D Like Dharma

The two Buddhist monks’ maroon and saffron robes looked like they had been color coordinated with the orange and yellow seats of the 7 train that was taking them over the Queensborough Bridge into Manhattan.
The young monk, who was his older companion’s guide and translator on this trip, had spent two years in New York as a Tibetan exchange student before deciding to enter the monastery in Ladakh at eighteen. Now, only nine years into his studies, he was honored to be repaying his debt of gratitude to his mentor by pointing out to him where the Mets played and where to get the best bialy in the city. The older monk, whose olive skin, shaved head and inviting almond shaped eyes, made him look enough like the young monk to be his grandfather, had never been to New York. His English, learned mostly from speaking to American visitors to the monastery and from his decades long subscriptions to Time and Foreign Affairs, was passable but not reliable. He was able to understand it better than he could speak it, and in an attempt to brush up before the meeting, he was thumbing through a wrinkled copy of Cosmopolitan that he had found on the seat next to him with the words “How to Have Multiple Orgasms” written to the left of the bosomy cover girl.
The monks had been instructed by their hosts in Queens to transfer to the D once they reached 5th Avenue and 42nd Street on the 7. “D like Dharma,” was what they were told, and what the younger of the two monks repeated in a failed attempt at a New York accent, as he led his older companion to the D platform.
It was the D that was taking them on the final leg of their journey to where the lama, before his passing, had prophesied they would find his reincarnation. They were to seek out their teacher in his new home, which according to the prophesy, was a place whose inhabitants were deeply spiritual, where men hid their faces under long hair and their heads under big fur hats, where women were modest yet fruitful. It was a place they’d have to reach by a mode of transport that could travel underground, below the river, and above a great city in which many of the earth’s languages were spoken. The great oracle had confirmed the lama’s vision, and had added that the lama had been reborn the lone son of a spiritual teacher, who lived in a brick house that was four stories high. This boy, though he would be found in an intensely insular community in the Northeast of America, the oracle envisaged, had inherited the lama’s fascination with space travel. It was the oracle lake, however, that had pinpointed the area the monks needed to search by reflecting in its waters an image of Yidel’s grocery store, which sat near the steps of the Fort Hamilton Parkway station of the D train in Borough Park, Brooklyn.  
            The Tibetans garnered barely a glance from their fellow subway riders, whose earbuds, smart phones, and racing minds kept them distracted from the two smiling monks travelling with them. Not until the robed men descended the stairs from the over ground station in Borough Park did they get their first wary look. Their journey that had started with a trek down from their hilltop monastery, and had extended across continents and through subterranean tunnels, was now culminating in an old Hasid waving his hand dismissively and muttering, “Meshuganehs,” as he passed them on his way up the stairs.  
            The monks entered Yidel’s grocery store in search of information and refreshment. The hot August morning had left them parched, and the young monk grabbed two warm cans of Mayim Chaim Old Fashioned Seltzer from a loud, overworked refrigerator in the back. Mrs. Kailish, a wigged, rotund woman in her sixties, and the only other customer there, kept a safe distance, as she watched them walk through the store.
            “Vat should I know vere dey came from?” she whispered nervously into her flip phone in a Yiddish accent, using a display of canned pickles to shield herself from the monks. “Dey look like two bald Chinamen wearing shmatehs like from de ancient Romans.”
Yidel, his long brown payis wrapped around his ears, his tzitzis hanging over his white collared shirt and thin, puny frame, hid behind the cash register and the scraggly beard that looked like it had taken most of his thirty-four anxious years to grow. He watched every move the monks made, like he did with all the other outsiders, his phone in his hand, ready to speed dial 911 if necessary. When the Mexican kids got off the train and came in to buy their chazerai after school, he watched; the same for the blacks and all the other goyim. He’d ring them all up in his head before they even got to the counter, so they’d pay quickly and leave. He wasn’t sure what to make of these two, but he certainly wasn’t about to listen to any of their Hare Krishna or Moonie nonsense, if that’s what they had planned.
 “Two-thoity-seven,” Yidel said curtly in the accented English of one born in Brooklyn but raised in Yiddish, the instant the young monk put the cans on the counter.
            The young monk reached into the cotton maroon bag he was carrying over his shoulder that until then was indistinguishable from his robe, and pulled out a five. Yidel, anticipating the likely change he’d have to make, had the two-sixty-three ready – two singles in one hand and sixty-three cents in the other in case they gave him only three dollars. Yidel put the change on the counter.
            “That is not necessary,” the young monk said, smiling.
Puzzled, Yidel pushed the money closer to the young monk. “It’s two-sixty-tree change, nu!”
            “That is for you and your family, my friend,” the young monk said.
            Yidel was used to the goyim trying to steal from him, but to pay more than they needed to was beyond his comprehension.
            “I’ll give to tzedukah. Charity,” Yidel proposed, stuffing some money into each of the three collection cans that sat on the counter.
            The monks smiled, approving of his decision. The older monk then grabbed at the young monk’s robe and said something in Tibetan, gesturing toward Yidel.
            “We wonder if we could ask you a question,” the young monk said.
            “I’m Jewish,” Yidel responded abruptly, letting them know he had neither the time nor the desire to buy whatever religion or chachtkes they were selling.
            “We have great respect for the traditions and spiritual beliefs of your people,” the young monk responded.
            Yidel cut him off before he could say, “but.”
            “Listen, tonight is Shabbos and I need to prepare de store so de people can come and buy vat dey need. The challah delivery is already an hour late, and I have a lot vat to do yet.”
            “We understand. We mean not to interfere with your commerce. We wonder if you could tell us, though, who the spiritual teacher is in this area.”
            “De rebbe you vanna know about?” he asked, feeling more at ease. They weren’t here to steal or to brainwash him, he thought. And if their intention was to steal from or brainwash the rebbe, they wouldn’t get within five feet of him once his students saw these two coming.
             “If he is a teacher of your people, then yes, we would like to see him,” the young monk said.
            Mrs. Kailish had covertly inched closer to the register and was now crouched behind the nine dollar bottles of kosher wine, clutching a loaf of frozen gefilte fish she’d pulled from her cart to use in self-defense if things got out of hand.
            “There are many teachers and many people here, but mein teacher is not necessarily mein neighbor’s teacher. Only on mein block, we have Bobov, Belz, Munkatch and Vizhnitz Chasidim. Each has his own rebbe,” Yidel said.
            “Does your teacher have a son?”
            “Finally, after tvelve daughters. Knei Nehora.”
            “And the boy is how old?”
            “Almost tree.”
            “The teacher we seek has a son around that age and lives in a house made of brick that is four stories in height. Perhaps you can direct us where to find him.”
            The old monk spotted Mrs. Kailish, her wig askew from all her furtive attempts at spying. He returned her frightened look with an amiable smile.       
            “De old von sees me,” she said, trying not to move her quivering lips, while continuing to provide a play by play to the person on the other end of her phone. But the old monk’s kind insistent gaze forced her to drop her phone in the cart, so she could hold the loaf of gefilte fish with two hands. If this bald headed Chinaman wanted to look, she’d give him something to look at alright. She took a spastic practice swing to let the old monk know she meant business, and the wet loaf slipped out of her hands onto the floor. The old monk sprightly moved toward her to pick it up.
Shema Yisroel Adonai Eloheinu,” she prayed with her eyes closed, hoping that when she opened them, the old monk would no longer be advancing, and this whole incident would be nothing more than a frightful story she could tell the other ladies on her block about something that once happened when she went shopping for Shabbos.
The old monk bent down, held his robe in place, and grabbed the fish off the floor. He offered it to Mrs. Kailish, who shook her head no and motioned for him to put it in the cart. She was as blind to his simple desire to help her, as he was to the prohibition against her touching a man who was not her husband, even if through a loaf of frozen carp. The old monk bowed and walked back to the young monk’s side after he delicately placed the fish back in the cart, as if he were handling a loaded gun, reverent of its unrealized potential to have ended his current incarnation, if only Kailish had a better grip. She grunted a reluctant thank you before straightening her wig and moving behind her cart just to be safe. One second they’re nice, the next they’ll stick a knife in you, she thought. You could never tell with these shkotzim, especially bald men in robes who bowed to people. Bowing you only did before Hashem, and someone who didn’t understand that was someone you didn’t turn your back on, even if he did pick up your fish.
“Why do you wanna speak to a Jewish teacher?” Yidel asked the young monk, ignoring Kailish frantically gesturing behind the monks’ backs, silently imploring Yidel to show them the door already. Yidel was now much more curious of the monks’ motives than he was eager to get rid of them.
“We would like to ask permission to see to his son,” the young monk said.
Yidels’ sickly pallor, typical of those who spent most of their lives sheltered from the world and the sun, instantly turned deathly. It was one thing to humor two goyim  who paid more than they needed to for warm seltzer, but he wasn’t going to lead them to the son it had taken forty years and two marriages for his rebbe to conceive. Who knew what kind of craziness these meshuganehs with robes were up to, wanting to speak to a little Jewish boy, not even three years of age.
“Out, or I’ll call de police!” Yidel shrieked, waving his phone in one hand, while keeping his big black yarmulke from falling off his shaved head with the other, as he convulsed in frightened rage. “Take your money,” he pleaded, as he put the five dollar bill on the counter.
“Yeah, out!” Kailish echoed, now brandishing an oversized cucumber. If the main ingredient in her famous cucumber salad needed to wind up splattered all over the bald heads of these two troublemakers to protect the rebbe’s son, her family would make do with only lukshen kugel for a side dish.
With a bow, the Tibetans signified that they meant no harm. They left the store with the refreshment and information they sought securely in Yidel’s possession, armed only with the contents of the young monk’s bag – two Metrocards, a few dollars, a small bell and a pen that belonged to the lama, and some other small trinkets. If the child they sought was indeed their reborn teacher, he’d be able to select the lama’s possessions from amongst the other trifles.
They spent the entire morning and much of the afternoon walking through the streets of Borough Park in search of the house the oracle had envisioned, receiving suspicious and frightened looks along the way from bearded men in long black coats and white stockings, and from stroller pushing women so modest only their faces and hands were exposed to the hot summer air. Mothers frantically shouted from balconies for their young children, who were playing freely throughout the neighborhood, to run home, as if Yidel and Mrs. Kailish had flashed some sort of Yiddish Amber Alert in the skies above Borough Park, warning its inhabitants that two strange men were on the loose in search of a young Jewish boy. The monks were less bewildered that not a single doorbell they’d rung was answered than by the fact that they’d now covered around a five block radius and almost every house was four stories high and made of brick.
            “You two. Stop right dere!” a voice more confident than Yidel’s, but with the same Yiddish accent, suddenly boomed from behind the two monks, as they approached another door.
            The monks turned around to find two Hasids in their early twenties – one tall, one short – cigarettes dangling from lips barely visible under scraggly beards, holding what looked to the monks like blue pillow cases covered in plastic bags. The Hasids walked toward the monks with the deliberation of expert gunslingers sizing up their targets, clutching the pillow cases at their sides like they were six shooters to be unloaded at the slightest provocation. Within seconds, these four anachronisms of fashion, representing centuries of wisdom and erudition, stood face to face in front of a brick house with a half dozen pair of tzitzit drying over the railing on the fourth story’s balcony. The short Hasid, the one who had ordered them to stop, flicked his cigarette into the street, exhaled out of the side of his mouth and began menacingly twirling his side curls. The tall Hasid did the same, while the monks simply smiled.
            “Nu, you don’t speak?” the short Hasid asked, looking them up and down. “You only smile?”
            The taller Hasid, enchanted by the colorful robes, slid his hand over the fabric covering the older monk’s left shoulder. “Vus is dis, velvet?” he muttered.
            “Is this your teacher’s home?” the young monk asked.
            “For vat you vanna know?” the Hasid with the Napoleon complex replied.
            The old monk stood calm and still, almost encouraging the tall, simple Hasid to try and figure out what the robe was made of.
            “Polyester? Shimshon, give a kik,” he said, requesting that his shorter companion help solve the mystery.
            “Avrumi, nu!” Shimshon grunted, waving off his friend. “Vat do a couple Hare Krishnas vant mit de rebbe’s son?” he asked the monks.
            “We are Buddhists, dear friend,” the young monk responded. “We’re in search of our teacher.”
            “This is a neighborhood for Jewish people, not Buddhists,” Shimshon said, spit foaming on the hairs around his mouth, barely able to bring himself to the even say the word “Buddhists.” “You don’t got any teachers here. Go look in Chinatown.”
Unfazed, the monks began walking toward the front door of the house until Shimshon quickly blocked their path.
Nu, go!” Shimshon insisted, mimicking a Kung-Fu ready stance he’d learned secretly watching web clips of Bruce Lee on the old laptop he kept hidden in his basement. The videos he’d sneak away to watch had convinced him that all slant eyed men were experts at martial arts and all slant eyed women were experts at things he only dreamed of asking his wife and mother of his four kids to do. He was now glad he’d ignored the Yiddish signs hanging throughout the neighborhood, warning that use of the Internet was punishable by excommunication. He was confident the sin of daring to peer out into the world beyond Borough Park, which had racked him with guilt until now, would be at least partially pardoned by god, since he was using some of the knowledge he’d gained to protect the rebbe’s son.
“Yeah, go from here,” the tall Hasid declared, grabbing hold of and then releasing the old monk’s robe. “And take vit you your shmatehs!”
Before the monks needed to decide their next move, a deep authoritative man’s voice admonished the two Hasids in Yiddish to let the monks in. The Hasids immediately cleared the path to the door, as if the voice had come from the heavens and not from a cheap looking intercom taped to the door post just below the mezuzah.
“Please come in, gentleman,” the voice continued, and the monks were buzzed in.
They entered a narrow hallway whose walls were adorned with ornately framed pictures of pious looking men – all of whom seemed to be closely watching the Tibetans’ every move, like bearded Mona Lisas in fur hats. The monks made their way into a large modernly furnished dining room where they were greeted by the man who had intervened on their behalf – a gray bearded, potbellied Hasid in his early sixties, who instantly seemed more at ease with the monks than any of his fellow Hasids did, including the ones in the pictures. Rabbi Leibel Klein sat at the head of the large table with his back to a wall to wall, ceiling high bookcase filled with leather bound books. A white embroidered tablecloth lay under a dozen formal place settings. Klein shook their hands and invited the monks to sit.
“I’m Rabbi Klein. Can I offer you gentleman a cold drink maybe?” he inquired in a lilting tone, his English unencumbered by an accent that turned his fellow Hasids’ “what”s into “vat”s and their “there”s into “dere”s.
“That is very kind. No thank you,” the young monk responded.
As the young monk was about to introduce himself and his consort, the Rabbi interrupted.
“It’s no trouble. You must be thirsty from all that walking. We have juice, soda, water. Don’t worry, it’s all kosher,” he said smiling.
The young monk grew impatient. It was now obvious to him that he and his partner had been followed from the moment they had stepped out of Yidel’s grocery store. For all he knew, these untrusting, frightened people might have been following them from the moment they had gotten off the plane at JFK, or even from the moment they had gotten on the plane in India. Too much of their time had been wasted already, and he wasn’t about to let another man hiding behind a beard delay the reunion with their teacher. The old monk sensed the young monk’s frustration. He offered his companion some calming words in Tibetan, and then told him to get on with it.
“Are you the teacher with the young son?” the young monk asked, trying his best to remain composed.
“I am a teacher and I have a son. Five in fact. But they’re all around your age. And all married, thank god, with sons of their own,” the Rabbi said.
“Then we’ve come to the wrong home,” the young monk said, as he abruptly stood up. “We apologize for inconveniencing you.”
“No, no. I’m sure you’re in the right home,” the Rabbi said matter-of-factly.
The old monk motioned for the young monk to sit, and at the old monk’s urging the young monk asked, “How can you be sure? We haven’t told you why we’re here.”
“You’re looking for a boy around three years old who’s the lone son of a teacher, yes?”
“Yes,” the young monk said. “Your community is obviously quite skilled at relaying information quickly, but you’ve just told us there is no such child in your home.”
“You mistakenly assume that this is my home,” Klein said.
“Even if a young son of a teacher lives here, why are you so confident that he is the child we’re looking for?”
“Because on the night before he passed, the grandfather of the boy you’ve come to see, our former rebbe, predicted your arrival. He said that after years of his son, our current rebbe, attempting to father an heir to the dynasty, he would succeed with his second wife. This boy, he said, would be endowed with wisdom beyond his years and would become a great leader. But before the boy’s third birthday, strangers would come and try to claim him as one of their own.”
The monks exchanged knowing glances.
“Who then are you?” the young monk asked.
“I am the rebbe’s secretary,” Klein said.
“Would it be possible for us to speak to your rebbe?” the young monk asked, trying awkwardly, as a matter of respect, to pronounce the word “rebbe” with a Yiddish accent, as Klein had.
“I’m afraid he’s not available,” Klein said.
After the old monk spoke in Tibetan, the young monk translated: “This child’s wisdom is the result of countless lifetimes of practice and virtue. With proper training, he can help many people. We don’t wish to claim him as one of our own. We wish to help him share his knowledge with all who suffer, so that they may change their karma.”
“With respect, gentleman, you might think us a simple, provincial people who fear even the most tangential interaction with the outside world, but despite what you may have experienced during your brief time amongst us, our philosophy is quite universal. We believe that through cultivating an experiential individual connection with God, one can repair the entire world by helping others move beyond what you call ‘their karma.’ And given the gifts the boy has received, undoubtedly from God, and possibly as a result of past virtue, as you suggest, we acknowledge that his role in repairing the world is crucial. But to do so he must receive proper Jewish training,” Klein responded.
“According to the Buddhist view, the seeds we plant, whether virtuous or not, will ripen when circumstances permit,” the young monk responded, now speaking on his own. The old monk listened like a proud grandfather. “Karma is not anything we can escape by connecting to something external. It simply is, and can only be transformed through an understanding of the mind brought about by diligent practice. Our recently deceased teacher, who we believe has been reborn as your teacher’s son, had reached levels of awareness only possible through eons of such practice. It is imperative that this awareness be nourished in an environment designed for this purpose, and then shared with the world.”
“Even if I accept your view on the nature of things as correct, perhaps the seeds planted by your teacher in his previous life ripened as his rebirth as a future leader of our people,” Klein said. “In which case, the boy’s fate has been sealed, and your mission to return him to where you believe he belongs is unnecessary.”
Before the young monk could respond, the old monk gently placed his hand on the young monk’s, letting him know he was ready to participate directly in the conversation. “Fate imply predetermination by outside force. But law of cause and effect say we choose our current path through causes created by our past thoughts, words and actions,” he said.
“So then the boy is on the path he’s chosen,” Klein said. “Why seek him out to try and put him on a path you’ve chosen for him?”
“Boy also chosen for us to come in search of him, just as we’ve chosen to participate in that search,” the old monk said. “Boy’s karma works interdependently with ours, as does yours. That is why we are sitting here talking to you.”
“So then we share a belief in the interdependence of all things,” Klein said. “At least we can agree on that.”
“You understand emptiness, Rabbi,” the old monk exclaimed. “But this is not belief for us, rather observation of how things are. Our faith is in natural law, not in a power outside ourselves.”
“So how do you explain how things came to be the way they are, if you don’t believe in a power that created all this?” Klein asked.
“All phenomena are dependently originated and empty of inherent existence, including causes and conditions that created the phenomena,” the old monk explained. “For us, creator is simply not necessary.”
“Then even emptiness is empty,” Klein posited.
 “You sure you not a little bit Buddhist?” the old monk asked, chuckling. “Maybe you would feel more comfortable in robe.”
“That’s how I know there is a creator, and that he’s merciful and meant for me to be a Jew. Because me in a robe without pants is not something anyone should see,” the Rabbi said. “Besides, I find it difficult to believe that this world with all its beauty and all its suffering isn’t governed by a greater force whose actions we can’t control or always understand.”
“This is exactly the cause of suffering, Rabbi,” the young monk explained. “When we believe we are at the mercy of forces we can’t control.”
“Forgive me, my friends, but is it not the height of arrogance to assume that we alone can create heavens, earth, seas, and everything in them, including ourselves, all by our mere thoughts and actions?” asked Klein.
“Is it not arrogant to assume that we can not?” the old monk asked. “To accept full responsibility for our lives, for the very fact that we exist, is what humble us and allow us to make changes necessary to achieve happiness.”
“You may find me superstitious, a believer in fairy tales even. But to me, happiness is achieved through bonding with my creator by striving to see his divinity in all things, including you two gentlemen,” Klein said.
“This is actually very compassionate view and very much in accord with our principle of seeing the unlimited potential in all beings. Perhaps, after all, it is not you who is a little bit Buddhist, but we who are a little bit Jewish,” the old monk said, laughing.
“You can’t be just a little bit Jewish. It’s like being pregnant, only instead of morning sickness, there’s heartburn,” Klein said. “But who knows? Maybe in a previous life you were both great torah scholars.”
“And maybe in a previous life you looked good without pants. All things are possible,” the young monk offered.
“Maybe not all things,” Klein retorted.
“Our main concern right now is with the child in this lifetime,” the old monk interjected.
“Look, fellas, we can debate emptiness versus creationism, Buddhism versus Judaism from now until the moshiach comes, or until we all achieve enlightenment, whichever comes first. But we all know how this is gonna end,” Klein said politely. “Besides, you’ll shave his head, put him in funny outfits, and immerse him in rigorous study for years. We’ll do the same, but when he’s around eighteen, we’ll marry him off and he’ll start making babies. And I gotta tell you, our path sounds a lot more fun.”
The three men laughed.
“Can we at least see the child?” the young monk asked.
The monks had been warned that their attempts to convince the child’s family to even consider allowing the child to enter the monastery would almost certainly fail. Their goal instead was to confirm as best they could that the child was their reborn lama by speaking to him and checking to see if he recognized any of the lama’s possessions. If they could plant a seed in the boy’s mind that might one day ripen as a decision to pursue his true calling, they’d consider their mission a success.
“I’m sorry you traveled all this way for nothing, but the boy is in very good hands. Of that I am sure,” Klein continued, evading the young monk’s request.
“So why bother seeing us at all, Rabbi? Why not ignore us like the others?” the young monk asked.
“Are you not enjoying our chat?” Klein asked.
“We very much are,” the young monk answered, while the old monk nodded in agreement. “But it would have been easier for you to simply not answer the door, and we would have moved on without ever finding where the child lived.”
 “If I wanted to live life the easy way, I wouldn’t be a Chasideshe Jew,” Klein said. “This outfit I’m wearing is murder in the summertime. If I can handle this, what’s a little visit from a couple of Buddhists?”
Klein’s elusiveness bemused the monks. Was he biding time while an angry mob, desperate to teach these unwanted visitors a lesson about messing with their children, dispersed? Was he stalling, while the child they sought was being whisked away somewhere safe? Was he merely eager to remind himself of the merits of his faith by defending it to an audience that wouldn’t blindly accept what he said? Was it a combination of all three?
The old monk sensed the young monk’s desire to pursue his questioning of Klein, but instead thanked Klein for his hospitality and motioned to the young monk that it was time to go. No good would come from overstaying their welcome and making their host regret his decision to speak to them.
Klein led the monks through the narrow hall to the front door where they noticed a framed photo that sat atop an adjacent mantle. Their backs had faced the photo when they walked in, and they were now staring admiringly at a boy of around two, who was gleefully piloting a red coin operated space ship that was chained to the front of a store. Their lama looked nothing like this jubilant boy with long blonde hair curling wildly over his shoulders under a large, black embroidered yarmulke, but his compassionate eyes and beatific smile eased any doubts that this was their teacher. Klein let the two robed men bask in admiration for a few moments before interrupting. “He woke up this morning, crying in Yiddish, ‘My friends are here. Be nice to my friends.’”

As the monks walked back to the D train under the suspicious gazes of those bold enough to share a sidewalk with them, and those merely daring enough to peek through drawn blinds, they knew that their teacher, who had in a short time opened the heart and mind of his newest disciple, was exactly where he belonged. 

No comments: