Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
I've settled into some sort of droning routine here at the hotel, and in that way it reminds me of those times in China. My waking hours are filled with writing these pages, watching television, trying to irritate the angel, and sneaking off to the bathroom to read the Gospels. And I think it's the latter that's sent my sleeping hours into a landscape of nightmare that leaves me spent even when I wake. I've finished Mark, and again this fellow talks of a resurrection, of acts beyond the time of my and Joshua's death. It's a similar story to that told by the Matthew fellow, the events jumbled somewhat, but basically the story of Joshua's ministry, but it's the telling of the events of that last week of Passover that chills me. The angel hasn't been able to keep the secret that Joshua's teachings survived and grew to vast popularity. (He's stopped even changing the channel at the mention of Joshua on television, as he did when we first arrived.) But is this the book from which Joshua's teachings are drawn? I dream of blood, and suffering, and loneliness so empty that an echo can't survive, and I wake up screaming, soaked in my own sweat, and even after I'm awake the loneliness remains for a while. Last night when I awoke I thought I saw a woman standing at the end of my bed, and beside her, the angel, his black wings spread and touching the walls of the room on either side. Then, before I could get my wits about me, the angel wrapped his wings around the woman and she disappeared in the darkness of them and was gone. I think I really woke up then, because the angel was lying there on the other bed, staring into the dark, his eyes like black pearls, catching the red blinking aircraft lights that shone dimly through the window from the tops of the buildings across the street. No wings, no black robe, no woman. Just Raziel, staring.
"Nightmare?" the angel asked.
"Memory," I said. Had I been asleep? I remember that same red blinking light, ever so dim, playing on the cheekbone and the bridge of the nose of the woman in my nightmare. (It was all I could see of her face.) And those elegant contours fit into the recesses of my memory like a key in the tumblers of a lock, releasing cinnamon and sandalwood and a laugh sweeter than the best day of childhood.
Two days after I had walked away, I rang the gong outside the monastery and the little hatch opened to reveal the face of a newly shaven monk, the skin of his bald scalp still a dozen shades lighter in color than that of his face. "What?" he said.
"The villagers ate our camels," I said.
"Go away. Your nostrils flare in an unpleasant manner and your soul is somewhat lumpy."
"Joshua, let me in. I don't have anywhere to go."
"I can't just let you in," Josh whispered. "You have to wait three days like everyone else." Then loudly, and obviously for someone inside's benefit, he said, "You appear to be infested by Bedouins! Now go away!" And he slammed the hatch.
I stood there. And waited. In a few minutes he opened the hatch.
"Infested by Bedouins?" I said.
"Give me a break. I'm new. Did you bring food and water to last you?"
"Yes, the toothless woman sold me some dried camel meat. There was a special."
"That's got to be unclean," said Josh.
"Bacon, Joshua, remember?"
"Oh yeah. Sorry. I'll try to sneak some tea and a blanket out to you, but it won't be right away."
"Then Gaspar will let me back in?"
"He was perplexed why you left in the first place. He said if anyone needed to learn some discipline, well, you know. There'll be punishment, I think."
"Sorry I left you."
"You didn't." He grinned, looking sillier than normal with his two-toned head. "I'll tell you one thing I've learned here already."
"When I'm in charge, if someone knocks, they will be able to come in. Making someone who is seeking comfort stand out in the cold is a crock of rancid yak butter."
"Amen," I said.
Josh slammed the little hatch, obviously the prescribed way of closing it. I stood and wondered how Joshua, when he finally learned how to be the Messiah, would work the phrase "crock of rancid yak butter" into a sermon. Just what we Jews needed, I thought, more dietary restrictions.
The monks stripped me naked and poured cold water over my head, then brushed me vigorously with brushes made from boar's hair, then poured hot water on me, then scrubbed, then cold water, until I screamed for them to stop. At that point they shaved my head, taking generous nicks out of my scalp as they did so, rinsed away the hair that stuck to my body, and handed me a fresh orange robe, a blanket, and a wooden rice bowl. Later I was given a pair of slippers, woven from some sort of grass, and I made myself some socks from woven yak hair, but this was the measure of my wealth for six years: a robe, a blanket, a bowl, some slippers, and some socks.
As Monk Number Eight led me to meet with Gaspar, I thought of my old friend Bartholomew, and how much he would have loved the idea of my newfound austerity. He often told of how his Cynic patriarch Diogenes carried a bowl with him for years, but one day saw a man drinking from his cupped palm and declared, "I have been a fool, burdened all these years by the weight of a bowl when a perfectly good vessel lay at the end of my wrist."
Yeah, well, that's all well and good for Diogenes, but when it was all I had, if anyone had tried to take my bowl they would have lost the vessel at the end of their wrist.
Gaspar sat on the floor in the same small room, eyes closed, hands folded on his knees before him. Joshua sat facing him in the same position. Number Eight Monk bowed out of the room and Gaspar opened his eyes.
"These are the four rules for which you may be expelled from the monastery: one, a monk will have no sexual intercourse with anyone, even down to an animal."
Joshua looked at me and cringed, as if he expected me to say something that would anger Gaspar. I said, "Right, no intercourse."
"Two: a monk, whether in the monastery or in the village, shall take no thing that is not given. Three: if a monk should intentionally take the life of a human or one like a human, either by his hand or by weapon, he will be expelled."
"One like a human?" I asked.
"You shall see," said Gaspar. "Four, a monk who claims to have reached superhuman states, or claims to have attained the wisdom of the saints, having not done so, will be expelled. Do you understand these four rules?"
"Yes," I said. Joshua nodded.
"Understand that there are no mitigating circumstances. If you commit any of these offenses as judged by the other monks, you must leave the monastery."
Again I said yes and then Gaspar went into the thirteen rules for which a monk could be suspended from the monastery for a fortnight (the first of these was the heartbreaker, "no emission of semen except in a dream") and then the ninety offenses for which one would receive an unfavorable rebirth if the sins were not repented (these ranged from destroying any kind of vegetation or deliberately depriving an animal of life to sitting in the open with a woman or claiming to a layman to have superhuman powers, even if you had them). Overall, there was an extraordinary number of rules, over a hundred on decorum, dozens for settling disputes, but remember, we were Jews, raised under the influence of the Pharisees, who judged virtually every event of day-to-day life against the Law of Moses. And with Balthasar we had studied Confucius, whose philosophy was little more than an extensive system of etiquette. I had no doubt Joshua could do this, and there was a chance I could handle it too, if Gaspar didn't use that bamboo rod too liberally and if I could conjure enough wet dreams. (Hey, I was eighteen years old and had just lived five years in a fortress full of available concubines, I had a habit, okay?)
"Monk Number Twenty-two," Gaspar said to Joshua, "you shall begin by learning how to sit."
"I can sit," I said.
"And you, Number Twenty-one, will shave the yak."
"That's just an expression, right?"
A yak is an extremely large, extremely hairy, buffalolike animal with dangerous-looking black horns. If you've ever seen a water buffalo, imagine it wearing a full-body wig that drags the ground. Now sprinkle it with musk, manure, and sour milk: you've got yourself a yak. In a cavelike stable, the monks kept one female yak, which they let out during the day to wander the mountain paths to graze. On what, I don't know. There didn't seem to be enough living plant life to support an animal of that size (the yak's shoulder was higher than my head), but there didn't seem to be enough plant life in all of Judea for a herd of goats, either, and herding was one of the main occupations. What did I know?
The yak provided just enough milk and cheese to remind the monks that they didn't get enough milk and cheese from one yak for twenty-two monks. The animal also provided a long, coarse wool which needed to be harvested twice a year. This venerated duty, along with combing the crap and grass and burrs out of the wool, fell to me. There's not much to know about yaks beyond that, except for one important fact that Gaspar felt I needed to learn through practice: yaks hate to be shaved.
It fell to Monks Eight and Seven to bandage me, set my broken legs and arm, and clean off the yak dung that had been so thoroughly stomped into my body. I would tell you the distinction of those two solemn students if I could think of any, but I can't. The goal of all of the monks was to let go of the ego, the self, and but for a few more lines on the faces of the older men, they looked alike, dressed alike, and behaved alike. I, on the other hand, was quite distinct from the others, despite my shaved head and saffron robe, as I had bandages over half of my body and three out of four limbs splinted with bamboo.
After the yak disaster, Joshua waited until the middle of the night to crawl down the hall to my cell. The soft snores of monks filled the halls, and the soft turbulence of the bats that entered their cave through the monastery echoed off the stone walls like the death panting of epileptic shadows.
"Does it hurt?" Joshua said.
Sweat streamed from my face despite the chilly temperature. "I can hardly breathe." Seven and Eight had wrapped my broken ribs, but every breath was a knife in the side.
Joshua put his hand on my forehead.
"I'll be all right, Josh, you don't have to do that."
"Why wouldn't I?" he said. "Keep your voice down."
In seconds my pain was gone and I could breathe again. Then I fell asleep or passed out from gratitude, I don't know which. When I awoke with the dawn Joshua was still kneeling beside me, his hand still pressed against my forehead. He had fallen asleep there.
I carried the combed yak wool to Gaspar, who was chanting in the great cavern temple. It amounted to a fairly large bundle and I set it on the floor behind the monk and backed away.
"Wait," Gaspar said, holding a single finger in the air. He finished his chant, then turned to me. "Tea," he said. He led and I followed to the room where he had received Joshua and me when we had first arrived. "Sit," he said. "Sit, don't wait."
I sat and watched him make a charcoal fire in a small stone brazier, using a bow and fire drill to start the flames first in some dried moss, then blowing it onto the charcoal.
"I invented a stick that makes fire instantly," I said. "I could teach - "
Gaspar glared at me and held up the finger again to poke my words out of the air. "Sit," he said. "Don't talk. Don't wait."
He heated water in a copper pot until it boiled, then poured it over some tea leaves in an earthenware bowl. He set two small cups on the table, then proceeded to pour tea from the bowl.
"Hey, doofus!" I yelled. "You're spilling the fucking tea!"
Gaspar smiled and set the bowl down on the table.
"How can I give you tea if your cup is already full?"
"Huh?" I said eloquently. Parables were never my strong suit. If you want to say something, say it. So, of course, Joshua and Buddhists were the perfect people to hang out with, straight talkers that they were.
Gaspar poured himself some tea, then took a deep breath and closed his eyes. After perhaps a whole minute passed, he opened them again. "If you already know everything, then how will I be able to teach you? You must empty your cup before I can give you tea."
"Why didn't you say so?" I grabbed my cup, tossed the tea out the same window I'd tossed Gaspar's stick, then plopped the cup back on the table. "I'm ready," I said.
"Go to the temple and sit," Gaspar said.
No tea? He was obviously still not happy about my almost-threat on his life. I backed out of the door bowing (a courtesy Joy had taught me).
"One more thing," Gaspar said. I stopped and waited. "Number Seven said that you would not live through the night. Number Eight agreed. How is it that you are not only alive, but unhurt?"
I thought about it for a second before I answered, something I seldom do, then I said, "Perhaps those monks value their own opinions too highly. I can only hope that they have not corrupted anyone else's thinking."
"Go sit," Gaspar said.
Sitting was what we did. To learn to sit, to be still and hear the music of the universe, was why we had come halfway around the world, evidently. To let go of ego, not individuality, but that which distinguishes us from all other beings. "When you sit, sit. When you breathe, breathe. When you eat, eat," Gaspar would say, meaning that every bit of our being was to be in the moment, completely aware of the now, no past, no future, nothing dividing us from everything that is.
It's hard for me, a Jew, to stay in the moment. Without the past, where is the guilt? And without the future, where is the dread? And without guilt and dread, who am I?
"See your skin as what connects you to the universe, not what separates you from it," Gaspar told me, trying to teach me the essence of what enlightenment meant, while admitting that it was not something that could be taught. Method he could teach. Gaspar could sit.
The legend went (I pieced it together from bits dropped by the master and his monks) that Gaspar had built the monastery as a place to sit. Many years ago he had come to China from India, where he had been born a prince, to teach the emperor and his court the true meaning of Buddhism, which had been lost in years of dogma and overinterpretation of scripture.
Upon arriving, the emperor asked Gaspar, "What have I attained for all of my good deeds?"
"Nothing," said Gaspar.
The emperor was aghast, thinking now that he had been generous to his people all these years for nothing.
He said, "Well then, what is the essence of Buddhism?"
"Vast amphibians," said Gaspar.
The emperor had Gaspar thrown from the temple, at which time the young monk decided two things; one, that he would have a better answer the next time he was asked the question, and two, that he'd better learn to speak better Chinese before he talked to anyone of importance. He'd meant to say, "Vast emptiness," but he'd gotten the words wrong.
The legend went on to say that Gaspar then came to the cave where the monastery was now built and sat down to meditate, determined to stay there until enlightenment came to him. Nine years later, he came down from the mountain, and the people of the village were waiting for him with food and gifts.
"Master, we seek your most holy guidance, what can you tell us?" they cried.
"I really have to pee," said the monk. And with that all of the villagers knew that he had indeed achieved the mind of all Buddhas, or "no mind," as we called it.
The villagers begged Gaspar to stay with them, and they helped him build the monastery at the site of the very cave where he had achieved his enlightenment. During the construction, the villagers were attacked many times by vicious bandits, and although he believed that no being should be killed, he also felt that these people should have a way to defend themselves, so he meditated on the subject until he devised a method of self-defense based on various movements he learned from the yogis in his native India, which he taught to the villagers, then to each of the monks as they joined the monastery. He called this discipline kung fu, which translates, "method by which short bald guys may kick the bejeezus out of you."
Our training in kung fu began with the hopping posts. After breakfast and morning meditation, Number Three Monk, who seemed to be the oldest of the monks, led us to the monastery courtyard where we found a stack of posts, perhaps two feet long and about a span's width in diameter. He had us set the posts on end in a straight line, about a half a stride away from each other. Then he told us to hop up on one of the posts and balance there. After both of us spent most of the morning picking ourselves up off the rough stone paving, we each found ourselves standing on one foot on the end of a pole.
"Now what?" I asked.
"Now nothing," Number Three said. "Just stand."
So we stood. For hours. The sun crossed the sky and my legs and back began to ache and we fell again and again only to have Number Three bark at us and tell us to jump back up on the post. When darkness began to fall and we both had stood for several hours without falling, Number Three said, "Now hop to the next post."
I heard Joshua sigh heavily. I looked at the line of posts and could see the pain that lay ahead if we were going to have to hop this whole gauntlet. Joshua was next to me at the end of the line, so he would have to hop to the post I was standing on. Not only would I have to jump to the next post and land without falling, but I would have to make sure that my take-off didn't knock over the post I was leaving.
"Now!" said Number Three.
I leapt and missed the landing. The post tipped out from under me and I hit the stone headfirst, sending a white flash before my eyes and a bolt of fire down my neck. Before I could gather my wits Joshua tumbled over on top of me. "Thank you," he said, grateful to have landed on a soft Jew rather than hard flagstone.
"Back up," Number Three said.
We set up our posts again, then hopped up on them again. This time both of us made it on the first try. Then we waited for the command to take the next leap. The moon rose high and full and we both stared down the row of poles, wondering how long it would take us before we could hop the whole row, wondering how long Number Three would make us stay there, thinking about the story of how Gaspar had sat for nine years. I couldn't remember ever having felt so much pain, which is saying something if you've been yak-stomped. I was trying to imagine just how much fatigue and thirst I could bear before I fell when Number Three said, "Enough. Go sleep."
"That's it?" Joshua asked, as he hopped off his post and winced upon landing. "Why did we set up twenty posts if we were only going to use three?"
"Why were you thinking of twenty when you can only stand on one?" answered Three.
"I have to pee," I said.
"Exactly," said the monk.
So there you have it: Buddhism.
Each day we went to the courtyard and arranged the posts differently, randomly. Number Three added posts of different heights and diameters. Sometimes we had to hop from one post to the other as quickly as possible, other times we stood in one place for hours, ready to move in an instant, should Number Three command it. The point, it seemed, was that we could not anticipate anything, nor could we develop a rhythm to the exercise. We were forced to be ready to move in any direction, without forethought. Number Three called this controlled spontaneity, and for the first six months in the monastery we spent as much time atop the posts as we did in sitting meditation. Joshua took to the kung fu training immediately, as he did to the meditation. I was, as the Buddhists say, more dense.
In addition to the normal duties of tending the monastery, our gardens, and milking the yak (mercifully, a task I was never assigned), every ten days or so a group of six monks would go to the village with their bowls and collect alms from the villagers, usually rice and tea, sometimes dark sauces, yak butter, or cheese, and on rare occasions cotton fabric, from which new robes would be made. For the first year Joshua and I were not allowed to leave the monastery at all, but I started to notice a pattern of strange behavior. After each trip to the village for alms, four or five monks would disappear into the mountains for several days. Nothing was ever said of it, either when they left or when they returned, but it seemed that there was some sort of rotation, with each monk only leaving every third or fourth time, with the exception of Gaspar, who left more often.
Finally I worked up the courage to ask Gaspar what was going on and he said, "It is a special meditation. You are not ready. Go sit."
Gaspar's answer to most of my questions was "Go sit," and my resentment meant that I wasn't losing the attachment to my ego, and therefore I wasn't going anywhere in my meditation. Joshua, on the other hand, seemed completely at peace with what we were doing. He could sit for hours, not moving, and then perform the exercise on the posts as if he'd spent an hour limbering up.
"How do you do it?" I asked him. "How do you think of nothing and not fall asleep?" That had been one of the major barriers to my enlightenment. If I sat still for too long, I fell asleep, and evidently, the sound of snoring echoing through the temple disturbed the meditations of the other monks. The recommended cure for this condition was to drink huge quantities of green tea, which did, indeed, keep me alert, but also replaced my "no mind" state with constant thoughts of my bladder. In fact, in less than a year, I attained total bladder conciousness. Joshua, on the other hand, was able to completely let go of his ego, as he had been instructed. It was in our ninth month at the monastery, in the midst of the most bitter winter I can even imagine, when Joshua, having let go of all constructions of self and vanity, became invisible.