My mother’s neighborhood

“Mom, how was Melabev?” I ask my mother when she returns at 3:30 pm on one of the three days she’s still taken to a senior day center. I am at her home to greet her after spending time with her live-in caregiver, Saint Swapna, who tells me that, at her urging and prodding, all members of her family in India have already had one covid vaccine. They would have gotten the second only India ran out of vaccines.

My mother collapses on the blue living room chair, exhausted, lips drawn back in a very severe line.  “There is something secret going on, and one day I’ll find out what it is.”

“What do you mean, mom?”

“You know,” she explains, “they have lots of secrets at the center. They don’t want us to talk to one another so they put us in a big discussion circle. As soon as we discuss one topic they move on to the next and don’t let us ask any questions. And if someone asks them if  they’ll be open next month during the holiday week—I forget what holiday it’s going to be—”

“Shavuot?” Pentecost?

“– they say they have to check.”

“Maybe they do have to check, mom.”

“Don’t be silly. I don’t know what’s going on but I plan to find out. They fill up the day with so many things just so that we won’t ask too many questions. They have musicians, games, storytellers—”

“That sounds nice, mom.”

“If they want to be sneaky, I can be sneaky, too.”

“What’s sneaky about musicians?”

“I’m telling you, they want to know things about us.”

“Who, mom?”

“Don’t ask me stupid questions. They! And they want to make sure we don’t talk. But I am going to find out. Nobody is going to make my life a riddle.”

Those were here exact words: Nobody is going to make my life a riddle. But that’s what my life is, mom, one big riddle, I almost said out loud. Sometimes I get music, maybe a little singing or stories or even a little (very little) dancing. But always I get the riddle.

This morning, over coffee with my orthodox Jewish brother, he posed the following question: “Where’s our temple now, Eve? Not the old temple where they made animal sacrifices and Jesus got mad at the moneychangers, I mean the new temple, the center for passion and hope, the fire we yearn to touch again and again?”

Walking up to my mother’s home, I found myself asking the question: So, who’s on Vulture Peak now? Vulture Peak is the place in India where the Buddha gave many teachings. I thought of the great chapter in the Lotus Sutra, Lifespan of the Thus Come One, in which the Buddha promises that when people pray to him, he and his monks will be at Vulture Peak expounding the dharma. That, in fact, they never died, that’s just a delusion, but still and always they are preaching the Law from Vulture Peak.

Where are they now? I asked myself, trudging uphill in 90 degrees Fahrenheit. We need them now more than ever, we gasp for breath, we look everywhere for relief from covid, war, from brutality, degradation, and even complacency, so where are they now? More to the point, who are they?

If I work with this question as a Zen koan, then it is up to me to manifest as one of the enlightened beings who preach, teach, do, and dedicate their lives to bringing everyone to awakening. Or perhaps I manifest as Vulture Peak itself, the space where teachings take place one eternity after another, or else as the laywoman among the many gathered at the foot of the peak to listen, learn, take things to heart, practice at home but come back to Vulture Peak again and again.

The students, the teachers, the teachings, all one thing. One big heart.

And when the living have become faithful,
Honest and upright and gentle,
And wholeheartedly want to see the Buddha,
Even at the cost of their own lives,
Then, together with the assembly of monks
I appear on Holy Vulture Peak.

As a young student, I used to dream of a group of grizzled monastics meeting and renewing their vows in moon-drenched nights on Vulture Peak. Where are they? Where am I?

Now, hours later on a warm night, as my sister teaches English on the phone in her office behind a shut door, her Anatolian Shepherd Molly growls stretched out on the cool tiled floor, both of us listening to the brrrr of the ceiling fan, the shouting of a man on the street and the turn of the tires as cars park down below, I suddenly feel that terrible hunger to see the Buddha, to know it deeply in each and every thing and person, manifesting tenderly as a yellow handbag on a dining table, a green apron drooping on an old, careworn chair, footsteps on the stairs in the hallway, the hum of an airplane on its way east to Jordan. It’s always there, I know, only sometimes the yearning is so great.

Nobody’s going to make my life a riddle. That’s what it’s been all these years, this life that isn’t just mine, and isn’t just life for that matter, either. I, who’ve never seen Vulture Peak in India, want to return there, want to spare these lands misery and death. Want to be like the moth that hung desperately to the bedroom wall all night, only to be lifted gently on the tip of a finger and then released this morning into new blue light.

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