When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds…and am free.
Many years ago, in the waning years of the Twentieth Century, my youngest son—a son who brought a great deal of joy into our family life along with a great deal of consternation—developed a rather sudden and inexplicable fascination with everything Dali Lama. As my wife and I were delighted with any focus for our “energetic” child that didn’t involve more school councilors calling up and stopping by our urban Victoria home, I ended up spending considerable time attending appearances by this most enigmatic Tibetan monk.
Though I was happy enough to provide transportation and financing as my son and I followed the Dali Lama’s immensely well attended presentations around BC, for a long time it remained a mystery to me what it was that my son and thousands of other British Columbians found so fascinating about such a humble man who seemed so happy yet had so little to say. I remember a question about family discipline put the Dali Lama to which my ears perked up attentively; ah, ha there was yet to be a point to all this expense and travelling! AND THEN…the ebullient old man in the colourful robes laughed, not a mocking laugh but that laugh this is, as far as I know, uniquely his, that laugh that seems be so—could I say happy with his life –despite his exile and persecution, happy with our human lives—despite our all too often brutish natures, happy with life–despite its many inconsistencies and shortcomings; a happiness that seems to come from nowhere other than happiness itself. And then, when his being stopped shaking with the of-itself-laughter of his enigmatic happiness, he grew quiet for a moment before, still smiling deeply, he looked at the questioner and replied simply, “As you are a family man, and I am not, I am certain that inside you there is much better answer to that question than I, a childless old man, could ever give.”
I went home disappointed and a bit down cast. The answer to the question I so much wanted to ask had just wafted away like a gentle fart in a heavy wind. I continued to traipse after the Dali Lama in his visits to BC, and I can say I enjoyed them–after all it would be very difficult to be present and witness such inner happiness without feeling some elevated sense of being that is less rigidly tied to personal and world problems—but each time I carried home this confusion of thought about whether the Dali Lama really had some Earth-shaking insight into existence or whether he was just some over-billed, displaced old man who happened to have inherited enough respect and money to do relatively well despite the rather dire circumstances in his homeland.
Despite spending considerable time in the beneficent presence of the Dali Lama, reports from the school didn’t indicate the kindly, contented presence was rubbing off on my now adolescent son. And calls from the Principal continued to give me a headache. I began to wonder what value might have come from our traipsing after the immensely popular, amiable old monk. Then one day, in a most unexpected way, I was struck through with an experience that I would likely never have understood in any other way.
Relations with my son were not at a breaking point, but that point was, clearly, not far off and—clearly—my wife and I needed a break. Grandma and Grandpa had a remote 40 acre “farm” in the great out-back of high desert, northern Washington and–without much thought to the idea that retirement is/should be about more than leaving work—a month long break was arranged. With our oldest son already on his own, shipping the youngest off meant that for one whole month my wife and I would live the easy life of life-after-kids. So we thought. A week after the bus to Colville left the Victoria bus station, the phone was ringing and I had an uneasy feeling that it sounded too much like the ring of from the principal’s office. It was. Grandpa and grandson were not getting along and we needed to drive out to pick up our son—very soon.
Arriving in Colville, there wasn’t time for pleasantries before my Dad informed me in a most emphatic way that “Your son is Dangerously UNamerican! It was the middle of the Gulf War and—reportedly—“my son” had told his Grandpa that the reason George Bush and Saddam Hussein were drawing their countries into a devastating war was because “George and Saddam were illegitimate sons of Adolf Hitler!”—the whole devastating war was just sibling rivalry on a grand scale!
There were other “issues” as well. Apparently the Christian grandfather didn’t appreciate the Buddhist grandson’s views on theology either. And apparently the squabbling wasn’t good for grandma who was already in need of extra/not less rest. On arriving at the farm, my wife was in the middle of emphatically “explaining” to Grandpa the Canadian citizenship of our children, and its inherent differences with American foreign policy when I decided it was time to start the car and head for the border—abruptly.
Once on the highway north I decided it was an appropriate and timely venue in which to review what had gone so terribly wrong as well as gain a few insights into the applications of Buddhist thought on living in peace with others. Before I got past introducing the topic, my enigmatic son took a deep breath, looked first and me, then at his mother. “you know,” he said—thoughtfully for the occasion—“Grandpa has problems that are much bigger than misunderstanding religion and world politics, “(I think he was 15 at the time) and letting out a long even breath he rather gently and–off-handedly–quipped, “but I’m not going to let that make me unhappy.”
Wow. I was dumbstruck; where on Earth did he get a perspective like that. And, suddenly, I remembered. I remembered all those times following the Dali Lama around Victoria and the Lower Mainland. I remembered the seemingly unanswered question. I remembered my disappointment and uncertainty. I remembered the anxiety that I just wasn’t up to the job of parenthood as I had so hoped to be. I felt this immense tension melting away in my shoulders. I realized how self absorbed I had become with this self-assigned guilt over not being up to the job that existence had assigned. I realized how little I understood the vastness of life and all its infinite meanings and my small part in all of that. I realized how much I had been missing, not being able see how small my life is in the infinity that is existence. I realized that my inability to trust and let go and to let life be its infinite and wise self was blinding me to the most precious perception of all—that life is so much larger than my small worries and has a wisdom that is beyond my comprehension.
I felt, most inappropriately, like laughing. I just felt, in my belly, that what we were doing was good—it was enough. It was certainly good enough to let go some of that tension and just be happy. Happy with myself with all my inadequacies, with my wife with her struggles to keep alive and keep moving, with my son who had clearly been getting much more than I realized from our visits to hear with the Dali Lama.
Eleven o’clock last night (Monday, Nov 28) we were just arriving home. The Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay ferry was late—high winds. I was packing our goods into the house–including a high vis bike helmet cover—a wonderful seventieth birthday present from my youngest son who now lives with his wife and two young children in Lynn Valley. We had gone over to North Van to see our youngest grandchild taking some of his first toddling steps around the living room. We’d shared a glass of wine and talked of a week long summer biking trip with his older brother over the Blueberry-Paulson railbed trail. Our three year old granddaughter is learning to speak Spanish already and to dance—which she does most gracefully.
Over the course of a life days, weeks, even months go by when the person we really are lies hidden beneath layers of care and preparation—we raise/fret over our children, we have our jobs, we plan for retirement, we fret about the fate of our societies and our Earth. Many of us have become very worried about the recent election of a racist warmonger to the south. And yet—even—with all that–there is something so ecstatically wonderful about just having a good belly laugh, just letting go into the vast, encompassing enormity of the universe, just letting ourselves float gently down between the day of our birth and the day we will be only a faint remembrance of a life lived well but imperfectly.