Updated: Dec 7, 2021
The Surgeon Swami
The mole hole was crackling with work. There was the newsletter, just past its due date, to complete and rush to press, there were the new office forms that needed approval and delivery, and there was, of course, the new cookbook, taking more time than was originally scheduled. I was behind with all this work. My office—usually referred to as the mole hole—was a tiny eight foot by six-foot room hidden behind the kitchen. It was always stacked with work in spite of the many hours I spent there typesetting, designing, and directing Himalayan Institute publications.
It had been a long day full of surprises that we had not planned for. The guest whom Swamiji had asked to proof a camera-ready book chapter had circled all her favorite sentences with red ink, not realizing that her enthusiasm meant my resetting all those pages. The heat and humidity of the day had shut down our small press in the garage since the machines were unable to lift all the curled paper edges. The main office desperately needed some new forms and had just buzzed me for the fourth time that day to get them.
My artist assistant, Bala, stood at her counter-desk drawing lines with ruler and pen, exasperatingly shaking the pen between strokes to keep the black ink flowing in the early evening heat. She threw her long hair over her shoulder and sighed.
"Are you all right?" I asked as I stood at my desk, cutting a typeset form into sections to fit the required space. My left hand held the ruler against the sheet as my right hand held the sharp exacto knife to slice the margins down to size. I, too, was tired and wished only for the long day to end so I could rest at the feet of my spiritual teacher and listen to his stories as I usually did each evening.
My mind had strayed just enough to leave my work for a moment. That was all that was needed. My right hand whisked down against the ruler with a strong, quick movement, and cut off the tip of the finger that strayed a quarter inch over the ruler edge it held.
"Oh!" I exclaimed as I dropped the knife. "Oh, I cut myself!"
Bala took one look at the blood flowing out over the countertop as I tried to find the part I had cut off. She pulled me out of the room and said in a frightened voice, "Let's go find Swamiji!"
Halfway down the long hallway, we saw our teacher's office door open and watched him walk quickly towards us. Without a word he grabbed my badly cut finger in his fist, held it tight, and put his arms around me just before I fainted.
"Don't go away, Tree!" I heard him whispering to me, calling me back to reality. "You'll be all right." Then he ordered the gathering staff members, "Bring a small glass of water to me."
His words steadied the swaying walls and stopped the strange high-pitched sounds in my ears. Still holding tightly to my finger, he dunked it in the little glass of water. I heard him mutter a few Sanskrit words under his breath. He reached for the offered roll of bandage and then, barely letting go of my finger, wrapped it round and round in layers of gauze, knotting the ends firmly at my wrist.
"You go home now, Tree," he said gently, "and come to me in the morning."
My husband came from the class he was teaching and drove us to our apartment. I went right to bed and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Early the next morning I awoke feeling fine and was curious to see what damage I had done to my finger. Gently I unwrapped the bandages to find a surprise. The missing top of my finger had grown completely back, the pain was gone, and I once again had a perfect typing finger.
"Tree," Swamiji said as I walked into his house an hour later, "I have some important typing for you to do. Can you begin immediately?" he asked with a big grin.
And I was only too happy to oblige.
Morning of Fire
My alarm went off as usual at five minutes to 3:00 AM. I got up quickly from my futon checking the weather, the darkness, the stillness. Time to meditate. The room was warm this October morning, so I needed no shawl over my pajamas. I walked across the shag carpet to my special space. In the center of one wall, below a large mirror was my meditation spot—a little folded blanket to sit upon, a small wooden altar with a candle, incense, my mala beads, and my favorite photo of Swamiji.
As usual, I wanted to see his smiling face as I bowed my “good morning.” I had not seen him in several days since he had flown to Pennsylvania to join Justin in touring the new Institute property. He had given me work to do during his absence and told me to continue my practice as he hugged me good-bye. The candle would light up his image for me.
I felt sleepy as I sat down and reached for a book of matches. There seemed to be no difference between this morning and the night just passed. Time must have stopped. There was no light at all. I thought that the sun must still be sleeping while the moon hid behind the clouds. I scratched the match awake into a bright flame that seemed to jump from my fingertips. It startled me so much that I dropped it into my lap. Instantly the flame caught the soft fibers of my fuzzy pajamas and exploded into a small fire.
I watched the flames quickly spread down my legs and up my torso. It ran to my shoulders and arms. The cloth looked so stunning wrapped in flame that I was not really aware of what was happening. Its surprising beauty led me to stand up and look in the mirror. There I spread out my arms and watched large flames cover my clothes, reach up to lick my face and would soon jump into my long hair. It was then that I knew I was on fire and that I would probably die.
There was no fear; the thought of death did not disturb me. I knew I was ready. Black pieces of cloth then fell off my body and set the carpet alight. The flames slowly inched from my feet across the floor toward the piles of papers and books. I could see what would happen next but I had no fear. Then I remembered that I lived in a large building with many people. My mind woke up and showed me the small children I loved, the moms I talked with in the laundry. They were in danger. Fear then jumped into my heart. How could I stop the fire? What should I do to save the others?
Behind the flames the face of my teacher smiled at me. I begged for his help to put out the fire and began to beat at the flames with my hands, slapping at myself, stomping on the burning floor, and calling out his name. All at once the flames went out. I stepped out of the few pieces of smoking cloth that remained on my body and sat down on the smoking carpet to thank him. The carpet had a large grey, burned section now; my eyebrows and lashes were singed; the hair on my body was mostly gone, leaving a few short, greyed curls; the hair on my head was untouched; my pajamas were pieces of black charcoal. But I and the building were all alive.
When I phoned Pennsylvania a few hours later, Justin sounded relieved to hear my voice. He said he was so worried about me but could not telephone. “Last night Swamiji told me you were to die today!” he said with a cracked voice. “What happened? How are you?”
As I related the events of my meditation time, I looked at my hands and face, finding them to be without any burns. So I asked to speak to our teacher.
“Hey Tree!” came the great voice, “How are you Tessa? You did not die today! I have much more work for you. OK?”
The morning flashed before my eyes with a clarity I had not known. My mind remembered the flames; my heart jumped with the joy of living. “My life is yours, Swamiji,” I said.
“God bless you,” he answered. “Can you start editing my new book?”
And so ended my contest with fire. On one side death; on the other the Guru’s grace. Now whenever I see shooting flames, I remember the flames of the Guru’s love that I experienced that day.