What is Enlightenment? 

Vermont Summer Flower

Roger S. Gottlieb

Vermont Summer Flower

(adapted from The Sacrifice Zone: A Novel. For an excerpt. To order a copy.)

There was only the faintest glimmer of light in the eastern sky, but the local robins and cardinals were singing anyway. They flitted from tree to tree in the orchard, hoping to find a careless insect, or a particularly tender piece of grass, or a twig shaped just right for their nests. From the small farm at the other end of the narrow country lane a rooster crowed, feeling, no doubt, that if he was up everyone else should be too. Daniel shifted his weight on the thin, lumpy mattress which barely protected him from the plain wooden floor of the little room he and Amy were sharing for the weekend. Then he stretched out his legs, pointed his heels, and hoped that by pulling on his spine he would lessen a particularly thick morning fog.

“No,” he thought, “not right. Just focus on what is here, no judgment, no striving for something different.” If he was tired just investigate the fatigue and take it for what it was, without wanting it to be something else. Such wanting was the root of suffering. To overcome suffering all that was necessary was to accept it, without judgment. “Don’t even accept it,” The Teacher had said. “To say you accept it is to suggest that you might reject it. But how can we reject what is? Just let it be, and let yourself be.”

“Let it be, let it be, let it be,” Daniel whispered to himself, waiting for a little of the promised detachment to kick in. But it wouldn’t. Not for him. His half-shut eyes that wanted to close, the pressure behind his forehead, the way his legs felt almost too weak to stand, the jolt of cold dawn air on his neck and his nipples—these were what they were and, no matter what The Teacher said, he wanted them to be different.

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He pulled on a black sweatshirt over the tattered white t-shirt he slept in, slipped on an old pair of sandals and shuffled to the communal bathroom, averting his eyes from the other students in the hallway. “Do not engage with the other students during your time here,” The Teacher had instructed them. “This is not a social scene, but a time when all the games your ego plays are stopped. This is no time to be cute or charming or smart or nice. It is not time to be anything or anyone. If you have questions you can ask me during the dharma talks every day between 1 and 1:45. The rest of the time, silence. No media of any kind, certainly”—she had paused, looked each of them directly in the eyes—“no phones. Just yourself. No escape.”

From the bathroom Daniel hurried to the meditation hall, hoping to get there a few minutes before five so that he could stretch his back and thighs before the first session began. Each practice was an hour—and there were ten of them during each day. The rest of the time was spent in labor—in the kitchen, the gardens, the tool shed — making the Buddhist Center of Pomfret, Vermont run smoothly. He and Amy had paid $400 for the privilege of three days of silence, bad vegetarian food, and sleeping on a lousy mattress without a pillow. “In our tradition,” The Teacher had said softly, “we do not eat meat or sweets, watch television—or use pillows. Luxury and attachment go together, like the horse and the cart.”

It was six minutes to the hour when he got to the hall—wooden floors and a high arched ceiling with thick wooden beams running its length. In the corner was a pile of round zafus—meditation pillows of faded blue and red and black, well-worn from thousands of hours of pressure from hundreds of plump and boney and muscular asses all connected to people who thought that watching their minds in silence would ease their pain. Along the sides of the hall were a few Tibetan thangpas, painted silk images of the saints and sages of Buddhism. One, Samantamukha Avalokiteshvara, represented compassion. Daniel wasn’t sure how five heads of blue and red and yellow, above a graceful torso from which four arms extended on each side, would take away his suffering, but he liked the lotus blossom the saint stood on, and the puffy white clouds that framed her downcast eyes and gentle expression.

“Like, dislike, like, dislike.” On and on his mind went. And that was the problem. The Teacher had been clear—“Let it all be. Let yourself be.” Daniel was not unfamiliar with the basic Buddhist mantra: because we want, life is sufferingso stop wanting. And even if he didn’t believe it, he’d promised Amy, really promised this time, to try. If this didn’t work—well, his marriage had been headed on a long downward spiral for some time now, and it wasn’t likely to come up. Unless he could… relax? chill out? take it all in stride? trust someone to make it better?

There you go again, he inwardly chastised himself. Try, for Amy. For Sharon. For your marriage. Just look at the damn painting, and the beams, and the stars through the dirty windows, and huge yellow candles on the altar and incense holders covered with ash and the single huge picture of Buddha looking down with detachment and wisdom and god knows what else. Just look and don’t notice the wrinkles in the fabric, the black stain, the…

Then The Teacher’s voice again: “No judgement, no preferences. Let everything be. Let yourself be.”

But he couldn’t. The meditation sessions were agony, even though The Teacher had, with what might or might not have been a little grimace of judgment, made it clear he could use one of the rickety straight backed wooden chairs at the ends of the hall rather than sit cross legged on a meditation pillow. And the daily instruction sessions—“dharma talks” they were called here—left him alternately bored and irritated.

“Why,” he’d asked the first afternoon, “why is being here”—he gestured at the small teaching room where other students sat on cushions and he and Amy sank back awkwardly on an ancient, frayed and tilted green couch, “better than being anywhere else? And why is meditating better than not meditating.”

“Better?” The Teacher had seemed just slightly amused, “who said better?”

“But then why should I do it?”

The Teacher’s mouth turned up slightly, her pale face, narrow lips, slender nose, tilted twisted slightly to the side, as if to bring her ear close to Daniel’s mouth and hear him more clearly. Then she straightened, returned her lips to their usual inexpressive straight line. “I do not believe in “should,” for “should” tells us to be something different. I believe we should let ourselves be.”

“But,” interrupted Daniel, who had a good four reasons as to why this made no sense.

“But,” The Teacher continued, her even tone never altering, her complete lack of response to his interruption more effective than any raised tone or rebuke, “While I have not said you should, I do not believe you, or anyone else, will live a life of contentment unless you come to know your own mind, and that requires meditation. So that we learn to recognize the mind’s tricks and lies: the vast promises it offers and how little it can deliver on those promises.”

Not so subtly Amy elbowed Daniel, demanding silence. This was not, he could hear her voice, yet another place for a rant about dead lakes and the carcinogens in the blood of new born babies. About the unforgivable crime humans, himself included, were doing to the planet and themselves as well. About long-distance, slow-motion murder of chemicals in the water, coral reefs bleaching white, and inner city kids whose lungs were stunted from all the dirt in the air. This was a place to calm down, to lower the noise in his head that he compulsively shared with everyone.

**

Amy had sat down with him on the couch, reached over to take his hand for the first physical contact they’d had in a long time. Her voice was subdued, even. This was way beyond shouting and he knew it “This is it, Daniel,” she told him. “I cannot live with you like this. Ether this works or.” She couldn’t finish the thought. But they both knew what it was. “I thought maybe Dr. Emerson would help, but you wouldn’t listen to him either.”

“But I’m right!” Daniel yelled, so loud that Amy’s eyes widened as her own anger, anger stoked by the steadily gathering storm of Daniel’s near screaming about air pollution in Beijing and lowered sperm counts from toxins in toothbrushes. Of Daniel alienating every friend they had and too many family dinners ruined by impromptu lectures about lead in inner city drinking water or the rights of chickens. Of Amy biting her lip, offering consolation even though it had been his fault, not hers. Of trying to change the subject, act interested, be sympathetic. Of Sharon storming off to her room, hands covering her ears, screaming at her father to “Give it a rest Dad. It’s bad enough what happened to me. We’ve heard it all before!”

Amy raised her voice, pointed a finger at his face, demanding he be different.  “Do you want to be married or to be right? I want my life back. My life that you have stolen, yes, stolen, with this endless crusade. We are here, all of us,” she gestured to the two of them, to Sharon’s room, to the tree lined street outside on which families and joggers and old ladies with their dogs walked toward the nearby pond, “and you act like we and everything else are already gone.”

 

**

It was Sunday at one, time of the program’s last Dharma talk. The Teacher sat on the slightly raised platform at the front of the room, her legs gracefully arranged in a full lotus, her right leg on top of her left, the back of her right hand gracefully resting in her left palm, her arms fully relaxed in the middle of her body.

She was a gaunt woman who must, Daniel thought, have had a full head of hair like everyone one else at some point. But now her scalp was shaved bare. The skin was taut between her temples and jaw, as if it might snap at any moment, exposing the hard, uncompromising bones beneath. Any soft, unnecessary flesh that might have made breasts or a plump ass was long gone. Dark brown eyes looked carefully at each person, her mouth moved only to speak and her lips almost never expressed either appreciation or displeasure.

“And this is why we say the “middle way.” Do not deny your basic needs for food or shelter or companionship. And do not indulge them. Do not cling to your appearance, to your possessions, to your career, to your” she hesitated for moment, and seemed perhaps to have given out a barely perceptible sigh, “family. Live with what is, with what you are, with how you and the world are connected, and always changing. Notice how your mind creates the reality around you. The purer the mind, the purer the reality. If you purify your mind through meditation, through self-knowledge, you will know reality for what it is: a series of moments, each one leading to the next. That is why everything that lives will pass away. Each moment is like a death—and a birth. So. This is what is. Let it be.”

Daniel raised his hand, and next to him on the old couch he could feel Amy’s body stiffen, hear her rapid intake of breath. The Teacher nodded in his direction.

“I’m trying to understand.”

She cut him off. “Perhaps you do not need to try. Simply let the words be,” she rotated her right hand so that the palm faced the ceiling, then tilted it slightly towards him, invitingly, “and whatever happens will happen. With understanding, or without. The words are there, as are you. The trying is an extra effort. Do you want to make it?”

“No. look. I’m sorry.”

“There is no need to be.”

“No!” Shouting now.  Heedless of Amy’s hand gripping his knee with increasing force. “I’m trying to understand what all this means,” he raised both hands and rotated them in quick circles. “This place and these pictures on the wall and the candles and” his voice a little lower, for there was still some part of him that had no wish to be any nastier than necessary, “you. But surely you know what is going on,” he pointed with two fingers toward the window, the woods and fields outside the building, the entire world beyond.

“Look,” he started again, and perhaps there were tears in his eyes and his voice was moist, but he was talking fast. “I had a friend, known him for years, lost touch because I thought his wife was boring. Then she died, young, really young, from breast cancer. Turns out she was a really special person, did work for battered women while raising four kids, treasured by everyone who knew her. So I drove six hours to the funeral, listened to all these people, hundreds of them, talking about “Leah was such a wonderful person” and “What a tragedy.” And I wanted to scream, fought the words down so hard I thought my throat would snap. I wanted to say to them all,” his voice raised again, he stood without realizing it, and he moved his head from side to side, looking at The Teacher, and the other students, and Amy and the trees outside the window: “It’s not a tragedy. It’s murder. You think it was her damn genes? Or bad luck? What do you think is in the water? the food? the air? Don’t you know? And if you do know, why don’t you say something?”

He looked around, saw that he was standing, and realized he’d been nearly screaming. Now, voice so low they had to strain to hear him, “Do you want me to let that be? Just get to know my mind while that is happening?” His mouth twisted down, his eyes squinted, tears flowed from his eyes and his hands clenched.  There was confusion in his voice, a hunger to escape that which he knew to be inescapable. “Really, is that what you are saying?”

The Teacher waited, spoke calmly. His outbursts did not seem to have registered. “Your outrage and your fear are burdens. Do you wish to carry them?”

Daniel’s head snapped up. Stared at The Teacher, eyes wide, studying the woman’s face as if to see into her soul as deeply as he could. And then looked away. The tension left his body. His voice cleared, all sound of tears gone. It is over. He has tried with this woman. As he has tried with Amy. He can’t try any more.

He squeezed Amy’s hand once; is it a goodbye? Then he stood, and spoke quietly, the grief and anger were gone, replaced by a cold, uncaring distance.

“It’s not about what I want. There’s something else here. Something much bigger.”

He looked down at Amy. “I’ll be waiting in the car.”

The Teacher is silent. Calm. Unmoved. This display, the ego’s desperate need for flight when it is challenged, she has seen countless times. A fantasy of changing others, of making things better—how it grips you and won’t let go, and leads to nothing—all too familiar. Only the self, only the mind—only these are under our control. And then only, yes only, after the hundreds and thousands of hours of looking inward.  Otherwise, Arjuna knew it 28 centuries ago, the mind is as hard to control as the wind. She nods to him, neither encouraging nor irritated. “We will be here,” she adds, “if you see things differently in the future.”

“If there is one,” thinks Daniel. But says nothing. There is place for what he thinks, and people to share it with. This isn’t it.

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