The Third Jewel

Chris Malcomb

 On retreat we learn about the three jewels. Buddha refers to the historical person, Siddhartha Gotama—who became awakened under the Bodhi Tree in India—but also to the “awakened one” inside each of us. Dharma is the path, the way of life outlined by the Buddha’s teachings. Sangha is the community: those who practice, those who sit in silence with a common purpose.

I welcome the first two jewels; I resist the third.

It’s ironic, really. I enjoy being on retreat and appreciate the camaraderie with my silent partners. I welcome the vibrant, gentle energy of practice that accumulates in the meditation hall, how it calms and inspires me during the first golden breaths of dawn; and through the sleepy silence of the sun-baked afternoon; and as the air cools, the sky darkens, and cricket song becomes the soundtrack of our experience. In these moments, boundaries disappear. I am sitting. They are sitting. No difference. I am breathing. We are breathing. No difference. I feel accepted. I feel connected.

I feel here.

So what exactly am I resisting?

Trust. I resist trusting the experience, and myself, and what I feel. Can what happens on retreat really be true connection? People don’t look at each other. We don’t speak or interact beyond holding a door open or passing a napkin across the dining table. After our time together, we will exit into our “other” lives, perhaps never cultivating the connections that may have taken root in the loam of deep silence.

Or at least I won’t. For me the sangha is as much an escape as it is a community. Maybe more. In silence, I needn’t worry about small talk or nervous introductions. I don’t have to feel tongue-tied around a beautiful woman, or jealous of some guy in his mid-twenties who has already traveled through India, or published a book, or found his life partner. Without the option to converse, I don’t have to contend with the perpetual, aggressive worries of the world outside of retreat. She’s too attractive to be interested in me. He’s probably got enough friends. That person seems more spiritual, or outgoing, or healthy, or intelligent, or confident, or comfortable in nature…

On retreat, I’m blissfully safe from the internal side effects of community. I can remain at a distance, outside the realm of risking genuine intimacy. The sangha is the one place I can truly be alone without fear.

Sometimes, my birthday falls during a retreat. I like this, as even outside of retreat I often spend the day quietly, contemplatively. I’ll take myself to a favorite teashop, or bring a good book into the woods for the afternoon. I like being acknowledged from a distance—cards in the mail, messages on my answering machine.

On retreat, it’s so simple. By the time my birthday arrives, I have generally settled into my rhythm: sitting, walking, eating, resting. I have taken my place—connected and separate—in the sangha and appreciate the anonymity of being the lone person who knows what the day means. Sometimes I forget—momentarily or even for long stretches—even that it is my birthday. When I do remember, nothing much changes. I may feel a tinge of special-ness or have a distant query about my family, but mostly I continue moving with quiet observation through the redwood buildings, shady forest paths, and curved walkways that lead to and from the day’s activities. It’s delightful, really, crossing the threshold into a new year as a silent, nameless party of one.

Well, almost.

I awoke to dissipating fog and a cool summer breeze on the morning of my thirty-third birthday. After the 6 a.m. meditation, I spent a few moments sitting at my favorite granite Buddha statue, warming myself in the rising sun. The Buddha’s eyes gazed downward towards a collection of offerings in his lap and at his feet: coins, small slips of paper containing prayers and mantras, sun-bleached photographs of monks, fragments of red string, sticks of incense, and several large, multi-patterned turkey feathers. I wanted to offer something. I considered returning to my room for a few coins, or removing the mala bead bracelet from my wrist. Instead, I found a smooth stone under a nearby tree, rubbed it with my thumb for a few moments, and then gently placed it on the Buddha’s knee.

I sat for another moment before rising and walking to the dining hall.

My breakfast that morning was a large bowl of oatmeal sprinkled with almonds, raisins, fresh granola, and vanilla yogurt. I sat at an unoccupied table and raised a spoonful of oatmeal and lifted it into my mouth. I felt the warmth of the cereal, the silky coolness of the yogurt, the plump juiciness of each raisin. I closed my eyes, chewed for a few minutes, and then retrieved another spoonful.

A few moments later, a tanned young man wearing a hemp shirt sat across from me. He placed a steaming mug of tea and a boiled egg on the table, and then reached into the pocket of his cargo pants, removing an orange. I stared at his hands as he peeled the fruit, gently stacking the strips of rind next to the egg. They were weathered, with calluses and cracked skin around the undersides of his knuckles and fingertips. He sectioned the orange with grace and power, his hands like those of a carpenter, mountaineer, or boat-builder. For a moment I thought I was looking at the hands of my only brother.

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