Day Five: Lucid Dreaming
The previous night, I have been attempting, once more, this reclining meditation. Nothing seems to happen, although I do drift off into a profound sleep. But, just before dawn, I have an astonishingly vivid dream.
I see a person I’ve never seen in one of my dreams before. He’s the ringleader of the kids who vandalized my house in Los Angeles, several months before my coming to Bangkok to be a monk. This is someone who was highly successful in triggering my martyrdom instinct — and who, until I learned what had been happening behind my back, was one of my most trusted people. I will call him simply the Kid; there isn’t another in this story.
We’re standing in a museum, carrying a Persian rug between us. And the Kid is complaining about something or other — about how Africa isn’t in the exhibition, I think. So the museum guard says to us, well, there’s an Egyptian exhibition in the next building; it’s been there for a year and is set to remain for a total of two; and we decide to check it out, still carrying the rug. Though I have to remind the Kid that Egypt is, in fact, in Africa; he doesn’t seem to have learned that in school.
I enter the museum; the Kid stands in the anteroom, in front of the revolving door, still holding the rug. I go through, look in the gift shop for more rugs; I decide they’re too expensive. I don’t remember actually looking at the exhibits; all I know is that the Kid never enters, and when I start to leave, he is gone, and instead there are two lines of graffiti on the wall, written in marker, already fading … medium fine point marker, bright red, the color of blood.
Outside, the scenery has abruptly changed. I am in the ruins of an ancient temple. Gray, decaying stone … it’s beautiful, like Ayuthaya used to be in my childhood, before easy-access highways and wandering tourists. There are stupas, gorgeous statues of stone and stucco; the sky is a ruddy twilight. I am walking through the grounds, slowly, in a meditative state … more so than I have achieved during real life walking meditation.
Suddenly, a huge gray pagoda rears up in the sunrise. I spot two kids half-way, on a ledge, graffitiing with spray cans. I am furious. I run up the steps, I scream at them: “Don’t you realize this place is unimaginably ancient, it was lifted stone by stone from an archaeological site and brought here to be shared by all the world? Thousands of years of history and you’re ruining it … there’s a place for what you’re doing, but not here!”
Chastened, they slink away.
Startled, I awaken.
I’m sure it is almost dawn, but I get up and look, in the dark, at the clock; it seems to say that it’s 11 at night. I try to get back to sleep. Dogs are barking … as they do in movies when a ghost or spirit passes. My whole body is tingling … as though I have recently been possessed, and the alien presence’s breath is still exuding from me. I can’t or won’t find the light switch; I am groping about in a strange half-dark. This Twilight Zone-like weirdness persists for a very long time; I lie down, trying to return to sleep, vaguely aware that I’ve had a very powerful dream that is trying to teach me important lessons about my past, my future.
I close my eyes for a moment, and then —
Jumping out of bed, I find that it’s after six! I have to run out with my begging bowl! Seizing my bowl and robe, I run out of the door just in time for a helpful monk to put it on for me.
It has just been raining, and I tread along the wet street, absorbing more unfamiliar sensations — the slick cobblestones, the grit, the agglutinating particles of earth. It is a beautiful experience sharing the love and generosity of people I have never met or known. I wish I could walk among them all the time. I am at the same time a stranger to these people, and the most familiar icon in their perception of the world.
It is breakfast now, and they have decided that the four of five pieces of the Khunying’s famed chocolate should be offered to me all once. I decide to take the entire plate to the novices’ table. They are, after all, children, and children love chocolate cake … don’t they? And I can have the Khunying’s cake anytime … this succulent recipe that brings in a million baht a year.
In my room, I notice, suddenly, that the clock by my bed is upside down. That explains the confusion over time. It was the wee hours before dawn when I woke from that peculiar dream, and that is why I seemed to have overslept.
I sit in the mother-of-pearl chair, trying to analyze the dream. Though its basic meaning is pretty clear. My life has become a sacred place. Those who interfered with it in the past no longer belong. They can be sent away. The visit to Africa/Egypt has all sorts of mystical connotations, from the “darkest” Africa of my childhood adventure novels to the Egyptian symbology of death and resurrection. A rug is a relationship … one that has proved, it seems, too expensive to be worth continuing. The ancient temple dug up stone by stone and moved to the new setting … that must be the ancient wisdom that has now been transplanted into the landscape of my new consciousness. And the kids, expelled from this new paradise … that too is obvious, indeed so fraught with symbolic logic as to seem to have been cooked up by a novelist. Well, look who’s talking.
Using images from the unconscious mind to teach my conscious mind important lessons — is this what my attempts at the sleeping meditation are beginning to achieve? If so, it is surely about time. The human psyche so frequently walls off parts of itself from other parts. Lines of communication are weak. I’m very encouraged. I seem to have blown open a channel and forced the people inside me to talk to each other.
I’ve blown open another kind of channel as well, this morning; something has disagreed with me, and an upset stomach keeps me from attending morning chapel. Indeed, the Seer tells me I’d better not go to meditation class at all this morning; I wouldn’t want to have a little accident while off in an adjacent universe.
The Seer insists that I take plenty of medicine and sends word to the Guru that his recalcitrant new monk won’t show up this morning. I do hope that the Guru won’t be annoyed. There is, you see, a subtle tension between the two, although I have not yet learned enough of the temple’s politics to get all the nuances.
Now, all day long, people inquire about my upset stomach, even people I have never seen. Later I am told that the Guru has announced my diarrhea to the entire throng of meditation students. Imagine that happening at my old English boarding school! I would be the butt of jokes for weeks. But here, there is the greatest concern.
One monk after another comes to my room to show sympathy. One particular monk shows up at my door with a herbal remedy in his hand. This monk is very youthful, pale, always staring off into the distance, and he tells me that he knows things about me that others do not know.
“For instance,” he tells me, “I know that you can see into the heart of the Guru, and that you have sensed a certain darkness there … I know because I have seen it myself … but we won’t speak of it, because it’s enough that we both know it is true.”
It is a strange thing for one man to say to another as he presents him with herbal remedies for diarrhea, but this monk is unusual. Thais do not like to say things directly; they speak in understatement and misdirection, out of the desire to protect others from losing face, out of a fear of losing face themselves; this monk says things straight out, insightful things that perhaps one would rather not speak about.
He sees things. I tell him I have a friend who sees things — I’m talking about Sharon, on her mountaintop in Georgia, and the spirit Tomm who seems to speak through her. “Yes,” he says, “I understand that completely. And you are like that, too.”
I don’t want to say that I’m very doubtful that I have any such abilities, so I simply smile. I will call this monk the Psychic. He is a new monk, but appears very otherworldly, as though he spends large chunks of his existence exploring other dimensions. He tells me that he has a genuine relic of the Lord Buddha in his room, and invites me to go and see it one day, when I’m feeling better.
I’m deeply moved at the gentility and compassion everyone shows towards me. There is also a certain chivalry that is rarely evident in the world outside, a certain profound respect for personhood; this is a community that lives by the principle of compassion.
During the lunch break, my parents show up; my dad will return to San Francisco tomorrow. My mother has brought the housekeeper from home, and insists that she clean my bathroom; she’s worried because she doesn’t think I’ll succeed in doing it myself. A professional is needed. But there are problems, as a woman may not touch certain objects used by monks — “intimate” objects such as towels. At first, my mother tries to put away the towels herself, but our family chauffeur, who once served time in a monastery himself as a novice, tells her that the monkly towels are out of bounds.
In the afternoon, I rush back to meditation class to discover the walking meditation in full swing. Unable to find an unobtrusive spot to walk back and forth, I am compelled to traverse the very platform where the Guru himself is sitting, lost in some transcendental state upon his sermonizing chair. It is very strange. As I walk slowly back and forth, I close my eyes, trying to measure out the steps by feel alone … wondering if this is how the blind walk … trying to feel the space by some means of extrasensory perception.
But it is hard to concentrate. I imagine that Big Brother, in the form of the Guru, is peering down at me from his High Chair. And of course, behind him, there is also the towering golden Buddha of the beatific, enigmatic and utterly tranquil smile. And I admit that it is a little scary, and I can’t find that tranquil spot within myself at all. I imagine the Guru’s baleful stare and I squeeze my eyes tight shut and hope for the buzzer to go off soon … the buzzer which, like an oven timer, tells me that it will soon be time to come out of my meditative state.
Of course, the Guru probably isn’t even staring, balefully or otherwise. But I feel it nonetheless, like an overactive superego.
Later on there is the sitting meditation, too — thirty minutes of it — but someone it doesn’t feel quite as long as before. I must be getting used to it after all. My body is still not entirely attuned to it all, but there has clearly been improvement.
And still later, I get myself into a deep conversation with my fellow sufferer, the Skeptic. It turns out that he has major issues with what the Guru has been saying which go to the most basic concepts in Buddhism — the true nature of reincarnation, for instance. I myself do not wish to argue the niceties of philosophy. I don’t want to know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I only want to know that they do in fact dance. That, I suppose, is the major difference between us.
The time comes for the evening meditation and now I find myself standing in the outer vihara under the stars — what passes for the stars in Bangkok — and all of sudden comes a light sprinkle, which, as I begin the walking meditation, turns into a storm. Thunder and lightning and a raging wind, yet somehow I don’t find myself running into the cloister to seek shelter. I keep my eyes closed, I keep walking. This time, Big Brother is not watching. Bud-dho, Bud-dho, I repeat in my mind, the mantra for stilling the inner storm. It doesn’t work. I walk. Rain flecks my face. It is beautiful; the air is pungent with the smell crushed jasmine. I taste it on my lips. The wind whips against my robes. I feel all these things and revel in them, yet I am also very far away.
It is not the word Bud-dho, buddho that keeps ringing in my ears. Instead I hear a voice that whispers again and again a phrase from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets : “the still point of the turning world.” It is this motif that helps me to locate my inner center, and not some Pali mantra. Over and over these words sound in my inner ear, the “t”-sounds of still and point and turning punctuating the mantra much like drops of rain.
Can a poem by a Bostonian-turned-Englishman really substitute for the ineffable name of the Enlightened One as a formula for inner peace? I do not know, but I already from my study of the Guru’s teaching that words are in themselves nothing more than the empty air. It is not the words that precipitate the states of inner mindfulness. The Guru has said that even simple words like “in, out” or counting from one to five would work, if only the mind is ready for them to work. But for my over-educated cranium the Buddha comes to me in the voice of T.S. Eliot, and then, later, in words from the King James Bible — for the voice that whispers the words of Eliot seems to me to be none other than the “still, small voice” alluded to in the Old Testament. Is it hubris to believe that such mighty powers might be speaking directly to oneself? I do not know. Buddhism does not, in the end, believe that such mighty forces are real; like the corporeal world itself, they too are parts of a great dream, though perhaps from a higher plane of dreaming than our concrete cosmos.
I feel myself detaching from my body. I feel myself at the eye of the tempest. The world rages; I am calm. I know that I have been searching for this stillness for a long time. But the stillness has stolen up to me, has ambushed me; I am so surprised to be holding the grail in my hands, even for a fleeting moment, that before I am aware of it, I have already let go.
When I was a child, I was in love with the wind. I felt that the wind spoke to me. I had a very strange adventure with the wind once; I wrote a poem about the wind when I was eleven, which poem ended up, by a strange string of coincidences, being published in the Bangkok Post. Even more oddly, the American actress Shirley MacLaine was passing through Bangkok at that moment, and for some reason the poem seemed to make an impression on her, although she did not apparently know it was by some child. Perhaps the very awkwardness of its expression made it look as though it were the inadequately translated work of some ancient sage. Or perhaps, with the instinct so many artists seem to possess, she saw past the silly words straight into the soul of an alienated, anguished child.
Be that as it may, years later the poem about the wind appeared as the epigraph to Ms. MacLaine’s autobiography, Don’t Fall off the Mountain, and my childish words about the wind have sold more copies than all my “real” books put together.
Mistaken for an ancient sage at 11, here I am now, perhaps trying to pass myself off as a sage after a few days of monkhood! There are ironies here to be sure. I once told this story to a reporter for a well-known psychic magazine in the States, and she said, “Well, since that Shirley MacLaine book can fairly be said to have kicked off the New Age, that makes you the godfather of the entire New Age, doesn’t it?” Scary.
But seriously now, there are things all children know, things they forget when they pass through the flames of adolescence and enter the grownup world, where imagination must sit in the back of the bus, where the touchable is confused with the real. These things we knew as children can be rediscovered as adults, but often only at the end of arduous voyages or after much pain.
The wind that whispered to me in my childhood and gave birth to a rather dreadful poem has spoken to me again, and this time I recognize it as a friend, and am almost ready to call it by name.
When I return to the vihara for the sitting meditation, the wind is still carrying on outside. I decide to continue my communion with nature. Resolutely, I pick up one of the little plastic chairs I have been using to meditate in, and place it by the window. A gorgeous window, paneled wood, black and gold lacquerwork, covered with images of gods and demons; it is ajar, and I push it wider, thinking, here, in the safety of the vihara yet exposed to the roar of the wind, I will once more hear the voice of God.
But wind does not help me at all. It howls, it batters my face. I am hopelessly distracted.
Profound inner experiences, it seems, can neither be manufactured nor preordained.