My novel What’s Left, was in no rush for completion, contrary to my own desires. Still, I wasn’t going to artificially pressure this one.
As for my personal surprises this time? Some of my favorite lines popped up while swimming my daily laps in the city’s indoor pool.
Here’s one of Cassia’s outbursts that almost prompted me to change the name of the novel itself:
Oh, my, am I torn! I’ll tell you this, though. Buddhism comes in very handy when other kids are giving you so much grief you threaten to cast a spell on them and break out chanting Su To Ka Yo Me Bha Wa repeatedly and then just watch them back away. Oh, I tell you, it’s so satisfying!
What’s that do?
You’ll find out. You better be good to toads.
You get lots of respect for doing that.
Which title Do you think’s better — “What’s Left” or “You Better Be Good to Toads”? Or have I overlooked something even better?
Think of it as a cool Christmas present for somebody really special. Available at the Apple Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd, Smashwords, Sony’s Kobo, and other fine ebook distributors and at Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.
Answers to some of the questions about Cassia’s father’s reasons for intensely pursuing Tibetan Buddhism, first encountered in my Freakin’ Free Spirits novels, can be found in Yoga Bootcamp, my story about eight young American yogis living on a former farm in the mountains. While each student is at a different stage of discovery, their widely divergent motivations still lead to common struggles and victories. Nothing is easy, but the lessons are priceless.
Do you practice meditation? How about yoga exercises, chanting, or Zen? Any other spiritual exercises you care to discuss?
Cassia’s conversations with Rinpoche lead her to crucial new understandings of her father.
In earlier drafts of my novel What’s Left, I considered these possibilities, but rejected them as, well, too wordy, esoteric, or preachy:
Your Baba was on the cusp of some original thinking about Christ as Light, Rinpoche tells me. He was connecting that with an ancient line of Greek philosophy about a term known as Logos. It was all very, very exciting. He was seeing Christ as much more than the historic person of Jesus, much as we see Buddha as something much more than a historic person — you know, Gautama — too.
Well, that happens to be a hobbyhorse I ride. Let’s give her father a break!
Rimpoche continues. Your Baba had scorn for those who claim a personal spirituality without any disciplined tradition. He wanted to encourage people to delve into a practice — not that they’re all equal, but they have their own unique wisdom to impart — and that led to his organizing some fascinating ecumenical dialogues, ones that included your Orthodox priest, plus a rabbi, a Sufi or yogi, an evangelical, and so on.
Maybe we’d better leave all that for a later discussion? Cassia has more pressing questions, many of them regarding his photographs and family.
Throughout his monastic studies and labors, he’s pressed to concentrate totally on what’s happening in the moment. Even while sleeping. Looking through a lens would, according to Manoula, place a filter between full experience of that timeless breath and himself. It would place a mask across his face when he most needs to be fully naked, as it were. Who knows what he wears in the monastery, for that matter. We can guess from the photos he took later, on his return visits — and his portraits of his teacher and fellow practitioners. For now, he needs to see not just with his eyes — and his Third Eye — but also with his nose, tongue, lips, ears, and especially his fingers and extended skin. And from there, to embrace the eternal realities rather than the ephemeral illusions flickering and dashing around him. Through this stretch, he heeds fellow monks who create beautiful colored-sand mandalas and then scatter them to the wind rather than preserve their work. This emphasis on the present while pursuing eternal truth may seem to be a paradox, but he submits to the instruction and its flowing current.
So that, too, was filtered out of the final revisions. As was this:
Baba and Rinpoche had grown close when they were both residents in the monastery. Rinpoche was then just another of the aspirants, albeit a Tibetan refuge with a lineage. Their teacher blessed their venturing into the Heartland to establish the institute here, and Rinpoche, with his mastery of Himalayan languages, took up an offer to teach academic courses at the university while leading a spiritual community from the house.
Like Rinpoche, Cassia’s father was in many ways a teacher. In their case, they were dealing with ancient Buddhist lore. Good teachers, as you know, are rare.
Many days when I enter the Red Barn, I find myself amazed at the amount of work I’ve created. I can get dizzy just touching on the places I’ve lived and loved, or the friendships that have blessed me in those many moves. Or all of the painful losses as well.
Even though I was employed full-time in other pursuits, I set aside time for writing, revising, and submission to literary journals and publishers. These days I keep asking, How did I do it? Or more accurately, just what else did I fail to do?
Still, for perspective, a new poem a week for 50 years comes out to 2,500 pieces. And some poets consider themselves satisfied with a lifetime collection of 400 to 500 poems. Perhaps they’ve lived a more fruitful and balanced life than I have. You’d have to ask the people around them, though, for their perspective.
On a related note, I’m wondering if those who invaded my journals and expressed disappointment were expecting juicy gossip. In all of the upheaval and daily scheduling, I was usually pressed simply trying to record a trail of where I’d been and what had been happening. Without that, forget the emotions or gossip. Those just might fall into place later, perhaps prompted by the notation that the event had even happened.
My, it’s been a long trail!
So here we are. My novels are available at the Apple Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd, Smashwords, Sony’s Kobo, and other fine ebook distributors and at Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. Let me suggest starting with Cassia.
Quakers (aka the Religious Society of Friends) stand at one end of the Christian spectrum, while Zen Buddhists also stand at one end of the Buddhist spectrum.
As I’ve been discovering, Greek Orthodox (and the other Eastern Orthodox churches) stand at the other end of the Christian spectrum, much as Tibetans do in the Buddhist world.
Has me recalling a comment by Gary Snyder when he noted, arms outstretched, how one branch starts at one end and, as a practitioner advances – raising his arms in an arch overhead – they eventually pass each other to end up at the opposite end.
That said, let’s look at the Quaker/Zen starting point and what they have in common.
An ethereal ascetic. Strip away distractions, down to a stark black-white dichotomy. Maybe with distinctive Quaker dove gray.
They’re both minimalist.
Use of questions to guide aspirants. Queries, for Friends. Koans, in one branch of Zen. No easy answers, in either.
Worship as “just sitting.” OK, few Quakers focus on their breathing and most are sloppier in the posture. Even so …
Emphasis on the here-and-now, rather than the afterlife.
Concentration on daily practice and awareness.
A practical outlook. As they teach in Zen, “Before enlightenment, chop firewood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop firewood, carry water.”
Direct personal experience focusing on the inner self. As in experimental, by trial and error.
Sin is not discussed. Well, among Quakers, rarely, as in “missing the mark” rather than a human defect.
Both originated as reform movements and are open-ended.
One of my favorite lines I cut out of my novel What’s Left, was this quip:
I want some backbone in my religion. You can’t sit without it.
But as I looked at the flow of the story, I just couldn’t find a good place to develop some pushback from Cassia in her teens, where it would have been most appropriate.
Still, if you know anything about the practice of meditation itself — often called sitting — you just might enjoy the double-meaning.
Another way I thought of raising more color regarding their Buddhist identity was through rounds of Tibetan holidays. The names and special touches alone can be charming: New Year’s archery; incense to drive away evil ghosts; Sho Dun “yogurt festival”; the Meeting of the Eight Guardians (stay inside to avoid evil outdoors); Golden Star to wash away greed, passion, jealousy and to abandon ego; the washing festival. Think of the picnics and ritual bathing.
I might have also built something on the Eight Auspicious Symbols, including conch shell, parasol (crown), victory banner, golden fish, or treasure vase. The Endless Knot is the name of a chapter, though.
Beyond that, I kept looking for synonyms for Buddha or Buddhism. One of my favorites, which I didn’t use, is the hanging cliff-side wonders. Some of those monasteries are no place for anyone with a fear of heights!
Many traditions have special dishes for specific holidays — secular or religious. Sometimes it’s even a family thing, rather than something everyone does.
Having Cassia cast a Buddhist chant as a spell in my novel What’s Left, is a bit of an inside joke. She may be trying to intimidate her middle school classmates, but what she utters, Su To Ka Yo Me Bha Wa, translates as “Grant me complete satisfaction” or “Grant me complete satisfaction within me.” Not that they have a clue.
Besides, I feel a shade of Harry Potter here, without an ominous wand. These words can simply feel magical.
By the way, Cassia’s chant is one letter off from Su Po Ka Yo Me Wa, “Grow within me” or “Increase the positive within me,” which also fits.
Just in case you’re wondering.
Think of some word or phrases you repeat often.
Do you have your own “mantra,” a word or phrase to raise your spirits?
(My favorite 9-year-old introduced me to “Yay!” So yours doesn’t have to be the least bit exotic.)
Until the next-to-the-last chapter of my novel What’s Left, the resident Tibetan Buddhist master, Rinpoche, stays largely in the background.
He’s a stabilizing influence of Cassia’s family, all the same.
As she realizes, in earlier drafts of the novel:
I am impressed by Baba and Tito’s roles — the entire family’s role, in reality — in establishing the Buddhist institute. Our charitable foundation was established as a vehicle to support Baba’s research time as well as the institute and the new Pan Orthodox church — along with college scholarships for family children as well as those of many who’d worked for us. The foundation, then, was another enterprise from Dimitri’s socialist cognizance as it blended with our growing spirituality.
The family’s financial security was especially important in supporting her own parents through some transformative years:
For my parents, it provided enough income for them to pursue their dreams, even before we kids came along. Manoula’s share of the dividends and, I’m inclined to think, a consulting stipend from the company itself also allow Baba to focus on establishing the Tibetan institute here. For the first year, the Tibetan research operates out of their apartment, along with our publishing setup. And then, with Rinpoche in place, the institute settles into a small house more or less in the middle of Mount Olympus, where the guru can live in proximity to selected students the way Baba had.
But over the years, their individual practice wavered. With Barney, for instance, as Rinpoche explained:
More and more, we argued. Your Baba could still converse with him about these matters, but Barney kept quoting another teacher, far more permissive than me. What he allowed, we wouldn’t. But a few years ago, that guru died of complications of his wild lifestyle. It was scandalous.
As for her aunt Pia?
Rinpoche tells me she attended the weekly sessions with Theos Barney and the rest of the family, but her heart remained with the church.
And then Cassia has more pressing matters:
Pain? You say it’s an illusion, not real.
Oh, I’ve had some long discussions with your priest about that! From a Buddhist point of view, pain’s not real the way material things aren’t real. That doesn’t mean they don’t get in the way. You just have to learn to see through them. You can’t refuse to directly examine an obstacle, though, and expect to be liberated from it. You just have to remember what’s beyond it.
There’s no avoiding it.
In Cassia’s family her father finds much more than a circle of faith. He gives and receives support in everything he values.
How do you support others? Is there one place you feel is especially important? What causes or organizations do you help?