Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Praying a Second-Hand Grief

All the symptoms are there; the sleeplessness, the self-conscious awkwardness, the amorphous sense of betrayal, the longing to go home and the conviction that there is no home to return to. Places in the house that I dare not go. It's too hard.

It's not my grief. I have no right to it. But it's settled in with me, even so. "Om mani padme hum," I mutter, over and over, the way we do in Chenrezig practice. Then, in many voices, it's like the murmur of bees. Now, alone in an empty house, it's a nonsense phrase in a foreign language, somebody else's nursery rhyme.

Behold! the jewel in the lotus. "Behold," who says "behold," anymore? "Lo" is even worse. Translating Beowulf, the very first word is a crux: how do you translate the one-word sentence "Hwaet!"? People say "Behold!" "Hail!" "Lo!" "Listen!" "Hark!" -- even, in desperation, the lineal etymological descendent, "What!" Seamus Heaney took the bull by the horns, dropped the exclamation point, and at least said something that someone who speaks Modern English might say: "So." Take a leaf from him. So. The jewel in the lotus. So. The jewel in the lotus. So. The jewel in the lotus.

What jewel, what lotus? Oh, I know, the translation is a red herring. It's a mantra, not a motto. Each syllable, they say, purifies one of the six realms of samsaric existence. Nevertheless, I can't help forming it into a sentence, and it becomes a more sardonic one, with each repetition. So. The jewel in the lotus. You think so, huh? So. The jewel in the lotus. You think so, huh?

Men ne cunnon
secgan to sothe
haeleth under heofonum
hwa thaem hlaeste onfeng.

Men do not know,
truth to tell --
talkers in the hall,
heroes under heaven --
who received that cargo.

Training helps. I don't fight with it. I just patiently release it. Like lifting a kitten off my lap, gently freeing its claws from my jeans. Give anything conceptual free rein, and eventually it wanders off.

You know the story, of the learned abbot who heard of a man who lived alone on an island and did nothing but recite om mani padme hum, over and over. An ignorant man, nothing to learn from him, but still it was interesting, so the abbot rowed a boat over to the island. When he found the hermit it turned out, disappointingly, that he wasn't even pronouncing the mantra correctly. The abbot taught the old hermit how it should be said -- at least he could practice it correctly for the few remaining years of his life! And he was rowing back across the lake, when a voice interrupted his thoughts.

"Please, sir," said the hermit, walking on the water alongside the boat, "how was the mantra supposed to go, again? I want to be sure to get it right."

You don't have to get it right. You just have to want to get it right.

It's okay to pray the wrong way, in the wrong measure, at the wrong time, for the wrong person. It's okay to suffer a grief that isn't my own, a grief well-tainted with jealousy. Chenrezig has a thousand arms. He's very good at sorting and arranging. Every prayer will get to its destination. Our job is just to keep on praying, and to keep on trying to get it right. "Just do the practice, and the meaning will reveal itself." Not to do it until we're sure we will do it right can only mean not to do it at all.

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