My father was a successful real estate developer in Toronto and Calgary until 1971, when my mother left him for his sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous. My mother, a great beauty, said he was the most charismatic man she’d ever met. “Every woman who met him fell in love with him. Men, too.” But she also always added quickly, “Your father had mental problems. Had them since he was a kid.” After the divorce, my father moved to Palm Beach, Florida, where he lost all his money in failed land-speculation deals. In 1973, he moved to the West Coast to find the Meaning of Life, which for him meant making the California scene, sleeping with Shirley MacLaine, dropping acid with Timothy Leary, and studying with everyone from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the Beatles’ guru) to the spoon-bending psychic Uri Geller at Esalen. Ram Dass was one of his best friends (“But, honestly, not the holiest man I ever met, son”). He was a regular at such New Age campuses as Ananda, the Self-Realization Fellowship, and Harbin Hot Springs in Northern California.
In 1975, he made his first pilgrimage to remote Buddhist monasteries located high in the Himalayas, in India and Tibet. He would return every year for two decades, to meditate, study the ancient texts, and profit from the examples of great masters like the Dalai Lama and Babaji – the elusive saint said to have lived for centuries in caves in the most remote parts of the Himalayas. He sat at the feet of his guru, Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the great Hindu holy man.
My father was a born salesman and entrepreneur, and after learning from other great teachers and watching the spiritual movement flourish in California, in 1976, at 36, he set up shop on his own. “I’m a late bloomer, C.W.,” he told me. “Jesus started his teaching at age 30, and the Buddha was 35.” He founded the Church of Living Love in Palm Beach – at the time, the wealthiest zip code in the United States – in a one-story, freestanding brick building, formerly a florist, in an outdoor luxury mall near downtown. About 50 parishioners attended his first service. I was there.
“There’s one simple principle all the great religions and philosophers have in common: love,” he preached. “That’s where it all starts. Love others, love yourself. People say it’s hard to love other people, but let me tell you, my friends, loving yourself is a helluva lot tougher. Once you understand that basic principle, the mysteries open up. Truly love yourself and you’ll see all of your past lives, you’ll see the beings around us that have different senses than our own, you’ll travel through all of the planes of existence.”
During his services, my father wore neatly pressed gray flannel trousers under a traditional orange monk’s robe, with a scarlet sash around his neck. He usually kept one muscular shoulder exposed. He wore long necklaces of beads – malas, they are called – that had been purchased and blessed on his trips to India, and often the women who came to church brought garlands of flowers to put over his head. I loved it when they brought the flowers because sometimes he’d place one on me, and it felt like I was getting off the plane in Hawaii.
My father was one of those men who, when he entered the room, seemed to have a kind of light shining around him. Once I asked him about it and he said, “You’re starting to be aware of auras, C.W. Everyone has them, and everyone can see them. They come in all different colors, depending upon the person’s level of spiritual evolution. But most people blind their eyes to them. For the great gurus, their aura is entirely white. I practically have to wear sunglasses around Sai Baba. And with Babaji, he’s pure light. You can see right through him.”
The Tibetans have a word for this phenomenon: lungta. It doesn’t mean quite the same thing as aura, but it captures the power of the great personality, full of confidence, the compelling human being. My dad had enormous lungta. Even when he was in the last few years of his life, he could still look at a waitress, smile at her, and they’d leave together at the end of our meal. I’d seen him do it dozens of times. I don’t know how often I had to wait outside a restaurant, or outside a hotel room. He could seduce anyone.
As part of the Church of Living Love, my dad offered mystical counseling services and sexual therapy. He started in Palm Beach, but Living Love eventually had satellites in West Palm Beach and Jupiter, as well as Scottsdale, Arizona, Palm Springs, and Coronado, California. The congregants were almost exclusively young women looking for love and rich widows looking for sex. He survived on small donations and large gifts – one parishioner gave him more than a million dollars over the years – and he often complained about the IRS.
I lived with my mom, but in the summers and over winter vacations, my father raised me as a kind of Buddhist-Hindu would-be mystic: I was meditating by the time I was eight or nine. I read Autobiography of a Yogi with the devotion of a Southern Baptist engaging with his Bible. Now I can see that as a child I was principally a fanatical member of the church of Bill Martin. Without ever meaning to be, I was always somehow on my dad’s side during the divorce. I think my spiritual enthusiasm was an attempt to win my dad back, to be the son he’d never have to leave.
As we sat in meditation during services, my dad would give his “talk” – he hated the word sermon: “It’s a moralizing word, son, and morality is just another name for cruelty, for telling other people how to behave.” We prayed for the release of all sentient beings from suffering, listened to New Age music, and sang love songs. I remember as many as 100 of us, standing in a huge circle, hand in hand, me and my dad and all those women, singing: “There is nothing to need/Hide from, or fear/We are whole and complete/Right now and right here.”
He would often give spontaneous readings of people’s immediate futures or past lives. He complained, after services, of the way he could hear the thoughts of the whole congregation. “Be glad you’re not that sensitive yet, son. They bellow so loud I can barely hear myself think.”
He dragged me to every kind of conference and seminar imaginable: EST, Transcendental Meditation, pyramid power, and astral-projection training; “gatherings” of the followers of Carlos Castaneda, Unitarians, and Rosicrucians; Ken Keyes’ “Higher Consciousness Training” (also, interestingly enough, known as Living Love); Dianetics, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Burning Man.
“There’s a little bit of wisdom in almost all of it, son,” he’d say. “Even Christianity has a grain of truth. Once you get past the old-man-with-a-beard-in-his-throne BS.”
I’d nod. I particularly liked anything that involved having cool powers, like bilocation of the body or reading minds. I wanted to perform miracles, fly, or at least be able to have sex in my lucid dreams.
“You won’t really understand any of this stuff until you’re ready to come to India, son. Then you see the real thing. In the Himahooleeyas” – my father was one of those dads who had a joke name for everything he loved – “saints were achieving enlightenment 4,000 years before Christ was born.”
When I was young, my father wouldn’t let me come with him to India. Then, when I was a teenager, and he thought I was ready, I didn’t want to go. I was more interested in girls than gurus. Years later, after I had three daughters, two divorces, a battle with alcoholism, and a suicide attempt, I was finally ready, only he wasn’t. He had died.In the early 1990s, I left my studies as a philosophy graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, and I went into the jewelry business with my older brother. Our dad came to visit us – “You need to finish your PhD, C.W.,” he’d tell me. “You’re not cut out for business. You’re a seeker, like your old man” – but each time, he seemed less and less in touch with reality. His churches had, by this point, started to close down. Soon he was living off the gifts of just one of his oldest students, a wealthy widow who lived in Sarasota. Then even she cut him off. He borrowed money from my brother and me, and he suggested retirement to India. We sent him there, but soon he was back, with plans for another church. Only now he was rambling and incoherent, and he seemed to be losing his mind. He believed he was on the verge of enlightenment. “It’s going to happen this year, son,” he said. “I’ve seen it in a vision. And then I won’t have to come back again. Or I may come back, just one more time, as a bodhisattva. I haven’t decided yet.” I was afraid he was going the other way.
My father always had visions. They began in his teens, as dreams about beings coming from other planets to teach him. In his twenties and thirties, as I was growing up, he often heard voices. They gave him spiritual instructions. He called them teachers from “the Great White Brotherhood” – a well-known New Age belief in mystical “ascended masters” – but he said he was not allowed to explain to me who they were. Eventually, these teachers, and others – also from different planes of existence – became visible to him. “When my third eye opened, C.W., I could finally see them, as clearly as I can see you.” They would show him the future and events happening in other places in the world (usually, sacred ceremonies that were taking place in India while he was sitting with me at breakfast in a Denny’s or while I was driving his car). In his fifties, he lost the ability to discriminate between these people and events the rest of us couldn’t see and “real people” in “the real world.” He would go in and out of ordinary consciousness.
In 1997, he came to visit me in Texas, and we went out to breakfast. At Denny’s, as we ate, he had a long, detailed, angry conversation with people who were not there. My brothers wouldn’t see him. They wouldn’t even take his calls. His parishioners had all long since given up on him. He was living in his car. “I’m headed back to Florida, son,” he told me. “My work still isn’t done.”
About a month later, the bank found him and took his car away, and then the cops put him in the psychiatric ward of a hospital for indigents.
He called me collect from the hospital pay phone.
“You have to get me out of here, son,” he said. “If you don’t, I’ll die in here.”
He needed me to wire him $500 for a Greyhound bus ticket. They wouldn’t release a patient unless he had a place to go.
“I think you’re in the right place for now, Dad,” I told him.
A few days later, the doctor called. He was dead.
Not long after, I quit the jewelry business and went back to graduate school, finished my degree, and took a job as a professor. I didn’t study Hinduism or Buddhism, and I no longer meditated. I even resented people who did yoga. But then last year, my second wife divorced me because of my infidelity – during my recovery from alcoholism, just like my father. I thought about him constantly. About how I’d let him die alone in that psychiatric ward. About my karma. I was afraid. It was time to go to India.Last June, I found myself high in the Himalayas, nearly at the same altitude as Everest Base Camp, climbing the wall of Kungri Monastery – a modest Tibetan Buddhist temple with dormitories built around it – to sit where my dad had, as best I could figure out from my memory of an old photograph of his that I had lost. In the photo, he was in his mid-forties – about my age – dressed in an orange parka with his head shaved, sitting on a temple rooftop at Kungri. He had stayed in the dormitories. I was living in a tent about a mile from the monastery, in a dusty, barren campsite above the banks of the Pin River.
Kungri was the place he’d often used as his launching point for trips throughout the Himalayas. I would do the same, traveling to places my father had told me about when he was alive. I didn’t expect to meet anyone here, or anywhere in India, who knew him. I wasn’t looking for the memory of my dad in India, but what he had told me he’d found here, what it had made him into.
At the monastery, I spent the days in the central temple chanting, praying, and meditating with 400 Tibetan Buddhist monks. At the front of the room, on a high throne, a lama read from a 14th-century text in Dzongkha. I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying. I didn’t understand what the monks were chanting. The horns blew, the bells gonged. The rituals lasted from before dawn until nearly sunset. Some evenings I picked my way down the narrow path from the monastery along the cliffside in the dark. Four separate times I fell on the path, and each time I caught myself before I went off an edge.
It is difficult – and, in the case of certain rituals, forbidden – to describe my experiences each day in the temple. I oscillated between ecstasy and boredom. To my surprise, there were moments when I felt “vibrations,” a feeling like waves of electricity going through the air, filled with emotional content. I suspected we were all going crazy. An Australian I nicknamed the Ox would swing his body back and forth during the meditation sessions, beating his folded legs with his fists, with a grin so big it looked deranged. After a puja (a kind of bonfire in the temple), the lama hit him on the head with a clenched fist. “Talk about turning your world inside out!” the Ox said later. There was a Frenchman who meditated with such exaggerated calm, poise, and self-awareness that I wondered if he was filming himself doing it on his phone. I fantasized about pushing these men into a ravine or simply strangling them, right there next to the bronze bells and the 15-foot trumpets.
After two weeks, the lama communicated through an attendant that all of the Westerners should meet in the monastery library. We gathered in a large room with 100-year-old pecha texts – unbound pages between cloth-wrapped boards the size of narrow planks – on shelves behind glass. The windows faced the mountain peaks. We sat on the floor, crowding toward the chair where the lama would sit. I pushed forward as far as I could. The Ox and Frenchie weren’t going to sit in front of me. The lama’s attendant ordered us back. Despite my exertions, there were several people in front of me, so I kneeled with my bottom on my heels. It was painful on the wood floors but it put me nearly a head above all the people sitting cross-legged.
The lama came in and sat down. “Sit closer,” he said. After we had moved forward, he looked me in the eye and said, “It’s difficult to say very much because some of you are very new.” He surveyed the group as he spoke the next words, but his eyes fell on me again when he added, “Some of you are just along for the ride.” His eyes wandered again but came back to me when he said, “Usually if someone were to come to this, they at least know the basic philosophical concepts.” He held my gaze. On paper this may sound like a light scolding, if a scolding at all. But sitting there, I was ashamed and humiliated. I don’t remember much else of what he said. I kept wanting to raise my hand and say: “But I know the Four Noble Truths! I read the Tao Te Ching before I was 10, the Vedic commentaries and Buddha’s sutras when I was a teenager! My dad taught me all this stuff!”
On the walk back to the camp, I became certain that the other campers were going to throw me out. I thought, “The lama has made me a pariah.” As I came across the bridge, I saw the others clustered together, and I knew they were talking about me, and I wondered who would be brave enough to do the dirty work.
I went to get some dinner, and on my way I met a woman’s eyes. She hugged me, and when I said, “Thanks, I needed that,” she said, “Not half as much as I did! Did you hear what he said to me?” She was almost in tears.
A man nearby, who had followed this lama for many years, said, “You two got it easy. I don’t think I can eat.” I thought he was joking, but when I looked in his eyes I saw he couldn’t even smile.
We had all felt that the lama was speaking directly to each one of us. Like the lama, this had been one of my dad’s gifts, perhaps one that he had acquired in this very place: When he lowered his glasses and eagle-eyed you, it was like he saw everything you were trying to hide. In college my friends complained about it. “Don’t leave me alone with him,” they’d say. “He’ll make me tell him everything.”
I was on a twisty mountain road on the way to Shimla, a small city in the lower
Himalayas, to meet a 19-year-old lama believed to be the physical reincarnation of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the greatest lama of the 20th century. Dilgo Khyentse, who died in 1991, was said to have embodied the whole of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, which meant that the 19-year-old was, in some nontrivial sense, the Buddha. I knew my father had been to Shimla, but this lama was too young to have known him. Still, I wanted to explain my father to him, and to ask him what enlightenment was, and whether my father had found it before he died.
The road to Shimla was muddy and covered in potholes. Manoj, the skinny, mustachioed, handsome driver of my car, turned to me at one point and said, in his formal, cautious, postcolonial English: “I don’t think we should go to the monastery today. Today is not a good day for the monastery. Maybe tomorrow? The driving here is very bad, sir.”
“No, Manoj. Never mind the road. I can give you another thousand rupees.” I took 1,000 rupees from my pocket and handed them to Manoj. He looked at them with disdain, stuffed them in his jacket, and continued on.
Later, a fly was buzzing around the car. Manoj pulled over to the side of the road, rolled down the window, and gently brushed it outside. Then he started driving again. His
respect for the fly, and his
respect for the Buddhist
principle not to cause harm to others, was so basic to him. It reminded me, in a way, of an
incident from my childhood and my father’s peculiar
understanding of this idea.
I was 12 years old, visiting him for the summer in his new, smaller home in West Palm Beach. The fortunes of the church had begun to turn against him by this point, and he’d moved off the island. His last house, on Palm Beach, had been right near John Lennon’s. We were sitting in the living room, waiting for one of his counseling clients. In addition to running the Living Love churches, workshops, and retreats, he usually spent about 10 or 15 hours a week doing one-on-one therapy sessions. Some of his clients he just talked to. Others, he looked into their future. Still others came for sexual therapy sessions. Everyone paid the same rate: $200 an hour. This was a past-life regression.
“If your mother had never divorced me, I’d probably still be building apartment complexes in Calgary,” he said, as he always did. “We’d all be millionaires. You were going to be the architect. Dindy” – my older brother, Darren – “would have been the salesman, and your little brother could have taken the pictures. For the marketing brochures. I had the whole thing set up. But I probably would never have become realized. As it is I’ll be fully enlightened by the time I die, 20 years from now.” Thinking about it now, he got the date about right. “So maybe that’s the one favor your mother did for all of us, C.W. You have to look at the big picture.”
Then the doorbell rang, and his client came in and she sat on the sofa next to me.
My father always started his sessions with a short explanation of the spiritual treatment the client would be undergoing. He’d drink a Fresca with them in the living room, to relax them a bit, and then take them upstairs.
“It’s mysticism,” he explained to his client, whose name was Debbie. She was a short, chubby woman with orange hair in a tight pink dress. Her eyes shone at my father. I knew he often had sex with his clients – “It can be an essential part of their growth,” he’d say – but I don’t think Debbie was on his list.
“Mysticism comes from intuition. Psych-ism comes from intelligence, and can be very dangerous. Never visit a psychic, unless you’re certain he knows exactly what he’s doing. Me, I won’t touch the stuff,” he said. You could see by the way he raised his eyebrows that if Bill Martin wouldn’t mess with psychics, you’d better stay the hell away. This was something he’d learned in India, where interactions with the unseen are treated with devotion and respect.
My dad took Debbie up to his bedroom, which he kept like a shrine. There were framed pictures of Hindu and Buddhist holy men on the walls, and a teak bookshelf where he kept the books he considered sacred – the Mahabharata next to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Power of Positive Thinking beside the Dhammapada and a giant set of translations of the Vedic and Upanishadic literature. He saved relics from his travels to India: a brass bell, strings of amber beads, dried leaves, pieces of bone, copper bracelets, small boxes containing vibhuti (sacred ash) materialized from the palms of Sai Baba.
I went back to reading the Bhagavad Gita for what must have been the 20th time. I could hear them upstairs. My father was chanting or possibly hypnotizing Debbie. I straightened the living room. Then I took one of his many copies of The Joy of Sex – he kept a shelf of them, and often gave one to his clients at the end of a session – into the bathroom and masturbated. When I smelled juniper incense, I knew they were into the past-life regression.
I went into the kitchen to make tea. My father’s kitchen was usually empty, except for orange juice and a couple of chocolate bars. He was a type 1 diabetic, and because of his traveling lifestyle he always preferred to eat in restaurants.
I had tea and some squares of chocolate, and I then began rinsing the dishes. I opened the dishwasher with a glass in my hand. I dropped the glass and caught it, then slammed the dishwasher door shut. There were a hundred cockroaches in there.
“Dad.” I called up the stairs. “Hey, Dad.”
I heard the door open, and close again. He came down the stairs in his socks. I was worried that he’d be annoyed at me for interrupting his session, but he had a quiet, successful look on his face.
“What is it, son? Debbie’s in Egypt right now. She used to be a royal acquaintance. To a pharaoh. Who’d have guessed? She had two wives. Boy, she’s come down in the world.” He laughed. “Karma. It catches up with all of us, C.W., remember that.”
“Dad, there’re cockroaches in the dishwasher. Like, hundreds.”
“Just wash the dishes by hand.”
“I’ll run the dishwasher. They’ll leave when the water comes in.”
“No, son,” he said. He gave me an earnest look. “That’s where they live.” He shook me gently by that muscle between the neck and the shoulder. “Wash the dishes in the sink, C.W.”
A 12-year-old kid in a house with no food that is crawling with cockroaches? Is that the spiritual life?
A lama told me that a good-behaving, good guru is very rare and very precious. But even more precious and rare is a bad-behaving good guru. He gave an example. He told me about a bad-behaving, good lama who lived in Kathmandu. This lama was once visited by a Westerner with a broken arm who believed he had become enlightened. The broken-armed Westerner had been visiting all the local lamas with the same request: He needed a certificate of enlightenment. “Proof for my students back in the United States.” The good-
behaving, good lamas were at a loss. But the bad-behaving one, after hearing the story, lurched forward and grabbed the man’s arm from its sling. He howled with pain. “When you are enlightened, will you feel pain?” he said. “You are as enlightened as a donkey.”
Was my dad the bad-behaving good guru? Or just the donkey.
Bir, a small town in the southern Himalayas, was among the places I knew I had to visit. My father usually stayed at the monastery here when he came down from his stays in the higher mountains, and I had been told there was a great mystic – or, according to people I asked, something much more potent than a mystic, a “sublime being” – who could be found here. He was famous for divinations. His name was Lama Godi, and though my father had never mentioned him, he was exactly the sort of man my dad would have sought out. If he truly was a mystic or sublime, he would have that look in his eye that my father sometimes had, the one that said he knew the secret that you didn’t.
At the monastery’s guesthouse, I was given directions to Lama Godi’s dorm, but after walking the grounds unsuccessfully looking for it, I gave up and went to my room and rested. That afternoon, wandering the town, I stopped to buy a bottle of water at a small tea shop, and there, sitting on a plastic stool, was Lama Godi. I saw him, and I knew. I asked the shopkeeper, “Is that Lama Godi?” and she nodded.
He was bald, like every monk, with a full long beard and a heavily wrinkled face. He carried more weight than most of the monks I had seen. On the floor beside him was a small backpack, with a cellphone in it, some pecha texts, malas, and other interesting-looking things that I couldn’t quite see. Truly it looked like the bag of someone who wandered from place to place and just stuck anything he found in there – like one of those shopping carts of a homeless person, but backpack-sized – but I knew he had lived all of his life, or at least for many years, only about a mile from where we were sitting together, and that he slept every night in the same small monastic cell where so many people had come to visit him, including most of the planet’s greatest lamas and Rinpoches.
His eyes were heavy-lidded, but he wasn’t at all sleepy. He seemed more substantial than other people. Both more ordinary and more powerful.
The truth is, he did not remind me of my father at all. Yes, I felt that same magnetism, but where my father was eager, Lama Godi had a quality of reluctance, a kind of immobility. Where you felt my dad could rocket in any direction he chose, this man felt like he was at the center. It’s hard to explain. My father was pure personality: That’s how he grabbed you. With Lama Godi, I felt that if for the rest of his life he never spoke another word, neither he nor anyone else would mind. He was self-sufficient. He had nothing to prove.
I asked the storekeeper to translate for me. “My English no good,” she said, and went next door, returning with a long-haired woman who eyed me with suspicion. She looked at me, then looked at Lama Godi, then tried to leave. The shopkeeper grabbed her by the arm and said something forceful to her, and sat her in a chair. I was sitting on the ground in front of Lama Godi. He waved at the long-haired woman and she stopped protesting.
She said, “What do you want to ask the lama?”
I wanted to tell her about my father, but everything that came to my mind seemed absurd. I couldn’t just ask the lama, “Hey, did you know my father, the Canadian guy with green eyes and a beard?” Suddenly, my whole quest seemed preposterous. What did I really come to India to learn? Why was I here? What was the simplest, most honest question to ask this holy man?
“Was my father crazy?”
Instead of translating for Lama Godi, the woman asked why I wanted to know, and I told her about one of my father’s recurring visions. Two men, enlightened beings from another plane or universe, frequently visited him. When I was young, my father knew only he could see these beings, but as his health deteriorated, he believed I could see them, and he even yelled at me when I “ignored” them. I told her my father had died in a mental hospital for the homeless.
She nodded. Her expression had changed. Before she seemed uninterested, detached; now she had a look as though she thought she understood something. She turned to Lama Godi and spoke at length. He took an amber mala from his backpack and ran it through his fingers while she spoke. In the midst of her narrative, he laughed, gave me a long, careful look, and said perhaps 20 words. Then he returned to working the mala through his fingers.
“The lama says that your father was not crazy,” she told me. Then she continued to relate my father’s story. Lama Godi did not look up again, or speak. Finally, the woman stopped speaking. Evidently all of my worries had been conveyed. Lama Godi had nothing to add. Several minutes passed, while the translator squirmed on her stool. At last she turned to me and said, “How can he know? He never met your dad.”
My father always wanted to have his ashes cast into the Ganges when he died. He used to talk about it all the time.
“Promise me one thing, son,” he would say.
“I already know, Dad.”
“This is serious, C.W. Stop fucking around.”
“Dad, I promised. I know. I got it.”
“I’ll be fully realized before I die, son. I’ve seen it. I know the exact day it’s going to happen. But I don’t know for certain what kind of karma might be trailing after me. This is more important than anything I’ve ever asked you to do. It’s probably the only important thing I’ve asked you to do.”
“Dad, I said I’ll do it, and I’ll do it.”
“Pour my ashes in the Ganges.”
I always assured him that I would. The only problem was that now I no longer had them. I had lost my father’s ashes during one of my many moves in the course of my two divorces. When he died, neither of my brothers had wanted them, and I had carried them with me – in a brown cardboard box from the crematorium – to so many different places: from Texas to North Carolina to Kansas to Missouri. Then, just before leaving for this pilgrimage, I went to find them, and they were gone.
I looked in the basement of my ex-wife’s house. I knew they were down there somewhere. I spent an afternoon opening every box, examining every item on the shelves. I called my last landlord and asked if he might have kept a brown box, square, about the size of two shoe boxes. “We would have thrown it away,” he told me sternly. (We had argued when I moved out.) “It would have been back in the storage room,” I told him. “You couldn’t miss it.” I tried to explain that the box was important, until finally I blurted out, “It had my father’s ashes.” “You left your father’s ashes in a cardboard box in the storage room?”
Now, at the end of the summer, I was in Varanasi, my father’s favorite city in India, on the banks of the Ganges for a funeral without ashes. My guide met me at the hotel, early in the morning, and told me to fetch some towels. “For the lama,” he explained. I had arranged through a well-connected friend to have an important lama – Lama Drubgyud Tenzin – perform the funeral rites.
My guide was a slender, well-dressed, solemn-faced Indian, who spoke precisely. Like me, he had young children, and we talked about them as we made our way to the river.
We stopped at the market outside the ghat, the formal steps leading to the Ganges. Because it was still early, many of the shops had their gates rolled down. The guide walked at a quick pace through the narrow, winding alleyways of packed mud. Each alley branched off into other alleys, so that I imagine it looked like a labyrinth from above. Though most people were still asleep, the streets were full of activity – a man sat burning incense in front of his shop, women swept, children with flower baskets beckoned to us.
We hired a boatman, and he took us on a tour of Varanasi from the boat. We saw a family carrying a wrapped body to a pyre on the banks. It was the cremation before the body went into the river. At 8:45, my guide pulled the tour up short, and told the boatman to turn the boat around.
He had recognized Lama Tenzin at the top of the ghat. He waved, and a young man in light cotton pants and a light cotton shirt waved back. It was very hot and we were all sweating. Lama Tenzin was not. He was young, maybe 30, and he spoke perfect English, with only a very slight accent. He sat on the bow, where my guide had spread the towels I’d brought from my hotel, and Lama Tenzin crossed his legs.
“You have your father’s ashes?” he asked.
“I have my father’s Masonic ring. It was very precious to him. I also brought his death certificate, which I took with me to the place where he died, and a letter he wrote to me years ago. I’d like to burn them.”
He looked a little bit worried, then said, “That’s OK. I brought incense. Can you buy some flowers?”
“I will go,” the Indian guide said, and I took 100 rupees from my wallet.
“More!” the guide said. “You need more flowers! More candles!”
The lama was a very revered man, and my guide clearly wasn’t accustomed to introducing the real thing to Westerners. I knew he wanted to tell me, “This is not on the tour! This is not ‘It’s a Small World’ at the Magic Kingdom! This is a great spiritual leader!”
“It’s fine,” Lama Tenzin said, and so my guide nodded and repeated, “It’s fine.”
The guide selected a dozen small, floating arrangements with tea lights. The boatman set out again, into the still morning water. The sun had not been up for long, and people on the banks were bathing, praying, and doing their laundry.
Lama Tenzin took an iPad from his bag, unrolled its cover, and said, with an odd smile: “The modern era. There are several funeral ceremonies. This is the shortest. Ordinarily, if I were at my monastery, I would prepare, but I don’t have the preparations here. But it’s OK.”
He scrolled to the text, drew himself up, and began to read in Tibetan, softly, just moving his lips and almost whispering. He instructed me to burn my father’s death certificate, and after I gathered up the ashes, he turned and gathered the specks I had missed with a finger. He read, and then he told me to put the ashes in the water.
“What was your father’s name?” he asked.
He read a few more lines, and then said, “Bill Martin.”
He told us to light the candles on the flower offerings. My guide nervously struck a match. His hands were shaking. It went out. He tried again. It went out. The third time he managed to get a candle lit. We lit the other candles, and each of us put one offering onto the water. They floated out. Lama Tenzin was still reading in Tibetan. Then he paused and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he read again.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “What was your father’s name again?”
I turned to look at the sun rising behind us, mirrored in the river. It sparkled in many colors on the water. I was weeping. I said a silent prayer for my father, my brothers, and my children, and several other people I love. Then I threw his Masonic ring as far as I could. They’d cut it from his finger when they admitted him into the psychiatric ward where he died, and the band was still broken at its base. I watched it arc through the air, and disappear into the river.
When I was 21, my father and I drove from West Palm Beach to Coos Bay, Oregon, to visit his old friend Ken Keyes, who had a spiritual college there. One day on the road, we stopped and were sitting on a stony beach together near a huge pile of driftwood when a storm broke. I said, “Let’s get back to the car, Dad,” but he took me by the wrist and shook his head. We sat there under the black clouds with the rain pouring down on us. It was freezing cold. My father turned to me and smiled, his face, beard, and glasses streaming with rain. “It’s like the end of the world, son,” he said. I wanted to stay there with him then and never move. Just the two of us, at the end of the world.
I wanted to swim in the Ganges and clean my karma, but Lama Tenzin had to go. The boatman navigated us to the riverbank.
I had an envelope with cash in it, and I tried to give it to the lama. “I don’t take offerings for funeral ceremonies,” he said. “You can offer it to a monastery.”
He got out of the boat and said goodbye. Then we paddled back out, and I dove into the river. When I came up out of the water, holding my breath, I started laughing, very happily. I didn’t know why, it just felt good to laugh. So I laughed and swam on my back so that I wouldn’t drink the water, and when I looked at the boat I saw the boatman was laughing, too.
Clancy Martin is a philosophy professor and novelist. This is his first article for Men’s Journal.