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A Poet's Progress

A Poet’s Progress: Beijing, The Chinese Buddhist and the Western Skeptic


32-01 Du Fu, Chinese Poet, Demanding wine from the Gods in exchange for his poemDu Fu, Demanding Wine from the Gods in Exchange for His Poem, Poet’s Garden, Chengdu, China

Day Two: Beijing, Part II

We are staying on an average concrete and stone street in Beijing, which means a torn-apart two-lane alleyway choked with tides of humanity flowing back and forth day and night, tangles of black electrical wiring hanging perilously low above their heads. The old and young ply their trades under floodlights on the sidewalks in front of their rooms well into the night: metalworkers, carpenters, autoworkers, cobblers, street cooks, vendors. Day and night, people, carts, and animals fill the streets so that anything broader than a motorcycle can’t get through. Yet the streets to our hotel were broad and clear, at least up until the gate that separates us from the locals.

We arrived in the late afternoon and I asked the concierge if there was an ATM within walking distance and he said “Across the driveway, next to the Starbucks.” I took out a handful of yuan and walked through the gate and went to the right, away from the lighted street we came in on and into the dark smoky backstreets of downtown Beijing. Within a block or two I found a local restaurant that was bright and clean and looked like it might be tourist friendly, being so close to the hotel. No one spoke English and the menu was in Mandarin (I’m guessing) but each dish was illustrated with a photo and the price was written in Arabic numerals. I pointed to the salmon and eggplant over noodles, and ordered a bottle of sparkling water by pointing to one on another table.

Looking around the restaurant, there was no English evident except for the lyrics to “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac playing on the radio. In fact, it occurred to me that I’d heard no native music since I’d landed. When I went down to breakfast this morning, it was Norah Jones in the dining room. It was American pop in the airport, American pop in the cab, American and British pop in the hotel lobby and hallways. There was ragtime in the Beijing Airport’s men’s room and some pretty good bluegrass in an English language bookstore near the hotel. I used the hotel radio for my alarm and this morning I woke to one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

32-02 Koi Mandala, Forbidden City, BejingKoi Mandala, Forbidden City, Bejing

This morning as we entered a Buddhist temple in Beijing, I was standing next to Xi, our guide, and I overheard her whispering a short prayer and noticed that she bowed reverentially to the central Buddha. Later as we walked the grounds outside the temple I asked if she could tell me a bit about Chinese Buddhism. She told me she did not have time to talk right now because she was working but she would be taking a walk tonight after dinner. If I wanted to talk with her about anything, she would be leaving the hotel lobby at 7 p.m. She would not wait for me.

32-03 Palm Leaf, SichuanPalm Leaves, Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuary

I was sitting in the lobby when Xi walked briskly past me and took a left outside the gate. When I caught up with her, she began her introduction to Buddhism with what she considered the most important belief, the one on which all the others are built, and that is the belief that our current incarnation is one out of many, and that how we behave in this lifetime influences our next one, as what we did in our last lifetime has partially determined this one. But we do not do our best just for our future selves but for the future selves of everyone. We are all connected like water in a pond and everything we do causes ripples that affect everything else, including ourselves, which is the law of karma, or the law of cause and effect, which is the second most important belief in Buddhism. And we believe that to be alive is to suffer, because of our greed and grasping and misunderstandings. When we become unhappy with our unhappiness and are willing to change, when we are at our very bottom, we have the will to make new choices based on different motives—changing from wanting to win at all costs, maybe, to wanting to do no harm or even wanting to do good. At first we do not really know what we want, only what we no longer want, so we are open to anything. So we begin not by doing good but by becoming aware of how we have been creating bad karma unconsciously and unnecessarily by injuring others in ways we did not intend. Just that makes a big difference. The goal is not to be perfect, but to be a little better. If we do not always do right it is not that we will suffer for all eternity. If we do not yet know what is right, it is no fault of ours; we are just uneducated, or wrongly educated. We learn to do better when we are ready to learn and there is something in us that wants to keep moving forward. If we are still learning, we are still alive. And to help us learn our lessons each time we choose not to do right, there is a penalty of some sort, although what the penalty is and how it is connected to the deed is not always obvious to us or others. But when we can clearly see the connection between the wrongdoing and the penalty, we naturally stop hurting ourselves in that way, the way we automatically pull our hand away from a flame without having to be told. And at the end of our journey we will be fully liberated from suffering if we want to be, but some people who we call Bodhisattvas decide to give up their chance at liberation and are reincarnated in a human body because this is where they can do the most good, even though they know it means that they will suffer as anyone born into this world must suffer.

Most of that makes sense, I tell Xi, but if I was given the choice, I don’t think I’d want liberation because for me the joys of being alive are worth the pains of being alive. I feel comfortable here, even with all the ups and downs.

Liberation is a good thing, she says. It does not mean not to have emotion. To say that you do not want liberation is to say that you want to be ignorant. If you are ignorant, you are dangerous. The uneducated expect to learn. The ignorant are happy to suffer and happy to continue creating suffering for others as well. Your Bible says that to be born into the next world you must first die to this one. Who would choose to relive yesterday without moving on to today? Sometimes we miss breakfast and sleep a little longer, but who sleeps through the day they are born! Every morning you wake up into a much bigger world than your dream world, a more real world, with great triumphs and bigger tragedies, yet you would refuse to wake up from your lower dream for a higher one? Will you be the last one, holding everyone back? All the Bodhisattvas and you? You are not taking this question seriously. What we are talking about is learning how to understand the effects of your actions, on yourself and others. Who would not want to make better decisions?

So you’re saying that if we didn’t make our reincarnation choice consciously who made it for us? Or what? Or is it just random? And what’s the point of all these lives? What’s the purpose of that?

I imagine that for most of us the choice was unconscious and we were not aware there was a choice. When the actual choice was made, we were looking backwards, or fighting what was happening, or dreaming. For most of us, life and death are like floating in a river. We are going wherever the river is going but we feel like we are moving forward because everything is moving past us but it is only the river that is moving. Then there is some kind of commotion and we go over a waterfall and as the ground underneath us falls away and all we can see is sky and we are falling, falling, falling, we land wherever we land and we are in a river, and we feel like we are moving because everything is moving past us, and slightly familiar, but we forget we have been in this river before and do not question why parts of it seem so familiar. But the monks teach that in the moment we are falling we can also fly. You have to know how, and you have to prepare for it, and you need all the help you can get from all the living saints and those who have gone before. That is why we light so many candles in the temples—so we can use their light when our light has failed. The hope in Buddhist prayers is that we will someday fly from the ups and downs of life and death into full liberation. If you have children and bills and jobs you cannot always follow those prayers, but we do hear them, part of us does, and remains uncomfortable. And as we get older and have more experience our heads clear a little and we see that some of the extra weight that makes it difficult to fly is the knots caused by our own bad behaviors. This is the opposite of most thinking so most of us will come to understand it only when our suffering becomes unbearable and we are willing to investigate ourselves for the causes. That was one of the surprises for me, that many people became saints not by trying to do good but trying to avoid continuing to do evil. Their prayer was, God, please spare others from the harmful effects of my ignorance. This is why it is taught that before I can think of helping others I must first understand where I am hurting others and myself without knowing it. Once I have thoroughly attended to my own personal errors, then I can begin thinking of doing good for others, with genuine humility. Some people even dedicate the rest of their lives to balancing the harm they have done with the good they can do. It is always best to make your apology in person but sometimes there is no possibility of making peace with those we have injured, or the person is dead. If you cannot make peace with the person you have harmed, it is perfectly acceptable to pay the priests to perform rituals, and you can go to the temple and pray for forgiveness. This seems very painful but Buddha says that when you realize that you alone gave birth to all of your angels and demons, it is a very good sign. You are one of the lucky ones. You have taken an important step toward liberation.

If the motive of your good deeds is to reduce your own suffering, isn’t that just more selfish behavior? Not that I think there’s anything wrong with that, it just seems like a paradox to me.

To get away from your own selfishness, the best way, or the least suspect way and the fastest way to deal with your own bad karma is to intentionally take on the bad karma of others for no benefit of your own, just from your desire to alleviate the suffering of others. Compassion is a paradox because you can feel the suffering of others and it makes you feel uncomfortable and you want to end it, but at the same time you realize they have created their own suffering and it is only they who can end it. And we see ourselves in them, and we return to the temple, and we pray for both of us. That is how it goes for us. When we see a tendency in another, we examine ourselves and find the roots of that in us as well, so we are no longer angry, we are grateful to have our secrets revealed to us. But that path is too difficult for most of us. We are usually thinking only of our own suffering. But I know it is possible to create good karma because my grandmother is a living saint. Her personal needs have ended and she does good for no reason. And another paradox, my grandmother became blind after she was widowed because of a medical condition and at first this was scary for all of us, but in the end it solved all of our problems. My father had worried since my grandfather’s death about his mother living alone, but she insisted on living independently so they could grow their young family without her in the way. He visited her on his way home from the bank on workdays, and she would stay at their house over the holidays, and he talked to her on the phone every day they were apart. Then when she got the news that she was about to go blind, she agreed to move in with us and now my father is not worried, and she is safe until the day she dies. And I grew up with my grandmother staying with us. So at first her blindness was a great tragedy but it was a great gift too.

But you wouldn’t trade your life now for your grandmother’s, would you, even with all of its pain and suffering? That’s all I was trying to say.

It is said, Xi says, that it is the same world when you climb out of your ignorance, but now everything is different, so I cannot imagine what it would be like to be my grandmother now. When my grandmother moved into my father’s house, she knew she would live there until the end of her days, and she never had to worry again, so she became a different person. She no longer sees the world like a frightened rabbit, always looking for her next meal, worrying it may never come. She has become the angel that was waiting to be born inside her. My time is different. It is like your Bible says, to everything there is a season. First I have to get married. Then I will have to get pregnant. Then I will try to raise my child until it is an adult. And I will look forward to the day that my parents will make their home with me and I care for them until the end of their days. That would make me proud, to accomplish all of that. Then maybe when I am old and unable to care for myself I will be welcomed by my child who will care for me until the end. Then it will be my time to be a saintly grandmother. It is something I look forward to.

Does a Chinese Buddhist believe their fate can be changed or is it predetermined? Is anything about our lives random?

I will never know. The one thing I know is that it is not me who is making these decisions. My grandmother did not choose to be saintly. Her husband was dead, her one child was out of the house, she was about to go blind. My grandmother could remember a time when a wife was considered blessed if she died before her husband, and women prayed not to outlive their often much older husbands. A widow was considered unlucky and sometimes shunned, and a blind one would almost certainly have walked into the forest and starved to death or been eaten by wild animals, or raped and killed by her neighbors. No one would go looking for her. Everything was unspoken but understood. My grandmother’s blindness would make her a double burden because she could not work or even help around the house like most live-in parents. But my father convinced her that this was actually very, very good for both of them, so he took away her shame. Once she reached the right situation and the right time and the right conditions, she had no choice but to become the saint that was living inside of her. If she was not a saint, something else would have bloomed in her place. That is why I love my grandmother, because I know there will be many unpleasant things I will have to go through to get to be a grandmother, but if I stay true to myself, at some point when the conditions and time are right, I will bloom into my full potential too. I cannot imagine my life without that hope, and the reason I have that hope is because of my grandmother.

I ask her why—if we are here to learn—that some people do bad things but get away with them, and other people suffer and are innocent. What are we supposed to learn by watching the least deserving win time and time again with the most deserving being refused any help at all? Xi tells me that sometimes we are punished in a future lifetime for something we did in our last one. It is likely that everyone who has been a victim in this lifetime has also been a victor. It would be foolish for me to believe I understood more than the creator. But why, I ask her, would humans be created and given such a short lifespan and for many eons life for most humans was abysmal, and in addition make them suffer from ailments that they do not deserve on top of the ones they do, and to mix them all together and make the circumstances unclear to those who suffer what they are suffering for? You’re describing a world where the real cause-and-effect relationship, which you say is so important, is often camouflaged, and many people are actually trying to do good and end up creating suffering anyway. If you want to teach anything to anyone—including a frightened rabbit—the one essential thing is to be consistent and true. Fire teaches you not to touch it by being consistent and true. What you’re describing sounds like a perfect way to drive a lab rat insane—by constantly camouflaging the cause-and-effect relationship and disguising things as their opposite for no apparent reason other than to confuse and punish the subject for crimes they did not intend to commit. For a plant or an animal, life is pretty simple. The right amount of sun is good for it—too little or too much is not—and that never changes. That’s why there are no anorexic plants, no insomniac tulips, no neurotic daisies. An animal in the wild doesn’t do what’s not in its best interests. But for some reason the laws of human nature don’t seem to be “laws” at all. We don’t do what’s in our best interests. We know when we give birth to a child that the baby will eventually die—that’s in the nature of things. But everything between then and the end is completely up for grabs, no holds barred. People get addicted to drugs that will kill them; people will starve or overeat themselves into illness; people will take their own lives because of events that would just be accepted if you were a goat—like losing your mate. Even if one person has died selflessly helping another, or if even one person has had to watch their spouse or their parents or their child die a slow painful and undeserved death, or one life that was taken ended by accident, any of it, just once, and there’s no way you can trust God to do what’s right. The way I see it, if those who do ill prosper, even once, and those who try to live by their ideals suffer and do not advance because of it, then no wonder people go crazy. Most of the people I meet are decent and more than fair and want to do what’s right. How could a race so noble be wantonly punished by such an arbitrary and contrary and uncompassionate God?

You speak of God because you were born with a Bible. We do not think so much of God. We are mostly concerned about our lives and the lives of our loved ones like everyone else, but we are taught from the beginning to consider the needs of everyone else as well. We do our best to live up to our responsibilities, and we realize that our responsibilities change over time, so we try not to be rigid about any idea about fairness or logic. Since we do not believe in a God, we cannot blame everything on a God in charge of everything. As children and parents and grandparents ourselves we see things differently than we did when we were children. The complaints of children are not always taken seriously by parents and by grandparents least of all. We know more than our children do. We have heard it all before. Life is unfair! So, the parent responds, “Who told you that life would be fair? They were not telling you the truth.” Life is often unfair, but on the whole more fair than unfair. And a grandparent says, “Fair? You want fair? You were given life and you have yet to pay tribute for that gift and yet you demand more, you demand fairness as well?” And just because someone takes back what was given it does not make them uncompassionate. No matter the reason—or none—how dare we demand justice when the gift of life was given to us freely? Yes, good people suffer, but we see that it works the other way too—we get good things that we do not deserve through the intercession of angels like my grandmother. No life is all dark or all light.

Then Xi told me about the time her father walked from their rural hometown to the capital city of Sichuan Province, Chengdu, for a job interview set up by the employment council.

Chengdu was the biggest city her father had ever visited and as he walked through the noisy, crowded city streets he quickly became disoriented and discouraged. He was currently employed as a small town bank manager but someone wanted their nephew in his position so he was applying to run a manufacturing plant with more employees than his home town’s entire population. He was afraid he would arrive late, looking like a wild animal in his sweat-soaked, dusty suit. He knew he did not deserve the job and would not get it, so what was the point of even trying? And even if he did get the job, which was unlikely, the shame when he failed would be much worse than failing the interview. And he did not want the job, or the move to Chengdu. And when he reached the top of a hill and realized he had no idea which direction to go, he turned around to walk back home. But behind him there was a monk in a saffron robe who stopped him and said, “Do not worry, follow me. I am here to guide you because your mother has been suffering for your benefit.” Her father followed the monk through the crowds and found himself at the door of the employment council. When he turned around to thank the monk, he was gone. After my father got the job, he wondered how his mother had suffered on his behalf and he thought of the choice she had been given that led to her blindness. She had a high fever and the doctors recommended a medicine that would cure her but leave her blind. She consulted her son and he advised her to take the medicine, everyone did. But now he wondered, did he really have her best interests in mind? Was she suffering for his selfish needs? Since then my father’s one desire has been to make his mother as comfortable as possible until her end.

But, I argued, your grandmother made that choice without knowing its importance to the success of a future job interview for her son. She made it because she wanted to stay alive, which is the only logical choice. She couldn’t have possibly thought your father would allow her to choose death. She chose the medicine and blindness for her own reasons, not for the benefit of others. Plus, why should she be put through blindness in order for her son to get a job? And your story opens up all sorts of ethical issues. If he didn’t deserve the job, what about all of those who applied and did deserve the job? How can a just God answer the prayers of the underserved and deny those of the deserved? Can God’s will be unjust? You said she was saintly as long as you can remember and it was not the loss of sight that made her a saint, so why repay her saintliness with blindness? You say she needed the right climate and soil to take root and blossom and I say, exactly. Why would a God or non-God or not-God or fate or the stars or whatever you consult with your fortunetellers decide it would be better if she lost her sight? If you can make things happen or not happen, and certainly you’re implying that whatever you call your not-God—your ancestors or feng shui spirits or whatever—can, since they were convinced by your grandmother’s suffering to take action to assist her son, then why would they choose to make someone suffer first before doing something good in return? What kind of brain would come up with a twisted thought like that?

How do you explain the monk?

If someone important wanted his nephew to have your father’s position in the bank and arranged a job interview in another city through a government agency like the employment council to get him out of the way, and the person didn’t deserve it but got the job, wouldn’t you think it had more to do with the important guy getting his way rather than the employment council miraculously giving him the job? And the monk? He could have been hired by the important guy to make sure your father made it to the interview.

You are missing the point. My grandmother got what she wanted by losing something she did not believe she could live without. I do not know why it is that most people become saints through suffering, but it is. But an unjust world would be chaos. Obviously, our world is not chaos. But nothing in life is certain. It has been freely given and at its end will be freely taken away.

How can you believe the world makes sense when most of the hard evidence says that it’s mostly chance, natural processes working themselves out, and circumstance?

I cannot comprehend your vision of a universe that is mostly chance and circumstance just as you cannot comprehend my belief in reincarnation and karma. But your world is just as real for you as my world is to me. I cannot explain it, any more than I can explain anything. Your Bible does not explain anything, it just tells you what you believe. I have read your Bible. When I was twelve I met a man from Melbourne who only wanted to talk to me about Jesus. He gave me a Bible and asked me to read it. I read it from start to finish but it did not mean much to me. But after that, once I knew what he was talking about, his constant need to talk about his version of the Bible became tedious and I ended it. It was the not knowing that kept me interested. When I learned what was behind the mystery, it was no longer interesting.

Are you assuming I’m a Christian?

You talk like a Christian. Are you something different?

Is talking like a Christian a good thing or a bad thing?

Xi laughed. For you it is a good thing, or we would not still be talking. You talk about God a lot, like Christians do. But in other ways you are like my father. You are sincere and you ask real questions and you listen to my answers. You do not try to convince me, you want to know what I think. I like a man who challenges a woman. It means you take my words seriously. No one talks about these things. I never get to hear another side.

But do you think you have to die in order to be reincarnated? Because if you talk about reincarnation in this lifetime, I totally see it. The transmigration of souls thing sounds like pure gibberish to me.

Jibber itch?

Gibberish. Nonsense. I don’t understand … I can’t understand the thing about a soul being reborn in another body—how it would work, much less why or how we would choose another life and what it would mean if all of that was true and why it would be necessary and what that would mean for us, you and me. But when I look back at my life it seems like I’ve lived several lifetimes in this lifetime and it’s clear to me that how well I did in my last “lifetime” determines where I begin the next one. It’s like my relationships—I always seem to start my next relationship one step up from my last one. The next life usually starts when I stop doing certain things and start doing different things. As soon as I start doing different things or the same things for different reasons, I become a different me. I don’t see an end to this process because it seems like it could just go on forever. I bet if there is an end, then you just start all over again, except it’s different this time. I think this has happened several times in my life already, going back to the beginning, starting over. The problem is that as soon as I get to a new level in my understanding, I spend all of my time looking for the next level above it. That’s not ideal because I’m not ever really anywhere if I’m always focused on what’s next. I don’t know why there’s  more than one level or why we weren’t born on the best level and just get to stay there, without all of this disappointment and wasted time, with what’s really important hidden from us until it’s too late.

Xi tells me that Buddhism agrees with me. Buddha said that before we can learn something new first we must empty our heads of untrue ideas. One of those untrue ideas is believing that someday you will come to understand the purpose of your life, any more than a bubble in a stream could ever understand that it was a bubble in a stream. After liberation you will understand it all, it is taught, but until then we cannot know, so this constant questioning is just wasted time. Another untrue idea is that things will one day be easy or even easier, and another is that there is only one way forward or one final end. And another untrue idea is that one day we will arrive in a place where there will be no changes. I think life is a very good teacher. If we have an untrue idea, sooner or later we will learn that it is not true, there is no choice. The response that it is not true will be—as you said—consistent and true. And life teaches us that the only way forward is to stay constant with the changes. The biggest danger is too become too confident in your picture of how things work. There is an ancient Chinese proverb that says that most disappointments are because we are waiting for a letter when the approval arrives by telephone.

I think, I tell her, that most disappointments occur because the universe’s answer is no.

But, she continued, we are very poor at choosing what is best for us. Why would it be better for us to have more control over what happens to us?

Well, like you said. We’d have the ability to make better-informed decisions, for one thing.

You are right that life should be more straightforward and the Bible is right that life is like a test. We can all agree to that. But now that we have agreed, what has changed? I believe that what happens to me is because of the decisions I have made, in this lifetime or before it. Even if that is an untrue idea, it is a helpful one. It would be worse to be wrong about that than to be not right about your life being your responsibility, right? In your Bible it says that if you throw your seeds where they cannot grow, you are doing more than wasting your time and effort, you are actually sowing famine, you are killing the future. So I am saying that you can look at your life as a mirror of your beliefs. Buddhism and your Bible teach that if you are starving, look to your actions. How can that be bad? You think it is better to argue with your God? To blame everything on him?

I didn’t answer. I wanted to hear what she’d say next, what direction she’d take the conversation, given the opportunity.

You know why most changes happen when you are at your lowest? It is because that is when you give up. When you were in charge you ended up on the rocks or somewhere very different from where you were headed so you know you cannot steer yourself out of this mess and you are willing to try anything. And because you know you must do something very different, anything you choose will be untested and foreign and the first step will always be a leap of faith. And when you make that leap, it seems to me that sometimes you fly and sometimes you fall, but no one really falls so far they cannot bounce back, which is what reincarnation teaches us as well—that liberation is possible in every lifetime, but missed in most opportunities. Maybe that is what you mean when you ask about reincarnation without dying. That leap from one life to a completely different life within one lifetime can be seen as the flying that the monks describe, yes. But in that moment—whether in your lifetime or between lifetimes—it is not so important to understand or analyze what you believe or to nail it down, right? And although those needs will return they will never again be as strong as they once were. The longer you live the more you know for certain that what is true today will change over time and even become its opposite as circumstances change, so there is no Truth, there will never be a Truth. That is liberation, as far as I understand it—that even Truth changes over time so there is no Truth. So you give up that search and just appreciate being alive as it is while you still can.

The way I make that work for me in this lifetime, I tell her, is by knowing that after every choice I get a chance to correct any problems brought about by my last decision. That’s all I need, really; a feeling that if I fail myself in this moment, I can redeem myself by my next decision. The problem is that I feel like a sculptor and at the same time the sculpture. With every choice of how to strike the chisel with the mallet I’m forging my outline. And the sculpture will only be finished when I die, and until then there’s a great deal of risk in every decision. One thoughtless swing and I could be disfigured for all time. But then, like you said, sometimes it seems what’s most important is only revealed to us when it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s the real danger, to continue to act under those rules and circumstances and with those expectations.

When I stopped talking, I realized that Xi was no longer walking beside me and I turned around and saw her standing behind me, frowning. I do not think you are who you say you are. You ask me about reincarnation and karma and liberation but I think you already know about these things. I think you are testing me, looking for my weakness. Something about you is not being honest. Why are you pretending to be other than you are? Why are you here?

Why am I where?

Here, on this tour.

Because this was the tour I wanted to go on. This is the period of time I could get away. This what I wanted to see and when I wanted to go. Why?

But why my tour?

I didn’t sign up for your tour. I signed up for this tour.

But do you ever wonder? In Buddhism we believe everything happens for a reason, that you were meant to be on this tour, and I was meant to guide it. This was not my tour. I was done for the year. I had just gotten off another tour two days before and usually there is a week or two between tours, and I was tired and homesick and I wanted to stay home with my family, with my mother’s cooking, with my grandmother who I loved, with my father, with my friends. But they called and I said yes, thinking of the extra money. But now I am not so sure.

I waited for her to continue. She didn’t. We walked in silence and for the first time I began to look around me, at the stone window ledges, the weak yellow-white incandescent bulbs over dining room tables in the living rooms we passed. When we got to the next corner, Xi took a hard left, and I knew we were headed back to the hotel. I followed and said to her back, but even you’d admit that there seems to be some element of luck in what happens? Some people get lucky and some people are unlucky, and some people are lucky for a while and then unlucky, and vice versa. I know it’s true in my life. I can see it in the lives of most of the people I know well. You say you believe that there’s a meaning and purpose to your life. Everything seems arbitrary to me. Yes, I learn as I go on and there are certain situations that look very much like lessons, yes. But do you believe that if you do the right thing you’ll get what you intended? Because without that assurance I don’t know how I can possibly feel responsible for my own choices. Do you believe everyone gets what they deserve?

I do not think much about getting or deserve. I wake up every morning and take an inventory of all the good things in my life. Next I pray for those I know who are suffering, and then for all of those who are suffering who I do not know. Then I say a prayer for my family, mentioning every name, asking for their protection. Then I thank the Earth and the universe and all living creatures and plants for supplying me and the ones I love with everything we need to stay alive and the good things in life. Then I thank whatever is responsible for my life. Then I wish for guidance and protection throughout my day and I make a promise that I will do my best today. Then I get up and start the day with that goal in mind—to do my best today.

Another thing that I rely on—and I know this is going to sound like I haven’t been listening to you but wait a minute and I’ll come back to your point—but at regular intervals I become really low and empty and despairing and it is in those moments that I can best hear the still small voice inside of me. And this has happened so many times that even when I’m not particularly low or empty—and most especially when I’m super high and happy—there’s a part of me that remembers that emptiness is going to come again and wipe out everything I’m enjoying so much in the moment. Like this conversation. That makes me humble.

I believe that still small voice is the next me, helping the now me that is about to disappear to make the right choices for its next step forward, its next metamorphosis, which it cannot see so it needs to be steered in the right direction. The way others believe in God, I believe there is a future me who is helping me get to where it wants to go—the Bodhisattva me, the angelic grandmother me—and this future me is never wrong, even if the choices I make are sometimes the wrong ones. How else can you explain that we change and grow and become more conscious? Did we create the consciousness or did the consciousness already exist and we opened to it, when before we had been closed? If it was already existing, where was it? It would have to be inside of us somehow but we did not know it, right? Or if we created it, how could we create a higher consciousness on our own? And what in us would be able to create a higher consciousness?

Your explanation presumes that there’s a higher version of you that’s hidden from you for some reason but at certain moments it reveals itself to you and it has to manually drag you against your will in the right direction. It’s just too complicated to be true. Who would set up such a system and why? What’s the point? Why make people suffer unknowingly and ineffectually when you could make them happy with a flick of your will? It doesn’t make sense.

But it does not matter, any of that. A Buddhist believes that if we do what is right we will feel better about ourselves and the world will be a better place whether it is an untrue idea or not. A Buddhist believes that even their deepest truths are capable of unexpectedly changing—even into their opposites—at any moment … that everything is impermanent. A Buddhist believes that the only thing necessary to be able to live with the inevitable disappointments and surprises of life is to dedicate yourself to Truth above Belief, and that there will be times when the only way we can go forward is through a leap of faith. A Buddhist believes that they cannot possibly understand what is at stake in every moment of their lives but they can always endeavor to understand as well as they can and choose their noblest intention in every moment, for the sake of others as well as for themselves. And at any time they can ask for help and if they ask for help sincerely, their prayers will be answered, although they might not get the answer they desire. But it is understood that the work necessary must be theirs. That is the essence of Buddhism in China as I understand it.

We took our fourth left and the hotel’s marquee was only twenty feet in front of us.

So you will never get to a place where you no longer have a chance to learn something new while you are still alive. There is nothing wrong with that. Even Bodhisattvas need to be refined into Bodhisattvas. Sometimes we even have to relearn something that we knew when we were younger but have forgotten. But when your prayers no longer work, that is best, because those are the moments that give birth to new gods. Life takes its time to unfold and every mistake is a step toward learning how to be better. But we must climb the mountain one step at a time, and this is true for each of us, no matter who we are.

And then we were walking up the hotel steps and she said good night and went to the left, toward the elevator, and I went to the right, to take the stairs.

32-04 Peacock Feathers #3, Wuhan, ChinaPeacock Feathers #3, Wuhan, China

Article written by Randy Roark

Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.


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