Father Boon looked up from the earth he was hoeing, shocked by the now strange form of address, the once-familiar voice. He smiled automatically, as one does upon encountering an old friend, feeling simultaneously a surge of anger. A virtuoso of the mind, he at once recognized the anger, and, recognizing it, dissolved it. Almost instantaneously he had composed himself in the attitude of equanimity.
“Hello, Jane.” He said easily, calmly. “What a surprise. How are you?” It was odd, even a bit disturbing, how easily the English fell from his lips.
“You weren’t easy to find.” She brushed a leaf from her arm. Her hands were slender, almost bony, the flesh stretched too thin over long fingers, perpetually tensed for action. Jane had been one of his students in the States. Unmarried and childless she was an attractive, well-formed woman of fifty or so. Her cropped pale-blond hair framed an intense face, thin lips perpetually pursed, a permanent line between her brows, wide, piercing blue eyes. She was deliberate and earnest in everything. Earnest in her meditation. Deliberate in her career. Deliberate in her natural beauty, her refusal to wear makeup, her simplicity. She stood before Father Boon now, deliberately herself in expensive hiking boots, pressed blue jeans and khaki blouse hanging loose, yet revealing the curves of her body. “You have no idea how many monasteries I’ve been to. I’d almost think that you were hiding out.”
But of course he was. Why else had he moved, world to world, back to his native Thailand after so many years in America? Why else had he taken residence in this forest monastery in his home province, deep in the Northeast? Without Internet. Without even phone service. A tiny garden, a tiny hut on stilts, lost among tangles of vines as thick as arms, in the still, leafy twilight among the trees.
“Something is wrong,” he had said to the meditation group gathered at the monastery for Thursday evening meditation, seated in a semi-circle before Father Boon, a giant golden Buddha looming over them, glowing in the failing light. “Just not right.” It was already mid-winter and snow was sifting down outside the windows. He shivered slightly in the chill.
“What is it?” One of the men had asked.
Why had he said anything? he thought in agony. He suddenly had no idea why he was here, here in America, wearing monk’s robes, who these people were, sitting before him, looking up to him expecting everything from him. Thirty plus years, and suddenly he had no idea. They would be thinking that he wanted to adjust the meditation schedule. Or that there was some trouble in the monastery. Something objective. A vague unease had come over him (How long ago? Months? Years?) and grown into a heaviness that finally oppressed him with a perpetual feeling of disgust, like nausea, like decomposition.
“What is it Ben? Are you ill?” Jane had asked.
“Oh, no. Nothing like that.” He said, but flatly. Not ill in body, which was what she meant, but ill in himself, what a Christian would call soul-sickness: he himself was not right. But how could he say that to these faithful few who admired him, emulated him, followed him? His every word had always been geared to the culture of the mind, straining always to discover what a student needed to hear at any moment. He had earned some small fame as a meditation master, and it was whispered, though he was pleased to deny it, that he was fully enlightened. Some of the ten or so meditators sitting before him had been with him for years. Jane had moved halfway across the country to have his guidance always at hand. And the rest, more newly come to the Path, hungry for instruction and guidance—he could not disappoint them. He could not allow his private unease to interfere with their meditation practice, to endanger their faith.
“I’m tired,” he said at last. And he was tired. Perhaps that’s all it was, exhaustion after a lifetime of teaching in a language not his own, and of guiding these brash, opinionated Americans along a Path that they persisted, insistently, in misunderstanding, reduced finally to teaching bare meditation techniques with the faint hope that they would thus come to understand for themselves and in spite of themselves. He was tired; but the word felt like a lie on his tongue and the sense of oppression enveloped him, so that he felt insulated, separated by a palpably thick distance from these sudden strangers gathered about him and hanging on his every word.
“I’m tired,” he repeated nevertheless. “I think it’s time for me to go home.”
Maybe it’s just the season, he mused after they had gone; he had never grown accustomed to the winter, the unnatural cold, the beautifully sinister snow, now blowing thick outside the window. But the idea grew over the following weeks. They begged him not to go. They felt abandoned. Betrayed. But the more they begged him to stay the more he needed to go, until he felt it as a kind of panic. “I’m old,” he said in the early spring sitting in the Buddha Hall on another Thursday evening, surrounded by his closest followers. “Even the Buddha, when he was old, left the cities for a backwards, backwoods town and died there. You don’t need me anymore.” He smiled. “You are all well advanced in meditation and in understanding. Every one of you is capable of teaching others. Carry on!” He didn’t like comparing himself to the Buddha like that, but it placated them. In a week he was on a plane back to Thailand. The disgust, the nausea, remained in America.
Now, here he was, a year later, hoeing his garden. Doing so violated at least two of the ancient rules: digging in the earth and cutting plants. Some rules, however, are taken more seriously than others, and, he had realized with something of a shock, he simply didn’t care. The other monks, intimidated by his international stature, left him to his devices.
He had worried that life in a rural monastery would become monotonous, but he found it comforting. Chanting at sunrise and sunset. Sweeping his hut and feeding the birds. Working in his little garden. Early-morning, the women walked up from the village bringing the daily meal, which was duly offered, Father Boon and the other monks chanting the power of the offering, the boon, the goodness, back to the women. He socialized little with the other monks, but occupied his hours pouring over Plato, the Sutras, the Upanishads, Heidegger. For too many years, others had looked to him for answers. But he too had questions, and he plunged into the origins of thought; What had become of the world? What had become of himself? Someday he would write an open letter to his former students giving at least partial answers to the questions he had too easily answered before. In short, he was happy. He scarcely thought at all about America, and after only a year, his circle of followers were no more immediate to him than characters from children’s stories heard decades before.
And now, absurdly, Jane, dear earnest Jane, stood before him, a stray scrap of middle-class America displaced in the midst of the Southeast Asian jungle.
The year of freedom collapsed. The feelings of vague disgust that had driven him from the West flooded in upon him again. But his years of meditation served him well. Automatically, mechanically, he recognized those feelings as they arose, and in recognizing them neutralized them, becoming perfectly equanimous in her presence.
Jane had been one of his best students, certainly his most loyal. She had spent some years experimenting, as she called it, with Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, but was finally drawn to the straightforward simplicity of the Theravada as Father Boon taught it. She had been with him for 15 years, meditating, teaching, organizing retreats.
“I have not yet arrived,” she said. “I require your wisdom. I demand transmission.”
Father Boon looked down at the lumpy, not very fertile soil and resumed hoeing, working vegetable matter and chicken droppings into the hard red earth. That’s what he wanted to do, and for Jane to vanish. But she did not, and under her eyes even the simple activity of hoeing became performance: a display of indifference or distain, a Zen-like word, an image of Enlightenment.
“It’s time for the meal,” he knocked the dirt off the hoe and leaned it against his hut. “Why don’t you wait in the Hall?” he pointed up the path through the woods. The monastery stood on several acres of the old jungle that used to carpet all of Southeast Asia. It was thick with trees and a chaos of vines, teaming with ancient spirits and the ghosts of the men and women who had been cremated there. Chickens ran wild in the brush along with various rodents. As recently as Father Boon’s childhood, there had been man-eating tigers, but as the great forest was cleared for farmland, retreating behind the walls of the monasteries, the tigers disappeared. There was a snake, or snakes, here large enough to swallow a chicken, or, some said, even a child, in one gulp. Behind Father Boon’s hut there was a small clearing with enough sunlight to barely nourish his rows of basil, cabbage and tomatoes. The trees and vines closed thickly about, allowing him to feel gratefully lost in the great forest.
Father Boon waited for his irritation to dissolve before mounting the steps to his hut, a room on stilts three or four feet off the ground, just big enough for a man to lie down in. It was nothing more than planks nailed to a frame, with a corrugated iron roof and a small window in each wall. High up on one wall was a shelf with a Buddha image amidst spent incense and candles and with a small vase holding a fresh spray of wildflowers. The musty odor of burned-out incense permeated the room. Several books lay open on the straw sleeping mat, Plato’s Timaeas, a Greek grammar, notebooks filled with Father Boon’s own scrawls. That morning, the books had been alive with challenges, teasing him with elusive meanings. Hoeing the garden, he had struggled with the Demiurge: what exactly did Plato have in mind? He had been eager to continue the wonderful game of ideas and words but now the books lay inanimate on the mat, like a lover who has turned away without moving or ceasing to look at you. I’ve lost my place, he thought.
The Buddha Hall was about 20 meters long, an unpainted wooden structure on stilts high enough to accommodate a cooking area underneath. Every day, the women from the nearby village brought food for the monks. Usually they brought it already prepared, but sometimes they cooked it there, and you could see them through the spaces between the floorboards. A low dais ran along one side of the Hall. A large Buddha, painted gold and surrounded by smaller Buddha-images sat at one end. The walls reached only halfway to the eves and sunlight and breezes drifted easily in and out.
Ten or fifteen women from the village were sitting about on the floor as Father Boon entered, gossiping and arranging steaming bowls on trays. Several folded their hands in the prayerful gesture as he passed and he smiled in return. Jane was sitting against the wall, looking confused, but also proud. She stood, smiled broadly and waved as he entered. He groaned inwardly as he joined the other monks on the dais and bowed three times to the Buddha. The Thais would not approve of Jane’s familiarity. Jane would not approve of the ritual. Even more, she would not approve of the monks sitting higher than the laity, which, since all the laity were women meant: the men sitting higher than the women. “One of my old students,” he remarked to the abbot in explanation.
“Yes, I know.” Was there a snigger in his voice?
A young woman, bending low so as not to be physically higher than the monks, approached him. “Hello, Nok!” he said. “How is your mother?” Chatting with the appropriate kind of familiarity in his own language he nearly forgot Jane.
“I dreamed about Grandfather,” she said. “I want to make boon for him.”
He smiled as he sat up straight and pulled one leg back in the chanting posture. He adjusted his robe slightly. She held her gifts reverently before her face for a few moments, muttering words of affection, then placed them before him: candles, incense, a spray of flowers, an envelope with a small amount of money (another rule violated). Then she placed a bowl of coconut milk and bananas before him. That must have been her grandfather’s favorite sweet. Father Boon smiled gently as he touched the gifts in acceptance, then folded his hands in the prayerful gesture and recited the incantation sending the boon, the goodness, along with the sweet bananas, to the ghost of her grandfather. He loved these little rites, these gifts to the dead, the incantations calling upon the deities and protecting against malevolent spirits, the chants that, whether you understood the words or not, traced the endless rhythms of life. Jane glared, disapproving, from across the room.
The meal was offered, the village women bowing as they placed the bowls before the monks. They sat about gossiping as the monks ate. A group gathered around Jane, chatting gaily as they stroked Jane’s bare arms. She looked terrified. Father Boon chuckled to himself.
“They are so wonderful,” Jane gushed, when everyone else had gone. Father Boon was sitting casually, legs dangling over the edge of the dais, Jane sitting cross-legged on the floor. “If only we could communicate!”
“They were fascinated by the whiteness of your skin,” he said with an ironic grin.
“They want white skin like yours.”
“But isn’t that...?” Jane began. “But they’re so lovely just as they are!”
Father Boon laughed.