He hoped that the strangeness would frighten her away. But she came every day with the women and by the third day had traded her jeans for a brightly-colored sarong that made her seem large and awkward among the slight women for whom it was designed. In spite of the language barrier, she had managed to hire a room and meals in the village.
She continued to wave and call out, “Good morning, Ben,” when he came into the hall, militantly, it seemed to him, refusing to bow either to the monks or to the Buddha image. She was one of those “rational” Western Buddhists who thought Buddhism was all about self-fulfillment and the rejection of superstition. For several days she did not approach him, but remained sitting in meditation in the Buddha Hall after everyone else had left. Finally, he called her to him, sitting formally on the dais and motioning her to sit below. She came, moving with an air of self-confidence and knowingness that he found irritating.
“I’ve followed you and your instructions for fifteen years now,” she said at once. “I’ve followed you here. I am prepared. I am ripe for the Word.”
Father Boon hesitated. “The word?”
“The True Word. The Enlightenment Word. I am ready. Give it to me.”
Father Boon squinted. “There is no True Word,” he said, “That’s just Tibetan superstition. You know that. I thought you gave all that up long ago.”
“I know that it is a secret and that is how you keep it. But is it not time for transmission?”
“This isn’t Zen. No one can transmit enlightenment to another. Go and meditate,” he said, repeating words that he had repeated countless times before. “Just sit and observe the rising and falling of existence. Any secrets that there are will reveal themselves to you.” He hated himself for falling back into the role of a teacher and for repeating these old formulas. He felt trapped, but he was not constituted such as to simply order her away.
“That’s not enough anymore,” she retorted. “I’m not a beginner. I demand the full teaching.”
“But dear Jane, I’ve taught you everything I know. There’s nothing more I can say. Nothing.”
She meditated for a moment, then said, “Thank you,” and rose. “Thank you.” Father Boon left her sitting in meditation in the middle of the Hall.
She was impossible to avoid. If he worked in the garden she would appear, demanding the True Word. If he was reading in the meager library she would appear. She was almost always present for the morning meal in the Buddha Hall, after which she would importune him for transmission. In self-defense, he agreed to a daily instruction session.
Every afternoon after a short nap he went to the Buddha Hall, bowed to the Buddha and sat on the dais. Often the smell of incense lingered from morning devotions. He had always found it pleasant to go through the motions of devotion and to sit quietly in the presence of the Buddha. Now, however, he was anxious. What could he say to this woman? Easy as it was to give meditation instructions, appropriately tuned for whatever she was feeling on any given day, he did not want to. He felt compelled. Compelled to come to the Hall, compelled to say something profound, compelled to perform. And however much he dissolved these feelings by observing them and letting them go, the compulsion remained. Gradually he recognized in the sense of compulsion part of the unease he had felt in America.
“What is the secret of Enlightenment?”
“How do birds fly?”
“The birds know nothing of aerodynamics. Yet they fly.”
He felt inspired when he came up with this kind of thing, and she seemed inspired as well. But he hated himself for it.
Jane grew visibly more strained, almost frantic at times. “It’s all so charming!” she would say one day. “The little village. The green, so much green. The frogs singing all night.” The next day she might blurt out: “Raw meat! They eat raw meat. Even the children! It’s...it’s, unhealthy. Its wrong! And frogs! And bugs! They eat bugs!” She complained about the old women and their betel nut. “The disgusting stuff dribbles down their chins. And they come up and shout in my face, spewing that awful stuff, and grinning like idiots with their red-stained mouths and rotten teeth!” On any given day she might speak enthusiastically about the people, “So friendly! So open! So respectful!” or burst out in frustration, “Everybody talks at me. Making noises at me and expecting an answer but its just noise! And the slavish bowing and scraping. To each other. To the Buddha statue. To you!” Father Boon tried to explain and told her to meditate on the confusion and frustration, hoping inwardly that the disorientation would drive her away. But she hung on, becoming more and more insistent in demanding transmission of the True Word.
Realization grew gradually. The more she dragged answers out of him, the more he detested his answers. The greater her faith in him, the more he sank into self-doubt. He was not, after all, enlightened. Neither had he pretended to be, but only to be far enough along the Path to lead others to their common goal. But what if that way were wrong? It occurred to him now for the first time, that for all these years he may have been going down the wrong path. But in that case, he had wasted not only his own life, but the lives of others as well, unrecoverable years committed to him, following him—to nowhere. That was too much to entertain. Easier to imagine that the Buddha had been a delusional lunatic or a charlatan, like Jesus. Thoughts and feelings arose; he observed them and they dissolved. Nevertheless, realization grew till he longed to tell one simple truth: “I don’t know.” In that, he knew, would be release. Yet he continued to give her more nonsense, day after day, feeling more and more miserable, waiting for the day that she would pack up and go home.
He dreaded her coming. Often he would hide in his hut at the appointed hour thinking: I’ll never come out. I’ll slit my wrists. I’ll starve myself to death. Usually he dragged himself to the Buddha Hall, arriving late and despondent, half determined to tell her the truth. He could not carry it. “There is no secret,” he might begin, but he always ended with something like an exhortation to find it for herself. Once he went so far as to venture the truth: “I don’t know.” But she insisted on knowing exactly what that meant, and how it contributed to Enlightenment. He ended by telling her that knowing is a barrier to being. That one must not know in order to truly Know. He felt that she had forced it out of him, this nonsense, with her questions, her leading questions. And to some extent she had. But he knew too that it was his own cowardice that allowed him to be forced.
Sometimes he did not go at all. Brash as she was she would stride over to his hut and call to him and he would sit huddled and miserable with the door locked, pretending not to be there.
There came a day when Father Boon was sitting on the floor of his hut, Parmenides and a Greek grammar spread out before him. Whatever is, the sum total of existence, according to Parmenides, is undivided, unchanging, perfect. What did he mean? Parmenides was evidently no fool: what did he mean by this absurdity? But Father Boon could not concentrate. It was nearing the time to meet with Jane and he was growing increasingly anxious. He was not undivided and the rest. For example, before Jane’s arrival, his studies had been aimed at knowledge. Now they were a distraction from Jane. He closed his eyes, observing his anxiety in order to neutralize it. He did not want to teach: teaching made him feel at odds with himself, duplicitous, dishonest. He stood suddenly, stunned by the explicit realization: The feeling that he had fled in America and that had followed him in the person of Jane, was precisely the cloying, hateful feeling of dishonesty. Some people lie easily, as it were with a clear conscience. Father Boon did not. Whether by virtue or defect, every lie left him with a taste as of vomit on his tongue and a feeling of deathly corruption in his bowels. Why had he not recognized the feeling before? The answer came at once: because he was not lying. He had not lied, indeed, yet his duplicity all those years came clearly before him. The duplicity yesterday, the duplicity he was just now girding himself to repeat. And recognizing the duplicity, he also recognized the lie: It was not that he did not know, but that he did not believe. His faith had fallen away little by little over the years even as he fell willy-nilly into the role of enlightened master. Without his noticing it, his life had become performance, a lie. Anger welled up—anger at himself, anger at Jane, anger at the world. There was no Secret. No Enlightenment. There was nothing. He snatched the Buddha off its shelf and hissed in its face: “Liar!” and flung it to the floor. The flowers and incense followed. “There, now.” He said out loud, standing legs apart in a kind of proud satisfaction. “That’s something: the truth!” And that was the one way forward: the truth. But with this thought he fell back into despair. Telling the truth, this truth, would be faithless to one who had faith in him. It would be to tell Jane that she had wasted the best years of her life and then to abandon her. She was 50 more-or-less, never again to be 30 and full of hope and trust and possibility. To tell the truth, this truth, would be cruel, and he was incapable of cruelty. He sank to the floor in burning paralysis. He sat for some time, unable to think. Unable to move. Longing for death. A knock on the door roused him and instinctively he grabbed the Buddha and placed it back on the shrine, “Yes?” he said in what he tried to make his normal tone. “Your groupie is waiting!” One of the Brothers. The jest was made lightheartedly, but it cut Father Boon to the quick. Yes, that’s what she was.
Father Boon forced himself up the stairs to the Buddha hall, mechanical flesh bearing an empty but infinitely heavy consciousness. Jane was sitting alone in the Hall, cross-legged before the Buddha. She turned quickly as he entered, rose and strode to meet him, eyes flashing with steel-hard determination. He hated her. Her confidence. Her determination. He hated his inability to say so.
“I will wait no longer,” she cried with what was both desperation and demand. In one quick movement she pulled off her blouse and her sarong fell to the floor, leaving her naked before him. “Give it to me!"
Father Boon was shocked. Not the least at the fact that he felt in his loins a stirring of the desires he had renounced so long ago. At 61 that desire was not strong, but the possibilities ran quickly through his mind: He could have sex with her just to make her happy; or to disillusion her so that she would go home; or to make her think she had got the Secret, with the same result. No. More than aroused, he was angry. He had demurred from crushing her fantasies; must she assault his?
“Cover yourself!” he said. “And sit.” He spoke with such force that she instantly pulled her clothes back on and sat before him. “Listen to me! It’s all nonsense. Nonsense! There is no secret. Period. No True Word. Period. No Enlightenment either. I’m sorry dammit, but you’ve wasted precious years of your life for a stupid dream. You think I left America to meditate full time? I left because I couldn’t stand the lies. Because it’s all a scam and a waste of time and I couldn’t keep up the pretense. There is no Enlightenment. There is no Buddha. Nothing. Go home already and try to enjoy what’s left of your life.” He stood over her as she sat looking at the floor. As she raised her face, he could see the conflict of anger, disappointment, and grief. “Go!” he cried, resisting the temptation to answer the conflict on her face with one of his profound teachings. “Get out of this place: there is nothing here for you!”
She rose, white-faced, and went slowly, weaving like a drunk out of the Hall. Father Boon felt good. That’s right! He thought to himself. You don’t own me! That night he fell asleep thinking about his garden, and how he would mulch the new plants, how he would ask the villagers for pig droppings to make compost. Why had he been so easy all those years?
The next afternoon, out of habit, out of a sense of obligation, or perhaps out of a perverse anticipation of Jane’s farewell, he took up his post in the Buddha Hall. She would excoriate. She would blaspheme. Then she would leave. Oh heaven! She would leave.
She came indeed. She came into the Hall slowly, head bowed, and did something she had never done before. She knelt in the midst of the Hall and bowed three times to the Buddha image. Then she turned to Father Boon, remaining on her knees and bowed three times, head touching the floor. “Thank you,” she murmured, kneeling before him, hands in the prayerful gesture before her face. “At last. I was dull, but now it is all clear. At last, I have found the joy of Enlightenment. I have received your transmission. The True Word is now mine as well.”