I immediately told him to come and see me first here in Rishikesh and that is what he did. I was waiting outside in the tea stall out in front of the ashram when he went trundling past in a three-wheeler, wearing his tilley hat and khaki shorts. I went chasing after the vehicle shouting at the driver to stop, and soon we were embracing in the midday sun.
In our childhood, Rients and his family were frequent visitors to our home in Montreal. At various junctures throughout our lives, our paths crossed. When I came back from India in 1985, he was in New York, trying to make it as an artist with his dark, brooding, almost frightening chthonic visions. Much later, I saw him in Montreal when he was on his way to England to stay at a Buddhist monastery, hopefully to commit his life to attaining enlightenment. Throughout it all, the underlying theme of his life was always that he was a seeker.
Most of the details of his life remain unknown to me, but he told me that when he was 18, he joined a kind of cult on Vancouver Island, which was led by a former Catholic monk who taught a potpourri of meditations. Rients stayed with this group for several years during which time he developed his artistic side. Besides being an artist, he was also a potter, cook and handy-man and undoubtedly had many other talents of which I know nothing.
But his main interest was always in meditation and exploring the spirit. He stayed for extended periods in several Buddhist retreat houses and monasteries, and served the monks and devotees as a cook at one such retreat near his home on Denman Island in British Columbia.
He spent three days here, which was probably the longest extended association we had ever enjoyed, sharing my room, where we had long talks into the night. He liked the atmosphere here and was even thinking of doing a silence retreat, but only one night alone in one of the cottages made him realize that it was not the right time for that. He needed to travel and explore.
From here he went to Dharamshala and Mcleod Ganj where he volunteered as an English conversation teacher, having what seemed like a great time meeting Buddhist monks from Thailand and elsewhere and teaching them English. He sent out irregular missals from there and then, when it started getting cold in the mountains, from Goa. After that, he continued south to go to what had always been his main goal, the Bodhi Zendo in Tamil Nadu.
On December 12, those on his list received the following email, ironically titled "This is It," in which he announced that he was truncating his stay in India, cutting short his six-month itinerary.
The end, and now to the beginning of the end. Yes three factors brought me to abandon india. Which one was the straw that broke my resolve? First of all I read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.
If your heart bled for the bare-footed rickshaw driver in City of Joy then you'll be happy with what the next generation of Indian writers has done for him. In The White Tiger, his son becomes a chauffeur and murders his rich employer for a huge amount of money destined for a Delhi politician. Then he escapes to a large city and creates a successful business. This is a great moral tale, aimed straight into the heart of the ruling classes. The effect is of opening a door into a dark world that a tourist can avoid to see but is feeling all the time. You can't hide from the distress any longer.
Then there was the temperature. Each day became progressively colder in the mountains and so I raced down to Kodaikanal, a hill station in the deep south. And discovered that the temperature on the southern plains around Madurai was nearly perfect. Then 50 km up the mountain rising a meter for every 100. Although you pass through an absolutely gorgeous florid tropical forest, you end up at 7,000 ft. When I got out of the bus at dusk the town was freezing in a blanket of cloud. Like Vancouver in December.
Got into the hotel and, as the power was out, the room was stone cold. Laying under sweat-smelly blankets, it took two hours for core heat to reach my toes and the lights to come on. They gladly gave me clean blankets the next day, but wanted more than my rent for a heater.
I went down to Bodhi Zendo, just below the clouds. Wow, what a sweet place. Really the best retreat/monastery I've seen. Very quiet and simple. But no heat. There was no way I was going to spend my winter retreat bundled in blankets. It turns out that December and January are cold and rainy up there near the equator.
Third, imagine you've been moving for days and are finally in bed imagining that today is the day. Snuggle in after a cold shower and have this feeling in your anal sphincter that someone left a cigarette burning and there is not way to butt it out. Really it got so bad that my mouth refused to open. No amount of reasoning would allow one more spoonful. Having already lost 12 lbs I decided to escape to Sri Lanka or Thailand. Fear overcame me, aren't those ass-burning countries as well? That was checkmate. For 200 Canadian I got a flight to Vancouver.
Now I'm at Dad's in Penticton. Luckily he's in Spain for a month visiting an old childhood friend who looked him up. Now I have to decide what to do next. My imagination is going east. First it was Regina, then Montreal, but it may take me all the way to Halifax.
Lots of love, I enjoyed writing this.
Two days later, on the 14th, an email was sent to everyone on Rients' list announcing that he had been driving on the Trans Canada near Kelowna and had been in a serious accident. He was in a coma in very serious condition. Today I received the news that he passed away at 12.10 on the 19th.
For the past few days, a Sufi story has been ringing in my head. I believe it is one that Idries Shah tells, perhaps it is older. It is about an Arab merchant who was traveling on business and was in Damascus selling his wares in the market when he suddenly saw the frightening apparition of Death. He and Death looked at each other, the one with apprehension and dread, the other with a kind of bemused astonishment. The merchant immediately got on his horse and dashed the many miles back to his home in Mecca, where he let out a sigh of relief as he locked the doors to his house. The next morning, however, he heard a knock on the door and who should be there but Death! Shocked, the merchant expressed his astonishment, "But I saw you yesterday in Damascus!" "Yes," replied Death. "I was surprised to see you there, too, because I knew that I had an appointment with you here today."
Rients never seemed to be the luckiest of people, never quite finding himself despite his long and persistent search, but he had a simple good nature that won him many friends. I am glad that I had the chance to spend three days with him so near the end of his life, during which time a strong bond of affection was renewed between us.
All my love to you, Rients. All the best to you as you continue your spiritual quest, wherever that may be.