A Birthday in Bodhgaya

From my journal, Nov. 24, 2016.

I am forty years old today, and here I am in Bodhgaya, the place of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. It has a beautiful symmetry, I think: a marker at the mid-point of my life, honoring that which is most important to me, this ongoing inquiry into fundamental nature, into ultimate reality.

Recently Peggy Sensei asked if we (Zen Center of Denver members) would write a paragraph answering the question “How has Zen changed you?” And as it happens, in Varanasi someone asked much the same question in person. I explained how Zen had made me calmer, more aware, more centered, and how ultimately it was about seeing one’s connection to all things, and actually experiencing that connection in the moment.

It wasn’t terrible, as answers went, but afterward I felt dissatisfied. Because I don’t practice just to gain some balance. If that was all I sought, I could probably accomplish something similar by exercising for an hour a day; certainly that will improve your mood. No, I don’t practice to improve myself. Nor do I practice to obtain some experience, however grand. I practice to reach the root, to touch the firmament, to live beyond the reach of petty doubt.

And this is Zen’s great strength, this direct approach in addressing the roots of suffering and separation. It refuses to become lost in the leaves and branches; it moves straight down the trunk into the black earth.

“Wonder of wonders! From the very beginning all beings are by nature whole and complete.” The Buddha’s words, spoken in this very place, perhaps the most profound words ever spoken.

How have I changed? It isn’t necessarily much on the outside. I look much the same, I speak much the same, my mannerisms and even my faults are much the same. But these are only the outward appearance, the leaves and branches; it’s what lies at the root that is different.

This is hard to see in another. It takes real perception and insight. Often, we look at someone else and say, “Oh, it’s the same old John. He still curses like a sailor, and eats too much, and watches football on the weekends.” Because outward change is slow, we miss the inner transformation, which may happen in an instant.

And if you could stand in my shoes, you would see that I am irrevocably changed from when I was a teenager, before I began this practice. The difference lies not in a change of any habit, not in whether I watch television or not, eat meat or not, wear certain clothes, change my hairstyle, expand my vocabulary, gain a job or lose one, gain a partner or lose them, nor in any circumstance or condition; because all these are transient. It lies rather in the timeless, the unceasing, the limitless and vast, an understanding that reaches beyond the stars and down to the very core.

This is what Zen offers: a truth beyond the reach of opposites, of you and me, here and there, knowing and not knowing. It offers a certainty not found in words – including these – but only in reality itself. This is why Zen teachers so often seem to present such randomness: because they are guided by the reality of this moment, with all its particularities, and no other.

So forget what you think you know. True knowledge isn’t found by knowing. I’ll do the same, and tell you instead about this moment, this place and time:

This room is on the fourth floor of an out-of-the-way guest house in Bodhgaya, India. The concrete walls are painted the color of straw, and the floor is a dusty red. There is a desk, some shelves and a nightstand, all painted lavender. There is a flatscreen TV on the wall opposite the bed, its plug dangling because its status light was shining in my eyes at night.

There is a strong smell of indefinite origin, perhaps from the many cookfires outside, that reminds me of pot resin. On the wall, around the spiral of the light bulb, many small insects are gathering. I’m not sure what they are – some kind of aphid? – nor how they are finding their way inside. This reminds me to touch my neck, where a previously enormous mosquito bite is slowly subsiding.

Bodhgaya isn’t quiet; far from it. Just now an auto-rickshaw honks outside; two men are speaking in Hindi outside my door; some children are playing in the courtyard; someone is chopping vegetables in the rooftop restaurant, a hollow wooden rhythm; a dog barks; a door slams; a pot clangs; my pencil scratches on the page.

The place of enlightenment isn’t quiet. It is full of noise, cacophonous, complex. But none of this is a stumbling block; it is, just as it is, the living truth.

Now forget all this, crumple up the page, turn off the computer. Where are you now? What is this place? What’s really happening here?

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