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A Spider’s Dharma

by John W. Steele

I sat erect in the full lotus posture on my yak-wool cushion and listened to the Lama Zopa-ten as he droned on and on. The venerated Tibetan priest paced slowly back and forth in front of us as he delivered a discourse in the ancient Temple of Compassion, high in the Himalayas.

I was among a group of about thirty chelas selected to study under the revered master. Though I felt fortunate to be a student of this living Arhat, I’d heard the sermon about ‘original cause’ more times than I cared to remember. I’d grown weary of trying to understand this teaching now being expounded yet again.

Still, I knew I must remain alert. I had not yet answered my teacher’s questions to his satisfaction. I knew if I dozed off during this ordeal, I’d have to face thirty blows with the kyosaku. I did my best to pay attention. Spiritual indifference is a serious offense in this lamasery, and I had no desire to face the paddle again.

Lama Zopa-ten was a large, powerful man. To me he looked as though he could lift a full-grown horse off the ground. His scarlet robe covered him completely and flowed like a red cloud about him as he waved his arms and gestured with his hands. The skin on his shaven skull was smooth and tight, and reflected light like a beacon. His movements were quick, yet graceful. Sometimes it seemed to me that beneath his robe existed a body made of lightning.

Though I would never admit it to anyone, I felt I knew the answer to the enigma of ‘original cause’ anyway. Just because Zopa-ten felt my understanding was inferior was no indication to me that I was ignorant of the essence of the doctrine.

If a person on this planet drops a pebble, the pebble will strike the ground. If the same person repeats the same experiment a million times, the same result will occur. This was my understanding of cause and effect. If it was deeper than that, I wasn’t interested. Yet we chelas were forced to endure endless lecture on what seemed to me to be a subject without depth or significance. I listened to him speak, and pretended to be interested, as he discoursed on the mundane tenet of ‘original cause’.

In a voice that rumbled like an earthquake, he said, “Oh you monks of noble birth. If a human being incarnate on the bardo of becoming kills another human being, what is the consequence of this act? Is the deed committed by the murderer the reward of his victim for a murder the victim committed in another life? Or did the murderer create new karma, which he must face again one day when the seed of his action bears fruit, and falls like a ripe apple from a tree? Is the murderer merely balancing the scale of the eternal law of cause and effect? If so, is he free from negative karma for his deed? Who among you will answer my question?”

The chamber remained silent like a mausoleum. All that could be heard was the howl of the cold harsh mountain wind as it rattled the wooden shutters that protected the windows of the monastery from the flying pebbles that were often hurled by the breezes and sometimes attained enough velocity to kill a man.

“Does not one of you nine-holed sacks of meat have enough bile in his gut to face me?” He said. We sat on our cushions like mummies; no one in their right mind would volunteer to face the great master Zopa-ten.

“Baaahh... monks today behave as if they were made of sugar,” he said. “When I was a young acolyte, the Arhats hit me so hard they broke their hands on me in an effort to capture my attention. Does not even one of you farting windbags know what sustained attention reveals?

An aura of dead silence and panic filled the lecture hall.

“Enlightenment!” he bellowed as he slammed his thick, heavy hand down on the lectern.

We chelas would rather take our chances and jump from one of the many cliffs that adorned the mountains and crash to the jagged boulders below than face the impossible intuition and iron concentration of the venerable master. The incomprehensible Zopa-ten was one of the spiritual gatekeepers in the lamasery; anyone who attained the rank of lama had to pass through him first. Many spent their whole lives there in study and meditation without ever doing so.

Zopa-ten’s penetrating gaze fell on me, and intense anxiety uncoiled in my chest like a viper. “You there, Jangbu,” he said. My stomach started to churn, and I struggled not to wet my robe. “You have a reputation as a smart apple, perhaps you possess the stones to answer the impossible question?”

He continued to stare at me, and I became paralyzed, unable to move a muscle. I sensed what seemed like a mild electric current surge through my hand. Eventually he removed his eyes from me and I felt as though I had been released from a straightjacket.

As I looked around the chamber now, it seemed as if I were looking down a long tunnel, as though I were separated from the rest of the class. The other chelas appeared to be far away on the other side of the room.

The tunnel wasn’t circular, it was shaped more like a pyramid, and my classmates sat at the apex of the geometric illusion. My mind remained clear, and I knew Zopa-ten had used his advanced psychic abilities to single me out for some reason. I’d seen his tricks before, and I was familiar with the power of hypnosis at this stage in my development.

Every time he’d used his paranormal abilities on me in the past, I emerged from the trance terrified and shaken. But I must admit, after each psychic lesson, eventually a great fragment of understanding fell into place in my mind. Somehow I learned that which is most difficult to understand from this kind of tutoring.

Since I had no real choice anyway, I decided to play along now and wait to see what developed. Time seemed to have compressed or expanded, I really wasn’t sure, and it mattered little. I knew time was only an illusion anyway, and I no longer struggled with the concept of time like I used to. We are beings unborn and eternal. Time is merely a mental hypothesis.

As I watched the chelas at the other end of the hallucination, I saw a tiny spider walk up the wall on the far side of the room. It continued climbing the wall until it reached the stone ceiling of the chamber. For a moment the spider paused and then began heading towards me. As it drew nearer to me, its size increased until it was as big as my head. The spider stopped for a moment on the ceiling and hung almost directly over me. It was an awesome and menacing-looking creature.

The spider was black and its skin was smooth, unlike a tarantula’s. It had a red line running down the center of its thorax, and its large pointed fangs were bright lemon yellow and razor sharp. The spider had a long dark hirsute tail that was covered with vicious barbs. It remained perched over my head pruning its wicked fangs with its front legs.

I no longer felt enchanted by this arachnid, and its alien form now failed to amuse me. I started to feel uncomfortable, a feeling that rapidly escalated into sheer terror.

Without provocation the abominable creature leapt from the ceiling and landed on my head. I was horrified and brushed the monster from my head onto the floor where it landed with a distinct thud. The spider became enraged and attacked me, baring its wicked yellow fangs. I fought the spider with my hands to keep it away from me. I sensed the atrocious insect wanted to sink its palps into my face.

We battled for what seemed like a long time. The creature couldn’t penetrate the defense of my hands, so it bit my finger. I felt a sharp sting like a razor cut, when its hollow fangs penetrated deep into the soft flesh of my hand. Its venom burned like fire, and I felt certain the spider was poisonous. Blood oozed from the wound along with what appeared as white pus-like fluid. I was horrified, and I knew this would be a battle to the death.

The atrocious insect hung by its fangs from my finger. I was filled with terror and adrenalin now. I shook my hand violently and the spider crashed to the floor. When I flung the insect from my hand, one of the spider’s fangs ripped from its jaws and remained embedded in my finger. I watched in horror as the arachnid’s severed tooth pulsated and pumped its vile poison into my finger.

I leaped to my feet, but the spider raised its other yellow fang and charged my naked ankle, which was unprotected above my leather sandals.

Without reason or deliberation I jumped as high off the floor as I could, and crashed down on top the venomous predator with all my strength. The creature made a distinct pop as I ruptured its thorax, and its internal organs splattered out on the floor. I immediately felt regret in having mortally wounded the creature, but I also felt great relief in having saved my own hide at least for now.

In a flash my mind returned to reality. The spider was gone, my hand was no longer bleeding, there was no evidence that spider had ever existed.

Zopa-ten stood before me, with a smug look on his face, and he said, “So tell me, Jangbu, you seem to be the one destined to understand that which is beyond the fortress of reason, or the confines of the prison of good and evil, what is the ‘original cause’? But I warn you, if your answer affirms or negates the koan of causes, thirty blows with the stick await you. So... what is your answer?”

I felt shaken and defeated. I no longer cared what happened. My finger tingled. I looked at it and saw a tiny silver-colored splinter protruding from the area where the spider had bitten me. It wasn’t painful but I had never seen a sliver like this, and I said. “Oh venerable sir, will you kindly remove the splinter from my finger?”

The master glared at the splinter as if it was a treasure. He reached in his robe and like magic a tweezers appeared in his hand. With great dexterity he pulled the mysterious splinter from my finger, put it in a silk scarf, and placed it in a pocket on his robe.

Zopa- ten then picked up the brass bell that sat on his lectern, rang it three times, and announced, “Class dismissed.” Everyone arose, and the room emptied out as quickly as if he had yelled: Fire. I felt dumbfounded, as I stood alone, awaiting my fate.

The master faced me, and said, “Close your mouth boy. Why are you still here?"

I felt confused and bewildered and didn’t know how to answer. The master’s deportment softened and he said. “Jangbu, though you think there is no meaning in the koan of ‘original cause’, you experienced a great example of its teaching today. You answered the koan and you didn’t even know it.”

The great Buddha’s voice was now mellow, and filled with compassion. “It is never permitted for a man of pure conscience to wantonly kill living things,” he said. “A seed has been planted. In time what you experienced here today will sprout in your mind. Now go, or you’ll be late for the evening temple service.”

I threw my book bag over my shoulder, and followed the sound of the mantra reverberating in the halls of the lamasery. As I ambled down the arched corridor, I felt clean, all the way through. When I approached the door of the meditation hall, I saw a tiny spider scurry across the floor in front of me. I hopped over it as gingerly as a cat leaps over a puddle.

Copyright © 2007 by John W. Steele

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