John Harvard's Journal
Zen, and Other Journeys
Recently, my mom was putting books onto a new bookshelf when a red one fell to the floor.
“What is this?” she asked, in a slightly offended voice.
“That’s mine,” I said, taking it from her. Though Lady of the Lotus Born isn’t exactly X-rated, it does contain a few racy scenes between Guru Rinpoche, Tibet’s great eighth-century Buddhist teacher, and his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal. I felt a little guilty as I remembered that for Tibetan Buddhists, it’s bad karma to mistreat a book, especially a dharma book —one that contains Buddhist teachings. You don’t run a highlighter over your favorite passages or write notes in the margins. If a book is dropped, its owner sometimes touches the cover to her forehead in a kind of blessing. I hesitated for a second, and then did the same.
I’m not a total believer in karma. But I still think about it every now and then when vestiges of my three-and-a-half months in Tibet, Nepal, and India turn up to haunt me: ticket stubs fall out of my wallet; glass bracelets and sandalwood beads appear in my sock drawer. Sometimes I come across a folded strand of prayer flags—each red, yellow, or blue cloth covered in beautiful, slanting Tibetan script. It throws me back to a time, four years ago, when I woke up to the sight of those colors strung across unfinished rooftops.
Like a number of Harvard students, I interrupted my path from high school to undergraduate life to wander. I deferred for a year, using the extra time to enroll in a Tibetan Buddhist studies program based in Katmandu. Every year, about 90 newly accepted students take time off, according to dean of admissions and financial aid William Fitzsimmons. “Almost everyone is better off [taking a gap year] before coming to college,” he explains. “The idea is that you have a whole new set of experiences that could well change the way you use your time.”
The reasoning runs even deeper: in an article called “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation,” Harvard admissions officers make an argument that extends beyond college applications and critiques the scramble for success that drives many of today’s students. In a culture where competition begins at age four, with pressure to get into the “right” pre-kindergarten, the article warns: “It is common to encounter even the most successful students…stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it. Professionals in their thirties and forties—physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others—sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering lifelong boot-camp….Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal.”
When I decided to take time off, I felt some of the “burn out” the article describes. High school, though fulfilling, had been a blur of homework, extracurricular activities, and intense relationships. In the middle of everything, my parents had divorced. Though they both supported my desire to immerse myself in a different culture, I could tell that my mother was anxious as she watched me pack T-shirts and water bottles into an enormous backpack. Neither of us knew precisely why I was leaving. To her, it might have seemed as if I were running away.
I told myself that I needed time to think. The irony was that once I’d arrived in Nepal, it took about 10 days before I could assemble a coherent thought. On a typical day, I woke up to the smell of burning garbage and the screech of a peacock that lived underneath my window. I washed my face in the bathroom down the hall, making sure not to get any water in my mouth (for fear of parasites), and brushed my teeth with boiled water. Then I wandered through a maze of narrow, muddy streets to Boudhanath Stupa, an enormous, semi-globular structure, a sacred Buddhist destination and the center of Tibetan life in Katmandu. The day’s business always began there, because that was where you could catch a taxi or arrange a meeting. I usually went to the stupa even without a specific purpose, to buy chai from one of the vendors and watch the crowds go by. I remember the sights I passed on the way: a stand where an old man sold Indian snacks in plastic bags; a construction site, where the same underground pipe was always being fixed, passersby weaving over narrow ridges of mud; a field with political symbols—a tree or a sun—painted on a brick wall, an effort to attract illiterate voters.
The stupa was literally swirling with life. Crowds of pilgrims walked around it in the traditional circumambulation or cora, mumbling mantras and prostrating themselves as they went. The movement of a prostration becomes quick and mechanical: you press your palms together, prayer-like, at the crown of your head, throat, and chest, then lie down, placing your forehead on the ground, before getting up to start all over again. One old man did thousands of these motions around the stupa every day. I joined him a few times, but usually stayed with the crowds who walked slowly around its perimeter, saying mantras and spinning metal prayer wheels. Each prostration before a sacred site, each circle completed, each mantra muttered and prayer wheel spun, accumulates good karma for this life and the next.
We learned about karma—the 11 college-bound American students on my program—during lessons on the concrete roof of the building where we lived. One way to understand it is to imagine every action as a seed being planted. Somewhere along the line, in this life or another, you experience the ripening of that action as happiness or pain. Our teachers were young, in their twenties or early thirties. Two were American, and two Tibetan. “Ganden” was Tibetan—tall and dignified, with a long, dark ponytail and a breathy accent. He was always attracting American women, who, it turned out, were in no short supply in Katmandu.
“They’re called Injees.”
“It comes from the word English. But it’s used for all white people.”
“What about German and French?”
“Injees. You’re Injee, too.”
We found that we weren’t the first Westerners to arrive in Katmandu in search of Eastern wisdom. The largest wave had come in the 1960s and ’70s. You could see the holdovers from that era, crusty expatriates in cafés downtown, or standing outside temples in sandals and loose, flowing pants. On the outskirts of the city, more recent arrivals—scholars with Northern European accents and a working knowledge of Sanskrit—studied with Tibetan monks in sleek, clean monasteries. Backpackers and climbers filtered in, passing through restaurants and Internet cafés, ordering plates of dal bhat, the staple Nepali dish of rice and lentils. It felt odd, exchanging knowing glances with these strangers. I hadn’t expected to be grouped with them, or to discover, through a slow accumulation of experiences, that I was a Westerner, too. Over time, I started to see whole sets of values and expectations—which I had once taken for granted—as far from inevitable. It had something to do with history and circumstance that I treasured personal rights, that I felt a sense of control over my life as a woman, that I’d never considered the possibility of reincarnation, and that I believed in the idea of a soul-mate. In our daily conversations, I could see the other American students stepping back from their culture, too. In a world where everything was new, it was both interesting and strange to know each other outside of any context. There was no scale of success, no fixed authority pointing out who had it right, and who didn’t.
Buddhism, despite its strange lexicon, often provided some startling insights. One day, our class went to hear a teaching by an Italian woman, one of the first Westerners to be ordained a Tibetan Buddhist nun. I remember the lesson, because it was unusual to be taught by both a Westerner and a woman, her white hair shaved close to her head, traditional purplish robes gathered at her waist. We sat cross-legged on the floor, sunlight spilling in from the open windows as she led us through one of the only meditations that ever worked for me. It was about compassion, a central feature of Mahayana Buddhism.
“I want you to think about your mother,” she said in a rich, calming voice, after we had spent a few minutes concentrating on our breathing. Normally, my mind rebelled at this point, flitting to any random thought or anxiety. But this time, I thought immediately of my mother, of the way she had watched me pack before I left, standing in the doorway of my room, her arms folded.
“Now I want you to think about how your mother cared for you when you were a baby—when you were too helpless to do anything for yourself.”
My eyes were closed, and I saw a picture from my room at home of my mother and me, when I was a baby and she was only 26. She had long, dark hair, and her head was bent toward me. My mouth was open. I had a streak of fuzz on my head, and I was drooling with happiness. Then the nun added gently, “Because of reincarnation, everyone in this world has been born again and again, into many different lives. That means that at one point, everyone has been a mother.”
I thought of all the other “mothers” in my family: my dad; my brother and sister. I thought of how they had each cared for me, and of how they had changed lately—the fragility that had crept into all of our relationships, the pain of divorce. The nun let out a long, slow breath.
“Now I want you to think of a stranger. Someone you don’t know. Because of the cycle of life, everyone has been born thousands and thousands of times, and we have all come in contact with one another.”
I thought of the guests at the big hotel frequented by international travelers, who sipped cocktails and milled around the lobby. Then I thought of the people I passed on my walk to the stupa, and I settled on the shopkeeper, the man with the sour face who drank chai from a tin cup and sold Indian snacks.
“At one point,” the nun said, “this person has been your mother. They have cared for you when you were helpless. I want you to imagine this.”
She let the room grow quiet while I imagined it, thinking of the snack vendor as the sun heated my shoulders and my hair. She told us to do the same with our enemies, with people long dead, even with animals: we were to imagine that they, too, had been our mothers. I don’t know exactly how long it took. But when the nun told us to get up, I was aware of nothing more than my breathing and the feeling of sunlight. We got up slowly, shook the blood back into our aching legs, and stumbled downstairs onto the frantic street. Stepping outside, I was reminded of the first time I tried on contact lenses. Everything seemed clear and precise, as if I had never actually seen before.
I’ve tried meditation a few times since, but never with much success. When I got back from Asia, I spent the next part of my year off at home in Boston, doing office work and organizing slides at my grandmother’s landscape-architecture firm. In the mornings, I climbed on the T alongside crowds of other commuters, who clutched Starbucks cups and wore running shoes with their suits. Once in a while, I meditated on the train, whispering mantras—Om mani padme hum—to its repetitive motion.
At some point midway through my freshman year at Harvard, I realized that I’d lost the habit, along with a host of others: gesturing with an open palm, speaking softly, and treating books with respect. Eventually, I realized I’d stopped second-guessing myself before saying disparaging things about other people, and that, once again, I’d started thinking of the East Coast, this tiny slice of human experience, as the whole universe. I still had my memories of Asia, but my changed state of mind became one of the habits I slowly—and with twinges of guilt—let go upon coming back to the States.
The Harvard admissions office promotes the idea of a year off as, among other things, a way to reshape the life you make for yourself in college. There are few drawbacks, Fitzsimmons says: “Many people feel it’s much easier to fit into the college community after taking time off. Parents worry that their kids might lose their academic edge, but the truth is, they usually come back more enthusiastic, because their education is much moretheirs.” To some degree, I found this to be true: I came to college with a sense of myself as a free agent, something that I don’t think would have happened otherwise. And yet, as I introduced myself to people in Annenberg and sat down in a crowded lecture room to take the math placement test, I also felt a deep sense of alienation from my peers and my surroundings. I did my best to bridge it. Like everyone else, I wanted a feeling of belonging—happiness, freedom from pain. And yet part of me inferred from those first few weeks that if I was going to enjoy college life, I might have to put aside some of my newfound wisdom.
At times I wondered if my year off had put a damper on my college experience, making me less amenable to the narrow, fast pace of undergraduate life. That was until lately, when, studying for my last exams, I felt pangs of that familiar “burn-out.” Rather than an odd preparation for college, the stillness of my time in Katmandu—and the self-knowledge I gained from it—have started to seem like a boon to me. That year has become a version of the stupa, something I will continue to circle around, and touch from time to time, even if I never understand it all at once. The memories ripen and return to me with strange consequences. When I opened that book on Yeshe Tsogyal, I read one of its haunting verses—part of this woman’s tearful farewell to her followers, which she delivers before passing on to immortality: “This body, formed of flesh and blood…The way for it to voyage through the sky/Is meditation on the subtle veins and energies…‘Accomplishment,’ so called, is nothing else than that.”