The following is from Kirstin Allio's novel, Buddhism For Western Children. Set in Maine and New Mexico, the novel follows 10-year-old Daniel and his family, who are under the thrall of a manipulative guru. As the devotees compete for the guru's favor, Daniel must decide who to save and who to abandon. Kirstin Allio's honors include the National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award and a PEN/O. Henry Prize. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
Listen to Me!
My miracles are not sentimental shit,
they have nothing to do with eating the Christ-fish that walked on water.
They are not miracles to commute the sentence of death, not miracles with cheap
Not: I have not found love but I am okay not finding it.
Do you hear Me?
You come to Me with your human monkey junk, your station wagon story, you come to Me looking for yourselves, for God,
for your next drink, people.
You complain to Me that you exist in the void of boredom,
you are dead already, but you keep waking up with a bottle for a pillow,
a demon monkey form licking up vomit.
Once you know Me,
you want to be completely inherited by My love, you people.
That is certain.
Well all you have to do is open!
All the doors have always been open!
Daniel’s parents listened to the Guru on cassette tape all the way down to Maine from Halifax.
Canyon stripes of browns and grays whipped by like banners out the window. As they got farther south there was yellow-green in the blur of bushes at the bottom.
His dad, Ray, set a plastic milk jug of drinking water on the floor of the back seat, and it was Daniel’s job to pass it up when Ray got thirsty.
Early spring when they arrived—the ground was still frozen beneath the sponge, and the bay was a dark oil stain. The first thing they learned was that the Sanctuary was closed to lay-disciples. The Guru was in a period of retreat after exposure. The rental house up the road from the Sanctuary was a tall, stark, unadorned Colonial, the half white of old snow, porcupine quills like pine needles around the foundation.
Dad Ray, Daniel’s new name for him, was eager to show off how that same foundation had been neatly wedged and split by the roots of maples so that the floorboards peaked at the seam that divided it: the two halves of the house slanted away from each other.
Daniel went right up to his new bedroom. From the back window, he could see the fingery salt rivers that fed the bay and the exoskeletons of marsh grasses. The stairs were on rusty springs, and the front door stuck so he had to throw his whole body at it. He stood against the chalky front of the house and watched hoarse gulls drop blue mussels on the road to get the meat. His mother, Cleary, wandered outside with toast in a napkin. Soon they would learn that bread was worldly. She saw the cedar fox before he did. No bigger than a housecat. It crossed from one woods to the other.
They hoped to catch a glimpse of the Guru.
He watched how his parents began to form half-secret, self-proud smiles: they claimed to be astonished by the sudden, strange revelation of being in love with Avadhoot Master King Ivanovich, the Guru. Ray said there was this feeling like being plugged into a wall socket. But that was the old language. The new language? In His world-weary and His crazy-fool and His divine fury, this guy was a madman who was mad for them. His crazy-madman love redeemed them.
Cleary adopted the manner of other devotees of not answering Daniel’s questions. That was part of sadhana, the Practice, not answering stupid questions. In no time at all she had assumed a cloud wall, total serenity.
He set out exploring. The garden site behind the house, abandoned by previous tenants, was full of dog ticks and spiders. He poked around an old chicken coop choked and buckled by blackberry. It would make a good hiding place.
That same evening, John Hartshorn, the Guru’s lieutenant, leaned against the bare wall in their kitchen with his hands crossed loosely over his privates. The Guru couldn’t stop laughing when He found out you were from Canada, he started. His nostrils flared but his mouth hardly moved, thought Daniel.
His parents did not protest.
“He watched how his parents began to form half-secret, self-proud smiles: they claimed to be astonished by the sudden, strange revelation of being in love with Avadhoot Master King Ivanovich, the Guru. Ray said there was this feeling like being plugged into a wall socket.”
The lieutenant angled toward Ray. Did you say you were a carpenter? He cleaned the corners of his mouth with his tongue. The Guru is always renovating. He wants to know what you can do with that chicken coop.
Daniel dropped his eyes to the floor as his ears caught fire. Chicken coop? Ray echoed.
Coop of grace, said the lieutenant. It was like a tic how he cleaned his corners.
They watched—and waited till the lieutenant hit his stride. Back down the road toward the Sanctuary.
Shall we? said Ray, and Daniel followed him out through the garden to look for the hovel.
Ray let out a hoot when he got a glimpse through the tangle of bare bushes. Jesus! There were little bi-leaves of maple in the loamy roof. But he had no trouble wiggling the door free and then banging it up and off its hinges. They peered inside together. There was still sawdust on the floor, and a chicken ramp with shims for treads to the nesting boxes. There was still chicken shit.
It took a day just to get through the blackberry. Look at that, said Ray, the runners were already macho, ready for summer. The rotten wood fell apart like stringy beef. Underneath, porcupine again, and the smell of cat piss in carpet.
Ray and Cleary said His withdrawal wasn’t unusual—rather, nothing was usual. Whether He was extroverted or elusive, spontaneous, subtle, paradoxical, or silent. This is the Way that I Teach, the Guru would say, referring simply and universally to His Being. Daniel sat low in the driver’s seat of the station wagon where Ray had backed it onto the grass to unload lumber. There was that startling pleated sack where the emergency brake originated. He’d asked about going home and Ray said, The Guru is a really important Teacher, Daniel. Really one of the most important in modern times, and his eyes were glistening.
Still, Daniel imagined they were on the road back to Canada. He felt guilty excluding his little sister from his game, and she seemed to float around the car, waiting for him to come out again. He looked in the rearview mirror. He had to admit his hair was not quite black. It grew raggedly over his ears. He had a spatter of freckles that stood out like markings on an animal. He squinted. His sister had dropped out of view to adjust her sandal. Who was he, really? That was the big question. It consumed his parents. It warped toward the stars. What superpower would he have if he could have one? He was ten. His T-shirt hung to his knees. Wasn’t he growing? His knees, under his shirt, were like faces. Who was he?
The Guru was supposed to know the answer.
Penny Del Deo, their spiritual sponsor in Halifax, had tipped her shapely head to say that there was a chance Ray and Cleary MacFarland were emerging from their own Kaliyuga, twelve thousand years of subhuman vulgarity. There’s a chance this guy really is God, you know, said Penny, and Ray sat up straight and said he liked how she made it sound like there was a chance He wasn’t.
There’s no dogma, said Penny.
Wait till you hear Him on the piano, she said, a little smile playing on her lips after a private moment.
Word came that the Guru emerged from retreat and would give a concert to which all were invited. The Guru was a classical musician—a serious person. The heart of the Sanctuary, they heard, was the Concert Barn, its back to the blue hemlock forest.
Dad Ray could fiddle, but couldn’t read music. They went single file down the road to the Sanctuary, Daniel hoping that no cars would pass them. There were scabs of late ice in the farmyard, and the snow in the shadows was like pumice stone, gray and porous.
They took their shoes off at the door, all those empty shoes like dogs waiting for their owners. Daniel saw his sister staring at two of the Guru’s wives in long white skirts and white blouses, flowers in their hair that made them look like American hippies. This was something to tell his classmates at home in Halifax.
The stalls and the hayloft had been knocked out like teeth, and devotees had built a simple raised platform for the Guru’s grand piano. Zafus were arranged on the floor in rows, enough for the whole sangha, community of disciples. Ray was awed: he whispered that the Concert Barn could hold two hundred people. There were space heaters on frayed extension cords, kerosene lamps in tin houses corroded by salt air hung on nails.
His parents were to sit apart, the men’s side and the ladies’. Ray put one arm around him and one around his sister as the three of them split off from Cleary.
“Who was he, really? That was the big question. It consumed his parents. It warped toward the stars. What superpower would he have if he could have one? He was ten. His T-shirt hung to his knees. Wasn’t he growing? His knees, under his shirt, were like faces. Who was he? The Guru was supposed to know the answer.”
There was Craig R., who they’d met already, poet-devotee, he’d called himself, with two freckle-colored horns of beard and his own canteen of water: you had to hydrate the husk after sitting meditation. Happiness is cutting the strings to happiness! he greeted them. He snipped an invisible cord over his bald spot. Red hair, holy clown behavior. Suddenly his lower back seized and he put his hands together and bowed testily saying that he might have a hernia from sitting meditation but the body was the rag of the body.
Craig R. pointed: What’s your name, Daniel’s-sister?
Violet, she mouthed. She lost her voice when she was frightened. Next time she should sit with the ladies, said the poet.
Incense sifted through the air, nag champa, Daniel could taste it. A girl with a round face the color of rice was up on her knees looking at them openly. Her black hair was downy but wild. He accidentally caught her eye and out darted her snake tongue. He saw that when she waved to grownups in the audience they beamed back at her. He watched her push her fingers into backbends. Her fingers touched her arms as if they were boneless.
Suddenly there was a shared shift and rustle as people turned to watch the Guru’s procession. First came His child-sized page-turner, Dorothy (later they would learn that she hated children, like a small grown dog can’t abide a puppy of a larger breed); next, a slim page in a Nehru collar, Arthur, the jikki jitsu, meditation leader, who Ray would claim looked like a young Bob Dylan.
Daniel caught Violet changing her legs from lotus to knees to see better. He saw Craig R. push his face up to capture radiance. He tried to follow his breathing up and down, as he had been instructed. His breathing began to triangle. What was wrong with a triangle? Then it went in a square, and he couldn’t seem to stop it from making the shape of a stop sign.
He gave up. He fixed his eyes on the lid of the piano, open in half flight, a crow’s wing, jet and lustrous.
A bell cleared the air of its last feathers.
And then there He was, He who was called the Uprooted Center of the Cosmos. Daniel couldn’t help staring. He was huge, as tall as Ray but twice as broad, full of caloric life energy. His huge head was cabbage-shaped, white-tufted, and as a child in the Soviet Union He had strolled Moika Embankment pulling sweets from thin air for His sweet-toothed mother.
Ray had warned that He might not be, at present, in His body. His body was not Him, Ray had explained. The laws of the universe were only props for mortals. Why should the Guru abide by the body? Daniel had no answer.
But He slid His incarnation out along the piano bench. He smoothed His great thighs and closed His small dry eyes as air expanded His belly. He was sat-chit-ananda, Happiness Spreading. He tilted His head back in private rapture. Ray spread his buttocks out on the zafu. There was the gong, and the nasal voice of the jikki jitsu: Let go of your stuff, you devotees of the Fully Realized! Let go, devotees, of your big-muscleman breathing!
Surrender the mindform
into the renowned current,
yield the spirit,
the aggravated subject-body,
into His heart-fire,
say His name, God.
The music started. It was surprisingly gentle. Pebbles and water, bells and chimes overlapping. It wasn’t hard to listen. The separate sounds made a long cradle. Before he knew what was happening Daniel was inside the cradle. He did not have to act to listen. His sister closed her eyes beside him.
Or a boat. It was music that could take you. Drown your thoughts and tune your mind to its own vibration. There were so many notes at once—how did He do it? How did He know so many different voices?
The Guru stopped abruptly, and Daniel felt the loss almost like nausea. His throat was tight as if he had to cry. He watched the jikki swim forward to reach the Guru’s feet, which they would learn were prodigiously expressive.
Even My feet are lovable! cried the Guru, laughing. Everyone laughed with Him. Daniel heard Ray’s familiar baritone.
Just like the cassette tape. Ray leaned in and whispered that this was one of His Open Letters. Some people called it poemform, spontaneous recitative, the Guru Himself had said that it might be inspired garbage.
Have you seen the mudden hives
in the eaves of My farmhouse, people?
His hands were huge and curled on top of his knees like lotuses. His feet were bare, His legs were open. When devotees received eye contact, they took the impact to their soft centers, they smiled through their tears, their hands moved together in prayer position. Daniel tried to shrink behind the shaking back of the man in front of him. Was the man crying?
Swallows swing between us.
And yet it has always seemed to
Me that the birds are scattering,
around you, people.
The Guru leaned forward. He was suddenly grinning, and Daniel saw that Ray was grinning.
Have you seen My
chickens? My coup de
Chicken shit can’t help being what it really
is! This is the fundamental life!
Were you looking for some other kind of truth,
people? Fundament comes from ass!
The ass of life, the great rumpus!
He barely gave Himself time to finish before He was laughing again, laughing so hard He had to hold His belly. Devotees took their cue, they doubled over.
Through His laughter: You are all so fixed on separation! You think you are separated from your own source of happiness! You think I am rejecting you because I don’t move you up a Level or I don’t praise your posture in the zendo or I give a concert and you’re not invited.
But you are not separate, do you hear
Me? You are with Me now!
Wiping His eyes, He looked around at each and every one of them.
And by the way, people, happiness does not depend on so-called happy experiences!
He turned back to the piano.
When the silence had lasted forever Daniel opened his eyes and looked sideways at his sister. He saw that with her eyes closed she no longer looked like a worldly child, fearful and self-consoling. For a moment he imagined that the Guru’s music had moved her organs from one side to the other as if they were caught at low tide between giant rocks, her heart in streamers like seaweed.
From Buddhism For Western Children. Used with permission of University Of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2018 by Kirstin Allio.