There was once a novice monk who, expecting a visit from a greatly revered master, spent the whole morning raking leaves off the monastery lawn. Autumn leaves had fallen in great profusion from a nearby cherry tree. When the master arrived, he took in the immaculately raked lawn, before walking over to the tree and shaking its trunk so hard that many more leaves fluttered down. Regarding the leaf-strewn lawn, he turned to the novice monk and said, ‘How beautiful!’
From “Zen Tales” Editor: Venerable Goetcha Thinh Khing
Penny Perkin liked things to be ‘just so’.
Even as a young girl she had been very particular about, for example, the way that patterned dresses should be hung on a different part of her wardrobe rail from non-patterned ones. And how the non-patterned ones were to follow the sequence of the rainbow, with lighter shades on the left graduating to darker tones on the right in the case of each individual colour. She’d adopted the same, fastidious approach to her crayons, toys and other belongings, much to the surprise, and occasional exasperation, of her parents who were neither pedantic, nor casual in their way of life.
Penny was similarly conscientious at school. Whether in the classroom or on the playing field, such was her commitment to exacting standards that she would do whatever it took, practise for however long was needed, and exert herself to whatever extent was required to make sure that she achieved high grades and outstanding scores.
Fortunately for Penny, she didn’t hold anyone else to the same rigorous code she demanded of herself. She even regarded her own behaviour with a lightness, as though it was some bizarre quirk that made her so obsessive – a perplexing foible that she certainly wouldn’t wish upon anyone else. For that reason, instead of being the kind of girl who might otherwise stir up envy and resentment among her peers, she was a popular kid who grew into a well-regarded young woman.
As a child, Penny was a voracious reader. She had a shelf stacked with many books, which she would read and re-read – with one exception. Zen Tales contained a story about a poor, novice monk and visiting teacher, which she found utterly repellent. Instead of appreciating the novice’s efforts, the teacher seemed to throw them back in his face. Quite what the moral of that story was supposed to be, she couldn’t possibly guess. But having read the story once, she couldn’t bear to pick the book up again.
Penny found her way into accountancy, then actuarial science, her diligence and proficiency in negotiating her way among the most complex systems enabling her to float effortlessly through her studies at university, before going on to become an early achiever in the world of work.
But Penny’s need for order was not always a great fit for life outside of work. Socially she enjoyed wide horizons, but romantic relationships in early adulthood came with an ambiguity and uncertainty with which she was ill at ease. Her own specific requirements, when matters turned intimate, also presented something of a challenge.
Penny couldn’t abide the idea of waking up to a stranger in her bed. Or even someone who wasn’t that strange, but who was, well, there. The sheer disruption to her mental equilibrium was enough reason to rule it out. Even worse, given her stringency in matters of personal hygiene, was having the cleanliness of her carefully ironed bed linen sullied for the sake of an intimate encounter which may – or may very well not – prove gratifying. She most certainly didn’t wish to discover, first thing in the morning, stray garments or the stains of unmentionable body fluids in her pristine cotton sheets.
So when things turned hot and heavy, it was to the kitchen that she would lead her beau. There she was perfectly willing to strip naked and lie on the sterile surface of the kitchen table to receive her lover. Or alternatively, to bend over the same so that he could take her from behind. Just so long as he didn’t have any unsavoury ideas involving bed linen or soft furnishings.
After relations were concluded and she’d dispatched her partner home, it was only five minutes with the rubber gloves and spray-on bleach, and order would be restored to Planet Perkin.
Penny had always been as punctilious in her concern about ethics, as she was in other matters. Guided by a strong sense of probity, she always wished to do the right thing and to make sure that, in her relations with others, a sense of fairness prevailed. As a result, her life became very difficult indeed.
In her early twenties Penny watched a twenty-minute video about intensive animal farming. That brief exposure – to baby chicks being flung into a furnace by the hundred each minute because they were born male, to sows imprisoned in stalls so narrow they couldn’t turn to nurse their offspring, to cattle facing terrified, mechanised death in abattoirs – had been enough to turn her vegan.
Adapting to an austere diet of which some other people were strangely resentful, even mocking, was one thing. But Penny found that not even her new, austere regime was enough to bring an end to her own contribution to animal suffering. A visit to a wildlife conservation centre made her acutely aware just how massively humans had encroached on the countryside, blocking animal migration paths that had existed since time immemorial, clearing land and destroying the homes and food sources of countless beings. The demand for crops was driving the relentless expansion of the human species at the expense of thousands of others. Being a vegan, she came to learn, didn’t absolve her of blame.
Like many other people, Penny was concerned about the environment. Like very few, she went to unusual lengths to minimise her own carbon footprint. She would use public transport even when it was inconvenient. In her late twenties, when she bought her first car, she paid over the odds for an electric hybrid. So she was dismayed when she discovered that the two dogs she had warm-heartedly rescued from death row at the local pound were responsible for more carbon emissions per year than if she’d owned a gas-guzzling SUV.
The same ethical conundrums seemed to apply everywhere. Shunning the evils of sugar, with its attendant spectres of obesity and diabetes, she routinely drank ‘light’ sodas – only to uncover a study showing that artificial sweeteners were associated with an increased risk of dementia. Donating to a food aid charity operating in Africa, she came to learn that food hampers were distributed only to supporters of the ruling party – was she helping prop up one of the most venal regimes on earth?
And so it went on. The same lack of moral certitude, of unambiguous rightness plagued so many choices that even deciding which was the lesser of two evils could be a bewildering and exasperating challenge. As someone who thought about her choices constantly, cared very deeply, and did her utmost to act in the interests of the greater good, Penny found it increasingly stressful trying to negotiate her way through life. To arrange things so that they were just so.
In her late 20s, with work pressures ratcheting up, Penny consulted a psychologist to deal with stress. Among his suggestions was that she take up the practice of meditation, which was how she came to attend a six-week program given at the Tibetan Buddhist Centre. Penny had no particular interest in Buddhism, but as the centre was only ten minutes’ walk from her home, and no carbon emissions would be required getting there, it was convenient.
Geshe Ling, the elderly Tibetan monk who had founded the centre, had a serene presence on the teaching throne at the front of the room and seemed a tangible embodiment of what he taught. From the moment she stepped into the room, Penny had a powerful sensation that she had found a way to the order and rightness she had been seeking her whole life.
But at the same time, from that very first session he offered an approach that filled her with disquiet.
‘Peace and equanimity cannot be found by trying to re-arrange the world outside us,’ he said, rebutting precisely what Penny had been attempting to do her whole life. ‘It must come from within. If we wish to develop inner peace—’ he touched his heart ‘—we have to cultivate it here.’
What about all the helpless lambs being butchered, right at this minute? Penny wanted to ask, but was too respectful to interject. What about all the people being starved to death just because they had voted the wrong way? How could she sit here, in the midst of such a world, trying to cultivate inner peace? Was it morally right even to try?
Images of meditating Buddhist monks in South East Asia crowded unbidden into her mind. They’d beg for a meal from local people, before spending much of the day meditating in the forest or the temple. Sure, they may be calm and serene, but what use were they to anyone else? Wasn’t there something supremely selfish – even narcissistic – about their way of life?
‘You may think that just meditating is a waste of time. A self-indulgence,’ he chuckled. ‘This is what people sometimes say. ‘“I have more important things to do than just sit around thinking about nothing”.’
Others in the class seemed to share his amusement.
‘So tell me this: since when has incessant thinking solved your problems? Or anyone else’s?’
Penny felt as if he was addressing her personally.
‘All the worry and anxiety. The constant mental agitation. Could it be that, with a calmer mind, you could be of greater benefit to yourself and to others? If your mind was less like a snow globe—’ he shook an imaginary sphere with his hand ‘—could you enjoy greater clarity? Coherence?’
Committed, as she was, to fairness, Penny was willing to concede that Geshe Ling had a point.
‘Science agrees with Buddhism on this,’ he continued. ‘Brain scans have been done showing that we produce more gamma waves when we meditate. Gamma waves are associated with ‘aha’ experiences. Light bulb moments. Seeing the wood for the trees. This is one of the reasons so many companies these days want their staff to learn meditation. They know we become better thinkers – more innovative, focused, productive – when we have a settled mind.’
The meditation technique Geshe Ling advocated to calm the mind seemed almost absurdly simple. All you had to do was sit in a quiet room for fifteen minutes, ideally cross-legged on a cushion, focusing on the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nostrils, and counting your exhalations from one to ten. If a thought should enter your mind, you were to let go of it. Ignore it. Not allow it to disturb the focus on your breath.
Keep this up every day for six weeks, said the lama, and you would start to notice positive changes in your life. Likening mind training to physical training, he explained that, for results, one’s efforts must be consistent and regular – words that appealed strongly to Penny’s ingrained commitment to self-discipline.
The first time she tried meditating, during that class, Penny found little difficulty concentrating on her breath. Sure she had a few, extraneous thoughts, but she shrugged them off without too much trouble.
In the days that followed, however, she faced mental mayhem every time she sat on the appointed cushion of her sitting room. Not only were her sessions filled with distraction. She was hardly ever able to reach ten breaths without losing her count. Geshe Ling’s method may be simple but, she was beginning to recognise, that didn’t mean it was at all easy.
Penny wasn’t alone in making this discovery. Every subsequent class in the six-week program was attended by a smaller and smaller group. And those who remained were as one in the challenge they faced.
‘I want to meditate,’ a young woman spoke for all of them when prompted for feedback after the first week. ‘But my mind’s just too busy. And it seems to be getting worse since I started meditating!’
Geshe Ling’s presence at the front was genial and reassuring. Everyone experienced the same thing to begin with, he told them – none of them possessed uniquely busy minds. Nor had their ability to focus deteriorated. Rather, it was only now they were paying full attention to what was going on that they were recognising the full extent of their own agitation.
‘The reason that most people give up meditating is because they think their minds are too busy,’ he said, the pathos of this mistaken view reflected in his face for a moment. ‘But what if someone said to you that their body is too weak to benefit from going to the gym. That there is no point even trying because they will never get stronger. Would you agree with them? Or would you say they need more determination!’ He struck his fist on the low table in front of him. ‘More courage! Meditation is not for sissies.’
Leaning forward, that presence of oceanic tranquillity revealed itself to be founded on a surprising power. ‘Don’t become a victim of your own, weak mind. Where has self-doubt, feebleness, ever got you? No matter how many times you get distracted, keep bringing your mind back to the object. Ten days, ten months, ten years – no problem how long it takes. Think: I will not give in!’
As the six-week program progressed, Geshe Ling taught the students different methods to quieten their minds. In particular, when thoughts arose in the mind, instead of engaging with the thought, in the usual way, the students were to regard the thought as an object. Something to accept, acknowledge and let go of. ‘Don’t be your thoughts and feelings,’ the lama told them. ‘Be the awareness of your thoughts and feelings. In letting go of them, imagine you’re releasing the string of a helium balloon which instantly disappears into space.’
‘In the space after that thought has dissolved, and before the next thought arises,’ said Geshe Ling. ‘That is where you find mind.’
Penny persisted in her daily attempts. But she had never been able to shake off the doubts she’d had about this whole exercise, right from the beginning. Doubts she hadn’t understood, let alone been able to articulate, until she’d been experimenting with it for quite some time. But once she’d worked out what they were, her concerns became more and more obvious. Troubling. And they needed to be discussed.
She booked a private session with Geshe Ling.
‘I like the idea of having a calmer mind,’ she began. ‘I can see why that would be more useful.’
Sitting opposite her, in his small room, late one afternoon, Geshe Ling acknowledged this with a smile, as he waited for the ‘but’.
‘But the idea of letting go of thoughts, I mean, completely … that can’t be right, surely?’
The lama wore a gentle expression. ‘That’s what we’re attempting.’
‘What happens if you have a really important thought? A useful thought? Surely you shouldn’t let go when that happens?’
‘All thought.’ He nodded. ‘We let go of. To say a thought is “useful” or “important” is making a judgement about it. And to make a judgement, we have to think. When we meditate, we are practising non-thinking.’
It was precisely such circular arguments and an unwillingness to accept any thought as important that troubled Penny. ‘It just seems to me,’ she said, somewhat tetchily, ‘that you would rather we didn’t think at all!’
Meeting her eyes, Geshe Ling burst out laughing. ‘There’s not much chance of that happening, is there?’ he chuckled. Then seeing that Penny didn’t share his amusement, he went on. ‘In general our problem is too much thinking,’ he said. ‘When we meditate, we practise letting go of thought. This equips us for when we’re not meditating, to free ourselves of unwanted cognition.’
He was confirming her darkest concerns.
‘But what happens if I feel my thoughts are right?’ she asked. ‘And important?’
‘Do they disturb your peace of mind?’ he asked.
‘Sometimes,’ she replied, nodding, thinking about an article she had only just read about religious persecution in Sudan. ‘Very often.’
‘Then best to let go of them,’ said the lama.
‘But to let go of them I’d be letting go of my concern for others. Of my wish for fairness and decency. This is who I am. Are you asking me to give up my whole sense of identity?’
There it was! Penny had finally managed to spell out what was troubling her about meditation. ‘To be honest, I have doubts about this whole process. Big doubts.’
Geshe Ling allowed silence to amplify what she had just said, as he regarded her with a gentle smile. The stillness of the twilight filling the room seemed to lend clarity to what she had just said, and to reveal the anguish from which it had arisen – a conflict she described with impressive precision.
When the lama responded, it was not as she had expected. ‘This is excellent!’ he told her. ‘You are making good progress! Small doubts lead to small breakthroughs. Big doubts to big breakthroughs.’
Breakthroughs, large or small, weren’t what Penny had in mind, at that moment. Putting her concerns into words seemed to give them a certainty that deepened her conviction she had been right all along. Never had she felt more at odds with the man seated opposite.
‘This sense of identity,’ he said softly. ‘It is not your physical body you’re talking of?’
‘No, no.’ She shook her head, wondering why he was being obtuse.
‘So it’s a concept?’
She shrugged. ‘I s’pose.’ She had never given much thought to what a person’s identity consisted of exactly.
‘Do other people have the same concept of you that you do?’
Penny knew for a fact that they didn’t. Only that day she’d been called ‘anal’ for throwing out ice from a glass in a café she’d never visited before. She had read horror stories about ice contamination and just didn’t see that it was worth the risk. Her ‘prudent’ was other people’s ‘pernickety’. ‘Other people don’t see things, don’t see me, the way I do,’ she told the lama.
‘So this concept of yourself which you don’t want to lose. It’s one that only you have?’
Again, she felt in uncharted waters. ‘I suppose.’
‘It’s a concept that causes you to suffer?’
‘Yes,’ she nodded, suddenly starting to feel quite tearful.
‘So why cling to it?’
In her mind she found herself fast-forwarding from the dresses, carefully arranged in her childhood wardrobe, to her time at university. Her career as a disciplined, compassionate, stressed-out executive striving for fairness for everyone – and never getting close. ‘If I give all that up, I have nothing!’ she welled up. ‘Is that just ego? Am I resisting the death of my own ego?’
Reaching over, Geshe Ling took her hand between his own soft, warm palms and held it. ‘When a child grows into an adult, does the child die?’
She shook her head.
‘The child matures. We all need to mature in our understanding of who we really are. It is not this bundle of ideas and conditioning we hold so tightly. Tell me, my dear, when you meditate, have you ever caught a glimpse of the gaps between thoughts? Between concepts?’
Wiping her eyes with her other hand, Penny nodded. ‘Here,’ she acknowledged. ‘When we meditate here, in class, with you.’
The quality of the meditation she experienced in Geshe Ling’s presence was, she knew, of a different order compared to when she tried on her own at home.
‘And how does that feel?’ He squeezed her hand, before letting go of it.
‘Peaceful,’ she said. ‘Clear.’
‘The sense of self we cling to, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, this is a false “I”. And our main problem, as humans, is that we are all “I” specialists.’
Despite herself, Penny couldn’t help smiling.
‘Each one of us is an expert on this “I”. Where it was born and brought up. The triumphs or failings of “I”. What “I” believe about this or that. But when we search for this “I” we cannot find it. Because it is only a concept. An idea we have about ourselves, which is different from everyone else’s idea about ourselves. An idea which can suddenly and completely change.
‘If we wish to find freedom, we must first let go of this false “I”. Of all concepts about it. After letting go, we discover that mind still exists. That consciousness is infinite and lucid and tranquil. And if we can abide there for long enough, through training, that tranquillity deepens into a state of abiding bliss. This bag of bones with all its self-important ideas, this is not, ultimately, who ‘I’ am at all.’
Absorbed in the lama’s words, which he communicated to her at a heart level as well as out loud, Penny encountered a more panoramic version of herself than she had ever guessed at. One which went beyond anything she had ever imagined.
‘Changing this idea of who and what I am,’ she spoke somewhat hesitantly. ‘How does that help those who suffer?’
‘You have a very good heart, Penny. I could see that the first time you came here.’ It was the first time that Geshe Ling had used her name, and the fact that he had done so in recognising her compassion made her glow.
‘Our ability to help others depends on our power, does it not?’
‘Our capacity as human beings is very limited. Yes, we may be able to help some beings here, to rescue others there. And we should try. But we cannot really offer a permanent solution. On the other hand as fully enlightened beings, there are no limits to the help we can provide. This is exactly why we strive to become enlightened – not only for our own sakes, but to help all others too.
‘If you motivate your practice with, for example, a wish to free all animals from imprisonment in narrow cells. Permanently. To uplift poor people without rewarding dictators. To stop people being persecuted because of their beliefs …’ as he checked through the list of some of her most anguished or recent concerns she realised the man sitting opposite her had an extraordinary insight into her mind ‘… use all your loving kindness like rocket fuel to propel you in your journey towards enlightenment. This is the meaning of bodhichitta, the ultimate purpose of loving kindness: the wish to achieve enlightenment in order to help all others attain the same state.’
Penny left her session with Geshe Ling inspired. In a profound way, something inside her had shifted. It would take time to process the implications of letting go of the myth of self. The self that seemed so all important but, when it came down to it, was only an idea, or a collection of ideas, none of them permanent.
And she finished the six-week introductory course, feeling more calm, coherent and settled than she had for a long time.
But then she went away on a week-long vacation. And when she returned, things at work went crazy, and her mother fell ill, and without a daily routine she no longer meditated.
Before she knew it, she had reverted to her usual, stressed-out self. One who had tasted the benefits of a tranquil mind and, deep down, had a yearning to re-experience it. But one for whom the practice, like a secret river, had disappeared underground.
When she thought back, even to that meeting with Geshe Ling, although she remembered it as profoundly life-enhancing, when she tried to remember the concepts that had given her such release, or recapture the incredible lightness that she had felt at the time, she was unable to. Whatever it was she had grasped when she had been with him, now somehow eluded her. Like a slippery fish that she had once held in her hands, it was now just a flash of light in her memory.
Penny slid into her well-worn ways of being, striving relentlessly for order in all things. Feeling combustible emotions of anguish and outrage whenever she encountered injustice. And experiencing tense times with her boyfriend, Neil, for whom the erotic possibilities of the kitchen table – the spatulas notwithstanding – were beginning to wane.
Then one day, attending a work convention in a different city, Penny found herself eating lunch with a colleague from another office. Conversation turned to stress management and the colleague told her that her life had been changed by meditation. Specifically, repeating a particular Buddhist mantra.
After Penny returned home, her colleague sent her a short book about the practice, which Penny read over the weekend. The book reminded her how she’d benefited from meditating and encouraged her to take it up again.
Mantra recitation had been one of several different types of meditation that Geshe Ling had shared with the class, and it had resonated with her. The particular mantra recommended in the book, was lengthy, multi-syllabic and written in Sanskrit – learning it off by heart was exactly the kind of intellectual challenge that Penny found bracing. She duly set about becoming completely familiar with it.
The book also emphasised the importance of receiving teachings about the mantra from a qualified lama. Geshe Ling was exactly such a lama, but Penny felt embarrassed, having not shown her face at the centre for quite some time.
She was sitting, reading a section of the mantra book in her local coffee shop one evening when she became aware of a presence beside her table. When she looked up, who should she find standing right there, but Geshe Ling.
‘Good evening.’ She rose to her feet. She was unsure of the protocol on such occasions, but the lama quickly waved at her to sit. As she was so doing, it occurred to her to say that this was an astonishing coincidence, before quickly registering that it was nothing of the kind.
‘You like this book?’ He nodded towards the cover.
‘I am really enjoying it.’ She smiled. ‘I’d like to learn.’ She glanced down at the cover, self-conscious. ‘I need a teacher and I wonder if you would consider …’
‘Of course!’ said Geshe Ling. ‘I know just the teacher for you.’
‘Oh.’ This wasn’t quite what Penny had expected.
‘It would mean you’d have to travel.’
Making an effort to reach an appropriate teacher was, Penny had read in the book, highly auspicious. Unlike contemporary views of convenience, the idea was that the more arduous and challenging the journey to visit a teacher, the greater the benefit.
She nodded. ‘Okay.’
Geshe Ling looked at her with the sweetest of smiles. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘I suggest you consult with Tashi Tsering. He is widely recognised as one of the foremost practitioners of this method in the world today. Not only that—’ Geshe Ling leaned towards her, confidentially ‘ —he is a one of the most remarkable meditation yogis of our age. It is said that he can effortlessly manifest the siddhis, or special powers, that accompany supreme attainment. I can make the necessary arrangements for you to see him.’
‘Thank you!’ Penny nodded. ‘Where does he live?’
‘On a small island called Ladalisha.’
India was everything that caused Penny to feel troubled. It was chaotic on a scale that defied description. Heartbreaking inequality was on display at every street corner where beggars in rags reached their bony arms to the tinted windows of passing luxury cars. Pain and suffering could be neither denied nor resolved.
Almost overwhelmed by the sensory overload, Penny made her way to Ladalisha guided by an escort Geshe Ling had arranged – a cousin of his, it turned out, called Dawa, who worked in the travel business. Her long-haul flight followed by a gruelling, six-hour train journey, by the end of that first day, Penny was so exhausted that she fell fast asleep on her hotel bed, even though she hadn’t shrouded it in the anti-bacterial, hypo allergenic mattress protector she had brought especially for this purpose.
Next day, she was guided by Dawa to the island. Ladalisha was not, at all, what she had expected. Instead of the beautifully landscaped haven in which she imagined a holy man at one with the verdant landscape and fluting calls of forest birds, it was a garbage-strewn thicket on the other side of a swamp. There was only one way to get across – to row. And because Geshe Ling’s cousin had other business to attend to that day, Penny was left to row herself.
‘Don’t be worried, ma’m,’ Dawa assured her, showing her into a small rowing boat of much the same kind people hired on ornamental lakes in city parks around the world. ‘You will easily find Tashi Tsering. It is only a small island.’ He smiled broadly. ‘And he is the one with a face like a monkey.’
Drawing on all her emotional reserves, Penny battled with the creaking boat, did her best to ignore the stench of the polluted water, and, slowly and shakily, made her way to a mooring on the other side.
Because the island was no bigger than a football pitch, and Tashi Tsering was the only person living on it, Penny’s task to find him was not a difficult one.
But it was confronting.
Spotting the weather-beaten figure sitting on his haunches before a small fire in a clearing, she noticed how he wore rags for clothes. How his unshaven face that was, indeed, like that of a monkey. He appeared deep in thought as she approached, the crackle of leaves and branches as she stepped closer seeming not to distract him.
Being super-polite, Penny was uncertain what to do next. She was close enough to see that his lips were moving. She could even hear him chanting. She caught snatches of the mantra about which she had come to consult him – but she didn’t want to interrupt him in mid flow – a mala rosary dangled from his hand. Perhaps he was counting his mantras?
Without looking up directly, Tashi Tsering gestured with his arm for her to come closer. Penny did so, squatting on the other side of the burning embers, regarding him closely as he continued his recitation.
Being familiar with the mantra, as she paid attention, tuning in exactly to what he was saying, she suddenly went cold. It was a heavy feeling, one of such profound disappointment that she felt herself sinking towards the ground.
She didn’t want to believe her own ears. She strained to listen, wanting to catch herself out, prove herself wrong. But there could be no denying it. She hadn’t misheard him. As he repeated the mantra, time and again, she had to deal with the stark reality: Tashi Tsering was saying it wrong!
Not for the first time she wondered what craziness had persuaded her to make this trip in the first place. India with all its problems. Precious time away from work. Coming here had gone against all her conditioning but she had allowed herself to hope, to believe that something transformational may occur, that she’d have some magical, mystical experience that would change her whole life.
What a fool she had been! What a gullible little idiot! All that she had ended up with, in the middle of this squalid little lake, was a rag-clad derelict who hadn’t even learned his lines!
Penny raised herself to her feet and about-turned. Not taking too much care about the noise she made, she pushed her way through brittle branches, away from the so-called expert, and back towards her boat. She was almost there when she heard him call out, ‘Hello!’
It was a brief exchange. Tashi Tsering got up from where he had been sitting and came towards her. Having disturbed his session, she supposed she owed him an explanation for her visit.
‘Geshe Ling suggested I come to see you,’ she said. ‘I was going to ask you for teachings about the mantra. But you are saying it wrong.’
His eyes widened for a moment. ‘Wrong?’ he repeated.
‘At the end. You are missing out “Hum ah peh”.’
Not masking her impatience, Penny undid the clasp of the handbag strapped around her neck, brought out the book she had been reading, and turned to the relevant page, in which the mantra appeared in bold print. She read it out, in a loud voice, for Tashi Tsering’s benefit, enunciating every Sanskrit syllable precisely as her finger ran underneath each word.
She shrugged. ‘Doesn’t seem much point in me staying,’ she observed, her tone one of bitter disappointment.
Climbing back in the boat, Tashi Tsering silently helped her untether it, and gave her a helpful push away from the island. She began to row, her attempts laborious and ineffectual.
She had been rowing for some time, not getting very far, when she suddenly heard Tashi Tsering’s voice. ‘You are saying the way to pronounce the mantra is like this?’ he asked, before reciting it the way she had suggested.
She turned to find him seeming to walk on the water beside her. He was standing there, in broad daylight, defying gravity, reason, and her whole sense of what was possible.
Taking in what was happening, looking him up and down in total disbelief, when she glanced at his face, he was smiling. As their eyes met, he started to laugh.
She couldn’t help herself. Sharing the humour of the crazy, amazing, unbelievable situation, she had to laugh too.
And when their chuckles subsided, and he climbed in the boat and sat opposite, Tashi Tsering told her:
‘The power of a mantra doesn’t come from the words used,’ he chuckled. ‘It’s from the faith with which they are recited.’
Penny returned to the island and spent the rest of that day in the presence of her monkey-faced tutor. After a while in his presence she ceased to see his features as simian, or the island as squalid or the swamp as toxic. Instead, from those very first words about the power of the mantra, she was drawn in by his teachings, which he communicated with an authenticity that came from the heart. And along with the specific instructions he gave her, beneath the ebb and flow of his words, at a deeper level he reminded her of all that Geshe Ling had revealed to her when they had met: most of all, the importance of letting go. Letting go of her deeply engrained ideas about the need for things to be just so, whether that was the way a mantra should be said, or the arrangement of the dresses in her wardrobe. Letting go of her passionately held views about the way that things should be in a chaotic, unjust and constantly changing world. Letting go, most of all, of that powerful sense of self – one that, impossible to find on analysis, returned at messianic full throttle, the moment she turned her back on it.
If she really wished to help others, she was reminded that she first had to deal with her own demons. She may, for a long time, have believed that if she could get everything the way she so earnestly believed it should be, then life would be fine and dandy. But she realised now that there was no way to control the uncontrollable in her own life, let alone in the lives of others. True peace comes not from trying to get things the way you want them, but from connecting to the way they are. Only when compassion is based on this connection, can it have any real power.
Penny retained these same recognitions when she returned home. Motivated by Tashi Tsering, meditation became a daily priority, the foundation of all that she did in the world.
She was soon a regular at the Buddhist centre. Much less of a stress-head at work. And no longer so wracked with indignation or distress every time she encountered some fresh injustice.
One Thursday evening she was on the phone to her boyfriend, Neil. ‘What about coming over tomorrow night and I’ll cook some pasta,’ she offered. Friday evenings at her place had been a frequent fixture in the past. This time, however, she was proposing something different, ‘If you like, you can stay over.’
At the other end, Neil was hesitant. ‘How do you mean?’
‘Spend the night.’
‘Yes,’ his confusion deepened. ‘But, I mean, where?’
‘In my bed.’
There was the longest pause from the other end as her boyfriend tried to get his head around this radical suggestion. Looking for a catch. Before he asked, ‘Are you saying what I think you’re saying?’
‘You’ll have to come over to see.’ She laughed. ‘Don’t forget your toothbrush.’
That Sunday, Penny’s father dropped a trunk off at her house. Her parents were downsizing, and as part of their clear-out, they wanted to let her have some of her childhood memorabilia – items they’d had in storage just in case, one day, she had children of her own she wanted to share them with. Despite Penny’s insistence that they dump the trunk on the verge for the next municipal bulk garbage collection, they wanted her to make that call.
On Sunday afternoon as she did her household laundry – including sheets which had, indeed, been stained with unmentionable body fluids, both on Friday and Saturday nights. As the sheets churned and tumbled in the washing machine, Penny made herself a cup of single origin, fair-trade, organic coffee, opened the trunk and went through items she hadn’t seen in over 20 years.
She smiled, fondly, as she held the faded, soft toys of her childhood. She remembered afternoons in her cubby-house playing some of the puzzles. And as her finger ran down the spines of the books she had read, tightly packed along the bottom of the trunk, she paused as she reached one particular volume, before drawing it out.
In a flash she was back on the day that she had first opened it up, and was reading the story of the novice monk. Even now, her heart quickened at the memory of the way that the greatly revered master had gone directly over to the cherry tree and shaken it till leaves scattered across the pristine lawn.
Only, this time as she read it, she laughed. Throwing back her head, she snorted as she did only in moments of spontaneous and deeply felt humour.
It may have taken her all of her life to understand, she thought, but she got it! The revered master hadn’t been the inscrutable sadist she had been imagining, all these years, but a teacher who had been revealing a simple truth: that the lawn had already been beautiful. Even in the midst of chaos and disharmony, even when things are most definitely not ‘just so’, it is still a wonderful world!
If you enjoyed this story, you’ll find more like it in ‘The Astral Traveler’s Handbook & Other Tales,’ a Bedtime Buddha book.
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(Photo credit: Saffu on unsplash)