I was part of the “Blue Chrstmas” service assisting the minister is leading hymns and doing readings. This was a few months ago. For a Unitarian church that tends to be usually poetry readings.
While I was on stage, listening to the piano music, and the pleasant drone of the minister’s homily, I suddenly became very, very - present. Not just present. Present.
I've been reading and studying Buddhism and different systems of mysticism since I was 18 years old. None of these ideas are second hand to me. But they had all been very conceptual. For a few minutes a wall between my perception and reality around me, a wall I had never been aware of before, just suddenly came down. It was as though the Universe suddenly whispered in my ear "Watch this, kid. You're gonna like this." And it happened.
For a few moments all the ideas I had been studying and questioning for most of my life came together and Pinocchio became a Real Boy. I was living the experience of Enlightenment, knowing I wouldn't be able to keep it, knowing it wasn't yet mine to keep, but a little light that whispered -
"Now keep watching, kid. This is what's really going on."
It was as though I had been living in a box, looking out at the world through a crack. Then somebody lifted the box off for a few precious minutes.
I don’t make any claims for this. Nothing changed in me. I didn't get super powers. I didn't become a better person. The sucky aspects of my life, and they are numerous, continued to suck. In a few minutes it was gone like the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. But in that moment all the things I had been studying and had devoted a big chunk of my life to came together for me and made sense.
I was present. Don't ask me to describe it. It would be like trying to explain what the color Blue looks like.
For the last several months I've been reading the books and listening to the audio lectures of a Tibetan Buddhist nun named Pema Chodron. She is an American from New Jersey who began her journey in 1971, about the same time I did, and though her experiences good and bad are similar to mine, her’s paid off better. Pema Chodron is the wise, funny, cuddly grandmother we never had. She explains meditation techniques and spiritual concepts in plain language that can be understood by anyone. She may be the St Paul of Tibetan Buddhism.
She comes from the Buddhist school of Vajrayana ("The Diamond Way"), which flourished in Tibet and developed there. Vajrayana is descended from Mahayana Buddhism, which is the less scholastic interpretation designed for the common man rather than monks and nuns. Vajrayana is a uniquely Tibetan version which seeks to uncover and reveal our intrinsically enlightened nature by confronting reality most directly through mindfulness meditation and by training with compassion to take the worst experiences of our lives and turn them towards spiritual fuel and enrichment. It doesn’t gloss over suffering but seeks to embrace and use it in a kind of spiritual Ju Jitsu. It may be one of the least bullshit belief systems in the world.
Her spiritual master was a man named Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (Rinpoche means "jewel") who brought his particular strain of Vajrayana to Colorado in 1970 and began teaching. I looked him up. He became involved in scandals and drank himself to death.
Drank himself to death.
This was a man considered to be an enlightened master, or at least a very spiritually evolved teacher.
And he drank himself to death.
When I read this I was totally disillusioned - for about five minutes.
Okay, so, this idea of salvation doesn’t offer you false hopes; whatever’s wrong with you will go on being wrong with you, including alcoholism. It isn’t even salvation in any western sense. It’s about what I had experienced, changing your stance towards reality. What had happened to me was nothing dramatic, or even outwardly visible to anyone beyond a big smile. I had been standing in a certain place all my life looking at world, and something took my arm and walked me over this way and said "Look at it from over here. See? Everything just looks different when you stand over here." But what a difference it makes to stand there.
So I'm reading Pema Chodron and trusting it all the more because her spiritual master died from alcohol. He was not a saint. He was just one of us. That's a better deal than it sounds.
Take Jesus, for example. The modern myth is that Jesus was God all mighty dressed up to look like a human being, like your Dad dressing up as Santa Claus. Then God lived a sinless life. Really? What else would God do?
But an ordinary man, who breaks through to some other level. A man like me, now that's interesting. I want to know what he knew.
So this has given my life a very specific purpose and that's what I'm reading these days. I want this. When I was a young man, filled with a fanatical zeal and passion I wanted to be a saint. Now I just want to be a real human being.
I just don't trust people with halos anymore.