Later, pushing Pico's stroller through our Brooklyn neighborhood to the park, my mind drifts through the grocery list, the names of friends I should call, the books I wish I had time to read. I suddenly remember that the meditation I was doing, repeating a phrase over and over, was interrupted by Pico's waking from his nap earlier in the day. [And then I remembered that I hadn't completed] the 108th recitation that would make a full mala, or Buddhist rosary. I exhale and begin to mouth the 100-syllable mantra. It is a practice of purification, of trying to uproot the seeds of negative karma, from this lifetime and previous ones, before they have time to come to fruition.
I keep an eye on the traffic lights and the walk signs and Pico's bagel. Just as I do while sitting on my cushion at home, I visualize the Bodhisattva Vajrasattva above the crown of my head and a tranquil clarity filling my body, replacing the heaviness of faults and inconsiderate actions. I see the darkness of hurt and misunderstanding blowing away. I am working on letting go.
Later that night, [as I'm working my waitressing job,] I size up a couple from halfway across the room. I decide she is trying too hard to ride the 1980s revival, and he is too eager to impress her. I know they will know nothing about wine but act like they do, and all I can hope for is that he springs for an expensive one. I'm also jealous that, presumably, they can go out for $100 meals without having to also pay for a babysitter. Catching myself, I stop. By the time I make it back to them with glasses of water I am focusing on not being so judgmental, so bitchy. I make an honest effort to look them in the eye, to be patient and, as she takes a moment to decide between the blackfish and the cod, to genuinely hope that they are happy and well and peaceful.
Tibetan Buddhism is the foundation on which I try to build my intentions and my actions. It is a dynamic path, as pliable as it is unchanging, as comforting as it is harshly practical. I find the wisdom that has been passed on over the centuries to hold immeasurable integrity, selflessness and joy. Coming to the Dharma, Buddha's teaching, has been a blessing that I now cannot imagine life without.
I first went to India as an 18-year-old college student and studied the Vipassana, Zen and Tibetan traditions, the three major branches of Buddhism. For several years, before really committing myself to the path of Tibetan Buddhism, I explored and dabbled. I found a meditation cushion small enough to stuff into my backpack. I maintained a half-assed sitting routine for years, but had yet to feel a real connection to any specific practice or teacher. I read a bit, spoke much less and was uncomfortable in my search--always feeling as if I should somehow know more than I did.
The summer after I graduated from college was, probably not uniquely, a thorny time in my life. I wrestled with an over-abundance of undirected energy, unsuccessful job hunts and general notions of inadequacy. I was dealing with a heart-wrenching breakup and a fast-expiring sublet. Then one sticky August night, in my fourth-floor apartment, I cried on my borrowed futon, and the closest thing I've ever experienced to a vision came to me. Somehow my memory had conjured up the Eightfold Path, which I had not given much thought to since my return from India several years before.
If anything, my words had been harmful and my objectives selfish. I'd been obsessing over livelihood, but more in terms of salary and cool title than impact or repercussion. I thought about effort and how I'd been spending every last ounce of it on trying to make things different than they were; holding on tightly to what had been before, but no longer was; and failing to accept that romantic love, like all emotions, is transient and fleeting. I climbed to my Brooklyn rooftop, decided it was time to leave New York City and return to India.
The next fall, on the night the Yankees won the World Series, my cheeks were red with bad airport bar wine as I paced the Korean Air terminal. I was with an old friend from college who himself was returning to India. Justin was going to continue his own practice of Tibetan Buddhism, which was already quite regimented and focused. He spoke to me about his connection with his teachers and his commitment to the Dharma in a very approachable, practical way. Nothing New Age-y, nothing exclusive, nothing spacey.
As we flew away from the sun and through 20 hours of night, he was turning from transcontinental chaperone to close friend, as well as the first person I had really been able to talk to about spirituality in terms of what to do, and not just what to think. I began to recognize that doing is ultimately what spirituality comes down to for me. Nothing going on in my head mattered at all if it wasn't translating to how I lived, what I did. There was a spark of wanting to make change happen. I scrapped my plans of making it to Calcutta alone and went with Justin to meet his teacher, a reincarnate Lama.
It is a necessary thing, I believe, to admit to not knowing. I realized over the next few weeks, while attending the Lama's teachings on the foundations of meditation, that I really had no idea what I wanted at all, in my life, of myself, in the bigger picture or the smaller. I had always been on the go moving with the seasons and preoccupied with travel plans. Living in the future tense, every makeshift mattress on the floor was a steppingstone, but there had never been a riverbank on the other side where I could stop to dry my feet. I never took the time to be still, though no matter how fast I went, it was always the same anyhow.
Aiming to embrace and deepen my understanding of Tibetan Buddhist philosophical cornerstones like compassion and impermanence was, I quickly came to believe, the way for me to grow up with some sense of priority.
I remember saying to Justin one night as I was deciding all of this, that I had not yet in my life experienced any real times of sadness or loss. I thought that perhaps it was wise to become more familiar with my own mind and attachments now, in order to make dealing with unforeseen trouble later on easier to handle. He looked up at me with a grin.
"Not only that," he said. "Practice enhances your ability to take in joy." I knew Justin was right.
Suddenly, thinking about the idea, as one does when trying to understand the breadth of reincarnation and karma, that we are to treat every other being with gratitude and compassion as if they had at one point been our mother was very different, as I tried to imagine myself as a mother.
I had known Justin for over five years at that point, but we'd only been romantically involved for a couple of months. While I felt his soundness and his wit would make him a dedicated father, I also knew that his understanding of the Dharma would be what would ultimately make becoming parents together the single most important and beautiful thing in my life. Faith proved crucial. I started to realize the practice, like parenthood (as I would soon learn) is a work in progress, with an impermanence all its own.
We came back to New York City and went to work, Justin as a house painter and I in an office. We got an apartment, set up camp, built an altar. Pico was born and we came to understand a whole new kind of unconditional love. We gave him his own last name, Dorje, which means "immutable" in Tibetan. We want him to know that as so much changes and unravels, there exists the indisputable clarity of mind, and that this clarity can be his. We stayed put for a year as our baby got big and learned to walk.
Then, just after his first birthday, we took Pico back to India. We wanted to return for our own continuation of instruction, but we also wanted to return for him, to further his own connection with the place where he found us. We wanted to offer our gratitude for the way karma had brought us together with our son precisely as we were trying to navigate and find the path of Buddhist practice. Justin and I both believe that we can be Buddhist and maintain a close tie with our Lama from any place in the world. We chose to come back to New York because we want to raise Pico close to his grandparents and we want him to go to school in the United States. We have felt it best to have jobs and stability and a sense of home.
Now that Pico is old enough to need his own plane ticket, it might be a while before the three of us get back there all together. But our life in the West is a delightful one, and the opportunities for practice are bountiful. The challenge is the same here as it is anywhere: To keep our practice grounded in our lives and to keep our lives grounded in our practice. New York City ought not to inhibit those intentions. The mind is the same despite geography.
Buddhism was brought to Tibet from India around 800 C.E. Since that time, along with the prevalent monastic and yogin traditions, there has also been a tradition of lay practitioners or householders, of husbands and wives and their children. Awareness of history helps me to feel some sense of continuity, some sense that I am not too far off the mark.
Right now, there is a Blue's Clues plastic playhouse set up in front of our altar, because that's the only place there's room for it. Pico knows how to prostrate and does so before playing with his playhouse, after putting his toy pots and pans inside to free up his hands.
This is the intergration I am striving for.