A Grand Failure
Charles Edward Brooks
Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.—George Eliot: Middlemarch
“Yes, my dear, our goal for your stay with us is nothing less than to free you from tanha, which can be translated as desire or craving. That’s what addiction is all about.”
“If I can’t make it here at the Center, Sister, I can’t make it anywhere.”
“Zita, your body’s clean of heroin right now. But to keep it that way, you’ll have to make some changes in your mind as well.”
“I’ll do my best, Sister. But what have I done in my twenty years on this earth to deserve all the suffering of addiction?”
“The fact is: We bring our karma from earlier lives into the world with us. That’s where the explanation lies, not in your present incarnation.”
Overlooked by the twin peaks of the Mythen, the luxurious resort of Seelisgarten perches high up on a wooded spur dipping into the Lake of the Four Forest Cantons. At the top of the town stands the European Center of the Tathagata Order, a former hotel dating back to the belle époque. And on a top-floor balcony of the Center, one afternoon in early May, Sister Saumanasya of the Order and the heroin addict Zita were engaged in an earnest discussion.
“I know you’ve had unbelievable success with helping people free themselves from drugs. Are there members of the Order who were addicts themselves?” the girl asked.
“One or two.”
“Not you yourself…”
“I wasn’t addicted to the substances we call drugs, my dear. But I was quite as addicted to something else: to sensual desire. What the Tathagata refers to as kama.”
“Quite so. But by following the Order’s Twelvefold Path, I liberated myself from the addiction. And if I can do it, so can you. Within the limits set by your karma—that goes without saying.”
Sister Saumanasya, a good twenty-five years older than the girl she was counseling, was by far the more attractive of the two: Her florid coloring and curvaceous body contrasted with Zita’s pallor and near-emaciation.
“Excuse me,” said a man’s voice at the balcony door. “I’ll check this one out later.”
“Thank you,” Sister Saumanasya replied without looking around. “That was the electrician,” she explained. “He’ll be here through the summer to replace the wiring. Nothing’s been done to it for years…. But let’s get back to you. The Tathagata teaches that natural desire must be sublimated into higher aspirations. And addiction is just one form of desire. I can’t stress that too strongly.”
The girl looked doubtful. “How do you…sublimate desire?”
“Everything depends on how we think. As long as we’re thinking good thoughts, there’s simply no surface in our minds where negative impulses can find a foothold. Here at the Center we work with mantras and affirmations: good thoughts that we repeat over and over until they become part of our very being. Even an act as simple as calling the Tathagata’s name can protect us from negative forces.”
“I think I’m following you, Sister.”
“You’ll find the same approach in the folk wisdom of all peoples, Zita. You may recall the old jingle:
Sow a thought, reap an act;
Sow an act, reap a habit;
Sow a habit, reap a character;
Sow a character, reap a destiny.”
“I feel better just talking with you, Sister. And I can’t tell you how thankful I am to have this refuge for the rest of the year.”
“We’re glad to have you with us, Zita, and you’ve come at a good time. Next month the Tathagata himself will be in residence here. His very presence charges the whole Center with a kind of spiritual electricity. All of us making our way on the Twelvefold Path benefit from it. And so will you.”
* * *
Vines grown from seeds brought over by the Tathagata from India covered the trellised walls of the summerhouse. On this warm June afternoon, their exotic blossoms, in brilliant reds and yellows, filled the structure with delicate but almost inebriating perfumes.
“Yes, dear Sister Saumanasya, sometimes I chuckle when I compare little Monika Schweizer, as she came to us twenty years ago, with the self-possessed member of the Order that you are today. What an enormous transformation you’ve undergone!”
“Such change as there has been I owe to the Tathagata and the Twelvefold Path.”
Sister Saumanasya, sitting cross-legged on a rush mat, peered with a kind of adoration at the man in the chair before her. The Tathagata was the only male whom she looked in the face for more than a mere instant. As part of the harsh discipline that had proved necessary to quench the fires of lust, she had acquired the habit of looking at other men only obliquely, fleetingly, if indeed at all.
People often gasped at their first encounter with the spiritual head of the Order. The flowing white silk robe, the immaculate white hair and beard falling to his waist, the yellow parchment skin of his face: Everything seemed to serve as a mere setting for the compelling brown eyes—lustrous, moist, and compassionate.
The Tathagata had been incarnated in the Himalayas—so his followers believed—some three hundred years earlier and had established the Order there, in the pure air breathed by the gods themselves, at the age of five. He chose Seelisgarten for the European Center because its surroundings reminded him of his beloved home on the roof of the world. The Swiss specialists on sects maintained that proximity to his bank accounts in Zurich had been far more to the point in the choice.
The old man’s voice had the soothing quality of a temple gong. “I want to urge you once again, my child, to write your autobiography. You would render a great service to the Order by doing so.”
“I’ve been thinking about it since you mentioned it in your letter, Enlightened One. Trying to work out a possible plan for the chapters.”
Insects hummed and buzzed among the blossoms. The electrician whistled as he disassembled the lamp on a nearby garden path.
“I should begin,” said the wonderful voice, “with a chapter on your childhood, your parents’ drinking, the sexual abuse. How your appetites were stimulated at an unnaturally young age.”
“Then perhaps two chapters on the years as a prostitute in Zurich,” Sister Saumanasya continued, “from age fifteen to twenty-five. Followed by three positive chapters, to balance the three negative ones, on my life in the Order and the extinguishment of kama.”
“And finally,” the Tathagata suggested, “a chapter summarizing the Twelvefold Path, for the edification of readers who have been fascinated by your story and wish to know more.”
The spiritual leader went on to explain how the book would be published and marketed by the Order’s own enterprises and to predict an enormous success for it. His voice, together with the scents of the tropical flowers, was pulling Sister Saumanasya gently onto the trance-like boundary between wakefulness and sleep. She shook her head sharply and sat up straight.
“Then that’s settled,” the Tathagata was saying. “I’ll expect to see the draft of at least the first chapter while I’m at the Center this month…. And now, are there any promising young people with you at present? Any that I should see?”
“Enlightened One, there’s a girl called Zita…”
* * *
“What mantra did the Master give you, my dear?”
“‘A heart untouched by worldly things, a heart not swayed by sorrow, a heart passionless, secure: that is the greatest blessing.’”
“And how are you feeling now?” Sister Saumanasya enquired.
“Better than I have for years, thanks to you. Heroin is the last thing in the world I want now. And meeting the Tathagata last month clinched it for me, Sister Saumanasya. I want to apply to join the Order.” During her two months at the Center, Zita had put on weight and acquired a little color.
“I’m happy that you’re making progress, Zita. As for joining the Order, it’s still early days for that. In the Catholic Church, where I was brought up, they’re cautious about what they call the ‘first fervor’ of converts, and rightly so. Let’s wait and see how you feel six months from now.”
“I’m Catholic too. But that never helped me a bit with the drug thing.”
An electric drill droned on a balcony somewhere below the one where the two women were sitting.
“The Catholic Church can’t be of help with problems like yours,” Sister Saumanasya stated with assurance. “It’s too obsessed with the idea of evil. We who tread the Twelvefold Path know that evil is an illusion, that it exists only in our own minds. That’s how we’re able to free ourselves from the negative and concentrate on the positive.”
“I’m beginning to understand that,” Zita replied.
Sister Saumanasya took a string of red sandalwood beads from the pocket of her saffron robe. Zita removed an identical string from her blue jeans. To the accompaniment of the electric drill, the two women chanted in unison as they gazed out on the snowy peaks above and the glistening blue lake below them: “Om mani padme hum …”
* * *
By mid-August, the hottest time of the year at Seelisgarten, several new varieties of vines on the summerhouse had produced striking flowers: purple and a red so deep that it was almost black. These blooms gave off a patchouli-like fragrance, which heightened the effect of all the other scents.
On the whole extensive property belonging to the European Center of the Tathagata Order, there was no quieter or more isolated spot than the summerhouse. Here no chants or clash of cymbals, no ringing of telephones, no clicking of computer keyboards broke the thread of meditation on the Twelvefold Path.
Sister Saumanasya sat in the immense throne-like chair, woven of osier and reeds, which the Tathagata occupied during his private talks with members of the Order. She wrote on a lined tablet in her lap, using a gold fountain pen blessed by the Master during his visit in June. Papers, writing implements, and books lay in a semicircle at her feet.
The spiritual leader had advised the novice author to spice her story richly with anecdotes, so as to engage readers’ attention right from page one. So engrossed would they be that, by the end of chapter seven, they would find themselves treading the Twelvefold Path without quite knowing how they had got there.
The woman paused for a moment and inhaled the enveloping perfumes in deep draughts before beginning a fresh paragraph: As we climbed the stairway of the sordid hotel in the Militärstrasse, he started removing my tawdry clothes. I was too weak to resist him, a mere slave of his will. When we opened the door of the bedroom, cockroaches scurried under the rug. But all I could see, in my burning passion, was—
“Om mani padme hum.”
Sister Saumanasya’s head jerked up from her tablet. The electrician was standing at the top of the steps leading into the summerhouse and grinning at her.
She had never really looked at the man before. Dark-skinned, somewhere in his thirties, he had a wrestler’s build. The mocking smile bared dazzling teeth. Tousled black hair, flashing blue in the sunlight, fell charmingly onto his forehead. The eyes resembled the Tathagata’s in color, but lacked all trace of compassion.
“What did you say?” the woman asked, although she had heard his words perfectly well.
The electrician, still grinning, gave no answer.
Suddenly, looking into the brown eyes, Sister Saumanasya realized, with a thrill of horror, who the man was before her: an entity she had put behind her years earlier, in the rubbish heap of Catholic superstition, a being for whom there was simply no place on the Twelvefold Path.
But recognition came too late.
Unzipping his white coveralls from the bottom, the electrician smirked as he stepped toward her. And unable to remember a single mantra, powerless to recite the tiniest affirmation, incapable of even pronouncing the Tathagata’s protective name, Sister Saumanasya felt the current of lust arc with a snap from the man’s body into her own.
About the Author
Charles Edward Brooks was born in North Carolina. He holds advanced degrees from Duke University and the University of Lausanne and fellowship in the Society of Actuaries. His work has appeared in Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review, Menacing Hedge, North Dakota Quarterly, The pacificREVIEW, SEEMS, Xavier Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, and many other publications. In addition to original writing, he is active as a literary translator, working in English, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese. He lives in Switzerland.