by Suyin Karlsen, Guest Writer
Behind the village borehole stood a banyan looking more like a fort than a tree, its accessory trunks giving shape to formidable battlements. A benched area around the banyan was a low brick wall wide enough to sit on. Within the squared-off area, crabgrass and dandelion thrived. A stone statue of Shiva was secured at the base of the tree by two embracing roots. Fresh marigold blossoms, still fragrant, lay like a small yellow carpet before the god.
The borehole was a rural water supply for cooking and drinking. Some women brought clothes to be laundered. West of the banyan tree was a row of small houses, white plaster walls with asbestos roofs. Clothes hung from a loose line strung across a wall. One morning, breakfasting on chai and samosas at a tiny tea shop across from the village borehole, I saw a lady sitting under the banyan tree. I could tell she wasn’t from the village. Her sari was too fine. Not bronze or copper colored, neither brown nor gold but all of the above. She was looking at me too from afar. Carrying two cups of chai, I walked over to her. She smiled broadly, as if she had been expecting me all morning.
“National tree!” she said.
“What?” I replied, astonished.
“This banyan is the national tree of India!” she exclaimed glancing upwards with pride. I did not know that. The many times I had traveled to India, I just had not known that fact.
That broke the ice, for me at least. “You live here?”
“I live everywhere,” she answered dreamily. She disarmed me with her charm and well-spoken English. In her presence, I forgot all the questions I had planned to ask someone about the borehole: how safe it was for children to drink the water directly from it without boiling, and if they ever wondered that laundry soap seeping into the aquifer could contaminate the water. I wanted to ask about her extraordinary sari which changed color when light fell on it. But words felt weightless and thoughts dissipated even as they arose. For a while we didn’t speak. The silence was as soothing as the warm liquid cloves and cardamom that slid down my throat, stirring up swiftly, sluggish morning blood. I would kill for caffeine, the provider of 5 percent of human happiness. It was ridiculous that a cup of spicy Indian chai can make me this happy.
“Are you happy?” the lady asked reading my mind. For the second time that morning, I said, “What?”
“Yes, I suppose I am. Mostly, I am. Actually, I don’t really think about it.”
Tilting her head side to side as if in utter disagreement, she stated rather directly, “You are sad. Someone has hurt you, and your heart feels like broken glass.”
Wishing to remain non-combative, I countered defensively, “Everyone has a sad life. It is all samsara, isn’t it? Samsara makes us sad! Who is really and truly happy?!”
“No. It is quite the opposite,” she corrected me swiftly. “Samsara doesn’t cause you to be sad. Your being sad in the first place causes the samsara. Your mind is sad and restless, unsteady … it’s an open door for samsara. More restless the mind, greater the samsara. Calmer mind doesn’t mean samsara won’t ever come, but when it does, it won’t be so bad. You must train your mind to be calmer!”
So, this one is not a fortune teller but a life coach. The chai was gone. The morning wasn’t turning out as I had anticipated. Reading my mind again, she said, “No need for more chai. Come with me.” Without waiting for a response, she hopped off the wall and beckoned me to follow. “Where are we going?” I asked.
Come, just follow.” She was a fast walker considering her legs weren’t any longer than mine. The red-clay path led to a T junction. We turned left, heading I could see, towards an enclave of trees with branches hanging so low, they formed a canopy that provided shade from the already simmering equatorial sun. In the distance was a pond. No, a lake. It was enormous, bestrewn with water lilies and bulrush, like an Asher Brown Durand landscape painting. A herd of elephants was bathing in the water. I gasped at the sight. She pointed to one large elephant that wasn’t in the water. He was hauling a fallen trunk off the forest bed and trying to place it elsewhere. A man, a mahout, sat upon the elephant. He was holding a valiya kol, a long pole directing the animal.
The lady explained that my mind was like an untrained elephant. It stomped and screeched like the wild thing that it was. She said the mahout was my intellect. “Use your intellect to train your mind because your mind is your greatest weapon. No one can make you sad, except you, yourself. Think yourself happy, think yourself sad, what’s the difference? It’s all the same thing. Just thoughts. You make yourself!” For a moment, it felt like a scolding. But her face was kind, beautiful even, like the face of a beloved mother.
She added, “But you can’t become an expert mahout overnight. You must practice. Practice every day. Practice calming your restless mind if you want to find happiness.”
“Easier said than done,” I told her, rolling my eyes. “But how?”
How do you control 60,000 thoughts a day? A long time ago, I attended a talk where a Rinpoche said we have Monkey Mind. Our minds are like monkeys drunk on toddy and stung by a wasp. And there is also Butterfly Brain.
I laughed at the thought of all these poor animals dragged without their permission into Ted talks to describe how hopeless we are at taming ourselves. She saw the humor and laughed too. “Yes, poor elephant, monkey, and butterfly. But they don’t mind. They have no ego like us.”
“So, what’s the secret to Calm Mind and Happiness,” I asked feeling suddenly hopeful.
“Dear One, there’s no secret. Just Meditate. Start with five minutes a day, and then slowly build on that. You will see. Your mind will be calmer. Your health will get better. And you will smile more, as you discover slowly what you really are, and what powers you already have!”
It was a lot to take in for one morning. But one thing I felt to be true: in her presence, my mind was calmer. I felt very present. Seeing everything with new eyes. A
s she turned to walk away, I turned with her. There was no way I was going to find my way back to the banyan tree by myself. As I turned, I felt familiar soft bedding beneath me. Opening my eyes in bed, I realized I was not by a lake with elephants or with strange ladies.
But I was still in India. Quickly, I dressed and took myself down to the village where the chai shop was, paying the auto-rickshaw driver double if he could hurry up, please.
Carrying two cups of warm chai, I went and sat under the Banyan Tree and waited for … Sukha. Before I awoke, she told me her name. She said Sukha means Bliss.