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An author and practising Buddhist discusses his manyfold spiritual path – and how it all began – ...
2021-02-09 14:00:00

The Most Important Tree in the World
A Personal Journey Across Buddhism (Part 1)

Illustration by Igor Kubik
The Most Important Tree in the World
The Most Important Tree in the World

“I got interested in the Buddha’s teachings 20 years ago – I didn’t know exactly why,” writes Juliusz Strachota. The author and practising Buddhist discusses his manyfold spiritual path in the first part of our new series.

Read in 5 minutes

I’m sitting under the tree where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. The most important place for Buddhists from around the world. The tree grows in the very centre of the Mahabodhi Temple Complex in the Indian town of Bodh Gaya. By what miracle has it survived until today? I open Wikipedia, which indicates that in fact it’s the fourth direct descendent of that particular tree. So quite a convoluted case. The same tree and yet not the same, at the same time.

On the right is a group of Chinese people. Right next to them a whole bunch of Thai novices in monks’ robes. From the other side come the sounds of Tibetans. Drumming, wailing, blowing horns. All of this is very emotional, but for an hour I’ve been wondering whether it makes sense to meditate here, or whether that’s a bit silly. I glance at the Westerners knocking out Tibetan bows. I wave my arm, do a half-lotus, close my eyes and start to listen.

After 15 minutes I’m bored; I get up and go get some of the cookies they sell behind the Vietnamese centre with information about some kind of new virus.

I want to open Wikipedia again, to read what religion is at its base, but I think I’m spending too much time gaping at my phone. It’s not even that I want to look more meditative in the eyes of others: my head hurts from reading the comments on everything on Facebook. They set off a fury in me. So afterward I disappear into the depths of Instagram, and after a while I can’t go on living without planning another trip. A spate of longings wells up in me. And, in fact, I’m actually fulfilling one of them – being on the Buddhist pilgrimage trail.

Two cinnamon rolls and a green tea. I sit at the table. Beautiful sunlight. My blood sugar has dropped. There will be no enlightenment from this, but I feel fulfilled as a spiritual tourist. At least momentarily.

Blind alleys

I got interested in the Buddha’s teachings 20 years ago – I didn’t know exactly why, but today I would list the following stimuli:

– Quite an early onset of generalized anxiety. Recurring emotional troubles. Many fears, or one big one. A wild desire for relief.

– The inability to find my place in a group. A search for belonging and acceptance. A longing to have an identity I liked and rejection of the one I had, which I considered insufficient.

– Mystery. Promise. The East. A longing for the extraordinary in my personal life and a search just for altered states of consciousness.

Oh, and also that Leonard Cohen was a Buddhist.

The writings of Tibetan masters came into my hands, published in such a pretty volume that I wanted to have all of them on my shelves. From that first contact I remember only a few things, which I learned by heart. The three poisons of the mind. It seems they were ignorance, attachment and aversion. And that related to them is samsara – the wheel of suffering, which is inseparable from life. I used to know more of this stuff, and I liked to tell people that they were living in samsara and that they were being poisoned by this thing or that.

Many, many difficult expressions. I thought I had to know and remember them. I believed that Buddhism had definitions to be learnt. Well, because how does a person learn religion? I didn’t know, because I hadn’t had anything to do with one before then. I haven’t been baptised. My childhood was accompanied by quasi-mosaic rites, meaning visits to Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. As I recall, this shaped certain cravings for identity, to perhaps, after all, be Jewish, or a Jew, but it wasn’t that simple. The threshold to enter was too high, and I interpreted Buddhism to be quite accessible and practical. It spoke of the psyche, the emotions, everyday matters – and not a word about any kind of god. And, of course, it said this in such a way that it was an element of fairy tale.

I greatly valued the fairy-tale element. At that time I drank often; it calmed my fears, and in the morning unfortunately it stoked them again. Textbook samsara, but nobody taught me that at school. Nobody taught me to look at myself, or into myself. Nobody taught me the mechanisms working in my brain and the rest of my body, the dependency of thought on emotion and vice versa. Nobody taught me what results from what, and I barely understood my inner self. And I completely didn’t understand that all of this is connected to the relationship to the so-called external world.

I intuitively connected Buddhism with relief, though I also had hopes of a longer-lasting effect. But the fear became more and more established, and for a long time I was convinced that that’s exactly how my life was built: its axis is tension, and there are only brief breaks in it. You have to seek these breaks, and try to draw them out. So I drank, and read about Buddhism.

I made my first effort at meditation after reading a book by the Zen master Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special: Living Zen, and various instructions I found online. I didn’t want to sit in an almost sort-of-lotus, so I lay on my bed and counted my breaths. I counted them for so long that I started hyperventilating. When I stood up, I was so dazed that I decided I had left my body, and reached joyfully for my beer.

I suspended my efforts at meditation for several years, though I continued to talk about this experience for a long time. And my fear, more and more boldly, emerged from under the alcohol and other substances.

I returned to this sort-of-Buddhism several times. I took part in religious events, which I remember vaguely, but I’ll try to describe them: in the Karma Kagyu Tibetan centre I bragged about my Nike shoes, Roshe Runs, explaining to everybody that the name came from Roshi, the Zen teacher. I don’t remember what reaction this elicited, but at the time it seemed very interesting to me, and later, for years, completely embarrassing.

I attended lectures for beginners, but I would sit off to the side, as if there by chance, so as not to look like an advanced practitioner. I’d read something, like a few other participants who also found themselves at the lectures by chance. I remember the brilliance that flowed over me when one of these random people said to me: “Hey, they came here to learn to meditate, and she’s already giving them the Great Seal. They’ll never be back.”

Most likely I nodded.

I don’t completely remember how it happened, because at the time I was taking a lot of benzos, but I once found myself isolated in the Buddhist centre in Kuchary, where rather than meditating with everybody in the hall, I preferred to sit in the dining hall with a beer and listen to Dylan on my laptop. I remember how one of the participants, walking past the hall, threw out the idea that it was some kind of cheap “country music”. I also took lots of selfies by the stupa, and people pointed out to me that I was circling it in the wrong direction. That’s not what I had wanted from spirituality. I waited until early morning, and took off before dawn. I decided I’d never go back to this whole Buddhism thing, which was full of truly strange people.

This text is part of the series “A Personal Journey Across Buddhism” by Juliusz Strachota.


Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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