Anna & Amber's Secret Powers
Chapter 3:NOW & ZEN pg. 8
"Oh my, excuse me!" said a lady in a mauve tracksuit.
Another brushed by the girls carrying a box labelled "Zen books" on it. She was trailed by a teenaged boy wearing a Primus t-shirt and jeans ripped at the knees followed by a black lady who was swinging a tennis racket in her hands.
"Hi-low," smiled Tennis Racket. It almost sounded like hello.
"Hi," said Amber.
"Low," she said in return.
Both girls looked quizzically at her while they were trying to get out of the way of the odd procession
"Can we help you?" asked a man who was bald and wearing a t-shirt that read "If your parents never had children then neither would you" on it. He seemed to be the one who was ushering along the rest in the group, which also included one small calm looking Asian man who was wearing monk's robes, sandals, and a tiny pair of glasses.
"Is this the place to catch the van to the Zen Center?" asked Anna.
"It is indeed," smiled Baldie. "Are you coming along with your family?"
"We're supposed to meet our family there," said Amber.
"Our mom said that she was going to meet us," added Anna.
The man stopped and regarded them. They were carrying their backpacks and looking somewhat tired and cold in the slants of light that cut across the olive tree orchard.
"You're a little young to be on your own," observed the man.
"We can pay for our ticket!" Amber was digging into her backpack to find the dollars and change she had hidden in one of its pouches. "Our mom gave us the money."
"Oh, it doesn't cost anything to catch a ride up the hill," smiled Baldie. The rest of his troupe was already assembling at the side of a green van that the girls could see parked in the side lot. He gave them a "come on, then" wave and together they all went to the car and melted into some seats that were still available in the front row of the van's three rows of seats.
As Baldie got in the front seat and the van started up, it seemed like the same twist of the car's ignition key had ignited odd conversation in the back of the van. Or, rather, almost song, as if they were reciting a litany, each tagging the other verbally with rhyme and riddle.
"Opposites attract, attack, spit back, merge and emerge," said Mauve Tracksuit to Primus.
"Resigned to not align, we don't mind, a sign that things are fine," Primus replied.
"The time is now, then its not. Then it is, when we are taught, we are caught," volunteered Tennis Racket.
Anna and Amber didn't say a thing, they just sat and gave looks to each other, like, what is this?
"Who knew blue was not true less red was ahead? Black was white with fear, white was night as dark, so as we near the end we're back to the start," chimed in Box of Books.
Then there was some kind of expectant quiet. The girls tried to sink deeper into the vinyl seats and did not make eye contact. Anna saw that a ball of fluff had lodged itself between her feet. Amber looked out the window, though she could see the faint reflections of the others in the glass. They watched as the van made its way up Old Baldy Road, crossing past the turnoff where Mountain Ave came up from Upland to meet the main road. The car's headlamps seemed to create a small cone of illuminated dust in the road ahead of them. Then they realized it was sprinkles of moisture coming down faintly.
Anna looked up to see Tennis Racket smiling at her; Amber felt Mauve Tracksuit give her a nudge. "Go ahead, you can try it," she urged.
"Try?" Anna managed to emit a noise that sounded like a question, but it was faint.
"Make a rhyme to show how opposites work to create the whole," offered Baldie. "Like, say, hot's not cold, cold's just old, but cool's not a fool and can form warm."
"Something like that," added Box of Books.
"Maybe they don't understand," said Tennis Racket.
This is when the small man in the robes spoke up.
"I think these girls do not know what we are talking about. My name is Xi Fu, and I am a teacher at the Zen center," he said warmly and extended his hand. When the girls did not take his hand he chortled and grabbed them gregariously anyway, pumping both Anna and Amber's hands vigorously before they had time to pull them away. "And you are Anna and you are Amber," he said, as if he could read minds.
"How do you know that?" Anna asked sharply, almost startled that he seemed to know their names.
He laughed an easy laugh. "Its written on your backpacks," he noted, nodding towards them. "So which one of you is which?"
"My name's Anna," said Anna. "She's Amber," she added when Amber did not volunteer her name.
"Well, Anna and Amber, we are glad to have you with us tonight! As you are our guests, allow us to teach you a few things you can think about on your own later on. The first thing is, use sunscreen. Its good for your skin to avoid skin cancer but find one that really works. That's number one." He then gave his own arm a little pinch, as if to show the girls what skin looked like.
They saw that they were approaching the part where the road goes through two little tunnels and wanted to tell the driver to honk, but they thought that Baldie might not humor two little kids.
"Now, the second thing is, Buddhists-- though there are different kinds, our style is from Japan though it originated in India and China -- all believe that the world is somewhat of an illusion, and that to have peace in life you must control your desire for illusionary things. Desire for such things creates suffering since we cannot always have what we want, and what we want may not be that good for us. Now, we all desire a little, to stay alive, to eat, to enjoy life, to be happy. Its not wrong, but it must be controlled so that it is wise. In order to break your mind from everyday things, we use Koans, or little puzzle poems, to make you think fresh."
He stopped and studied them in the dim light that filled the car to see if they were listening even if they were trying to hide it. Then he smiled and continued. "For example, here is one about students: Nan-in was a Japanese master during the Meiji era of the late 1800's. Once a student came to him to ask about learning Zen. Nan-in served him tea, but he poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring. The student watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. 'It is overfull. No more will go in!' said the student. 'Like this cup,' Nan-in said, 'you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?' That is one of the koans I like." The monk's eyes glittered in the red light of the car's dashboard instruments at this.
"So," he continued, "too often we think we know everything. We think that we want all pleasure and no pain, all light and no dark, all warm and no cold. But this is not the way the universe is. In the universe, these opposites must work together to form the whole. We would not know what dark was unless there was light to contrast with it. Hence, all of these opposites help to define one another. If this is true, there can be no pleasure without pain. There can be no happiness without sadness. And since this is the nature of the universe, we humans must take both sides of each coin as part of life. So that is tonight's exercise... to make up some poems about these ideas that opposites define each other. Do you want to try?"
"No, thank you," said Anna feebly.
"No means yes," said the monk. "As in, yes, I will not."
Anna looked like she couldn't say anything.
"I like your spirit," he continued. "Just remember to avoid being only all that you are not." He grinned as if to let them know the puzzling talk was all in good fun.
Then Anna, who was often the quieter of the two, spoke up. It was uncharacteristic, but her mind was ever curious, and she wanted to see if she could make something up too.
"High, we now know, is so: like a cup, it must go low before it fills up," she whispered.
The whole van erupted in cheers just as they passed the sign that said Mt. Baldy Village Restaurant!
Amber was instantly jealous. She held up one hand and slapped her fingers against her palm. "What's that?" she demanded.
The Monk was beside himself. He said "Wonderful! Its the sound of one hand clapping!" while the rest of the Van was awash in laughter and astonishment at these two little pupils. Then the Monk opened the window and spit. "Here's another Koan: Don't pull on Superman's cape, and don't spit into the wind," he quoted with his finger in the air.
"But that's an old Jim Croce song!" exclaimed Mauve Tracksuit.
"Ah, you know your ancient Buddhist texts!" he chided playfully.
This is not the kind of Monk we expected, thought Anna to herself.
Then, beside them, the girls recognized the forest of tall populars and eucalyptus trees by the small stream they had often visted. It glided past as the car moved up the mountain, as if the pale trees were ghostly white fingers half illuminated by the moon, pointing to them the direction of the stars.
"But Xi Fu," said Amber, who had been thinking. "People want good things, nobody would want to embrace the bad side of the coin."
"Yes, excellent question. I did not say we should choose bad, or that we have to like it."
"But you said we should take both sides of a coin."
"Yes, a coin never has only one side. We may favor one side, sure, but to hold the coin in our hand we have to hold both sides. Of course evil is unpleasant to us, and good builds a health and rewards us all. All we mean is that perhaps the world is more complicated than just black and white. There is both good and bad in everything." He shrugged.
"But there's no good to a kidnapper or a killer," objected Amber. "I hate them, they are terrible people."
"True, they are horrible. But in fact, let us consider kidnapping. It is obviously terrible, heartbreaking. We Buddhists don't say, 'feel no pain, it is fake.' We feel the pain, but we try to control how we respond to it, what it makes us do, what we allow ourselves to do because of it. Like a stone in a lake, it may make a violent splash, but then it may ripple forth and there will be many unexpected things. Do you remember Amber Hagerman?"
"Who?" said Mauve Tracksuit.
"Amber alerts." said Tennis Racket.
"Indeed," confirmed Xi Fu. "Amber was kidnapped. It was terrible. But from that came the Amber Alerts."
"That's my name!" chirped Amber.
"What's an Amber Alert?" asked Anna. They had never heard that term before.
"After her, the police realized they needed a way to quickly let the world know to be on the lookout for a kidnapped child, then invented them. It doesn't happen very often but when it does its in the news. So our lawmakers in the government developed a system so that everyone can start looking as soon as possible. Even the signs on freeways can now light up saying, 'look out for this child.' Since then, seventeen kidnapped kids have been rescued. So, while it was terrible what happened to Amber, that sadness led to something good and kids since then have been saved. In this way, good can ripple out. Do we want evil to happen? No. Should we let it destroy us? No,but we can be at peace understanding that even evil in the world has balance. We make our way up the middle path just as you would crawling up the rocks in the middle of this stream we are passing by." He gestured out the window to the trees flitting by in the dark.
Anna looked at Amber like, this guy is crazy! but Amber seemed enraptured with him and deep in thought.
By that time the girls realized that the van had finally rolled past the road to Ice House canyon and that the Zen Center would only be a few more minutes drive up the hill. They could even see lights from what they thought might be the Deer Lodge nearby that. Things were looking better for them, and their plan was working out well after all. Now, all they would have to do is fetch the box of stuff from the Deer Lodge and get back to the Zen Center by 8, get down the hill and then take the bus home. It was going to work out perfectly, and no one would suspect that they had been so tricky....Or so they thought.
If only they had realized that an Amber Alert type notice to be on the lookout had just been issued... FOR THEM!