While waiting for the sickness to pass, the Buddhist was not shirking his dharma-related responsibilities, was not skipping meditation, was not failing to practice in each and every moment, and was now, his laptop resting on his knees, getting ready to have a meeting with a student over Skype. He sat in the air-conditioned meditation hall, which was in the center of a Sri Lankan rainforest, waiting to connect with a student named Elise Grantwell, whom he had been teaching for the past six months.
It was the end of the rainy season. Outside the hall everything was darkly wet and green. The sun was not up yet. It was the time between night and morning where the sky went from a lightened gray to an impossibly clear blue. Out one window of the hall, the Buddhist could see Ajahn meditating with two other monks near the stream in the forest. They sat on bamboo mats. Because they all wore the saffron robes that were both customary and required of all monks in the Theravada Forest Tradition, they stood out against the backdrop of green forest. The monks, seated in variations of meditation posture by the river, were still, and the forest appeared to be moving, swirling around them. The Buddhist knew that the visual illusion was caused by his fever, yet he could not stop looking, fixated and momentarily light-headed, feeling vaguely disembodied, aware of the beauty of the scene and of the fact that he would soon not be in Sri Lanka and might never be there again, if that was Ajahn’s wish. Then he inwardly chanted ‘seeing, seeing’ – knowing that his sense perception was ultimately devoid of self. The Buddhist thought of Ajahn’s order to return to his home country, Canada, to help open a new temple there, and how he’d have to stay in the basement of his father’s house, which had been his old room, now a little putting green thing. He tried to see his aversion to the notion of returning home for what it was: impermanent thinking of no reality, suffering that originated in ignorance and was caused by selfish craving, the craving in this case, he saw clearly, his own desire not to be where he would have to be, back in his home country. Staying on the AstroTurf floor of his father’s basement – a man who tried to convey how much he disliked the Buddhist by not talking, choosing only to write him notes on Post-its even while the Buddhist was in his presence – was one of the only things the Buddhist believed he dreaded, even more than dying.
A request to connect through Skype blinked on the Buddhist’s screen. He sat for a moment, hands composed in his lap on the saffron robes, and let his thoughts of sickness and returning home settle and calm, becoming clear, like dirt settling in water. He connected through Skype with Elise Grantwell. She was fortyish, lived in Washington DC and was – as she had explained to the Buddhist in an earlier email – having some intense episodes of stress, paranoia and self-loathing, which often led to panic attacks, all due to her job as a defense attorney. Her face appeared pixelated and slightly fuzzy on the Buddhist’s screen. The image strained the Buddhist’s fevered and tired eyes, which in turn made for an annoyed mind-state, though he told himself that such an annoyance was merely the discomfort of a certain sense perception, and that discomfort was only the consciousness of a certain physical ailment, namely the pain behind his fevered eyes, and also that it was a discomfort that would pass from his consciousness when the sickness passed from his body, which also meant – the fact that it would pass – that it contained no inherent reality, was not his self, and therefore it was nothing to dislike. It was, like all things, changing.
He tried to focus on Elise Grantwell’s face. Elise Grantwell was white, had forty-year-old hair, just slightly thinning dark hair, and her face, almost pretty, seemed pulled down by gravity into a near-perpetual frown of seriousness or worry. She appeared to be wearing a pantsuit of some kind. The Buddhist noted that he felt a slight attraction to her over-worried yet almost pretty face, allowing the moment of sexuality to pass and fade.
The Buddhist told Elise Grantwell that he had read her email and was there anything else she wanted to add, any other questions? Elise Grantwell said yes, emphatically, on the Buddhist’s screen. She said that since discovering Buddhism, which was at first very calming and stress-relieving, she felt even worse, because it (the meditation, the Buddhist presumed) had made her realize that her job – her life’s work, she called it – could be considered something that prolonged or encouraged suffering rather than ending it. On the screen, Elise Grantwell appeared almost puzzle-like for a moment, the screen pixelating her face distressingly. So it’s like the thing that was previously relieving my stress, she continued, her face blocky and blurred, the meditation itself and the teachings of dharma, you know, that’s making my stress levels worse and causing me to have even more panic attacks. Her face resolved clearly on the Buddhist’s screen. My stress is out of control, Elise Grantwell said.
He watched Elise Grantwell, whose eyes were mainly looking down, look very briefly up at the Buddhist then quickly back down again, nervy and submissive as a frightened animal. The Buddhist observed himself in the small boxy corner in the Skype window: visibly sweating and pale, yet composed. He tried not to scratch any part of the rash that had spread all over his body, and closed his eyes briefly. He inwardly labeled the sensation ‘itchy, itchy’, seeing that the reality of the sensation was no-self, filled with suffering, and impermanent. The feeling was not him – his body was the jug and his self was no self at all, just the emptiness inside.
Outside, the Sri Lankan morning was coming through the woods, the deep green of the forest revealing itself. The monks had completed seated meditation and the Buddhist could see, further into the forest, that they were walking on the path, doing walking meditation, looking a little like confused old men.
What if I got someone off who was guilty? Elise Grantwell wanted to know. Wasn’t that somehow not Buddhist? Also, she said to the Buddhist, what if instead of making me less stressed and suffering less, I’m actually more stressed and suffering more? What if all this Buddhism stuff is bad for me? I’m just in a really bad place, she said, her brow furrowed in anxiety and confusion and her mouth tight. And meditation doesn’t seem to be working at all, she said.
The Buddhist calmly nodded at his screen, watching Elise Grantwell’s response and himself as he calmly nodded. He didn’t engage with the fever behind his eyes, nor the intense itchiness of his body and, watching himself, he noticed he was exaggerating his nod so that if the connection was bad and/or briefly timed out, Elise Grantwell would still be able to see he was nodding and understanding. Elise Grantwell explained that it was not only that she was suffering more now privately; all this meditation seemed to be making her worse off around other people as well. All this calmness I’m trying to do is making people around me ask if I’m awake, she said. Like people are saying, Hey, Elise, you awake over there?, she said, both laughing and almost crying on his screen. The Buddhist observed himself listening, remaining calm, neutral, accepting. I’m just trying to calmly accept and be in difficult situations, like you’ve taught me, she explained to the Buddhist. But it’s hard to be with angry and obnoxious colleagues in a meeting. It all seems to be making things worse, especially around other people, she told the Buddhist. And that’s making me feel so alone and isolated, even more alone than before.
The Buddhist took a small breath. He observed himself in the corner of the screen sitting composedly in his saffron robes in lotus posture before his laptop, contemplating Elise Grantwell’s situation and her being, acknowledging, with a small amount of pride, that he both felt and appeared earnest and attentive. Outside, the Sri Lankan rainforest was suddenly bright green and hummingly alive, insects making mechanical whirrings, as though someone had flipped a switch. The forest was a stark contrast to both his sickness and Elise Grantwell’s sense of personal suffering in a materialistic and consumer-oriented culture, the Buddhist thought. He said to Elise Grantwell that he was deeply aware of how interpersonal relationships could quickly deteriorate once you took the first step on the path. He coughed and paused, momentarily feeling nauseated, a wave-like shuddering moving through his body. He allowed his presence to return to Elise Grantwell. The moment of nausea passed. The Buddhist said that Elise Grantwell’s questions about other people and feeling alone were very apt. He was speaking calmly and directly and without hesitation, he thought, like a gentle rain addressing the sullen and dry earth.
For instance, the Buddhist said, these questions are very apt for me personally because I’ll soon return to my home country, where I’ve had many difficult relationships, just as you are experiencing now. The idea of this other country where he had once lived, on the other side of the planet, momentarily passed through the Buddhist’s mind, the country like some foreign world, and this idea instantly encompassed the place he was in now so that the Buddhist felt that all of existence, even himself, was foreign, alien, that everything was both alien unto itself and at the same time discovering itself to be completely and wholly unalien. The thought, more an intuitively felt experience of reality, passed so quickly that the Buddhist could easily continue what he was talking about. He explained to Elise Grantwell that his own interpersonal relationships had quickly deteriorated when he had been ordained as a Buddhist monk. While this didn’t bother the Buddhist in the least now, it was also rather interesting for the truths it revealed about human behavior and how unaccepting almost all people who lived in a materialistic society were of a person who was no longer going to participate in the delusion of such a society. The immediate effects of such a change for him – of becoming a person who was calm, quiet, not unaffected but disaffected, not distant but detached – the Buddhist explained to Elise Grantwell, was that the people who had known him before intensive meditation and Buddhist study now believed him to be zombified, brainwashed, deadened. Asleep, the Buddhist shared openly with Elise Grantwell, who was nodding vigorously on the screen and saying Yes, yes.
When I first came home from Sri Lanka after ordaining, the Buddhist told her, after years of studying Buddhism, when I first returned to see family and friends, many people thought that I was asleep. The same thing people are thinking about you. Elise Grantwell was nodding earnestly, her eyes wide as a child’s. Why wasn’t I interested in climbing or kayaking anymore; why didn’t I care about playing any of the instruments I used to play? I didn’t joke the way I used to; I didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs or even seem to enjoy eating – everyone was basically saying the same thing. The Buddhist said that it was a strange irony that when one comes to see clearly that the three characteristics permeate all things – that all things have no separate self, all things are suffering and all things are impermanent, and that the only way to approach reality is through calm detachment and insight into this – the people who are actually asleep often accuse those who are really beginning to see of being asleep. Elise Grantwell said that that was just what she was thinking. My mother even went so far as to say I was brainwashed by a cult and wasting my life, the Buddhist told Elise Grantwell. I had to remind my mother that she hadn’t approved of any of the activities like rock climbing and music that I’d done before anyway. I remember she said that anything would be better than what I’d chosen. Elise Grantwell nodded in the Skype window. The light darkened in the room, and he saw himself in the square of screen appearing thin and sickly and weak, yet composed. The Buddhist told Elise Grantwell that these were definitely deeply painful things and that he remembered them as being deeply painful and isolating. Yes, Elise Grantwell said. It’s a little odd that this way also makes one understand one is alone, the Buddhist said. You’re right that that first realization – that one is actually more alone than before, or can see one’s aloneness with more clarity – you’re right that that’s painful. But it’s a pain that passes, the Buddhist said.
The abbot came into the meditation hall and asked the Buddhist in Thai how his fever was. The abbot was a very old, very bald and very short Thai man who had a perpetual scowl on his face. His skin was brown, his face wrinkled. He was missing one of his front teeth and wore large, dark-framed glasses, which obscured his face and, the Buddhist believed, hid much of what he perceived of people. He spoke and responded to everything slowly, as inscrutable as an old dog. The Buddhist said he was feeling worse, but he knew it would pass. The abbot said, That’s it! Which was what he said often and was his main dharma lesson, as though the entire world could be reduced to: This, It, Here, Now! The abbot, slightly bow-legged, went out again to look for the cook and said that he would try to round up breakfast. Outside, the high insect whine and buzz of the morning had intensified.
Sorry, the Buddhist said to Elise Grantwell, turning back to his screen. The Buddhist said that while he did remember being shunned, by his mother and, more spitefully, his father, as deeply painful and isolating, he also remembered that he had ‘stood strong’. The Buddhist made air quotes here with a small smile, feeling a little political or like a boxing trainer. He then advised Elise Grantwell to do the same, to ‘stand strong’, again air quoting. Elise Grantwell nodded and opened her mouth to talk. For instance, the Buddhist continued, when my mother claimed that she had lost a son to a cult, I responded by saying to her, I’m sorry I can’t satisfy what you want me to be, but I have no one to satisfy except myself and may you one day realize the same. The Buddhist said how he remembered very clearly using the word ‘may’. May you one day realize the same, he said into his screen, playing with the fabric of his robes. It was a ridiculous and condescending way to put it, he said. I was a little attached to the whole Buddhist thing. It made me talk like an idiot. Elise Grantwell laughed in a way that a person laughs when they’re trying to show just how comfortable and not insecure they are, the Buddhist observed. He noticed this while at the same time choosing to ignore it, then calmly recalled to Elise Grantwell how his mother had cried a little when he had said this, then how she had slapped him. Such a shock. His mother, he recalled, who was a small, waifish woman who would die of cancer while the Buddhist was teaching in Sri Lanka, had never struck the Buddhist before, even as a child. After striking the Buddhist, his mother’s eyes had looked into the Buddhist’s eyes, as if searching for the lost former self of her son, the Buddhist recalled. I stood looking at her, calm and accepting, while she cried, the Buddhist told Elise Grantwell. My cheek burning. In the kitchen of the family’s house, my father’s house. My father was standing in the corner of the kitchen, stroking his beard, a thing he always did in moments of either conflict or reflection. I remember how he gave me a stare of pure anger and hatred. Such a disgusting stare that I actually lost my composure. I got really angry at him and said, You look like an animal right now.
For a moment, the Buddhist thought he was going to throw up. He put his hand to his mouth; Elise Grantwell asked if he was okay; the feeling passed, and he told Elise Grantwell he had been throwing up all night. Oh my God, she said. You should lie down, you don’t need to be talking to me. The Buddhist said he was fine. It was just an unpleasant feeling and would pass. The Buddhist said this, aware that he was using his physical ailment to teach a lesson of impermanence and non-attachment to thoughts, feelings and physical sensations to Elise Grantwell, as if his body and being were the textbook from which Elise Grantwell was studying. Suddenly, the Buddhist had a terrible desire to scratch his back, and at the same time felt a wave of fever run up his spine and into his head, which made his eyes water. The computer screen blurred in his vision. He closed his eyes hard and took a sip of water, hoping that it wouldn’t make him want to vomit. When he opened his eyes, the room spun slightly, moving from left to right, left to right, and the Buddhist closed his eyes again. He waited a moment, following his breath. When he opened his eyes, Ajahn was looking into the hall. Feel okay? he said in English, a subtle yet generous gesture of compassion. The Buddhist nodded. Food soon, Ajahn said. Cook is waking up from drink. Outside, the day was warming and insects were wildly buzzing and the humidity of the forest seemed to be overtaking the cooling of the air conditioning.
This is all on my mind, said the Buddhist to Elise Grantwell, turning back to his screen, because I’m returning to my home country, to people who had a difficult time accepting me, so all these things that you’re going through are also very appropriate for me, said the Buddhist. It’s a wonderful lesson for both of us. Elise Grantwell’s face distorted into pixelation – the connection seemed like it was about to be lost – but then resolved into clarity. The Buddhist continued by saying that he remembered, shortly after his mother slapped him, that his father had said, privately, away from his mother so as not to upset her more, that he didn’t understand how his son, a remarkable person, always a wonderfully caring and selfless individual, could have become so selfish. He said, When did you turn into such a pretentious and condescending shit, not to mention a bum? Look at all this we’ve given you. We’ve given you everything, he had said, indicating the house and the material possessions of which his parents were, the Buddhist explained, overly proud.
It was about that time, the Buddhist said, that my father told me to get out of his house, which my father had designed and built and kept up and which I had, he told me, lost the right to live in. Which my mother of course protested. To which my father responded by saying things like, Fine, if you want to let him hurt you repeatedly and without end, fine, go ahead. I’m done. The Buddhist recalled to Elise Grantwell, whose mouth was now agape on his screen, how he had simply walked out of the kitchen to meditate in his bedroom and then packed to leave.
Elise Grantwell said, Wow. The Buddhist saw Elise Grantwell adjust her camera so that it showed more of her upper body and her breasts beneath a tight white oxford shirt. The Buddhist could see her bra through the oxford and noted, with surprise, that her breasts, for a forty-year-old woman, were still very full and pleasant and attractive. The Buddhist observed his sexual feelings with calm detachment, noting that because Elise Grantwell’s camera was now more focused on her face and body, which was attractive, that he felt both an attraction toward her and an aversion toward the attraction. He allowed the feelings to pass.
Oh, I forgot the best part, the Buddhist said. On his screen, Elise Grantwell perked up, sitting more upright, which almost caused the Buddhist to say that she looked better when she sat up straight. He observed that in the box of the screen he remained composed and uninterested in Elise Grantwell’s appearance. The Buddhist realized that he needed to acknowledge that part of the reason he enjoyed talking to Elise Grantwell was the fact that she was, by conventional social standards, a pretty woman and he liked the attention she gave him. He noted this and tried to understand that his real position here was situated in the universal, helping to usher Elise Grantwell to the shore of non-suffering. The Buddhist allowed himself to focus on his duty. He then recalled with sarcastic humor to Elise Grantwell that the best part of the whole thing was that before he returned to Sri Lanka to live the rest of his life as a monk, his parents had held a family meeting with the former girlfriend the Buddhist had broken up with to be a Buddhist. An intervention for a Buddhist, he said to Elise Grantwell, who smiled and laughed overly sincerely. It instantly passed through the Buddhist’s mind, stopping him completely, like pausing a YouTube video, that Elise Grantwell found the Buddhist attractive – her eyes rarely holding his stare, her general discomfort and insecurity coupled with her need to impress, her frequent movement of body and straightening of her back – all of it suddenly and intuitively seemed to the Buddhist to be her sexual reaction to him, though she may not have acknowledged it consciously. The Buddhist also understood, just as instantly, that even if this were true, all he could do was what he was already doing – it was not related to him, was not his concern, was causing Elise Grantwell suffering, and itself was fleeting and no-self.
The Skype connection went choppy. Elise Grantwell’s face morphed into three pixelated blocks of color, green, blue and black, like a puzzle the Buddhist would have to put back together. Then a moment later the bad connection resolved and there was her face, alien and lost and concerned, staring at him from a different part of the Skype window. There was a counselor present at the family meeting, the Buddhist said. She was this weary and hardened woman of about sixty. With serious wrinkles and a set of dentures that protruded from her greatly sagging face, a former addict who usually intervened in substance abuse, the Buddhist explained. So, my family had hired this counselor woman because my parents and former girlfriend considered me addicted to a cult/religion. So, there I was, in my saffron robes, sitting on one side of the family’s kitchen table, and then my parents were like really close together, very tense and concerned and clearly not getting any sleep, the Buddhist explained, smirking a little while he explained, and then there was my former girlfriend, who, I remember, was very confused, probably because I was not having sex with her and was wearing somewhat creepy robes and had actually broken up with her. Elise Grantwell responded by laughing exaggeratedly, which the Buddhist was annoyed by, but which he also knew was born out of her attempt to connect, to show the Buddhist she was paying attention. He met her exaggerated laughs with composure and equanimity and acceptance.
His mother, father and ex-girlfriend sat opposite him on the other side of the table, a very fine, very heavy oak table with marble inlaid flowers at the corners. The wearied gray-haired counselor woman had said: Sean, these people have something to say to you. And I remember the counselor was also looking a little confused, the Buddhist said. Because here I was, very healthy, very in control, and once they all began talking – saying I was lost, saying I was selfish, saying I was hurting all of them, saying I was addicted to a cult, asking what had happened to my passion for life, for playing music and kayaking, for enjoying expensive meals, saying how they had lost a son, had lost a boyfriend, had lost a friend – among all this I maintained an accepting and calm demeanor, and I think this wearied former-addict counselor started to get that maybe my parents, my mother especially, were the ones who actually needed help. Like they were the desperate ones. Anyway, this counselor eventually ended the intervention, the Buddhist said. She said that she was misled and she wasn’t needed here, the Buddhist said while Elise Grantwell smiled and said, Oh, wow, wow. It was both a little victory and painful at the time, the Buddhist explained to Elise Grantwell, because I think it distanced me further from my family, or my family distanced themselves further from me. But the point is that I can look back at it with detachment and humor.
So what did you tell them? Elise Grantwell wanted to know. What was said at the intervention that made the counselor know you were right? The Buddhist thought for a moment, vaguely interested in Elise Grantwell’s question. He then realized that she wanted an answer, something clear and definitive, that she might repeat to others. It wasn’t a question of right and wrong, the Buddhist said. I’m just curious about what you said, Elise Grantwell told him in a very quiet, almost embarrassed way. Well, he said, he had tried to calmly explain to his parents, who were not yet divorced, to his mother who was not yet dead, to his father who was not yet only speaking to him through Post-it notes, that he had no beliefs in particular, he didn’t believe in a god, he didn’t have any particular kind of faith, that that wasn’t what Buddhism was about. As the Buddhist explained this, he watched Elise Grantwell and felt that perhaps she was not sexually attracted to him but that, because of the materialistic and sexually objectifying culture she lived in, she was conditioned, in some basic and unconscious way, to present herself, in any situation, as a sexual object; she looked very pretty, he thought, while also thinking that he didn’t like her insecurity, over-sincerity or the fact that she was trying to impress him by asking more and more questions and appearing more and more interested. Though of course, he instantly thought, maybe she genuinely wanted an answer, some simple answer to an equation that would solve her life. Additionally, he told Elise Grantwell, I tried to explain to them that this was about seeing into the reality of life, the nature of the mind and how to end suffering; that it was all very logical and required no mysticism or transcendence or belief in things that didn’t exist. That’s probably when the counselor decided to leave, the Buddhist said.
The Buddhist felt weak, nauseated, extremely sweaty and at the same time itchy. Again the need to vomit came and passed. The Buddhist used Mahasi Sayadaw’s technique, inwardly labeling his sensations ‘pain, itchiness, nausea’. There were of course protests, the Buddhist said. But you’re like a machine now, his mother had said again and again. The Buddhist shrugged a little for Elise Grantwell to see. There’s no joy of life in you, his mother had protested. My father told me that I was confused. He repeatedly told me that I was confused and on a fool’s errand, that was the phrase he used, fool’s errand, as if there could be a bigger fool’s errand than continuing to live in a materialistic and oppressive society. A hard and stabbing ache made him close his eyes for a moment. Before he stopped talking to me, before I returned to Sri Lanka, my father liked to talk to me late at night and say very clichéd things, like, What about all the years at school? You have a promising career in front of you. You’d be a great psychiatrist or something like that. You know, I always wanted grandchildren. What about the family name? All those things, the Buddhist said, waving his hands at the world around him. Probably many things you’re encountering as well, the Buddhist said to Elise Grantwell, who nodded and said, Oh yes, very much so, yes.
What about your partner? Elise Grantwell asked. The Buddhist withheld a sigh – he was tired, nearly exhausted, and the room had begun spinning again. The light from the computer screen was hard to look at. He dimmed the screen. From the kitchen, pots made clattering sounds and he smelled rice. He felt a terrible need to go to the bathroom and vomit, though such a thought was fearful. He also just didn’t want to move at all. She called me the feeling police, the Buddhist said. Elise Grantwell laughed what the Buddhist felt was maybe the first actual laugh she had laughed all day, which he found pleasant, attractive, and he felt the need to make her laugh that way again. He told Elise Grantwell that after he was kicked out of his parents’ house, before returning to Sri Lanka to stay at the temple for good, he stayed with his former girlfriend. It was a truly terrible idea, the Buddhist said. I actually found out later that my parents and girlfriend had like conspired; they had told her to get me to stay; they even gave her money, on the pretense that they were paying for my ‘rent’. It did not go well, the Buddhist said. She tried to have conversations like we’d once had. She tried to flirt with me. I don’t know, the Buddhist said, feeling depleted and nauseated. The Buddhist remembered how she wore sexually revealing clothes, exposing her legs and cleavage. She vacuumed in the nude once, the Buddhist said, which seemed pathetically desperate and sad. The Buddhist noticed that Elise Grantwell looked down more and kind of folded into herself, like the leaves of some plants in Sri Lanka that closed into themselves at night.
He said he told his girlfriend that she couldn’t do things like that around monks. His girlfriend had said, I’m not around monks, I’m around you, Sean. What did you say to her? Elise Grantwell asked, quietly. The Buddhist shrugged. He had tried to explain to his girlfriend the new way he was following and he had decided to show her how this way could apply to her own life. Whenever she came home upset from work, whenever she was depressed about her life, whenever she was in a dark place, I tried to show her that her feelings contained no reality, they were impermanent, based on the belief of a false self. Elise Grantwell nodded vigorously while also adjusting herself on her cushion and rubbing one of her knees, as if one of her legs was asleep. Elise Grantwell listened and rubbed at the same time. The Buddhist said that he tried to show his former girlfriend, while he stayed in her apartment, that her feelings and thoughts, especially about the current situation between them, were clearly leading to her suffering and that she needed to see into the truth of reality, which was the first line from the Dhammapada, that what the mind is, the world is. She was creating her own suffering, to which his girlfriend had replied, No, Sean, you’re creating my fucking suffering. The Buddhist recalled that they had sat on her sofa often while he tried to teach her these things, but she just couldn’t understand.
What’d she do? Elise Grantwell wanted to know. She told me, often through tears, that she missed Sean, that I wasn’t Sean anymore, I was trying to control her and make her a Buddhist or something, when her feelings were real, her thoughts were real, they were the only real things. Elise Grantwell looked down. The Buddhist said that he knew that he had to go back to Sri Lanka right away when his girlfriend interrupted his meditation by kissing his neck, which he tried to calmly move away from, and then reached her hand down his robe, grabbing hold of his penis and telling the Buddhist that this is what she missed too. The Buddhist laughed a slight, embarrassed laugh. Elise Grantwell kept her eyes down. Do you ever miss sex? she asked. The Buddhist, who observed that his face was neutral and calm, was surprised by the question. He said, I miss the idea, sometimes, or maybe the idea of being with another person, of, the Buddhist said, like, um, sharing with them or something. He was unsure of what he was saying. He stopped, composed himself, inwardly thinking ‘confused, confused’, and said, I don’t miss the pleasure of sex because pleasure is fleeting, and therefore I understand it’s nothing to miss, though, he admitted, perhaps I miss just closeness, maybe, though that could happen in different ways, the Buddhist said, a little exasperatedly. Elise Grantwell said that that made sense, qualifying the response with, for a monk.
The Buddhist thought for a minute, and then said he was sorry, he would be right back. He hurried to the bathroom, where he vomited. Each retching seemed too fast to keep up with, more intensely uncontrollable than the last. He vomited and vomited again. After the third time it was watery and thin. He sat, half lying, on the floor of the bathroom, his hands shaking. He felt cooler, the only good part about it. On the floor, he checked his robes to make sure no vomit had gotten on them. He cleaned partially digested chunks of rice and vegetables off the toilet lid, flushed, and washed his hands and face, feeling shaky and weak and wanting never to vomit again, knowing that such a selfish want was based on ignorance.
The Buddhist returned to his spot before the laptop. Elise Grantwell was saying how sorry she was, she could let him go, and the Buddhist put a hand up, palm out, and said it was all right, such things happened, and they were almost finished anyway. What should she do? Elise Grantwell wanted to know. The Buddhist said the best thing to do was very little. Just keep practicing and living and doing, he said. The Buddhist said that the last time he saw his entire family and girlfriend, nearly five years ago now, before he had gone back to Sri Lanka for what he thought would be the remainder of his life, before his mother had died and his father had stopped speaking to him, he said that they had all had a brunch together. My father sat quietly in his seat, less stoic than confused, he told her. My girlfriend was pale and quiet. My mother was just reserved and sad-looking. I remember how I said that if they could see from my position that they were being pulled around by their emotions, their feelings and their thoughts, if they could see this truth in the same way I could, then they would understand why I was doing what I was doing, and also, more importantly, if they could see this, they wouldn’t be suffering as they were right at that moment. I told them they were causing their own suffering, and I felt for all of them. None of them responded. Then my father drove me to the airport. It was a terribly lonely time, the Buddhist said.
It was dengue. The Buddhist had probably contracted it when he was meditating in the forest near the stream, where the mosquito population was dense and the insects were large and aggressive. A doctor came from the village and told the Buddhist and the other monks that the Buddhist could not, by any means, travel, and that what the Buddhist needed was to go to the hospital and get a saline drip right away because he was more than a little dehydrated. The doctor conveyed his irritation at the monks by speaking sternly, abruptly, and slamming things in and out of his bag. The Buddhist could hear and perceive very little when the doctor visited; his fever was dangerously high, causing strange hallucinations (he believed, for instance, that he was back in his father’s house, which had somehow been turned into an eighteen-hole golf course, and he kept asking the monks what hole his mother was on), intense and bewildering nightmares concerning a tricycle-cum-lawn-mower, and now diarrhea along with the vomiting. Ajahn said they would begin their walk to the city tomorrow. Tomorrow?, the doctor said. Walk? Ajahn replied that the doctor must know that monks were not allowed to ingest any kind of medicine unless it was absolutely necessary, nor were they allowed any medical help unless it was absolutely called for, and were meant to experience the reality of suffering in order to be free of the fact of suffering. The doctor shoved his things into his case and then left, proclaiming that if the young Canadian Buddhist died Ajahn would live countless lives in Hell, to which Ajahn replied, That’s it, my friend!
A rickshaw driver saw the monks as they walked to the hospital. He helped the monks cart the sick Buddhist. It was a day and a half’s walk and they stopped and begged along the way and families came out, bowing to the monks and making offerings of rice and fish. The rickshaw man often bowed to the monks, who grew tired of bowing back. The Buddhist could not bow back; his thin body was thinner, paler, his eyes red and deeply sunken into his head, a white crust at the corners of his lips.
At the hospital, two nurses hurried him to a bed and began a saline drip. The Buddhist dreamed it was snowing. In the dream, the Buddhist sat next to his father while it snowed and his stepmother sat across from them. There was oatmeal with pieces of apple and brown sugar in a bowl before the Buddhist. The bowl was melting the snow. In the dream, the Buddhist was telling his father he was not supposed to eat any food given to him unless it was given with three bows, but the Buddhist’s father was no longer sitting next to him. The Buddhist was momentarily walking inside a shopping mall, looking into each store, though he didn’t know what for. Then the Buddhist was back in the deep, snowing woods. The Buddhist’s father was suddenly there again, eating a bowl of oatmeal, but with his back facing the Buddhist. The Buddhist tried to get around his father to see his face, but as he moved around him he realized his father only had a back, had no face. The Buddhist’s faceless father nodded, finished his oatmeal and took his plate to a sink in the middle of the snowing woods and washed the plate and then just stood there.
The doctor explained to the Buddhist that the Buddhist was probably feeling better. The doctor walked to the edge of the bed and felt the Buddhist’s forehead with the back of his hand. He moved away again. The doctor said the Buddhist was feeling better because of the saline drip, but that such a feeling was misleading and the dengue would get worse before it got better. Not only that, the hospital was running low on saline; in fact, the doctor said matter-of-factly, they were out. More would arrive, but not until tomorrow afternoon. Dengue is biphasic, he said. You’ve just finished the first phase. The second phase will begin any moment now. The Buddhist said okay and explained that he felt better and he was grateful to the doctor. The doctor stood there as though he had something else to add. The Buddhist said, Say it. The doctor said it was not his place to say anything and then said that it was foolish, all of it, and after looking at the Buddhist for a moment, closed the curtain and went out.
He opened his laptop again and saw that Elise Grantwell was contacting him through Skype. Her face resolved on his screen, asking how he was. He told her he felt tired, but was fine. At the same moment, he saw his father was trying to connect with him, but he ignored the call and focused on Elise Grantwell, who was thanking the Buddhist for all his help, telling him he had helped her to understand that there is a difference between being lonely and being alone, and that one is always and forever alone, but loneliness is the extra, the part that’s unnecessary, and she saw that now. She continued talking, but he didn’t hear her, was instead watching his father’s Skype icon blinking on the screen next to Elise Grantwell’s face. The Buddhist felt what seemed like a fist lodged near his heart. Then Elise Grantwell was saying, What’s wrong? What is it? The Buddhist shook his head. Why are you crying? she said. What is it?
Artwork © G.R. Iranna, Sadhana, 2012