The 109th Bead
When you're traveling in India--especially through holy sites and Ashrams--you see a lot of people wearing beads around their necks. You also see a lot of old photographs of naked, skinny and intimidating Yogis (or sometimes even plump, kindly and radiant Yogis) wearing beads, too. These strings of beads are called japa malas. They have been used in India for centuries to assist devout Hindus and Buddhists in staying focused during prayerful meditation. The necklace is held in one hand and fingered in a circle-- one bead touched for every repetition of mantra. When the medieval Crusaders drove East for the holy wars, they witnessed worshippers praying with these japa malas, admired the technique, and brought the idea home to Europe as rosary.
The traditional japa mala is strung with 108 beads. Amid the more esoteric circles of
Eastern philosophers, the number 108 is held to be most auspicious, a perfect three-digit multiple of three, its components adding up to nine, which is three threes. And three, of course, is the number representing supreme balance, as anyone who has ever studied either the Holy Trinity or a simple barstool can plainly see. Being as this whole book is about my efforts to find balance, I have decided to structure it like a japa mala, dividing my story into 108 tales, or beads. This string of 108 tales is further divided into three sections about Italy, India and Indonesia--the three countries I visited during this year of self-inquiry. This division means that there are 36 tales in each section, which appeals to me on a personal level because I am writing all this during my thirty-sixth year.
Now before I get too Louis Farrakhan here with this numerology business, let me conclude by saying that I also like the idea of stringing these stories along the structure of a japa mala because it is so . . . structured. Sincere spiritual investigation is, and always has been, an endeavor of methodical discipline. Looking for Truth is not some kind of spazzy free-for-all, not even during this, the great age of the spazzy free-for-all. As both a seeker and a writer, I find it helpful to hang on to the beads as much as possible, the better to keep my attention focused on what it is I'm trying to accomplish.
In any case, every japa mala has a special, extra bead--the 109th bead--which dangles
outside that balanced circle of 108 like a pendant. I used to think the 109th bead was an emergency spare, like the extra button on a fancy sweater, or the youngest son in a royal family. But apparently there is an even higher purpose. When your fingers reach this marker during prayer, you are meant to pause from your absorption in meditation and thank your teachers. So here, at my own 109th bead, I pause before I even begin. I offer thanks to all my teachers, who have appeared before me this year in so many curious forms.
But most especially I thank my Guru, who is compassion's very heartbeat, and who so generously permitted me to study at her Ashram while I was in India. This is also the moment where I would like to clarify that I write about my experiences in India purely from a personal standpoint and not as a theological scholar or as anybody's official spokesperson. This is why I will not be using my Guru's name throughout this book-- because I cannot speak for her. Her teachings speak best for themselves. Nor will I reveal either the name or the location of her Ashram, thereby sparing that fine institution publicity which it may have neither the interest in nor the resources for managing.
One final expression of gratitude: While scattered names throughout this book have been changed for various reasons, I've elected to change the names of every single person I
met--both Indian and Western--at this Ashram in India. This is out of respect for the fact that most people don't go on a spiritual pilgrimage in order to appear later as a character in a book. (Unless, of course, they are me.) I've made only one exception to this self- imposed policy of anonymity. Richard from Texas really is named Richard, and he really is from Texas. I wanted to use his real name because he was so important to me when I was in India.
One last thing--when I asked Richard if it was OK with him if I mentioned in my book that he used to be a junkie and a drunk, he said that would be totally fine.
He said, "I'd been trying to figure out how to get the word out about that, anyhow." But first--Italy . . .