Spring 2011, #17



     by Jeffrey Greene

We had been invited to Joyce’s “going away party,” as we were told to regard it. The service was held at the Tradition Center where the streets in Lausanne plunge toward Avenue de Rodainie by the lakeshore. The center, on the third floor, had a lobby, a small kitchen, and the education hall. The new Kadampa rented it by the hour. Most of the tables from the evening massage class had been pushed along the wall for a buffet of fruit and salads and the chairs lined up for the service.

Our leader waited as we took our seats, his eyes closed lightly as he spoke, thumbs and forefingers forming Os above his thighs. Blond, chubby, mid-thirties, a skin tone like faint bruises darkened the corners of his eyes. His smile remained unchanging, a high, short laugh that came more like punctuation or a quirky gesture when no one else laughed. The program said that he held a doctorate in international affairs and worked as a consultant at the World Trade Organization. But for us, he was a spiritual medium, teaching us how to position our spines, balance our heads, and pace our breathing. We were asked to close our eyes and see only white light. We were told to feel Joyce’s happiness, then to see her physically, to see her smiling, to help her become purified, to liberate her collectively.
“To fulfill your potential you must overcome negative mental states,” he insisted. “Anger and guilt are delusions. They are the clouds of our self-centeredness.” But because he said "clouds," we saw clouds.

Joyce's son had been released from prison the day she died. She had spent the day shopping and cooking to celebrate his arrival. Energized, she hefted a case of Coors up the stairs. No one believed she took her own life.

Our leader told the bitter story of his own brother spending his days watching television or drinking after his wife left him. He died in a hotel tub the night of his sister's wedding, the whole family together. “I wrestled with the delusions,” our leader confessed with the laugh, the measured smile. “The delusions stood in the way of truth. I felt anger first, and then guilt. These states of mind are motivated by selfishness.”

We understood the parallels, though Joyce had put two continents and an ocean between herself and her family. She had been running away since she was fourteen and had disappeared for three years before her death.

Our leader claimed, “This is Joyce’s great moment. It is her birthday party. You must make her joy your joy. See Joyce before you as happy.”

While we chanted OM MANI PAME HUM twenty-one times out loud and the rest in silence, we could see out the Center's windows, offices after hours in Lausanne, the fresh chill of early spring, the dampness that comes off the lake. We were only a few blocks from the park below Chemin des Pecheurs where the swans sleep on the grass. Most of us couldn’t see Joyce as light or absorbed into the form of Buddha. Most of us hadn’t seen her in twenty years or more, except for the pictures that we passed among ourselves. She stood over six feet and had grown so obese that we searched for the face we knew, the one on the cover of our programs. There was almost something fierce in her transformation, as if someone else had lived inside her all these years and we were seeing her for the first time, after her death.

"Joyce was no Buddhist and would have laughed at this service," Susan, Joyce's sister, pointed out during "Remembrances." This comment might have stung the youngest sister, Sarah, but Sarah knew well enough that Joyce would find a way to mock the prayers. Sarah began practicing at the center over the past several years and taught the eight steps to happiness to children and friends. She had been stricken with Epstein Barr syndrome, leaving her paralyzed for months. Buddhism entered her like spring into a winter tree. She wanted to clear her mind, allow herself moments of peace before an altar with portraits of the spiritual director and Buddha Shakyamuni above red and orange woven scarves, incense and chants drifting.

Most of us couldn’t sing the name Avalokiteshvara, but Sarah did with a lovely voice, as did her daughters who bore a startling resemblance to her, the same pale freckled skin, black hair, curl at the corners of the mouth. If the daughters had met Joyce at all, it would have been only on a brief visit when they were very young, the one-time Joyce returned (with) present her son, half African-American, their cousin.

Our leader, still smiling, asked us to withhold our doubts and search hearts to find conviction, substitute Jesus or Mohammed for Buddha if it helped, not only for Joyce’s sake but also for our own, as we might erase negative karmic imprints.

Charts of the body, the lymphatic system, hung around us. They were instructional guides for the massage class, pressure points for drainage, the weave of the body’s vessels. Only hours before Joyce’s service, students had been paired up to practice strokes and touch depths. They’d learn how to press the fingertips or the heel of the palm with rhythmic motions to deficient “well areas,” connective tissue, and hidden layers of muscles.

One massage table stood beside our leader, a framed picture of Avalokiteshvara, a statue, incense dishes, and a Joyce’s photograph taped to a stick. It was a photograph showing Joyce years younger. With his thumb and ring finger, our leader flicked imaginary sesame seeds into an imaginary fire. They were the seeds of Joyce’s negative karma accumulated over many lives. They flew in rhythm with the mantra.

As Sarah led the singing, Anna, the middle sister, whispered translations in French to a friend, which had the odd effect of whispering at a movie theater. The parents, Walter and Gail, sat in front of our leader until the sharing of remembrances. Walter turned around to face us and read a message that Joyce once wrote to her counselor: “No matter how much I tried to push them away, my family always found me and supported me.”

Only Walter and his daughters shared remembrances, and Gale sat rigid, red about the eyes, staring into the lobby at a tank thick with water grasses and small fish whose stripes were metallic blue under the ultraviolet tube. “This is too much. How could Sarah do this to us?” Gail said under her breath.

The rest of us were friends of the family, business associates, Joyce’s English teacher about to retire from the International School, and we listened, wondering if we had something to add, such as how smart Joyce had been, how well read.

Most of the remembrances were from childhood, Joyce’s passion for mischief, contrariness. But then Susan reported on the memorial brunch at Denny’s that she had attended, how much Joyce had been loved by her remaining friends, a lesbian couple and a fellow inmate at rehab. Though her health had been fragile from her weight and hepatitis, she left rehab or was thrown out. She had just received a disabilities package from the utility company where she had been employed for decades. She began buying kitchen supplies and furniture for the new apartment. Perhaps she imagined that her son would live there too.

Our leader said Joyce would be transformed into emptiness, drawn by celestial hooks through the bowels of Avalokiteshvara, up through the Buddha’s crown to the white light. The singing continued. “The candle is emptiness” Our leader lit it, and then put the flame to Joyce’s picture on a stick. He then closed his eyes. Sarah led OM MANI PAME HUM once again twenty-one times out loud and then silence. Joyce’s picture burned poorly, the flag falling toward the cloth on the massage table. Our leader made no attempt to stoke the fire in order to turn Joyce more thoroughly into emptiness. The service continued with the dedication of our collective virtue sung three times, followed by the “Prayers of the Virtuous Tradition,” and the “9-line Migtsema Prayer” sung three times. We ended with “Amazing Grace,” chosen to give our group of neophytes a comfortable collective voice, although Susan, the oldest now, let her voice slip into harmony, rising a third, and soaring over our amateurish though respectable rendition. The song is designed for this, to set one voice free.