Saturday, April 08, 2006

My Budding Bodhisattva: A Vacation Story (or, What Do My Son and the Dalai Lama Have in Common?)

To say that this is a vacation story is to abuse the English language. Really this is several stories from a single vacation, lumped together under what I hope is a nifty title, a mingling of Buddhist terminology with Rocky and Bullwinkle. Anyway, here goes.

Wednesday, just after noon, we headed out on our mini-vacation. I'd made reservations to stay in a small cottage about half-way between Nashville (Brown County - not Tennessee!) and Bloomington, Indiana, called Woods Edge. That's all I knew. We picked the cabin because it was available, not because we really knew anything about it. In other words, for the first time in a long time I had few expectations.

Our first stop was the Realtor's office, where we picked up a map and the keys to our cottage. Sure enough - according to the map - the cottage sat almost exactly half-way between Nashville and Bloomington. And sure enough, the name Wood's Edge seemed appropriate, as it lay just inside of Yellowood State Forrest, a very pleasant surprise.

We drove through Nashville, turned toward Bloomington, and entered Yellowood State Forrest. Wood's Edge my ass! This is more like Deep Forrest. It was gorgeous, situated deep in the heart of the forrest, where we could see literally nothing but trees. Looks like this is going to be a good vacation.

Wednesday evening we drove into Nashville and ate dinner at my favorite little corner diner, a former drugstore. None of the stores were open, turns out they all close by 5pm. But we had a good time strolling through the town, planning out our next day.

Thursday morning, I got up before everyone else, fixed a bowl of my mother-in-law's fruit salad for breakfast. What she lacks in charm she makes up for with her culinary creations.

I'd love to say that after that I did something spiritual constructive, like a devotion or a prayer or a meditation. But actually I took advantage of the fact that this cottage came equipped with ESPN and about 100 other channels that I don't get at home. I sat like a spud in front of the television, watching Sports Center until Adam finally woke up to join me.

What's the attraction to television on vacation? Is it the familiarity of it? We go off to get away, only to find that while away we are basically the same people we were at home, doing the same things we do at home. I remember one time going to the beach, swearing that I wouldn't watch a minute of TV. I was going to maximize my time there, seizing every moment. At the beach I would do only "beach things." It was my version of a "mindful vacation." The first night there I turned on the television to watch my favorite show.

After everyone else woke up, a handed the kid off to his mother and her mother, and set off for the woods. Our cottage was right by a formidable hill. I wondered what was at the top of it.

Our vacation, as some of you have noticed, lasted only about 48 hours. I was hoping for some ideal or perfect 48 hours; some transformative 48 hours in which everything happened just right. When I stepped out of the cottage to explore the woods and the top of the hill, I realized that God or nature has little interest in conforming to your expectations. Rain everywhere. I may as well have been in Washington state.

But rain, in and of itself, is not bad. It only becomes bad when we label it "bad." Trying to salvage my perfect vacation, I refused to label the rain "bad." I simply walked in it, feeling it fall on my, all around me. I didn't label it or the way it felt on my skin. I didn't judge it, or the experience. I simply felt it. It didn't have to be bad.

The hill was harder than it looked from the bottom. Its been a long time since I was an eager Boy Scout, with the energy to hike all day and climb mountains. Five minutes into my trek I already noticed that I'd set a bad pace. I was wheezing, my asthma uncontrolled. I slowed down, literally and metaphorically. This is a vacation, not a race!

Legs and lungs burning, cursing my lack of fitness, I reached the top of the hill. Standing there, between the tall, thin trees stretching out for light and air and moisture, feeling the rain fall on and around me, I had what in Zen is known as a moment of satori, a flash of enlightenment. A religious experience. The rain really wasn't bad, if you didn't label it as such. The rain just was. It was a fact.

I stood in the rain for what seemed like a lifetime, stretching out with the trees, drinking in the moisture. It may have only been a minute or two. Time didn't matter. I just stood, 'til I didn't need to stand anymore. Then I set back out towards the cottage.

I got back just in time to head out for the day. Everyone else was complaining about the rain, just like I would have been if I hadn't been out in it all morning, realizing that rain is simply a fact, not a nuisance. I didn't need to judge the rain. I certainly didn't need to let it ruin my vacation. Doesn't do any good to complain about the weather, and all that. The weather isn't listening. The weather doesn't care.

We had a good time in Nashville. Ate lunch in a neat little coffee shop, the kind of place that's probably right down the street from my house, but I'd never notice because when I'm not on vacation I live my life with a sort of agenda, moving from task to task trying just to make it through the day, waiting for my "real" life to begin. Vacation opens my eyes, slows down my time, gets me off my to-do list and into each moment.

I went to my favorite little independent bookstore, The Book Loft, run by a retired Lutheran pastor with whom I have great discussions. It is one of two bookstores where, every time I visit, I have to walk away with something, out of a sort of moral obligation. Anyone who runs such a lovely shop has to get a little money tossed their way for their effort, even if technically speaking I don't have any money to toss. The other bookstore is the Twin Sisters Bookery in Wilmington, NC. At The Book Loft on Thursday I bought Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith and Thich Nhat Hanh's Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism.

Thursday afternoon we dropped my mother-in-law off at the cottage and set out for Bloomington. Our first stop was Dagom Gaden Tensung Ling Buddhist Monastery, but when we got there, no one was home. I stood outside in the driving rain for a little bit, while Sami and Adam stayed dry and warm in the car. This lasted just long enough for me to feel quite silly. Then I got back in the car to head to our next stop.

It turns out that it may have been just as well that I couldn't get anyone at Dagom Gaden Tensung Ling to open the door. I didn't know it at the time, but they are a schismatic group opposed to the Dalai Lama, and are often considered to be a cult. They have been criticized by most other Buddhists for using a particular deity as a rather scary moral enforcement mechanism. This deity will curse you and your family if you don't do what the group wants. Not exactly the sort of Buddhism I wanted to encounter on vacation! Reminds me a little bit too much of my former job.

Our next stop was the Tibetan Cultural Center, founded by the Dalai Lama's older brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu (a former professor at Indiana University), in 1979. This is no schismatic group, and no cult. They were extremely friendly and welcoming.

I got to brush out my mad Sanskrit (the sacred language of Buddhism) and Pali (the "original" language of Buddhism, predating Sanskrit) skills in philosophic conversation [note: my Sanskrit and Pali are as bad as my Hebrew and Greek; I know only a few key words here and there] while they let Adam roam around playing with everything.

We had to take off our shoes to enter the Kumbum Chamtse Ling interfaith temple, which was dedicated by the Dalai Lama in 1996, and consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 2003. It is their sanctuary, full of sacred relics. To my surprise and their delight, they let Adam play in the temple. He ran around climbing on everything, and generally making mischief. Ordinarily I would have been embarrassed and stopped him, but they wouldn't let me. They kept saying how nice it was to have such a small and pleasant child around, and that we should be proud of him.

The highlight of the day was when they let Adam climb the step to the sacred chair reserved for the Dalai Lama. No one but the Dalai Lama is allowed to sit in their chair. It is sacred space. While Adam was not allowed to sit in the chair, they did let him become the first person other than the Dalai Lama to climb up to the chair and touch it. It was quite an honor, and I wish that he would be able to remember it.

They said that Adam was a budding bodhisattva, who brought great joy to their temple. A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who puts off nirvana so that they can help end the suffering of all other sentient beings. It is the ideal of Mahayana Buddhism. Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism is one of many forms of Mahayana Buddhism.

We finished our day of Tibetan culture in Bloomington at Little Tibet a Tibetan restaurant in the international district. Sami has some assortment of noodles, vegetables and tofu (a staple in our diet), while I had Mo Mos (a Tibetan dumpling) filled with assorted vegetables, with a spicy dipping sauce. Adam feasted on assorted vegetables, and Temo, a Tibetan steamed bread. The only word that comes to mind is Greek, ambrosia, the nectar of the gods.

The next morning, hoping to share my satori point with the people I love most, I put Adam on my back and set off up the hill with Sami. This time I knew better than to set a frantic pace. We reached the top together as a family, with no asthma attacks or pulled muscles. The climb wasn't so hard. I had just made it hard by not knowing myself well enough to set a decent pace.

After our hike, we all packed up the car and headed into Nashville for one last day in the town.


Tom said...

Funny, I don't recall you being an eager Boy Scout! Nice story about Adam and the Dalai Lama's chair. Now if only I could find a nice little Jedi temple for Caleb...

Brian Cubbage said...

At the end, you forgot the obligatory "Tune in next time for..." tagline!

Although your vacation was short, it sounds like it was good. I'm jealous.