- This Is How It Always Is
Rosie did. Rosie knew all about stories about a prince.
“Very shelter life in palace so ignorant of poverty, sickness, old age, death. Then he go out into world and learn. Then he help. That is important part. Once he learn, he listen and tell, he help. He leave family, leave palace, leave being a prince.” Rosie nodded along. This part sounded familiar. “He learn about the world and the people. He meditate to learn to be. He give up all food and water and house, but then his body too loud to achieve peace so he learn again: too little as bad as too much. He teach, tell his story, help people see truth. He say be kind and forgive, honest and share. He say everything will change so okay. He say middle way. He enlighten. That is the story. Learn mistake and fix and tell. Not-knowing to knowing. Even the Buddha. You see?”
“But I’m not knowing,” said Rosie.
“Not yet,” said K.
The Color of Monday
The Buddha was everywhere. Not Everywhere everywhere, though maybe that too for all Claude knew. His ubiquity was worrisome because you weren’t supposed to point your feet at him, but you could never tell where he might pop up—there was a Buddha statue in the cafeteria, two in the schoolroom, three in the intake center, one in the waiting area. Claude had counted five so far in the guesthouse. On the bike ride to the clinic, they passed seven of them. When they went into town for an afternoon, he counted fifteen. The Buddha hid round a bend or on the crest of a hill or among the trees. Claude’s little students had tried to explain all about the Buddha who was Lord but not God, a prince, a teacher, a reminder, and a path, but what Claude liked about him was he looked like a girl.
He didn’t realize this until their trip to Chiang Mai, where they went to get supplies for the clinic and then stayed a couple extra days because his mother decided they had earned some time off. K told them Chiang Mai was Thailand’s second city, so Claude steeled himself for Bangkok again, but Chiang Mai was nothing like Bangkok. There were gardens and parks and mountains in Chiang Mai. There was a quiet treetop restaurant and a hotel with the giant cushy beds the guesthouse so completely lacked and a market where you could buy supplies without live animals looking at you tragically from buckets or cages. There were flowers everywhere and fruit stands and bike paths. There was a fish spa, where you sat on benches over an aquarium, and hundreds of garra rufa fish came and nibbled at your calves and feet.
But mostly in Chiang Mai there were wats, which meant temples. There were more than three hundred wats in the city, and Claude was pretty sure they saw every single one of them. They were right in the middle of everything, plopped next to a restaurant or a bank or a grocery store, right where you were going anyway so that they served, their guide Nok explained, as a reminder. What the temples wanted to remind you about was the Buddha. Maybe he wasn’t God, but then why were there so many statues of him? Each temple had legions of Buddhas. Oodles of Buddhas. Buddhas galore. There were paintings and drawings and murals of Buddhas. Stories of the Buddha. Statues of Buddhas with flames blooming from their heads toward the sky. Buddhas walking or meditating or sitting on a snake or talking to animals. Buddhas who looked like they were taking a nap. Buddhas with their eyes all cast down (because it is important to see oneself before others, Nok explained) and their ears stretched long (to listen, to observe, and also because long ears mean long life; Claude fingered his own but could not judge their relative length).
But what drew Claude to the Buddha first was not his eyes nor his ears but his fingers. Actually, his fingernails. They were long and shapely. They were elegantly filed. Often, they were painted gold. His hands lay quietly in his lap, easy and neat and turned gently open, like he was asking, and genuinely caring, how you were, like he was getting ready to offer to make you a snack or some tea. Like a girl. The Buddhas wore jewelry and snailed their hair. They had full lips and secret smiles and shy eyes, high cheekbones and delicate noses, eyebrows that swept like swallows. Some had soft little bellies. Some had two squiggles that formed a triangle between their legs, and maybe that was the bottom of his jacket, but maybe it was something better. Sometimes the Buddhas lay on their sides, heads propped on hands, looking like if they could speak they would say, “So! Tell me everything!” just like Poppy’s friends did during sleepovers. One was wearing a floor-length beaded gold gown, the sparkling diamond weave of which snugged the Buddha’s gentle curves, and a black updo framing eyes that gazed modestly down at the dress and said, “Damn, I look good.” The Buddha had long, rounded thighs, smooth shoulders, flared hips, and a narrow waist. He had delicate feet, hands poised at his sides like patient birds. Sometimes up top, he was flat as the stone he was carved from. Sometimes robes or dresses or sashes seemed to hide something more up there because no matter the material, posture, expression, or outfit, the Buddha looked like a girl.
Claude wasn’t sure it was polite to ask why—the Buddha may not have been a god, but in all the stories, he definitely was a he—but he did anyway. It was unlike him, but he had to know.
Nok said, “Buddha peaceful, gentle, nonaggressive. So look female.”
He said, “Buddha many lives and bodies before enlightenment.”
He said, “Nothing belong to you. Not even the body of you.”
None of which really answered the question. What was clear, however, was that the Buddha was born male, then cut off all his hair one day and got enlightened, then ended up looking like a girl. And as if that weren’t enough, the Buddha also seemed to feel that even things as unalterable as bodies were temporary, and what mattered was if you were good and honest, and forgiveness solved everything. That was how, whatever else they were, Claude and Poppy became Buddhists for life.