The Mayan Long Count calendar was about to expire – most likely because the Mayans hadn’t lasted long enough to add a few more cycles – but, among the esoterically-inclined, it was decided this meant 2012 was the end of the world. There was scant evidence, yet, manifestly, a lot of people wanted something to happen, and this looked to me a basis good enough to ensure that something probably would. Wherever that something happened to be, I wanted to be there.
In the Nevada desert, the Burning Man Festival imploded under the pressure of 2012. Everyone wanted to party at the end of the world. The utopian ethic of Burning Man was trampled, as entry prices and New Age mendacity ran riot, and hordes of the ticketless marched on the playa. In panic, the organisers cancelled. And thus the promised return of the serpent-bird-god Quetzalcoatl, into the body of his messiah (a New York journalist), was denied its scheduled venue. And if it took place elsewhere, then no one noticed.
Luckily I’d foreseen the burnout of the Burn and had switched focus, swapping my ticket (at cost price) for a trip to Bugarach in south-western France. New Agers had been collecting there, quietly, for several years, convinced that an alien base was hidden under its peculiar-looking mountain, whose occupants might be persuaded to airlift the crowd to safety, when the apocalypse hit on December 21st.
A woman who runs a hardware store in Washington, channelling the spirit of a Lemurian warlord 35,000 years old, prophesied that Bugarach would be ground zero for a leap in human consciousness. But it wasn’t only the esoterics with their eyes on the mountain. The army was on alert to prevent a mass influx, and they pulled it off impressively. Two French squaddies marched me out of the station when I tried to board my train in Paris. Whatever transpired at Bugarach, it transpired within a rigid exclusion zone, and the world woke up pretty much unchanged on December 22nd.
Yet my trip to Paris wasn’t a complete waste. Sipping morosely at a coffee, I fell into conversation with a guy in Tibetan Buddhist robes. The cafés of Paris were swarming that week with unlikely characters. I assumed that this guy, European-looking, with a shaved head and little round specs, was dressed for Bugarach, but had been disappointed the same as me. It turned out, however, that despite coming originally from Bedford, he was the real deal. He’d left for Tibet a decade ago, to study in one of the few monasteries tolerated by the Chinese.
‘I’m travelling home, because now it’s all over for me,’ he said.
‘You think everything still might end?’
He looked surprised, and then: ‘God, no!’ he laughed. ‘That’s not going to happen.’
‘Sorry,’ I sighed. ‘You know, I’ve been so convinced that something was going to. If only because enough people believed.’ I flashed back again to that undignified scene of being marched off the platform. ‘I can’t shake the feeling there’s something I need to find. Wherever and whatever it is, it’s not here,’ I said.
The guy in the robes (oddly, I never caught his name) seemed to weigh me up, and then embarked on a very strange story. It was all the weirder for not including any elements of the stories I’d heard before. In it were no grey aliens, no Roswell, no US government cover-up, and no masonic plot. The Illuminati was not mentioned, nor the Knights Templar. The bloodline of Christ didn’t feature, nor – for that matter – Atlantis. But, unsurprisingly, given his costume, there was quite a lot about Tibetan Buddhism.
Whilst in his monastery, my monk from Bedford became embroiled in a controversy, which arose when the Dalai Lama (whom he’d met on several occasions; a very nice man, apparently) asked his followers to cease their homage to a spirit-deity named Dorje Shugden.
For four centuries this entity has been worshipped as a dharmapala, or ‘protector’ of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, but for reasons that the monk took great pains to explain, yet which still remain to me (I’m ashamed to admit) rather hazy, the Dalai Lama decided that Dorje Shugden was not all he’d been bigged up to be, and – indeed – was best left well alone. In short, the Dalai Lama had come to suspect that Dorje Shugden was not an enlightened being and, as such, might not be acting in the best interests of humanity. This presented something of a problem to my monk, because he’d inadvertently ensconced himself in a monastery strongly opposed to the Dalai Lama’s views and fervently dedicated to Shugden, whom its senior lamas regarded as both the ultimate protector of their faith and guarantor of its survival beyond the 21st century.
But there was much more. At the monastery was an old monk, who lived in a separate cell, excused from most of the daily duties. It was well-known that this old monk hadn’t long to live, as a result of a role he’d fulfilled unstintingly for many years, which was to become physically possessed by Dorje Shugden, and relay the spirit’s message to the faithful monks.
The possession rituals were onerous in the extreme. Once Shugden’s spirit had taken possession of the old man, in a ceremony before the entire monastery, it shook him from head to foot, made him scream at operatic volume, and flung him like a dishcloth around the ceremonial platform. Often, it took the poor old boy a fortnight to recover. But as the controversy with the Dalai Lama widened, the necessity to consult Dorje Shugden arose more frequently, until the medium had reached his limits.
On the day of the final ritual, the old monk could barely stand – until the spirit of Shugden sent him screaming and cavorting. It was too much. He died in his cell two days later, but peacefully and with a cheerful smile, because the spirit had known this was its last chance to manifest (until a new medium was found, which might take centuries) and to safeguard the tradition against the double threat of Chinese oppression and the Dalai Lama’s intransigence, it had conveyed a remarkable and very specific set of instructions to the assembly of awestruck monks. And my monk, of course, had been among them.
There is nothing in the world that conveys displeasure more vividly than the body-language of a Parisian café waiter. It was quite late, by this point. Our coffee cups were empty, and it was clear we would soon be required to leave. Luckily, the monk was able to finish his narrative before the management sent us packing.
What the spirit of Dorje Shugden revealed to the monks was that, although it was pretty much ‘game over’ for Tibetan Buddhism in Chinese-occupied Tibet, it was far from the end of the road for the tradition as a whole. But this was only on condition that three objects, which the spirit referred to as ‘jewels’ or ‘treasures’, were located and smuggled out to the West.
Traditionally, in Buddhism – the monk explained – the ‘three jewels’ are a metaphor, standing for the Buddha himself, his teachings, and the spiritual community that receives them. But the spirit of Shugden was quite explicit that his three treasures were actual, material objects, and through their physical ownership not only would the teachings be saved, but perpetuated throughout the entire world.
Unusually for prophecies of this type, Shugden’s message revealed not only their appearance, but also their exact whereabouts. This made infinitely more easy the business of finding and shipping them to the west, but by no means abolished all the hazards, and, although the efforts of the monastery eventually proved successful, from the monk’s grave expression during this part of his story, I divined that probably not a few of his brethren had come to harm.
‘So what were the objects, and where are they now?’ I asked, sensing he was reaching the end of his tale.
‘They’re safe,’ he smiled. ‘What they are is something that anyone can now discover for themselves.’
‘There’s no way I could travel to Tibet,’ I said, weighing his implicit challenge.
And then, through sheer force of disdain, the waiter had ejected us from the café. Outside on the pavement, the monk rummaged in the folds of his robes and handed me a small chunk of pinkish white crystal. ‘When you find the place, show them this,’ he instructed.
‘How will I find it?’ I asked, in rising desperation, as he turned to leave.
‘Firstly, learn to meditate, because you require discernment to recognise the treasures. Secondly, when the time is right, Dorje Shugden will show you the way.’
With a final wave, maroon robes and all, he vanished into the Parisian crowd and I was left staring at the lump of quartz, which was as angular, irregular and opaque as any other lump of quartz I’d ever seen.
Returning home, I signed up for a course in meditation. I never expected it would be so tedious. Each week, I sat in the meditation hall, counting my breaths, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did – except my legs and arse turned numb, and my mind wandered a lot: into why I’d believed the monk any more than I’d believed there were aliens under Bugarach, or that Quetzalcoatl had been due at Burning Man. Not, of course, that I’d believed those literally. I supposed the monk’s story now had a personal significance. Perhaps, in the past, my mistake had been to invest in other people’s stories. Now I’d found one of my own, which wasn’t featured in the pages of Fortean Times – but what to do with it? Sitting in a room, breathing with my eyes shut, didn’t seem to be leading anywhere.
After the tenth and final week, I expressed my frustration to the teacher – without telling the whole story, of course. He was on loan from a northern Buddhist centre, and his soothing Yorkshire accent had sometimes turned the meditation instructions into a kind of poetry. ‘To be honest,’ he told me, ‘I can only teach relaxation in a class like this. To go deeper, you need to go on retreat.’ He took me into the office and produced a brochure. ‘I recommend this place,’ he said, drawing his finger across a map. ‘Near the Welsh border.’
‘Thanks for your help.’
I realised that during the course I’d never caught his name.
‘George. George Sugden,’ he smiled, putting out his hand.
He must have wondered why my shake was so limp, and why my mouth was open in amazement. I felt in my pocket for the crystal, which I now carried most of the time.
‘Does this mean anything to you?’
‘Quartz, isn’t it?’ he said.
I saw him give me a look. Probably he thought I was some New Age nutter. And maybe he was right, because it was only an alignment of sounds: George Sugden versus Dorje Shugden. The monk had advised me, ‘Dorje Shugden will show the way’. He hadn’t. But a George Sugden had… Maybe… Was there really a connection between a Tibetan deity and this bloke from Yorkshire? It seemed unlikely… What the heck! I wanted to learn meditation anyway, and so there seemed no harm in booking into the place Sugden had shown me…
The first week was grim, and the second was worse. A bell woke us at 4 a.m. We meditated for ten hours per day, with short breaks for toilet and meals, until a final bell signalled sleep. The food appeared twice daily, in starvation-sized portions. No talking or eye contact was allowed. There was even an ‘exercise period’, supervised by burly members of staff, during which I stood at the wire fence and visualised my escape across the drizzly fields.
The meditation involved ‘looking at the nature of things’. A Pol Pot dead-ringer was our teacher, who informed us, with a steely grin, that when we looked closely at sensations, we would see them flickering in and out of existence, because they weren’t actually real in the way we thought. But nothing had ever felt more real than the unbearable pains in my back and legs from sitting all day, trying to convince myself sensations didn’t exist. Each night before bed, we were summoned before Pol Pot, who asked each of us in turn if we could see ‘it’ yet. He might as well have held up four fingers and asked if I could see five.
As each 4 a.m. bell roused us to a day slightly worse, yet largely identical to the one before, my fellow retreatants began to capitulate. A trickle at first, then a steady flow, conceded they could see what Pol Pot had said. I studied these turncoats avidly. True, they seemed to be sitting in less discomfort. And often their faces, like his, wore a silly grin. Something was going on.
I tried harder, reasoning this didn’t mean I was submitting to brainwashing; I could always try out ‘five fingers’, to see if it was any good, as long as I remembered there were really only four. But no matter how hard I tried, sensations remained the same. Pain was pain, and it hurt. It didn’t ‘flicker’ or go away. It was stupid to imagine otherwise.
But at the end of the retreat, the silly grins were in the majority. Only a few of us ‘four-fingered’ remained. On the morning of the last day, I felt proud about this. As evening loomed, my mood changed. Probably George Sugden had been a coincidence, and there was nothing to get, but if there was – then the trail was turning cold. Desperation, once again, pushed me to arrange an interview with the teacher. I wasn’t stupid enough to tell him everything – just the parts about seeking truth, meeting the monk, and him advising me to meditate – and I apologised for being such a bad and insolent student. The teacher’s English wasn’t great. I could see he wasn’t getting all of it. But when I took the crystal from my pocket, his grin fell away.
He eyed me coldly for a moment, then gestured for me to wait as he stepped outside. I stood alone in the poky office, reassuring myself that nothing bad could happen, and yet I was painfully conscious of those desolate miles of countryside around the retreat centre, and of how they’d confiscated everyone’s phones on the way in.
After a few minutes, a woman stepped into the office – which was a surprise, because the centre was sexually segregated: men in one half, women the other. I recognised the woman from glimpses during the previous fortnight. She was the teacher in charge of the female half.
‘You have something to show me?’
I held out the crystal to her unsmiling inspection.
‘From a Tibetan?’
Her accent was perfect, which was presumably why the teacher had sent her.
‘Well, he was from Bedford originally,’ I said.
She looked at me blankly, then motioned I should follow.
We left the office and passed along some dingy corridors, away from the public sections of the building, down into the basement.
‘The Tibetan described to you the three treasures?’ she said.
My heart raced. How could she have known about that? At last, I was getting behind the scenery.
‘Not in detail,’ I said. ‘But he mentioned they were hard to obtain.’
She nodded. ‘They are moved frequently, so that as few as possible know their whereabouts. Many people would take them from us.’
‘The Chinese Government?’
‘Certainly. And the Taliban. And the Americans. The Vatican.’ She smiled. ‘And probably the Archbishop of Canterbury.’
We arrived at a featureless door, which I would have assumed was a boiler-room or cupboard. She unlocked it with a single key, flicked on the light, and gestured for me to step in first.
Indeed, it was little bigger than a cupboard. No windows. Narrow. There was a faint and musty, chemical smell. The walls and floor were painted in shades of light brown. And it was empty, apart from three frames, hanging at eye-level on wire from three very ordinary-looking nails. In two of the frames, an object was fixed against white plaster.
‘Are they very valuable?’
‘Only to someone who has come seeking them. Otherwise – I’m sorry. And they have no special powers,’ she said, anticipating my next question.
The first frame contained a lump of burnt wood. The second, a scrap of parchment, with characters written in a foreign script, some of which had been scored over. And the third was empty.
‘They represent something? A truth or teaching?’ I felt my stomach sinking with disappointment.
‘No,’ she said, her voice taking on a more professional tone, as if she’d been over many times what she was about to say. ‘These objects represent nothing. What they are is not the truth, but actually the opposite. That’s why they’re so valuable.’
I nodded, but she continued as if I’d confessed I didn’t follow.
‘We are always in truth. Everything is perfection. Only, our perception is at fault. Many would think these words insane…’
‘There’s so much wrong in the world,’ I interrupted, ‘that it’s not difficult to see why.’
‘Look,’ she said, gesturing at the chunk of burnt wood in the first frame. ‘This object was taken from a laboratory in Russia. It was discovered in a medieval Christian reliquary, once believed to contain part of the cross on which Christ died. But when it was dated in the laboratory, it was discovered far older than a few hundred years old.’
‘You mean it’s authentic?’ I asked.
‘Certainly not. Something more amazing. Something disastrous. Testing suggests this material is older than the universe.’
‘Hah!’ I scoffed. ‘There were pieces of wood before the universe existed?’
I laughed, but her face remained serious.
‘You laugh because something that lasted forever must be wrong – and I agree. So then, why would we view the world as imperfect, just because what is good in it does not last? If there were anything that lasted always, good or bad, then it would be like this object: false. It cannot change. It is fixed forever. That is not how the world is, because that is hell. Instead, because nothing lasts, we are in bliss.’
Had she lured me here just to preach? It felt so. Yet, if it hadn’t been for the crystal, I wouldn’t be here at all. And how did she know the monk had talked about ‘three treasures’? Dorje Shugden was nagging at me, again. The Dalai Lama believed Shugden was a worldly, unenlightened spirit. Indeed, there was something oddly back-to-front about the teacher’s preaching, which I couldn’t put my finger on. Disastrous, was how she’d described that lump of wood. These objects represent nothing, she’d said.
‘What about this next one,’ I said, leaning in towards the second treasure. ‘Is this impossibly old too? It looks like Tibetan.’
‘Only a thousand years, or so. It has killed very many people,’ she sighed. ‘It would be mostly gibberish to a Tibetan speaker.’
‘Some kind of ancient edict, then?’
‘A poem,’ she said. ‘About an ornamental pot. There are rumours that Keats heard of this object, and partly based upon it his famous ode, “On a Grecian Urn”.’
‘No one ever died of Keats,’ I laughed.
‘Many have died from this poem,’ insisted the teacher. ‘It was composed by a monk – thankfully, in one of the remotest monasteries. He was dead in his cell, days after writing it. Whoever reads it is seized by a rapture so intense they can attend to nothing else. Even when force-fed, the human body is unadapted for such absorption. Every reader has been killed by its beauty, its sheer perfection.’
‘Presumably we’re okay because we don’t read Tibetan.’
‘Cutting up the manuscript without looking made it possible to translate the separated parts into other languages, then back again, losing some of the sense. But even that proved too close to the original. Not all, but numerous readers fell into the rapture from mentally piecing together the intended sense. So it is not the language that kills, but the meaning, which makes it even more dangerous. You see those characters that have been written over? This is the standardized, “safe” form. The original meaning can still be worked out, but it would take much effort. Sometimes, nearing the end of their life, a nun or monk will choose solitary confinement and undertake a reading of the poem. Many are successful and die in rapture.’
‘If it’s so dangerous, why not just destroy it?’
‘No.’ The teacher shook her head. ‘It’s still a treasure. It shows us that what is perfectly good is deadly, because if it fulfils us entirely, we will not progress beyond.’
‘Good things are just good, surely?’
‘Of course,’ she smiled. ‘Yet hell is where things are ultimately satisfying, because then there is nowhere else to go. That is death. The monk who wrote the poem stumbled by accident into hell, but his tragedy teaches how dissatisfaction is life. To suffer the lack of good things, when perceived accurately, is bliss.’
For all I knew, those scribbles were just a millennium-old monk’s laundry list, but her story was so peculiarly grim. She certainly had a unique way of selling her shtick.
‘You’ve got me hooked,’ I said.
‘The last treasure, I’m afraid,’ she said, ‘is very hard to explain.’
I examined the frame closely. Apart from an irregular dimpling in the plaster, there was nothing.
‘It’s empty,’ I said. ‘Is that what it’s meant to represent: the void?’
‘I already explained: the treasures don’t “represent”,’ she retorted, a little crossly. ‘Take out the crystal from your pocket.’
For a second I was puzzled, and then I realised the enormity of what she was suggesting. I held the lump of crystal towards the dimpled plaster, and looked at her. She nodded, indicating it was okay. The crystal fitted at once. The cavity in the plaster perfectly received its edges. I withdrew my hand and there it stayed, gleaming faintly pink against the white.
‘How did this happen?’ I gasped, shaking my head. ‘How did I come to be here, and how did you know?’
‘Not me. Not you,’ she replied. ‘This is the nature of the third treasure. It belongs.’
‘It belongs here?’
‘No. It was taken from a mosque. But don’t worry,’ she explained, reacting to my expression, ‘the imams didn’t even miss it. It was there because Islam was the last great world religion. But its significance had long ago been forgotten, except by a handful of sufis, who gladly gave us access. It’s auspicious that now we have it.’
‘And yet I got it from a Tibetan monk…’ I said.
‘Yes. And now it is in a UK meditation centre, run by the Burmese,’ the teacher smiled. ‘There are references in many scriptures to suggest this object has passed through the hands of every enlightened teacher, from Shakyamuni Buddha, to Moses, Plato, Lao Tzu, Christ, St. Paul and Mohammed – and many, many others besides.’
‘And me?’ I laughed.
‘And me, too,’ said the teacher. ‘Why not?’
My head reeled with the absurd grandiosity of it.
‘Everything is shaped by whatever caused it, and is always in a process of becoming something other,’ the teacher explained. ‘But the crystal has only and forever been itself. Wherever it is, it belongs. If it could be said to be in a process of anything, it would be always in the process of being at home.’
We both stared at the nondescript stone, returned to its place, resting innocuously in its frame.
‘Some regard it as a little piece of the Divine,’ she said. ‘It has no business in our world, perhaps, yet here it is. And maybe that’s the reason (although it doesn’t often happen at once) that each person who touches it comes to enlightenment.’ She turned and smiled at my bewildered expression. ‘Some say, that although in our age it appears as a crystal, it may have had various forms throughout history. In that case, we might better view it as a concept. We might call it the Grace of God.’
Her conviction was apparent, and yet I continued to have doubts.
Indeed, I doubted all the way through the next fortnight, through another tormenting retreat, which I sat immediately, without even bothering to return home. And I doubted all the way through the one I sat after that, and the next one too. Yet I couldn’t completely shake off the treasures, nor the teacher’s words, because of all those mad coincidences that brought me here, including Dorje Shugden: worldly spirit, dharma protector, or whatever he turned out to be. I was like a lit stick of incense. I burned and burned, smouldering right through experience, until a few more weeks of meditation passed, and finally there were neither doubts nor any remaining need to go on seeking. I was burned right through, right down to the base, and only a pile of sweet-smelling ashes remained.
The treasures were relocated from the centre. I hope that, just like me, others are drawn to them still and awaken from the experience. I imagine the treasures moving from place to place, keeping alive in many different forms the gift to the world from those monks in Tibet. As far as I know, the crystal relocated too. I would love to know who has it now, and hear the story of their awakening. Or perhaps, like the teacher suggested, it has since changed form. Right now it could be anything: a piece of glass; a coffee mug; an old picture, maybe. Perhaps even a web page.