Thursday, August 23, 2007


A post I began last Spring, and ended today.

Anthony stood up. He's young, a sort of punk cowboy, with Clint Eastwood eyes and a slow drawl, every inch an urban Portlander, of the sort who shaves his head and travels by skateboard. An odd character to be on the Board, but there he is. He looked at Sarah, sitting in the lamas' row, and said, "I was tasked with sayin' thank you. On behalf of the community."

This is ordinarily the stage at which the white silk blessing scarves come out, and someone puts one around someone else's neck, and people bow and namaste each other. But we had no Tibetans here. Or maybe the protocols didn't fit here, for reasons I don't know: I never have learned much about these things.

Anyway, Anthony had no scarf about his person. He went on: "But since I'm bad at that sorta thing... I thought I'd fob it off on someone else. So we're gonna let the kids from the kids program do it."

"Oh," said Sarah. "Don't tell them what I said."

Someone had asked about a life devoted to the Dharma, and having kids -- Sarah being a lama who has raised two -- and Sarah had finished by saying, essentially: "if you want to devote your life to the Dharma, don't have them."

Don't tell them what I said raised a little, uncomfortable laugh. The kids came filing in, picking their way amongst the zafus; the smiling grown-ups pulled up their knees to make room and let them by. The biggest of the kids was carrying a framed picture. He or she (I couldn't tell from where I was) stammered through a few words and handed it to her.

It was a beautiful print, done by a magnificent artist in our sangha. I've admired and coveted it before. Sarah accepted it and made much of it. She's an experienced mother: she knows that you coo when a child gives you something.

That done, she said, "do you know who this is? Do you know the story that goes with this?"

They shook their heads. "This is Sukhasiddhi."

And she told them the story of Sukhasiddhi, an Indian woman who -- against orders -- gave the last rice in the house to a beggar, and was driven from the house by her hungry and impious husband and grown son.

And that -- said Sarah -- was the beginning of the wonderful part of her life. She wandered far from home, and found great teachers, and achieved enlightenment; and her body turned into that of a sixteen year old girl.

Rather desperately, Sarah plunged on, and summed up: she was a good mother, because she was not just a mother to her own children. She was a mother to everybody.

Well, you can imagine how well this played to an audience of children. I was surprised that a teacher as gifted as Sarah had told that story in this place. She must have thought the lesson worth the price.

The children looked distrustfully at the unearthly beauty of Sukhasiddhi, this woman who cared as much for a the hunger of a passing stranger as for the hunger of her own child, this mother who went away: she floated there, perfectly at ease in her lovely, ivory-colored body, looking at us all with kind, faintly mocking eyes.

And Max wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.

I wandered away from the Sangha that morning without speaking to Sarah. Her picture still stands on my shrine. I still call myself a Buddhist. But I wonder about that hard and bitter story. Does anyone really ever stop wanting to be where someone loves him best of all? There's a catch, to those lives of the great enlightened beings. They all were people who had followers, followers who loved them best of all. Do we know that they would have been perfectly content if no one had cherished them?

I don't know. It's no business of mine, anyway. It's the sort of question you dream up when you're avoiding sitting -- impossible to verify either way: doubt for doubt's sake, not doubt for the love of truth.

I am coming back to the dharma, cold and worn-out from my time away. Hoping, in spite of all I know, to wake up and find my dinner waiting, still hot.

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