel fresh. I resist. Inhale, want coffee. Exhale, want coffee. A double-latte of frustration rises to the top of my brain.
I survey the throng of the saintly-patient with their flower-fresh smiling faces. My highly intuitive smile detector weeds out the pseudo-smilers. I’m never a pretend smiler, and I silently pronounce each pretender “guilty, guilty, guilty.” I consider their sentence—perhaps a sewn-on patch that spells the word “hypocrite.” Nope, too much like a condemned Jew. I’m about to step inside the dining room, when a group of 12 cut in line directly in front of me.
They appear from nowhere, void of the robes worn by monks. Instead, they wear freshly shaved entitlement with their flexible Yoga bodies. I feel a sudden urge to roundhouse their Namaste grins. Five hundred dollars says they drive a Mercedes-AMG with handicap placards. I want to whack them like Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo and watch them forage for their heads like beheaded chickens. Wouldn’t you know, the first Thich Nhat Hanh lesson is all about non-judgment!
More desire brings more suffering
Day Two. I set my alarm to 4:30 a.m. Arise. Dress. Wash face. Brush teeth. The wife sleeps in. I watch a woman hold the handle of the toaster to avoid the sound of the spring-popping noise of her toasted toast. People eat too delicately; the chorus of fork-to-dish needs subtitles and waltz music.
After breakfast, we sit in meditation with the entire Sangha of 600 people. We’re told that a Sangha is a unified group that finds strength in gathering. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks slowly, in perfect English with a Vietnamese accent. Never in search of a word, even his pauses are musical silences.
In 1963, “Thay” watched his own monk self-immolate in a busy Saigon, Vietnam intersection. Cars drove around him while he poured gasoline over his head and lit a match. The monk was protesting war with a torch of compassion. Thich Quang Duc, as he was known, was photographed in a lotus position as flames besieged him. The disturbing picture won a Pulitzer Prize.
Listening to that story, I lose my concentration. Following Thay’s words is like reading the same paragraph over and over. I look at the monks and nuns, wondering if they might sacrifice themselves. One of the French nuns looks like a Renaissance angel. I find myself longing for her while Thay dissects the Eight Realizations.
“More desire brings more suffering”—his words tap my shoulder, as if he just whispered in my ear, “How’s your wife?” I guess that’s why they call him a Zen Master!
It’s a free period. Alone in the usual silence, I find a hand-sewn finger puppet embedded in dried mud. I carefully excavate this find, a terracotta army of one. Holding it up to the light, I see my girls. The paradox of seeking inner peace while forgetting them strikes me with a downcast blow. At the same time, a distant ringing pierces my absent-minded mindfulness. I emerge to the presence of the dinner bell.
Thich Nhat Hanh says he chews each bite 25 times—he sees the sun, the clouds, the rain, the farmer, the labourers, the truck driver and the produce man or woman placing each potato into its bin. I figure it must take him a couple of hours to get through his vegetables.
Unenlightened, my imagination sees the farmer’s lovely daughters, until my mouth of potato mush turns into what feels like Gerber baby food. I now cheat, chewing each bite only 15 times and sneaking larger bites.
After six days in silence, with all of my daydreaming, self-mocking and judgmentally bad Buddhism, I’m aware of a heightened reality. I have bionic hearing without a spy device. I can hear very low-decibel sounds—whispers, distant trucks, different birds and the clattering of silverware, as if somebody turned up the volume on the TV. I’m a Mirabilis flower that bloomed overnight.
After six days in silence, with all of my daydreaming, self-mocking and judgmentally bad Buddhism, I’m aware of a heightened reality.
This wasn’t mystical at all, purely physical, but I did seem to have the ears of Superman. He’d use his hearing for the good of mankind, and I did, too, for I achieved an epiphany! Sardonic as it may have appeared, the retreat left my wife wordless for an entire week. Spoiler alert: my bionic hearing disappeared on the drive back home.
Day Seven: The last lunch. My internal clock feels accustomed to early morning. At times, I’m more aware of my lack of awareness. I observe blissful faces and faces hard-etched with suffering.
I’ve seen the whispering-talkers break silence in their hiding places. I’ve watched the regulars who cut into the breakfast line with daily predictability. Yet, I feel undisturbed by it all.
I jot a note to a monk who dines at a nearby table: “Dear brother-monk. How do you deal with hypocrisy?”
He glances at me, gestures for my pen, and writes, “First, I forgive myself, and then I forgive my brother.” I’ve never forgiven myself, but I did fold his note into my wallet.
You don’t say “goodbye” after a silent retreat. You wave, or heaven forbid, hold your hands together and say a silent Namaste. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it a lotus bow. His sincerity is real.
I’m the surgeon of my own heart
The folded note still beats in my wallet, like “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I’m the surgeon of my own heart, cutting open my fears of doubt, loneliness, self-pity, endless child support and never loving again. I’ve cradled, coddled, accepted and forgiven those enemies—yet they remain immovable.
During our last big-argument, we shouted over each other. My self-criticism plays the same song on the same broken record. Why did I spend so many years in the absence of her love? I asked a wise friend, “Do you think she ever loved me?”
He framed the simplicity of his answer with a simple question, “If you must ask, don’t you already know?”
How long will this self-forgiving business endure?
“First, I forgive myself, and then I forgive my brother.”
Some days, I could see the beautiful poet, the mother of our children and my sincere hope for her to succeed. Those were the good days. In between, there were neutral days, which were also good. Unfortunately, the troubled days were the status quo. The remnants were the days of detritus—those self-injurious days spent dwelling on her emails.
I’d used her computer for something so trivial, so quickly erased from memory, when I came upon her almost-defiant subject lines—it was as if she wanted me to find her love letters, her letters to men so beneath her affections. There was no irony in it, nothing but incomprehensible darkness. Our marriage wouldn’t go quietly into the night, nor conclude with a delightful epilogue. The final, overlong end was an involuntary seizure. I would enable her, again, for the sake of the children.
The day we arrived home was September 9, 2001. In two days, the government-forced total air silence reminded me of something.
One of my favourite films, Dodsworth, contains this memorable souvenir: “Love has got to stop somewhere short of suicide.”