Sunday, May 15, 2011

the Chinese menu

Once upon a time, when I was hip-deep in Zen Buddhism and its practices, a woman acquaintance asked me about it -- what was it like, what did you do, etc. In trying to explain some kind of simplified view, I mentioned that there was sometimes chanting.

"Really?" she said. "What does it sound like?"

And the first thing that popped into my head was "The Heart Sutra," one of the most-chanted and much-liked short pieces in Mahayana Buddhism. It popped into my head and I began to chant it for her. I hadn't gotten half-way through when I saw she was fidgeting in her seat -- fidgeting, I realized, in an effort not to laugh.

I stopped chanting and looked at her. She couldn't contain herself: "It sounds like a Chinese restaurant menu" she exploded merrily. And when I thought about it a minute -- allowed my mind to stop solemnizing about Zen Buddhism -- I realized she was absolutely right and I was forced to laugh too.

I was always grateful for that small turn-about, that shift from seeing something one way when really there were all sorts of ways in which to see it.

Sometimes I wonder if laughter isn't a pretty good yardstick for spiritual endeavor. I don't want to laugh at anyone else's endeavor, but it feels healthy and sane to be able to laugh a little about the seriousness, the determination, the whole-hearted effort I can bring to bear. "Who died and left you in charge?" some puckish voice demands. "How could you be on the right track if you weren't laughing?"

Naturally, a good laugh depends in part on the preceding seriousness, so seriousness is a definite requirement ... serious seriousness ... right up to the moment when life yanks my chain and the Chinese menu comes into clear focus.

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