Does a family that meditates together glow together?

The first decade of her father’s presence in the family was one of great growth and deepening personal awareness for every member – especially before all of the children, including Cassia, come along.

For one thing, her parents’ generation is still working on its Buddhist studies together. As I noted in an earlier draft of my novel What’s Left:

You know, Baba will say one night after our family meditation, most of these enterprises wouldn’t stand a chance if it weren’t for one thing.

What’s that?

Rinpoche, the Tibetan master.

Then the room will fall into a profound reverie.

Well, it was all no doubt pretty exotic to all of them.

And then the vision got even heavier:

It’s the concept of living as a people of the Holy One, however we phrase it. A peaceable people. A peaceable kingdom. The great wisdom or enlightenment.

There was even a question of how much diversity they could manage:

Religions? Say the way a piano is a world apart from a trombone or a double bass or a clarinet, even if they rely on the same kind of musical notation? And that was before your Manoula weighed in on some wildly divergent ethnic musics based on entirely conflicting theoretical foundations.

Well, that got too esoteric, even for me! Play it as you will.

Still, not everybody in the family was so high on the Buddhist excitement:

The Temple Room relocates to the first-floor parlor next to Yiayia Athina before moving altogether to a more public location, one having chambers for our anticipated Rinpoche’s full-time residency. Yiayia Athina makes no secret of being glad to see them go. The chanting was getting on her nerves.

Oh, I’m so glad Cassia stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

Cassia’s family obviously takes all this seriously.

What spiritual practice or source of inspiration is meaningful to you?

Looking for a natural high

Just what so intensely motivated her father-to-be to quit everything so he could retreat into monastic Buddhist practice for three years? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer fully. (My parallel experience of living on a yoga farm is the basis of my newest novel, Yoga Bootcamp.)

Still, I’m required to try. In a passage from an earlier draft of my novel What’s Left, the explanation went this way:

Thea Nita suggested another take. Your Baba yearned for the highs, she says.

What about drugs?

You don’t think that was a problem, she counters. Don’t you think I wasn’t worried, at least until Rinpoche came into the picture?

Well, I’d wondered about that with my uncles, too – that whole hippie thing?

Oh, that? Nita chuckles and admits it posed a danger, especially before she returned to town. Barney, especially, enjoyed being stoned when he could. As she says, that could present problems in a commercial kitchen.

And then? They learned they could get a natural high through meditation – if they steered clear of drugs, as they did when Baba, by then a militant practicing Buddhist, entered the scene. Besides, there was no escaping the reality we all had work to do – and it better be done right.

~*~

As Rinpoche told Cassia about her father:

He needed the lightness and even playfulness he encountered in the Tibetan Buddhism – the high, in fact – that he hadn’t found in his Christian past. To be fair, I am finding indications he was discovering that in the Judeo-Christian side, too, during his final years. What a loss, then.

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

And then there was her mother’s presence, as Rinpoche explained:

Your Baba found his missing half in Manoula and through her, his place in this world. But he always sensed there was more to life. The rabbi here tells me that when Moses came down from the mountain, he carried two tablets. The first one was about man’s relationship to God, and the second one was about relating to each other. So your Baba was working on something like that. He sometimes referred to it as finding the right balance.

And that mountain?

It was about all that would hold him down. For now. Maybe they were well matched.

~*~

Here we are talking about religion, and I see the question turning to something unexpectedly related:

What makes you smile?

Ten perspectives on Tibet

It’s not just Cassia in What’s Left who wants to know about her father’s fascination with Tibetan Buddhism. It plays a big role in his movements in Pit-a-Pat-High Jinks and Subway Visions, too.

  1. Number of Tibetans in U.S.: Estimated at 9,000.
  2. Buddhists in U.S.: 3,860,000 (Pew Research Center, 2010). Other estimates range from 1.2 million to 8 million.
  3. Number of converts: 800,000.
  4. Buddhism in Indiana (scene of What’s Left): Includes the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center and Kumbum Chamtse Ling Temple, both in Bloomington and founded by Thubten Norbu, brother of the Dalai Lama.
  5. Other major Tibetan Buddhist centers in U.S.: Barnet, Vermont; Berkeley, California; Boulder, Colorado; Chino Valley, Arizona; Red Feather Lakes, Colorado; Poolesville, Maryland; Portland, Oregon Seattle, Washington; Sedona, Arizona; Woodstock, New York.
  6. Population of Tibet: 6 million Tibetans, 7.5 million Chinese settlers.
  7. Estimated number of Tibetans killed by Chinese since 1949: 1.2 million.
  8. Number of monasteries destroyed: 6,000.
  9. The Dalai Lama: Its spiritual leader has more than 13 million Twitter followers.
  10. Most Tibetans fear the spirit world and its demons: They’re blamed for illness, bad luck, and misfortune.

Ten Buddhist basics

Thanks to Cassia’s father in my novel What’s Left, she’s familiar with Buddhist teaching and practice.

Here are ten basics.

  1. Siddhartha Gautama: Historical figure who established the teachings in northern India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. Often referred to as the Buddha.
  2. Buddhas: Transcendent figures found throughout the universe. Gautama embodies one of them.
  3. Dharma: The law or the way taught by Gautama to overcome suffering or dukka (perhaps better rendered as stress or dissatisfaction). One translation has Dharma as the process itself.
  4. Reincarnation: The state of one’s next rebirth is determined by the fruits of an individual’s karma (actions) in the present life.
  5. Nirvana: An eternal state of perfect peace, bliss, and enlightenment, usually achieved through meditation and breaking the chain of further rebirth.
  6. Boddhisattvas: Figures who have attained nirvana but instead of going their immediately, compassionately reincarnate to assist others.
  7. Sutras: The scriptures (literally “stitchings”).
  8. Three major branches of Buddhism: Theravada, prominent in Indochina; Mahayana, the largest and most liberal branch; and Vajrayana, which emphasizes the magical and the occult.
  9. Tantra: Sacred texts in the Vajrayana branch describing secret methodologies and practices.
  10. Mandalas and tankas: Vajrayana visual images to aid meditation.

Gee, I didn’t even get to koans, those mind-boggling puzzles presented to Zen aspirants.

Take a ride on this new ‘Subway’

Today marks the publication of my newest novel, Subway Visions. It’s an ebook at Smashwords.com.

It’s a thorough reworking of my earlier Subway Hitchhikers, a work I first drafted back when the hippie movement seemed torn between heading in two directions.

One was out into the countryside, where you could hitchhike with ease in most places.

The other was back into the cosmopolitan center city, where you could get around on an underground subway network. (I loved the double meaning of underground, by the way – the idea of counterculture going back to, what, Dostoevsky?)

I wanted to bridge that gap.

Nearly a half-century has passed since that early manuscript took shape. It was eventually published in 1990. A lot has transpired since then.

There’s not a lot about hippies in the new book, for one thing. And there’s no longer a need to sketch out other facets of the broader narrative, now that Daffodil Uprising and Pit-a-Pat High Jinks are available.

The revised story now focuses on Kenzie’s monthly three-day forays into the Big Apple from his perch in the hinterlands to the north. These trips soon center on his jaunts to study with his Tibetan Buddhist guru in a derelict tenement in Manhattan’s SoHo district.

Getting there, of course, means taking the subway, and each venture takes him further and further into surreal realms – many of them rarely seen by the average commuter.

The revised story also builds on Kenzie’s new friends, especially Holly as a fellow Buddhist and, later, T-Rex as a legendary tagger.

The book – like the others in my Freakin’ Free Spirits cycle – is meant to stand alone, though the novels altogether form a larger, overarching narrative.

Let’s just say it’s a wild, comic ride.

Be among the first to read my newest novel.

INTRODUCING THE ELEMENT OF ORTHODOXY

For most Americans, Christianity is contrasted between Protestant and Catholic. In the past, or so it seemed, you were born into one or the other, and in my neighborhood, it took a long time to mix. Even now I find many people are surprised to discover how much variety exists on the other side of the line. (Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, etc., or Italian, Irish, Polish, German, Hispanic, French, French-Canadian, etc.)

It takes some doing to realize just how different Eastern Orthodoxy is from the strands of Western Christianity we’ve known. And then you get into the variations there, starting with Greeks and Russians.

In my new novel, What’s Left, the family lives at a distance from the nearest Greek Orthodox church, so its connection to the faith is stretched thin at the beginning. Still, it’s part of their identity.

While I do relate some of the customs they rediscover, I don’t do much with the dietary limitations for Advent and Lent – essentially, vegan with no oil or alcohol. How’s a professional cook supposed to do his job if he can’t sample the food? (Any of you facing this conundrum are invited to tell us how you address it.)

So what about other traditions of dietary limitations? Kosher, for instance?

~*~

Do you observe any dietary restrictions? What’s your experience? Have you ever fasted? How long?

~*~

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers. (Manchester, New Hampshire.)

WHEN YOU MEET THE BUDDHA ON THE ROAD TO THE RESTAURANT

A central suggestion arising at the end of my first novel, which then shapes my new one, What’s Left, is that her father will be crucial in guiding the family in its embrace of Buddhist practice. Even if I cast that as spirituality rather than religion, it’s a big challenge.

In the course of multiple revisions, this was greatly toned down and redirected.

While Cassia’s concerned with more fully defining who her father was, the novel’s primary focus is on her. Here’s some background that’s much fainter in the final version:

Where had he come from, what prompted his interests, what were his pet peeves, what made him truly angry or truly delighted?

To make this little more concrete:

Some people contend my Baba was a lama. Not the camel-like pack animal from the Andes but a Tibetan Buddhist born in a humble city along the Mississippi, of all places. After college in Indiana and a broken heart, he looped into Dharma by way of, well, a hippie farm where Thea Nita also lived. And then he found refuge in something like a monastery. And then he magically returned here. You thought a monk couldn’t get married? Technically, no, though we’re dealing with an American twist in the mechanics of reincarnation. Or so they’ve told me.

In the end, much less of the responsibility falls on him. Rather, he helps establish an institute having a resident teacher, Rinpoche, who becomes his colleague.

~*~

For Cassia’s father, religion is a way of engaging life more fully. He might even say it is liberation from the tangles of daily life.

Let’s open our range of focus a bit wider.

Where do you go or what do you do to be free? Can you describe the feeling?

~*~

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers.