The Master has no need of the books which his personal assistant, a shaven-headed nun in the traditional pink robes with orange under-robe, follows his instructions to find for me from shelving behind us. Meanwhile, he asks further questions, the interpreter bowing after each thing he says and pausing in order to make sure he has the right sense of it before conveying it to me.
“And why do you want to meditate?”
“Why do you want to become enlightened?”
He raises his broad hand having uttered his questions, the palm demonstrating a warning, halting what he anticipates as my habitual response.
“Please answer the questions without personal details of your history or any excuses. Please speak plainly.”
He is firm, intent, polite, but refuses to entertain the insincerities of the ego, and certainly it is not possible that the intellect can reason and manipulate any answers to such immense questions. I forage for answers in deep snow at first dropping my head in order to focus, but as my fingers grasp what I think is an answer, the heat of my humanity melts the cold snow of reason, of this intellectual device of question and answer.
I want to say that I do not really know, or cannot explain, but that he and I both know that these are not accurate statements to justify why I have come to find him in this remote part of the world. My erroneous interpretation of modesty perhaps inhibits me, but then I raise my head and without saying the words “I DO know exactly why,” or “ I am getting closer to enlightenment,” I begin to tell him why, using words that I have never managed to find before now. My feelings of realization are stronger than ever before.
His strong direct voice insists on mine being the same, so I speak out confidently, looking directly into his eyes as I touch the truth glowing in the centre of my heart and with it a threatening tide of the tears of sincerity.
In this process of clarifying exactly my answers to his needle-sharp questions, in putting aside the excuses, the machinations of mind, I finally focus exclusively on what is the most important thing in any human’s life. I realise that this exact moment in this exotic religious centre of excellence has been planned all my life, and that it is the putting aside of my will which has allowed it to happen. Without any doubt, unconditional faith does not concern the will in anyway.
“I need to meditate in order to get control of my clinging and arrogant mind.”
“I need to meditate to open wide the door of my heart.”
“To finally destroy the ego.”
“To eradicate my ignorance totally.”
At first, my words are strong, flaunted and open like huge blooms, but the death of the ego soon issues the sounds of the tears which hang there, like warm drops of moisture waiting to trickle down into the pith of the plant. He waits without effort whilst I search to express my view of enlightenment, looking deep inside into my energy, and knowing all manifestations of me without words.
“So far, I have cut with my bad karma whilst helping only a few. Now, as my ignorance begins to drop away, I can help many I hope. I can bring them with me to enlightenment with a good heart.”
Timelessness fills this interaction between pupil and Master. It is as if I am in the presence of the Buddha, here and now where there are few scraps of recognizable modernity. ‘Here,’ a place where the human spirit shines brilliantly because it is cleansed of the fear and poisons which can be created by the misguided intellect, and ‘now,’ the intense reality of the moment where everything is still and there is also no fear so that the heart may easily open.
Master? The ego does not easily accept this kind of superiority, or it’s implied opposite of childlike subservience. We are taught not to easily accept the minds of others in the west, not to trust, always to question. Perhaps chronic doubt is our insurance against looking like fools. But if we can allow ourselves not to doubt, but instead to trust from the heart, then the heart is wise. It can listen instead of always wanting to do the talking like the head. The heart can obey and believe in others. The heart is quiet, strong and sure-footed on a tightrope.
For most of my life, like other reflectors on “life,” I have tried to imagine how humans would behave without the concepts of time and space. I am able to see now that this was a pointless quest for ‘here’ and ‘now,’ in this city pagoda, I am able to directly experience a way of being far beyond these ideas, remote to the pastime of speculation.
This country is Myanmar, formerly Burma, which has always had a colossal tradition of Buddhist teachers and spiritual excellence. You had never heard of this place before. We had never heard of each other before we met by accident in a crowded London bar. I, searching for a café in the area, long-since closed down, and you, brought to me by the barman as someone who had known the area well for a lengthy period.
We met and talked and drank together, and then as the busy celebrations of Saturday evening started and we each had other people to meet, we walked out on to the high street to say goodbye. People around us encouraged us to kiss and through this we recognized the important passing presence of each other in our lives. It was this kiss which formed a bond devoid of words or compatibilities and which caused us to blend fleetingly to share the way together for a while. An honest, karmic kiss out of the blue is a certain way of recognizing a fellow traveller.
Then one day, we were shopping as modern people do, and whilst browsing in a bookshop you were moved to buy me a present secretly which you gave to me later. You could have known nothing of what would happen as a result of this.
It was a novel written by a native of Burma which described some of the spiritual traditions and magic of the country. I was delighted, having had an interest in this country for many years; I read it avidly and was enriched by its beautiful stories of natural lives. Then soon, and quite unexpectedly, I learned that an old friend had gone to work in Myanmar. He invited me to visit, which I thought was unrealistic at the time. Then almost immediately after this, I was invited myself to take up a post in Japan, a life-long dream. Rapidly, the decision to go to Myanmar and Japan was made, and my tickets were booked.
Of course, you and I had become close and it was difficult for you to accept that I would take up this incredible opportunity. Once the job contract was signed, the weeks rushed by and my departure was immanent. You separated yourself from me, trying to ignore what was going to happen. Then my sea-trunk was delivered form the luggage shop, which was to be sent ahead of me by sea.
I began thoughtfully to fill it with books and papers, shoes and winter clothing which I would not need for a few months as it would be the beginning of cherry blossom spring when I arrived. It was positioned in the sitting room on the fashionable floorboards, it silvery exterior and cheap ornate locks attracting the eye. I slowly emptied cupboards and drawers of my few belongings, and got ready to send them to the other side of the world, and you remained distant from this process.
Then, with one week to go before my departure, I returned home to find small contributions on top of the trunk, and saw this as a sign that you were beginning to accept the reality. I smiled as they indicated at least a little trust, a little heap of hope placed there carefully by your strong hands. I tried to know your pain, and your methods of pain control.
As I sorted through my books I came across that novel which I had forgotten about. I touched its well-used corners and creased cover, opening it and reading the dedication which I had not read seriously before. Then, I lowered myself on to the edge of the silver trunk in bewilderment.
The author had written it whilst on his way from London to Kyoto, the city I was leaving and the one I was destined for, to lecture in English as I was to, whilst stopping off for a short holiday in his native Burma, as I was to. Your intuitive heart must have known that these events would happen, so you bought the book unwittingly to prepare me.
Our deep connections became suddenly so obvious, so patent. But you were only to be a guide briefly to send me on my way. You could never listen intently enough to have the kind of faith to join me.
Images by Linden Thorp
‘An Audience with the Master’ has been published as a short story. It is creative non-fiction and it happened to the writer.