50. The Dark Night Gets Ugly

49. The First MBMC Retreat   |  51. The Second Bodh Gaya Retreat

While the old scratchy tape recording of the Burmese monk was very explanatory of the stages on retreat, he didn’t talk about what happens when you sail high and then fall back into daily life without landing the path. For me, at least at that time, it was basically a complete disaster. That is one side effect that is not advertised in the world of meditation, and I can understand why, but as I have said earlier, hopefully this book will be one small step of many more needed to bring these things to light.

My time from the third retreat in the summer of 1995 at MBMC until I finally went on my fourth retreat in January 1996, was largely spent trying and mostly failing to do something useful through volunteering for The Root Institute to assist the people in the villages outside of Bodh Gaya related to basic health education. Instead, as I mentioned earlier, I got hepatitis, giardia, and hookworms, passed a large kidney stone, and lost about twenty-five pounds. When not out in the villages, I would generally wander down to the evening sit at the Indosan Nipponji Temple in Bodh Gaya proper, where we would listen to the beautiful chanting and bell ringing of the monks there, sit for an hour, and then sometimes listen to a short, if usually quite profound, dharma talk by the abbot. My sits there were almost all difficult, with poor concentration, few interesting insights, and lots of pain. I was now obsessed with figuring out how to get stream entry, this largely to the detriment of basically everything else.

I did get some support sometime in October 1995, from a woman whom I knew simply as Katie, a longtime meditator who had done some long retreats in Burma with Sayadaw U Pandita. She wandered into Bodh Gaya that fall as so many Tibetan monks and Western meditators do, and she was kind enough to listen while I broke down in tears in a small Tibetan tent restaurant and described what I was going through. She gave me some encouraging advice about what to do next, and told me a little bit about what Dark Night bleed-through was, but by that point much damage had already been done.

About a month after that I got a letter from Kenneth Folk. In it he too detailed the stages of insight and said more about Dark Night bleed-through. His additional information on the insight maps was also helpful, but again, the damage had been done. All there was to do at this point was to get stream entry, as I had basically screwed up everything else in my life, including my finances, medical school applications (I had cancelled the large number of good medical school interviews I had managed to get invited to), physical health, emotional state, and my relationship with my partner. There is some strong irony in the fact that my best dharma friend at the time had railed against how he had not been informed of the stages of insight and what the Dark Night could do while struggling with them on his three-month retreat at IMS, and then he didn’t inform me of those same stages when I was crashing around in the Dark Night myself after my first three retreats.

I used the ticket from India back to the States that I had planned to use for my medical school interview to come home for the Christmas holidays and get some much-needed recovery time. While en route the airline overbooked a flight and just by luck I got offered free tickets anywhere in the country if I agreed to get bumped to another flight some hours later and, being in no hurry, I took them up on their offer.

I used those tickets to go to California for a few days in December 1995, to see Kenneth in his rundown trailer in a small dusty desert town that smelt pungently of agriculture. He was living with a girlfriend, delivering pizza, and just chilling out. He was probably second path by this point, and somewhere in there had done another retreat in Burma. He told me more about the maps and gave me some pointers on how to perceive some subtleties about impermanence, drawing an incomplete circle on the ground with a stick to represent the arising and passing of phenomena; that somehow made a strong impression on me, and helped me get a sense of how to see the end of phenomena to help achieve stream entry. He also introduced me to Jack Vance during that visit (with Kenneth reading aloud from Eyes of the Overworld, specifically that priceless section where Cugel is at the door of the House of Cil arguing with Yodo to let him in). Vance would later become my favorite author, after Mahasi Sayadaw.

49. The First MBMC Retreat   |  51. The Second Bodh Gaya Retreat