On this day that was to change my life, I looked out over the sea of students, monks in front ranging from very young to those whose age exceeded my own. Behind that were rows and rows of men from the surrounding villages, a group whose size grew from year to year. More lay people longing to hear the words of the Blessed One. Behind that were the women with children, their avid faces as uplifting to me as those of my dearest brother monks. So many people. So much hunger.
They call me “Grim Face”. I remember the first day I heard the name. I like to come upon my students silently, not, as they believe, to catch them doing something wrong, but to hear the ways in which the teachings are being discussed, questioned, absorbed. They speak differently to one another, and the longer I can stand quietly nearby, the more I learn. That is how I discovered what they call me. To my face, of course, it’s “O Compassionate One” or “Venerable Guru”. But when they thought I couldn’t hear them, it was, “Grim Face”. The name was followed by a gale of laughter, and I felt the old familiar rise of wounded pride.
It didn’t get very far. this sense of being wounded, I was too far along in my practice not to catch it quickly, reduce it’s effect. Yet it surprised me anyway. Here it was, raising its ugly face, and so I went and looked at my reflection in a pool, looking long and deep, startled at what so clearly did not reflect my heart. My mouth turned down, my cheeks heavily lined, were sagging, and between my brows, three creases, indisputable evidence of frequent frowns. I frowned then, exaggerating all my facial features.
I told my students, my face looked grim because I could not bear the sorrows of living beings. But in truth, it is the way my features settle naturally.
I knew I had my students’ respect, but perhaps my face made it more difficult to gain their affection. I thought gaining their affection didn’t matter to me.
On this day, the one that was to change everything, I looked at their uplifted faces, everyone was watching me, no one was in danger of the backhands from the senior monks to wake up, they were all listening closely their eyes upon me. Then I noticed a woman forcing her way through the crowds of men, carrying a howling baby. When she reached the monks, they parted reluctantly, a low hum of conversation starting, although no one tried to stop her. She was young and exhausted and very determined.
Clearly and very loud she said, “Here, take your child!” and thrust the baby into my arms, sickly, coughing, so hot with fever I could feel it through all my robes. The low hum became gasps, denial from voices raised in anger. The mother whispered in my ear, “Please! Only you can heal her. She’ll die if you won’t take her. I’ll die too.” And her eyes, this mother, kind mother, were desperate in her suffering for her child, her mind unbalanced with grief and fear. In this moment, I knew I could expose the lie, protect myself, or take in silence what had been entrusted to me, the hot child, along with the confusion and derision of all those many disciples waiting for me to continue my teaching. The irony that the subject of my discourse was compassion was not lost to me. Was my reputation worth two precious human lives? Was anyone’s? I kept the child, and continued my discourse. My disciples split into the categories of those who transformed their disappointment in my supposed misdeeds into greater realizations, and those who could not. Not at first. And all the while, as I transmitted the words of Buddha into their willing or unwilling minds, the hot child slept fitfully in my arms.
When the teaching was done, alone in my chambers with the child, my schedule was completely altered in tending to her needs. I changed her damp clothes, placed a cool cloth on her chest, lay her before my shrine and made prostrations and dedications on her behalf. Carrying her out into the temple, I presented her has “our newest disciple, Lotus.”
For several days she suffered; fever, no appetite, poor sleep – how her small cries pierced my heart! But my prostrations and dedications on her behalf continued daily until, on the eighth day, her fever broke, her appetite became so large, we had to purchase another yak with calf.
And so our Lotus Blossom grew. And as I watched, the doubting disciples were won over, not to me, but to the innocent girl. She was lovely, although I’m told all fathers think this of their own child. But she was lovely, with great dark eyes that took in the entire world.
My practice of holding her during my teachings continued until she began to walk, and could no longer stay peacefully in my arms for hours on end. It was with no small regret that I gave her over into the care of a woman from the village during those times, my arms cold and weightless. She would return to my rooms when I began my own prostrations, attempting to follow me, endlessly falling in a fit of giggles, forcing me to smile, fighting laughter until my rituals were complete.
The morning of our last day together was too beautiful for words, the sky clear as a faultless mind, the mountains white, their outlines so sharp it seemed you could reach out a hand and touch them. Blossom poked her head out from under her blanket, struggling not to laugh as she tucked her face away, then poked it out again, repeating over and over until I granted her the smile she craved. Then she crawled onto my lap and hugged my neck, before standing, prostrating before the shrine, and settling onto her own cushion beside mine, her tiny hands in meditative equipoise. She was taken to breakfast while I completed my morning prayers, and afterwards, came back to me for a morning walk around the monastery.
She asked me, “Why is sky blue?”
There were days when her questions never stopped, when all my answers elicited new and different lines of inquiry. She wanted to know everything, all at once. I wished this wild curiosity for my students.
“The sky is not really blue. The blue is there to remind us of the nature of our minds. The mind is like the sky, clear, featureless, until we apprehend an object. In this case, our eye sense apprehends the sky and we say blue. But if you had wings, you could not fly to the place where there is blue. You’d fly and fly and fly, but you could never reach blue.”
After studying me with great and careful eyes, she opened her arms wide and began to flap. “I gonna fly ’n fly ’n fly…” and she ran around the garden flapping and making little leaps. It would not have startled me to see her lift off and begin to fly among the colored flags flapping their prayers into the wind.
And then it happened. I’d almost forgotten the inevitability of this moment, the certainty that one day this woman would appear. And here she was.
Blossom stopped and became still as a stone, only the rise and fall of her small shoulders indicated her panting breath. Her mother gazed upon her with a fist in her mouth, eyes streaming with tears. Wise not to run to her, embrace her, scoop her up in her arms and take her from me. Wise not to do that yet. She tore her eyes away from Blossom, I could see how hard that was for her, to look over her head into my face, a single simple question in her eyes.
I nodded, and she gasped and moved forward. Blossom broke her stillness, turned and ran behind me, holding my robes.
The woman moved more slowly towards me, then crumpled to the ground in prostration, forehead on her hands.
“Bless you. Oh sir! Bless you!”
I turned around and took Blossom’s hand, pulling her from behind me so she was in full view. “This is your mother, Blossom. She’s come to bring you home.”
I can still see her tear-stained face, hear her crying “Appa! Appa!” as if her heart would break. And in my own chest, a cord connecting us, growing taut, pulling at me, begging me to answer her, to go to her, take her from her mother and keep her with me. This thought was in my mind. To cry out Stop! Wait! run to them, take her from her mother’s arms, feel again the surprising strength of those tiny arms around my neck, the warm cheek pressed to mine. I thought this, even as I visualized my spiritual guide at my heart, crying out my own Appa inwardly and feeling his kindness, wisdom, as if great strong hands were pressing down on my shoulders, holding me in the garden not to run after them.
Clairvoyance is not one of my gifts. I never wanted it, not even now, as my mind follows Blossom into her new life. I don’t need superior sight to understand the difficult path before her. She and her mother are strangers now, despite her mother’s love. Blossom will sit crossed legs, crossed arms, cross face, tight and unwielding. Her mother will plead with her to eat, to play, but she will remain stubborn, calling for her ‘appa’ until she is distracted by something beautiful, something unusual. “Whass dis?” she will say, pointing at a lizard puffing out it’s throat, and her mother will explain, “He eats the mosquitos, so we will not suffer. He is our friend.” One day the mother will introduce her to a man, “he is coming to live with us. He will be your father,” and in time, Blossom will call him ‘appa’ and her days with me will blur and dim. She will grow and marry and have children of her own who ask ‘why is the sky blue?’ and maybe she will remember and smile and answer as I answered her so long ago. And she will become sick again, new sicknesses, worse sicknesses, and she will grow old and weak, and one day a sickness will take her and she will die.
I know these things, as clearly as I know my mantras. Why would I want clairvoyance?
So now I weep, and my students no longer call me “Grim Face.” Instead, as I gaze over the sea of faces, the youngest not much older than Blossom when she left us, I hear a whispered word among them and I realize it is me they are referring to. Their new name for me is Appa.