An Aspiring Tantrika's Tale
Published on 29 November 2021
By the time I left my mother’s womb and my tiny eyes opened on this world, it had been more than 2,500 years since you, my Lord, temporarily closed your external, compassionate eyes. I never met you in the flesh – in that I was unfortunate. But I did have the great good fortune to glimpse not only my Lord’s glory but also the genius of your illustrious progeny.
We may now be witnessing the beginning of the end of your reign on this earth – the dimming of your guiding light and the hardening of the hearts of the earth dwellers who once held you, and those like you, so dear. For myself, the rich abundance, and the care and compassion of each and every word you uttered gives me goose bumps. My eyes fill with tears of wonder at your example. From one whose heart is cold and whose head is swollen with pride, this says a lot.
As I wend my way through a Canadian rain forest of great cedars and along the banks of a brilliant, turquoise lake, rays from the very same sun that warmed your skin 2,500 years ago strike the surface of the water and dazzle me.
Your path, the path you laid out for us, tells us how to live on this earth, how to just see a dewdrop, how to just be in a sudden gust of wind, how to fully be with the taste of tea – how to get by until our final breath. But it was never your intention to stop there. You had a vested interest in our awakening that drove you to steer us towards a higher truth. You schemed and plotted until every word that passed your lips was calculated to lure us towards the perfect understanding of that truth.
Your heart was filled with but one wish: that we all see the truth. Over the years, I, witless, gutless, but with ample merit, drank in your words of alchemy. Fascinated by the followers of followers of your own followers, I, too, became a follower. Some of those I followed had shiny, shaved heads and held begging bowls, others wore dreadlocks and others still lived in the world as householders.
I write these words to celebrate the joy of being enchanted by you. And I write for myself, no one else. I dare not think beyond ‘me’. But who knows, perhaps my stories will ignite a spark of inspiration in others.
In the late 1970s, I followed a long-haired man who held a two-thousand-five-hundred-year-old lineage we call ‘ear-whispering’. This unbroken lineage contains countless ways of awakening us to the truth and bringing this seemingly endless, useless, meaningless game to an end. My master, the long-haired man, praised one method more highly than any other: the way of the wanderer. Then he recommended that I consider becoming a wanderer myself.
Eager to see the world and with a passionate longing to avoid all responsibility, the idea was exhilarating. Could I really be a wanderer? I immediately begged to hear more. But by the time my master had laid out all the information I needed to make my choice, I realised that, within the context of the projection I call ‘this very life’, the discipline of wandering was beyond me. To be a true wanderer, I would have to vow never to return to any of my accustomed comfort zones, never to ask for directions, and to move on the moment a place became even vaguely familiar. If I experienced the remotest sense of security or comfort, if people began to recognize me, if my face was seen for a second time by friends or strangers, I would have to leave immediately and continue wandering.
My heart sank.
Even today, as I follow a well-worn track through the Canadian wilderness, I am afraid of losing my way and of straying from the path. However carefully I follow my chosen trail – a trail I already feel nostalgic about – I know full well that my journey must come to an end. Fear has cast its shadow over my adventure and my path to liberation.
My heart sinks again as I remember the very moment I realised that the best of all lives, the life of a wanderer, was beyond my capacity. For weeks, I tossed and turned through many, many sleepless nights that left me feeling wretched and disappointed.
My long-haired master saw what I was going through.
“Why are you so downhearted?” he asked.
I told him.
“You have no reason to brood,” he said, “it’s just that you don’t have all the necessary information. And,” he added, “you have not yet realised that our Lord is the personification of wisdom and compassion.”
“How so?” I asked.
“In these dark times, this Kaliyuga,” he replied, “to love, admire and adore the very idea of being a wanderer and to aspire and long to be able to live a wanderer’s life is the same as actually doing it.”
I looked deep into his eyes. This was no meaningless pep-talk. He was not merely pouring out platitudes to comfort me. He meant every word.
That all happened a long time ago. Now, even my long-haired master has left us. Miraculously, though, I am still here and still breathing. I am still here to witness the reshaping of our lives on this planet. Our metamorphosis.
It is astonishing that I have lived this long. I was born in the year the first human being was launched into space, at a time when we communicated with each other by writing letters that were sent by post. These days, I communicate with my fellow human beings in virtual conference rooms – I was going to write ‘that I enter at the click of a mouse’, but I am told that even mouse technology is now thought to be outdated.
I was born at a time when people travelled less and the countries of the world were more self-sufficient. I have now lived long enough to witness the effects of globalization: to be able to eat dates imported from the Middle East and to experience the effects of the constantly evolving virus that is ravaging the human race.
Throughout this life I have listened to our world’s leaders paying lip service to concepts like freedom, liberty, justice and equality. I am still alive, still drawing breath, and still being told the same empty promises.
Even so, amidst all this living and breathing, numbness and distraction, I still remember some of what my master told me. Thanks to my Lord’s blessing and the blessings of that long-haired man, I can still remember his stories, his teachings and his timely advice. And I can still recall what growing up under his tender, watchful eye felt like.
As I breathe in the scent of these great cedar trees, a vivid memory of plucking fragrant juniper leaves for ritual offerings comes back to me. From sunrise to sunset, the long, bright days of my childhood were full of laughter and play. I remember sitting with friends who, with a look, could casually flip flat bread on an open fire, or capture the most poisonous of all snakes with their bare hands. And when our masters discovered what they were doing, my friends were given what felt like the scolding of the century for allowing themselves to be distracted by their own trivial magical powers.
Throughout my teenage years, my exposure to the world of rationalism, science, mathematics and reasoning increased and taught me to feel embarrassed by my own memories of magic and enchantment. So much so that I have always avoided talking about that part of my life because I didn’t want to find myself pigeon-holed with the flat-earthers. But now, decades later, it seems to me that we human beings have been dosed with more than enough reasoning and science. What we lack is kindness, humility and magic. Who, these days, feels a tenderness for kindness? Too many parents teach their kids that kindness is a weakness. How many of us react kindly to the kindness of others? Lacking the courage to embrace true humility, we teach our kids to affect arrogance and brashness because it will give them the upper hand in negotiations. Worst of all, we lack even a rudimentary appreciation of magic.
Politicians from the White House and 10 Downing Street to the Kremlin, and from Zhongnanhai to the Diet in Tokyo, are blind to the naked truth that they would do more good for humankind and our world’s melting poles if they could only find within themselves a little kindness, humility and an appreciation of magic. Yet, even though we have been squeezed dry of all three, I still remember how, motivated by wisdom and compassion, my master joyfully gave us the profound, illuminating teaching on the paradoxical nature of this world. My memory of the moment he introduced us to a magical, blissful, ‘union of everything and nothing’ deity – a deity unsullied by name or gender – is etched on my heart.
I remember how eager I was to make the acquaintance of this deity and how urgently I begged my master to introduce me. As he did not reply immediately, I badgered him mercilessly.
“Where is this deity?” I asked again and again. “How do I find the deity?”
Eventually, he spoke.
“Meeting the deity could not be simpler,” he said. “But its very simplicity may be your biggest challenge.”
As my master looked into my shining eyes, he must have noticed the stubborn determination that lurked behind my enthusiasm, because he went on to say, “Our Lord spoke of countless ways of meeting the deity. But it must happen spontaneously, even outrageously. And you must be free of all inhibition. Even so, when it happens, it feels quite ordinary and not special at all.”
How can that be? I was puzzled.
As if he had read my mind, my master paused momentarily, then said,
“It is your thirst for something special that prevents you from seeing the glory and splendour of ordinariness. Close your eyes and he’s there; open your eyes and she’s there. Every time you blink, the deity laughs. You might be enjoying a cup of tea and just as you lift the cup to your lips, someone will shout, ‘Tell me…!’ very loudly and sharply. At that very moment, even before the question ‘Tell you what?’ has formed in your mind, the deity is sitting or standing or dancing before you. Or you might be told to run as fast as you can from the tree to the bush, but halfway there you are confused and shocked to hear the order to turn round and go back. And again, the deity is just there.”
From what my master said, it was clear that for beings like me, who are only able to function within the context of gender, time and space, the most sublime deity was way beyond our reach. But, as always, that long-haired man had our Lord’s inexhaustible treasury of skilful and compassionate methods at his fingertips.
“The deity you long to meet is not blue,” he told me, “nor is he white, yellow, red, or green; yet the deity is blue, white, yellow, red and green. The deity is neither male or female, yet ‘he’ can be ‘she’ and ‘she’ can be ‘he’. The deity is neither one nor two; yet, one moment the deity is the Lord followed by a large entourage, and the next moment the deity is the entourage following the Lord. Something as trivial as a name has no power to mar or stain the deity; yet the deity is adorned with a billion names. If you think of the deity, he or she will either be there or not be there, and their presence and absence are the source of equal blessings.”
When I told my master that I wished to practise a method and respectfully insisted that he teach me one, he said I could throw a flower into the air or recite as many of the billion names of the nameless one as I could remember. So great was my master’s compassion that, to make it easier for me to relate to the deity, he downgraded the highest of techniques by describing some of the deity’s more human characteristics – for example a thousand eyes or arms.
Always greedy and ambitious, I asked, “What is the best and quickest way of embracing this deity and of actually seeing him or her?”
Without pushing my request aside, my master, with unflagging compassion, replied, “If you are truly serious about meeting this deity, there are any number of methods to choose from. I will tell you about one in particular, but if you choose to apply this method, I should warn you it is very risky.”
Young and proud, I felt sure I could rise to the challenge. I was also acutely aware of having failed to accomplish what my master had so recently asked of me. Incapable, as I was, of living the life of a wanderer, I now longed to succeed in at least one of the tasks he recommended.
“What kind of risk?” I asked.
“Your very life. You have three attempts and if you fail, your life will be cut drastically short.”
His words really made me think. My zest for life was strong. There was so much I wanted to do, so many books I wanted to read, so many friends to hang out with and so many places to explore, from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the peak of Machu Picchu. Could I risk all that? I turned things over in my mind for many days.
Eventually, my master told me that if I was serious about being introduced to the nameless deity, we would have to do it on the next moonless night, which happened to be the very next day.
I didn’t know what to say. Yes, my appreciation of the path was increasing daily. Yes, I was convinced by every word that he who closed his eyes 2,500 years ago had spoken. Yes, the teachings that had been passed down the centuries to my very own masters made perfect sense. But could I risk my own dear life?
In the event, I didn’t ever make a clear decision. When it was time for me to give my master my answer, a split second before I tried, with trembling lips, to form the words “Yes, I am serious”, I still had no idea what I would say. But it was too late, my master was already preparing to introduce me to the deity.
As he rang his bell and scattered flowers, he said, “The vision behind your longing to become acquainted with the deity should be the wish to awaken all creatures capable of cognition from aeons of the very deepest sleep. You must therefore embark on a mission that will edge you a little closer to the fulfilment of that vision.”
Is this the preamble to yet another extravagant ceremony during which we will be buried under garlands of marigolds, I wondered, remembering how itchy my nose gets when the air is thick with sandalwood incense? Or am I about to be sent into solitary retreat ‘far from the madding crowd’, for days, weeks, months, even years? Or will I have to construct a temple or a tower on a hilltop or a riverbank?
It was none of these things. My mission, which I could not refuse, was to propose marriage to seven women on behalf of the deity. And all seven must accept before the next moonless night, not thirty days hence.
The rules of this mission were curious. I was not allowed to approach women who knew about either my mission or the deity. If I did, my master said, it would not be the deity I was deceiving, but myself. The brides I approached should be drawn from all age groups. If just one of my list of seven refused, I must start all over again. But I could only start over three times. If all three attempts failed, my life would be cut short by seven years, seven months, seven weeks, seven days, seven hours, seven minutes, seven seconds – and seven aeons. The only question I could ask each candidate was, “Will you agree to be the bride of the most exalted, trusted, reliable, powerful, majestic, beautiful of all beings?” And I could reassure her that once she had married her sublime suitor, she would be free to marry and divorce as many mortal beings as she liked because, once she had married the deity, she would never move an inch beyond the boundary of his household.
I listened attentively to my master’s words but somehow their meaning didn’t register. As excited and thrilled as I was about my mission, I failed to appreciate its consequences.
“Now that you have heard these instructions there is no turning back,” said my master, who had, once again, read my mind. “You must start right now and devote yourself wholeheartedly to fulfilling your mission.
“If you don’t succeed, he added, smiling broadly, “it’s not that big a deal. After all, even seven aeons would be no great loss when you consider how much closer the attempt will bring you to the deity.”
It was then that the fact I would be gambling with more than seven years of my precious life finally sank in. Until that moment, I had brushed aside my master’s warning, mistaking it for some kind of metaphor. But as he looked at me, smiling encouragingly, I saw exactly the same expression in his eyes as when he told me about the life of a wanderer. He meant what he said. The price of failure would be more than seven years of this very life.
As I set out on the first stage of my mission, I felt proud that I was able to attempt it. But I was also terrified by the prospect of losing even seven days of this precious life. And I was worried I might become a social outcast. What would my friends and neighbours think of me – especially the women I approached? What if everyone thought I was mad? What if the stigma of madness followed me for the rest of my life?
My mind began to race. Where should I begin? Was there an easy way of getting this done quickly, skilfully and without too many casualties or unwelcome consequences? What about my social standing? Whatever happened, life would go on, so how could I protect my image, my good name and my friendships? I schemed and plotted day and night. My mind was in such a whirl that even my dreams teemed with ideas and strategies.
Knowing that I lacked the courage to approach the first women I came across, I decided to start by asking women whose cultural background made them a safe bet. So I drew up a list of all the women I knew who were open-minded, accepting, courageous and wild.
I struggled to formulate a plan that would accomplish my mission and protect my reputation. My carefully compiled list of potential candidates grew grubby and smudged as I added names then rubbed them out again and again and again. These women were my friends and the judgements about them that I forced myself to make seemed somehow unfair. Was this woman open enough? Was that woman courageous enough? Could a woman who was a well-known gossip even be considered? How could I risk asking a woman who only ever bad-mouthed me? What if this woman’s parents reacted badly and went public? What if that woman’s husband, usually so good-natured, came after me?
Then, something extraordinary happened. Out of the blue, I remembered my master telling me about the most powerful method for resolving seemingly intractable problems – a technique that had originally been taught by the Lord who walked barefoot and begged for alms one day, and sat in full regalia on a bejewelled throne the next, and to whom I attribute the thought popping up in my mind. The key to solving the most troublesome problem, my master said, is to beg, beseech and pray to the deity for his personal blessings and assistance. So I did just that. Within seconds, a small dose of ‘couldn’t-care-lessness’ had been introduced into my mind and, gradually, all my anxiety about future comforts and social standing began to melt away.
One after another, I met up with the women on my list. Often my role as go-between felt trickier and more awkward than if I really were presenting myself as their blushing suitor, not the deity. I gave some women gifts and talked rubbish for hours with others, hoping to establish a rapport. But, in the end, none of my scheming and plotting was necessary. All I had to do was swallow my pride, fear of ridicule and anxiety about the consequences my actions might rain down not just on me, but on my friends, family, lineage and even my legacy, and ask. Nothing more.
Within the space of 20-odd days, I had completed my task. And its success can only be attributed to my master and the deity – the master who is the deity, the deity who is the master.
Days later, I learned that some of the deity’s brides were extremely well-educated. They had been trained in modern intellectual disciplines, could think rationally, were well-read and intellectually curious. Yet against all reason, even the most unlikely candidate did not hesitate to leap beyond rational decision-making and say ‘yes’ to possibly the most bizarre proposal they would ever receive.
To this day, memories of their wedding day remain with me. I can still see the garlands of marigolds and smell the sandalwood-scented air. And I can still see a woman’s hand gently clasping the tiny hand of the statue representing the deity as it is anointed with milk and honey.
Although, as a Vajrayana practitioner, I am supposed to see all women as deities, I find myself holding these seven women in even higher esteem than other women, with the same awe and reverence I expect to feel when I look at the wife – the consort – of the divine being.
I also realised something. Not having a personal agenda equates with kindness, and when kindness is coupled with humility, the door to all kinds of magic flies open.
- Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse