Saturday, November 17, 2012

Favorite Memories

     As the books say, it is good to live in the present moment, to Be Here Now, and I don't usually spend lots of time dwelling upon the past; but I do have some favorite memories which give me joy occasionally to contemplate and to share with others. Memories of joyful or blessed times are like treasures, and also it is possible to learn from them. The following is probably my favorite memory of all:
     On a warm, sunny, beautiful spring day in Bellingham, Washington around the year 1988, a few years before my ordination as a monk, I consumed two or three hits of some relatively powerful LSD. As the effects became noticeable, I decided to take a walk, wearing khaki shorts and a T shirt. I had previously ordered a book at a bookstore in town and went to pick it up. On the way a car with Canadian license plates stopped near me and a man asked where he could find an adult bookstore in town. He was a little embarrassed and insecure and added a comment like, "Well, I suppose you don't go to places like that." I happily assured him that there was no problem at all and directed him to a place I knew of, and then continued on my way. By the time I got to the bookstore (not the adult one), I was very high. I brought the book---entitled The Greeks in Bactria and India, by a fellow named Tarn---to the counter, and the cashier cheerfully commented on the strange title, and indicated that she didn't know where Bactria was. Then she casually flipped through the pages and observed that there were no illustrations. With intense concentration I managed to enunciate the word "Bummer," and was proud of myself that I had been able actually to utter a coherent word appropriate to the situation. I then continued on my walk in the sunshine.
     I went to a place in town called Boulevard Park, which overlooks Bellingham Bay. At one end of the park there is a little hill, which nowadays is overgrown with bushes, but in those days was more easily navigable. I climbed the little hill and sat down among some wild rose bushes in bloom. Ants busily scurried about on the ground near me, and I watched them with fascination. 
     There was just enough of a breeze that day that the bay was covered with ripples, which in the sunshine, in my altered state of consciousness, appeared as a great shimmering expanse of purplish sparkles. Also, because of the fine weather and the breeze, there were many sailboats on the water…so I sat cross-legged among the wild roses and the ants and watched bright, multicolored triangles silently, gracefully gliding back and forth through the shimmering sparkles. It was so beautiful, and my consciousness was so expanded, that I was radiating love and blessings to all beings everywhere. I was spontaneously gushing with love and happiness. I don't remember what happened after that.
     Another one of my very favorites is a memory of a very brief experience I had when I was 16 or 17 years old. I had spent part of my high school lunch break with my friends Tim and Don smoking marijuana in Don's car. It was time to go to class, and I remember walking through the parking lot feeling very, very alive. The sky was covered with bright white overcast, giving a stark, white light to the world, with wetness in the air and on the ground, and just enough coolness to be invigorating---in short, a common sort of day in the Pacific Northwest. It is very hard to explain why this is one of my favorite memories. Part of it was that I was a teenager, and at that time in my life, experimenting with freedom and new adult hormones, every day of my life as a long-haired feral teenager was an exciting adventure. The sheer aliveness of youth combined with the new freedoms, such as they were, made a strong impression in my mind that remains vivid after more than thirty years. It is a memory of the exuberance of sheer aliveness.
     Perhaps I should apologize for the fact that many or even most of my favorite memories are drug oriented and of times before I became a monk. I suppose one reason for this is that mind-altering drugs can cause an expansion of consciousness combined with a happy euphoria which is, well, strikingly pleasant. On the other hand, my memories of girls and romance, for example, are combined with associations of emotional turmoil, occasionally also heartbreak, so the pleasantness of the associations is diluted somewhat. I suppose this bittersweet taste of romantic love helped me to become a celibate monk in the first place. Perhaps also the "high" state induced by more or less "spiritual" drugs is itself a relatively unusual feeling which makes the memory more memorable. With regard to my life as a monk, I can say that I have had really beautiful meditative experiences, so beautiful in fact that just a few minutes of meditative rapture (I don't know what else to call it) seemed well worth the 12 or 15 years of spiritual struggling and floundering which preceded them. But they are so subtle, and so difficult to integrate into a system of memories or associations, a "story," that they form rather vague and nebulous, although priceless, recollections. For some reason memories of when I was young, high, and irresponsible are most delectable.
     Even so, one of my most favorite memories is of a slightly strange event which occurred when I was still a very junior monk, and a very serious one, at a Burmese monastery in central California. I lived in a small shack in the redwood forest behind the monastery, and ate my meals there. I preferred to be vegetarian, so I would take the meat out of my bowl and place it in my bowl lid before eating the rice and vegetables. Often a yellowjacket, a kind of hornet, would come and bite pieces from the meat in the bowl lid, using its mandibles as scissors and cutting a long strip of chicken breast or whatever, rolling up the strip like tape to make it easier to take it back to the larvae in the nest. One time after eating I reached for the plastic milk jug that I used as a water container, and as I grasped the handle the yellowjacket, which was evidently resting on the other side of the handle, stung my finger. As I jerked my hand back in pain my very first thought was, "I hope I didn't kill it." Then I saw the yellowjacket fly away apparently unharmed, and I smiled with relief, and then began attending to my painfully throbbing finger. 
     I was happy that I hadn't killed the hornet, a beautiful little alien creature, but I was happier at the reflection that in a situation like that my first thought was for the other, not for myself. I didn't really have time to deceive myself on the matter, and although I was very strict in those days about breaking rules of monastic discipline, I wasn't concerned that I had broken one this time by killing a living being, as accidentally killing one isn't against the rules at all. It was deeply heartening to find that I was genuinely capable of such an attitude of concern. I really cared about the little being that had just stung me. The episode caused me to feel like I was making progress toward a truly spiritual state, that my heart was opening, and that made me feel really good. The hornet sting was well worth the experience. May I be that way with people too. 

The remains of my first residence as a monk, 
where a hornet would come to share my meals

P.S. This is my last blog post from Bellingham...Tomorrow I begin the winter migration to a little Burmese temple in California.


  1. Your experience with the hornet is precisely the reason I think I started to feel so connected with the Dhamma -- I have seen no such compassionate disposition from any other spiritual teaching.

    I'm sure there are others that teach us to have concern for others, but to be so selfless? I have yet to encounter it.

    Be well on your travels, Bhante. :)

  2. You are certainly making progress with people too. Sweet post.