He considered St John of the Cross lucky – a dark night is one thing, but many years of purgatory quite another. And so, ignoring for a while the faith into which he was born, he determined to put to the test the simple teachings of an ascetic monk born in Nepal over two millennia ago.
What was he seeking, this modern man, this follower of an ancient and revered path? He sought freedom from suffering. It was that simple. And stripped to the core that is what Buddhism claimed to offer. Quite possibly he also sought a vanishing, a snuffing out. Nirvana itself.
If asked whether he sought enlightenment, he would be puzzled and somewhat reticent in his answer. An ascent to a state of bliss was one thing. But to become enlightened hinted at attributes to which he felt neither entitled nor worthy. He would settle quite happily for relief from pain and leave enlightenment to those saintly souls who possessed the qualifications to make such a goal attainable.
He had always had an intellectual and analytical disposition and there perhaps was his undoing. Some 30 years previously, during a particularly dark period in his blighted existence, he had taken on the serious task of discovering why it was that he was so cursed. The Book of Middle Eastern Faery Tales seemed to provide no answer and certainly no practical remedy for misery. Glorious as the language was and charming as he found some of its stories, no one appeared to be offering relief from suffering. Not in this world anyway.
In sharp contrast, the ancient Nepalese holy man and his band of followers offered far more practical help. In the here and now. Sit and meditate they said, and it didn’t sound very complex.
There was considerable other material in the Buddhist canon which, as with the Book of Middle Eastern Faery Tales, had grown over the years, as adherents added their own interpretation and complexity to what had once been a remarkably simple doctrine.
Those many years ago, he had assumed that all this extra baggage perhaps had some meaning. He came to realize more recently that it did not. It was all very simple really and it boiled down to doing unto others. A few simple rules, a few ethical guidelines written on a tablet of stone or spelled out as noble truths.
He had tried being good, as most of us have done, and partially succeeded although not to an extent he felt particularly satisfied with. He understood though that a release from suffering could not be attained from a position of pure evil or unpleasantness. He did his best, and off and on over many years he sat and meditated.
In earlier days he assumed that the task of meditation involved some magic, some esoteric secret that could only be learnt from masters in remote mountain caves or perhaps in blossom filled monasteries on Honshu. And he visited such places whenever the opportunity arose. And from those visits he gained much solace and there was indeed a magic which seemed to emanate from the beauty and order he found there.
On a bright spring morning at the Meiji Shrine, priests in traditional garb chanted and methodically beat an immense brass gong. Quite what the ceremony entailed he never discovered, but he was at home. As he was in any sacred place, be it a Benedictine Abbey, or a remote Buddhist shrine sitting atop a mountain on an island off Hong Hong.
Peace, he felt such a depth of calm and wonder in such places. But on his return the outside world always spoiled it for him – the drudgery of mortgages and bills, careers and responsibility.
One day he had had enough. In a period of extreme blackness he set aside the trappings of modernity and sat. And meditated. For many hours each day, over many weeks.
And he began to see what the Buddha had meant. Following his breath, he let his mind go blank and his body relax. And peace would descend, after a while.
He saw no visions, no gods. No dramatic revelations came to him. He felt neither omniscient nor omnipotent.
And yet the world receded and all that was left was his own consciousness. The darkness left and his soul floated.
So far, he is able to claim no permanent change. The dark night returns to be dispelled anew each day. But it can at least be banished, if only for a while.
A release from suffering as promised by the ancients? Maybe. One day, perhaps. The path may be a long and winding one, the cure not instant. But there is joy in a retreat into silence. A journey through quiet hours away from modernity and aggression. Days filled also with music and country walks, birdsong and singing.
A voyage into the soul, a search for god or reality. Not a path for all but he determined to continue along its way. The end was not in sight but he decided to trust that there was one.