In nineteen sixty-eight I was part of a Hindu meditation group that included Allen Ginsberg. Earlier, Jack Kerouac and others had brought an awareness of Buddhism into popular culture. A flood of influence was coming from the east. At the core of it was the idea of bliss, that it was achievable through practice, dedication, and discipline.
In our monthly meditation group in lower Manhattan, we repeated the mantra “Ram” silently and sat in meditation. Swami Kumar, a philosophy student from India, told us about the goal of “realization.” At one point, he asked our group of about twenty-five aspirants, “Who among you believes he will be realized in this lifetime?” I was the only one who raised a hand, naively maybe but still…. Kumar looked shaken and asked me to explain my answer. I backed off and mumbled something about “to the extent that I can” or some such thing, which made him relax a bit. But truthfully, I raised my hand in sincerity, the hand of an idealist, someone who has slipped the grasp of this world to an unusual degree.
This is not to suggest that I, at age twenty-four, felt perfect in any way; quite the contrary. I felt lost, struggling, confused, not sure of myself, and maladapted to the adult world I was supposed to be joining. And yet I was aware of something untouchable by the world and a sense that no matter how bad things got in this life it was still ok. How to explain that? Where did that come from? I expect it is something all people have in common but mostly without being aware of it. Speculating about that makes no sense. It is hard enough to know our own truth. My interest has always been in my own experience, my perceptions, my reactions to the world. It sounds selfish, but for me, it is all I have.
There was nothing egoist in my gesture at that meeting, just a reaction, but one that now seems particularly interesting after forty-eight intervening years, years which have included the practices referred to above, to study, to time spent in monasteries, to conversations with priests and poets, a lifetime of years.
The pitfall of this topic is self-glorification. I know a man, a pastor, self-appointed, an ex-alcoholic who was saved by Jesus and has dedicated his life to spreading the gospel. He runs workshops and evangelizes all around Southeast Asia. He is intense, intelligent, and knows the Bible very well. At a gathering recently, we ran into each other and I mentioned that I had taken on reading every word of the Bible, something that seemed important to do for many reasons. If nothing else, the Bible qualifies as an essential part of a classical education in the same way that knowing Homer does.
I mentioned to him that I felt there was a benefit beyond knowledge to this activity I had taken on, that there was a mystical type of support coming from the activity itself, something I felt. He laughed and said, eyes gleaming, “Thanks for telling me, Ha Ha Ha,” the idea being that I couldn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know and better than I did. He went on to say, in so many words, “When, like me, you can see it all from the other side, then you will know something.” He followed up with, “I don’t mean to say I am better than you or other people,” but it was too late. The ego had already reared its head. Spiritual superiority is insidious and ugly.
So, what is this really all about? I long had the suspicion that “realized” people were among us and not necessarily sitting on pillows surrounded by tambura music, incense, and “followers”. They would be barbers, maids working in houses of rich people, teachers, farmers, anybody. And it is not clear that they would even consider themselves “realized”. The only thing the Buddha said about the state he achieved after huge effort was, “I am awake.” It wasn’t the epileptic ecstasy we think of as a nirvanic state. I use that term because I witnessed epileptic ecstasy.
For many years, I was a serious squash player. I knew a man whose son had extreme epilepsy, something that could not be controlled by drugs. He was sending him in for surgery to have the doctors cut into his brain to stop the seizures. It happened that, at a quiet time in the afternoon when I used to be on the courts by myself practicing, the boy showed up and wanted to play. At the time, I didn’t know who he was or about his problem. After a few points, he dropped his racquet, his eyes rolled back, and I had to hold him up, support him off the court to sit down on a bench. He was in absolute ecstasy and it was very obvious that it was something he somehow wanted to share.
It reminded me of a picture I kept for many years of a pre-Columbian sculpture from South America, a catalog cover from a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It showed a kneeling figure with eyes shining like diamonds, wide-eyed, pointing to something only he could see. It was so clear, clear to him what he saw, and clear to us that he saw something wonderful even if we could not.
That is the way it was for this young squash player. All I could do was be there with him. Soon his father showed up and took him away, later telling me about his son’s unusual condition. I saw the boy another time on court and we played again and the same thing happened. I felt somehow a part of it and I began to wonder to myself if anybody, by surgery, by drugs, by any means, should take that away from him. I began to think of it as a gift, though of course, it would make it impossible for him to lead a “normal” life. The great Indian poet saint of the nineteenth century, Ramakrishna, had those same ecstatic revelations but, in that culture, they were accepted and revered as spiritual gifts.
My thoughts about what it means to “be realized” has changed and matured partly because I have not noticed any seekers achieving bliss even after an eternity of spiritual practice. I have come to think of it as maturation, ripening, coming to fullness. Here in Indonesia, the fruit sellers advertise mangoes and avocadoes “masak di pohon,” “cooked on the tree.” Life is the tree; we are the fruit.
When I was a young man working with a carpentry crew in the wilds of New Hampshire, the contractor I was working for told me something I have never forgotten. I had nagged him about wanting to do “finish work” which meant fine carpentry: door casings, window sills, kitchens, things like that. On the roof of a house we were renovating I was nailing through metal flashing and hitting my thumb as often as I hit the nail, so it seemed. He said to me, “This is finish work. When it is done, it is finished.”
Part II Faith
A consideration of these things depends on an understanding, a knowledge or belief that there is life beyond this life, that there is continuity even if we don’t know the details. A poet friend of mine, David Kherdian, said, “The evidence is everywhere,” which it is for the believers.
Paul, who was formally Saul, a hunter of the followers of Jesus, put it this way in his letter to the Romans, “…ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things.”
In these current days, it should be easier to see than ever before since our understanding of the magnitude of the universe has expanded exponentially in the last few years and it keeps expanding, becoming more complex, vaster beyond the mind’s capacity to grasp, adding other dimensions, throwing into doubt everything we know of time, cause and effect, logic. Even the fundamental accepted notion of a “big bang” is under reconsideration, a new idea being that there never was a beginning and there never will be an end. It is in sync with a prayer in the Catholic Liturgy: “Glory be to the father, to the son, and to the holy spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.” “Now and ever shall be, world without end.”
Instinctively, to me that seems right that we manifest for reasons we cannot know; we play our part and move on when it is time to do so. The eastern view is that we keep coming back to this life until we “get it right” have come to completion. Then we don’t have to incarnate anymore, at least not here.
Most spiritual thinkers I have studied consider our inchoate longings, our alienation, just a desire to return to unity with LOGOS, the assumption being that, at some point, we knew that state and miss it deeply. We were in the garden of delight and then out of it, a perfect metaphor for how we feel. The farther we are from “the garden” the more painful it is.
Perhaps “playing our part” well in life allows us to “move on” to a situation that gets us closer to that ultimate completion we seek. This is a satisfying way to think and suggests logical assumptions about the fates of saints and criminals beyond this life.
Spiritual progress does not depend on faith. In more than one place in the Bible it is stated that “if someone does his best according to whatever understanding he has, he is justified.” And that also makes sense. I have known many people, including atheists and agnostics, who did very well in spiritual terms according to their understanding. Faith is pleasure, like icing on the cake, a comfort but not a necessity to living a great and generous life.
Louise Wade was black and from South Carolina. Her grandmother was a slave. Louise ironed shirts and underwear and pants for rich white people in the town where I was raised. Her son had died, been killed somehow back in the South. All her hair had fallen out. That is all we knew. She only wanted to iron down in the basement by the washing machine and the furnace, an unfinished basement. She would never enter through the front door of the house. She sang hymns softly while she did her perfect work.
I had a lot of questions about a lot of things and still do, and somehow I thought she might have some answers. Instinctively I was drawn to her despite the fact that she talked very little. As I remember, we listened to the sounds of the washing machine, the furnace, and the hiss of the iron on clothes for long stretches and then I would get up quietly and go back upstairs. It was peaceful where she was and peaceful who she was.
At one point, at age twenty-eight, I had an epiphany, direct experience of the spirit. The way I put it at the time was that I went from believing to knowing. I think I described it that way to Louise and she said gently, smiling, “Isn’t it nice.” Only that.
I knew her for many years until she died and the small amount we said to each other was significant. Her humble condition in the world, I came to understand, camouflaged the great spiritual condition she had achieved within herself.
If you can accept the notion that the life we lead is a work in progress, and a work with purpose, and that life is everlasting, then there can be a time when have done a much as we can in this iteration of existence here on earth. If we were unable to attain the material rewards of this world; money, power, fame, honor, and glory but still crave them, crave that confirmation from the world that we are “successful,” then we might have to keep trying in the “good new life to come” as an old timer I knew put it.
On the other hand, we might finally feel that “enough’s enough already” and be content with our effort, that we have done as much as we can or want to do. If that happens and becomes the condition of our inner core, we have truly become “realized”. That is my point.