Stairway to Nirvana
It was a muggy cloudy morning, not so unusual for early March in Varanasi as the weather began casting the anvil on which to forge the iron beating heat destined for to arrive in a few weeks time. I was staying at the same guesthouse where I had stayed for the past ten years, so many times, in fact, that I had lost count of the visits. Perhaps fifteen or sixteen by now. Enough to have formed friendships with boatmen and shopkeepers, and to feel at home enough to make the odd interior design suggestion to the management (which they received graciously and promptly forgot as is the way of things here). This time I was sleeping on the top floor, directly over the bedroom sized Hanuman Temple that housed a small flaming orange form of the monkey god, around which the guesthouse had been constructed, almost as an afterthought.
I stepped out of my room onto the uppermost step of the concrete staircase, climbing a dizzying angle from the terrace, a weak puddle grey in the half gloom. And then, a rag of cloud thinned enough for the sun to shine through. My eyes still scummy with sleep, quickly polished up as the sun decorated the steps in the shadows of a repeated detail in the railing with the stroke of a master calligrapher. Upon each step, where there had been nothing before but dull cement, was now an exquisitely shaped shadow image remarkably like a vajra. I was familiar with this symbol from Vajrayana Buddhism and its occasional guest appearance in Hindu temples and religious art, revealing its abiding iconic genealogy.
A vajra is shaped a bit like an egg-timer or an elongated torus. It is used as a ritual implement in several eastern metaphysical traditions including Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. The Sanskrit word, Vajra, that means both diamond and thunderbolt, speaks to qualities of indestructibility and primeval force. Unsurprisingly then, the vajra is the weapon of choice of the storm god, Indra. It is engraved on the medal bestowed on India’s greatest military heroes, the Param Vir Chakra. But the vajra is not only a symbol of the worldly warrior, it is an important symbol for the spiritual warrior; representing the constant potency of spiritual power firmly established in the immutable realization of ultimate reality.
How far from this direct perception was I that morning on the banks of Mother Ganga, among the scent of incense lit on altars attended to by a marathon lineage of ancestral wisdom. Far enough to feel the distance between asleep and awake, at least. I had learned contentment to a degree, but I still mistook the perception of the thing for the thing itself and my ideas and feelings about it as who I really was. I still got buffered about in the winds of emoting thought-forms that had me concocting and deconstructing baroque schemes that all seemed to come to disintegrate into gossamer in the end.
And yet…..the emergence of the shadow vajras, so perfectly introduced, so celestially printed, had me enthralled to an old half-forgotten truth that transported me momentarily to a place inside of where I stood, to the no gap at all between ignorance and enlightenment, no time required for the change to take place, because there was nothing to change and nowhere at all to go. The ends of the vajra, curved like Spring bursting buds of two matching cosmic flowers, symbolizing the eternal dance of conventional and ultimate reality, linked at their meeting point by the portal through which the two are perceived as one.
“When the truth is declared, pure and with the form of knowledge, there is not the slightest difference between cyclic existence and nirvana.” Hevajra Tantra.
But what to do with this noble thought? Here I am, still squinting and suffering on that top step. My ignorance unmoved by this intellectual establishment of non-duality. The answer danced upon those steps like a many-armed Tinkerbell, danced between the vajra shadows and the conditions for their perception; the sense of sight, the sun, iron, angle, pattern, timing, presence and mental orientation of the perceiver. Pertain to the interplay of the Manifesting Triad of perceiver, perception and object. Allow this perception to elevate your vision towards the Golden Corridor between samsara and nirvana, and engross yourself in the causes and conditions for the doorway between them to emerge (though since there is no barrier, the doorway is merely a metaphoric utility). And what are those causes and conditions? The ancient texts are in remarkable agreement. Develop friendliness and kindness towards yourself and others. Understand and appropriately act upon the difference between what takes you towards and away from Truth. Take care of your morality. Strengthen positive habits and starve negative ones. Develop simplicity and contentment with what you have. Retract your happiness from its habitual dependence upon objects of sensual pleasure. Wean your attention off the repetitive cycles of thoughts and emotion. Connect that attention to a higher plane of concentration. Persevere. Find a community of minds who think like this.
For those mundane slabs of stone to become a magic carpet — all it needs are the right conditions, a formula of angle and sun, of iron and stone. Those conditions come together when they are good and ready, but I saw that morning how I could continue to invite them in. To prepare the ground for the world to reveal itself as exactly the same in a different light. Right under my feet.