m e m o i r j o e l a g e e
he couch is the seat from which the Venerable Chao Khun Sobhana Dhammasuddhi observes me as I traverse the length of the room. Every morning for ten days. First comes my knock on the door. No, before that, as I await my turn, there is my predecessor’s voice sounding up through the floor of my room. I can’t hear the words, but the tone is one of complaint, a recital of trouble, maybe physical pain from sitting in the lotus posture, or obsessive thoughts of some kind. Or, who knows, something worse, like grief over a broken marriage, or a sickness, or a bereavement. It is human suffering, whatever its cause, and Chao Khun will welcome it into his human heart. But what can Chao Khun, what would the Buddha himself make of me and my monstrous affliction? And why am I here when I know I can’t be saved? What other purpose can there be than to suffer deeper, more unimaginable degrees of humiliation and pain?
When this thought invades me, I cry out silently (it all takes place in silence): “Why?”
And the answer comes with fury:
BECAUSE IT WAS YOUR WILL!
“When?” I ask then, dodging the Biblical hint and trying, sincerely, to remember.
FROM THE BEGINNING!
Was that you, my Counterpoint? Was that your voice?
Why do I trust you? Why do I trust even your capricious silence, when it comes?
C. Perhaps because you know it is not capricious but, like any other occurrence, inevitable. And because you have made your peace with silence. But carry on.
Now Chao Khun responds to the complainer, so calmly I can barely hear him. The complainer’s voice rises again. Chao Khun responds with a brief comment. Silence. Then a burst of laughter from both of them. The interview is finished. The door opens and shuts. My fellow seeker — I know who it is: a skinny middle-aged Englishman who goes into spasms during meditation, probably from the release of Kundalini — walks up the creaking stairs, mindfully, as the house rules prescribe, and in slippers — noting, mentally, “lift” when a foot rises, “swing” as it swings to the next step, “down” when it settles, and then the same with the other foot, “lift . . . swing . . . down,” slowly, slowly up the creaking stairs and down the hallway, then gently taps on my door. I do not respond. The only words exchanged in this house are those exchanged with Chao Khun in the morning. The Englishman walks on, lift, swing, down, to his room. I step into my slippers, mindfully, slowly open and shut the door, walk down the hallway and down the creaking stairs. There is no way to hide in this house. The meditators gag for words at the breakfast table, words that would spin veils of pretense around us and build shells of refuge for the mind to hide from itself. But no words are allowed, and nothing is hidden. Everything I do betrays me. When I knock on the door, the relative force and spacing of the three little raps articulate the timidity of my hope and the weight of my fear with awful precision.
Crossing the room. Consciousness clings to every motion, I am manacled, chained. I glance at him, hoping for a nod or a smile. Why doesn’t he let me know that I’m OK? And why, for that matter, do I need his OK? Because I am treading the edge of an abyss, and that abyss is myself, and there is no support. But these aren’t the rules of this game. The rules are that I must reach my appointed destination — a distant easy chair — on my own strength, while he sits on his couch, feet cozily tucked under his saffron robe, gazing at the floor, taking me in, I suppose, with his peripheral vision. Arrived at the chair at long last, I turn to sit and face him. His gaze is direct and not unkind, but there s a faint, slanting smile on his lips that gives him a sardonic expression.
“How are you ?”
Always the same question, always delivered with the accent on the “you,” which gives it a faint touch of irony matching the quality of his smile. The impossible answer bubbles up in me, searches for words. It can’t be confessed.
“Ts, ts, ts.” That and the way he shakes his head says: “Isn’t that too bad.”
This time I won’t be seduced into laughing at myself with him, liberating though that would be for the moment. Already I feel steadier. My posture straightens imperceptibly. But it’s not imperceptible. He mirrors my motion with a slight straightening of his spine, and again I feel caught.
“Is it fear?” he asks.
I hesitate. Visions are the least of my problems. Life itself has become a nightmare.
I look at Chao Khun again. “No,” I say, “no visions.”
“Sometimes it seems hard,” he says, “but only for the ego. The ego complains. The ego pleads weakness. But to do this work, we must be strong.”
Chao Khun’s smile is indecipherable. I read in it compassion, mockery, amusement, kindness. A powerful emotion wells up in me. It is love. I love this grave, humorous monk. He is my teacher.
We gaze at each other in silence, smiling.
“Is the mind quiet now?” he asks.
I look in on the mind. It wavers like the surface of the sea when it is almost calm.
“Not really,” I say.
“Maybe quiet enough?”
We both laugh. There’s always a laugh at the end of the interview. How does he do it?
I nod, tears of gratitude in my eyes. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Carry on.”
On Chao Khun’s recommendation, Joel practices the walking meditation in the garden, under a blooming magnolia. The grass is of that youngest, freshest, infant green that will last just a few days before it matures into a proper English lawn. Robins, blackbirds, and thrushes chirp and warble in the fir trees surrounding the shrine room, a converted garage. There is one bird that calls, unmistakably:
Of course the bird says no such thing, but the mind has elected to hear it that way, and once heard there is no way to hear it differently.
There is something wrong with that bird, Joel thinks, trying to make a joke of it. But it’s not funny, because obviously something is wrong with the mind that imagines him and the birds and the garden and the world. And whose is that mind? No, don’t think. Lift, swing, down.
Slowly, mindfully, at the prescribed snail’s pace, he approaches the stone Buddha at the end of the garden. He likes this figure. Once or twice he imagined its stone gaze blessing his efforts.
Lift, swing, down. He walks around it. It has no back. It is hollow. The head, too, is hollow. It doesn’t mean anything, he tells himself. But it does. His heart sinks.
Nothing is real. The garden is a stage set. For what sinister drama, what cruel farce? He already knows. His part is cut out for him. There’s no stopping, no hurrying it either.
A cardinal lights on the shrine room.
In the shrine room. Four men and three women are seated on firm round cushions in the cool semi-darkness, their eyes closed, their legs folded in the half or full lotus position, their attention tethered to the rise and fall of their breathing. One elderly woman sits on a chair. The man who knocked on Joel’s door earlier is sitting near the teacher, perfectly still. Sooner or later he will start to tremble, but right now the serpent power lies coiled at the base of his spine. Joel sits behind him, wrapped in a brown blanket, fragments of dried leaves in his beard and long hair. Chao Khun sits facing his students, slightly elevated above them on a low dais, his eyes closed as theirs are, a faint curl of a smile in one corner of his full lips, his hands neatly placed palms-up in his lap, one on top of the other, thumbs touching. Everything about him expresses peace and contentment, even the folds of his robe, like the fluting of an Ionic pillar turned to cloth.
These visual details come by courtesy of my Counterpoint, without whose eyeless view the shrine room would have only an olfactory and auditory presence — the odor of incense and freshly cut pinewood, the chirping of birds, a scramble of squirrel claws across the roof. Joel is unconscious even of these. He is turning a key which he hopes will open the door leading out of the house of his fear. The key consists of attention and breathing. When these two become one, the lock turns by itself, and the door barring inside from outside is free to swing freely, in and out, from Now to Now. At moments he feels that the walls themselves have dissolved. A luminous emptiness spreads like a lake. But there is a shore. A ring of darkness surrounds him in the distance. How could it be otherwise? He is still there, reflecting. If there were no center there would be no horizon. Would that not be the meaning of “anatman” taught by the Buddha? No self, no point from which space and time are measured . . . No distance, therefore, between self and not-self . . . No “others,” in fact, but the world all one . . . No dread, therefore, and no guilt . . . Is that love, the true love Krishnamurti is always invoking when he berates his non-followers for misnaming lust and attachment “love”? Is that Chao Khun’s condition? Does he only exist for others, not for himself?
Now Chao Khun’s sleeve rustles faintly as he reaches for the little brass bell on its stand next to him. Joel’s eyelids stir, the ring of darkness collapses into a point in the pit of his stomach, the bell goes “Ting!”, a cloudy mass rises through his chest and throat into his face, his eyelids part, a black naked figure, no more than an inch tall, with jagged widespread little bat wings, detaches itself from his forehead, floats waveringly through the air, glides into the teacher’s forehead, and disappears.
I can’t go on.
C. You must go on.
I don’t know how to describe what I felt.
C. Describe what you thought.
I knew at once that I had done something terrible. And it was all the more terrible because I had not intended it.
C. And now what you saw.
His face when he came out of the shrine room. I was waiting for him outside. There was something hidden about him, a kind of lurking. His neck looked shorter, as if he were pulling his head in. Maybe he was afraid. Also his skin was sallow. I approached him. “I need to talk to you,” I said. I had to tell him, warn him.
He meant our scheduled talk after breakfast, but he spat the word out like a curse.
“It’s urgent, I need to speak to you now.”
“Do you think you can save yourself by talking ?”
He was right. I fell silent. The face before me was not human. It was a beast’s face. But the beast was endowed with human intelligence, human cunning. It was Chao Khun’s face, of course, and it was also the mask of impersonal evil. Never since have I seen such malignancy in a face. But there was also something very nearly comical about it. I think the threat was so great that fear itself came to a halt in me. I saw. Was this real? What if this greenish ghoul-faced monk with bloodshot eyes was purely a product of thought, an illusion? I leaned in more closely to peer into those eyes. Was anyone in there at all? The eyes rolled up and back into their sockets. Only the whites were visible.
What happened there, Counterpoint?
C. You sent him home. He hadn’t been there for a while.
What home? Oh, that home.
C. The only one. Then he came to again.
Yes, his eyes rolled out again and his mouth opened and he screamed at me: “Be quiet! Tomorrow!” and wheeled around and stomped off with his slippers slapping against his heels.
That night something roused me from sleep. Not a sound, not a dream. I knew what it was. It was knowledge. (I know it was nothing of the sort, but that’s what I took it for then: iron, incontrovertible truth.) I sat up. The room was dimly lit by the moon. There were the walls, the corners, the window. Nothing had changed in the visible order of things, but there was another order, the order of time, of whispered intimations.
“You have been here before.”
Knowledge was memory. The terror of that!
“The past is now — and always.”
The mind quailed — the wordless, gestural equivalent of “not again!” — and that thought — the irony didn’t escape me — started the avalanche of repetition –
Because it had always begun like this — with the memory that it had always begun with a memory of remembering precisely this — and what was “this” ?
I have grazed this subject a few times earlier in this book. I realize now that it can’t be described, at least not in its essence. It can’t be described because it can’t be imagined. To imagine is to place an image before oneself, but the eternal recurrence is not an image. It is a catastrophe of thought in which you, the putative thinker, become the object of a relentless investigation by a mind that has no use for your parochial identity because it is obsessed with totality. It seems to regard you as something like a function in a calculus of variations. Alas, the function feels, and the curve on which its variance is measured is an index of pain. Without feeling, you might be content to serve as a funnel through which an ocean of past events pours itself into the future. But that ocean is sentient, and you are made to know it. “Remember the cruelties!” Voltaire’s slogan could have been addressed to you. Not that you stand back to imagine the horrors of this world. You know that you cannot imagine them. Rather, you are their perpetual arising, they happen with and without your knowledge, but in you and through you, and there is no end to the permutations. Moreover, the number of possible events, though inconceivably large, is circumscribed, but time has no end. Therefore everything happens again. Eternity and infinity are not concepts you hold in your mind. They are the arms of the cross to which you are nailed, the wheel on which you are broken, the perpetuum mobile through which you are ground . . . but these images, to describe the catastrophe, would have to be varied ad infinitum.
Or else . . . maybe I’m deceiving myself. Maybe the truest way to represent it is as a blank spot on the map. With a demon or devil next to it, as a warning to unwary travelers. Around it the colors and marks representing the known world, and among those the river I’ve been traveling on, a blue vein. It dips into the blankness and disappears. Later, out of that blankness (in the blankness there is no time, only eternity) the river emerges again. That’s where memory leaps into being.
A thicket, impenetrable, or a jungle. Or is it a single tree? Bulging into fruition, shriveling into decay. The fruits are faces, bodies, lives. A world. Yet a tree. Out of this swarming indefinition, a hand, a finger on a red button.
Time for a little hell on earth.
The finger lifts.
As you wish. The show will go on.
Suddenly a weapon. Someone hands him a sword. Who? What a question! The word is the sword!
Or is it an axe . . .
Three heads chopped off with one blow, who are they?
Susan, Gina, Stefan.
A moment’s horror, he sees: they are thoughts.
But they bleed!
Have I killed them?
Yes, and not for the last time.
Are they real?
As real as dreams are while they last.
Let me wake up!
Careful now — the world might end!
Who are you, monster?
Who do you think? Who would devise such a scheme, if not you? So ingenious that not
even you can unravel it!
So transparently fake, just a bubble of mind-stuff!
So durable, so impregnably real!
So cruel that you, the author of cruelty, cry out against yourself: Who are you, monster!
Listening, I notice — almost too late! — that I nearly surrendered my only weapon:
The world-tree spreads itself, bristles. Sprouts organs, blue-veined bags of vulnerable flesh.
Murder the Creation . . .
No world! No love! No time. No truth. No people. No creatures. No pain.
and you kill yourself . . .
Is that true? Am I nothing but thought?
Why, what did you think, child? Thought thinks, therefore you are!
And I see: All is thought, without exception. The body, a thought. The tree of life, a legion of
thoughts. Or one thought with a thousand heads, a million if needs be. Strike its heart:
Who indeed! Who dares lay an axe to this stem? Splitting it, and the split
runs through every branch, every leaf. A laugh fills immensity.
It was always like this, don’t you see?
Split-mind splitting endlessly, world without end!
The word is no longer an axe or a sword, it prays.
Promptly the tortured Christ appears, nailed to a cross, crowned with thorns,
his side pierced, drops of blood adorning the wounds.
“I know that my redeemer liveth”
But he’s only a thought!
The Buddha appears to the far left of Jesus, resembling Chao Khun and also
the hollow statue in the garden.
Now the adversary rouses himself in earnest, almost boastfully, with a swagger. As if to say: “What you’ve seen so far was just a flick of a finger.” His weapon is argument. He argues by revelation, which is to say, by force. In splendor and in horror, in grandeur and depravity, he knows no limits, and he shows me that. His essence, his truth, his joy, are summed up in a single word: Infinity. He knows no prohibition and only one commandment: Be! Mere possibility is an irritant and a perpetual goad to creation. Therefore, in his world, whatever is possible is, was, and will be condemned to exist. Only hope is impossible, though impossible to abandon. It is not possible because even the purest aspiration is immediately translated into the weirdly vegetal patterns of a purely quantitative infinity, much as the dignity and uniqueness of a face would be mocked by a system of mirrors in which it was not only endlessly replicated but also varied, an ever more grotesque cartoon of itself, to the point of demonic inversion. And the corollary, each time, of these hideous demonstrations is that I am that; that there is no enemy and indeed no other being than myself, though I make myself plural a billion times over; that what I am is omnipotent thought dedicated, for reasons unknown to itself, to the elaboration of a self-torment that can only deepen and sharpen in the course of eternity.
But something has entered this desolate glory, a breach in the law of repetition.
Surely this word is the true name of God! I say this now, here at my desk in Brooklyn. Back then in my terror I thought it was still a crude axe or sword in my hand. But the word swept through the mind and its terrible creations, demanding truth and nothing but truth. The mind wants to hide, it builds labyrinths, posts the doors with promises and threats, beautiful promises, terrible threats. But to this word, this divine interrogative, nothing is hidden.
What happened next I don’t remember. Or rather, a miracle happened, but between the curse and the miracle, there was a gap. What can I say? I don’t know what happened.
C. That’s because nothing happened. More precisely, what happened was nothing. You know it only by inference, as you know in the morning that you were unconscious for much of the night. But this nothing is not a blank spot on the map. It has no contours, no margin by the side of which you could post an indicative figure — an angel, say. No river runs through it. No traveler will ever explore it. Nothing whatever can be said about it. Not even that it answers the question “Who?”
But I can speak of the miracle. Out of that vacancy, bliss was born.
C. That was later. First there was knowledge. Not its parody, which is a product of fear. Fear is thought and thought is time, but this knowledge is not of thought. Don’t try to remember it.
What was the knowing about?
C. About itself. If it were to speak — but to whom would it speak? It knows no self, no other — it would say: “I know that I know.” It is consciousness without an object. If it were in time, it would be eternal; in space, omnipresent. But neither time nor space have yet been conceived. Out of this knowing, then, presence is born, and consciousness comes to itself as I AM. This I AM is not you, nor is It anyone other than you. It is pure being in pure self-enjoyment. Its nature is bliss, and that bliss has no limit. It is the quintessence of all joy, all beauty, all truth. Call It the Supreme Being, and it is That; but to itself it is only I AM. Out of this glory, then, forms arise, colors, distinctions: yet all is one. This you remember.
There were two bodies, naked. Beautiful, gold-olive bodies. Breathing, glowing. I don’t think I glimpsed them for more than a second, but I knew it as an eternity. A man and a woman. On a bed, in a room. Entwined, yet completely at ease. I saw them. But also: I was them. There was no trace of Joel, except perhaps as a memory, otherwise I wouldn’t have been so astonished. Bliss suffused the whole scene, and that bliss was myself. One self, male and female, eternally in love. Such beauty! Such happiness!
The next moment there was one body alone. It was me. I was seated, not lying, on the bed. Flowers were drifting down the walls of the room, slowly. The walls were diaphanous. Was I awake? Was this a dream? If it was a dream, it was not one from which I wanted to awake. Nor did I want to review what had happened. What I wanted more than anything was to sleep. That, it turned out, was a dreadful mistake.
I found myself in bed in the house where I had lived as child in Germany. It was night. My brother was asleep in the room next to mine, and my parents were asleep in their room. But then I saw my mother in the hallway adjusting the level of a picture on the wall. That was something she often did, even in other people’s homes. Nobody ever minded. But this time I minded. I got out of bed and went to where she stood next to the picture, still fiddling with its angle. I took her firmly by the hand and led her down the hallway and out onto the lamplit balcony. I took her by her hips and easily, lightly, threw her over the railing. If this had happened in physical reality, she would have fallen onto a stone terrace one floor beneath. But there was no terrace. I threw her from our house into the blackness of eternal night. I woke, and it was I who was falling, forever, again, into the certainty of endless torment. I don’t know how long this particular eternity lasted, or what intervened to allow me eventually to fall asleep.
I woke up feeling lacerated. Moreover, I seemed to have developed a new organ of perception overnight, one that enabled me to see malevolence in inanimate things. The corners of the room were cruelly angled. A gleam on the door knob was a stare. Even a sparkle of light on the magnolia leaves outside my window hurt me. So did the thought of Susan and Gina still asleep on the dark side of the planet, whirling into another day, another increment in the fury of cycles; that and the fear that sooner or later they would have their brains pried open like mine, and that that would be my doing, that it was already my fault. I skipped breakfast, fearing the gazes of the other guests. I sat on the cushion in my room, attending to my breath as best I could. The skinny Englishman shambled and creaked his way to my door and knocked. There was no getting around it now, I had to meet with Chao Khun again (cycles!). Halfway down the stairs, I stopped. I wanted to stand there until my heart stopped pounding. Then I thought I could sense Chao Khun’s thoughts speaking to me: “Do you really think you can hide?” He was waiting for me. I went to his room and knocked. It wasn’t the usual tentative knock. “Come in.” He averted his gaze as I passed him, but of course he was watching me. I crossed the room, a matter of seven steps. I took them with resoluteness, as if to say: “Crossing the room is my business,” and: “If you want to make watching me your business, be my guest.” I sat down in the easy chair and looked at him. His face was not unfriendly. Above all, he looked human. What a relief! Now he would ask “How are you?” That was his business. But he didn’t ask that.
“You look well today,” he said.
I smiled. We both smiled. Neither of us said anything. Our smiles faded. Fear stained the stillness, like a drop of ink spreading in a clear lake. It was the memory of our encounter in the garden. His gaze became penetrating and hidden.
“Did you sleep well?” He never asked questions like that.
“Not well,” I said. “And you?”
He smiled: “I didn’t trust you yesterday.”
“I know. But you guys aren’t supposed to blow up like that.”
“I’m not perfect.”
I loved him for saying that. I decided to tell him about my ordeal. Using the words “pain” and “fear” and “infinity” lightened the burden of secrecy. He wasn’t the enemy. I also told him about my weapon, “Who?”, and how it had saved me. He listened sympathetically.
“Was that Nirvana?” I asked.
“It is what it is,” he said.
That formulation sharply recalled the root of the terror: that I, the most godforsaken of creatures, was the maker of worlds. This I would not tell him. What could it possibly mean to him? Buddhists don’t believe in God. But that wasn’t the real reason why I didn’t tell him. I was ashamed. Such miserable abjection could not be confessed. Besides, he would think me insane, maybe have me committed to an asylum. Nor did I mention the demon that had passed from my forehead into his.
“Later the fear came back,” I said.
“And? Did you ask again: Who?”
“No. I guess I lost hope.”
“Not thoroughly enough,” he said.
Those are the last words I remember him saying. He probably meant that I should steer clear of both hope and despair. But the meaning I heard was: “Abandon hope.” The more I think about that moment, the funnier it looks to me. It’s like a cartoon, a Zen joke: a monk in his cell, a man falling head first past his window. The monk says: “Take the Middle Way!”
“Chao Khun” will appear in
IN THE HOUSE OF MY FEAR,
by Joel Agee, published by