Then the wild tiger said: "Now you see there is no difference
between you and me; come along and follow me into
To bleat and run away like a goat is to behave like an
ordinary man. Going away with the wild tiger is like taking shelter
with the guru, who awakens one's spiritual consciousness, and
recognizing him alone as one's relative.
Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
At the end of the canyon the old man drew my attention to one of the snow bridges that abound in Kashmir. Each winter, snow fills deep ravines and river-beds to the brim and freezes over, while underneath water digs a tunnel and flows through it invisible, inaudible except to a trained ear. On top, one can cross the bridge without fear of crashing through its frozen layer. But in late spring, as the snows start to melt, the water tunnel grows steadily larger and the snow span above it thinner. Finally, a gap appears in the middle. Before it widens, one can leap across it, but towards the end of July this becomes hazardous. At the end of September, before the onset of winter, only a fool would venture on to one of those structures.
"Each of us carries his winter with him," pronounced my companion. "And his snow bridge. And his gap."
These were startling words for an old mule-driver who had offered to take me to Amarnath Cave for less than half the usual fee. But he was right. All of a sudden I saw my journey as a symbolic attempt to leap across such a gap in my soul, and my recent life as a series of such attempts, of jumps undertaken to reach the other side, of vertiginous falls; of attempts to find a less dangerous crossing point, where the gap would not be so wide.
I had always been aware of having a double. As children we used to be very close, but gradually distrust grew between us. The world took the side of my intellectual "I", while my instinctive part, repeatedly shamed, withdrew. It settled in a dimension to which my intellectual "I" refused to grant equal rights, for to him it appeared inexplicable, non-scientific, however much it continued to be confirmed by experience.
As the old man and I continued our ride towards Amarnath Cave, I suddenly felt that on the other side of the canyon I could see, astride a Himalayan pony just like mine, and riding in the same direction, my rejected double whose absence had made my life so unbearable. But I had waited too long; the bridges which could have brought us together had melted. Now there was a gap between us which my distrustful intellect could never clear without risking a catastrophic fall into mental illness.
Farther up we came upon a group of pilgrims who were returning from a visit to the caves; a small number of men and women resting, drenched by the afternoon sun, on the rocks by the wayside. The old man threw them a few Kashmiri words which drew surprised comments and laughter. As we rode on I could hear them exchanging scornful remarks.
"It is too late," said the old man. "Lingam in the cave is no more. You should have come a month earlier."
I knew I would not see the stalagmite of ice which mysteriously appears inside Amarnath Cave each summer and waxes and wanes with the phases of the Moon, reaching its highest point some time in August. But that didn't bother me. My pilgrimage had a different reason. I had been told that inside the cave I would find a remarkable holy man who might want to amuse himself by letting me stay by his side and help me across the gap in the snow bridge in my soul.
After crossing the Mahagunas Pass we reached a plain at an altitude of ten thousand feet. It was inevitable that years of inactive life would sooner or later exact their toll, but until that moment I had felt nothing more than a slight touch of vertigo and an occasional stabbing pain in the lungs. But as we descended towards the wind-swept shadowy plain, the grey rocks and granulated mountain slopes suddenly swayed in a twist and sank into darkness.
The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was the mule-driver's face, a mixture of apprehension and irritation. I felt something gluey on my left cheek; reaching out with my tongue, I tasted blood. I must have fainted and rolled off the back of my pony, striking a rock as I fell. I could feel another patch of slippery moisture on the right side of my skull. I dragged myself to the nearby stream and lowered my head into the icy water rushing over the rocks. I watched it grow dark with the blood.
"Shall we go back?" asked the old man.
"No," I said.
"You have altitude sickness."
He was right. Vertigo, buzzing in the ears, shortness of breath, pain behind the eyes, rapid pulse, nausea, thirst - all were telling me that I had climbed too far too fast. But never before had I been so close to the most important goal of my life! To turn back now would mean giving up too early. And for that it was too late. After a brief rest I struggled back into the saddle and we continued on our way.
Before long we had to dismount. The path was becoming very steep, winding its narrow and dangerous way past precipitous cliffs. Mist began to appear in front of my eyes.
"Rest," I gasped, "a short rest."
And I slid to the ground with my ears throbbing, on the edge of consciousness, on the edge of a precipice. I could see something luminous in the distance; it took me a while to realise it was the setting sun. The cold was taking on the quality of steel.
"We can't rest here," I heard the old man's voice somewhere above me, "the horses will lose their footing and tumble into the ravine." He was half dragging, half kicking them up the mountain.
I was lying on a rocky ledge, shivering, exposed to the hungry shadows of the approaching night. The old man returned and helped me to my feet. I let him grip my arm and drag me up the path, with a short rest behind each corner. "It's not far any more," he kept saying, his voice in the wind sounding as if coming from miles away. "A few more steps, just a few more, make an effort, look at me, who am twice your age."
This wasn't the first time that he was using a moment of my weakness to rise above the feeling of insignificance he must have been experiencing as a mule-driver. But this time I responded with kindness rather than impatience, not only because he was, after all, over seventy, but also because I myself was suddenly robbed of significance - by the dimensions of the landscape which had opened before us in all its naked cruelty. It was so simple in composition, so unreal that my gasping physical presence was on it rather than in it: just as the finger touches a photograph without being able to penetrate the picture across which it slides.
This was truly God's world, distant in spite of its nearness, inaccessible in spite of its presence. In its remoteness both of us, the old man and I, looked like exhausted midges climbing across the canvass of a huge natural picture in the gallery of creation.
Finally we reached our ponies, which were shivering in the freezing wind, and resumed our journey. Soon a long valley opened before us, so narrow that probably even the sun could not penetrate it for more than two hours a day. It was covered from end to end in dirty brown snow. As we entered it, leaving the wind on the slopes behind us, deep silence enveloped us. All we could hear was the muffled sound of a hoof striking stone here and there, and, each the hollow beating of his own heart pushing blood in search of oxygen.
Through this cold shadowy valley we finally reached an opening from where we could see, rising before us, the broad face of the Amarnath mountain, casting a threatening shadow, much steeper than I had expected, strewn with white rocks. High up the slope I could see the dark mouth of the holy cave.
"There," the old man said, pointing at it as if claiming credit for a wonder of nature.
I dismounted for the final ascent to the cave. It took me a while to reach the entrance. As I passed into the damp and dripping interior I could see nothing at first; my only sensation was of being touched, as if licked by a huge dog, by cold, stuffy air. Gradually, the interior of the cave became visible. It was hardly more than a hundred feet high. I descended a steep ramp to an iron railing behind which I noticed a small mound of something that looked like decomposed flowers: perhaps the garlands which devotees had thrown onto Shiva's lingam during the August pilgrimage. The wet ground was strewn with litter. I held my breath, listening. The silence finally persuaded me that there was no one else in the cave.
As I emerged into the dying light of the day, I was choking. Where was the holy man I had come to find? He was not in the cave. He was not at the entrance. He was not at the foot of the mountain. How could he possibly live in that empty wilderness?
I had imagined, God knows why, that there would be a village or a monastery nearby. Assured in London, and again in Delhi, and again in Srinagar by ten reliable people that I would find the man I was looking for in Amarnath Cave, I did not expect disappointment. Ten people, I thought, cannot lie. Ten people cannot be wrong.
I sank to my knees, leaning against the nearest rock. Tears welled up in my eyes, tears of an offened child. And the voice, which I felt had been summoning me to this cave, whose was it? Merely an aural hallucination, a subconscious excuse for the journey which otherwise would have seemed stupid?
Alone in the Himalayan wilderness, I suddenly felt that it was stupid, everything from the start: my naive wish for psycho-physical transformation; my decision to find, in spite of my doubts in the usefulness of such things, a teacher, a guru; and, above all, my conviction that my investigations had been thorough enough. Equally stupid was my inclination to believe the old mule-driver, who was the last to confirm that I would find Yogananda in the remote mountain cave.
At the foot of the mountain he had already unpacked the ponies, pitched a small tent, rolled out two sleeping bags, lit a kerosene burner and boiled water for tea.
"Did you see Shiva's lingam?" he asked with a touch of malice. "You should've come in August, now it's too late."
"You know perfectly well I didn't come to see Shiva's lingam," I snapped. "I came to find Yogananda, the holy man. You swore he would be here."
"But how could a man live in that cave?" he affected surprise. "What would he eat? Yes, during the summer pilgrimage there are saddhus here, hundreds of them, all kinds of yogis and holy men. But they all leave. There is nothing to keep them here."
"Why didn't you tell me that before we set off?"
"You didn't want facts," he said simply. "You wanted a dream. And you employed me to guide you, not to put you in touch with reality."
I found his words stranger than ever, completely at odds not only with his appearance but also with the work he did, yet weirdly compelling.
Even so, I felt I had been taken for a ride for no reason I could understand, other than the old man's pleasure at first seeing me bursting with hollow hope and then sadly defeated. I did not fail to notice a glimmer of satisfaction in his cunning eyes, and a smirk on his face as he busied himself with the gas burner.
"You're a liar and a cheat," I said, stepping towards him. "And I hate being treated like a fool."
I struck him in the face.
"I won't pay you," I said, "and that's final."
"I didn not bring you here to get paid," he replied, gently rubbing his painful jaw, but not really upset. "I brought you here to please myself by getting to know what sort of man you are."
"Well, now you know."
"Indeed," he said. "So do not worry about payment. And if you want to find Yogananda at this time of year, your best bet would be Leh, in Ladakh."
"What makes you think I'll believe you?"
"What you do or do not believe has nothing to do with me," he said. "Would you like some tea?"
I was about to hit him again, but something in his eyes told me that this time he would strike back.
"Yes I would," I said. "Thank you."
As soon as I arrived in Leh I found a modest room and collapsed on a rickety bed. My head was buzzing, my mind was awash with strange faces of the Baltis, Tibetans, Ladakhis, Indian state officials and Muslim traders with whom I had shared a two-day bus ride, and with the greenery of the Kashmiri valleys which seemed to belong in another world - a much pleasanter one than promised to be "little Tibet", as Ladakh is known.
On the bus, a bearded Kashmiri merchant had warned me not to overdo things but spend the first two days on my back under three blankets. In Ladakh, he said, strangers encounter strange things. In the open sun, where the temperature often reaches thirty degrees above zero, they remove their coats. Then they pass under a cliff and are struck as if by an axe, for they have crossed the line of permanent shade where it is always at least twenty degrees below zero. The air is so thin that they become breathless after a brief dash across the road. This doesn't apply of course to the natives, whose heart muscles are permanently enlarged.
"But that's because of hundreds of years of adaptation," the merchant said. "Please don't think you can catch up with them in a few days!"
I expected the high plains to be covered by snow drifts, but even in winter most of the snow remains on the slopes of the mountains piercing the sky on all sides. The winds are violent, sometimes warm, most often cold. They are caused by sudden drops in temperature which fluctuates wildly. There are few trees; in most places all one finds are stunted bushes.
Before nightfall I rose and crossed to the window. I gazed at the river Indus, at the city of Leh sprawling before me. I saw a sixteenth-century royal palace, empty, full of dangerous cracks. I saw a city of brown grey houses with terraced roofs and rectangular windows, shabby, Asiatic, seemingly without secrets. Where in this place would I find Yogananda? What on earth would he be doing in this crowd of Tibetan faces, in the heart of traditional lamaism, he, an Indian brahmin? No doubt the old mule-driver had sold me another lie.
Next morning I checked my provisions. I had cans of beans, dried sausages, soup packets, potato chips, vitamin supplements. I had tea bags, thank God, because Ladakhi yak butter tea was nauseating, to say the least. I had a bottle of paracetamol capsules, although I wasn't sure what sort of pain I was trying to guard against. And, of course, three different types of antibiotics, just in case. I had decided to live modestly and get used as soon as possible to the local fare, although friends had warned me that in the mountain villages I could expect little more than tsampa and, if I was lucky, an occasional piece of cheese.
Out in the street, the high altitude sun gathered me into a stunning embrace. I was glad when I reached the winding alleys of the old city, which the sun could not penetrate. Passing a profusion of little shops, I decided that a stab in the dark was the best option I had. So I entered a shop selling padded winter jackets and asked the trader if he knew an Indian holy man by the name of Yogananda.
He grabbed me by the elbow and rushed me to the door. I thought I was about to be thrown out. But the trader dragged me across the road to a shop opposite, in front of which sat a plump young Ladakhi with a round cap on his head. A conversation ensued, during which the plump young man listened attentively, but kept shaking his head. Then a middle-aged lama with glasses came past, carrying two travelling bags. He paused for a chat, which went on for almost ten minutes. I was forgotten.
When the lama finally took his leave I, too, turned to go, but the trader reached out and held me back.
"The lama knows Yogananda," he said. "Maybe you'll find him at the lamasery of Thikse. Or Lamayuru. Or some other. When he comes to Ladakh he always stays at one of the lamaseries."
I raced to the government information office to find out how many lamaseries there were in Ladakh. A sleepy official explained that there was one in almost every village. In some there were hardly more than three or four monks, but the largest held hundreds. Reluctantly, he made a list of the most important ones. Outside, in front of the entrance, I spread out the map of Ladakh and Zanskar and soon realised that even to visit a few of the largest monasteries I would need more than three weeks!
I closed my eyes; I had to lean against the nearest wall. My head was spinning. It was a mixture of rage, helplessness and self-pity. Rage, above all. If the wily old mule-driver had suddenly appeared before me, I would have knocked him to the ground and spat in his face. When, after some minutes, I opened my eyes again I realised with a shock that in my rage I had actually visualized him so well that he seemed to be standing before me, almost real, watching me with a mixture of curiosity and surprise - even, I thought, amusement.
"Where have you been so long?" he asked. "You look for me and I find you; is that a good beginning?"
His voice was certainly not an illusion, and neither was he. The old mule-driver was standing right in front of me. But he looked very different. He was dressed in a faded yellow gown, the usual garb of an itinerant holy man, with a necklace of beads round his neck. In his right hand he was holding a thick bamboo stick. Because he was no longer wearing a turban I could see that he was bald on top of his head, with plenty of greying hair falling down to his shoulders. He seemed to be taller, and his bearing more dignified. His eyes were different, too: less conniving, more astute, more spiritual.
It came to me in a flash. "Are you...?
He nodded before I could finish my question.
"But why did you...?"
"Because I was hoping that you might hit me again," he smiled very gently. "Won't you?"
"I'm sorry, I said.
"Why?" he laughed. "Surely for you hitting naughty old men is a matter of principle, is it not?"
I said I felt ashamed for losing my temper so disrespectfully. And I would, of course, pay him for taking me to Amarnath Cave, as agreed, and with interest.
"Do not worry," he said. "Forgiving fools for their follies is my favourite pleasure."
An hour later we were on our way to the lamasery of Thikse. Old Yogananda was far from talkative. Occasionally he paused in his stride, turned and looked me up and down with a cynical grin. His wiry body exuded strength which was astonishing for a man of seventy, although strength may not be the right word; it was more a question of lightness and physical harmony. Why had I failed to notice that in the mule-driver?
He walked very fast. Before long I fell behind, increasingly short of breath, unable to understand why he preferred steep mountain paths to the more leisurely road along the river. With each step, my backpack grew heavier. But the old man would not wait. He soon vanished behind the steep rocks overhanging the path.
Go to hell, I thought as I paused to regain my breath. Far below I could see the city of Leh, half bathed in sunlight, half sunk in deep shadow, with me in a far deeper shadow under a vaulted rock, and with my hopes, which had blossomed an hour earlier, in the depest shadow of all. The old man was so scornful and taciturn that I felt he did not like me at all. Obviously he was not prepared to adapt his tempo to my lumbering progress and was leaving to me to find a way to keep pace with him.
Lifting my backpack, I staggered on.
Behind the first corner I was greeted by an unusual sight. In the middle of the rocky path, Yogananda was standing on his hed, perfectly vertical, immobile. Only the bottom ends of his gown, which had collected round his waist, were trembling in the wind. The top of his head was resting on a flat stone. His feet were held slightly apart.
I waited. After five minutes he slowly bent his knees, arched his back, touched the ground with his feet without lifting his head off the stone, then maneouvered himself on to his knees and finally, without any visible effort, extended himself into a standing position.
"Now it's your turn," he said.
I explained that my doctor had warned me, on account of a weakened vertebra in my neck, never to stand on my head. He laughed so loudly that the chilling sound flew down the mountainside and vanished somewhere above the valley. This was the first time I heard the laughter with which he would later greet each of what he called my intellecto-idiocies. I almost shivered when I heard it; it was rude, gross and derisive.
"You mean you've brought even your doctor with you?" he said. "Well, don't worry. You are standing on your head. You must've been doing so for the best part of your life."
He picked up his bamboo stick and walked on.
The path began to descend, so I found it easier to keep up with him. He even slowed down, as if wanting to tease me. Once or twice, in a moment of inattention, I almost bumped into him. Then, without any warning, he sat down on a rock beside the path.
"Carry on," he said. "Don't wait for me," he added, a touch impatiently.
I said I would prefer to stay with him.
I had expected the question, so I had prepared a number of what I thought were meaningful answers. Unfortunately at that particular moment I could not remember a single one. All I could say was that I wanted to change, become different.
"You are different," he said. "If you wanted to become such as you are you would have better reasons for wanting to stay with me."
"But that's exactly it," I said. "I want to find myself in my essence. I want to transform myself into what I used to be. I want to heal the gap inside me, become whole again."
His smacked his lips contemptuously.
"What is your essence? Are you human? If you understand what is, then you are. Truth is what is. Do you know truth?"
I said I was still searching for it. I had come in the hope of finding it with his help.
"Truth is with me?" he asked, surprised. "In my pocket? In my stomach? Between my toes? Show it to me."
He seemed quite amused.
"It's not something tangible," I said. "It's a form of insight. The sort of insight that brings peace of mind."
I added that truth was something transcending temporal notions, something that simply was, present in the past and future.
"My dear friend," he laughed, "these are just beautiful words, the most worthless kind of poetry. So I tell you: do not seek, because you will miss. Do not seek, simply find."
He grinned, waiting for me to continue. By now it was more than obvious that he was not teasing me. But all his statements were so paradoxical that they failed to penetrate the defences of my rational mind. I said that I understood what he meant, in a way, but at the same time perhaps I did not.
"And do you know why not?" he almost jumped at me. "Because you understand. That's why you don't understand. Can I put it simpler than that? Peace of mind is achieved by a method which is neither spiritual nor intellectual, but physiological. You do something, and something follows. The mind grows peaceful along the way."
"That's why I'm here," I said. "To get versed in the method you mention."
He narrowed his eyes and wrinkled his forehead. "You lack innocence. Ideas and philosophies sprout from you like a multitude of weeds. You planted every seed the wind brought you, rejecting nothing. Now you're overgrown by a thick forest of nonsense. Are you prepared to burn it? If not, no method will by of any use. It'll just be another weed."
I said I was prepared to sacrifice many things, including what he called my garden of weeds and which is, in fact, a collection of my experiences and knowledge of the world. But yes, I was prepared to let go even of that. Perhaps not by erasing it entirely, but by paying it less attention...
He interrupted me with a chilling laugh. "Why don't you go to the bazaar in Leh? You'll make good money there. But at this bazaar, my little friend, there is no bargaining. And prices are steep! Playing this game, you have to put everything on the table. And there is no guarantee that you will not lose it! Even so, you will never lose more than weeds. As soon as you realise that you will stop being afraid of the loss. And you will be so much closer to gain."
Gradually we were enveloped by moonlight, by a hollow night of the Himalayan heights, a stillness in which I became aware of my breathing, of the movement of lungs, of how much I owe to air.
I was zipped up in my sleeping bag, my guru was happy with a blanket across his knees. In the moonlight his eyes burned like those of a wild tiger. I told him how some eight years earlier, during my first visit to the Himalayas, I had tried to familiarise myself with Tibetan secrets and learn the art of tumo, the heating of the body with an inner fire. And how I failed because I lacked determination and was too superficial, merely a seeker of sensations.
"Are you different now?"
Yes, I said. I am different because my search is no longer an intellectual game. I am different because I am no longer interested in the panoramic breadth of the visible world, but want to descend to its core. For a long time my distress resembled the distant rumblings of a storm which never came close. Now I am in the eye of that storm. Now my distress is so real that I find it painful even to talk about it.
I am like a furrow waiting for the seed of something, anything, that will save me. I am like a man with a terminal illness, willing to try and accept anything that might help me.
"Even a kick in the arse?" his voice reached me through semi-darkness. "If it comes with a guarantee that it will free you of the burden of your unwisdom?"
He said that in reality my distress was nothing more than the burden of my intellecto-idiocies which had started to suffocate me. What would I do if he assured me that a kick in the arse would bring me relief?
Yes, I said, I would accept even a kick in the arse, or whatever he meant by that.
"When I say kick in the arse," he laughed, "I mean the kind that knocks you flat on your face. I can't handle this overblown language of yours in which everything you say means something else. If I use words instead of actions, I do it because you're not ready for actions. If you weren't blinded by words I would've kicked you in the arse hours ago. Then, perhaps, you would have understood."
So simple, I thought. But is it so simple?
I began to speak, to explain, not so much to him as to myself, as if trying - again - to achieve some sort of overview of my situation. I said I was an outcast, a fugitive from the world of scientific materialism in which I am unable to live in a way that would make me feel at home. Knowledge I do not lack, but this is not knowledge of insight and understanding, this is merely a plethora of facts and opinions, a richness of habits and mental reflexes. My Western world of scientific objectivity disallows questions which can have only subjective answers, or allows them only so long as I am prepared to admit that such subjectivity is not binding, as long as it remains in the outer reaches of religion, poetry, art; as long it is not subversive.
I am a fugitive from the world, I continued, in which the "objective" scientists do their utmost to convince me that I am nothing more than a complex biochemical mechanism. That my values are nothing more than reactions to the threats posed by my environment. That my entire value system is nothing more than a result of my longing for happiness, and so an attempt to prove what is pure illusion, and so the source of my unhappiness. In my world I am laughed at if I mention enlightenment and salvation; I am told that the idea of salvation is no more than neurotic immaturity, lack of courage to come to terms with the fact that I am a biochemical machine without added dimensions.
I long for knowledge which would embrace the world not only in its appearance, but also in its most hidden aspects. I long to be able to penetrate everything that is not visible, to reach deeper than what the world appears to be, and to remain permanently in touch with that hidden dimension.
I am a fugitive from the world in which a man by the name of Descartes said "Cogito ergo sum" and narrowed the frame of valid experiences to what can be counted and measured. With Descartes my world took leave of wisdom in the ancient sense of the word and opted for the hard mathematical knowledge of facts, in which everything that cannot be measured and proved either does not exist or is unworthy of attention.
"And now," asked Yogananda, "you want me to save you? So you can save your people? So they can save the world?"
I said I was neither naive nor a fool, all I wanted was for someone to show me the path. Because, I said, the first step was the most important.
"The first step you have taken," he said. "You believe you can reach understanding by methods which your rational world does not recognise. Why else would you come to an old man who lives like a beggar and twice a day stands on his head?"
I could not sleep, it was too cold. The moon was setting behind the shadowy bulk of the mountains. The river Indus glistened like a polished jewel.
Yogananda was quiet and blissful. Master of the moment. Not so I. Boiling and bubbling inside me was the usual chaos of memories, worries and ruminations, independently of my will. Thoughts shaped themselves into questions and other thoughts into answers, without any order or depth; I was merely a witness to a series of disjointed neural explosions.
Who was he that was watching? That thoughtles "I" which was experiencing, witnessing the untamable dance in his brain? In whose brain?
"What are you really after?" suddenly asked Yogananda, who was not asleep after all.
"Wholeness," I said without hesitation. "The feeling of oneness with myself and my experience of the world."
"Perhaps. Not so much because in childhood most possibilities were still open, but because of that undaunted belief that the world is a place of miracles and that life is an endless sea of enthusiasm."
I told him that as a child I used to experience the world, and life, and myself in both, without standing outside and judging my actions. Then something happened, I am still not sure what.
"You lost the world," he said, "and were lost to the world."
Maybe, I said. All I can say with certainty is that for the last twenty years I have been followed by a feeling of tragic loss.
With each of the passing years, this feeling grew stronger. Whatever I did, whether plunging, as a young man, into the sensual, material world or exploring the shadowy regions of the inexpressible, I could always feel, at least vaguely, that all my efforts, and even my pranks, were dedicated to some kind of journey. For a long time I had no idea what it was that I felt I had to find. Only gradually it dawned on me that my restlessness was not a desire for something new, but an urge to reconnect with something known and long lost.
The moments in which I had glimpses of what lay at the end of the journey to which I seemed to have committed my life, remained indelibly in my mind.
"Tell me about them," said Yogananda.
I told him how, during a sea voyage to Australia, I would often leave my bunk in the middle of the night and climb to the top deck of the huge liner "Achille Lauro". Under the vault of the starry sky I would surrender myself to the forceful presence of the booming ocean. Because the sea was all around, the visible world appeared to be dissolving into the surrounding space. And because the ship remained in the middle I often felt that on all sides the sea was gently curving towards the horizon. I could feel the roundness of the Earth. I could feel how huge it was, and how abandoned in space in which other, similar globes circulated along their trajectories. I became aware of the infinity of space...
"And of your insignificance," Yogananda said.
Yes, I said. Yes. And through this feeling my perceptions flowed into a new, completely unknown sensation: of being a part of the cosmic dance of energy. Of never having to die, simply of having to change shape and form. Suddenly I was without my usual feeling of seperateness, I became the cosmos, past, future, everything.
"Including yourself?" asked Yogananda.
Including myself, I agreed, surprised at the thought that I could be most myself while being everything else.
Then I told him about another leap into the hidden dimension of being. That one occurred on the island of Bali, under the influence of hallucinatory local mushrooms. I was lifted into a vividly colourful world in which things lost their solidity and became transparent. Human flesh disappeared, revealing skulls and skeletons. Palms grew legs and tottered along the beach. I could see through clothes, bodies and walls, I could see to the end of the world, into space. I could see into stones, mangoes, steel. Into myself. Through myself. Although everything remained as it had always been, I could see it as nothing more than a play of shadows and shapes, a fiery flowing mist, a dance of energy.
"Did you at that moment feel you were seeing the world as it really is?" asked Yogananda.
Maybe, I said.
"Did you feel that in a world of appearences you're merely a prisoner, walled in by ideas which are just an attempt to fool yourself with an illusion of time and space, to protect yourself from the awareness of death?"
Yes, I said, possibly. But what I did come to feel without any doubt, for the first time in my life, was the possibility of true inner freedom.
There was only one thing I was not sure of: who and where was the "I" which was feeling, sensing all this? The appearance of things was not there any more, matter became transparent, but my "I" did not vanish, it was there, experiencing, observing, judging.
My "I" could not unite with the world.
"Ah," said Yogananda. "We seem to have isolated the problem."
When the effects of the drug wore off, reality was again reduced to appearance, the core vanished and again I could see and feel only the shell of reality.
"So you decided to eat those mushrooms for breakfast, lunch and dinner," laughed Yogananda.
No, I said. I gave up drugs and continued my search for higher awareness through other means. Challenging fate. Exposing myself to danger. Studying esoteric texts. All of which removed me even further from the path to my goal. It also distanced me from my peers, who saw my obsession as mysticism - a label they used to dispose of any disturbance which threatened their prejudices.
"But you did not seek their approval," said Yogananda. "Or did you?"
I did, I admitted - for a long time. But gradually I realised that I was alone on this path and would have to find my own way of saving my soul.
"Suppose," he said, "that your soul is already saved and there is nothing you have to do about it."
I thought about this for a long time.
Then I said: "Anybody whose soul is saved would surely know about it, would he not?"
There was no reply. Old Yogananda had fallen asleep.
"Good morning," I said seven hours later, as I climbed out my sleeping bag.
I felt stiff all over. I started to jump up and down, slapping my thighs with my hands. Yogananda watched me with great curiosity. He asked me why I was doing this.
I said this was my morning exercise, meant to loosen the joints, improve circulation, warm up the cells.
"Have you ever seen a tiger or a dog jumping up and down, slapping himself?"
No, I said. An animal wakes up, stretches and is fully alert. A tiger uncoils from the deepest sleep like a spring and extends himself without effort into fight or flight. A tiger neither thinks nor calculates. A tiger does not sit eight hours a day at a writing desk. He knows neither love nor hatred, neither past nor future. I, on the other hand, am aware not only of myself but also of myself being aware of myself. Wedged between me and my environment is my construction of reality. How can I compare myself to a tiger?
"You can't," said Yogananda. "The tiger lives in his centre, while you live on the outskirts of yourself."
Like most of his statements this one, too, caused a sudden halt in my train of thought. For a brief moment I was suspended in terrifying emptiness. He was looking at me, and was obviously amused by my startled expression.
"The tiger knows how to breathe," he said. "You don't."
"I do," I said.
I closed my eyes and slowly took a deep breath, following its passage all the way to the lungs. Then, just as slowly, I breathed out.
As I did, something horrible struck me across my back. I opened my eyes and could just see the old man raising his bamboo stick to deliver another blow. I threw myself out of its reach.
"What?" he grinned, almost viciously. "Did you suddenly feel you were close to the door?"
"What door?" I cried, supressing tears.
"The door through which you could enter this moment. The only moment in which you exist."
We set off and continued our way down the winding path towards the misty valley below. I staggered after him in complete confusion.
Why did he do that?
"I wanted to wake you," he said.
There are moments when this is possible, he explained. When the pupil is relaxed and convinced that the teacher is satisfied with his progress, a sudden blow with a stick, especially if it comes when the pupil expects approval and praise, can make him see the door and push him through it into the light of self-realisation. In my case the attempt failed. I may have a caught a glimpse of the door, but my intellectual armour is so heavy and cumbersome that any inkling of the opening was dissipated before I knew what was happening.
And now it is too late. Now the stick will not work any more. At each blow my first reaction will be the thought: "Oh yes, the old man is trying to knock me into being awake." And thought is a wall with no door, no exit.
Then he spoke of the interval between the ingoing breath and the outgoing breath. There is one, he said, but I failed to notice it. That is how the Buddha became the Buddha. By paying attention to his breathing he one day unexpectedly caught the fleeting moment of non-breath, and through it he entered the present, where he remained.
This, of course, goes against everything that my intellect is capable of accepting as possible. I believe that important goals can be reached only gradually, by painful accumulation. How could the Buddha reach enlightenment suddenly, in a flash of realisation? I believe, and so does my world, that only results of effort have any value, and the greater the effort so much greater the value. That is why, for me, the way to enlightenment is a thorny path of renunciations, hard work, hard study, philosophy. I cannot accept that truth is within me this very moment, and only this moment.
"Or can you?" he asked me.
"Maybe not," I conceded. "Is this a big problem?"
Only as long as I consider the situation rationally, he said. To the rational mind everything is a problem. And every solution of a problem creates another problem. Reality itself is not problematic. What is problematic is my conception of it. Everything goes through my head. My head is like a state border and my intellect is the customs service which confiscates most of the precious imports, everything that is new and foreign, everything that is different and could be subversive. The intellect's role is to safeguard the system. It is very conservative, a democrat on the outside but in fact a cunning dictator who never sleeps.
That is why I dare not believe that a blow with a bamboo stick could knock me straight into a state of enlightenment. For my intellect that would mean capitulation. So many years of study, reading, collecting and checking facts, ideas, opinions! All these accumulated treasures must be very precious to me. They cannot be blown away just like that.
"And it's true," he said. "They cannot. Not easily. Only the right method will do it. Even so the attempt should not be undertaken lightly. The shock of suddenly finding yourself in the heart of emtpiness might kill you."
But I should not be afraid, he laughed. My intellect is too cunning to let a sudden method get the better of it. We tried that, and it failed. My customs service is too conscientious.
"So?" I asked. "If the sudden method will not work any more, what is left? Do I have to renounce my desire for enlightenment?"
What is left is the gradual path, he said. But I must remember that this is not a path in terms of developing special skills and so on. By studying Buddhist texts I can become an excellent scholar, but not the Buddha. If I want to become the Buddha, I must wait for it to happen.
"Anything from five seconds to three thousand years," he said.
"But I can't just wait," I objected. "There must be something I can do to bring that moment closer."
"Oh yes," he said. "You can create the conditions that will make it all possible!"
Translated by the author
The book has 230 pages and is available in English translation which, so far, has not been offered to any publisher. Enquiries about further chapters, rights and other matters should be addressed to the author's Slovenian agents:
Avtorska agencija Slovenije, Slovenska 47, 1000 LJUBLJANA, Slovenia.