Where Suffering Cooks UP

Pot & Lid by FLY



Although Pandora’s box was really a jar, when she, who was made of clay, took off the the lid out came all the evils and troubles for the world. We do the same thing. When we open the My, Me, Mine, I, letting the ego escape from the Pot we let all our troubles out. This pot is our very own version of a Pandora’s box. Except in this case, we, you and me take off the lid and let out the “I” (the me, my, mine stuff ) which is the source of all our troubles. Our pot is full of stuff that we’ve cooked-up. It’s hard to believe, I know but please read on. It’s actually good news for the soul which makes it good news for our lives.

In Buddhism we say, there is a way to end suffering which is a big attraction for all of us. Most of us want to end our suffering as well as help others do the same. But instead of following the teachings of our ancient masters we look into the world for the cause and the relief rather than follow the old teachings. 

That’s our first error. We are looking for the hope of help in the wrong place. Often, for years we look in the wrong direction. We think someone or something will provide what we need. Only to find out we continue to suffer.

What do we do?

What we need to do is look at where suffering begins. Stop for a moment and bring up some dissatisfaction in your life. Once you have it in mind, ask where did this suffering begin? Many of us look at the someones and things in life as the cause of dissatisfaction. Either someone is missing or someone is doing something we don’t like. It’s true for things as well. Something is missing or something isn’t quite right. This cycle of looking outward is ingrained by years and years of habit. Years of looking in the wrong direction. If dissatisfaction does not begin with someone else or some thing in the world, where does it begin?

It begins in the My, Me, Mine, I Pot. It is in this pot, dissatisfaction begins. Yes, YOU and I are the cause of suffering. 

Much like Pandora’s box, we open the lid of our desires, judgments, measures, and release the troubles into our life. Hard to believe, I know. We thought our suffering was coming from our external environment. Check it out for yourself.

Where does suffering start for you? Isn’t it when you start thinking and talking and believing what you want or don’t want? Isn’t it true that you begin by telling yourself how unhappy you are with the things and people of life? Something or someone is too much or not enough. Isn’t this what we do?

The beginning of the realization of suffering is when “I” begins to understand that the My, Me – Mine – I Pot is not substantial, but is the cauldron of suffering. We all say “I” am suffering. See for yourself. Don’t you say, “I” am suffering. You may point to your body and say ME, this ME is where suffering is. We believe it, don’t we? We see our “I” as the one who is suffering; not realizing it is the cause of suffering. It is a realization to see this truth.

We think for a very long time suffering comes from the outside. In many ways, the material world trains us to think dissatisfaction comes from the stuff of the external world. And for a very long time we try to change the people and things of our life in order to make it satisfactory. The reason for this Sisyphean approach is ignorance. Ignorance of where to look for the end to suffering. WE keep trying to rearrange our outer world to end suffering. It is a blindness (a terrible stupidity) that brings along with it pride and hate.  We are unable to see that we cause suffering when we say “I.” When we say whatever is happening is happening to ME. We react to whatever it is in many different ways. All manner of suffering comes when we hold onto the “I” and experience everything as happening to ME (the “I”). We, unfortunately, will continue to roll that stupid rock until we see otherwise.

At this point you may think what I am saying is stupid, just plain nonsense, but even if you say that it is stupid I think you will not deny it is “I” that suffers. Whatever the suffering is, it is ME or Mine or MY suffering. It is ”I” that experiences suffering. Yes, I think you can see that. I hope you can. You agree it is “I” that suffers. Not someone else. If I told you your suffering belongs to someone else, you know that is not true. You may want to blame someone else for your suffering, but that is not true either. Things outside of “I” are triggers, but not the cause of suffering. “I” the clinging identification of “I” is the cause. Look closely in your “I”. Isn’t it true? “I” suffer because “I” want something to be different than IT is. I want existence itself to be different and “I” make great effort to change existence for the sake of “I.” Can you see that?

When the lid is off the My, Me – Mine – I Pot, we suffer. It’s when we take things and others personally. Personally means according to me, the “I.”

Isn’t it true that we say things such as “If I go here, I will feel less suffering. If I go there, I will feel less suffering. If I get this thing, I will be free of suffering. If I get rid  of that thing, I will be free of suffering.” The list of “I desires” is endless. What is common in all these situations of suffering is “I”….me, my, mine. The contents (made up by the way) of the pot is where to look to find liberation. 

Suffering starts with “I” and ends when “I” is forgotten.

How else could it be? 

So it is a very useful contemplation to ask who is this “I” who starts up suffering. Who is this “I” where suffering begins and lives and continues in the oceans of samsara?

To help a little, consider what you say about “I”…..I am in trouble. I am sick of this. I hate that. I don’t want any part of this. I want that instead. I am happy about that. I want. I hate. I need. Oh just see how the “I” is the start to all the waters swirling around that brings up all kinds of suffering…..fear, worry, frustration, irritation, aggravation, intoxication, and on and on. It boils down to seeing “I” as the center of inadequacy and adequacy.

The “I” imagines the past and the future as allies of suffering in the mind and strengthens the “I” position with wishful thinking and worries about outcome.

STOP it.

Are you able to stop the “I”?

If not, the work is clear. Study your “I.”

In Zen Buddhism we STOP suffering  by looking into “I”

We must begin by looking into “I”

And when we see and know the “I” as a constructed carrier of ignorance and the cause of suffering, we begin the journey to willingly forget the old built  “I” structures. We take the “I” off the throne.

How do we do it?

We forget the “I.”

And when we forget the “I”

The wheel of wandering in suffering ends.

BUT we don’t imagine what forgetting the “I” looks like or how it should be. NO that is more of the “I”

We GET OFF the Wheel of birth and death; we don’t polish it.

STOP the spin and GET OFF.

Study the “I” of who you think you are.

And forget it. Drop it. And do this over and over again. 

Seek liberation from the “I” (me, my,mine) by relinquishing the “I” because it is there where suffering arises. Get away from the ideas of who you are. Can you do that? Or are you attached to all those ideas of “I”

Do you say stuff like “I am this type of person.” OR “I can’t help being like that… this is who I am.”

I am this, not that. I am weak here and better there. I am a woman. I am a man. I am a good person. I am a bad person. I am ok. I am — I am — I am. The suffering continues with this connection to “I” NO matter what the attachment is.

Special? Forgotten? Struggling? Blah Blah Blah

You must be able to let go of the ideas of “I.” Can you do that?

You can do it in one quick moment. Give up the “I”

All the ideas go away when you give up the “I”

But now you may feel afraid. WHO will “I” be if “I” give up this “I”

That is a ghost trying to get the “I” to go after something. And when we do that we continue to suffer.

It is to let it go. KAPUT!

It is a bit like a “natural” burial. A “natural” burial is where the “I” dies and is not embalmed.  There is no casket. The “I” is gathered up and placed in a pot and put into the ground immediately. Relinquished. It is very quick. POOF!


Where does suffering come from?

If you say it comes from the external world, keep asking the question. Study it close-up in your life. Find out for yourself.

Good luck.

Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com





In the Bardo: Uncertainty as Refuge


Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo?  Author George Saunders is a Buddhist, and this award-winning novel is a Buddhist fable.  It is a wonderful story, and a great teacher for those on a spiritual path.  Your reactions to the story as it unfolds will point you to your particular versions of attachment, grasping and suffering.

My own reactions to the story began almost immediately, as Saunders embarks on his story-telling by placing the reader…. ‘Who knows where this is?’  None of the familiar landmarks of the novel’s form are in evidence.  Drifting along without plot, story line, or dialog, one is mystified by the strange images and vocabulary.  Nothing comes along to offer comfort as the story moves through an unfamiliar landscape.  Saunders, in form and content, invites us into a realm where our preconceptions fail us and we are left to sink, or take off, swimming through the unknown.

This realm of not-knowing is the bardo of the novel’s title.  In traditional Buddhism, a bardo is the transitional space between death and re-birth, filled with spiritual tasks and meaning. The transition between birth and death, this state we call life, is a bardo too.  Bardos arise within our lives, when a mind state of relative clarity disintegrates, and we are thrown, sometimes momentarily, sometimes for years, into the transitory and amorphous, before we adapt to the changed reality.  We may enter a bardo when we lose a job, move to a new city, have a baby.  9-11 was a bardo for many of us, recent political elections too.  But so are those times when the printer breaks down, or a major project in which we have been immersed is over.  When we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, whether it is wonderful or terrible, monumental or incidental, we are vulnerable to feeling unsteady, unsure of how to navigate.

There is great spiritual opportunity in every bardo.  Foremost, the path of wisdom encourages us to let go here.  Two simple words that when combined, suggest what can seem impossible: Let go of believing our reactions.  Keep walking forward, over the side of the proverbial cliff into the unknown, trusting the fall and opening to having our limiting beliefs cracked open on the way down.  I entered a bardo when I downsized my living space.  For weeks prior to moving day, I was caught in dread and doubt about the decision to change everything.  I was bereft, I felt lost in the uprootedness.  Within days of the move, the new place felt like home to me, and watching myself land in such a different emotional space, something did crack open.  I saw that my feelings about my “home” and my experiences of loss and gain are just as transient as the living spaces themselves.  Why get attached to temporary things like living spaces?  My likes and dislikes were feeding my delusions of permanence.

When the unimagined becomes real, there is the possibility of seeing that the world is never dependable, never a known quantity.  Things are always morphing out of “control,” away from the possibility of constancy.  The only constant in this realm of the material is that we are nothing fixed, we have nothing fixed, we know nothing fixed.

When the black or white or gray categories we have relied upon fail us, we mobilize our minds in order to quickly recover seeing with the ego’s eyes, hearing with the ego’s ears, understanding with the ego’s consciousness.  We return to what we know; strong opinions, fearful future imaginings, grief, caretaking, addictions, working harder.  Our ideas and beliefs begin to feel secure again.  We figure it out, put being rattled behind us, and life goes on.  Life must, of course, go on, diapers must be changed, boxes unpacked, political opponents opposed, borders protected.  Yet for those on a spiritual path, the opportunity to look beyond the familiar world of our own making is gained or lost within experiences of discontinuity.

Our habit of returning to life as usual from the rupture of day-to-day bardos makes death the greatest bardo teacher, for death cannot be avoided.  The bardo of life will transition into death for us all.  Saunders carves a bardo from the territory of the almost-dead.  His bardo is teeming with characters whose bodies decay in their coffins while their minds, constellations of disembodied energy, hover just above the earth.  Relying on whacky mental gymnastics, they persevere in defining themselves by their embodied past.  Some cling to parenting roles, others are attached to the utter beauty of the world, or attached to possessions, to being in the limelight, to getting the love they sought in life.  Others continue killing, stealing, or aspiring to be forever young and attractive.  The variations are endless.  Saunders’ compassion for his ghostly subjects shines through.  His humor, his acute observations of life and the infinite possibilities for clinging to it make for a light-heated yet instructive read.

The beings in Saunders’ bardo trust only that which has shaped them in a material world.  He suggests to us, his readers, that we too, when we operate from our personalities, risk staying tied to the delusion that what we think and feel and know is all there is.  His wild and fantastic ghosts whose in-between-ness consigns them to terrible suffering, show us what it looks like when we get stuck in the old even as we move, inevitably, into the new. Angels come to offer encouragement to Saunders’ ghosts, chanting, “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore.”  The story he weaves shows the benefits to be had when we can accept, not fight against or grasp at the dynamic arc of our life’s wave, acknowledging the eventual oceanic dissolution of body and mind, symbolized by a fluid, crashing, dissolving wave.

We deepen our ability to step into the profound unknowns of the BIG bardos when we can recognize, tolerate, and even learn from the smaller bardos that are ours to contend with in everyday life.  The surprises we can’t control, the slow march of age and its decays are good teachers.  Many of my peers are pondering retirement from wage labor.  They, as did I a few years back, weigh questions of when…. how….and whether they can afford to quit working.  A wave is breaking on the shore.

More than any birthday, my retirement brought me face to face with the passage of time, and the truth of my impermanence.  Death felt closer at hand here.  I clutched at the familiar, unable to relinquish my ego eyes, ears and mind.  Instead, I entered an “almost-dead” bardo.  I floated around, professional life over, yet afraid to let go of my old identity and status.  Like the ghost in the novel who wears a permanent look of terror on his face, hair standing on end, retirement left me in a hell my ego fashioned to fill the emptiness of all that was new, raw, unformed.  I could not sit still in the emptiness. Nor could I imagine a heavenly outcome, one in which this ever-changing journey would carry me toward wisdom and heart-knowing.

My struggle with retirement wasn’t the last time I have found myself in the bardo with all those struggling and delusional characters in Saunders’ book.  I share the suffering of the ghosts, and of my retirement-age peers who want to control and manage the changes and the losses, break the fall.  The very concept of a bardo helps me to know that I am not alone in finding change, and the multiple deaths it spawns, a source of profound dislocation.   If we did not so value our lives as we have constructed them, then letting go would not be the spiritual project it is.  The suffering caused by impermanence turns me toward the spiritual knowing that practice offers.

President Lincoln in Saunders’ novel shines a light on the path through the bardo.  The story unfolds with Lincoln living out his experience of terrible grief for his young son, now dead, and for the multiple Civil War dead, all deaths for which he feels responsible.  As a father and a leader, steeped in grief, Lincoln is cracked open.  He sees the whole of life and its sufferings, and the truth that nothing in this life is permanent.  All is fleeting and without lasting value.  He sees that he, his son, all people, are waves, crashing on the shore, and that all of us suffer this fleeting existence, none more special than another.  His acceptance of impermanence and his release from attachment to his son’s life and all life is re-organizing for him  and for all those ghosts who have gathered around him.  His newfound wisdom and insight send waves of liberation through the bardo.

Lincoln’s path to awakening is a juicy bite of practice for students of the Buddha.  Our discipline of silent sitting, study, and surrender to the truths the Buddha taught deepen our ability to let go of the transient stuff of life.  When we know that life has no lasting value, we achieve the vantage point that the fictional President Lincoln has.  We develop our capacity, even when things fall apart, to walk through each moment, doing what needs to be done, being present to life as it is.

The ruptures life brings, however, challenge the equanimity of all but the most practiced among us.  When we find ourselves unmoored, our work is to find out where we are.  Is this arousal triggered by a change that has ripped down the veil of delusional permanence?  If so, one then has a context for investigating one’s responses.  Knowing that suffering emerges from the ego attachments we hold dear is a precious investigative tool.  We discover whether Saunders’ ghosts are present in some form within us, grasping at delusions, busy with resisting where they are headed, ethereal and strange and so in pain.

To let go of our ghosts, of our habitual reactions to life’s inconstancy, is to let go of our mind/body/ego continuum.  We stop putting the self in charge, and in that spacious place, we can ask ourselves, “What would it be like to just….BE here…. letting impermanence have its way with our physical existence, empty of concepts about who we are and where we are?”  No longer turning toward the ego to guide us.  No longer constrained by the limitations of what has been.  Head cracked open.  Surrendering to the fall.

There are numerous words for this place in Buddhist thought: emptiness, groundlessness, don’t know mind.  They begin to be more than words when dislocation happens and we allow ourselves to be opened into the spacious field of right here, awareness of everything held in an open heart, a still mind.  Like emerging from a dense forest into a clearing, when for precious moments everything stops.

Right here in the clearing is the key to leaping clear of impermanence, leaping clear of every undulating, wave-crashing bardo known as change.  Here. Now. Just. This.  Standing still in the open light of clarity, without generating the next move.  No push to create a new concept, an old identity.  Just this open field surrounded by forest, before anything else is born, initiated, conceived, created.  This moment, unshaped by human desire.

An instant ticket out of bardo hell, and into the undying, uncreated, unchanging Nirvanic emptiness of our spiritual hopes and dreams.

When the ghosts in Lincoln in the Bardo surrender what they “know,” let go of that to which they cling, they dissolve upward, out of the almost-dead bardo.  Whatever world they created around them dissolves too, as its organizing force, the ghostly minds, are now transformed.  As a reader, I was relieved that their suffering was over, that they had finally surrendered.   I realized that I trusted in their surrender, I wanted this for them.  To come out of the limitations of our knowing minds, into the clarity of the clearing, is to find our way home.  This is the refuge within uncertainty, and when we find it, we too leave the bardo and are re-born.  Learning to trust this ultimate truth, learning this surrender: The Way of Wisdom.

Humming Bird

Author: Getsu San Ku Shin

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com




We’re all certain that we’re immune to the contagion of disastrous conviction, that we’ll never be vulnerable to a belief that is too foolish even to consider, but the fact is that not only are we not immune, but that by the very human nature of our mind, we’ve already proved ourselves susceptible. Sometimes we need to see a belief displayed in ordinary life’s petrie-dish aspic before it begins to look suspicious.

What exactly are we seeing when, for example, we observe the antics of sport fans? We see the same fanatical excess that characterizes any cult membership. People who, just a few hours earlier were thoughtful and calm as they returned from church or shuffled through the sections of the newspaper’s Sunday edition, show up, say, at the baseball park wearing a professional sport’s team’s heraldic colors and insignias – silly hats, clothes and even painted faces. As the occasion demands, they boo and hiss and cheer, in unison they stand in waves or make hatchet chops, or in a mob’s “Give us Barrabas” chorus, they demand the death of an official. We’ll see fifty thousand spectators wildly jump and shout because a man who has been paid a few million dollars to take an oak bat and strike a leather covered pellet, has actually done so.

Where does all this emotion come from? It comes from the same place dangerous beliefs come from: it is incorporated into the nature and the structure of the mind. To be sure, sports fans are only rarely overtly destructive; but every bookmaker who ever died rich, – and seldom do they die otherwise – died rich because bettors are usually fans whose team-enthusiasm has not only skewed the odds but has inspired them to bet in the first place. Wagers based on false information – and sentiment invariably falsifies appraisals – are foolish wagers. Emotion is a symptom of projection and inflation, those two conditions of samsaric slavery. Again, any emotion is a symptom of projection and whenever we find ourselves sliding from interest into fascination and down into emotional involvement, we’re trying to negotiate attachment’s white water rapids and only luck will keep us from colliding with those boulders in the stream. How many times in our lives have we believed in someone who betrayed us? How many times, despite other people’s insistence that he was unworthy of our trust, did we stubbornly cling to our delusion, insisting that they were prejudiced, or blind, or simply did not know him as we did. Of course, it was we who were blind, because projection made us see only what we placed upon him. That is the nature of projection. When emotion overrides reason we are automatically prejudiced in our belief. No one should doubt the sincerity of the mother who, when watching an army march by, says simply, “Everybody’s out of step but my son, John.”

The instincts of self-preservation and of reproduction, those gods of Mothers, Lovers, Heroes, Friends and Enemies, push and pull us, compelling us in the most irrational ways to accomplish their goals.

There is a strategic survival pattern evident when horses form a herd and follow the dictates of a single stallion. An army and a general are pressed from the same survival template, as is a patriarchal family or a town and its mayor or an assemblage of sport fans and their heroic MVP. Our bodies and brains are the hardware, our very genes and cultural norms are the software that we run. For as long as there is strength in numbers and we require that strength, we will form alliances, group ourselves into religious, social, and political collectives. We’ll appreciate the ligatures of family and friends. For as long as we perceive enemies, we need to hate enough to kill. For as long as we need the reciprocal benefits of possessory love, we’ll adore our baby or parent or spouse. There is no requirement that someone be worthy of our adoration. If we waited until we found the perfect lover, we would not mate; if we waited until we found the perfect teacher, we would learn nothing.

If it is the Hero god in our mind that we project onto someone we believe is a Perfect Master, we will see the God, not the person. We’ll fall on our knees before him and worship him and in our mind at least, we will be raised up, inspired. If he’s a good leader, he’ll make us stand up as he leads us in love and teaches us to live in splendid poverty and humility. He’ll refine us and open our minds to all the possibilities of science and art. But if he’s just another false prophet he’ll have to manipulate us to hold us together… he’ll have to assure us that – as we’ve always suspected – we’re rather special. And, inflated with elitism, that helium of superiority, our lips will curl out and up as we affect that slight, smug smile of cultish certainty: “We, the Chosen, the Elect, the Privileged, have been blessed in ways that you who are none of these things can understand.”

And then, so that our superior group doesn’t self-destruct with internecine conflict, our leader will have to gather all our individual shadows into one great missile of hate and hurl that weapon against some other hapless enemy… some race, or religion, or nationality, or social class, or intellectually inferior rabble. It will be Them versus Us. We’ll display the insignias of exclusivity. We’ll all be wearing identical Nike sneakers when we board that spaceship. Our alien masters will not confuse us with those other would-be passengers who wear Rebok or Converse or LAGear.

No, we don’t wear blue to cheer the Denver Broncos and we don’t wear orange to cheer the Miami Dolphins. We know these things.

And this is how we live and how we need to live before we mature and attain the Age of Reason, the Age of Nonattachment. We project the appropriate god – lover, mother, child, friend, or hero from our mind’s Olympus onto someone and if he or she is worthy of that questionable honor, we can in due time detach, withdraw the projection, and let the god in question engage us in Alchemical adventures. We’ll be independent then and more, we hope, than just a little wise.

But if he or she is unworthy of the honor, we’ll be mangled in the chains of our own attachments. Whether or not we survive the ordeal depends a lot on luck. The second instance of dangerous belief that hauntingly comes to mind involved another visitor, a distraught man of no more than thirty, who was still grieving over his young wife’s death which had occurred months before.

As soon as he entered the room he noticed a foot-high plastic acupuncture mannequin I keep on a side table. Eyeing me suspiciously, he asked, “Do you do acupuncture?” I assured him that I didn’t, and that I kept the mannequin only because it so clearly showed the meridians. Many forms of meditation require at least a rudimentary knowledge of these “Chi” conduits. But he was still not satisfied. “Do you ever tell people that since there’s a Buddha inside us, our body is a kind of temple and we should take care of it?” I say it often so I owned up to the remark. But he meant, “take spiritual care of it”, a term that I did not quite understand and said so. Not caring to elaborate, he continued, “What about drugs? Do you also tell people not to take drugs?” “Drugs as in illegal drugs… or drugs as in a drug store, prescription medicines?” I suddenly felt the need to deflect his questions and went into a sort of “shields up” mode.

“Pharmacy drugs. Can a good Buddhist, say, a Chinese Buddhist, take ordinary prescription medicine? Or is he or she limited to herbal medicines?”

I found the remarks astonishing. “Nothing in the Dharma says that a person can’t take medicine. What we shouldn’t do is take pills in lieu of self-control. An obese person should try to lose weight by eating properly and by exercising, not by popping amphetamines. That sort of thing,” I explained., adding, “And when it comes to medications, there’s no difference in concept between taking an herbal tea, for example, and taking a capsule of the relevant herbal ingredient, even in synthetic form.” I said that this was simple common sense. “Quality, quantity, and delivery systems may vary, but a medicine is a medicine. The question is, ‘Does it restore you to good health?’ What happened to your wife,” I asked.

He cautiously proceeded to tell me about his wife’s death and of the problem he was having with his in-laws who blamed him for it.

“The Chinese believe that the heart and mind are the same thing,” he began, “but I don’t think they are.” I agreed.

He had met his wife in Taiwan. He was working as an engineer for a construction company and she, an architecture student, had visited the building site. From the moment he first saw her, he knew that she was the woman God had created for him. They were married in a Buddhist temple by her old Master.

She had had a long history of stomach problems, he said, but antacids and herbal teas were always able to relieve the symptoms. But when he eventually brought her to Los Angeles, her condition worsened. She blamed the additional stresses of American diet and culture; and she was encouraged and supported in this belief by her Chinese friends and relatives. They wanted her to consult local Chinese Folk Medicine practitioners, but he instead took her to an American doctor who tested and treated her for ulcers which he said were caused by bacterial infestation. Antibiotics and PeptoBismal were prescribed, and she responded well to the treatment.

But when his company sent him to the Middle East for several months’ work, his wife decided to return to Taiwan to spend some time with her master in his monastic retreat. It was there, in rural Taiwan, that she began to experience severe attacks of indigestion. Responding to her first painful attack, her master, a kindly old man who evidently was rarely, if ever, sick, called in the only physician around, a Chinese herbal acupuncturist who often attended Buddhist services. This physician gave her Black Dragon Eggs, a miraculous concoction of precious herbs which immediately relieved her distress. He also prescribed regular acupuncture treatments, and gave her a digestive tonic and a creamy green concoction, both of his own compounding, to take before and after meals respectively. In the event she felt more serious distress, he sold her supply of these expensive and mysterious Dragon Eggs.

Further, this doctor thoroughly criticized the regimen her American physician had prescribed and after assuring her that no one knew medicine better than the Chinese, a boast she was entirely disposed to believe, insisted that when she returned to the U.S. she not see this American doctor again. Instead she should consult a colleague of his in Los Angeles. She spent a small fortune on these treatments in Taiwan and a large fortune on these treatments in the U.S. The mention of the Black Dragon Eggs startled me. I knew something about at least one kind of mysterious black pill from China. I interrupted him to ask what these Eggs looked like and he told me like licorice gum drops that had a yellow yolk center. I didn’t like what I was hearing and feared where the story would lead.

To the young husband, the medicine the new Chinese doctor provided did not work very well. She was experiencing nearly daily bouts of diarrhea and cramps. But in the expert opinion of the doctor the medicines were actually extremely effective since, to put it simply, they weren’t dealing here with simple physical illness. No, it was more serious than this. Clearly, her symptoms could be directly attributed either to karmic retribution or to irritated ancestral spirits, which was pretty much the same thing. A priest at a nearby Buddhist temple verified the disease’s etiology and offered, for the sum of fifteen hundred dollars, to conduct a propitiating service. The husband refused to finance this shamanistic enterprise; but his wife’s sister, who had a vested interest in placating these particular spirits, came up with the necessary funds, and the ceremony was held.

Despite the bells, chants, and incense, the ancestors grew more restive. When they were particularly annoyed and her symptoms worsened, she took another five dollar Black Dragon Egg, a dish which the ancestors seemed to enjoy since her distress always abated. The young husband, however, was growing increasingly alarmed and begged her to return to her American doctor; but just as adamantly she refused, insisting that Chinese problems are best solved with Chinese solutions. And what did he know about things Chinese? She resented his nagging and counteracted it by reiterating that the one person she trusted most, i.e., her old Buddhist master, had personally restored her to the wisdom of her ancestors. She would not fall from grace again. Her heart had spoken to her and what it said was “be patient and keep the faith.” At regular intervals, her Chinese friends, relatives, and fellow Buddhists buttressed this overarching conviction.

To the young husband’s annoyance, these associates became so solicitous that they daily brought her Chinese meals, suitably bland and wholesome, which they convivially shared. But then, over their post-prandial cup of Jasmine tea, they would chat about those topics which most interested them. He often overheard these discussions and regretted not knowing less Chinese than he knew. What did Americans know about anything? Since this was not a rhetorical question, the list of answers was long: Americans didn’t know how to dress, raise children, study or learn, work industriously, treat disease, grow food that didn’t taste like plastic, prepare nutritious meals, survive a single day without popping pills, or resist the compulsion to tell scandalously intimate secrets on national television.

The young husband blamed these domestic intruders for his wife’s worsening health. Unfortunately he made the mistake of telling his mother about them and their comments. She, responding in normal maternal fashion, begged him to come home to her for dinner every night; and, as often as he could, he obliged. And naturally she also confronted his wife and the tea klatch telling them in so many words that emigration was the obvious solution to the problem of unsatisfactory immigration. Not having imparted this instruction diplomatically, she immediately instigated that most costly of conflicts, a civil war.

For many months he had had a burning desire to see the new bridge across Tampico Bay and now, having vacation time coming and wanting a change of venue even more than he wanted to see the bridge, he decided to take his wife to Mexico for a vacation. They would leisurely drive along the Gulf and visit Mayan ruins, inspecting them with an architectural eye, and then go on to Cancun where they would lounge on the beach for two weeks. They visited a few Mayan ruins but they never got to Cancun.

She had gotten a headache for which she had purchased aspirin, the only analgesic available at the little tienda they stopped at. Then, the following day, while driving across the Yucatan she collapsed. The Yucatan peninsula was not a good place to be when needing critical care. People were helpful, but she had gone into shock and was dead on arrival when he finally got her to a hospital.

In the blur of grief that followed, he learned that his wife’s stomach had been horribly ulcerated and that, because of irritation perhaps caused by coarse or spicy foods and the ingestion of aspirin, these ulcers had uncontrollably bled.

He said that the Mexican doctor who took her history was brusque and insulting. “He asked me why I didn’t get better medical treatment for her. I told him I spent several hundred dollars a week on acupuncture and “natural” medicines and he called me a fool. Then he said that the green aftermeal medicine was probably “Maalox with green dye” and that the “before meals tonic” was probably laced with a narcotic or a muscle relaxant and that if I knew what was good for me I wouldn’t drive around Mexico with unprescribed opiates or tranquilizers. They have drug laws. ‘You should have kept your wife on antibiotics.’ the doctor said. ‘She’d be climbing the steps of Palenque instead of lying in the morgue.’”

The young widower, knowing enough about Mexican jails to heed the advice, returned to his hotel and poured what was left of her supply of herbal medicine down the drain.

“And the Eggs?” I asked him. He said that he flushed them down the toilet. By the time her sister arrived, even the containers had been disposed of and there was nothing to prove that she had ever had medicine with her. He returned to Los Angeles to face the condemnation of her family and friends. They were certain she had succumbed because he had deliberately deprived her of her treatments. The attacks on him were vicious. Still confused by grief, he wanted me to convince him that he hadn’t in some way contributed to her death by acquiescing in the treatment. Should he have forced her to see an American doctor? Was there something to this Karma business? What did I think?

I told him that I doubted that, given the intensity of her belief, she would have taken the American doctor’s prescriptions. She would have found a way to obtain the Chinese doctor’s medications and that this was the sorry fact of dangerous beliefs.

I described the projection process and the kudzu Blitzkrieg of irrationality. I defined Karma, that network of causes and effects which converge at whatever nexus of time and place we happen to find ourselves in. “Luck enters into things,” I said. “When she went back to Taiwan for that visit, if she had had that attack in Taipei, her master would have called an ambulance or taken her to a hospital himself. She would probably have received the same treatment that her American doctor had given her. Taipei does not lack quality medical facilities or personnel. But she didn’t have that attack in Taipei, she had it in some remote location.” My comments gave him only cold comfort.

I continued, trying to explain the incomprehensible. “When a person’s in extreme distress, a bond is easily formed or strengthened. A bond already existed between her and her master. She trusted him. And when the local doctor he sent for provided such immediate relief, everyone, especially her master, had to be favorably impressed. Surely he would have encouraged her to visit this doctor. Wouldn’t we do the same?” I asked.

Then I returned to the mysterious black pills. “Irrational belief doesn’t confine itself to religious matters. People martyr themselves to beliefs of all kinds.” I didn’t know what was in the Dragon Eggs, but I offered a suggestion.

I produced the summer l992 issue of Priorities Magazine which someone had recently given me and opened it to an article by a Houston, Texas surgeon, Dr. Ralph E. Dittman.

In his article, The Black Pearl of China, Dr. Dittman related the following story: a patient of his had visited Chinatown in San Francisco and there had been introduced to a miraculous herbal medication called Black Pearls. The patient, a successful businessman, saw the commercial potential of this herbal product and, by way of testing the market, purchased a quantity of them and distributed them to his Houston friends. Wanting to know what specifically was in the pills, he asked Dr. Dittman to have them tested. One of the people who received these pills was a man who, being on parole for a drug offense, was required to submit to periodic drug testing. One day, after taking a Black Pearl, he flunked the test. On grounds that he had illegally ingested Valium, he was immediately returned to jail.

The results of the gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy analysis which Dr. Dittman had ordered clearly showed diazepam’s signature 36.6 minute peak. It was Valium, all right. After an investigation, the unwitting drug-taker was released.

Dr. Dittman concluded his article by warning that these “‘harmless’ Asian herbal folk remedies often contain illegal combinations of cortico- or anabolic steroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics such as tetracycline or chloramphenicol, Valium, narcotics…” The various Federal and State Food and Drug regulatory agencies were finally beginning to prosecute the dangerous fraud.

My visitor read the article several times. “I should have been more forceful.”

“It wouldn’t have done any good,” I said. “She believed in what she was doing. Short of deprogramming her, you wouldn’t have put a dent in that armor.”

I think that when he left he understood that his wife had been the victim of a cult. It may have been a cult of only one, but all the symptoms were there: the jingoism, the chauvinism, the elitist’s smug superiority, the stubborn and blind conviction.

No, a cult is not defined by numbers. One wrong seed planted in a single mind is enough. A dangerous belief, like kudzu, doesn’t recognize borders. When the darting vine reaches the property lines, all our lawns are at risk.

Humming Bird