It’s a concept central to Buddhism, and one that Maria August has come to know intimately since April 17.
That’s when August, a 41-year-old Tibetan Buddhist nun, was struck by a pickup truck while she was walking across Upper State Street in Santa Barbara.
August was walking in the crosswalk at State and Calle Palo Colorado when a truck stopped in one lane to let her pass. A pickup truck traveling the same direction in the next lane didn’t, however. The pickup driver then fled the scene, cutting through a nearby gas station parking lot and into the San Roque neighborhood.
One week later, police arrested Salvador Gomez, 70, of Santa Barbara, on suspicion of felony hit and run, failure to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, and injuring a pedestrian after failing to yield.
Detectives say Gomez first denied the crime, but then confessed to hitting August.
August, a UCSB graduate, was ordained as a nun in Nepal, has lived in India on and off, and was living in a nunnery there this past fall. She was in Santa Barbara visiting a friend when the collision occurred.
August said she can recall the moments just before the collision, but lost consciousness after impact and woke up in the emergency room.
Doctors told her that her neck was broken, her leg was broken in four places, and that a cut on her head would need to be stapled shut.
She suffered a “hangman fracture” to her neck, doctors told her, the same break that occurs when people die from hanging. It’s an injury people typically don’t survive.
She asked her doctor to tell her the truth.
“There are special Buddhist practices to do that increase your chance of being enlightened at the time of death,” she explained, adding that she wanted to get on the phone right away to make arrangements if she was.
Doctors said no, but August was in for a long and painful day of X-rays and staples to deal with her injuries.
“It was very scary and very painful, but I just kept thinking about my teachers saying ‘love and accept everything,’” she recalled.
In a quiet room at Cottage Rehab, August lay in bed with her neck in a brace, unable to move her head.
She asks visitors to sit in a chair at the foot of her bed so she can see them without shifting her head. A device gently moves her injured leg back and forth for four hours a day to keep it supple as it heals.
August admitted that she cried earlier in the day after the staples were removed from her leg.
“It’s good to let those things come up and dissolve,” she said.
Anyone who has been through such an accident knows the road to recovery is long, complete with hours alone in bed, leaving lots of time to think.
During that time, August hasn’t watched television or even read much. Healing has been a meditative process for her.
“For people who are used to a lot of activity, it must drive people crazy to suddenly be totally stuck,” she laughed.
But she’s been content to rest in the quiet.
It’s easy to dwell on how unfair the situation was, she said. But cultivating those thoughts “isn’t going to get me anywhere,” she added.
August said she’s been through a couple of other “suffering experiences” in her life, but this one feels different.
“I don’t feel inside like my spirit has been crushed,” she said. “I believe in karma, and this happened to me, so it is my karma. And the best way to purify karma is to concentrate on wholesome thoughts and actions.
“That has helped me a lot,” she said.
August has received much encouragement from Vairotsana, a Santa Barbara-based Buddhist organization, as well as from her teachers. Vairotsana’s lama came to visit August since she’s been in the rehabilitation hospital, and she said she’s grateful for the support.
Buddhism teaches that suffering is a result of clinging to the ego, August explained.
“I’m seeing it in that light, and realizing I don’t need to grip so hard,” she said.
August was scheduled to leave Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital on Friday. She’ll be staying in Santa Barbara to recover, and she’s rented a little studio to live in while she comes in for outpatient rehab three times a week.
In the meantime, she’s learning how to do simple things, like get in and out bed on her own, despite being partially immobilized. There aren’t any extra trips she doesn’t have to make.
“There is nothing superfluous in my life,” she said.
She said some of her friends have struggled with anger toward the man who hit her. But others feel more like she does.
“I feel compassionate and empathic,” she said. “Both our lives are temporarily disturbed because of this.”
August said she really can’t see beyond the next couple of months of recovery, and has learned to let go of future plans.
But Friday, a little of the suffering she’s been dealing with likely was forgotten for a moment as she rode in a car for the first time in weeks.
The last time August was in a vehicle, she was being transported via ambulance to the rehabilitation hospital, strapped to a gurney.
Driving away from rehab, she’ll be facing a new life — with plenty of recovery still ahead. But she’s alive, and continuing to let go of the suffering that might hold her back.
“It’s going to be an adventure,” she said with a smile before the car ride. “I’ll just tell them to drive slow. And no bumps.”