It has been eight months since I returned from pilgrimage in Nepal and India, following the Buddha’s footsteps from his birthplace in Lumbini to his parinirvana at Kushinagar.
Everything associated with that pilgrimage was, and continues to be, the most profound thing I’ve experienced in this lifetime. Eight months on it remains as vivid and pulsatingly strange to me as it was when I was in the midst of it all.
I say it’s been eight months since I returned, but that’s not quite right. I got off the bus, but I never quite made it back to my old life.
The proof of that to me lies in where I find myself today. My last days at work are slipping by with alarming rapidity. Our lovely blue house is on the market and every day new families walk through it, seeing if it will be their home soon. It is no longer ours, that feels true, and we want only to be good caretakers until the next occupants reveal themselves and take possession of what was for so long our home. We have been hard at work divesting ourselves of possessions, of the physical objects we’ve accumulated- but the growing emptiness of our closets and rooms is just an echo of the deeper divesting of old patterns, ways of being that no longer quite fit, that no longer serve us, and are being left behind.
The Woman on the Verge and I have endured a similar paring down in our relationship with each other. Everything was ruthlessly eradicated, tossed out, lit on fire, and we found ourselves in a vast, empty, new world. What was left was different, but vital and condensed and brilliant- like finding jewels in the ashes of a fire.
From top to bottom, inside to out, everything has been jettisoned that could be. Only the most vital, the most true things remain.
The world itself seems to have dried up and blown away in the force of all of this change. Not the true world, but the world of illusion, the world of my hopes and fears, the world I created with my ego, with my plans and strategies, with my lies and errors and confusion.
I’m walking around now with only the sound of wind and sea in my ears, a vastness, an endless openness, seems to expand in all directions around me.
I know not what we’ll find.
I know that it sounds simpleminded to lay all of this change at the feet of that pilgrimage. Nothing really changes everything like that, right? Millions of threads of past actions and thoughts just converged at that time and location and although it might look to me from my limited perspective that one thing caused the other, it’s likely more complex than that.
I want to say this happened, that happened. I want to tell the stories, one by one, of all of the improbable and impossible and miraculous events that transpired- for me, and for all of us on that trip. But that implies that the pilgrimage happened, that it is in the past. But that is not my experience of it. Eight months on, the pilgrimage is still very much happening now. And I don’t mean the aftereffects of it, I don’t mean the memories. I mean it’s still as if I am there, as if every moment in those caves, in those temples and chambers and gates and hallways, is still happening right now. And will always be happening. Has always been happening.
I have spent my whole life trying very hard to understand the nature of reality, to delve deeply into all models of what’s really going on- time, matter, energy, life, death, suffering, joy. I want to know. I want to take it all apart and see what makes it tick. And I’m still doing that, I am. I haven’t stopped. But something profound has shifted in my approach. I’ve let go of understanding, I’ve let go of the desire to say, “This is how it is.” This is real, that is not. This is true, that is false. I am this, you are that. I am here, you are over there.
What pilgrimage did, one thing it has done to me, is to rip that mask off. Rip it off of me, and rip it off of the world. There’s no more any sense of how things are as being in any way definitive. Everything is provisional on the most profound levels. There’s no ground left for me. And yet, in this swirling, dissolving, complex maelstrom of everything and everywhen there is, there still is. It’s not as if anything has gone anywhere.
Nothing has changed.
I’m finding more and more that my words are inadequate to describe my landscape. I say and say and say what I’m seeing, what it’s like, how it feels, what I experience, what that means to me, and I seek everywhere among my most trusted companions some validation, some agreement, some sense that I’m not simply losing my mind altogether.
But what is blows through me like a wind and drowns out everything else, everything which is false, everything which is approximation.
I stand transfixed.
The great good thing about the teachings is that they give me a reliable map, one I can use to find my way back when I go too far off the beaten path and sense I’m in the weeds. I can experience all things, but there is still practice, there is still equanimity, there is still wisdom and compassion and a lot of hard, practical work to be done.
Perhaps I am wrong to speak at all of these things. I know there is a danger in it. A danger of becoming intoxicated with my own experience, a danger of encouraging others to see the path as woo-woo mysticism and strangeness rather than reliable and practical and simple and good.
But maybe you are in a similar place, maybe it does some good, too. That’s my hope, that’s my prayer. I want to be open about my experience in the hope that it serves you, serves your own efforts to be good and to understand and to be of service. I mean, that’s what it all comes down to- we should be good, and we should help each other, and how hard can that be?
Thanks for listening.
May all beings find happiness and the cause of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the cause of suffering.
May they not be separated from the great happiness that is free from suffering.
May they abide in great equanimity, free from attachment and aversion
to those far and near.