Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Importance of Gifts

My roommate said she had a gift for me. I saw the text on my phone as I went into a meeting. I was intrigued. The guessing game began.

Cleaning products?

A new frying pan?

Over the last few years my expectations for gifts has been significantly lowered. As I've gotten older, cash has replaced any and every elaborate birthday surprise. It's kind of sad how utilitarian my gift buying has become. All my creative in gift buying has been focused on my Buddhist teachers and for classes. And while that is admirable, I also lament the beauty of a gift, the actual effort to purchase something.

When I got home at 11 pm, my roommate brought out this thick stack of parchment sandwiched between navy blue covers that had been aged significantly. It was a Japanese monk's prayer book from the 19th century. What an astonishing gift!

She said it came from a Japanese antique store in Vinegar Hill by DUMBO. Items worth thousands of dollars that have dharma sprinkled throughout as decoration and hidden in desk drawers. The dharma had been retrieved from one of those drawers and sold to her and gifted to me.

I immediately remembered Geshe Michael Roach's writing on Je Tsongkapa, and how great dharma was treated. Je Tsongkapa, the founder of the Gelupka lineage in Tibet, would great all arriving dharma with bails of incense, welcoming them into his life as if they were a guest. What if I were to try that for this 100 year old book of wisdom.

What would Je Tsongkapa do to welcome this mysterious ancient package? First, he would probably wash his hands from riding the subway all day. I washed my hands and then thought: what next?

He would probably clear a space for it to be viewed.

I cleaned up the living room table, wiped down the mats, dried them and placed the monk's prayer book  on the clean wood.

What other things would Je Tsongkapa do?

He would set out offerings. It feels silly, unusual, and awkward to set out offerings for a book, but that's probably because I treat books just as product. But what if books were the dharma incarnate: the thing that could drive me, the key to opening my heart. What if books were a parchment representation of a Lama or an Angel?

I brought out my incense holder, incense, a globe filled with liquid and pure gold from Arizona, plastic flower from my Lama, a sprig of fresh Baby's Breath from flowers I purchased yesterday for the house,  some chocolate-fudge macaroons I baked for a Buddhist feast, and a tiny sombrero. My roommate came out and inquire about the row of offerings. I explained that it was going to be like welcoming a guest into a temple.

The incense was pleasing scent, the pure gold was the high gift of royalty that I personally liked because it reminds me of the Latin origins of my name. The plastic flowers symbolized eternal blossoming and the fresh flowers as a new beginning. The fudge macaroons were something to eat and a fine delicacy of coconut and cocoa. The sombrero was a nice hat or parasol.

The dew of sweat began to appear on my forehead as I rushed around. I patted my head with a napkin. The final offering is of prayer and meditation. I said the prayer of Manjushri and asked for wisdom in this matter before sitting down before my guest.

After offering the macaroons to my roommate, I sat before the guest. I opened the pages carefully. The book was composed of several different types of parchment. Rice paper perhaps, some thin and while others hardened and other paper shiny.

The calligraphy of the Japanese characters was beautiful placed in inky sky scrappers up and down the pages, which folded together like an accordion. Interspersed throughout the mantras and prayers were drawings. I'm not an expert but the drawings looked like Ladies of Gifts from the mandala as well as Avalokiteshvara and Majushri. There were also several Buddha looking figures. Of course I'm calling them by their Sanskrit names and this is Japanese Buddhism but I don't know the synonyms.
There were two different books of prayers. I began thinking about the devotion of this monk and his life a hundred years ago. How many million mantras have been whispered into this parchment and intermingled with the black ink? The dedication of a life that has now traveled to the other side of the world and is sitting in my Brooklyn living room before a tiny Mexican sombrero (made in China) chocolate from South America, shredded sweetened coconut from the tropics,  gold flakes from Arizona mines, and Tibetan incense wafting from his holder. The journey of these gifts and my guest that was re-discovered in the drawer of an antique shop in Vinegar Hill.

This is practice for how all dharma could be treated in my life. The ultimate dharma are fellow guests who stop by to enlighten me. My friends and family. What if I treated each visitor as precious dharma that has taken a long journey of hundreds of years to arrive at my door? Could there be nothing sweeter than to sit and listen to this guest and their stories?

I now see this as what I could be doing more of with not only my other books but my friends. And that is probably what Je Tsongkapa was demonstrating all those year ago. Each guest is precious and has taken the journey. Give gifts of gratitude and they will speak the nectar of truth. That is why offerings are so important. They clean my mind and prepares me for seeing the dharma in everything. From the looks of things in my life, I need to give more gifts.

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