Thursday, April 22, 2010
Navigating the Rocks and Ruins of Samsara
Last week I read an article depicting Tibetan Buddhist nuns learning kung fu. I thought at first this was a good idea, or was it?
One of the great things about having a lama is that he can (gently and lovingly of course; nobody wants to be told they suck) point out errors in our nature. Which reminds me of a story (as a storyteller, I cannot resist) about an incident that happened to me back when I was a twenty-something.
In the Mid 1980’s I spent my summers at my eldest step-brother and sister in law’s house on Bolivar Peninsula.
I especially loved to swim, mostly in the early mornings. Right after breakfast, I’d don my swimsuit and head out into the surf for a brisk morning swim. Usually my niece or nephew would join me. But most of the time I swam alone.
It was nearing the end of summer when I came into contact with the hazards hidden underneath the waves. I knew they were there and in my arrogance, thought I knew how to avoid them.
Famous last words, right?
Over the years, several beach houses succumbed to soil erosion or to hurricanes. And although the houses themselves were long since gone, the foundations and freshwater cisterns still lurked beneath the water. I could see these during low tide, ruins from another time glistening on the ocean bed like a mermaid’s secret garden. But when the tide came in, these things were naturally obscured. But for the skillful swimmer who knew how to avoid the ruins, swimming there wasn’t a problem.
On this bright and lovely day in late August, I was out swimming with family and friends, not paying attention to the dangers that lurked just a few feet below me. I was, however, concerned about my nephew, whom I noticed was swimming very close to several large hunks of concrete that jutted out of the surf. I shouted at him, tried to warn him of the danger, but because of the sounds of wind and sea, my warnings went unheeded.
The tide rose, and I went with it. And then, like a cork being dragged below the water by a fish, I felt myself being propelled downward.
I knew I was in trouble when my bare feet landed on the rim of the cistern, but I wasn’t concerned. I crouched, waiting for the next wave. I thought, I could rise with the next passing wave, letting the momentum take me up over the lip of the cistern and deeper into the gulf.
What I didn’t expect was for the undertow to drag me down deep into the cistern.
A hell realm could be such a place: a confined area filled to overflowing with thrashing churning gray water, slime and filth; the sides of the cistern encrusted with razor sharp barnacles, bits of glass and black stinging coral.
I looked up, and saw the sun glistening on the water above me. Sunlight and air was just a few yards away, but the question was, was I strong enough to swim to the surface? And if I did, what was there to keep me from being getting sucked back down again, or being eating by sharks?
An image formed in my mind. It was a terrible image of rescuers dragging my bloody, ravaged (and partially eaten, by now Jaw’s 3 was out in theatres) body from the ocean, the look of horror on my parent’s faces. How such a beautiful happy day suddenly turned tragic for everyone who knew me. And I, attempting to save someone who didn’t need it, was myself in lack of a savior when the time came. Oh, the irony!
Painfully aware that I was running out of air, that I was bleeding and at any moment my head might get smashed against the concrete walls, I counted the ebb and flow of the tide as it rose and fell over the cistern. I waited until the time was just right and with all my might I pushed upward. As I broke the surface, I relaxed and let the ocean carry me away from the lip of the well.
Once freed, I swam with all my might back to the shore. My lungs burned and my body ached as if I had just run a half marathon. I half stumbled, half crawled to shore, my legs shaking so badly I could barely stand. My lungs burned as I gasped for breath, as I staggered, still stunned, and suddenly cold, along the shoreline.
People who were sunbathing on the beach watched, mildly interested as I climbed back up the path leading to my brother and sister in law’s beach house. I was bloody from my shoulders down, my feet raw and my knees cut wide open. I vaguely noticed crimson footprints as I walked up the steps and onto the deck.
I took a shower, wrapped myself in a towel. Still in shock, I wandered into the kitchen where my mom and sister in law were sitting at the table catching up on family gossip. I stood, trembling, bleeding profusely, my blood soaked footprints marking a path across the hardwood floor.
When I saw the shocked looks on their faces, I burst into tears.
The rest of the weekend was spent in feverish moments of emergency rooms, pain killers, and tetanus shots.
So my heartfelt desire to help my nephew was unnecessary. He already knew about the rocks and concrete and cisterns under the ocean floor as he swam that stretch of beach several times a day every day. In my arrogance I thought I knew what was best, when the fact was, I knew nothing.
I was in danger again, just a few days ago, of wandering off of the bodhisattva’s path by praising the use of violent techniques that do little more than causes aggression and violence to flourish.
So, once again, I was swimming in dangerous waters, thinking that I was being helpful, when in reality I was in danger of getting sucked down again. When Lama Jigme gently read to me from Shantideva’s Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, I was stunned, shocked at how quickly and easily it had been to stray from the teachings.
I am so much more fortunate today than I was in that brief bright summer day in 1983. Today I have a lifeguard who shows me the hazards of my own hubris, and the rocks and ruins of my own folly that could at any second drag me down. And for that I am profoundly grateful.
Until next week.
Om mani padme hum.