Last Friday, pressed for time, I took the evening Cape Air flight to Boston, having enjoyed a few days alone after settling my daughters at their colleges on opposite coasts. Summer was over and I was of course sad to be leaving the Vineyard and already missing the people I didn’t have time to see and things I didn’t have time to do, feeling a bit beleaguered by all the “letting go” thrust upon me in one week. The airport was so still and quiet I thought I had the time wrong, but the attendant said there were only two passengers. I glanced around and saw, praying on his knees at the front window, a young Tibetan monk in a saffron robe. I laughed to myself because the friend who had just dropped me off had admonished me to be “more Buddhist” in the art of letting go, and here I was alone with the real thing. As my friends in California say, the universe is not always subtle.
Across the tarmac I followed the petite lama. He was carrying a backpack a third the size of my purse and snapping photos of himself on his iPhone, beaming with childlike joy. I offered to take his picture in front of the wing, which inspired the pilot to climb down to be in a photo, whereupon the whole smiley Vineyard flight crew posed with him in another until I couldn’t resist being in one, too. His joy was infectious.
Geshe had been invited to the Vineyard by two of his students from the Kurukulla Center in Medford. He was happy because he had put his feet in the ocean for the first time in his life. He sat in the co-pilot’s seat and I right behind him. I tried to point out places, but it was too hard to shout over the Cessna engine, so we just enjoyed the spectacular view and golden twilight and felt glad.
Abruptly, a few miles south of Boston, we flew into sudden darkness just as a lightning bolt exploded in my window. Maybe I imagined it, but I felt an electric shock radiate up my arms. We had already begun our descent but the pilot, following orders from air traffic control, quickly circled the plane to try to circumvent the lightning.
I’ve flown hundreds of thousands of miles and have never been afraid on any size plane apart from once, a long time ago, when a Malaysian Airlines engine blew out over Borneo. I assumed the lama must have survived terrible ordeals to have escaped from Tibet and that, like me, he wasn’t planning to die over Boston Harbor. So maybe it was because he had been a guest on my Island home that I felt compelled to reach forward and put my hand on his shoulder — when, in fact, I was the one who needed reassurance.
“What happens if we get struck?” I asked.
“We die,” he said calmly.
He took my hand and placed it on his cheek and I relaxed, because there was no way anything bad was going to happen to us with a Buddhist monk like this one on board.
We had to get on the ground, fast, so the pilot gave up circling and angled the plane sharply toward the closest runway. It wasn’t exactly a nose dive, but in about 10 seconds, blinding rain pelting the front window amid booms of thunder and zigzags of electricity, he somehow managed a skillful, soft landing.
The pilot now became a race-car driver as we scurried to Cape Air’s terminal, veering around corners and dodging gigantic jumbo jets. A soaking wet teenager in foul-weather gear guided us into our parking space, lightning flashing like a barrage of bullets off the pavement, then jumped inside our little plane out of the rain . . . and began texting his friends.
The pilot, the lama and I huddled together for the next half hour waiting for the storm to pass. Geshe told us about his escape from Tibet across the Himalayas with two other monks. He was 19. It took them a month, hiking at night and hiding during the day on snowfields to avoid the Chinese border guards, who would have shot them. Finally they reached India, and I don’t know how they got to Massachusetts. He looked so sad as he recounted this; he really missed his family.
The pilot asked what the secret to Buddhist peace was, and Geshe pointed to his head.
“All your problems come from your mind. Just take the ‘I’ out.”
“But my problems come from the bills I have to pay,” the pilot said.
Geshe grinned. “Who buy everything?”
The thunder finally stopped but it was still pouring when we were allowed to leave the plane. I wish someone could have taken our photo then as the lama and I sprinted, holding hands and laughing our heads off, splashing through puddles into the terminal.
I asked him if he had been afraid.
“No. It is not my karma to die today.”
“I am so grateful you were on the plane,” I said.
Later, when I recounted the story to my son, he thought it sounded terrifying.
No it wasn’t, I told him. It was amazing.
Holly Hodder Eger is a writer who lives in Portola Valley, Calif., and West Tisbury.