I would perfect the art of giving. I would do it discreetly, request anonymity and refuse a place in the front row. And somehow, God knows how, I would lose my pride in the process. At the end, it would not be for my generosity that Rinpoche felt obliged to facilitate my journey from this life to the next, but rather for my enlightened humility. Dream on.
One night, after I’d been studying Buddhism for about eight years, I suddenly dreamt of a rich old uncle who had died when I was nine years old and whom I had hardly thought of since. He was considerably older than his wife, my mother’s oldest sister, but as it was a second marriage for both, the incompatibility of their ages was quickly dismissed among the family gossips in favor of the financial benefits to my aunt. They lived in a cavernous apartment on Park Avenue with little to recommend it besides its rather melancholy grandeur, but after the wedding, all the big family holidays such as Christmas and Easter were celebrated at Uncle Mort’s, replete with a crew of dour Irish maids in shiny black uniforms with starched white collars and aprons tied at their waists.
For three or four years before his death, Uncle Mort was confined to a wheelchair. He was the only person I knew in a wheelchair, the only person I knew who had servants, the only person I knew who lived on Park Avenue. When, as a little girl, I put it all together, I theorized that the richer you were, the less you had to do, and I concluded that if Uncle Mort had been“really”rich, he would not get out of bed at all, and would have someone wipe his ass for him.
A few days after this dream, I was scheduled to take Rinpoche uptown for his annual checkup with Camilla Porter’s internist. As we walked toward Park Avenue from the Lexington subway stop at 77th Street, I suddenly remembered the dream. In it, I was an adult, yelling at Uncle Mort, who was confined to his chair. Engorged with wrath, I screamed, “You goddamn son of a bitch, get up and do something! You think your money can buy your life?”
In the reception room, Rinpoche immediately fell asleep, which was his habit in such circumstances. I leafed through magazines and puzzled over my dream until the nurse called for “Mr. Rinpoche.” It was a routine checkup and afterwards we walked over to Madison Avenue, where we stopped at a coffee shop. By that time, I was filled with resolve.
Sitting opposite me in a booth with a slab of slippery Formica between us, he ordered his usual: a plate of french fries with gravy.
I started with the dream. He said nothing. I waited for questions about Uncle Mort, his illness, my aunt. He continued to eat, chewing slowly. Finally he asked, “What time was that dream?” I told him that it had occurred the previous weekend, during an afternoon nap. “Afternoon?” he repeated. I nodded. He waved his hand in a gesture of insignificance.
I would not be deterred. I started to cry.
“Are you crying about your uncle?” he asked, smiling cheerfully.
“No. I am crying because I am such a stupid student.”
“Stupid student?” he said, his mouth full of fries. “Maybe. But that’s no reason to cry.”
“My Uncle Mort tried to buy his life with money. And you know what I want more than anything? I want money to buy my death. I want to be rich, I want as much money to throw around the dharma as Camilla Porter, so that when I die, entire monasteries will see fit to pray for me.”
There. I had said it. More shameful a secret than having no faith in my own enlightenment. No, same shame. Same thing. Buy enlightenment. Cover up the inside with purchases, packages, ribbons and bows. But at least I had said it. Even if I kept my head down and couldn’t look at him.
Then he asked, “You think buying life, buying death, one thing or two different things?”
“Rinpoche,” I answered sharply, “this isn’t about my understanding of life and death. This is about money.”
With that, he started to giggle. His whole body seemed to shake with delight.
I was humiliated. I had told him my darkest secret and he couldn’t care less. I called for the check.
We sat on the subway in silence. Only when I assumed that he had fallen asleep did I dare to look in his direction. But he wasn’t asleep. Instead, he was looking at me with infinite tenderness, and he was still softly laughing.
Gail Farley is a writer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This story is adapted from an autobiographical novel in progress.