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The Discovery of the High Lama

The older I get, the more I am astonished by this trickster hand of time.

     Look at all the boys we thought would go on to become doctors and engineers. They became lafanka men playing guitar in Thamel. And all the lafanka ones went on to become stars in unexpected places. One boy who came last in class throughout his school days won a scholarship to study fashion design in New York. Another boy, who was the top student of our batch, became so disheartened after Harvard rejected his application he spent the next decade drinking in the Bamboo café, talking sadly about his plans to be a chemical engineer.

     But the most surprising story of all was Bigyan's. Did you ever meet him? He was one of the boys who played in the Dead Rose Tigerbalm band in the Insight Bar. Yes, that's right - the guitarist. He had that curly hair always slick with gel, and the dreadful pair of sunglasses. He wore that Pakistani imported leather jacket with a big white yin-yang patch on the back.

     "What's up with the yin-yang, Bigyan?" I said, slapping him on the back as he sat there on a high chair at the Maya Bar. He was drinking Mr. Everest whiskey. I had recently returned to Kathmandu for the winter vacations. A scholarship to study environmental science had taken me to Boston, where I had acquired a taste for pizza and a penchant for long-haired hippie girls with liberal tendencies. Now, sitting down in the chair next to Bigyan, I felt myself so much more hip, elevated and distant from this backwater than I could ever have imagined.

     He grinned that lop-sided grin, strummed a few chords on the guitar, and then looked up. "I thought it looked cool," he said, without apparent irony. I wanted to give him a lecture on the meaning of the two signs, their gendered implications, the way Eastern spirituality was being exoticized, appropriated and marketed by the West to advance its own values of profit-driven, globalized capitalism and destroying the world with its crass materialism. Then I restrained myself. He wouldn't understand anyway, I thought as I pulled up a chair. "Looks like you're pretty deep into this spirituality game, Bigyan. Trying to find god with the rest of the world travelers, huh?" Only a moron would have missed the note of sarcasm in my voice, but it flew over Bigyan.

<  2  >

     He grinned and replied, "Yin and yang is fashion, Prakash. Like headbanging." That, in short, summed up his understanding of spirituality.

     After my school leaving exams, I applied to colleges in the States. I waited for almost a year to find out the admission decisions. That year was the most torturous one of my life. I spent those twelve months with Bigyan and four other boys who are now scattered in Europe and Australia. Every time I met Bigyan, he raved about some defunct heavy metal band from the eighties like Cinderella. Or some defunct rock band from the seventies like Uriah Heep. Their band did the cover of Santana's Black Magic Woman each and every night, sometimes twice a night. If it wasn't Santana, it was Bob Marley. No Woman, No Cry. I almost cried from the boredom of it all.

     Bigyan took pity on my miserable existence. "I see potential in you, brother," he said. "You'd make a great backup guitarist for our band. Come practice. Just in case this college thing doesn't work out." He strummed a riff from the Roadhouse Blues. "Hear this? Show me how you can do it." My stumbling version impressed him. That night, he took me to meet another band - the Spiders of Sex - who met to practice in his living room. They had a jargon all their own. "Hey bro, can I borrow your wah-wah? Your crybaby?" a dashing musician with a ponytail and a t-shirt with two embroidered eyes asked. The room smelled heavily of pot. The drummer handed over a foot-pedal, and I realized what they were talking about. The boys told me people who followed Nirvana were cool, Pearl Jam were cooler and Jim Morrison were coolest. When they ran out of covers, they sang awful Nepali pop songs in the same vocal style as Mariah Carey, a quiver at the end accentuating the agony of lost love. That was Kathmandu as I knew it.

     Bigyan was a friend of mine from Class One. We were in Budanilkantha Boys' Boarding School together. His parents named him Bigyan - not after bigyan, the science of the West, but the bigyan or inner knowledge of the East. Bigyan, unfortunately, was not endowed with the intellect that his name hinted at. He had a comfortable reputation in school as the stupidest boy from our batch. It took him three days to learn the same poem from Mahendra Mala that the rest of us learnt in an hour. He lived in the room next door to me, with his sweaty vests and underwear piled high on the bed.

<  3  >

     "Prakash, I think I am going to fail again," he would say despairingly.

     "Don't despair, Lwang-ay," I would console him. "At least you're not retarded like Ganesh Sir's son." Ganesh Sir's son, taking advantage of his father's authority, smoked too much ganga. He could barely speak a coherent sentence during class time, or outside. Bigyan would read the same poem over and over, and still wouldn't be able to memorize it. He would get down from his bed and do some quick push-ups to stimulate his blood circulation, but the poor boy's brain was so bodho it took him hours to memorize a line.

 

Mero pyaro Okhaldhunga

     Mero pyaro Okhaldhunga

 

He repeated over and over, and then beat his head with his fists in sheer frustration. "Prakash, help me," he begged. "I can't remember a thing."

     "Try repeating it a hundred times," I said. My tone was causal, with that pitiless humor that boys use with each other.

     "I do. It still doesn't work."

     "What are you going to give me in return?"

     "A plate of alu-dum," he replied.

     "Your brain is stuffed with potatoes, all you have to do is to scoop some out." He would always grin meekly at these potato jokes made at his expense. He needed to finish his homework and avoid reprimands from teachers. The best way was to suck up to us. I took the book from him, and read the lines out, slowly, very slowly - my tone hinting at his retarded mental progress. "Repeat after me," I would say hypnotically. It would take us a while, but he would eventually remember a line. That's how he finally passed his SLC exams - along with a few cryptic notes he had scribbled in his pencil box, and that folded piece of paper with all of the algebra formulas and geometrical theorems he had tucked inside his socks.

     Bigyan was not good at math or science, everybody agreed. But he had a hidden card up his sleeve. When he was five, his father, who was in the Sports Council and had been a well-known athlete in his days, insisted he learn kyo-kushin karate. Why he chose karate as the sport of choice was unknown. What was exceedingly clear was that Bigyan, from day one, excelled at it. Chopping boards to bits with the palms of his hands was as easy as peeling an orange. This skill won unadulterated admiration from his teenaged classmates. By the time he was sixteen, Bigyan had a black belt. That was his saving grace. That's what allowed him a chance to travel. At a time when most of his friends were getting scholarships and flying off to study in the US or Europe, he was invited to take part in a tournament in Mongolia.

<  4  >

     That's when this crazy story starts. Bigyan got a phone-call one morning from the National Sports Council. His old coach Jagat Lama sounded stern as he asked the question over the phone: "Can you come with us?" Can I? thought Bigyan, looking out of his window at the tree heavy with crinkled pink asaray flowers. His band was slated to play for the bar that Sunday. His boys would be immensely disappointed if their guitarist failed to show up. But then he thought about Mongolia - a word rife with unknown vistas, kilometers of red sand and stone, men and women with ruddy cheeks and good health. I've never traveled outside Kathmandu, he reminded himself. Mingma was a good guitarist - he had jammed with the band so often he could take over if there was an emergency. And this, thought Bigyan, is an emergency. I need to go to Mongolia. Mingma could have his big break with music while Bigyan traveled.

     "I can come," he said definitively. "Good," said Jagat, clearing his throat. Bigyan was his best student. Jagat knew that the team would have no chance of winning without him. The click of the phone at the other end signaled the end of the conversation, and Bigyan was left staring at the receiver. Then he did a little dance around his room. Mongolia! Wait till he told the other boys about it!

     At the airport, the coach's wife, along with the secretaries at the Sports Council, showed up with a bucket full of marigold garlands.

     "I've never had this much flowers put on my neck before," whispered Bigyan to Motu as he felt the heavy flowers descend on his neck and a subtle floral scent overpowered his nostrils. Motu, the nickname, belonged to Rajesh, a lean karate black-belt Bigyan had known since childhood. Rajesh was named "Fattie" because he used to be enormously obese, due to all the ice-cream that his parents, who owned an ice-cream outlet, fed him as a child. Fourteen years of karate had reduced his body to a plank-hard thickness, but the name had never left him.

     "I'm leaving the country for the first time," said Motu, his eyes gleaming. It looked as if Motu had tears of excitement in his eyes.

<  5  >

     "So am I," said Bigyan.

     "Sometimes sportsmen leave the country for a tournament, and they never return," said Motu, digging his elbow into Bigyan and raising his voice to a meaningful whisper.

     "Well, we'll be back," Bigyan said in a voice loud enough to be overheard. He had just glimpsed his coach turn with a raised eyebrow as he overheard the last part of their conversation. He didn't want to leave a trail of intention behind, just in case he - like all the sportsmen before him who had gone before him to foreign countries and then disappeared - decided not to return.

     After an hour of waiting, they walked up the shaky steps of a metal ladder into the cabin of the airplane. "What a gigantic airplane!" marveled Motu.

     "Yes, but there is barely room to stretch our legs," Bigyan said, as he tried to squeeze his lanky frame into the seat. A pretty stewardess came around with a plate full of sweets in shiny, colorful wrappers. Amongst the sweets were balls of cotton wool. Bigyan grabbed a fistful of sweets in his hands. The ball of cotton wool baffled him. He took a wad anyway, and surreptitiously put it inside his pocket.

     When they got to Ulan Batar, Bigyan and his teammates were herded into a big car, and driven straight to a hotel. The hotel room had twin beds with clean white sheets. Two clean towels hung in the bathroom. On top of the commode was a bamboo basket with a miniature bar of soap, and a tiny bottle of shampoo. After marveling at these innovations, Bigyan and Motu, who were sharing the room, fell asleep.

     The next morning, they were driven to the building where the tournament was being held. The hall was big, with polished wooden floors. "I feel so nervous, Bigyan," whispered Motu. "I feel like I am going to vomit. Don't you?" "No," said Bigyan. The hall, with its stack of boards and blue foam mattresses, felt familiar to him. In fact, he saw no difference between this hall and the one he used to practice in Kathmandu.

<  6  >

     "You are so bodo, yaar," said Motu with a flash of irritation. "Here we are, in the middle of Mongolia, surrounded by teams from all over the world, about to compete in a world tournament. And you act like you're still turning cartwheels in Dashrat Rangashala."

     Bigyan let the voice of his friend fade out from his consciousness. Motu is nervous, he thought, he's going to make me lose my concentration. Breaking a board in Ulan Batar was not that different from breaking a board in Kathmandu, after all. When his name was finally called, Bigyan almost didn't understand the shaky, jarred syllables, and the coach had to gesture to him. "Your turn!" he said, giving him a big thumbs-up. He walked ahead, his entire thought concentrated on the task before him. "I am going to win a medal for Nepal," he thought, and as this thought crossed his mind, he had a clear image of himself flying through the air doing back flips like he had never done before. He noticed the faces of his teammates in the crowd. He saw himself moving forward effortlessly, and then realized midway that he was in full flight. His body flew through the routine with an ease and effortlessness that surprised him.

     "He's too stupid to be nervous," Motu whispered with a flash of jealousy to the coach.

     "Shh!" the coach said, his hands clutching the bar in front of him with an iron-hard grip.

     Bigyan's palm chopped down vertically on a stack of wooden boards. His hands cut through them and they disintegrated like soft cardboard. At the end of his routine, the crowd gave a rousing round of applause. Bigyan emerged out of his trance-like state. He walked towards his coach and said evenly, "Was that okay, Dai?"

     The coach punched him in the stomach. With a suppressed smile, he said: "I think that was all right, Bigyan."

     Bigyan won the silver medal. "Badai, badai," the team said to him as they surrounded him. Motu mock-punched him. Bigyan, with lightning flex reaction, did the same. Along with the silver medal, Bigyan received an unexpected bounty - a cash prize. Bigyan looked at the large and colorful notes in his hand and couldn't believe his luck. For the first time in his life, he had done something worthwhile that none of his friends could disqualify. "You lucky idiot!" said Motu, giving him a big hug. "What are you going to do with all this money? You have to take us partying! "

<  7  >

     Bigyan looked down at the colorful paper money and made a decision. He had always wanted to travel around the world. Now he would have stories to tell his classmates next time they came around, and photographs to prove his achievement. With a wad of cash in his hands, it was the perfect time. "I am throwing a party," he said. "And then I am going to travel."

     "I would like to travel around a bit before I return home, Dai," Bigyan said to his coach the next morning. They all had a splitting headache from the generous quantities of local alcohol they had consumed the night before. The strong tea helped only a little. Coach Lama, who had an adventurous streak in him, agreed with just a moment of hesitation. "You are old enough to travel by yourself. I can't stop you, but don't get lost," he added with a smile. "Your mother left you in my charge."

     "One minute," Coach Lama said, delving into his bag. He pressed something cold and metallic in Bigyan's hand. "And keep this medal with you." The silver disk dangled on the ribbon as Bigyan held it out. It swung gently to and fro, a memento of the only time in his life when he had excelled and done something for himself and his country that other people could be proud of. My friends may have all attended colleges in America, he thought, but I bet they haven't won a silver medal for their country.

     Bigyan sat down on the bed and made up an itinerary for himself that included all the main karate hotspots in the country. The Mongolian team had enthusiastically given him their contact numbers and addresses. Bigyan did not talk much, but he was an entertainer blessed with a guitar and a heavy-metal voice. Bigyan spent a long and pleasant week travelling around the country, staying at the house of karate practitioners in different regions of the country. The women, he was pleasantly surprised to find, had no inhibitions like their Nepali counterparts, and he spent a few blissful nights sleeping with women whose bodies were almost as strong as his own.

<  8  >

     A week later, he was riding down a dusty desert road when the truck suddenly slowed down. Bigyan looked at the driver. The driver, old and cantankerous, got down and started to mumble as he inspected the tire. The front tire looked like it was slowly but surely losing all its air pressure. "Well?" Bigyan asked. "You've got a spare, haven't you?" The old man glowered at him, and then went to the back of the truck, where he squatted. Deliberately, he took out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, and started to smoke. Bigyan realized, after a quarter of an hour, that the old man was not going to move until another vehicle came down the road and lent him a spare tire.

     He shaded his eyes and looked at the horizon. Far off in the distance, he saw the colorful flutter of flags of a monastery. I might be able to get a ride from there, he thought. He was tired of his attempts to communicate with the old man, who maintained an obstinate silence. After paying him the promised fare, Bigyan took off in the direction of the monastery. It was farther than he thought it was, and it took him almost two hours to reach it. By the time he got close enough to see it clearly, it was almost evening and the sun was starting to set.

     A battalion of monks were arrayed outside the monastery, dressed in bright orange robes. They held a number of big gongs and drums in their hands. He saw two old monks holding silver ornaments and fans with white horsehair. As he came nearer, they started to blow and bang on their instruments. "What's going on?" thought Bigyan. He must be disturbing some important ceremony. He wanted to hold back and only approach the monastery when the ceremony was over, but his need for a glass of water, and more importantly, a toilet, overrode his nervousness. He felt jittery when he saw them all bowing towards him as he came nearer. Wondering whether to stop or go forward, Bigyan felt himself propelled forward. Besides the monks, there was nobody in sight for miles. "I hope they don't mistake me for somebody else," he thought.

<  9  >

     The head lama, a venerable old man with a flowing white head of hair, came towards him and bowed very low.

     "Please accept our prostrations, gracious teacher," the man said in fluent but accented English. Bigyan shifted his backpack on his perspiring back and pushed his sunglasses higher up on his head. Having an old monk address him in these terms made him supremely uncomfortable. He had visited a few monasteries in Kathmandu before, and had seen the monks treated with a large and generous respect. Seeing one bow before him made him break out in a cold sweat.

     "I am not lama," he said in his broken English, bowing even lower. You would think that after twelve years in boarding school, he would speak tolerable English, but no, not Bigyan. There was something wrong with his brain, I am certain.

     The oldest lama gave him a commanding stare and said, "Your arrival was predicted. We have been waiting for you for the last week."

     "I am karate master," Bigyan said in a panic, suddenly afraid he would be physically seized and imprisoned by these monks in this god-forsaken corner of the planet.

     "Master, master," the monks said, bowing even lower towards him. He was their newly discovered lama, the one who was predicted to walk off the desert after having traveled thousands of miles from a distant land. An excited buzz preceded him. The old man, a big smile firmly pasted on his face, took him by the elbow and pushed him ahead in the flow of the pageantry.

     They pushed him inside the large wooden gates of the monastery. Inside was a hallway with high ceilings, and fat columns richly decorated with red paint and golden curlicues, like the tail of a dragon. The walls were filled with mythical characters in all shapes and sizes - dragons and beasts and Buddhas and guardian figures, all flying through beautifully shaped clouds in blue and white. Bigyan looked in front of him and gasped - before him was a Buddha so enormous he had to stretch his neck up to look at its head. The Buddha was painted a bright yellow, and around his arms was an orange robe with folds of realistic looking wrinkles. The Buddha smiled a classically mysterious smile.

<  10  >

     Bigyan was escorted towards the dais below the Buddha. Before he could protest, they had pushed him down on the worn red velvet, and placed a number of objects before him. There were books, jeweled boxes, turquoise lockets, prayer wheels with ancient scrolls inside them, and even a number of dot-pens. "Choose," the old monk commanded. Desperately needing to go to the bathroom and relieve his bladder of the pressure that was building up inside him, Bigyan hastily picked up a book, a beautifully inset jeweled box, a locket, a prayer wheel with a manageable handle, and a pen with a silver cap.

     "It is he!" the awed proclamation broke the hush, and a booming of trumpets and clashing of gongs that followed was so loud and Bigyan discreetly took the wad of cotton wool he had taken from the airplane out of his pocket and stuffed it in his eardrums. The old monk told him: "You are our new incarnate lama. We were in search of you. You come in time."

     Bigyan, who could barely hear the lama through the cotton wool, wondered if he would be able to give the three hundred monks the slip and find himself a safe corner of the garden where he could take a piss. After that, he could borrow some food, and try to find his way back to a road that would eventually lead to Ulan Batar. "Tell me," said the old monk, seeing the look of distress on his face. "What would you like to do now?"

     Finally! thought Bigyan. "Old Master, I need a toilet," he whispered discreetly. The old man nodded, and then walked briskly down the hallway. Before he knew it, he was inside a bathroom, and just in time. A flow of warm piss came out of him and his breath came out of him in a big sigh of automatic release. Thank god he hadn't been forced to take a leak in front of the Buddha! And then it finally hit him: Shit! I think they just ordained me as some sort of leader of this monastery.

     Walking out of the bathroom, Bigyan noticed his step was lighter and more authoritative. Okay, he thought, if they think I am their leader, I will play the part. After all, am I not a silver medal winner for my country?

<  11  >

     A wave of sudden hunger cramped his stomach muscles as he came out and was escorted to the main hall. He did not have long to wait. A bowl of steaming hot soup, a plate of dumplings and some noodles were put in front of him, and he ate with gusto. He wondered, as he chewed, if he had really chosen the belongings of a dead lama, or whether the monks had decided he was a fine-looking specimen from some unknown country who couldn't speak their language and wouldn't give them a great deal of trouble as their newly anointed leader. If you saw this man, you would be as surprised as he was himself. He was the stupidest boy in the class, believe me.

     Over the next three days, the old monks performed many ceremonies involving large, colorful masks, and circular dancing, and the blowing of ten foot long trumpets. There was a lot of pine and cedar incense, and a lot of deep chanting. Bigyan was so bewildered by it all he forgot to ask if there was a phone in the premises so he could call his parents and tell them he had been chosen to be the new high abbot of a monastery in Mongolia. He would find out later that they had filed a report with the police in Kathmandu claiming him as irrevocably lost in a foreign land. When he realized that the monks had no intention of letting him go, Bigyan took the sunglasses off his head, and allowed them to wrap him in the flowing robes. His silver medal was discreetly hidden in the back pocket of his jeans, which he folded and kept underneath his pillow, just in case he needed to escape. He felt the hard, round shape of the silver medal on his head as he slept, as if to remind him that he was indeed, a winner.

     I don't know how long Bigyan spent in Mongolia after his initiation. He must have spent a few years there, learning the language, the texts and the vocabulary. Anyways, the next thing we knew Bigyan was travelling around the world on the lecture circuit, talking about Buddhism. The sudden, lavish adulation must have come as a welcome surprise to a man used to being dismissed for his intellectual inferiority.

<  12  >

     "This life isn't so bad after all," he assured the Thamel boys who came to see him when he finally arrived in Kathmandu three years after his supposed demise. His visit was accompanied by a lot of fanfare - special archways in Boudha, red carpets in monasteries. The boys, who had gone to see if they could re-recruit Bigyan back for the Dead Rose Tigerbalm band - he was, after all, one of the best guitarists they ever had - returned disappointed. Bigyan told them that part of his life was irrevocably over. He spent every summer in the South of France, where French monks lined up to receive his blessings and listen to his talks. During the other months, he visited the United States, where people drove thousands of miles across the vast continent to receive his teachings. He was asked to name babies, to give blessings to newly wed couples, and to initiate new students into the tradition. People from the West fought to be his disciples. Three of them had already written books based on his lectures. Then, in December, I heard a group of his followers were erecting a monastery in Boulder to disseminate his philosophy. Bigyan, now known as the Venerable Abbot, would be holding talks all through the winter.

     How could all that be possible? we wondered in amazement. Bigyan was the least intelligent boy from our batch - I don't dare to use the word "dull" for fear of sounding mean - but I have to say there are few other words to describe his intellect. How could this man give lectures on such profound topics? He could barely remember a four line poem - how could he give nuanced lectures on the finer points of philosophy, on the knower and the known, the perceiver and the perceived?

     "Perhaps he suddenly became enormously wise and learned after being recognized as a lama," Mingma said charitably. "Perhaps he had all these memories from a past life that came back after he was recognized by the monks." But no matter how many explanations and justifications my friends gave me, I had a hard time believing my former classmate Bigyan suddenly became a learned teacher steeped in the profound truths of the universe.

<  13  >

     On a Monday evening, I drove out from my office into a highway jammed with cars. The traffic was crawling. I felt a sudden irritation, a sense of déjà vu, a feeling of being lost in a place and time from which it was impossible to extricate myself. My Palo Alto home felt far away, and as I sat there listening to the weather update - a sudden thunderstorm riding in from the East - I had a sudden urge to turn my car around and drive off to Boulder. To the monastery where Bigyan sat, giving lectures on ancient wisdom. I wanted to hear what he had to say. I wanted to see with my own eyes how he had changed from the class clown to one of the wise men of the planet. I thought about my wife, who was waiting for me at home, and my daughter, who expected her father to return in a few hours. I could not, in all good faith, take off to an unknown destination, even to check on the eccentricities of my former classmates.

     At the tollbooth, the car ahead of me was having an argument with the toll-collector. I waited with an increasing sense of impatience, as if the minute it took for me to reach the scratched glass and hand over my dollars was too long to wait. I had an intense urge to know whether Bigyan really had an inner awakening that fired up his neurons and turned him into a scholar learned in the texts of a two thousand five hundred year old tradition, or whether he was still the bodho friend who needed a man to read him his lines.

     I picked up my cell-phone, and dialed. "Darshana?" I said. "Listen, I have to fly down to Boulder for a very important meeting." I could not stop myself. I could have told her the real reason and she would not have stopped me, but habit is a strange companion. And I had gotten into the habit of lying. There was silence. I wondered if I had been cut off. I could hear the last echo of my own voice. Was she still there?

<  14  >

     "I will drive Munni to the doctor tomorrow," she said. Although she did not say anything, I could already sense her disappointment. Munni had a doctor's appointment tomorrow, and I had promised to take her there. But my wife was so used to my sudden changes in plans she did not even ask me where I was going. She must know by now that all of my business trips were not always for business, and that often I had left her alone in the apartment while I partied with my male friends. And occasionally, there had been a woman. But Darshana had never asked me where I had been, or what I did during my weekends. Sometimes her silence made me guilty. At other times, I wished she would open up my briefcase, poke around, go through my pockets and find the lipstick stain or smell of a woman's perfume that would finally bring our stagnant relationship to a new level. "When will you be back?"

     "Tomorrow afternoon," I said. As the line went dead, I stared at the phone, then put it in the dashboard and sped to the airport. American Airlines to Denver was miraculously half-empty. When the plane touched down, I hired a car and drove down to Boulder. I seemed to be under some strange compulsion that would not stop me till my questions were answered.

     The monastery where Bigyan was teaching was easily located through an Internet search. As I drove down in the car, I wondered if my trip, taken on a hunch, was going to turn out to be a wild-goose chase. What am I doing? I thought, as I drove down the exit. This was a long trip to take to satisfy my curiosity. It was almost eight pm by then. I was tired from the big day of meetings with a client. The client, from a large corporate house, had asked my boss to talk to me specifically. We had laughed and chatted and at the end of a few hours I had made him sign on the dotted line. I should be at work tomorrow to take the credit, not in Boulder on some dead-end trip.

<  15  >

     The meditation hall, when I entered it, rustled with saffron and mauve robes. It was painted red and gold, like the monasteries of Nepal. The men and women both had shaved heads, and were counting their beads with various signs of attentiveness and devotion. I sidled down the crowded aisle and found myself a seat at one corner. Finally, a big gong went off. Bigyan, surrounded by a big entourage, walked briskly down the hall. He strode briskly down the hall while people rustled and bowed around him. I almost laughed out loud.

     "Lets talk about peace," Bigyan said. I hid my grin behind a cupped palm. I was feeling revived. The microphone whined for a moment, and then went back to a normal level. "If water is left undisturbed, water remains clear and transparent." He gave a big smile, like he had just made a big statement. "So with our minds. To let the mind rest in a state of peace is Buddhist spiritual practice."

     The whispers quieted down. For a moment, the hectic work-day, frantic buzz of the airport, the mad rush of the highway - all of which had hammered their way into my body for the last eight hours - seemed to fall away like a snowflake in the ripples of that quiet voice. It seemed to float down the cool, dim hall. I had forgotten what a gentle voice he had.

     "There are lots of obstacles to peace," the voice continued. "Before, people used to live in simple lifestyles. Simple food, simple clothes. Now it's more jealousy, more competition. Wealthy countries and children suffer because there is no meaning."

     I felt embarrassed by the simplicity of his ideas. Was this going to turn out to be a discourse on the meaningful East versus the meaningless West?

     He gave a big smile. "Disturbing emotions arise from the things we see, things we hear and things we taste. But these things have no reality. No reality."

     The silence resounded in the hall. "What we mean by practice? Practice is to change the mind in positive way. In practice, we heal our own minds with a sense of clarity and brightness."

<  16  >

     I would be watching the news on television if I were home at this time, I thought. There was something about my classmate's voice that was infinitely more soothing, more calm than any CNN announcer. As I sat there listening to him talk on the different types of consciousness, I suddenly felt like these were things I had always known. Yet he explained it with a freshness that could not be explained away by mere déjà vu. He put intuitive understanding into words so clear I could almost see it. That vague yearning that never left me - which I had attributed to my own restless and fickle nature - suddenly came back.

     I had, in the scheme of both East and West, done pretty well for myself. I had graduated with a double degree in computer science and economics from an Ivy League college (the environmental science major had been chucked out of the window after my first year), fallen in love and married a beautiful woman, had a lovely child who attended one of the best schools, bought a house in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Palo Alto, and drove a Jaguar. I had felt so complete in my assurance about my own superiority - intellectual and material - in comparison to the least successful boy in class. But had I missed something I was not even aware of, I wondered. All those black holes of comprehension and yearnings for something otherworldly had not been filled by a spectacular rise in salary, or even an employee of the year award. Even that splashy exhibition of my paintings which acknowledged my inner artist and was attended by the edgy glitterati of NYC, had not been enough. Even the women I had slept with had not done anything to fill the vastness of the void.

     "Compassion," Bigyan said. Then he coughed. The hall waited. "Compassion is something…" He stopped to search his memory for an appropriate word. "…intrinsic," he continued, smiling at his inadequate vocabulary - "to all sentient beings." That was the moment when I felt a peculiar feeling of awe and shame, a sudden awakening of neurons that flooded my body. Compassion, that overused word, was something I would never get to feel or understand, unless this was it - this flood of kindness that washed away my existential tiredness, my feelings of inadequacy that no matter how hard I tried it would still not be enough, the feeling that love would always elude me even when I was in the midst of it - and the gentleness I felt was for myself, for my own beliefs and assumptions, my own life. Bigyan, finally true to his name, had dissected life with the simple science of inner knowledge. And I, sitting in the corner with my own baggage, could only wait for him to finish so I could ask him some questions.

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