It doesn’t matter what you call it, but the pursuit of that divine force has inspired some of the world’s greatest civilizations, its most enduring architecture, foundational philosophies as well as the wars that have time and again sought to tear all that down. But can any of us mere mortals truly understand the hidden clockwork of the universe? If we assume that it exists at all, then the actual state of transcendence poses an interesting problem. What are people supposed to do with the rest of their time on earth once they’ve gained that ultimate knowledge? Revered gurus who teach that status and power are meaningless in the ultimate reality, nonetheless have to muck about in the mundane world. They gather followers, build institutions and dispense knowledge from lofty thrones. Is it hypocrisy when enlightenment simply reproduces familiar hierarchies? Another way to put it is how does a Buddha remain in the world, but not of it?
If you’ll allow me, I’d like to tell you about a girl I once knew who thought that she had grasped those eternal mysteries. Now, ten years later, I’m still grappling with the lessons she taught me about what it means to have a mind, a body. And a spirit.
In 2006, just as I was beginning my career as a journalist, I took a job as leader of an abroad program for American college students in India. The plan was to tour the holy sites along the Ganga river and up into the Himalayas. We started out at a Mosque in Delhi, traveled to the Holy city of Varanasii. And then on to Bodh Gaya, which is the spot where the Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment more than two millennia ago. We’d signed up for a seven day silent meditation retreat in the Tibetan tradition. For my student, Emily O’Conner, this was going to be the highlight of the journey. Emily was a whip-smart debutante from Charlottesville whose voice echoed just a whisper of a southern lilt. Back in America she excelled at yoga, but joined the program because she wanted a taste of something authentic.
Our instructor for the retreat was a swiss-german nun who wore the maroon robes of her order. We all promised that would keep a vow of silence for the duration of the retreat to let the lessons of the Dharma sink deeper into our minds. We threw ourselves into it. We learned about compassion, Mindfulness and the nature of enlightenment itself. We sat on our meditation cushions and learned that the world, as we know it, is an illusion. Cause and effect obeyed the laws of karma, not physics. Even something as seemingly permanent as death, was just a barrier to another life. In one particularly difficult meditation we visualized our own bodies as corpses in order to understand the inevitability of our own mortality.
For some Buddhists the goal is to enter into the state of Nirvana—which is a place where the world ceases to exist because the meditator has fully realized the nature of the universe. However in Tibetan Buddhism the goal is a little different. A person on the verge of nirvana can decide to stay until and help every other sentient being in the universe—every slug, seahorse, human and extraterrestrial being and even mosquito is equally enlightened. These beings are called Bodhisattvas. A Christian might call them Angels. Either way Enlightenment isn’t a quick process, the Buddha taught it could take tens of thousands of lifetimes to become something like the bodhisattva of Compassion Avalokiteshvara behind me. Yet Tibetan Buddhists vow to stay on the Bodhisattva path however many lifetimes it takes.
When the retreat ended we were perhaps a little more contemplative than when we had started. I asked Emily about how she felt after it all and she smiled broadly and said it was the “most wonderful experience of her life”. This being the last night in Bodh Gaya most of the students just wanted to stay up late and talk they were kids on the final day of summer camp. But Emily didn’t stay with the group, instead while the other students chatted in the temple, she spent the evening writing in her journal nearby.
At about three in the morning when the courtyard was engulfed in an inky black silence, she climbed onto the roof of the retreat center, wrapped a shawl around her face, and jumped. She died on impact. An hour later one of the students found her body and raised the alarm. I was outside in a few seconds and seeing her body on the ground sent me into a momentary delirium. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen. I couldn’t move at first and then it was only the realization that I was in charge that brought me back. As the director of the program it was my responsibility to find out why it had happened. I looked for clues in her journal and got a peek into her mind as she was on retreat. In it she said that her meditations unlocked a profound understanding of the universe and given her a glimpse at how her countless previous lives had made her a vessel for enlightenment. The only thing limiting her from a full transformation into something greater than herself was her body. She was a Bodhisattva. And all she had to do was take the next step.
To me those words read like madness.
In the years that followed I visited Tibetan Lamas in Himalayan Hill stations and asked them if she might actually BE a Bodhisattva. None could give me an answer to that, though they commented that even the Dalai Lama —who many Tibetan Buddhists believe is as close to Enlightened as it gets—has never claimed to be anything more than a humble monk . So I began to wonder if there were other stories that were similar to Emily’s. It turns out that India is littered with tales of people who go there and claim one sort of transcendence or another. Not all their stories turn out well.
I collected six journals from people who took their own lives after meditation retreats. I discovered the names of Ryan Chambers and Jonathan Spollen, both of whom disappeared from the holy town of Rishikesh within a few years of each other. Both left their money and passports behind with along with cryptic notes about inner truth. I found a mental hospital in New Delhi that admits almost 100 western travelers a year suffering from something called “India Syndrome”— where patients travel to India and come to believe the are earthly incarnations of Krishna or Shiva. Instead of enlightenment they end up restrained and sedated in state custody.Then I followed a story of two lovers who embarked on a three year silent retreat in the Arizona desert and whose quest for enlightenment ended in death.
All of their stories share a common theme. They all believed that they found a spiritual explanation that transcended the rational world. Whatever it was, Heaven, Nirvana, Moksha, was in their grasp and life as we know it was no longer the top priority. Knowledge was. And this, I believe, was their common mistake. It’s a similar logic that lets a group like ISIS wreak a murderous spree across Syria and Iraq. They have access to some sort of divine truth that makes consequences on this world unimportant. They only answer to God when they make a hell on earth.
The lesson I learned from all this is that divine knowledge alone is just not enough. We need to also be accountable to for our actions here on earth as well as for our own bodies.
Indeed, back in Bodh Gaya I was learning a lot more than I ever wanted to about bodies. You see, after death bodies have a life all of their own. there is a subtle line that separates a living person from a corpse, and when you cross it everything changes. Whether we acknowledge it or not the most intimate relationship we have in life is the one we have with our own bodies. We dress them, feed them, take care of them and protect them from unwanted intrusions. In death we don’t have that control anymore. Over the next few days the responsibilities that Emily once had for her own body fell to me. I would have to bring her body home. And, at 104 degrees I was battling against the inevitable forces that heat imposes on a body.
After three days of packing her in ice, at one point I found myself in the office of a Dr. Das at the medical college who was the last hurdle I would have to overcome before I could get clearance to put her on a plane. Dr. Das sighed over the paperwork and a lengthy police report he would have to prepare “It would have have been easier if she had not died at all.” [beat] Ok. But death is one of the inescapable facts of life. It’s not pretty. And there are only two things that a person can do in the face of it. We can ignore the inevitable and pretend it isn’t there, or ,we can acknowledge that the time that we DO have on earth is the most precious gift we will ever receive.
And this brings me back full circle to to the question I started out with. How does the Buddha be in the world but not of it? Perhaps he shouldn’t. I can never argue that Emily should have taken her life. But there is still a kernel of hope that I can salvage from the tragedy of it all.
I don’t believe that Emily was a Bodhisattva, in the sense of an all-powerful divine being on the cusp of some eternal realization. Instead I’ve set my sights on a lesser definition of that word that is a little more earth-bound. All we know for sure about the clockwork of the universe is that we are alive here and now. It doesn’t matter whether or not there is a heaven or a hell, or if we are really just inert matter whose spark of animation is only a quirk of chemistry and physics. Whether or not something awaits us on the other side of death’s threshold we have a duty to lives we’ve been given to their fullest potential. We have to find the lesson in every moment that teaches us what it means to be a little more human. To have a Body, a mind and a spirit.
And, in that sense, maybe we can can all bodhisattvas.