Friday, December 18, 2009

Enlightenment -- and What I Wore.

A Zen Story Retold.

A rich lady who wanted to be enlightened climbed a mountain to meet a holy woman. Reports that the rich lady climbed the mountain in 400 dollar Italian pumps are completely false. In fact she'd bought new high-class hiking boots for the occasion. Extremely comfortable, excellent traction, and also quite chic. For hiking boots anyway.

Certainly it's a question that merits consideration: what shoes do you wear to be enlightened?

Also false are reports that the holy woman was up there wearing a white sheet or even naked. She had a down parka. A cheap one and patched with duck tape but still -- real down. A few tiny feathers were caught in her wooly brow. Reports that the holy woman had once been a courtesan or even a princess are likewise groundless. No question but that this old woman had been Plain Jane even half a century before.

The rich woman presented gifts as she had been instructed: a garland of orchids, a specialty fruit basket, beeswax candles. The holy woman was very interested in these gifts at first, but afterwards looked quite disappointed. As the rich lady began to prostrate before her she could be heard muttering, "Still no cream corn! Why, after all this time, can't people understand that I would simply like a few cans of creamed corn!"

As she prostrated, the rich lady recited the obligatory verses of praise. And all the while she was thinking, "This had better not be a scam! Maybe this old girl is going to be re-selling the Alfonso mangos in two hours time." The rich lady was also worried this might all be joke and there was a camera somewhere and this was all going to be on TV and then she would never ever be promoted to executive vice president.

Still, she'd come this far -- she'd bought new boots, she'd gotten a blister -- and so she joined her palms above her head and said, "Please! Show me the way to enlightenment!"

The holy woman stared at her. The holy woman ran her tongue over her desiccated lips. She had an enormous thick tongue, a real dong of a tongue, the kind of tongue possessed only by people in nursing homes, a tongue seen wandering around the mouth after the mind is gone.

"You're sure that's what you want?" said the holy woman. Her voice was unexpectedly tender and motherly, as though she were asking if French Literature was really such a practical thing to be majoring in. "You're sure that's what you want?"

"Yes, that's what I want! The student is ready! Show me the way to enlightenment!" The rich lady recited it thrice, as she'd been instructed.

The holy woman sighed, like this was really not what she was in the mood for today, but still she put her shoes on. She had an old pair of sneakers, quite incongruous really, like a high school boy might wear for track and field. She laced them up carefully and then she pushed herself up to a standing position.

"Well, all right then," said the old woman and transformed in a flash into a gigantic three-headed demon, a dank shaggy saber-toothed thing, which drove the rich lady out the door and out onto the mountain path.

"WTF!" thought the rich lady abbreviatedly. "Why did I ever sign up for yoga! I could have signed up for hula! I could have signed up for Pilates!" The rich lady kept running, always just a few steps in front of the demon, gagging at hideous smell of its breath: dead puppies and peanut butter.

Although the holy woman might have seemed kind of fake, but the demon was entirely real. Vicious and horrifying and -- Sorry -- not in any way comical.

In spite of the fact the rich lady had never seen a demon before, this demon was not wholly unfamiliar. One of its three heads was that of a guy who'd put a gun to her once, the only time in her life she'd ever been threatened, a strung-out dead soul face -- even blown up three times the size and sulphur-colored she could recognize him.

As for the second head, well, of course she recognized that one -- she was married to it. Her good husband, who had a personality at work supposedly, who did as he was told to do, who thought as he was told to think, who could no more have an original thought than he could lay an egg. What an agreeable thing, it seems, to be marry an agreeable man. Until you find yourself in a walled-up room screaming, Is anyone there?

The third head, well, that also was easy. That was her own face in the mirror. Not the face she saw -- the face that always threatened to arrive. The face she attempted to ward off with creams and exercises, with yoga and antioxidant supplements, with positive thinking. Here was that face, her own face, wrecked by time, by bitterness and busy-ness, by the life she'd left unlived.

All three heads had the same horrible teeth, the same awful breath, as the demon ran behind her shrieking in unison the same terrible word.

NOW! Shrieked the demon. Now! Now! Now!

The rich lady sprinted along the mountain path, the demon close upon her, its claws extended, its teeth about to chomp.

NOW! Shrieked the demon. Now! Now! Now!

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