The final chapter in the serialized 1981 travel adventure which Walhydra first published on The Crone Thread in 1997.Conclusion: In which Walhydra finally gets a clue
By the time Walhydra's political refugee problem had been resolved, the day after the landing in South Hampton, she felt as if her hurricane of rage had pretty much blown itself out. She and Nikki rode the hydrofoil across the Solent to Cowes on the Isle of Wight.
On the way, a distracted Walhydra alternated between adrenalin rushes at the Space Invaders video game in the galley and bouts of forlorn moping on deck, watching the drizzling skies and choppy waters. Once they reached the Island, she let Nikki lead the way to Ventnor, where his folks lived, and then to pitch camp at Comforts Farm, where Nikki had boarded his grey Arabian horse named Horse.
The Isle of Wight is one of those rare, uncluttered places of power where the sorting out of who stays and who leaves is done very quickly.
The story goes that when the Romans tried to capture the wedge-shaped island, which they called Vectis, they were met on the shores by woad-painted naked warriors with hard-ons. They wisely decided that the larger island to the north (Britannia, that is) would probably be a more...um...dignified conquest.
When Christian missionaries came along later, the Oyl o' Woyters (as the natives call themselves) said, "Right, we can do this," and proceeded to put on the cloak of the new public religion, while quietly continuing their no-nonsense Pagan faith.
And, when modern barbarian tourists from the mainland—i.e., England—tramp over the beaches and downs each summer, the locals just shake their heads, count their change, and wait for autumn.
Having learned something of this history from Nikki, Walhydra was pleased at how quickly she felt at home on the Island.
She of course overlooked the fact that, just as with India, whomever the Island claims, it also transforms, usually in deep and subtle ways, and with little sympathy for ego's narrow agendas. Only as she retells the story now does she notice—with perversely witchy delight—how great the transformation has been.
But, we're getting ahead here....
Within a week of landing on the Island, Walhydra was being given her first lesson in riding by Horse. As with all of his tribe, Horse had a bemused yet unsympathetic view of this little animal on his back. It was clearly kindhearted, yet it seemed stupidly convinced that Horse was some sort of mammalian automobile, to be steered and controlled by reins and knees.
To counter this misconception, every time Walhydra "got" Horse into a trot, he headed directly toward the jumps. Whenever Walhydra "steered" him away from a jump, Horse slowed to a walk. This game proceeded for some time, with Nikki muffling snickers on the sidelines.
Finally Horse walked up to a jump and stood still right in front of it. Walhydra, still in an auto-driving mind set, relaxed...and Horse jumped.
Needless to say, this surprise reminded Walhydra that large, jumping animals do not need a running start. On the other hand, Horse was reminded that small, stupid but unfrightened animals do not necessarily fall off. Walhydra landed painlessly on Horse's forehead.
A laughing, teary-eyed Nikki helped extricate Walhydra from her perch and "scolded" Horse for giving such a helpful first lesson.
All was well as they walked to the stable, until Walhydra noticed the patch of blood on her jeans. It seems there had been a minor internal injury to a certain precious male organ. Thus began an interesting three-day side trip "into hospital"—which, by the way, British socialized medicine quite sensibly paid for, despite Walhydra's being an unemployed alien.
Walhydra is noticing a lot of things "in retrospect," and begins to feel somewhat dizzy, as if she's riding backwards….
In retrospect, Walhydra suspects that the Crone was behind Horse's "throwing her" into hospital.
The gentle reader will surely have recognized by now how Walhydra clings to the notion that spiritual growth is simply a matter of acquiring spiritual knowledge. Even though she now knows better, she still tends to resist those bone-deep transformations which involve real pain and loss. Until she can't ignore them, that is.
The myriad voices of India had indeed captured her attention, yet she remained merely fascinated. It took the one, deep, chthonic voice of the Island to get through with the simple message: Be still, already!
To make certain that she heard, the day Walhydra came out of hospital, she and Nikki were asked to move into the vihara (monastery) of the Isle of Wight Buddhist Fellowship. In exchange for free housing, "all they had to do" was to prepare the one daily vegetarian meal for the Fellowship's spiritual advisor, the Venerable Khemadhammo, Bhikkhu (ordained monk).
Walhydra had met the Bhikkhu six months earlier, just before she and Nikki left England on their trek "round the world." She had not been impressed.
Ever the suspicious Protestant, Walhydra is rarely impressed with the trappings and titles of people said to have spiritual authority.
Given the escapade of the saffron dhoti, the reader may wonder what this wariness is about. In truth, it has less to do with guarding against hypocrisy than with two basic fears: fear of submitting to the genuine authority of another, and fear of exercising one's own genuine authority.
But don't tell Walhydra that.
All that Walhydra saw was an ex-actor from Portsmouth, England, who had gone off to the forests of Thailand for a number of years, come back with shaved head and robes, and "set himself up" as a spiritual leader with a loyal following. She did not "feel" enlightenment streaming from him, so she gave him merely courtesy and well-cooked meals—and kept his house clean.
Nikki, who had taken off his own saffron out of respect, kept his opinions to himself and watched. What Nikki saw surely must have amused him.
He knew that one of the best ways to teach a Virgo is to distract her with a well-written book of conceptual analysis, one which she thinks is about the living, breathing lesson one actually wants to give her. Then, once her rational mind is fully preoccupied with the ecstasy of "new ideas lucidly and convincingly argued," one yanks the existential rug out from under her…at which point, how can any conscientious Virgo argue with the concrete reality, since she has already bought into the idea of it?
So it was that, on the day they moved into the vihara, Nikki gave Walhydra a copy of Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught. Each day, while she went dutifully through the motions of the vihara practice, Walhydra devoured Rahula's crystalline words.
Up at 5:30, chanting and meditation from 6 to 7, cooking the day's meal in time to present before noon to the Bhikkhu.
Then off to market or to visits with Nikki's many Island friends, and back home in the evening for a second meditation from 9 till 10.
And, all the while, plunging deeper into the conceptual labyrinth of Buddhist thought.
Walhydra made her way well enough through the First Noble Truth, DUKKHA, the notion that all of existence, both pleasant and unpleasant, is imperfect, changeable, conditioned...and so on. She could understand that this did not mean, as Westerners often mistranslate, that "all is suffering." Merely that "all passes."
So far, so good, she thought.
Things got a bit more tricky with the Second Noble Truth, SAMUDAYA, the arising of dukkha.
Easy enough to understand "thirst," or desire for and attachment to pleasures, wealth and power, as origins of the struggle found in dukkha. But desire for and attachment to ideas and ideals, conceptions and beliefs? Walhydra's mind tried to stretch itself around the idea that desiring enlightenment was a cause of suffering.
She needed even more of a stretch to get hold of the Buddhist twist on the theory of karma. Will, volition, desire, thirst to exist, to continue, to become more...all of these persist after physical death, yet there is no permanent Self or Soul which "re-exists" from life to life to remember these things?
Well, Rahula's exposition was so systematic and elegant that Walhydra had to just cram this all in, too. Nothing like the authority (oops! there's that word!) of a finely-crafted argument to help her suspend disbelief.
It was at the end of her second week out of hospital that Walhydra ran up against NIRODHA, the Third Noble Truth, regarding the cessation of dukkha.
This is the bit where a person understands how consciousness, as well as all pleasant, unpleasant or neutral sensations, merely appear and disappear, without having permanent existence. Where her mind becomes detached and she finds "a pure equanimity which she can direct towards the attainment of any high spiritual state...."
And where—zip!—the rug gets pulled!
It happened this way.
One morning, in the minutes before chanting and meditation were to begin, the Bhikkhu was quietly lighting candles and incense at the shrine in a comfortably empty upstairs room. Walhydra sat at the back of that room, doing yoga stretches so that her knees would let her be still for an hour. Nikki soon joined them, as did another guest, and the meditation began.
"Araham samma-sambuddho bhagava...."
At the end of the hour, as the others went downstairs to the kitchen, Khemadhammo stopped Walhydra in the hallway.
"Please do not do those exercises in the shrine room while I am preparing for meditation."
HOW DARE HE?!!
Wherever that hurricane of rage had been hiding, it rushed back suddenly in full force. Walhydra was so offended by this "imposition of authority" that she slammed through the house, seized up her backpack and the rolled up tent, and stalked out.
She informed Nikki that she would be pitching camp at a campground they'd seen a week earlier. Then she caught a double-decker bus into the town of Ryde, where she had already committed to staffing the Fellowship's vegetarian food stall for the day.
All the way up and down the hedgerowed lanes into town, Walhydra seethed. How dare he?!
Customers at the market that day must have wondered if the compassionate Buddha had been replaced by a stand-in vengeful Yahweh.
By the time Nikki met her for a late afternoon trek to the campground, Walhydra had revisited every grievance back to Allahabad and before—in a remarkable recapitulation not only of dukkha and samudaya, but of numerous other not-so-noble truths.
When, sometime after dark, the two of them made their way back to the vihara from a campground which was—oops!—closed for the season, a rather meek Walhydra crawled into her sleeping bag on the threadbare carpet of their room and said not a word.
To this day, she cannot remember if or how she apologized to Khemadhammo. He neither mentioned the incident nor changed his attitude toward her of...compassionate detachment? They all merely returned to their daily routine without comment.
From her journal, Walhydra knows that she resumed her reading long enough to get to the part of nirodha she had missed before. That's the part where the practitioner realizes that even if she reaches a "purified and cleansed equanimity," should she focus it upon anything, even upon the "highest spiritual state," that is still a mental condition and, hence, still dukkha.
Sheesh! You can't win at this game!
Her notes do not reveal whether she kept on reading through the remaining two Noble Truths.
Or through the Noble Eightfold Path, the Twelve Factors of Conditioned Genesis, the Five Hindrances, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment...
…or the Fifty-Seven Varieties.
What she did do was to sit in the back of the shrine room twice a day. She continued to cook and clean. She and Nikki prowled the hedgerows to gather blackberries for jam and rosehips for tea. They visited friends. Nikki pondered—briefly—becoming a postulant.
And Walhydra started a new journal, in which she wrote a rather steamy short story about a young man on New Year's Eve, a guy in a pickup truck, and...um…well....
And, after several more weeks of this, Walhydra noticed one morning, as the Bhikkhu began the closing chant, that she had been fully awake and aware of nothing in particular for an hour.
The journal says merely, "I was meditated upon." The next day's entry says, "Meditated alone. Felt as if dissolving." And the next, "Awoke sad and restless. Rain."
Walhydra will not pretend that at this point she became "a good Buddhist." The gentle reader knows her too well to be fooled.
Twenty-nine years later, she knows that she is still “capable of unbounded indignation" when someone appears to her to be abusing authority. Now, though, as soon as she notices the pieces of scenery in her mouth, she stops chewing.
"Hmm," she says. "Anger is happening here. Wonder what button got pushed? And just what Work was being done before ‘Little Me’ stole the spotlight?"
She gets amused more easily now, watching how this person she is goes through things over and over again—even though she "already knows this stuff."
In fact, twenty-nine years later, feeling somewhat beat up at almost sixty, Walhydra notices rather tiredly that she keeps rediscovering fears and resentments she thought she had grown out of.
"This enlightenment business," she sighs, shaking her head.
"It's not at all like flipping a switch. Each next moment you have to pay attention all over again, you have to notice whether you've wandered off into the past or the future or the weather or the next driver's rudeness or your Mom's Alzheimer's or…."
"At least, each next moment is a new moment. I do seem to be getting better at returning to that awareness."
"Oh, you do, huh?" the Crone asks, feigning surprise. "I'll bet I can still piss you off, easy."
Walhydra blows a raspberry.
And so it is.