At the end of 1993 I had come to a place where I was faced with two possible futures. Of course, there are always many options in life, but these two had my heart and my soul. I had arrived at this place of change and exploration of new directions, having come through a year of great loss and sadness. Feeling very much like a victim of life’s cruelties I was searching for answers and direction.
My Dad had recently passed away at the way too young age of 59. Though years of separation from him as a child due to divorce were lost, I had the opportunity to build a deeper relationship and understanding of him when he moved in with me several years prior. The already strong bond of a father and his oldest son became even stronger. He was my hero as a child, right through adulthood to the day he died. I recognized, what some would call his faults or shortcomings, while at the same time saw the price he had paid for them in his heart. He grieved over mistakes he had made in life and in those later years tried to make up for them. He had a joy in life and an infectious laugh that would fill a room. I loved him deeply and nothing meant more to me than when he would say, “I am very proud of you son”. As he lay there in his last moments, I had a little time with him alone. I will always know in my heart that he heard my words as I made a promise to him.
Just to pile things on, my then wife of seven years told me she had been seeing someone and wanted to be with him. When I married her, I had taken on raising her two sons, eight and nine at the time, as if they were my own. Having been raised myself in the mixed-up emotional world of step-siblings and parents, and as a child trying to emotionally negotiate devotion to parents who were at odds, I understood there would be no room for an abandoned stepfather in their lives. I don’t blame them. They have grown up to be fine men with families of their own. I’m very proud of them both. I have no anger or ill will towards her and in fact wish her every happiness. I came to understand a long time ago that karma has a funny way of bringing us to where we need to be in our lives, and all is for the best.
At the time however, my entire world had completely and irretrievably unraveled. I was living in a place of raw emotion with the frayed ends of my spirit too tender to touch. Life as I knew it no longer existed, my Dad who was my greatest support, and my family, gone. It was very easy to indulge in self-pity and cry “Why me?”, and I did just that. I had moved into a little duplex at the end of a gravel road. It was a well-shaded location making the panel walled interior even darker. Not being able to face the guys at work I would call in sick and isolate myself in the solemn darkness. I wanted to hide from the world and make the emotional pain go away. I remember so clearly sitting on the floor of the living room, half-open boxes scattered around me, alone and broken. I cried for all things and ones I loved which were now gone, the tears rolling slowly over my cheeks. It was not a hysterical cry with body wracking sobs. It was a soft gentle cry of deep sorrow and loss, a cry of loneliness and despair, as if one were enveloped by a thick fog in the night, where the sounds of unseen waves breaking upon the shore and the mournful clanging bell of a sea buoy, were all I had for company. The inevitable question of everyone who ever felt themselves to be a victim, “Why me?” hung heavy in the air and filled me with self-pity.
Fortunately, those dark months were accompanied by a period of incredible spiritual growth and realization. During this time I found a wonderful teacher and a group of amazing spiritual friends. Through learning about the Dharma from monks, nuns and some extraordinary lay people who had been studying and practicing Buddhism for many years, I found answers to the difficult questions great loss and sorrow bring to the soul. These were answers which would eventually free me from being a victim. They were not based on feelings, abstract ideas or blind faith. They were based in logic from 2,500 years of insight as to how this world truly exists. These answers were not always what I wanted to hear, but truth can be like that. Through exploring these questions and answers, with the help and guidance of friends, the “Why me?” became “Why not me?”
As a result of the joy I found in this spiritual awakening I was seriously considering taking vows and being ordained as a monk in a Tibetan Buddhist tradition. What I had learned in such a short time was profoundly life-changing. From my earliest memories I had been on a spiritual quest and here before me was a clear path to true realization. I was happy again and began the process of figuring out how I might be able to survive financially as a monastic and exploring what life as a monk might look like. To that end I traveled throughout India with my teacher, Venerable Geshe Tsulga. I visited many sites sacred to both Buddhism and Hinduism, spent time at the rebuilt Sera Jey Monastic University in the South and was so very fortunate to meet His Holiness the Dali Lama.
With my spiritual life feeling fulfilled I was able to refocus on my career in the fire service and was promoted to Captain. I wished my Dad were there to see it. I know how proud he would have been. Things were turning around for me. I was gaining both direction and perspective.
I met Andrea in a mediation and introduction to Tibetan Buddhism class when I first set foot on this phase of my spiritual journey. The class was taught by one who would become a good friend over the years, Don Brown. It is not possible to thank Don enough for the doors he opened for me. His calmly delivered teaching and kindness had a profound effect on me. Andrea sat cross legged on the floor across from me. She was wearing white pants and purple blouse, she had dark hair with streaks of silver and her hazel-brown eyes were captivating. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. There was a sense of peacefulness about her and somewhere inside I knew at that I was going to fall in love and marry her. It took me over a year to convince her, and perhaps myself. While there are those who say this is not actually how it happened, it is my story and when asked I will always tell it this way.
I like to joke that Andrea wrote me off as a beer-drinking, deer-hunting, fireman just coming out of a failed marriage. Which was not far from the truth. Ok, it was the truth. Having been through some not so good, relationship experiences herself she was simply not interested in dating. We saw quite a lot of each other as we attended teachings and helped to build and paint the Dharma center. Over the next year we became good friends and began doing things together outside the Center. I guess you can say we began dating.
By the time I left for India with my teacher Geshe Tsulga on my quest, Andrea and I had fallen deeply in love. I was very torn at this point about which path to take. My determination to take ordination was dwindling as something inside was telling me, not yet. Call it what you will, Buddha’s and God whispering in my ear, guardian angels and Dhakini’s or perhaps my higher self all telling me to wait, that I had something to do before I was ready to devote completely to the spiritual path. My journey through India had a deeply profound effect on me, but that is a story for another time, so I will fast forward to my homecoming.
Sitting in that dark duplex with the baggage from my journey half-emptied around me, gifts for family, fifty little Buddha statues, thankas and clothing scattered about the room, I was exhausted. This was same room where I had descended into sorrow and despair. It was the end of January and I had decided I would propose on Valentine’s Day. I couldn’t wait. There amidst the mess I asked Andrea to marry me. I think I caught her a little off guard as by this time she fully expected I would be seeking ordination. She calmly looked me in the eye and said, “I have one question for you before I answer that.” A pause that seemed to last a lifetime hung in the air before she continued. “Are you going to become a monk?” I couldn’t help but smile and replied, “Not if you say yes and marry me.”
As I reflect on this piece of my history the notions of karma and fate come to mind. When the causes and conditions come together in our life and we are faced with a choice, it is said that a particular karma has ripened. We are like a tree bearing many fruits year after year, lifetime after lifetime. The ripening of each fruit comes from our actions through our many lifetimes.
On some level I came to understand that my strong desire to be ordained as a monk was overridden by unfinished karma which I had the opportunity to work through in this life. There is no bad or good karma. Karma is mechanical and really doesn’t care. It simply brings things together. It is us who label karma good or bad.
At the time I was going through my divorce I could have easily attributed it all to “bad karma”. If not for this seemingly “bad karma” the “good karma” to meet Andrea and have the opportunity to live a life devoted to loving her would not have ripened. Together we brought our son into our lives, loved and raised him, fulfilling my promise. Who is to say if karma is good or bad? It’s all in how we see in at the moment and what we do with it. To say that it was fate may not be too far off the mark as long as it is remembered it is our actions which create the causes and conditions for our karma to ripen revealing our fate.
William C. Judge 2019