Diego tells us about a hell realm in which those with enough accumulated bad karma must slide through a flood of molten lava for thirty thousand years until they reach the other side. They are allowed to speak only word before the process starts again. ‘They all speak words of repentance,’ he says. I tell him it sounds like writing a novel.
Diego is very committed to the suttas, has a reverence for the authority of the word. But vipassana, I feel, is about experience first. S.N. Goenka speaks about this when he distinguishes between cinta maya pañña (wisdom through reflection), sutta maya pañña, (heard or read wisdom), and bhavana maya pañña, (wisdom through experience). When I talk to Diego about this, he says he values the first two over the latter.
Later on, he reveals that he has not been meditating. When others are meditating he merely thinks for the entire hour, worried that the technique might not be authentic and so will take him further away from the goal. I am concerned. He will be asked to leave by the management if they find out and, more seriously, he will not make progress. He will be caught in an intellectual loop, sitting instead of walking the path.
Over lunch, Yuval, who comes from Israel, tells the story of how he came to vipassana:-
He heard about it from a friend who had never sat a course but said he was waiting for life to become truly desperate. Yuval stored these words away until, years later, he was hitch-hiking and was hit by a car at high speed. Every joint in his body was broken, his legs crushed, and he spent weeks in hospital followed by a year in a wheelchair. He used to be religious, now he felt like god hated him. It was then that he remembered his friend’s words, and decided to sign up for his first vipassana course.
Some years, Yuval was awarded a large sum of money as compensation for his accident, but he wears this lightly, dresses like a traveler, and seems quite free and unattached to it, very loving a quiet way, peaceful and happy. I am happy for him, that something good could come out of such a terrible thing.
I think that, being older, Thomas, Yuval and myself have a greater experience of real despair and a keener for happiness. It is in this pursuit and no other that we practice vipassana. Yuval’s story resonates with me because I know that life never goes according to plan; whenever I have tried to go from A to B, I end up at N.65. So now I try to focus on good volition, on having a pure mind: the results can take care of themselves. I am sure that this is something that Thomas and Yuval know too.
In vipassana, all teachers are called assistant teachers. The main teacher is still S.N. Goenka; even though he passed away last year, his instructions are relayed through audio and video tapes. Goenka studied in Burma under a teacher called Sayagi U Bha Khin, before teaching a course in India for his mother and her friends. After this, more and more people wanted to learn, and his teachings became popular all over India. Today, there are over 200 vipassana centres worldwide in 94 countries, with 18 permanent sites in the US, and 38 non-center sites.
On this course, in Northern California, the teachers have come from Thailand, and are teaching their first course. There is also a third, more senior, teacher, who sits at the back,observing them on this, their first outing.
At 7.15 in the morning, I go to see her with several questions about the practice. My first is about annica, the law of impermanence. She tells me I do not need an intellectual awareness of annica; I need to know it, and that this comes with time. I nod: I have felt this. We talk too about ill will and good will, and she encourages me to look for the good in people that I dislike. There is always a good side, she says. I think this is true, but I know full well that when the mind is troubled, it is hard to see anything else. I go back to the meditation hall, and immediately a storm comes. I am filled with anger and hatred towards people who have wronged me. I try to remember the teacher’s words; that all such thoughts are of the past; that in this present moment I can choose whether to be happy or unhappy. This gives me strength to sit through the storm, and suddenly it passes and an idea for a novel appears in my mind.
It feels like an apparition, like magic. I am pleased with the idea, but also a little worried. It has an explicitly Buddhist theme. Am I becoming a fanatic? A monomaniac? Will I begin to bore people? Am I becoming a flake, a fool? In truth, I do not think so, but this is not the problem. My fear is that others will think this of me. Once again, I find myself dependent on the constantly changing perceptions of several billion strangers. I start to imagine failures I have not had; I worry about the death of my parents; and soon I am thoroughly depressed.
Later that the night, at the end of the day, the four of us, that Diego, Yuval, Thomas and myself, have our usual conversation under the stars. I tell them about my idea for a novel, and they respond with enthusiasm.
Returning to the dorm, I tell Diego jokes through the curtain separating our beds. I can hear Thomas chuckling away to my left, Yuval in front of me. This sense of companionship, of sangha or spiritual community, is so warming, so heartening, that all my worries have left me. What, I ask myself, could be better than this?