Nearly thirty years ago, Tricycle’s features editor, Andrew Cooper, wrote a fine piece of Buddhist humor that made the rounds in various Buddhist publications. It is an imagined Buddhist sutra told in the voice of a hard-boiled detective of the Sam Spade style—a sutra noir, if you will. It first appeared in the Zen Center of Los Angeles journal The Ten Directions, and a revised version was published about six years back in Inquiring Mind, and more recently in the anthology The Best of Inquiring Mind. We figured the time had come to post it here for members of the Tricycle community.
The Big Awakening
According to tradition, after the Buddha’s death, his disciples gathered for the purpose of, among other things, hearing Ananda’s recounting of the Enlightened One’s life and teaching. These accounts, or sutras, were transmitted orally for close to 150 years, at which time they were written down. Almost all we know about Shakyamuni Buddha is drawn from these accounts, and Ananda, being the Tathagata’s attendant, disciple, cousin, and friend, is always the narrator.
There are, of course, many questions among scholars, and debates among Buddhists, about the historical accuracy of much of this body of scripture. But even if one accepts the legend at face value, an intriguing question remains: If all the sutras are told by Ananda, might not our picture of the Buddha’s life and times and teachings be very different had somebody else done the telling?
Right about now you are probably wondering to yourself: What would the sutras be like if, instead of Ananda, they were recounted by someone like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe—the kind of hard-boiled private eye portrayed in the stories of writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and brought to life by Humphrey Bogart in great films like “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep”?
The following article was written in answer to that very question.
Paranasi. A dirty little burg on the Indian plains. Sometimes it rains so hard you’d think it was time to put a rudder on your house. Sometimes a hot, dry wind comes barreling across the parched grasslands, curling the hair on your neck and making your skin crawl. It was a day like that, when even Vedic chanting parties end up in fights, and the most devout Brahmans eye their cattle and lick their lips.
Sara’s the name, Sam Sara. I’d been traveling with my boss, the Great Shamus Shakyamuni Buddha, for twenty years, and I’d seen a lot of tough towns before. I’m not one to complain: preaching the Dharma’s what I do and it’s what I like. But on days like this, in towns like this, it’s best just to make your pitch quick and pretty, grab some Z’s, and get out real quiet-like the next morning.
When we arrived in the Paranasi environs, it was just getting dark. We decided to hole up overnight in a little mango grove on the outskirts and rest our bones. Even this far out of town, we could hear the racket. I didn’t wonder what all the commotion was about. I didn’t want to know.
We got up early the next morning, went into town and grabbed some alms, chased it down with some sour rice milk we copped at an all-night tea joint, and were back at the grove before most townsfolk had finished sleeping off the last night’s festivities. She was waiting for us when we got there.
She wasn’t too beautiful; she just made any other dame I’ve ever seen look like a monkey with its nose cut off. Her deep brown eyes were moist, her full lips quivered, and she held her long slender body erect despite the fact that she was shaking. The Boss indicated that she take a seat and then took one himself.
“Now what can I do for you Miss . . . uh . . .”
“Vasanti, Shanti Vasanti,” she murmured.
“Suppose we start at the beginning, Miss Vasanti.” He spoke politely, without emotion.
“Well, it’s . . . I hoped . . . Can you . . .?” She bit her lower lip; her dark eyes looked up at the Boss pleadingly. A smile crossed his face, playful but serene.
“It’s my brother Chandra. Two years ago he left home saying he was going to join your order. My parents had hoped he would take over the family business, but we’re a good Buddhist family—we really are—and we were all so very proud of him.” Her eyes lowered, gazing down at the floor: “We haven’t heard from him since he left.” She paused, her lips trembling, her fingers playing nervously with the mala beads in her lap.
She went on: “Then, maybe two weeks ago, a friend of Daddy’s said that Chandra had not joined the Sangha after all. He said Chandra was keeping company with a most unsavory bunch of hooligans, who preach strange doctrines and slander your teaching in public and whose guru says your meditation methods are foolish and . . . and . . .” Her body heaved as she put her head in her hands and sobbed.
The Boss spoke to her soft and even and real mellifluous-like. Pretty soon she had regained her composure and seemed in pretty good spirits, all things considered. The Boss sat still in deep samadhi for a few minutes. Then, looking over at Shanti Vasanti, he said, “Not to worry, Miss Vasanti. We’ll take your case. We’ll get on it right away.”
We didn’t have much to go on, and by now the kid could be anywhere in the sub-continent. We decided to go into Paranasi and see if we could dig up any leads. As we were passing the doorway of some seedy little temple, we heard a noise from the shadows.
“Psssst!” A figure appeared in the darkness and motioned us inside. It was Yogi Bhuktananda, or Yogi Bugs as he was known in the rackets, a small-time fixer, alibi provider, and epidemic chaser who’d been running his grift out of backwater temples for years. “Hey Tathagata, I got some news for ya if the price is right.”
If there was a caper rigged in this burg, you could bet that Yogi Bugs knew all about it. The Boss said, “All right, Bugs, spill.”
“You can say ‘spill’ all you want, but if I don’t see some dough . . .”
The Boss gazed evenly, straight at the ferret-faced little yogi, and spoke gently, almost in a whisper: “Bugs, two years ago in Sarnath, the bulls put the crush on that alms kickback racket of yours. Two of my boys were framed for the scam and took the rap. The word is that you set ‘em up, put the finger on ‘em, and took it on the lam. I’d say you owe me one, my friend.”
Yogi Bugs, his eyes darting back and forth, shifted his weight uneasily. Then the Boss stepped right up to the yogi and whispered low and hard as a diamond, “I don’t have time for the runaround, Bugs.” As though contemplating his next move, the Boss paused, but you could feel the power of his merit accumulating into a force that could’ve brought the Ganges to a standstill. Then he shrugged and with a sly, lazy grin said, “Besides, you know I don’t handle money.”
“Okay, Tathagata, okay!” said Yogi Bugs, his scheming mind stopped cold for the moment. The Boss stepped back. The little yogi ran his bony fingers through his greasy, matted hair, then he said, “The word is that some of your organization’s been seen keeping company with a big shot guru who blew in from the coast. Calls himself the Kishmeer N’Tuchos.”
“Yeah, so what’s the big deal?” said the Boss. “They’re grown up; if they want to study another teaching, that’s their business.”
“That ain’t the half of it, O World Honored One.” A smile played on the yogi’s thin lips. He was trying to get a rise out of the Boss, and he thought he had him. “This Kishmeer, he goes in real big for trances, miraculous powers, ecstatic states—the works. Nothin’ new, but they say he’s good, real good. He works with a dolly goes by the moniker Loka Deva. I hear she’s no bimbo; a real high-class knockout, this one is.”
Yogi Bugs waited for the Boss to respond. He got nothing. So he continued: “Anyway, the word on the street is Kishmeer is sore at the way you’ve been bad-mouthin’ trance states and miracles. Says your shtick that there ain’t no fixed abiding self is the lamest song and dance he’s ever heard and that you wouldn’t know Reality if it came up and spit in your eye. They say he’s looking to set you up to take a big fall, then move in on your turf. That’s the straight dope, Tathagata.”
Yogi Bugs’s eyes gleamed with ridicule as they searched the Boss’s face expectantly. “So what’s the Great Shamus gonna do now?”
The Boss shrugged his shoulders casually, almost carelessly, as though someone had just asked him for the time. “Beats me, Bugsy,” he said. “Sure beats me.”
The gleam drained out of the yogi’s eyes.
Turns out the Kishmeer N’Tuchos had set up shop right off of Paranasi’s main drag and wasn’t hard to find. There was a crowd gathered in front listening excitedly to some guy on an overturned chapati crate telling them about the miraculous powers of the Great Kishmeer. People sure go goofy for a good miracle.
The Boss tapped me on the arm and nodded toward a dimly lit alleyway. “Be mindful and attentive,” he said. “Someone might be expecting us.”
We soft-footed it down and around to the back door. I took a piece of dried bamboo I keep for special occasions out of a fold in my robe. I inserted it between the lock and the jamb and, with a slight click, the lock gave. Slowly, I pushed the door open.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t Sam Sara and . . . What did you say your name is, sir?” The speaker faced us from about ten yards away. He sat cross-legged on red, plush velvet pillows piled atop a raised platform. He was fat, real fat, with a puffy pink face and so many chins you’d need both hands to count them all. His small eyes gleamed, flat, cold, and grey. Sitting next to him was none other than Shanti Vasanti. “I trust you’ve met my friend Miss Deva,” he chuckled. His fat shook.
“I heard you wanted to have chat, Kishmeer.” The Boss’s voice was slightly mocking; so was his smile.
“By all means yes, Tathagata, by all means yes.”
Just then, two thugs came up behind us, each one taking one of us by the arms. The Kishmeer raised himself from his seat and lumbered forward, stopping a couple of feet in front of the Boss. I glanced over. I saw that the Boss had, on the sly, entered the samadhi which examines the dharmas, which in our thing is called Profound Illumination. I’d seen it before, up on Vulture Peak, together with a great gathering of monks, arhats, bodhisattvas, asuras, gandharvas, and all the usual suffering suspects in this mean old saha world. I knew when the Boss got this way, he was about to cut through delusion like a hot sword through clarified butter.
The Kishmeer let out a laugh, but there was nothing funny about it. “So you don’t think much of miracles?” he said, and as he spoke, he hauled off with his right fist. But it was too late. The Kishmeer’s roundhouse caught nothing but air, which was exactly the same as what the goon behind the Boss was left holding. The Boss hadn’t move an inch, but it was like no one was there. And No One was.
As for me, I stomped my heel into the foot of the thug holding me, and then drove my elbow into his gut. I knew I was going to catch a sermon from the Boss for the rock ‘em sock ‘em stuff. But like he always says, sometimes you just have to be a lamp unto yourself.
Then the Boss went into action. “Listen, Kishmeer, the only miracle that amounts to a hill of beans in this world is the miracle of a mind free of greed, hatred, and ignorance.” When he gets it going like this, I can watch him for a kalpa.
The fat man’s face flushed with anger. He charged at the Boss, shouting, “So you don’t like bliss, huh? Well, then try this on for size.” The Boss did nothing, or should I say Nothing, and the Kishmeer just careened past, landing with a gentle thump on his own stack of cushions.
“You want happiness, Kishmeer? Then cease clinging to conditioned mind states, ‘cause that’s a happiness unlike any other.”
The fat man stumbled as he turned; his eyes were glassy. He didn’t have much left. The Boss stood poised for the Kishmeer’s final charge. With his jaw clenched shut, the Boss spoke in a low guttural voice, quickly yet deliberately. “Cling to the pleasant and fear the unpleasant, you’re just going to suffer. The Great Way’s a snap; just lay off the picking and choosing.”
The Kishmeer N’Tuchos swayed for a few seconds and then, with a thud that shook the room, collapsed on the floor, out cold. Loka Deva rushed toward the Boss. She threw her arms around him, her eyes moist and imploring. “Oh, darling, darling! It’s over! At last the nightmare is over!” To me, she looked more beautiful than ever. But I’m a sucker for wounded birds.
The Boss was having none of it. He stared down at her; his eyes glowed as hard as a wish-fulfilling gem. “It’s not over yet, not by a long shot.” She stepped back from him, a look of confusion on her face. He continued. “You’re good; you’re real good. But it won’t work, not this time. You set me up for this with that story about your brother. Figured to play me and the fat man off each other. If he won, you’d be sitting pretty by his side. And if I got the best of it, you thought you could play the wounded bird and I’d let you off easy with a light rap on the knuckles and a feel-good sermon.” I winced when he called her on the wounded bird act. It felt like that one was aimed right at me.
The Boss’s face shone fiercely. Holding Loka Deva firmly by the shoulders, he said, “I won’t play the sap for you! I won’t give you some watered-down teaching, some sugar-coated Dharma just to make you feel all warm and cozy. I won’t do it ‘cause every part of me wants to, wants to pat you on the head and dry your tears and tell you everything is just rosy, and because you’ve counted on that all along!”
“But,” she whispered, “can’t we be happy and deluded?”
“You want delusion, then you’re going to pay for it. We’re standing under the gallows, all of us, all the time.” He paused and his lips stretched back, showing his teeth. “Listen,” he continued, “if you haven’t understood a word I’ve said, then forget it all and get this. All beings are intrinsically enlightened, but in their ignorance they think they exist as a separate ego-self. So they try to protect the self, gratify it, make it feel good, build it up nice and pretty and parade it down Main Street. But it’s a sham!”
The Boss ground his teeth; his eyes blazed. Suddenly he shouted, “Clinging nowhere, raise the Mind!”
Loka Deva stepped back, dazed. Then a smile came to her face. She got the picture, the Big Picture. “Oh, Tathagata! I see now that there is no abiding self. I see that we are all intrinsically enlightened. But still there is something I don’t understand. What is it that we delude ourselves with? What is it that causes us such grief and suffering?”
The Boss smiled and shook his head. “It’s just the stuff that dreams are made on, sweetheart. Just the stuff that dreams are made on.”
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