Two Hands Full of Dust

I am at the Garden of a Thousand Buddhas, just north of Missoula, Montana, where I have come to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday. My mom, my sister, and I have taken a day trip to see this sacred place, carved out in the middle of nowhere. When I first heard of this Buddha garden, I envisioned lush green grounds, with a thousand different Buddha statues spread throughout a labyrinthine Eden.

Like much of the rest of my life, the place I now find myself in no way resembles my preconceived notions of where I thought I would be. This “garden” is flat and arid, stark and dry, surrounded by mountains, with very little greenery. It is much more open and unobstructed than I had envisioned, somehow simultaneously desolate and beautiful.

The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas is designed in the shape of an 8-spoked Dharma Wheel, and the one thousand Buddha statues are placed along the spokes of this wheel. According to the written summary we received at the gate, “each of these handmade concrete statues contains prayers, mandalas and blessed substances.”

After the unexpected delightful circumstance of meeting the current Buddhist abbott at the entrance, my mother, sister and I decide to go our separate ways, exploring in our own manner, at our own pace.

I take some time to sit on a bench and just take in the scenery, do a little writing, breathe out some of the tension I’ve brought along on my trip west. This fall has seen me take on a new endeavor–teaching Spanish to middle-schoolers–an unexpected bend in the road that is my life’s journey. I’m sure there are lessons I’m learning, am supposed to learn, at this stage of the game. But do they have to be so difficult, so taxing, so painful? I feel like I’ve been doing nothing but whine for the last two months. Even I am tired of hearing my constant litany of complaints.

And I think about family. Families can be so complicated sometimes, I think.  Or maybe we make them more complicated than they need to be. Maybe families are just everybody doing the best that they can on any given day, and sometimes getting it right, and sometimes missing the mark. Sometimes it’s about learning to find your voice and saying “no’. Sometimes it’s about learning to say “yes”. Sometimes it’s about “I’m sorry”, and hopefully it can be about “I love you.”

And if you weren’t born into that kind of a family, sometimes it’s about saying “I’m sorry you can’t see my beauty, and I deserve to find people who do”, then finding a place where people love and value and respect who you are, and claim you as their own. That can be family too.

After breathing out my teaching stress, and my family stress, and my rushing from the classroom to the airport and making it through the security line stress, I finally relax into my bench, and become aware that there is a prayer wheel some twenty yards to my right, making a rhythmic ringing noise as it spins. It is a large brownish metal cylinder, which rotates continually, covered by a triangular “hat” and a larger protective canopy. The prayer wheel has symbols carved into its surface, symbols whose meaning I don’t know, but can only guess. And I am finally restored enough to explore.

I meander back and forth through rows of seemingly identical white Buddha figurines, and discover that some of them are marked at the base with small nameplates. These list an individual’s Tibetan name, followed by an English name, such as “Protected by Dragons”, “Pinnacle of Wisdom”, or “Best Intellect”, and seem to describe the breakthrough moment when these individuals (are they perhaps the equivalent of Catholic saints?) “first generated the mind of enlightenment”. Now I am intrigued. What great deeds or prayers, I wonder, might take one from the realm of the daily, the ordinary, to the “mind of enlightenment”?

I read the inscriptions on the plaques, several of which mention people doing grand deeds, but more often than not, point to very kind and simple deeds and offerings. One, I read was “a hunter who offered to point out the way on the road.” Another, “the daughter of a prostitute, when offering a mirror”. A third was inscribed as “a seller of dried cow dung fuel who offered it so that the Tathagata known as Praised by the Wise could wash his begging bowl.”

The one that finally stops me short, strikes me to the core, and brings me to tears,  reads: “he was a young boy who offered a double handful of dust.”

For weeks I have felt desperate because my knowledge and meager attempts at teaching have seemed so woefully inadequate.  I am constantly overwrought, insecure. Never mind that everyone tells me that this is normal for first-year teachers. It doesn’t feel normal to me. Those murky demons named “never good enough” and “not ok to make mistakes” have reared their ugly heads and are battling mightily for possession of my soul. Many days they win.

And yet, I read, one boy first generated the mind of enlightenment by humbly offering a “double handful of dust”. Even I, woefully inadequate as I often feel, can offer that much, I am most certain. And some days, that’s the very best I have to offer.

Could it be that I am not called to do an exceptional job, to be successful, even to feel like I know what I’m doing? Every day I go to school, I am in relationship with friends and family, I cross paths with strangers. Can it possibly be enough to simply offer what I have available–a compassionate heart and two willing hands, full of joy, or hope, or some days, simply dust? Somehow, I think it can.

The prayer flags posted around the perimeter of the garden are tattered, weathered spirits holding sacred intentions. As are we. And in the distance, the prayer wheel is still ringing, and the prayers continue to rise.

Everything’s Kosher, Except the Ham

Offering hospitality has long been an important value to me—I love the idea of welcoming, embracing, of making room. Of providing rest, respite and sanctuary to others. But being on the receiving end of hospitality can sometimes be more challenging. This is the story of how, one Christmas season, hospitality came to me in a very powerfuI way.

The call came early. It was still dark. My stepmom cried out in anguish—“he’s gone, Cindy, your father’s gone.” And so he was.

My father’s death was sudden, and, for me at least, unexpected. Although he lived with several chronic illnesses, my father’s health had been stable—there had been no recent decline. He was 76 years old.

Days later, we held the memorial service for my dad. Although he was not technically Jewish, his wife was; her mother always joked that her son-in-law the doctor (my dad held a PhD in Chemistry) had a Jewish soul, and so it was that we held his memorial service at a nearby synagogue. Practical joker that he was, he would probably have been amused to know that his ashes inadvertently spent the memorial service inside a Target bag in the rabbi’s study.

That evening, we sat shivah at my home.

As an observing Methodist, my experience with the custom of sitting shivah was only literary. I was aware of the Jewish tradition of accompanying the bereaved in their home for several nights after the death of a loved one.

In theory, sitting shivah sounded like a beautiful concept. As a practical matter, I wasn’t so sure. I was somewhat apprehensive about the prospect of 200+ friends and acquaintances descending upon our mid-sized home. My dazed, grieivng mind could not embrace the logistics. How would everyone fit? Where would we put them? How would we feed them all?

It was, both my stepmom and the rabbi assured me, not my problem. It would all be taken care of. All I had to do was show up.

Accustomed as I was to midwest Protestant memorial services followed by church basement luncheons that inevitably included some form of jello salad (an oxymoron in and of itself) I tried unsuccessfully to wrap my mind around how this would all work. My brain broke, and I did the only thing I could do—I threw up my arms and let go.

And amazingly, miraculously, magically, without my doing anything more than opening the doors, we sat shivah for my father in our home, and the hospitality came to us.

The shivah committee arrived an hour or so before the guests, set up the dining room, brought chairs and serving dishes, and took over the kitchen. I was continually and good-naturedly shooed away. Christian tradition has so pounded into our collective psyche the adage that it is “better to give than to receive” that we are often unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with being on the receiving end of hospitality. Sitting and doing nothing while strangers took over my kitchen was anathema to just about every social rule I’d been brought up with.

Guests began to arrive, many bringing with them sweet treats, as is the Jewish custom—providing something sweet to take the bitterness out of grieving. Some people I knew, many I did not.

One especially welcome guest, the teenage son of a good friend of mine, arrived with a very special contribution, accompanied by an earnest introduction that would have done Garrison Keillor proud: “My mom sends this with her love. Everything’s kosher except the ham, and the hot sauce is Lutheran, so it’s pretty mild.” There ensued an intense consultation in the kitchen regarding what to do with the ham. I didn’t want to offend Jewish sensibilities (particularly my stepmom’s) by putting it out. The shivah committee assured me that it was my home, and I could do whatever I wanted.   As I recall, we put it in the fridge and dined on delicious ham throughout the week.

Back in the living room, the service was about to start, and I was greatly comforted by the gathering of so many, both known and unknown to me, to honor the memory of this contentious man I loved and argued with and wDsc02561c2as honored to have called my father.

There was special music, there were prayers in Hebrew and in English, there were strangers and friends. There were Christians, Jews and my devout Muslim friend who is dearer to me than a brother.

After the service, there was food (I was not allowed to serve myself—a plate and beverage were brought to me.) There were stories and memories and poems, and there were kind and caring words of condolences.

All in my living room. All lifting my burden. All helping my father’s soul make the journey to its next home. And all I had to do was say yes, open my doors, sit down and let go. Maybe I should try doing that more often.

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