COMO SE LAMA
by Jean Harris
Saturday morning and we prepare to leave for our Buddhist retreat. Car packed. I'm sleepy but attend 9 a.m. Jazzercise class to get me started.
Now here we are at Camp Newman, a Jewish children's camp near Santa Rosa.
This retreat is sponsored by the Dzogchen Foundation. We came because of Lama Surya Das with whom we've been doing breathing exercises from a video for the last five years. Feel like we know him.
Requested the best room they had, with private bath, but we were forewarned not to expect too much. Cost $1095 each for the week, includes three vegetarian meals daily. Our room is one of four on bottom, four on top, like a cheap motel, and we are given one on ground floor. We park in front and unpack.
Weather is glorious. At first my concern is walking up and down the three
hills it requires to get to our room, but after four times a day I'm into it,
muscles ready to be used, legs strong.
Brought quilt and pillows from home which helps to cozy up the room a bit.
We are immediately put off by the list of rules and regulations we are given on arrival and my first impulse is to rebel. We'll see. They discourage reading and writing and we are expected to maintain silence throughout the week's retreat. Arturo says it will be good for me. I need it. Oh boy! What have I gotten us into? Time will tell. The plot unfolds.
I need to decompress anyway and a week without the phone, news, movies, computer and television will certainly do me good (if I can hold out).
We lunch in Calistoga before checking in and sitting at a table near us is a short dark man in suit and tie and tweed hat. It 's a warm day. We speculate about where he's from. He's small, but doesn't look Thai or Chinese. Burmese, maybe.
And soon after our arrival at Camp, this same man appears, dressed now in khakis and what he calls his meditation hat. We connect at once. He is from India, Bangalor, but has lived in the Bay Area for forty years. His name he tells us is Jay but we can't talk long or further, because it's time for silence to take effect.
Also the rules request abstention from intoxicants and sex during the time of the retreat. All the joy squeezed out of life. Don't judge! I warn self. Especially pre-judge!
The first night went well, thanks to the quilt from home. Breakfast at 7:30, then meditation and chanting for one hour. I like the silence after all. No small talk necessary, a brief nod will do.
Can't say that I completely buy into the discipline however. If I reject one set of regulations (Judaism) why should I seek another? They all are variations on a theme and one set of rules is as good as another. Will discuss this with Lama Surya Das if I am granted a private interview.
I also find objectionable the veneration bestowed upon the Lamas and the icons. People love to prostrate themselves. We noticed the same behavior in India with the Shankaracharya. The instinct is to worship and to kneel and to bow.
We do a lot of walking up and down these hills which is good for us. I'm thankful our legs are up to the task. Arturo emits a loud belch and I say: Ssshh!! We laugh.
The air is fresh, the sun bright, wild turkeys all over the place and a Star of David is affixed to one of the high rocks in the distance. The signs are all in Hebrew and there are many murals done by the children with quotations of Jewish sages in Hebrew and English painted on the rocks. Arturo is suddenly exposed to what he has been studiously avoiding all his life.
Lama Surya Das leads us in a meditation and chanting exercise. Later, he takes questions. I ask about vegetarianism. If all is perfect, than so is the system of everything eating everything else and we are not exempt from that system.
That's true, he says. Buddha never preached a vegetarian diet. The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, none of them vegetarians. Buddha preached compassion for all sentient beings and that is important, but when we buy packed meat in the supermarkets, we are far removed from the actual killing, so our karma is not affected. I nod as if I understand, but in truth I don't. You're eating the fear in the animal.
Nap after lunch — here we go again. Climbing up and down these hills to our room is the equivalent of walking the considerable reservoir we hike. Thank you legs.
Attend a meeting for the first-timers. We sit in semicircle with other Lama, a female Lama, Lama Choying Palmo and a couple of staffers. About twelve of us, permitted (even encouraged) to speak. We take turns with self introduction, how and why we came here.
When it's my turn, I make it brief. Declare myself a spiritual dilettante and like to learn from many disciplines. Jay, our little man is there. Of all in the group, he is the most intelligent and concise.
Conversation opens up, and I tell of learning about Tibetan Buddhism in l963, when on the shelf in the local library, I spotted the Tibetan Book of the Dead and brought it home. Edited by Evans-Wentz. Introduction by Carl Jung. That did it for me. I wrote to Oxford University Press for all the books in the series: In addition, there is The Tibetan Book of Great Liberation; The Great Yogi Malerepa; Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. These have been my guides over the years.
Someone questions Lama Palmo about her own background, and she says she was born and reared in Berkeley, but now resides in Cambridge, Mass. She is in her early 40's maybe, calm, assured, pretty.