“I Meet the Buddha” — Chapter excerpt from “Pilgrim Maya” a Buddhist “pilgrim” quest that ends in “nothing” — a novel by Bela Breslau and Stephen Billias

Feature Contents

    In Pilgrim Maya, we start with the ending. Or, rather, when we asked for permission to excerpt, we received the final chapter — that tells you some of what you need to know about this fascinating novel by Bela Breslau and Stephen Billias. Very Zen is our pilgrim, as is clear from their one-sentence synopsis:

    A young woman named Maya Marinovich suffers a terrible personal tragedy that causes her to start down several false paths before finding redemption in meditation and “involved Buddhism.”

    And even more clear from this sentence from the final chapter we’ve excerpted with permission here:

    “Oh, Pilgrim. I am everywhere and nowhere. Mostly nowhere. You don’t need me. You are me.”

    Buddha Weekly Pilgrim Maya cover detail Buddhism
    Detail from the cover of Pilgrim Maya.

    What’s this all about, you ask?

    We won’t say “nothing.” We won’t’ say “everything” either.

    A young woman, Maya Marinovich, suffers a terrible personal tragedy that causes her to start down several false paths before finding redemption in meditation and “involved Buddhism.” At the beginning of the story, Maya is a lost soul, depressed, anxious, and suicidal over the deaths of her husband and infant daughter. She has a strong spirit but no direction.

    She then goes on a quest for meaning in the tragedy and in her life, finding her way from a religious cult to the dancing and artists scene in Oakland, to wild parties — and ends up in despair in San Francisco. Karmic forces lead her to a small Buddhist group, a Zen Center, where she finally finds her new beginning, her way .

    We explain this much, since we’re excerpting the final chapter. Why the final chapter? Because, in Zen-like form, it’s “not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” Or is it? You decide as your read this thought-provoking novel by Bela Breslau and Stephen Billias. [Author bios after the chapter.]


    Information about this new release

    Title: Pilgrim Maya

    Authors: Bela Breslau and Stephen Billias

    Buddha Weekly Pilgrim Maya frontcover sample with quote2 Buddhism
    Cover of Pilgrim Maya by Bela Breslau and Stephen Billias

    Excerpt: Chapter 22 I Meet the Buddha

     

    It’s May. I’m walking in a part of the park way out on the avenues, where one wouldn’t expect buskers; but here is one, a thin brown man of indeterminant ancestry—Mexican, or East Indian, or Native American. He’s wearing a straw hat, a colorful yellow and orange shirt with mirrors sewn into it along with delicate embroidery of paisley-like swirls in blue thread. He has a smallish accordion slung over his body and hanging down loosely in front of him. He isn’t playing as I walk by, paying him absolutely no mind, until he addresses me when I’m past him:

    “Hello there, pretty Pilgrim.”

    I turn but don’t backtrack, wanting to keep distance between me and this stranger who accosts me on a secluded path in the park.

    “I bet you call all the girls that,” I say.

    “No. Only you.”

    “Who are you?”

    “Zandro Pandi at your service.”

    “How do you—” I start to ask, but he puts a finger to his lips to silence me.

    “Pilgrim, you have journeyed far. You may ask me questions about yourself, your quest, but not about me. You are close. I am here to help you over the finish line, so to speak.”

    My rational mind is saying to start running again. Get away. I stand still. I can’t move. The line between heaven and the earth is coursing through me.

    “Why did Dan and Ella have to die?” I blurt out. It’s at the root of everything else that has followed, and despite all my experience and all my study, I still don’t know the answer. He responds immediately while I stand there open-mouthed. No one else comes along on the path.

    “Life is suffering. Losing one’s spouse and child suddenly is a terrible suffering. Your suffering comes from wanting things to be as they were, which they can never be. Quench the desire, stop the cravings. Don’t seek anything. Give it all up, let it go, relinquish it. Live right. Dwell in Oneness. That’s enough.”

    “Sandro—”

    “Zandro. Zandro Pandi.”

    “Zandro Pandi. Who are you?”

    “Pilgrim,” he says. “Do not ask about me, ask about yourself.”

    I ignore this warning and keep at it: “You sound like the Buddha. Are you the Buddha?”

    “I might be. How would you know?” I don’t know. I am unknowing. Zandro Pandi smiles at me, and everything is falling away, everything is passing. I have no thoughts, no words, for the sensations. No me. All One. I am vanishing, my Self a mere echo receding into silence. After a long time, I don’t know how long, I ask:

    “What should I do next?”

    “Nothing.”

    “Nothing?”

    “What does it say in your favorite book— ‘It is such blank scrolls as these—”

    “You’re freaking me out.”

    “At least that wasn’t a question. Good. Okay, if you need me to say something more, it’s this: Stay on the path you have made for yourself. Keep meditating.”

    “That’s it?”

    “That’s all there is. Your shikantaza, ‘just sitting,’ is good. That’s why I’m here. You called me.”

    “Can I come visit you again? Will I find you here?”

    “Oh, Pilgrim. I am everywhere and nowhere. Mostly nowhere. You don’t need me. You are me.”

    “Can I meet Kuan-yin also?” I ask. Zandro Pandi only gives me that forever smile again, and a second satori—a second wave of utter Oneness that washes over me, cleansing and emptying my mind. All that remains is—nothing. Just Zandro Pandi’s smile, as vast as the Universe. After I don’t know how long, maybe an instant, maybe forever, I hear him noodling on the accordion keyboard, getting ready to strike up a song.

    “Oh dear, I think your shoelace is untied,” he says.

    Reflexively I look down at my shoes, almost simultaneously remembering that I am wearing slip-ons, and when I look up again, I am alone. My ordinary mind begins to seek its level again. Have I been hallucinating? I thought I was getting it together. Have I instead lost it completely? 

    I walk slowly over and sit on a large boulder next to the path. I close my eyes. Life is radiating inside me. The sun is warming me. Zandro Pandi is not a park weirdo, and I’m not losing it. I’ve had a satori. Can it be that I’ve met the Buddha?

    Suddenly, I’m once again outside my body looking down on myself. This time, I’m not seeing a creature racked with grief and pain. I’m seeing a calm being who knows who Zandro Pandi is. He’s the Buddha. So am I. I start to walk again. I can walk almost without looking. I could walk with my eyes closed. I stop by Stow Lake. Then I have another satori—it doesn’t matter if my meeting with Zandro Pandi was real or not. I’m not afraid. I look back and see my suffering and tragedy. I look forward and see death. Without fear. Everything is One. Dan and Ella are still with me, will always be with me.

    I wander around the park in a daze for the next several hours. I wonder: Is my therapist Sarah Kuan-yin? Is my one-time friend Jane? Sajiro’s mother Kumiko? My own mother? The women at the SoMa Zen Center? I look at every woman who passes by, examining each one for signs of holiness. I see it in all of them. Every single one.

    I’m so excited I start running, and almost knock over a Chinese lady on the path, who scowls at me. I stop and kiss her on the cheek so fast she can’t stop me.

    When I show up at the zendo that evening, Eli takes one look at me and quickly asks a senior student to lead the sit. He and Reva disappear, and when they return, they’ve changed into full Zen robes, rich brocade fabrics with flying birds sewn into them in silver filigree. Eli is even wearing an elaborate headdress that covers his ears and looks like a football helmet. I’ve never seen them in anything except street clothes. It’s a revelation, and a marker of their standing in the greater Zen community, of which I’m only dimly aware. They take me back to the dokusan room, and, highly unusual, both sit with me. Nothing is said for long minutes, as we gaze into each other’s faces. I don’t have to tell them what happened. Many minutes pass. The sit ends in the zendo hall and we can hear people dispersing, but we have not left the places we took when we entered the dokusan room. Finally, Eli clears his throat and, in a voice choked with emotion, says: “At this moment, I would normally confer oral transmission of the dharma on you, but clearly, that has happened already.”

    “Yes,” I say. Then I say: “I’m on the path you and Reva have shown me. I’m going to follow Kuan-yin. I want to live a life of service. In what way, I can’t say yet.”

    At this, Eli and Reva rise as one and approach me and give me great hugs. “I predict one day you’ll have a zendo of your own,” Reva says, holding my hands in her hands and smiling through tears. Everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed. I go home that night, make myself a cup of chamomile tea, go to sleep, wake up, myself, Maya Marinovich.

    There’s one person I must see right away. On that Saturday morning Kumiko picks me up and we drive over the Golden Gate Bridge through a fog so thick we creep along at twenty miles an hour until we burst through on the other side of the bridge into blazingly clear sunlight. We’re following the path I took that dark December evening when I wrecked my car, out of Mill Valley up the Panoramic Highway, and then onto Shoreline Drive, Route 1. When we start the downhill on the other side of the coastal range, I squirm in my passenger seat, but Kumiko is going much slower and much more carefully than I was on my wild ride. How did I ever even get as far as I got that night without crashing sooner? The view opens, and we catch glimpses of the Pacific Ocean at the end of the valley below, shining blue and inviting. Near the bottom we pass the spot where I ended up, saved by my rooftop slide and the sign along the edge of the road. We pull into the entrance to the Green Gulch Zen Center. I notice the sign has been repaired with a new post. I haven’t made an appointment or inquired about which monk had come out to rescue me. We find the welcome center and a bookstore-gift shop and ask some questions of the young woman at the reception desk. She disappears into a back office, where we can hear her making phone calls. When she returns, she asks us to walk around on the grounds and then wait in the Wheelright Center just opposite the bookstore. She hands us a map, and we do as she asks, touring the grounds, which are elaborate. There’s a long narrow zendo, a tea house, a yurt, dorms and residences, many other outbuildings, and cultivated farmland, as it is a working farm. After a while, we enter the Wheelright Center, a comfortable conference room with picture windows to take advantage of the views. There’s no one here. We wait. In the past, I might have been anxious or nervous, but now I sit equitably, while Kumiko walks around looking at the books and pamphlets on the conference room tables. When the monk enters the room, I wouldn’t have recognized him, partly because the last and only time I saw him I was hanging upside down in my overturned car, and partly because he looks like all the other monks we’ve seen since we arrived: shaven head, brown robe, straw sandals. He recognizes me, and I’m pleased to see a look of mild shock flit across his face. What happens next catches me off-guard. He bows. Deeply. I bow back, as does Kumiko, who is slightly amused at the idea that this monk is treating me with such deference. He speaks first:

    “Welcome to the Green Gulch Zen Center. My name is Tezuka. We’ve met once before, under different circumstances.” He stops, and then as if he can’t help himself, he comments: “My, how you’ve changed.”

    I smile. “Yes. I’m right-side up now.”

    “Indeed. May I ask how you came to undergo such a rapid transformation?” I understand his question. I see the understanding in his observant eyes. It’s been barely six months since I was a would-be suicide on the roadside outside the center.

    “I have good teachers.” The monk glances at Kumiko wonderingly, so I explain my connection to the SoMa Zen Center and Eli and Reva and give the monk a brief summary of my recent personal history. The monk nods approvingly as I describe my shikantaza “just sitting” practice and touch on breakthroughs I have achieved.

    “I met the Buddha,” I say casually, an inexplicable statement that doesn’t surprise the Green Gulch monk. He doesn’t react at all to this outlandish claim. Total equanimity.

    “Why have you come to see me?” Tezuka asks.

    “To thank you. I might have died if you hadn’t come out.”

    “Perhaps. You have made good use of your ‘second life,’” he says. “Would you come here to teach one day?”

    “Oh, no, I would come only as a student. I still have much to learn. Or unlearn.”

    Tezuka looks at me calmly, just as he did that night on the road. “Very well,” he says. “Though it appears to me that you—” he leaves the rest of his thought unspoken. “Would you like some tea? We’re just about to start chado.”


    Buddha Weekly Bela Breslau and Stephen Billias authors Pilgrim Maya Buddhism
    Bela Breslau and Stephen Billias, authors of Pilgrim Maya.

    Author Bios:  Stephen Billias and Bela Breslau

    Stephen Billias is the published author of seven fantasy novels and one literary collection of short stories, and is a MacDowell Fellow also.

    In addition to Pilgrim Maya, Bela Breslau is working on a second book currently, a family history/ memoir/ biography of her father. Pilgrim Maya is their first novel together, published by Odeon Press on August 1st, 2022.


    Information about this new release

    Title: Pilgrim Maya

    Authors: Bela Breslau and Stephen Billias

    Buddha Weekly Pilgrim Maya frontcover sample with quote2 Buddhism
    Cover of Pilgrim Maya by Bela Breslau and Stephen Billias
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    Lee Kane

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    Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
    Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.

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