I didn’t reply. I was trying to stop crying.The old woman kept her legs propped atop starched hospital sheets. They were fetid and blackened like burnt cork, and they gave off a rotten smell. My eyes watered violently.
Gangrene sounds like a disease that would strike people on a wagon train trapped in the mountains all winter. But it is an ordinary, here-and-now disease, the kind that can require ambulance transport to a wound care clinic. To an emergency medical technician like me, decay, infection, and stench were routine.
This raised a question. To answer it involved some enlightenment, if it exists – and my own trip to the hospital, and a harrowing ride down a dark street in Bangladesh.
At the beginning, I wondered what to do with the disgust that flowed along with my tears. My job was low on technical skill but high on human contact, and I felt serious about kindness. I didn’t want to be disgusted.
I noticed physical revulsion led to hard-heartedness, too. If I felt disgust, what the patient saw was contempt. Over time, I struggled to separate my aversion to disease from judgments of the patient. Some dark fear bubbled up from my brain stem poisoning my cerebral cortex with cruel, irrational conservatism.
Other healthcare workers seemed to have this problem, too. Of course, frank discussion about the problem was nearly impossible. No one wanted to talk about it.
An answer didn’t come via ambulance. One day, I chanced on research on compassion. Lying in brain scanners, participants had viewed disgusting images, including gangrene. Half the subjects were ordinary people; the others, Buddhist monks. The study found the monastics were highly skilled at converting disgust into compassion. The conclusion: meditation develops that ability. What I needed, in other words, was in a Zen temple.
What I needed was strange. For most of the last twenty-six centuries, only Buddhist monks and nuns meditated, not laypeople. When Buddhism came to America, though, the absence of monastics meant casual participants began upholding ancient practices. Americans democratized mysticism. Any schlub could meditate now.
Like most American meditators, I wanted to do another historically weird thing. I wanted to meditate like a Buddhist without becoming one. I envisioned a secular mental fitness routine, as transformed as the high-priced, flesh-toning Western version of formerly-Hindu, Indian yoga. I wanted to become an athlete of compassion.
This approach has its perks, which is why it is so popular. It allows for hard questions to be avoided – questions about God, for example, which American Buddhists never mention, and questions about enlightenment, which Buddhists mention all the time.
What was enlightenment? I had no idea. It sounded like a sudden miracle that might set a person free from gangrene-induced gagging. But contradictions obscured the concept: some Buddhist teachers suggest it’s feasible for many people, but others say it’s not; some describe many small enlightenment experiences and others one grand moment.
The Zen priestess Joko Beck claimed there were six stages of enlightenment. The last is “buddhahood, where purely experiential living is one hundred percent.”
Beck herself suggests this might be BS. I suspected as much. Sitting silently in the monk-less Zen temple, I thought, <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>maybe mental fitness is all there is.
Alleging an unattainable endpoint is clever, though. It reversed a problem, which was that enlightenment sounded like “winning” Buddhism like a video game. On this point teachers agree: if you think about achieving anything, you’ll achieve nothing.
In short: whatever enlightenment was, it was safe to forget it. So I did, until I got malaria.
I had visited West Africa to do health work, and had come home feeling fine. But malaria parasites can hide in the liver and emerge months later. One day, out of the blue, I was suddenly ill.
It wasn’t a near-death experience. It was like the flu. But doctors checked me in so Midwestern medical students could see a rare malaria case, and I found myself lying around a beige-and-white hospital room.
Outside, the November day was overcast. Titanic played on the TV – and then, after it ended, played again. I was bored.
But then, at no particular moment, for no particular reason, I began to have a deeply peaceful feeling. In my mind, there was enormous silence that stretched out in all directions, a kind of warm infinity. I had a sense that my heart was pure and unified with this limitlessness.
I wasn’t losing track of logic. The world was imperfect – I knew that. But I realized troubles were small waves atop a vast, deep, silent ocean. It felt like nothing was wrong.
It was intense but ordinary – things as they are, as the Buddhists say. I didn’t need to react. I lay in bed, TV off, my heartbeat the only sound in my ears.
After a while, the feeling faded.
I still thought enlightenment was baloney. I didn’t feel enlightened. I could still feel disgust at gangrene. I still had malaria. I still disliked Titanic and its grating soundtrack. I was mostly unchanged.
But the experience had another, more unexpected element: I’d felt the presence of God. It felt as the way the Quran said it would be, in fact: closer to me than my jugular vein, closer to me than I am to myself.
I’d maintained my skeptical questions for years. But the experience of God’s presence had turned out to be the state of having no questions. In my hospital bed, all I’d wanted to say was, “Oh, hi.”
American Buddhism says nothing about this.
I contemplated whether the brain perceives God or produces God. I knew malaria parasites easily infest the brain. I figured my spiritual experience resulted from the disease’s interference with my brain function.
I remained bothered. The experience seemed to demand a change in my approach to religion. But I didn’t want to stop enjoying rationalism and meditation.
For a time, I did nothing. Then, almost as suddenly as God appeared, there was a deus ex machina: a call from the State Department saying I’d won a scholarship to Bangladesh. I left the Zen temple, but not to settle a philosophical quandary. I just got on a plane.
Arriving in Bangladesh, I realized I was a big white cliché: a confused goofball who shows up on the Indian subcontinent hoping for an answer to some grand spiritual question. There was no time for seeking gurus. I studied 70 hours a week, and had a question I couldn’t articulate, anyway. Once or twice I went into a local mosque, kneeled on the marble floor, and felt how I had felt in the hospital. I would say, “Oh, hi,” again. It was not clarifying, but pleasant. Time passed without answers.
After eleven weeks, it was time to go home. From Bangladesh, most departing flights leave at dawn. A friend, Ifti, offered to drop me at the airport at 2 AM. Another, Tara, came along to a late dinner.
As the night wore on, Tara got frantic text messages from the family with whom she stayed: “When are you coming home? Come home now.” We dawdled, assuming they took hospitality too seriously.
In Tara’s neighborhood at 1 AM, we searched for the single remaining unlocked gate to her subdivision. Then, after a maddeningly lengthy search through a rabbit warren of nearly identical narrow lanes, we found her house – but shot past it by accident.
No problem, Ifti said. At the end of the block, his hired driver would double back.
At the T-stop at the end of the lane, the driver Hashem stuck his hand out the window to wave another car past. That car, however, stopped. In the same moment, we all realized something was very wrong.
At Ifti’s urging, Hashem stomped on the gas. We blasted around the corner – and hit a deep pothole with a skull-pounding cha-<em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>chunk. A terrible rattling noise rose from the underside of the car. Our speed flagged. The other car was still trailing us. We were in trouble.
Tara laid her head on my lap and whimpered. I hunched over her.
But then I had an impulse to look out the back window. Sitting up, I saw a white car with its high-beams trained on us. Jogging besides it was a rail-thin man holding an assault rifle. Ah, I thought. A carjacking.
I turned around, slouched, and looked forward. Ifti was shaking with panic.
I wasn’t. Without any effort, I suddenly felt the same feeling I’d had in the hospital. I looked out at the inky night in front of our windshield, and thought of our problems as small waves atop a vast, deep, silent ocean. I thought, “Oh, hi.”
Since I was calm, I had time to notice how well things were going. You cannot win Buddhism, but you can win a carjacking. And we were. Our driver was driving as well as humanly possible. The car was damaged, but functioning. No guns were being fired. Nothing had happened yet.
I noticed that this solved the problem I’d had as an EMT. A carjacking is every bit as nasty as gangrene. But the Dalai Lama says compassion is when you see a man beating a dog, and you feel as bad for the man as you do for the dog. It was the carjackers’ lives, not ours, entrenched in diseased criminality. I wished for their well-being. Finally, I could manage my innate aversion to disease.
We did what we could to help them: we avoided becoming their victims. Hashem began following a van, which led us to the one open gate. On the main road, the carjackers dropped back. At the airport, Hashem fixed our car’s cracked bumper. Then we said a big affectionate goodbye. We were all fine.
Alone in the terminal, I considered my skepticism about God. Then I thought: if it works when guns are drawn, then just go with it.
I recited an ancient Buddhist prayer, accessible in this strange moment, an answer to my original questions:
May I be the doctor and the medicine
and may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
until everyone is healed.
Then I said a one-year-old prayer I believed: Oh, hi.