After almost two years at Naropa, I had been through a number of warrior exams (in fairly intimate classroom settings), and no longer had much fear of them. In fact, I was becoming so comfortable with them by the time I graduated that I barely gave them a second thought. So as I entered the little cottage classroom for my final warrior exam on my last day at Naropa, I was unconcerned.
We had been given the questions to review the week before. This is usually a sheet of 10 to 15 two-part questions, some of which are fairly simple, and some quite difficult. Since you don’t know which question you will get, you have to study for all of them and prepare oral answers for each. Well, I had glanced at the questions when I got them, and seeing that I knew the answers, never thought to look at them again. It was not a particularly difficult class and I thought it would be a breeze.
During a Naropa warrior exam, the class sits on the floor in a circle, often with each individual on a Japanese meditation cushion called a zafu which is placed on a larger flat cushion called a zabuton. In the center of the circle are two sets of cushions facing one another with two bowls between them. In one bowl are folded slips of paper on which are written the names of all the students. In the other bowl are the questions. First, the name of a questioner is selected, then the questioner draws the name of a person to be examined. The examinee then selects a question from the other bowl. If he or she is happy with that question, they will then hand it to the questioner so that it may be read aloud to the class. If for some reason they would prefer to answer a different question, they may reach into the bowl again. However, this question must be answered. After it is read aloud, the examinee answers all parts of the question to the best of their ability with as much detail as possible. When they are finished, the questioner may ask a follow-up question or may signal their satisfaction with the answer. Then, the instructor or other students may ask their own questions until they too are satisfied with the examinee’s understanding. If they are, the examination is over and the two persons in the center bow to one another.
After a couple of rounds like this, my name is selected from the bowl. I step into the circle and sit down opposite my questioner. We bow to one another and I calmly reach into the bowl for my question. I pull out a little white strip of paper, unfold it, and to my surprise . . . cannot think of the answer. No matter, I simply put it aside and draw another question. I unfold the new slip of paper, and to my horror . . . find that I cannot think of the answer to this question either! I can feel the blood rushing into my face and the beginnings of moisture on my forehead. I look down for a moment and then hand the paper resignedly to my questioner who reads the question out loud. There is a moment of silence before I say, “I don’t know.” I can see the surprised looks on the faces of my classmates. By this time, I had acquired a reputation for being one of the more ‘bookish’ persons at Naropa and was commonly thought to ‘have all the answers.’ But in this moment, I have none, and I actually see my questioner’s mouth drop open a little when I say it.
Feeling the panic rising, I make a decision. Inside, I know I have the answers to these questions; I just can’t seem to access them. I think to myself, I’m not going to fail this exam just because I’m having a memory lapse! I’m determined to give some kind of an answer. Into the already tense silence, I speak up: “I honestly can’t think of the answer. I know it’s in me somewhere; I’m just drawing a complete blank. So . . . I want to ask a favor . . . If you’ll hang in there with me for a little while, I want to try and talk my way through the question until I can find the answer.” I look at my questioner. Unsure of what to do, she looks at the instructor who nods his assent.
Making myself as calm as possible, I say, “Please read me the question again.” She reads it again and I repeat the first part aloud. Then I start to take all the words apart, thinking out loud and passing through all the Buddhist concepts to which this might refer, giving brief definitions of each and dismissing them one by one. Then I begin to look at how I might answer the question without reference to Buddhism or the specific text to which the question refers. Still, I haven’t got it yet. I’m missing something. I ask my questioner to read the second part of the question. I listen intently and go through the same long process. Then, suddenly, everything I had temporarily forgotten floods back into my mind and I can feel my face lighting-up. Everyone knows I have it now. The relief in the room is palpable. I build on my earlier explorations and give the most thorough answer I can possibly give. I explore parallel concepts, give the arguments for and against the position and paraphrase the words of the text . . . For a moment, I even consider giving the exact location of the answers in the text, but figure that this would be showing off. But after faltering so badly in the beginning, I don’t want to leave even the slightest doubt that I know and understand the answer thoroughly.
When I finish, I look at my questioner. She says with a smile, “I’m satisfied.” I then look to the instructor and my classmates who all nod their satisfaction. Then someone begins to clap and the others join in. I bow to my questioner and take her place as questioner.
In that moment, I knew that a significant chapter in my life had come to a close. This was the situation I had always feared, that I would come up short, panic, go blank and prove that all my personal fears about myself were true. It had actually happened. But something else had happened that I had not anticipated. I had lived. I didn’t collapse, and the world didn’t stop. I had forgotten what I knew, certainly! But I was still there and able to make decisions about what to do next and how I felt about what was happening to me. That was the power I had left. I realized then that we don’t often look beyond the terrible moments we fear. We almost never ask ourselves, “What is on the ‘other side’ of this fear?” We tend to think that this is where the story ends. ‘Fade to black.’ But my story hadn’t ended. I was still there and could act on my own behalf. In many ways, I was now free. My fears were realized and my world had not come to an end. It isn’t pretty, but when the worst has already happened to you, what more is there to fear? So I asked myself, “What comes next?” And the only answer I wanted to give was, “No more running.”
In the years that followed, I was asked more and more frequently to give talks on particular aspects of religion to local groups or at different colleges. And in doing so, I discovered that I had something of a vocation as a teacher. Still, there were many times when the old panic got hold of me just before a talk and I would have to remember that I had already lived through the worst. On other occasions, I had to deal with different permutations of the fear; for instance, that I would give a bad talk. One night, forced to give a presentation on a subject for which I had little interest, I gave a very poor performance. The next day, I said to a dear friend who had been there, “That was pretty bad, wasn’t it?” With characteristic directness, she said, “Yes, it was.” I laughed out loud. Somehow I felt okay about it because I had now survived that fear as well.
Today, I still feel nervous before speaking to a group, especially if I am caught off guard or find myself in a new situation. But I am no longer embarrassed or ashamed of the fact. I am aware of the momentary tremor and simply accept it. I tell myself, “I belong in this moment,” and then I ask the question on the other side of the fear, “What comes next?” And there is always an answer.