When I was about 16-years-old, I had a biology teacher named Miss B…well, lets just call her Miss B. so I can be completely free with my recollections. Thin, with a salt and pepper pixie hair cut, Miss B was prim and grimly disapproving of the secular culture of public high school. School legend had it that she was such a religious fanatic that her fellow nuns had drummed her out of the order for being too severe and literal in her understanding. One day I swung open the door in the plastic anatomical torso we had in class, to find a huge cavity in the lower section. I asked Miss B. where the missing organs were and she snapped that they were gonads and that she had locked them in her desk drawer because she wasn’t being paid to teach pornography. Iwas a bit of a smarty pants in those days but I managed to resist the impulse to ask her why she was so testy. But I couldn’t resist asking her if she really thought it was serving knowledge to lock up these parts. She suspended me from her class for being a smart-mouthed hippie (I was secretly thrilled to be an outlaw!). Under pressure from the administration, I was allowed to return and because I happened to be good at taking those tests where you filled in circles I got a perfect score on a New York State biology achievement test. The only one in my school. Miss B was very chagrined, and so was I, for a different reason. I knew I wasn’t really a budding scientist. What had that test really measured? I was full of a kind of questioning I could not articulate. What did it mean to really know something, to not just repeat what others have told you, not just to be good with words, but to know something?
I was one of those kids who believed she had been born in the wrong time and place. I was full of longing to find my way to my true home. I read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. I would sit in the art room and make little clay meditating figures and stare out the window at the woods on the hill behind the school, dreaming about going on a journey of awakening like that long-ago young Brahmin. For those of you who haven’t read this classic quest tale, Siddhartha leaves his home and family and becomes a Samana, a wandering ascetic. He meets the Buddha (this is confusing for many people because the Buddha’s birth name is Siddhartha. It’s like a young man named Jesus meeting Jesus of Nazareth). Siddhartha believes the Buddha Gotama is unlike anyone else he has ever met. He sees that the Buddha is awake to life, yet he cannot become a follower. He tells the Buddha that his doctrine is perfect except in one place–the place of Buddha’s own liberation. In other words, this did not come about by following the teaching of others but by the Buddha’s own seeking, his own meditation, his own direct knowledge, his own enlightenment. Hesse portrays the vertical leap of awakening as a gap in the horizontal stream of cause and a effect: “through this small gap there streams into the world of unity something strange, something new, something that was not there before and cannot be demonstrated and proved….” In other words, a voluntary action–a voluntary suffering is necessary.
In other words, the Buddha could not really convey by words and teachings what happened in the hour of his enlightenment. The teachings conveyed many good and wholesome things, but what is essential cannot be taught. At least not to Siddhartha, and not to me at 16-years-old. I often thought the same was true–infinitely more so–for Jesus. How could his experience be known by us? Siddhartha set out to discover the truth for himself and after many adventures he found his own way to a first-hand knowledge of the unity and goodness of life. And me? At middle age, I’m back to realizing how mysterious it is to be here, to be given a body (not plastic one) and a life. I still want to know what it means to to know.
And after all these years, I discover that the Buddha taught in the Satipatthana Sutta that the direct path to liberation was the four satipatthanas or foundations of mindfulness: “What are the four? Here, monks, in regard to the body a monk abides contemplating the body, diligent, clearly knowing and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to the feelings he abides contemplating feelings, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful…In regard to the mind he abides contemplating mind…In regard to the dhammas (phenomenon of all kinds) he abides contemplating dhammas….”
The Buddhas advises us to contemplate the body, the feelings, the mind, and all everything that arises “internally…externally…internally and externally.” To watch the arising and passing away of sensation, feeling, thoughts, to be independent, not identified yet to be with our own experience. This is what we’ve been talking about here lately, about not seeking to escape from our own lived experience, about surrendering to our true broken state, being with it. The nanoseconds I manage it, it can bring a kind of grace.