For some people faith comes quite easily. I used to have little respect for people of faith; it was for the naive, the gullible, the less educated ones. It was something I didn’t have, and it was something I didn’t miss having in my life.
Yet I had entered a Buddhist path that was filled with rituals, deities, strange incantations and gurus. While I decided on this path because I loved the teachings, and had become quite fond of my teacher, Togden, eventually I knew that I was going to have to develop some faith if I was going to take in the whole package.
Shortly after the empowerment I decided to sign on for a twice a week study course in order to immerse myself in these beautiful teachings and to improve my meditation practice. I let my mind relax around the rituals and prayers, realizing they are not magical in of themselves, but rather it was what my mind brought to them. And I liked my teacher, Togden, a lot. He was warm, funny, and compassionate, with seemingly unwavering energy. He seemed to be genuinely walking the walk.
I knew that I was supposed to see Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (Geshe-la) as my Spiritual Guide, but I couldn’t connect. He was just this little Tibetan guy who lived in England and wrote really good books about Buddhism. So, when people started gushing about Geshe-la, I always took a step back. I simply couldn’t relate to the adoring way that people spoke of him as if he were a rock star . . . or a savior. It made me very uneasy. Certainly no one person was deserving of such praise and adoration. Maybe this Buddhism stuff wasn’t for me after all. After one particular effusive discussion session with some classmates, I went home in tears believing I was never going to be capable of such faith – it was simply not in me. So, I wrote to Togden and told him I had to drop out because I was never going to get a handle on this whole faith thing. He simply responded with two questions: do you believe what you have learned from Geshe-la to be true, and are you happier now than you were before you met the teachings? Since the answer to both those questions was “yes”, he told me to stop worrying about faith, it will come eventually.
For the next nine years I soldiered on in the NKT through sangha friends coming and going, teachers coming and going, and even centers coming and going. I stayed in the study program and maintained marginal involvement in the center activities. I was steady, but I was lazy (my moniker is no lie). The dharma center was an important part of my life, but it was not going to become all of my life. I was fortunate in that I had a full-time job and a non-practitioner boyfriend so I couldn’t get completely sucked into the black hole of need (uh, merit making machine?) that is a dharma center. My faith in Geshe-la increased, but I still was never filled with that passion that some of my co-practitioners seemed to have have.
Everything seemed to be on auto-pilot in my spiritual life. That is, until about a year ago. It was Fall Festival in New York, with the opening ceremonies of the US Kadampa Temple as the crowning event. The temple and the surrounding countryside, located in upstate New York, were quite beautiful. Even though we had to queue up outside in the near freezing temperatures, everyone was quite excited and happy to be there. The excitement grew when people were finally allowed into the temple. “Ah, how auspicious!” “How wonderful!” “How fortunate we are to be here on this wonderful, auspicious day!” My mind, however, started growing dark. When Geshe-la spoke I couldn’t understand a word he said – it was as if he were speaking a different language. His words and presence simply did not connect with me. My aversion towards everyone in the room was growing stronger by the moment. I hated those damn bliss bunnies. The puja did not sooth me, but only increased my irritation.
When it was all over, I fled from the temple desperately needing to get away from everyone, and mostly from the darkness of my own mind. When I ran into my good friend, John, I burst out in tears. He quickly ran off to find his good friend, a very senior and revered monk, whom I shall call Monk-la. By this time the sun was setting the and the temperature was now probably somewhere in the 20s. I was sitting forlornly on a wall when Monk-la cozied up to me. “Couldn’t you have your crisis of faith somewhere warmer?” It felt good to laugh. I told him about how my mind had gone dark and it felt like any faith I had developed had completely disappeared. He paused. “Huh. Well, it sounds like something shifted . . . don’t pay too much attention to it.” With that another monk approached and offered Monk-la a dharma book wrapped in one of those white offering scarf things. He graciously accepted it. He peeked at the contents and then bonked me over the head with it several times and then gifted me the book. “OK. Let’s get some chocolate, shall we?” And with that, the crisis was over.
I was grateful for Monk-la’s advice. Something had shifted and now I just needed to see where this would lead me. More about that in the next post.