She was sitting on a bench outside the grocery store where I shop. It was 8 a.m. and drizzling—typical for spring in Eugene. I watched her sip coffee out of a well-worn Starbucks cup as I pulled into the parking space right in front of her. Walking past, I said, “Wow. It’s cold.” Her response was to thank me for not pulling away as soon as I had seen her; the open spot, which I had attributed to lucky parking-space karma, had been bypassed by other drivers put off by her appearance.
She smiled, toothless. Maybe she was 40. Maybe she was 60.
This is what she wore: pink sneakers, pink tights, and a long pink patterned skirt that almost reached her ankles. These were topped by a purple-toned sweatshirt and a straw hat. She had wrapped an entire skein of dark rose yarn around her hat, letting random yarn pieces loop down to her shoulders.
“I don’t steal,” she told me. “Never have. Never will.” I just looked at her and, without thinking, said, “I think you are beautiful.” Suddenly we were caught in a timeless moment together, both pleased with our shared intimacy. It was one of those moments that remind me how important it has been to do the hard work of scraping layers off of my thinking mind over all these years—the ones that make up the concepts that have a way of hardening into judgments and predisposed opinions.
Years ago, I sat with a Korean monk, a guest in our temple, who suddenly looked up at me in the middle of our sitting together.
“Who are you?”
He was staring at me hard.
He repeated, “Who are you?!”
He caught me so off guard that my mind was completely blank. Looking back at him, I couldn’t find a single word to use in response. We just sat there staring at each other. “That’s good,” he told me. “Stay there. Stay there every day, all the time. Then we can meet in Buddhaland.” I had no idea what he was talking about. But I knew the wordless presence he was naming. Later, he reminded me about the story of an old Zen master who, when asked by his student Chao-chou about the true way, responded that “every-day mind” is the true way. He was teaching him that there was no need to be special on this mighty path of enlightenment. The true way doesn’t need us to completely understand a situation to be present with it. It just needs us to be present. Completely. This is where we experience true intimacy, and this is where miracles happen.
When Chao-chou heard his teacher’s words, he was suddenly enlightened. He had been given permission to drop everything away except for his experience of their conversation. When he did, his life became crystal clear; not because he was special, or a saint, or touched by God, but because he was ordinary, in an ordinary moment. And he was willing to stay inside of it without judgment, without trying to outsmart it.
This feeling of precious openness allows us to see everything in our lives with a beginner’s mind that captures moments when no-me is looking into the eyes of another no-me.
“Who are you?” I asked the grocery store woman.
She just grinned her toothless grin. Then, I swear I heard her say, “Buddha.”
Give a Little
My homeless friends tell me that little gifts matter more than we know. Here are some favorites: bananas, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches on soft bread, cups of coffee, bottled water, a McDonald’s hamburger, and baby wipes.
In 1999, Geri Larkin founded Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit, Michigan. Her latest book is Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, reviewed here.