We kneeled before the wooden box for an eternity, until my thighs burned and the bustling sounds of outside taunted me. Trails of incense smoke curled about our heads. Mimicking my father’s motions, I rolled the juzu, the prayer beads, between my palms creating a raspy beat to which we chanted, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo . . . Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” while staring deeply into the foreign characters lining the scroll within the box. I understood them to be Chinese as they looked identical to the markings on our packages of fried rice and eggrolls. Periodically, my father would tap a tiny gong. Sometimes, I read from the book, the writings of Nichiren Daishonin, but understood nothing. The words were not words at all, just sounds committed to memory after years of repetition. But I read nonetheless, driven my desire to coax approval from my father. I hung on his every nod, every glimmer of satisfaction that danced in his eyes when I recited whole portions from memory. The ritual, more routine for me than the experience of enlightenment and purification it was supposed to be, was a mysterious burden that stole my precious play time each day. I did not protest and tried my best to appear intrigued at the stories that I barely remember now. Something about a man buried up to his neck in sand, a miraculous rescue and strange works like Dharma, Siddhartha, Buddha. I have faint memories of a temple, carrying a scroll and wearing a robe that was too big and hung past my wrists and ankles.
My father has been dead now twenty years and it was just years ago that I actually began to understand what we were doing there, kneeling before a box surrounded by odd trinkets and Chinese characters on display within. My father was a Buddhist and from what I’ve read, devout. An old love, Virginia, with whom my father spent time towards the end of his life, shipped me a box of items he had left at her home. It was brimming with sheet music and notebooks full of jottings and observations and gathering minutes in his neat all-caps handwriting. These were tiny glimpses into his Buddhist life; names of members, dates and topics of meetings, page after page of notes on the end of suffering, Karma, purification and chants. I try to envision my father in a crowd, voicing the thoughts on those pages. I choke back a laugh. I remember my father as an unrefined, rough man not a budding intellectual.
From the browning pages of decades old notebooks, I am meeting the father I never knew and discovering something of myself as well. Ever the rebel, spitting in the face of organized religion, perhaps it was my father who planted the seed that sprouted into a lifetime of curiosity in me, the principles of the Buddha, while forgotten literally, stirring unconsciously within.
My father’s things give me a sharp pang of longing. For the first years of my life, he was all I had, our relationship marked by brief periods of normalcy and togetherness peppered with long absences. I felt abandoned most of the time, wondering where he had gone off to and when he would return, if ever. After all, the world was full of constant dangers and schemes and despicable men who would sap a life without a single thought of leaving one boney girl an orphan.
Now, even as I write this, I am wondering about the power of thoughts to shape reality as mentioned in so many current writings and spewing from podiums in packed arenas across the country these days. Perhaps my thoughts worked their way into reality then, my unending worry for my father when he was away, the constant dread of unspeakable deeds that would prevent his return and my rescue. He went away one day with me, tears blurring my sight, trying to catch the car that carried him further and further down the street. I ran full speed up the center of Peacock Street , determined to overtake the vehicle. I wasn’t sure what I’d do when I caught him, I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but it didn’t matter. The white hatchback disappeared from sight and I had to fight the urge to sit down right there in the middle of the street and weep until he returned. Good thing I didn’t because he never returned. We buried him a few years later just weeks after fervent plans for his return home were being made. I worried every day while he was gone.
He would be a grandfather now, mid-fifties. I wonder what kind of man he would have been, what he’d think of me now, how my life would be different if I were able claim the love of at least one parent rather than spending too many years like the ugly poodle in the pet shop window wagging my tail at anyone who looked in my direction. For now, I’ll sip tea and pour over Buddhist notebooks, thankful for a handful of years with my father, for life lessons and no more worries.
After spending much of my life as an orphan, I piece together an image of my father from a box of his belongings sent by an old friend.