One New Year’s Eve, at eight years old, my parents left me alone with a neighbor, a bottle of sparkling cider, and a television for company. Far away, in New York City, thousands of people danced in the streets as the minutes of the last day of the year ticked on the giant clock in the sky. The people on the television writhed and hopped. They screamed at me from across the country. I could not hear them — I could only watch the clock, suspended, waiting to shout HAPPY NEW YEAR!! at my neighbor at exactly the right moment.

I woke up late on January 1st. Everything was as it was. I understood then that nothing happens on New Year’s and nothing ever would.

The great haiku artist Kobayashi Issa wrote this:

New Year’s Day– everything is in blossom! I feel about average.

I went to Burma accidentally. This was almost exactly a year before the September 2007 violence against peaceful demonstrators, many of them Buddhist monks, made the country front-page news. I was traveling by ship, circumnavigating the globe as a teacher on the academic program Semester at Sea; I hadn’t chosen the itinerary. For me and the 600 other Americans on the ship, Burma was one stop on a whirlwind tour of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

At the time I was, like most Americans, woefully ignorant of the dire state of affairs in Burma. I learned only weeks before my arrival that tourism in Burma was controversial, and that activists, including world leaders I admired, discouraged travel to Burma. The country now officially known as Myanmar was ruled by a brutal dictatorship whose only philosophy concerned the maintenance of its own power. (They’d also “reclaimed” Myanmar — the country’s… More…

In Buddhist philosophy, teachers sometimes pose this question to their students: “If the only certainty in life is death, and the time of death is uncertain, what then?” I’m a depressive with a big fantasy life, so this question makes sense to me. Death is imminent, and the future is uncertain. What then indeed, I wonder.

In February of 2001, for Tibetan New Year and as part of a class I was taking on Buddhism, I moved into a home-stay in Dharamsala, the hill station at the foot of the Indian Himalayas where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. As soon as I arrived at my home-stay, the very incarnation of life and uncertainty started climbing into bed with me in the mornings. She was four and her name was Danjing, but everyone called her “Danjing Dejun” when she was naughty, which was most of the time.

My first morning,… More…