Before I left Santa Cruz, Michael drove me to Land of Medicine Buddha, the mountain retreat where he studies. The higher we rose on the skinny road, the faster he spoke, fueled by a brew of farmer’s market chai and enthusiasm.
He slowed the car’s pace as we ascended the switch-backs. My acrophobia suggested that we were barely clinging to the edge of the red-dirt slopes. I wondered if the densely planted redwoods would catch us if the car slipped down the embankment during a turn.
Given my recent thoughts on religion, it amused me to hear Michael explain the Buddhist faith with such zeal; clearly, he had been paying attention during his dharma classes. During our conversation, I affirmed that, while my world views are compatible with basic Buddhist philosophy, its metaphors and those of the Catholic church are virtually interchangeable for me, like most organized religions. Trade Buddha for Jesus, the boddhisattvas for priests or apostles, and so forth. There’s value at the root, which is where I am content to remain.
Still, as we inhaled the fresh mountain air, I could feel the reverence of the place. In my mind, it had nothing to do with the specific religion practiced, but the intention of those gathered. The loamy earth and the buildings felt peaceful and cool, dappled with gentle late morning sunlight and the slightest trapping of fog. Everyone we met had smiling eyes.
We spoke in hushed tones as we approached the Mani, a giant prayer wheel for celebrants to turn by hand. It felt like Michael was letting me in on secrets of the universe as he showed me how it worked. We walked in a clockwise circle, taking the grab bar by hand and turning the wheel with the energy of our bodies. He told me that saying mantras while turning the Mani sends the power of healing and peace into the world.
Buddhist or not, I liked that idea.
We left our shoes outside before we entered the Gompa, the center of spiritual activity. I was surprised to watch Michael bow, kneel and kiss the floor. I was still getting used to him as a religious man. He prayed silently for a moment with his head down.
Two women sat in meditation as we tip-toed around the room. We paused in front of an image of the Dalai Lama; before him was a multi-colored sand-drawn mandala and a series of offering bowls called yonchaps that contained water. Michael explained that, for Buddhists, the point of any offering is to cultivate generosity; these tributes embodied the idea all offerings should be given as freely as we would give water.
“True generosity is hard to come by,” he whispered. “The joy we receive in making others happy is actually a selfish act – we do it to feel happy ourselves.”
We paused before each of the saints depicted around the room, who had their own yonchaps. Michael explained their areas of influence: some helped the poor and destitute, the ill, and the injured in ways akin to the Catholic saints. It was familiar territory in brightly painted packages and saffron vestments.
Michael and I re-emerged into the light, donning our shoes again. He took me to another prayer installation composed of small metal mani wheels set to form a square under a canopy. We walked past each of the wheels, turning them in succession. The brass felt cool and almost abrasive as I turned each mani with my fingertips, watching them spin in our wake.
It wasn’t religion in my mind, but intention. We are sending out positive energy to the world, I thought, feeling a swell of my own selfish generosity.
“There’s one more thing I want to show you,” he said, stopping to pick up a key for a special temple. “Since you are wearing your girly shoes, we’ll drive up.” I glanced down at my heels and smirked. I rarely feel like a girly-girl, but my outfit that day –a sporty striped dress and 3-inch banana heels– wasn’t exactly Buddhist mountain retreat-appropriate.
We sailed upwards again, the switch-backs seeming even more acute, until we arrived at the top of the compound. As we approached the shrine, which was enclosed in glass doors, Michael explained that Buddhists believe we are living in degenerate times.
“The Buddha predicted that his teachings would disappear over thousands of years, resulting in theft, violence, murder, greed and poverty. Some people call it Degenerate Times or the Age of Dharma Decline. The teachings of the Buddha are still correct, but people will no longer be capable of following them. But, Buddhism is cyclical. At some point, a new Buddha will be born to ensure the continuity of Buddhism. That’s why this temple is important.”
As we entered, I craned my neck to take in the humongous gold statue spanning thirty feet above, seated squatly in the middle of the shrine. Red, green and white ribbons were strung through his hands; he held the right palm-up on his thigh while the fingertips of his left hand were raised to form the “OK” sign.
“That’s the next Buddha. He’s making a spiritual sign with his hand; it’s called a Mudra. It’s a sign of teaching and transmission of philosophy.”
We stepped gingerly in our bare feet around the temple as Michael explained the series of images on the walls. Like the Stations of the Cross in hyper-color, the pictures told the story of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. They depicted his self-mortification and suffering in images akin to Christ’s crucifixion, ultimately leading to his enlightenment and leadership.
We locked up the shrine and stepped quietly past a group of people learning tai chi on the lawn. I couldn’t stop hearing the phrase degenerate times in my mind. Degenerate has so many shades of meaning. Here on this mountaintop retreat, it was a lessening of potency leading to chaos. Back in the city, it is something aberrant or perverted; some look on counter-culture as degenerate. This is what society thought of surfers, hippies, socialists, communists and the Beat Generation. That’s how apostles were portrayed.
But, a sense of degeneracy depends on perspective. Something pure is lost, which indicates that, at some point, there was something ideal enough as to be considered pure.
Isn’t that how everyone sees the past? An era of better days that the imperfect present cannot touch? We white-wash memories of old loves, our high school or college days, cities we’ve lived in and times of good health, forgetting the twisted road that ran before and after those moments. We ignore the fact that those seemingly perfect eras weren’t so ideal when we were living them.
Even the struggles of our past are deified and purer in purpose, but only because we know how they turned out. It’s easier to review them in hindsight when we can give them context, when the pain is less raw. Perspective even lets us wonder at the possibility of alternate conclusions so that we can affirm our choice of the path at hand, as if true self-determination were possible and not left to the unfolding of nature and our mere responses to it.
Looking back, my own degenerate times began the day I learned that my mom had cancer — long before her surgery, rounds of chemo and radiation, the loss of her speech and, eventually, her death. Having to acknowledge at 13 that life was impermanent and truly unpredictable –that my mother’s previously infallible protection couldn’t surmount these forces– began the degeneracy of my own beliefs, and truly, what I came to see as a certain pointlessness in building a future that could be so easily swept away.
Privately, I felt that all was lost, and I hoped to be lost, too. I encouraged the universe to throw whatever it had at me. The harder the crucible crushed, the more resolved I became to defy it. I quietly hoped all the while that it would defy me.
I went through the motions of living for years. On one level, I clung to certain circumstances and people in a desperate attempt to force a sense of solidarity; on another, I smirked at the idea of ever living a happy, conventional life like most of my friends seemed to do. I spoke out of both sides of my mouth: afraid to let down my guard by trusting and investing in people who could hurt me or disappear without warning, though I desperately sought their intimacy. Yet, even in wanting that closeness, I assured myself that I could live much easier as a lone warrior, taking solace in my comfortable solitude.
Unlike even my close confidantes, I knew that I was the only person who I could count on to never let me down. I could demand anything of myself –even the seemingly impossible– and always deliver. Every day was a test of self-reliant brutality.
It’s only been in this year as I’ve traveled back and forth across the country that these two sides have begun to knit together. My friend, Angela, commented at a recent Jack Straw reading that this book is all about finding my mother; in a way, she’s right. Now that I’m fast approaching the age of her diagnosis –the age that changed everything for my childhood self, when the magic began to fail– I’m also meeting her for the first time. I’m picking up where a part of her left off, taking us both in brave new directions that we might not have otherwise traveled.
For the first time in decades, I don’t see it as a solo journey, and I don’t just mean me and my mom.
After all, when circumstances slip into degeneracy, no matter how low –or, perhaps, especially when all seems lost– they also present the opportunity for redemption. On the flip side of decline is hope.
“What’s this shrine called?” I asked as we got back into Michael’s car.
“It had another name before, but now they call it the Wish Fulfilling Temple.”
I nodded. Wishes, hope. I think they’re the same thing.