The eclectic spiritual retreat of Dharma Farm nestles in the hills beyond the reach of our coastal fog, in the transition zone between forest and chaparral, where redwoods give way to pin oaks and manzanitas. A cluster of jerry-built cabins, yurts and tee-pees, it's usually as quiet as the inside of a discarded shoe, an ideal environment for those seeking enlightenment via one of the many paths imported from countries on the other side of the Pacific.
Today, however, Dharma Farm is the site of a fiesta, a noisy, Texas-style barbecue to celebrate the visit of a lama from Tibet. Built more like a sumo wrestler than a monk, the lama sports a perpetual, disarming smile, a row of white teeth set between glistening parentheses of melted butter and hickory smoke sauce. The barbecue, incidentally, was his idea, something he'd dreamed about at the temple in India where he took up residence after fleeing the Chinese forces that invaded his native land. He considered it an indispensable experience for any foreigner wishing to savor the full flavor of America. When in Rome, as they say.
He also wants to learn how to swim. In singsong English, he asks me to teach him.
"Because you don't belong. You seem the only one here who wouldn't consider it an honor to give me lesson. Now is okay?"
I nod. About half an hour's jaunt through the woods, there's a swimming hole, a deep pool beside a sandy bank at a bend in the river. The dharma farmers call the place Tom's Spit, after the acolyte who goes there every day to meditate.
"Besides," chuckles the lama as we slip away from the barbecue, "all the others think probably I'm too holy to sink."
Despite his considerable bulk, the lama glides along the trail with the crafty grace of a deer. Now and then he pauses to marvel at flowers, white trilliums at the base of a towering conifer, the lavish, lily-like red bells of a clintonia. As we pass quietly through the shade of the forest, I think about Tom, about his contorted passage through what he insists is an ephemeral spark of a world.
I was a grade ahead of him in high school. His major goal in life during those years was to get into the panties of the raven-haired Marie. The night before she leaves for college, he coaxes her to the graveyard, the town's favorite trysting place for teens without cars. Marie's hair is mussed, her mouth smeary from kisses, her bra unhooked. Moonlight creeps among the tombstones. Crickets and katydids, spooked by a sudden zipping sound, cease their chatter. Tom sweats and trembles. Now if she will only lift her bottom off the ground so he can yank off her blue jeans.
She didn't budge. As Tom told me much later, certain very intense moments are like haunted houses. Part of you continues to live inside such a moment long after your physical body has moved on to another location in space and time. A ghost of him is still waiting for the miracle in the graveyard to happen, for the maiden on Keats' Grecian urn to cease her struggle to escape.
He dropped out of high school and followed her to Berkeley. In a coffeehouse on Telegraph Avenue, he asks for Marie's hand. He tells her they can live on the land, like she always talked about, close to nature. They can grow vegetables and milk goats. She can have his baby. He tells her he'll learn to change diapers. She tells him to grow up.
Tom found a room a few blocks from People's Park where he could crash until Marie changed her mind. He was welcome to stay with me in San Francisco, but he couldn't tolerate the thought of all the water of the Bay between him and his as-yet-unravished bride. On the wall above his bare, ratty mattress he scribbles "sors tua mortalis, non est mortale quod optas." A quote from Ovid, it's what Apollo tells Phaeton when the headstrong boy insists upon taking his dad's chariot of fire out for a spin"you are mortal and the thing you desire is not for mortals."
To support himself, Tom stole books. He didn't snatch a few at a time, concealing them under his shirt or in a coat pocket. He plundered. Day after day he staggered out of the university bookstore with an impressive stack of titles balanced in his arms, expensive anatomy and physiology texts he could peddle at half-price to med students. Apparently the clerks never imagined any thief would be so bold. Asked once by a security guard if he had purchased all those books, Tom innocently replied, without hesitation, "No, I swiped them." The guard politely offered Tom a box to make it easier for him to haul his loot home.
Months passed. Marie did her best to go her own way and let Tom go his. And then one night, after much pestering, she agrees to meet him for dinner. She chooses the Tantric Moon, a brown rice and veg bistro where you sit cross-legged on the floor and waiters with limp voices serve you tea so subtle it doesn't sully the color of hot water.
She gazes into his eyes. The pupils are dilated, the whites yellowed, much too yang. She recommends miso soup with beancake, a side of seaweed salad and no tomatoes. Absolutely no tomatoes.
While they're picking their way through their yin suppers, Marie's meditation teacher Padma happens by. It's Padma who taught her the trick of divining the contents of a person's digestive tract by scanning the eyeballs. He can also slow down his heartbeat and perch in lotus posture on a flagpole. He can levitate, palpitate, calculate an astrological chart in his head and urinate into his left nostril from a prone position. Padma passes Marie a flyer for his new class in Breath of Flames, then he too gazes into Tom's eyes. He mutters something about already knowing Tom from another dimension, another lifetime on another plane. He bears important news. Tom says that he would've showed up sooner if he'd known that. The guru hushes him. Knowing and knowing are two different things.
Within a week, Tom was hopelessly hooked on meditation and, thanks to Padma's pull, washing dishes at the Tantric Moon. He was skipping so merrily down the eight-fold path of enlightenment, there was no talking to him. One afternoon I warn him against jumping to hasty conclusions about the true nature of the universe.
"Hasty?" mumbles Tom. "Conclusions? There are no conclusions. No jumping and no jumper, either. Only illusions born out of nothingness."
"Then the illusion itself must be an illusion, and things really are real."
"Of course," replies Tom, with the maddening smirk of an entertainment director on an outer space cruise line. "How could it be otherwise?"
His biggest problem was figuring out what to do with his wages. Since he had no expenses, no interest in any of the things of this world, the money was piling up so fast there was hardly any room left in his shoebox. I suggested that he consult Padma. The guru gave him sage advice. Tom should get himself another shoebox.
The embarrassment of riches came in handy when the Tantric Moon was about to declare bankruptcy. Tom bought the eatery in order to save himself his dishwashing job. It appeared to be an ideal solution for an aspiring yogi who had taken the vow of poverty, but a funny thing happened to Tom on the way to nirvana. The Tantric Moon raked in money hand over fist.
His mistake was hiring Marie to run the show. She gathered her flowing raven locks into a neat bun, rolled up her sleeves, recruited loyal troops from her women's collective and methodically set about improving the failing café's shaky finances and uninspiring menu.
Thanks to a galloping gourmet's four-star rave review in the Sunday paper, the new Tantric Moon became fashionable, the place for people in the know to be seen by each other. Branches were opened. Proprietary Tantric Moon teas and energizing herb blends were packaged for sale in health food stores. Hip mothers rewarded the good behavior of their offspring with the Tantric Moon's all natural, wheat-free, sugar-free carob Buddha Brownies. Reporters clamored for interviews with the owner. He refused, which only added to the mystery and glamour of the growing Zen macrobiotic empire. The man news hounds dubbed "the messiah of health cultists, the baron of the beansprout set," was too busy washing dishes.
"Everything is vanity," says Tom. "Ownership, control, money."
He sits nearly naked on the floor of his cold, bare room. It's utterly empty, even the ratty mattress gone. Tom is practically empty himself, his emaciated hands folded in what's left of his lap.
"Clothes, sex, politics, power, drugs, shoes, carsall is vanity."
His flesh is falling from the bone. He'll rattle if he walks. Hungry wolves would turn up their noses at him.
"Starvation," I say, "is vanity."
I tell him about a peaceful retreat up in the hills, a kind of hippie ashram, Dharma Farm, as far from the distractions of the illusory world as anybody could wish. It has stunning views and the folks there are very Zen and grow their own absolutely yogi-kosher food.
"Panoramas are vanity. Profits, principal, retreat, advance, expansion and contraction, Zen and Unzen. Nothing but vanity. I have cast them all aside. Only one vanity remains to be overcome."
"What's that? Brushing your teeth?"
"My meditation. I'm still attached to my meditation, still attached to my empty mind, to nothing."
It was easy to take Tom in my arms and carry him out of that lonely place. I tightened the white cloth wound round his loins like a diaper, lifted him up in sitting position, in full lotus posture, and bundled him out the door and into my car. I drove the coastal route north. There was a storm brewing. The sea was a moil of black geraniums and white fire. Tom, cross-legged in the shotgun seat, laughed to himself and murmured mantras all the way. At one point he did say that if you reduced words to pure sound, you could hear them breathing in the void.
Some twenty years pass. Tom is still sitting in full lotus posture as I lead the lama over the last leg of our trek to the swimming hole. Ensconced on a sandy spit of earth, Tom is motionless as a hunk of deadfall washed up by a winter torrent. A few yards away, a doe quenches her thirst in the river. The lama and I are close enough to make out the darker hues on her tan coat. Then a twig snaps under my boot. The startled doe glances with mournful eyes in our direction, then bounds along the bank and crashes through a thicket. Tom doesn't move.
"India," whispers the lama, "is everywhere."
A few minutes later he's out of his yellow and purple robes, splashing and pranking about in the water like a child, wild and bubbly. A few stray drops land on Tom. They sparkle like wet stars in a wizened sky.
I've heard that the Buddhist saint Tripitaka identified eighteen kinds of nothing. If I can convince the lama to relax, to stretch out in the water and float while my hands cradle his body from below, perhaps I can get him to explain these many nothings.