the story, which takes place at a Tibetan retreat center that I call
Dorje Ling, I've taken a vow of silence shortly before I meet a poet
named Leo. More of Leo's
Cup of Tea"
from In Buddha's Kitchen
Chens from Hong Kong are my morning helpers in the kitchen. Both have
pale teal tee-shirts, black cotton pants, golden skin. I watch them
load the dishwasher, gliding to and from the prep table with quicksilver
movements. Working together, their bodies move in a constant dance
of communication, not touching, not plastered together the way couples
in love tend to be, but something lighter, finer, more subtle. The
teachings are about to begin, so they disappear into the shrine room,
skimming the floor.
My third new helper stays on in the kitchen to prepare lunch. Today's
talk about relationships and the spiritual path comes crackling over
the speakers in the kitchen, sounding as if from a distant planet.
This new helper
is Leo Stein, a poet from New York. Big, bear-like, lots of face. His
headful of wild curly black hair gives him a woolly look, as if he'd
just come in off the steppes. His dark thick eyebrows and bushy salt
and pepper beard complete the effect. Liquid brown eyes wild and gleaming,
soulful and sad, intelligent and dumb. I like the way Leo manages to
look lost and found at the same time.
I’m a little
in love with Leo, in fact, but only from afar. For the first time in
my life I don’t go hurtling after someone but simply enjoy him
silently from a distance. It will be all right with me if Leo is around
only for another week, that we share this space together and he returns
to his wife or girlfriend or whoever waits for him back East. Leo,
I know, is not the sort of person to be without a woman for very long,
no question about that. Not that he chases women at the Center, but
he tends to bend toward any female standing nearby the way a cold man
leans toward a fire.
Lama S. over the speakers, can be a spiritual path, just as celibacy
is a path. I notice Leo has stopped washing dishes at this point so
as not to miss a word. Not everyone chooses to be celibate, the lama
continues, some of the lineages of Tibet are householders, people who
pursue spiritual goals within the context of marriage and a family.
Her own teacher had told her that she could spend years in solitary
retreat or she could do it the quick way by practicing while living
with her husband and child. My teacher never gave me the option of
going away and becoming holy, she says, life itself had to become my
Most of the relationships
in our country are based on a sort of ledger model, says Lama S. I
make you a cup of tea but, on some level, some where, I'm expecting
you to make me one in exchange. If a week or so goes by and I haven't
gotten my cup of tea, then I start this angry little dialogue within
myself about how "you" aren't fulfilling "my" needs.
But any relationship that is founded on the idea that another person
will make you happy is doomed from the very start. The only ones that
will ever succeed are those that begin with the question
"What can I do to make the other person happy?"
And this motivation
needs to be the ground of the relationship, not just a temporary attitude
that you adopt to make yourself seem like a good person. You really
can't be waiting for that cup of tea to come back to you, but learn
to give freely. A cup of tea, a smile, a little kindness, there is
always something that we can offer. Only through our unimpeded generosity
do we become happy.
When you go into
a room, she continues, look around and see what you can do to help.
If you make that your stance toward life, then you'll never need anything
else. You'll not be thinking about your needs, your wants, your desires.
The center of the universe has shifted a little from you to the outside.
This can be done within a relationship, within the family, with the
world at large. Give. Love. Help. But without wanting something back
to balance the ledger. You'll find that this makes you deeply happy
all the time.
When that teaching ended, I prepared Leo a cup of tea by the stove. The
talk had made me want to be good. Not goody-goody or pretend nice in
any way. Just helpful.
When I turn to give the tea to Leo, I find him holding out a cup toward
me at the very same instant. We look at each other, then burst out laughing,
swept together into a free and clear sharing of joy.
Leo will stop washing
dishes or prepping vegetables to go and write something down. He covers
paper towels, backs of labels, bits of masking tape with words. His
writing is curly and unruly, just like his hair. I find a written-over
napkin in the pantry with this scrap of a poem:
To gaze into
an empty room
is not becoming Buddha.
To feed a starving lion, Buddha
gave up one of his precious lives.
As a rabbit, as food,
he leapt in the fire.
We're paired to help,
like hands, like feet.
To gaze into an empty room
is not becoming Buddha.
I read the poem over several times, fold it up and put it in my apron
pocket. The next time I see Leo, I return it, making a little bow.
He bows back, gesturing for me to keep the napkin. Just as when we
gave each other the cups of tea, I had a sense that we are truly
present with each other in some sort of unexplored dimension that
has neither center nor circumference.
The next time I
come into the kitchen, Leo has left another poem for me:
the day, the great long day
that can't be hoarded, good or ill.
What breathes us likely means us well.
We rise up from an earthly root
to seek the blossom of the heart.
What breathes us likely means us well.
We are a voice impelled to tell
where the joining of sound and silence is.
We are the tides, and their witnesses.
What breathes us likely means us well.
the group at Dorje Ling received a teaching on attachment. According
to the Buddhists, there are three root things that poison the mind:
attachment, aversion and ignorance. We see something, we want it, we
attach ourselves to it. Or we see it, don't want it, push it away.
In addition, we make judgments about it. It's good, it's bad.
And ignorance? It's the basis of both of the above. Ignorance is indulging
in attachment and aversion, in not knowing any better, in thinking the
duality we create in our own minds is real, solid, firm. Which it isn't.
What we think of as our self isn't real either. Not that it isn't there.
Something's there, but it's changing, coming into being, going out of
being, each instant.
And what does this
mean in terms of relationship? Well, several things, obviously. First
of all, we tend to see the other person in terms of our attachment
(I love you, stay with me always) as the object of our affections rather
than a subject in his or her own right. We can be attached to objects,
but can love only subjects.
self —myself, yourself, himself—is like the weather. Not
real or solid, but happening. Sometimes the rain and hail dominate
everything. Other times, the clouds are light and fluffy, lots of sky
showing through. But it’s always impermanent, always changing,
never the same from minute to minute. In terms of relationships, if
we pin our happiness to one particular weather system, we're in trouble.
And vice versa. As objects, we're not allowed to change, to be changeable.
We won't allow the other as an object to do so either.
What a miserable
situation, Lama S. says. Of course so many relationships fail. Their
destruction is built right into the ground rules. But if you change
the way you think about the other person, then there is a chance not
only to give happiness, but to experience it as well. Mind changes:
It feels good to
be in love again even though I know that Leo is only a catalyst for
some larger process that has been working within me. I know now that
being in love is not the point.
Leo is leaving
today. He's been hanging around the kitchen wanting to talk to me,
maybe to hug me goodbye. Perhaps to invite me to run away with him
forever. I'll never know because I'm standing here at the counter and
not going to look up until the very last minute. It is not for Leo
that I'll break my vow of silence.
. . .
For several days
he's stood only inches from me as I work at the stove. These teachings
on relationships wrap around us, but also keep us apart. At least they
stop me (and I suspect, him) from jumping into a remake of the same
old romantic movie.
I've heard people
from the office talk about the letters and phone calls and e-mails
that Leo receives every day. All from someone named Laura. Each morning,
Lynn delivers blue envelopes to him that smell like the perfume they
stick in the fashion magazine these days. He goes outside to read them,
then walks round and round the statue as if he was running from someone
That's a situation
I'm not about to jump into. Not this time. There is more at stake here
than a passing fancy.
But we keep having
these moments, clear and free little moments, spaces where we meet,
touch, separate. This may be all we will ever have, but at least we're
really present, not lost in some drama of self, some fantasy of the
other. We show up right there together in the kitchen.
And there he is.
Leo, next to me. His arms around me, hugging me goodbye. He wants me
to say goodbye to him, to say his name. I look him in the eye instead,
then wiggle my fingers in a final wave.
What is important
is loving, without the 'in' part. Love. In a vast sort of way. Not
that nose-to-nose, toes-to-toes business, but an ever expanding connection
to the universe and all that it contains.
When Leo returns
home, he sends such a beautiful love poem that I cry all the way through puja.
Somehow I don't think I've seen the last of Leo Stein.
days were grudging or confused
may come back trapped within another life
as a boulder, or a pane of glass,
or a door that suffers every time it's slammed.
If I return a boulder, love, some summer day
come sit by me and contemplate these horses and these hills.
And if a windowpane, gaze through to see
the meadow on our walks where brown geese strut.
And if I am a door, come home through me,
be sure I'll keep you safe.
And if a knotted, twisted rope,
from long self-clenching and complexity,
oh love, unbind, unbraid me then
until I flow again like windswept hair.
For more about
the "real" Leo & his poetry, click