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Lions Roar : September 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2012 66 to offer him a shot glass of coffee— cream, no sugar. Other days, she let me light the candles and incense before we prayed. I was supposed to close my eyes and think only good thoughts, but my eyes remained open, fixed on the Buddha. I imagined that, at any moment, he would rise and float down like an autumn leaf. I imagined he would impart vital secrets, and I could ask him the questions that plagued me. There, in the living room, he would walk onto the palms of my hands and we would spend the evening—boy and Buddha—speaking like friends. “The Buddha is with you,” my mother used to say. “Believe in him.” And so I believed that the Buddha was more than a bronze statue, that he was solid like a body is solid—the way it gives a bit when you lean against it, the way it molds to accept the presence of another. He possessed the gift of language and was bilingual like me, skipping freely between English and Thai. We spoke often, our conversations in hushed whispers, and he sounded soothing, not harsh like my elementary school principal or gargled like the monks at temple. Buddha was the holder of my secrets. He understood that loneliness and emptiness were one and the same. Once, when I was in the living room, my mother asked from the kitchen who I was talking to. “Buddha,” I told her. “Excellent,” she said. “Speak to him every day, okay?” MRS. SLUSARCHAK, my second grade teacher, asked my mother to come for a meeting one afternoon. A patient teacher, Mrs. S lived in Munster, Indiana. “I live in Munster,” she always said, “like the stinky cheese.” But I thought she was saying Monster, and imagined hairy demons living in cheese-shaped houses. I liked her. She wore bright dresses—Hawaiian pastels—that seemed to ward off the dreary Chicago winter days. She looked pretty with her short hair and small glasses and laughed with her whole body, which was shocking but funny. The day of the meeting, my mother came straight from work, still in her nurse’s uniform. She smiled timidly, her purse in her lap, and sat across from Mrs. S. I was next to my mother, but I aimed my eyes out the win- dow at the swing set. Mrs. S said that I was a math champ every week and that my penmanship was the best in the class. My mother patted my head and said, “We practice every day.” “I can tell,” Mrs. S said, then let out a laugh that nearly knocked my mother off the chair. “But I’m concerned about his behavior.” “Has he been bad?” my mother said. “I will tell him to be better.” Mrs. S shook her head. “Not in the least. He’s just terribly shy.” She went on to talk about what had happened at recess. How I’d wanted to get on the swing but Tommy W told me to go away, so I did and sat on the bench, staring at my hands. This was what I did often, she said. Stare at my hands. I could never meet her eyes. I could never speak more than two words at a time. “There are days,” she said, “that I don’t hear a word from him.” “Is this true?” my mother asked me in Thai. I stared at my hands and my mother sighed. It was a sigh that said she knew exactly what Mrs. S was talking about. “I’m sorry for him,” she said. “He is like me.” She, too, had a fear that gripped her. It made her hide in her room, reading maga- zines and sewing endless dresses she would never wear. Mrs. S nodded. She understood. She suggested my mother enroll me in Cub Scouts or other activities, so that I would be encouraged to meet some friends. My mother agreed, and the next day she sent me to school with a bagful of apples for my teacher. But what I wanted to say was that I had a friend: Buddha, and within him was a heart that beat strong and that awak- ened something in me. This was not a spiritual awakening—not a recognition beyond the self as many theologians would define it. Nor was it a sudden epiphany to a transcendent crisis. I was too young to comprehend such lofty ideas, too young to fully