When the how-to publishers produce a handbook for aspiring consiglieres it will emphasize the wisdom of getting the hell out, once the main deal is done. Any good mafioso would have gotten on the next plane, right? Even a mediocre, 9-to-5 type of consigliere would have done so. Even a tenth-rate thug who operates on animal instinct would have known to go to the Thai Air offices on Durbar Marg and have them change the ticket so he could leave that same day and rush back to Colonel Vikorn with the wonderful news that we could expect to receive however many tons of poison for retail within the next month, probably enough to put our main rival General Zinna out of business-wouldn’t he? And did I?
Well, I rushed, but it wasn’t to the airport. It was to the Pilgrim’s Bookshop on Thamel. (You have to remember how I got into this: I was a monk manqu'e who found himself ensnared in a nefarious process for which he could only feel partially responsible; if that sounds like a cop-out to you, farang, try being an Asian head of family.)
Now, reader dear, would you permit a pause in the breathless narrative while I sing praises? Briefly, if it’s God you’re after, or some variation thereon, the Pilgrim’s Bookshop is the outfit for you. Maybe the Library of Congress is better for general inquiries, but if it’s the allegedly nonexistent that interests you-say, the lesser-known habits of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma, or which color Tara would be most suitable for the thanka in your living room, or which particular cave in the high Himalayas you should choose for your summer retreat, or how to be a sadhu without giving up your day job, or which plants, mushrooms, and toadstools in the Kathmandu Valley will really get you stoned (there’s a whole wall dedicated to them)-trust me, you need the P.B. (Yes, they do ship overseas, and they are on the Net, and no, I don’t have shares in the company.) In the end I bought eleven volumes of transcendental obscurity and five DVDs, only one of which turned out to be of direct relevance. Entitled The Shadow Circus, it went into detail about the CIA-sponsored rebellion after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. I got the management of the Kathmandu Guest House to lend me a DVD player and holed up for the day with my books and my disks. By afternoon I felt I knew a lot more about Tibetan Buddhism, aka Tantra, aka Vajrayana, aka Apocalyptic Buddhism. I guess I ended up with a more nuanced concept of the Far Shore, the biggest nuance being that it was not susceptible to concepts.
And still I didn’t go to the airline offices. Or call them. When my eyes grew tired and I couldn’t focus anymore, I decided to do some sightseeing. I took out a map of the city and after a lot of wrong turns wound up at a backstreet shrine near Asan Tole which is dedicated to Vaisya Dev, the god of toothache. There were half a dozen dentally challenged citizens wearing scarves around their jaws looking miserable; the trick is to nail a single rupee coin to the wooden shrine with an ancient hammer which is tied to the shrine with a string, mutter your favorite mantra-and Bob’s your uncle, no more pain. You almost wish you had a mild toothache yourself so you could check out the magic. Then I thought maybe old Vaisya was also good for preventive medicine, and fished out a rupee to nail up: Oh, Vaisya, let me never suffer toothache again. There is no denying superstition. It’s part of what’s out there, thathagata: like toothache.
After that I walked on Thamel, then down to the Vishnumati River, across the iron bridge next to the Hindu temple, then the long trek to the foot of the Monkey Temple. Even the stairs did not cool my fevered brain. At the top I impatiently paid my tourist rip-off fee and almost ran around the stupa spinning the wheels and then stared out over the valley thinking, nay, screaming silently to myself, The mountains, the mountains. Then: Tietsin, oh Tietsin, I want the Far Shore. That old Tibetan witch had pressed my big red emergency button. I was in a fever.
Why was I not surprised when a Buddhist monk in his plum robes with the right shoulder bare surreptitiously passed me a flyer for a seminar that was being held that very evening on the top floor of a tea shop at the great stupa of Bodnath? He was gone before I could ask if he knew Tietsin personally. I had a feeling every Tibetan in the city knew Tietsin personally. Listen, I whispered to the sublimely beautiful black stone Buddha just behind the miniature mausoleum and next to the Kodak shop (before you get to the alley that leads to the Caf'e de Stupa-I didn’t think much of the food, but the rooftop views were transcendental), I’m supposed to be a mafioso, a despicable international drug trafficker, a poor sucker among six billion poor suckers ensnared irrevocably in karma from which there has never been any escape and for which therefore I experience no responsibility even if it is all my fault. I really don’t know if I can stand too much fresh air.
Cut the crap, was the black Buddha’s terse reply. I don’t give a broken alms bowl how you do it, just get to the Far Shore, there isn’t a lot of time left.
That evening I gave myself half an hour to get to Bodnath from Thamel, which should have been ample, but there was a traffic jam on Thamel Chawk at the junction with Tridevi Marg (I’m sure the noise was all from frustrated Hindus; Buddhists don’t honk like that), so when my driver finally got me to Bodnath I expected the seminar to be almost finished. I saw no sign on the door, no flyer, and the door was shut; maybe everyone had gone home?
When I knocked softly, a Buddhist nun opened and stared at me suspiciously for a moment until someone behind her murmured something in Tibetan and she changed her attitude. She let me in with a great sudden beam of loving-kindness and nodded at a seat at the back. After I was seated, she locked the door again. Tietsin was on his feet, limping across the floor as he spoke, ruthlessly using his stump as theatrical device. “What was at issue was not Tibetan autonomy, it was the soul of the world. The world decided it didn’t need a soul and couldn’t use a heart. If there had been a lot of oil there, that would have been different. If we were on some geopolitical trigger point of interest to the West, it would have been different. But there was not, and we were not.” He paused. “You could say that in the year 2076 of our calendar there began a process long prophesied by which the bulk of humanity-I’m talking ninety percent-will get trapped in the continuum of materialism and will therefore be destroyed. The way leading to final destruction is superficially pleasurable, until we’re snared, then it gets old real quick. Even on the best view, we’re looking at three thousand years of unenhanced mediocrity, before the Maitreya Buddha comes. Does that ring a bell? I guess it must, or you all wouldn’t be here, would you?”
He looked over the audience without appearing to see me. All the seats were full, and it struck me that the one I was sitting in had been reserved, because there were people standing and leaning against the walls. The room was packed, lending a feeling of intensity, even passion, to the atmosphere. As I took it all in, I realized that perhaps half the people present were Buddhist monks and nuns in their robes; most of those, however, were Westerners who I supposed had been ordained here, maybe kids on their gap year between high school and college who got snared-by Tietsin? The others in the audience, lay listeners like myself, seemed to come from a variety of different countries and ethnic groups, but these laypeople seemed older and more serious than those at the afternoon seminar. I had a feeling they had been handpicked, like me. Without exception we were all mesmerized by the crippled giant in the open parka who strolled up and down unevenly in front of us, now with his hands in his pockets, now using them to emphasize a point; and this fixity of focus gave his words a terrible penetrating power.
A couple of people coughed in the silence, and I realized that questions were now permitted. A black man who was leaning against the wall at the back not far from me put up his hand. Tietsin nodded at him. When the black man spoke he had an educated New York accent and seemed to be intensely interested in what the Tibetan had been saying.
“I would like to ask an impermissible question,” he said with a smile.
“There is no such thing,” Tietsin said, reflecting the man’s smile in every particular.
“Right. Well, a politically incorrect question, anyway. This stuff you were talking about earlier is not exclusively Buddhist. A lot of people are talking this way. Back in the States you hear it a lot, but it tends to be from non-Caucasians. I mean, black, brown, red, yellow, Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem, whatever-the ones who get it at the deep-heart level don’t tend to have Caucasian genes. Is there something fundamentally wrong with white people?” Titters from the audience, especially the white monks and nuns.
“No,” Tietsin said with surprising force, “there’s something wrong with the rest of us for not stopping them. The Caucasian people, especially the Anglo-Saxons, have a specific task. Without their technology life on earth would now be impossible for human beings. But they pay a high price for their genius. The very price you just mentioned. The heart chakra shrivels and starts to die. Not only is all taste for the transcendental lost, the mere mention of it induces rage and hostility-the Managers of the World fear the spirit the way a rabies victim fears water. The rest of us were supposed to help them with that. Instead, we got ensnared in their materialism. Now we’re all rabid. Don’t blame them, blame your black, brown, yellow, and red brothers and sisters for not standing up for the heart chakra. After all, we outnumber them by at least eight to one.”
I watched the black man nod thoughtfully, then look up at Tietsin and smile.
There were a couple of other questions, one from an American nun who seemed to want to show her Buddhist erudition by asking a question about the Digha Nikaya, which Tietsin dealt with in an equally erudite way. Then the seminar was over. The Tibetan nun unlocked the door, and everyone trooped out, including Tietsin, who used another door at his end of the room. I was left alone for ten minutes, contemplating the great stupa on the other side of the window with its giant eyes, which were spectacularly lit up. Finally the door at the far end of the room opened and Tietsin limped in. He seemed surprised to see me.
“You still here?”
“You knew I would be.”
He shook his head. “Actually, I did not. You should not overestimate me. I’m not a Buddha or a bodhisattva. I’m not even an arhat. I’m not even a monk. I learned a few party tricks along the way, that’s all.”
“I don’t believe you. I think you know what I want.”
Now he was frowning as if contemplating the possibility that I was slightly insane. “Actually, I expected you to be on a plane back to Bangkok by now, asking for your bonus from Colonel Vikorn.” He paused. “By the way, what do you want?”
“I want you to initiate me. I want the same initiation your meditation master passed on to you.”
If his shock was faked, he was a damn good faker. He really looked as if it had never occurred to him in his wildest moments that it would come to this: a little mafioso from Thailand, whom he would surely rather not have anything at all to do with, demanding access to his deepest secret.
“You have no idea what you’re asking. Look at me, d’you want to be like this?” He flaunted his stump and even stood up to limp exaggeratedly.
“You’re the most complete man I’ve ever met. You’re the only complete man I’ve ever met.”
“No, I’m not. I’m a freak. I’m like someone who took too much LSD when they were young and had to live with the psychotic consequences.”
I slipped off my seat onto my knees on the floor. “I am asking.”
“Get up, you idiot. You have a life, a wife, a child.”
“You already know about family. It’s not an answer, it’s a trap. Of course I love them, I love them more than life, and that’s the problem: they drag me more and more into flesh until I feel so heavy sometimes I can hardly get out of bed. The responsibility is hard to stand, and worst of all is the worry that something might happen to them. And they always want more. And more and more. It’s all exactly as the Buddha said: Took, Anija, Anata.”
“Took, Anija, Anata,” I repeated with a touch of exasperation: these were pretty basic Buddhist concepts, after all: suffering, impermanence, lack of substance.
“That’s the way you pronounce those words in Thailand?”
“How do you pronounce them?”
He replied with the same three words, which I could just about recognize from the Pali root. “Anyway, the answer is no.”
Still on my knees I put my palms together in a wai. “I am asking.”
He stared angrily at me. Then as he stared his features softened. He was looking into my eyes when a great sadness seemed to come upon him. “Get up.”
“Is it because I’m not Tibetan? Or because I’m made of inferior stuff, the magic wouldn’t take with me?”
“No, none of the above. There is no magic. Only science of the mind. I told you, I spent seven years, from the age of eight to the age of fifteen, in a monastery, subject to disciplines that would stagger grown men. Even then, the initiation I was given was too powerful for me. Look what happened.” He waved the stump.
“There’s something you’ve just seen? Your features just altered. Am I really that lost? Will something bad happen to me? I don’t care. I want to reach the Far Shore. That’s what you said.”
“Serves me right for being so damned sanctimonious. It’s a virus you pick up in monasteries the way you pick up staphylococcus in hospitals.” He paused, then said in a patient voice, “You’re supposed to take a slow ferryboat to the Far Shore, not an unstable kayak you’ve never learned to paddle.”
The moment hung for a while in an electric atmosphere. We both knew why. There was a rule here. When a sincere aspirant asks three times, the master cannot refuse. I made another wai. “I am asking for the third time.”
He blew out his cheeks, shook his head, but said, “Okay, get up. You win. But I need a drink first.” He limped to the door and yelled something in Tibetan. We waited in silence until the woman who ran the tea shop appeared, wearing a long donkey-brown dress with striped apron, her hair in thick braids; she brought chang, a barley-based alcohol.
We drank in silence for a long while. The chang didn’t seem very strong and had a sweet and sour taste with some fizz, as if it were still in the fermenting stage. When Tietsin finally started talking it was in the voice of a very ordinary, humble man.
“They tortured me for seven days. I was fifteen years and ten months old. My comrades in arms were tortured to death before my eyes, and I didn’t know why I was surviving. Nor did my Chinese tormentors. They couldn’t believe it. Neither could I. We had all fantasized about it, of course: how we would react under torture. My comrades had ordered me, Don’t hold out, you’re still a kid, no one expects you to resist. You don’t know anything important about the resistance, you can’t compromise any of our operations, just tell them everything you know. Promise? A couple of beats passed. “So I did promise, eagerly. I didn’t think I’d last an hour under that kind of agony. Then, when they caught us and took us back to Chamdo at gunpoint, I felt such fear in the back of that van I couldn’t move. I was frozen. My comrades had to carry me to the prison, I was so out of control, pissing and shitting in my pants, vomiting. But the next day, when the torture started in earnest, something happened. It’s as much a mystery to me as it was to the Chinese and everyone else. The pain they inflicted seemed to be happening to another body. I hung above it all, watching myself twitch when they touched me with their cattle prods. I literally put all my consciousness in a sixty-watt lightbulb, if you can believe that. I can’t. But it’s what happened. When we got to day seven and I still wasn’t dead, I finally understood why my master had given me such a powerful initiation. He had seen that I was going to need it.” Another pause. “And that, my friend, is the only permissible reason for passing it on. I’m not sharing it with you because you followed some arcane formula by asking three times. I’m passing it on because in asking three times you’ve told me that you are going to need it as much as I did. And may all the Buddhas have compassion on you.”
He turned his eyes away from me, as if he could not stand to look at my future suffering. Of course, that is an observation of hindsight; in the heat of the moment I felt only excitement.
“Go back to your guesthouse. Tomorrow morning someone will come to start the preparation. It takes seven days-you know how weird the gods are about the number seven. I don’t know if it’s really necessary, but we may as well follow the system while we can.”
From the cab on the way back to the guesthouse, I called Vikorn to say I was sick with giardia and wouldn’t be back until after the weekend.
I can’t tell you about the initiation, farang, it’s against the rules and they made me swear not to. I can give you something of the preparation, though. The nun who came to my suite at the Kathmandu Guest House, thereby shocking the whole establishment, was the same woman who had begged from me at the stupa on the first day. She looked just as decrepit as she had at the stupa; her face was terribly lined and shaggy and a number of teeth were missing from her mouth, but her mind was as sharp as a razor and she spoke perfect English, with a UN accent. The conversation went like this:
Nun: Do you ever wake up scared in the early hours of the morning?
Me: Almost every night.
Nun: And does this fear seem to originate somewhere in the area of the navel?
Me: Above the navel, somewhere between the navel and the solar plexus.
Nun: And what do you do about it?
Me: My mind finds specific things to worry about, and the fear gets absorbed.
Nun: These things you worry about, are they to do with recent acts, statements, events you have set in motion?
Nun: Good. We want you to develop that. Soon you’re going to be worrying about things that happened a long time ago. Then you’re going to be worrying about the unbelievable atrocities you committed in previous lifetimes. You’re not going to understand immediately, but this vulnerable area around your navel is the only thing about you that is fully human. The rest is animal and devil. We’re going to increase the fear to make you more human. It is going to turn into a karma blade wheel which will tear your ego apart. We don’t expect you to survive psychically without outside help. You might be on medication for years afterward. Don’t blame us. You have insisted and the master cannot refuse you.
Me: It almost sounds like you’re going to divide me in half and set the two sides at war against each other. It sounds like schizophrenia.
Nun: Exactly. When we’ve finished with you, you’re going to live in mortal terror of entertaining a single ego-based thought, because one ego-based thought will be enough to land you in a mental institution for the rest of your life. That’s why this path is only for the terminally desperate-spirit-starved fanatics, the suicide bombers of the internal world. D’you want to change your mind before the master tells you the mantra?