One’s True Face
This is an excerpt from a book I am writing right now on the spiritual journey.
After I left the Roshi, I needed to go into silence to collect myself. I was confounded with so many questions around the student-teacher relationship. Organized religion and spirituality left a funny taste on my tongue. I needed to recollect myself anew and clearly see what was emerging for me. I had left the patriarchy of Asian Buddhism for the promise of more forward thinking of female teachers in the lineage in the west, yet it wasn’t any different. Part of the wall I found myself facing was it didn’t matter whether it was east or west, male or female. Essentially I had to face what was my true face before I was born. I was caught in the identities I didn’t even know were pulling the strings of my self, and yet simultaneously were inviting me to a fuller, deeper penetration of my individuation here as a form. I was straddling multiple facets of waking up.
I was in Holland at the time and reached out to a new friend who had offered his home in the mountains of Norway. I met Sugata that same year and the deep connection and respect he had for my dedication to the spiritual path propelled him to offer his assistance anytime I might need it. Sugata was the first Western Theravadin monk in Nepal in 1953. He had two homes in the mountains in Norway. As soon as he received my message, Sugata sent me a train ticket from Amsterdam to Oslo in Norway. I was surprised that he didn’t ask any questions in the beginning. As I packed my few belongings, I took a few of my most precious possessions in my back pack and gifted them to the people who hosted me. I took the brown robes the Roshi had given me and passed them on to one of her beloved disciples. I took the silent Buddha Sister Mechtildes bequeath me and gave it to another. In turn, I welcomed the gifts the monks and nuns have given me to keep me company in my winter retreat: a small bell, eating bowls, fleece sweater in deep violet. They were to remind me of the spiritual friendships as well as the discipline, warmth and beauty in the cold and aloneness of winter.
It was a long, drawn-out journey as I left the autumn leaves blowing on the streets just outside of Amsterdam. I felt alone yet strong. I was traveling into the direction of the land of my paternal ancestors. I had not been there before. I had not seen frozen lakes or harsh blizzards. I had never been in the dark of winter where light barely shone. The train stopped in Copenhagen and I looked around the passengers. I couldn’t believe that I was a quarter Dane. They looked so different than I. The snow fell in Denmark as the train rapidly sped up north. I crossed the ferry into Sweden and then arrived in Oslo where Sugata eagerly met me. We barely knew each other, yet somehow there was bond that was deep. He welcomed me and visited Oslo. We even watched the movie “Evita” in a movie theatre. We took another train to the middle of Norway and I watched the icicles on the trees and rivers in wonder. And when we arrived at our final destination, there was so much snow on the ground! I had no idea what was in store for me. His car was waiting and there was still a distance to go – across the frozen lake.
As we entered the last bridge, Sugata stopped his car and said, “It’s your last chance to turn back.” I gulped, noted my fear, and overrode it. He gave me one of the houses half buried in snow, showed me how to turn on the heater, gave a tour of the pantry and I began my winter retreat. It was a beautifully crafted wooden cottage with rose paintings of a double vajra on its ceiling. Its simplicity framed the depth of blizzards and the ever changing snowy landscape that engulfed me. I burnt many candles that winter. I had shelter, food and all I had to do was watch the mind! I grounded oat seeds by hand and soaked them overnight. That was breakfast. Lunch was rice, sprouted mung beans, maybe grated carrots. Dinner was same or soup with rye bread and homemade cranberry jam. Once a month or so, I would have frozen spinach as a treat. It was harder to cook for myself than to cook for the whole monastery with the Roshi.
Sprouting the mung beans was essential for me that retreat. The seeds reminded me of the mystery of life and no never underestimate it. The power of life force breaking through into its next manifestation is simply immense, powerful and mysterious. The changing snow landscape was my constant teacher. I could not predict anything. I surrendered.
Initially, I took down the bathroom mirror at the beginning of the retreat and hid it. Though as winter progressed, I would peek at it just to remind myself that I was still there. The sun did not touch my side of the valley for the whole three months except the last two days. The first week in Shangri-La, I could still walk with my regular shoes outside, but then it kept snowing and my legs got swallowed up by the snow. I didn’t know how to ski. Sugata gave me a very quick lesson and bought me skis and a red anorak. Red so if I get lost in the countryside, I can be seen and found quickly in the landscape of snow. He took me on top of a hill, and said to bend my knees and let the poles swing behind me, and I flew in the air down the hill so fast. He hadn’t taught me how to stop yet. The fall on the bottom was cushioned by laughter as I saw Sugata, this generous man in his late eighties, running down the hill towards me to make sure that I was all right!
I went out everyday when the light was out. It was so cold that even the hair in my nose froze. Once, I cried and asked loudly, “Why?” and there wasn’t even an echo back. The tears rapidly turn to ice as it glided down my cheek. It was all such a cosmic joke!
At times, I just sat by the frozen lake and listened to its grumbles and murmurs as it fell underneath itself. I felt as ancient as time and young as forever.
I would go outside while the snow fell. I would catch the humungous snowflakes and marveled at each unique design that fell unto my red jacket. I would stretched my tongue out and taste the snowflakes by the frozen lake. The visibility at times was nil. I would look behind me, and even my footsteps rapidly disappeared. I left no trace, backwards or forwards. Only the moment existed, and even that could not be caught. Who am I? Only the vastness.
On one side was the dire loneliness, yet at the same time there was the palpable interconnectedness with the whole of creation. I felt the mountains were my brothers, the snow my sisters, the sky my cousin. I was overjoyed to see the elks’ tracks or to sneak a peak at the rabbits eating the carrots I had left outside. I felt one with the air and euphoric with the shooting stars. The dawns and dusks that winter were eternal. I am so grateful for that winter retreat. Confidence that was beyond what I knew was planted by the winter storms that kept changing their form right before my eyes!!
Seeing I was a natural hermit, my friend Sugata offered me the home up there. I, however, felt that there were other ways I still needed to grow and know the other facets of the diamond that I was. I was still in my twenties. There is something about accepting the full expression of me and the full expression of creation and manifestation. True tantra.