Meeting a Potter on Day 10

After 9 days of complete silence, and a short meditation on loving kindness, it is time to break the silence. The fifty-odd men walk out of the meditation hall and down a small hill, and one of the first guys I run into is an older fellow named Walter.* “My Mom was an artist, my Dad an engineer, and I’ve got a little bit of both -- I’m a potter and tech support guy,” he shares in his gentle, soft-spoken voice with an affectionate smile.

With a minute or so, Walter proceeds to share an intimate detail of his spiritual journey: he’s a stream-enterer. Sotapanna, as Buddha called it, is the first dip into the nirvanic field. On this path of millions of lifetimes, a sotapanna is to reach full enlightenment in less than seven lifetimes. It was the high-bar that Buddha used to define “noble”.

“Did someone verify that it was an actual stream-entry experience?” I asked, with a healthy dose of skepticism. :) “Yes, I actually went to see Ruth Dennison -- who was one of the four sanctioned Western dharma-heirs of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. She just looked at me, and without me saying anything, she immediately told me, ‘I know why you’re here. What you need to do is this and this.’ It was part of our 30-day retreat, and although silent, she included some tai-chi like body work as a part of her teaching of Vipassana. But yeah, she verified it, and then later, a few others like Shinzen Young also.’

Realizing that he’s actually sharing from straight experience, I proceeded to ask him a bunch of questions. :) His candid, straight-forward responses left me feeling profoundly inspired.

For 30 years, Walter had a Zen practice, and then he and his wife sat a 10-day retreat at the suggestion of a friend. He sat a couple courses, and enjoyed it. Then, one day, he just had a sense that he had to return. “Every pore of my body said I needed to meditate, but my wife and I got into a huge fight because she didn’t want me to go -- but I had to go, and I went to another 10-day. On Day 4, right when Goenka starts chanting for Vipassana, it happened. I was gone.” Gone? “Cessation.” Cessation? “All five senses, the mind, everything is gone. It’s not real. All objects of the world, mental constructs, all disappears.”

Buddha said that three very significant insights become evident with such a first dip into this field, and Walter verified it from his experience: no-self (Ananta), constant change (Aniccha), and emergence (losing belief in rites and rituals).

“First thing that is very clear is anatta -- no-self. There is no self,” he said. Then what’s experiencing that nothing-ness? “It’s hard to describe with words, because words are just a subset of the mind.” So there’s no time? “Yeah, time is a mental construct too, so no sense of time.” But then you return back? “Yes. It’s impossible to tell how long it was, but I later pieced together the evidence and it was about five minutes. But it could’ve been forever.”

“When you returned, then, did everything look different?” I asked. “Yes, completely. It was extremely disorienting -- for many months. You can see, with your naked eyes, that everything is fluid, everything is constantly changing. There is constant vibrational communication going on between plants, animals, humans, and all life.” “So you walked out of that meditation hall and everything looked different in this ‘normal’ world?” “Yes. I remember feeling just so open and looking at all trees, I could see all its energy in its leaves and branches and the stem and how they interacted with each other. There was this one particular Manzanita tree that really stood out, so I just went up to the tree and just held it, felt it, and knew its being.”

To be honest, I’m quite amazed that he’s sharing all this so openly. Something about his matter-of-fact share was so real and authentic, that it triggered various aha moments, but not an insight kind of a way, but more of discovery. For instance, when he was open-heartedly describing his Manzanita experience, I just had a very lucid understanding that the highest bandwidth communication we are capable of is this energetic connection. As we lose that sensitivity, we create newer -- and weaker -- ways to communicate, like images and words. As we add even more layers of abstractions, like the Internet, the connections become weaker and weaker and we start to make ignorant design decisions that end up doing more harm than good.

Thirdly, you lose faith in rites and rituals. “You can’t meditate your way to enlightenment. It’s not your doing, you can’t use your willpower to force it. It just doesn’t work like that.” Then what triggers it? “It’s an act of grace. An accident, if you want to call it that.” But you’re still here, meditating? With a paradoxical laugh, he says, “Well, I think meditation makes you more accident-prone.” :)

He also stressed the importance of non-violence and morality (sheila). “So is it hard for you to be selfish?” I ask with a tinge of fascination. “It’s hard. I can still be angry, but it just doesn’t stick. For instance, when I returned home from the course, remember how my wife and I had gotten into a big fight? Well, she was still furious. I could see her rage, and it entering into my field, and then just leaving. I just couldn’t keep that energy.” So you wouldn’t harm anything? “You mean, if there’s ants in my house, oh yeah, I still kill them if necessary. Use pesticides and all that. I still eat meat. And I’m very capable of all kinds of cravings and aversions, and still have them, but they just don’t go as deep. Buddha said it is with the second dip of Nirvana (sakadagami) where that stuff dramatically lessens.”

Typically, when reading about these things, we tend to superimpose our insecurities and over-exaggerated ideals, but Walter sharing had a de-mystifying quality to it. It was like saying, “Hey man, your idea of reality is just a movie playing on the screen of your mind. One day, you’ll see outside the theatre and the game will be over. It’s not a big deal.”

You must meditate everyday? “Yes. For me, there’s a sense of curiosity and learning that drives me too.” Is everything in your life aligned to this? “Yes.” Pottery, too? “Yeah. I remember being a monk in a past life, but also being a potter in various cultures.” What triggers your pottery creations? “Nature. Creative impulse can be rooted in many different kinds of minds. There are forces far stronger than greed and fear.”

“If this world isn’t real, then why create? Or why even be compassionate? Do you feel a sense of compassion?” I ask. “I feel a lot of compassion, and I feel that the world is burning right now, crying for help. It’s paradoxical, I know, but I’m constantly moved to serve. This world is not real, but it is also real. You learn to hold the paradoxes.” Do you ever forget the insight from your stream-entry experience? “You can’t. Sure, you engage in the world and fulfill the karmic patterns that you’re a part of, but there’s a subtle knowing that never leaves you. What exactly is that knowing? Hard to describe in words.” Ultimately, is everything just a projection of Your mind? Is it all subjective, just an expression of you? “You mean, like solipsism? No, I don’t think so. There is individuation but no self, and that paradox is also hard to explain within the confines of mental constructs.”

While Walter’s stream entry experience lasted for five minutes, it shook up his reality. For several weeks, he was literally living in a discombobulated reality. Over the course of next six months, he simply couldn’t engage with the world -- and ended up losing his job, losing his house, and getting a divorce (they are now back together, though). “I just couldn’t ground myself in this reality, but then I sought out some help. I realized that many people go through this experience. Buddha has one map of this consciousness that lists four stages, but Zen has 10 dips into Satori, St. Teresa of Avila spoke of it in the Interior Castle. Some go through it without any background in meditation, some skip some of the stages, some seem to be able to go in and out at will, Bodhisattva are said to withhold their entry. So it’s a whole field, and it’s not all black and white as we want to make it out to be.”

He personally still liked Vipassana, as his gateway. What’s it’s like for him to meditate? “Oh, it’s like anyone else. I still experience gross sensations, just like anyone, but you have deep clarity that it’s all constantly changing. Shinzen Young once said that it takes a very, very, very long time to take the first dip -- and the subsequent dips are exponentially harder, because you have undo some very deep patterns.” So, when you meditate, are you just able to focus on your breathe as long as you want -- hours? “No, my mind still wanders. Many times I catch it quickly, but sometimes something will come up and I’ll be distracted for 5 minutes even, or one time on this course, I was gone for a full half an hour during a one hour site. That’s not as often, but still part of the process.” That gave me hope. :)

“Sometimes, though, you get really tuned in. Like, during Anapana, when I focus on this small area under my nose (quarter inch at the center of mustache area), it is as big as a football field and as I zoom in more, it gets even larger and keeps expanding. There’s just SO much space.” So then, what does it mean for you to stay within the framework of the body? “There isn’t a clear answer to that. It depends on what state you’re in. Like on this course, I woke up one time, with a giant one dimensional gong which created a ripple and sub-ripples and so on, and then I followed that through to the end, and boom -- five of my sense doors were all gone. It’s like there was no ripple left, no image left in the reservoir. Without any the five sense doors, there was no way the world could create any contact. I was fully aware with only sense door that existed -- my mind.” How do you practice meditation there? “From what I understand, Vipassana practice is still the same -- you are aware, equanimous and you do nothing. Let nature take its course.”

While walking through the nature trail, he shared many smaller, and often humorous, stories; and without any conscious planning on his part, the punchline always seemed to return back to dharma. “In one of my courses, I woke up at night and was convinced that I was stuck in prison. I was wide awake, I walked outside, thought of all the things that had happened like them taking away my valuables and everything. So I started plotting my escape, for two straight hours. Then, somehow I noticed an inconsistency that there were no fences or wall that kept us in. That slowly started to bring me to back to sanity,” he said with a big smile. “Isn’t it amazing how we can create an image of anything and really, really start to believe it’s the truth?” This time, I think, the joke was on me. :)

“So, Walter, any superpowers?” I joked. We haven’t really known each other too long, but we feel like friends. When others joined our conversation, we would naturally hit the pause button, include them and speak to whatever topic they wanted to engage in, and then hit the un-pause button when we were alone again. :) In one late-night conversation with an activist athlete and a telecom businessman, we even engaged in a thoughtful debate on the intersection of markets, politics and inner transformation. Everyone spoke of compassion and inter-connectedness, but I found myself smirking, “We’re all talking about compassion but actually, Walter’s the only one here who can experientially relate to that Manzanita tree.” :)

So, superpowers? “No, none. I know many others with similar experiences who end up with various gifts, but no, I’m just a potter. I see the world the same way anyone else would, I struggle in much the same ways everyone else does, with money, relationships and the world. But there’s just a clear knowing that this world that we think is real is merely an approximate imprint from our mind.”

Something about the combination of his simplicity and clarity left me profoundly inspired and encouraged. He wasn't trying to impress anything onto me, he wasn't trying to speak cleverly, he wasn't trying to be anything. He simply shared his truth, and even that, he didn’t have a need to.

On the receiving end of it, I felt that enlightenment was like a door right next to me, that would open whenever my work was done. There’s no rush, because time is a baseless metric but merely a navigation tool. There’s no here or there, really, because all the laws of nature are the same everywhere. There’s nothing to accomplish or attain, because our four abodes -- compassion, equanimity, joy and kindness -- are always accessible to us.

That night, feeling grateful, I had a spontaneous feeling of making an offering. Of course, being in retreat, I didn’t have much anything beyond my toiletries and dirty laundry, so it felt like a silly thought. Just then, I remembered how my wife had kindly got me a small clock on the day I left; it was just couple dollar trinket but perhaps I thought of it because it was wrapped in my wife’s love and support for my spiritual journey. “Yeah, I should give him that,” I thought. “That’s kind of weird, though. Who gives a cheap alarm clock, for no good reason, to someone they just met? Alright, maybe not.” Still, I kept it in my jacket pocket.

Next morning, when we said our goodbyes, it came up. “Hey, Walter, thank you for sharing your stories. My parents raised me with this idea that whenever you receive something, you should always make a gratitude offering. I don’t really have anything valuable or beautiful or profound, but I had this little alarm clock in my room and I was wondering if you would be kind enough to receive it?” I opened my right palm to show it and then handed it to him. He looked squarely at me, without words. I don’t think he was used to this kind of cultural context, and perhaps no one had given him something in this way. “It’s kind of silly, but you can just leave it in your room or whatever. No biggie. I just wanted to say thanks” I casually said to avoid the awkward silence. But he looked at me with what seemed like teary eyes, and said, “You won’t believe it, but I just made a list of things I needed to get before I come to my next course -- and a battery-powered clock is what I wrote down at the top of the list.” “Really?”

We both started laughing and heartily joked, “Dhamma works!” :)

* Name changed to preserve identity

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