The first time I came to the Tibetan center the teachings were just beginning and I found a place on the floor in the back of the shrine room. Had I arrived five minutes earlier, I might have had time to inspect a gaudy altar, or to inspect the dead-eyed devotees and spiritual show-offs, and I would have had my first opportunity to recoil from an officious caucus of administrators whose every fawning gesture exuded an extravagance of modesty. Only the master himself could have held me. And, thankfully, he did.
It was the complete absence of anything special that made him the most unusual person I had ever encountered. He displayed no tics of personality, no exaggerated gestures or theatrical inflections, no signs of seduction or aversion. Nothing stuck out. Disconcertingly, he provided not even a nuance to imitate, to mimic, or even to remember. Thus my life in the dharma began.
I turned out to be a lazy student, content to grow like a weed, absorbing whatever rains of dharma blew in my direction. I wasn’t all afire, burning for truth, reckless with yearning. Others were. Maybe two. I envied them.
I envied many people their place among the membership of the center. I was not alone in feeling left out, but I was too preoccupied with myself to see that then. What I did see were young women whose spunky bodies monopolized the prurient interests of the monks in the master’s retinue. I saw men using dharma information like poker chips, deliberately confusing information for insight so they could stay ahead in their game—their game of seducing girls, of elbowing each other for proximity to the teacher, of feeling superior by making someone else feel dumb.
I also saw the chinduks, as they are called in Tibetan—the funders, or patrons—people who gave substantial gifts of money. They were fussed over with a shameless lack of tact, as if no amount of scraping and bowing could do sufficient homage to the good karma their money reflected.
Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher were a couple like that. They arrived at the center each Sunday morning when Rinpoche was in residence with shopping bags full of gourmet specialties: pounds of fois gras and cheeses, smoked Cornish hens, briskets of beef, pineapples, cherries, mangoes, exotic juices, tubs of ice cream, petits fours, bagels, Godiva chocolates, and, at first, paper-thin stacks of smoked salmon. When they learned that Tibetans have no fondness for fish, the salmon disappeared, much to the disappointment of the Western attendants.
Given their excessive expenditures at the fanciest charcuteries on Madison Avenue, I can only assume that delicacies were not the Fletchers’ only contribution to the welfare of the center. At least once during each of Rinpoche’s extended stays, Mrs. Fletcher pulled up to the Chelsea loft building that housed the center in a Mercedes the color of metalized green tea, to whisk Rinpoche off to her compound in upstate New York. He never seemed eager to go, rather more like a child getting pushed off to an indulgent grandmother, resigned to be loved to death. I do not think he agreed to these visits in exchange for a few bags of groceries. Nevertheless, the Fletchers were treated special, and I wasn’t. That’s what it boiled down to.
All the chinduks were given front-row seats at the teachings. Afterward, when everyone was milling about, they were brought tea with little plates of cookies instead of helping themselves. I was not asked to help in this capacity. “Serving” had been disjointed from its association with inferiority and elevated to a privilege. Rising in the hierarchy of female servers could be further rewarded by invitations to play consort—or the other way around, I wasn’t quite sure. Only that bedding a lama and serving in public signified, by some unspoken magic of tongues, a woman of wisdom—at least in the rough.
Yet a remark made by a Frenchman, Gerald, hooked me on the fantasy of being a chinduk. A large man, with a comically large nose and a magnificently large heart, Gerald had spent several years in India as a Catholic priest teaching at a parochial school in Cochin. Then he left the priesthood to marry Janie, an American economist who worked as an advisor to third-world policymakers. After that, he had nothing good to say about the papacy, celibacy, or the history of the Roman Church. Rinpoche liked him and often engaged him in discourse about the teachings of Jesus. Gerald and Janie always sat in the front and sometimes took Rinpoche out for Chinese food, though I never got the feeling that they were wealthy.
One winter evening during a raging blizzard, only those who lived within walking distance of the center showed up, including Gerald and Janie and me. There were less than a dozen people all together, and so, rather than proceed to the shrine room, Rinpoche invited us into his sitting room where we all sat on the floor in a circle. At one point in the discussion he asked Gerald, “What are you most afraid of?” and Gerald replied, “I am afraid that I will die before I am born.”
At the end of the evening, as we pulled on sweaters and boots at the door, Janie asked her husband, “Is that really what you’re most afraid of?” Gerald said no. Then in great agitation, he said, “What I’m really afraid of is the moment of death, and the moment after—that I’ll take my soul or my consciousness or whatever it is that is not born and does not die to the grave with me like a skimpy dime store icon and nothing—rien! (he repeated passionately in French)—will be released. That’s why I’m with the Tibetans. The Tibetans know about death and they can help at that moment the way no one else knows how.”
The idea took hold of me with a ferocious tenacity. I imagined myself on my deathbed, with Rinpoche popping my consciousness out of my body so that I could be reborn in the Pure Land. Advanced practitioners can do this on their own; it’s called po’wa practice. But it is said that high lamas and yogis can do it for those who cannot do it for themselves—when the circumstances are right.
I did not have faith in my capacity to become enlightened. This shamed me, and I did not discuss it with the teacher. Why should I? He surely knew. Wasn’t this lack of confidence written all over my face? I was not sexually desirable to the lamas; I did not have money. But among sex, money, and enlightenment, money was the only thing that seemed even vaguely capable of creating circumstances favorable for my dying. Who knows, I reasoned, maybe I would remarry a rich man, win the lottery, write a best-seller. Any one of those things seemed infinitely more possible than engaging wholeheartedly in the discipline of taming my wild, selfish mind, or accumulating merit through acts of kindness, or patience, or humility.
I would be an exemplary chinduk. I would not force Rinpoche to my summer home, nor would I dangle him around like a charm on a bracelet, like that society lady Camilla Porter did. She treated the master as her personal plaything, introducing him to her fancy friends in the same cooing voice used for babying Lhasa, her miniature greyhound. The worst of it was that her consistent use of those exclamations indigenous to the clench-jawed rich rendered her conversation just about incomprehensible to the master. When offered a piece of Sacher torte, Camilla Porter announced, “This looks positively wicked.” Nor did he understand when she said that she was “frightfully happy,” that she was “out of sorts,” or that she found Rinpoche’s nephew to be a “fabulously timid creature.”
I would perfect the art of giving. I would do it discreetly, request anonymity and refuse a place in the front row. And somehow, God knows how, I would lose my pride in the process. At the end, it would not be for my generosity that Rinpoche felt obliged to facilitate my journey from this life to the next, but rather for my enlightened humility. Dream on.
One night, after I’d been studying Buddhism for about eight years, I suddenly dreamt of a rich old uncle who had died when I was nine years old and whom I had hardly thought of since. He was considerably older than his wife, my mother’s oldest sister, but as it was a second marriage for both, the incompatibility of their ages was quickly dismissed among the family gossips in favor of the financial benefits to my aunt. They lived in a cavernous apartment on Park Avenue with little to recommend it besides its rather melancholy grandeur, but after the wedding, all the big family holidays such as Christmas and Easter were celebrated at Uncle Mort’s, replete with a crew of dour Irish maids in shiny black uniforms with starched white collars and aprons tied at their waists.
For three or four years before his death, Uncle Mort was confined to a wheelchair. He was the only person I knew in a wheelchair, the only person I knew who had servants, the only person I knew who lived on Park Avenue. When, as a little girl, I put it all together, I theorized that the richer you were, the less you had to do, and I concluded that if Uncle Mort had been really rich, he would not get out of bed at all, and would have someone wipe his ass for him.
A few days after this dream, I was scheduled to take Rinpoche uptown for his annual checkup with Camilla Porter’s internist. As we walked toward Park Avenue from the Lexington subway stop at 77th Street, I suddenly remembered the dream. In it, I was an adult, yelling at Uncle Mort, who was confined to his chair. Engorged with wrath, I screamed, “You goddamn son of a bitch, get up and do something! You think your money can buy your life?”
In the reception room, Rinpoche immediately fell asleep, which was his habit in such circumstances. I leafed through magazines and puzzled over my dream until the nurse called for “Mr. Rinpoche.” It was a routine checkup and afterwards we walked over to Madison Avenue, where we stopped at a coffee shop. By that time, I was filled with resolve.
Sitting opposite me in a booth with a slab of slippery Formica between us, he ordered his usual: a plate of french fries with gravy.
I started with the dream. He said nothing. I waited for questions about Uncle Mort, his illness, my aunt. He continued to eat, chewing slowly. Finally he asked, “What time was that dream?” I told him that it had occurred the previous weekend, during an afternoon nap. “Afternoon?” he repeated. I nodded. He waved his hand in a gesture of insignificance.
I would not be deterred. I started to cry.
“Are you crying about your uncle?” he asked, smiling cheerfully.
“No. I am crying because I am such a stupid student.”
“Stupid student?” he said, his mouth full of fries. “Maybe. But that’s no reason to cry.”
“My Uncle Mort tried to buy his life with money. And you know what I want more than anything? I want money to buy my death. I want to be rich, I want as much money to throw around the dharma as Camilla Porter, so that when I die, entire monasteries will see fit to pray for me.”
There. I had said it. More shameful a secret than having no faith in my own enlightenment. No, same shame. Same thing. Buy enlightenment. Cover up the inside with purchases, packages, ribbons and bows. But at least I had said it. Even if I kept my head down and couldn’t look at him.
Then he asked, “You think buying life, buying death, one thing or two different things?”
“Rinpoche,” I answered sharply, “this isn’t about my understanding of life and death. This is about money.”
With that, he started to giggle. His whole body seemed to shake with delight.
I was humiliated. I had told him my darkest secret and he couldn’t care less. I called for the check.
We sat on the subway in silence. Only when I assumed that he had fallen asleep did I dare to look in his direction. But he wasn’t asleep. Instead, he was looking at me with infinite tenderness, and he was still softly laughing.
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