Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Regret is a lonely place

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it was hearing an Anglo monk in a Thai temple in the Lansing, Mich., area that first connected me with Buddhism. But I did not begin a practice at that time. No, I had to suffer more.

What prompted me to visit that monastery in 2000 to begin with was a bit of lust. I was dating a Thai man at the time who was an ardent practitioner of Buddhism. It was May, and he suggested I go with him to a ceremony honoring the Buddha’s birthday. Long story short, it was during the Dhamma talk at that celebration I first heard the Buddha’s words. The seed was planted. But proper germination required some real suffering. That was later.

The Thai man and I stopped dating. I can remember the circumstances clearly. He laid down some conditions that at the time I was unwilling to accept. I would explain those conditions, but all that would reveal was how those conditions played in my head. And that would not be fair to him. Suffice it to say that I stood up, said goodbye to him, and walked away.

About a month later, I met someone else, a Chinese man from Indonesia who was studying for an advanced degree in the U.S. We began to see each other regularly, and I can still picture the moment when, while riding in his car to our favorite sushi restaurant, I had the clear thought that someday, this man was going to leave me; I must not fall in love with him.

But it could not be helped; I fell deeply in love with him. And sure enough, when he graduated the program in May of 2001, the U.S. economy had tanked and the job outlook looked bleak. His student visa expired and he had to leave.

The Buddha said that separation from one’s beloved is dukkha. What an understatement.

I took it so badly that I behaved like a cad and ruined what had made me so happy. There had been moments when I had felt despair, but this was unbelievable. Yes, it is true, I do not handle separation well. The sadness I felt at the time was the blackest feeling that I could ever conjure. And it wasn’t a simple sadness; no, it was quite complex. Remember, I had not only been separated from my beloved, but I had behaved very badly in response. I have wept in my life, but never had I cried like this.

A couple months after his departure, after I had screwed things up beyond belief, and was given some hope because he had been willing to stand by me through all this (although he was 12,000 miles away), a thought occurred to me: why not pay a visit to that Buddhist monastery you visited a year ago?

I made the one-hour drive on a Saturday afternoon, a hot day in August, and managed to find my way easily enough. I’m pretty good at finding my way back to a place I’ve been before, even with a long period of time separating the trips. I headed toward the main house, but saw some people out in a field working on a wooden structure. The monk was with two other men working on the structure, so I walked out to it. I said hello; the monk remembered me from the visit a year earlier, even though I hadn’t had any conversation with him at the time. And then the monk went on speaking with the other two men. I stood awkwardly by in silence. Someone handed me a hammer, some wood, and directed me with a task. I sat on the ground and began working on a gazebo they were building.

The others continued talking, but I said nothing. I just listened while I worked. As evening approached, we walked back to the main house where we sat on the floor and the monk just went on talking about things. At first, it all seemed rather random, unconnected. But then I began to notice how he would interject comments about what the Buddha had taught about things relevant to the conversation.

Inside me it still ached; there was a part of me that wanted to blurt out and demand attention, but something new inside me told me to shut up and listen. Some other people began to drift in, and just before sunset, the monk began to explicitly instruct us on meditation techniques, which was followed by us all meditating quietly for about 30 minutes. After that, someone handed me a sheet of paper, and we began to chant together.

Aham avero homi
Aham abyapajjho homi
Aham anigho homi
Sukhi attanam Pariharami
Aham sukhito homi
Sabbe satta avera hontu
Sabbe satta abyapajja hontu
Sabbe satta anigha hontu
Sabbe satte sabba dukkha pamuccantu
Sabbe satta sukhita hontu

May I be free from hatred
May I be free from oppression
May I be free from troubles
May my happiness be protected
May I be happy
May all beings be free from hatred
May all beings be free from oppression
May all beings be free from troubles
May all beings be free from suffering
May all beings be happy.

After that, people chatted some more, made some tea, then went home. I returned every week for the next five years.

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