Last year, I was back to using the dating website OKCupid again. I’d used it on and off for several years without much success. The men whose profiles I liked rarely answered my queries, and most of the messages I received were from guys who were a) looking to include me in a threesome with their girlfriend, b) ignorant of the basic rules of grammar, or c) of the bro-pinion that Fight Club was the greatest film ever made. As much as I like to keep my options open, a month’s worth of writing polite “Thanks, but no thanks,” replies were bringing me down. I decided to close up my profile and take a break. I logged in and noticed a message from DeepInTheHeartofZazen in my inbox. Zen, eh? Click.
I looked his profile over first. His answers to the usual questions were descriptive, but succinct; he enjoyed running, reading, and listening to Fugazi. In his photo, his deep brown eyes peered inquisitively from underneath the brim of his cap, and I could see the telltale stubble of a freshly shaved head at the nape of his neck. But what intrigued me most was the fact that he was a Zen priest. As he briefly detailed it on his profile, he had just moved into his own private apartment after living in monastic communities for the past several years. His message itself was friendly, and he piqued my fancy by complimenting my mention of Eihei Dogen’s How to Cook Your Life: From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment, which I’d listed as one of my favorite books.
“Have you ever read any Derrick Jensen?” he asked, which lead to us lobbing book recommendations back and forth until we mutually agreed to meet over beers the next evening. His parting message read, “I’m Michael. I’ll see you tomorrow, Sara.”
I was elated. Not only was he well read, cute, and single, but he was a ZEN PRIEST, too! At that particular point in my life, my relationship with Buddhism was tentative. I’d read a small mountain of books. I had attended a couple of introductory classes at the local Zen and Shambhala centers. I had even gone on a ten-day vipassana retreat, but still, I was hesitant. While I found that the Four Noble Truths and other concepts provided clear and realistic insights into my everyday struggles, I rarely meditated, and I felt pretentious any time I was tempted to say I was a Buddhist.
This guy though–he was the real deal. He shaved his head, put on the robes, and gave up an income and most of his material possessions to live the dharma. Maybe he could give me some insights into my reticence. Hell, even if we didn’t hit it off romantically, it would be interesting to pick the brain of someone who had lived and breathed Buddhism far more deeply than I did. I went to bed that night buzzing with anticipation.
The next evening, we met each other at the appointed time at a well-worn, cozy bar near my work. We each ordered a Blue Moon and then, drinks in hand, investigated the jukebox. He picked a Black Flag song while I settled for Johnny Cash. We partook of the polite chitchat that typifies any first date between two strangers. His mien was intense, but distracted. He was very preoccupied with his current part-time job, which was the first “real,” income-earning, tax-paying job he’d taken in his adult life, after living so many years as an active priest.
I listened and took notice of his restive hands and his quick, intelligent eyes. Suddenly, as if he felt ashamed at having the conversational spotlight for so long, he started asking me questions about myself, and in such rapid-fire succession that I barely had enough time to collect myself and answer before he asked another, and then another. “What about your job? Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? Have you ever been to a third world country?”
After a couple of beers, he seemed calmer, and conversation flowed more naturally, if still somewhat stiltedly. We decided to call it an early night. Though he was prepared to take the bus, he gratefully accepted my offer of a ride home. (That whole “renouncing material possessions” thing obviously meant that he didn’t have a car.) Still, despite his stiffness, the date had been pleasant enough. We continued to message each other throughout the ensuing weeks. We went to a concert of experimental music together. When his employer promoted him to full time, he borrowed a friend’s moped and took me to dinner to celebrate. I’d never ridden a scooter before, and as we leaned together into turns, my arms firmly around his waist and wind in my hair, I was thrilled in more ways than one.
After a little judicious googling, I found his award-winning, public Zen blog, and I read years’ worth of entries in between dates with him. I also discovered his Flickr, and in the white space between each picture he had taken, I filled in a story about his personality and how it would jibe with mine. It didn’t matter that our actual interactions were unobjectionable at best, awkward at worst. I felt as if I knew him. My heart flooded with longing as I imagined how it would feel to kiss him. I fantasized about long hours lounging in bed with him, or of sitting next to him during an intense sesshin at the Zen temple.
Soon, I felt it was time for us to get closer. “Why don’t I pick you up on Thursday so we can hang out at my place?” I asked him via email. “I’ll make dinner, and we’ll watch a movie.”
“Sure, that sounds great!” He got the hint. The date was set.
I should have known things were headed for disaster when he first met my chihuahua, Penny. Normally, she is the friendliest, cuddliest of creatures, always willing to meet new people and snuggle in any lap that’s offered. She wagged her tail in excitement as he picked her up, but within moments, she started to growl and writhe in his arms. He was petting her too hard. I could see her struggling within his tight grip.
“Hey there, ease up, she doesn’t like being petted that way,” I told him, and he let her go. I put this out of mind as I showed him my backyard. Michael forgot to close the screen door behind him as we went outside; sensing an opportunity to escape, Penny snuck out unseen and headed for the sizable gaps under the fence. Back inside, I had just poured a glass of wine for each of us when I noticed that Penny wasn’t around, and that the back door was still wide open. “Shit! She doesn’t have a tag on!” I cried. He dashed into the backyard while I jumped in my car and drove the streets behind my house, screaming her name out the window. Not ten minutes later, I saw him wave his hands above the fence. He had found her in my next-door neighbor’s yard, snuffling amongst the daffodils. “Crisis averted!” he yelled in triumph.
We finally relaxed after Penny was safely inside. We drank more wine. He helped chop vegetables to go with the lentils and rice that I soon had simmering on the stove. After dinner, he admitted to never having seen The Silence of the Lambs, which was one of my favorite films, so we elected to watch it. (What can I say–I figured the suspense would give us plenty of chances to grab onto each other for comfort.) He held my hand during the film; I lingered over the smooth texture of the skin between each of his fingers. Afterwards, the moment I’d been hoping for finally arrived when he looked into my eyes and leaned in to kiss me. A surge of pure happiness welled within me when I moved to touch the back of his neck with my hand.
We’d had a very nice evening (despite nearly losing my dog). But it did not end there, sadly. We kissed, and kissed again. He drew back and said, “Let’s go to your bedroom.” I agreed to this, though some small part of me objected. You’re not ready to have sex with this man yet. Making out is fine, but you still don’t know him well. Let’s wait. Give it some time. But that quiet, sure scruple was drowned out by my louder hopes. This intelligent, interesting, incredibly attractive and unique man wants me! ME! Maybe this will lead to the love I’ve been searching for all this time!
I found myself navigating an all-too-familiar territory. I bargained away each piece of my clothing in exchange for a tenderness that I hoped would come, but never came. His touch was rough and insistent in a way that wasn’t pleasurable or sexy at all. But I told myself that I liked it, because I liked him, right? I wanted him to like me; maybe this was what it took. Surely, in just a moment, he’d hold me in the way I wanted to be held. He’s a Zen priest, after all–surely he’ll know when he’s hurting someone. Right? In a last, half-assed attempt at getting some pleasure for myself out of this increasingly painful encounter, I tried to give him some pointers–a little to the left, a bit softer, please!–and things seemed to improve. In fact, I began to feel good enough that I let loose with some vocalization, like a lady does when her partner is doing things well. “Oh yes! LIKE THAT! THAT’S IT!”
His voice was tight. “Could you not be so loud? You’re hurting my ears.” I was so shocked, I lost the ability to remember that no man had ever complained about the sounds of my pleasure before–and that no man ever should. “Uh, sorry,” I murmured, and I panted quietly until he was done. He rolled over next to me. I rested my head on his shoulder. “Just so you know,” he said as he peeled off the condom, “I’m not ready for any kind of relationship yet. This was just for fun.”
“Oh.” Again, I was too shocked to say what should have been said, which was, “You could have said as much before we had sex, asshole.” Instead, I sighed, “OK. How about I have a turn, then? I would like an orgasm, too.”
He looked away from me. “I feel kind of weird. I should get home. It’s late.”
We pulled on our clothes and got in my car. As I drove him home, he chatted as if nothing had happened. We made tentative plans to check out a new Indian restaurant downtown. I struggled to keep my mind on the road; the lingering urgency of sexual arousal and a panicky hollowness roiled in my body like a bad chemical reaction. I dropped him off, went back home, sat on my bed, and proceeded to cry until it felt like my eyes would explode. What the hell just happened? I had been used. Worse–I had betrayed myself again.
I called in sick to work the next morning, and spent the rest of that day taking a long, hard look at myself. How could I have been so naive? I had been through many similar situations in my early twenties. Back then, any guy who had an interesting pedigree–playwright, lead guitarist, improv actor, goth club DJ (yeah, yeah, I know)–starred in all of my daydreams, even if he seldom called, wheedled rent money out of me, or stood me up. Their being artistic in some way was a great balm to my ego, so great that I could ignore the uneasy relationship we had off-stage, at least for a while. I rarely complained, as I assumed that artists would be able to tell what was going on with me. Weren’t they more sensitive, more attuned to the world around them, than regular schmucks like myself?
Time and experience had given the lie to that particular fantasy, of course, which is why I was so devastated that endless, lonely day after my final date with Michael. I couldn’t believe that I had made that mistake yet again; moreover, I had made it about a Buddhist, and Buddhism in general. Fame, acclaim, admiration–all of those things were nice in and of themselves, but empty of any permanence. So was being a Zen priest. I realized I had made a very common mistake in believing that the dharma–or someone who practiced it–would save me from myself and make me a better person. I had used his priestly status as one of many building blocks of a fantasy that blinded me to weeks of vaguely awkward, uncomfortable interactions with him. Sleeping with him was the rude wake-up call to reality: I didn’t know him at all, and not because he’d hidden anything from me. All the signs were there. I’d chosen to ignore them.
Later, I told him how hurt I felt after that night. To his credit, he was never defensive, and he never made excuses; he simply apologized. I never saw him again after that. I hope I never have to, but I will say that I am grateful for the wisdom I learned that night, though it was earned painfully. Putting it into practice will never be easy; I’m always going to feel attraction for those who stand out from a crowd. But I know this: even if I met a man whom everyone said was the Buddha, I will trust what arises in that moment between him and I more than any list of accolades, miracles, or hopes. My instincts live in the present, and I can trust them. They’re all I have to go on.