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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, May 22, 2005

cleaning the office

A rainy, cold, blustery day. As Kimmie says, more like March than May. After I did my morning notes (True Believer; History of the Jews in Babylonia), we walked under my umbrella to Mount Royal Bagels on Queensbury and bought half a dozen fresh ones, plus some cream cheese. This was our breakfast when we returned.

I lazed around awhile playing electronic solitaire on a handheld gizmo I gave Kimmie for Christmas (she loves games), then decided to make a start on straightening my office. I had freed up three bookshelves by moving books upstairs to new space in the livingroom shelves, so I moved books from stacks to shelves. I had to record some of them in an Excel workbook I keep called Book Inventory. Intended as a record for insurance purposes, I record each book, its category, author, ISBN, and price. The total dollar value of each category is summed at the top of each spreadsheet. I just created a formula to sum all the dollar totals: $20,735--not including fiction, which I haven't entered yet.

With that start made, I moved on to recycling useless paper and archiving file folders I'd left lying around. Then I took down my shrine. This was an overdue and poignant task. It was something I'd avoided because of the symbolic watershed it represents: I have given up the practice and study of dharma. When I tell people this, they nod acceptingly, as though it were simply a normal choice. But for me it isn't: I have been a serious student of the Buddhadharma, and have taken refuge vows, bodhisattva vows, and even certain vajra vows as a Vajrayana student, as well as sundry vows as a meditation instructor, a Shambhala Training assistant director, and a member of the Dorje Kasung (a kind of enlightened police force created by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan guru who brought this lineage of practice to the West in 1970). It is no light thing for me to acknowledge formally that I am no longer actively practicing it. Since, from the Buddhist point of view, the alternative is to continue wandering in samsara, the realm of endless suffering and dissatisfaction that is experienced by all non-buddhas (best definition of samsara that I've found: wanting things to be other than they are), it is the Buddhist equivalent of choosing damnation over salvation.

In fact it was less a choice than a realization of something that had already happened. I realized that I can no longer be a follower of others' truths, no matter how profound or perfect. I had been losing compression in my meditation practice for some time. My break from the dharma came, paradoxically, during my sojourn as a monk at Gampo Abbey in 2002, even as I was having some of the most wonderful and profound experiences of my life and was being exposed to the most profound teachings.

For a long time I thought there was something wrong with me--and maybe there is. But I don't think so. When my left Achilles tendon snapped--painlessly--during a tennis game in Sackville, New Brunswick, while I was at a one-month dharma-study intensive called Nitartha Institute (sponsored and taught by the Tibetan guru Pönlöp Rinpoche), I knew that the gods--my daimon, guardian angel, someone--were sending me home. I felt a sense almost of joy as I was rushed to Moncton for surgery. When I'd got home and recovered from my injury I tried to resume my meditation practice, but my heart wasn't in it.

There is the clue. I had found a new leader: my heart. I will follow it where it takes me, whithersoever that may be, samsara or nirvana.

Now the shrine that has stood on the west wall of my office since 1994 has been decommissioned. The stand that had held offering-bowls and images of teachers below a thangka of Vajradhara, the primordial Buddha of Vajrayana, has become a simple white Ikea cabinet, topped with a custom-made sheet of glass, against a plain wall the color of bluebells.

The office is still not completely clean and tidy (could still use a vacuum, among other things). But the rest of the job will be easier.

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