Saturday, October 17, 2009

Coffee With the Buddha

I grew up in a suburb some distance from Minneapolis, far enough out that kids made a special trip to go there but most people didn't go that often, close enough that a few of our parents worked there. And when I was in high school--newly minted driver's license and the freedom that came with it, grunge and coffee culture on the rise--I suddenly discovered this entire city that had been just out of my reach. It had multiple universities filled with the most interesting people, it had one-way streets which I was constantly trying to go the wrong way on, and it had all these coffee shops.

There was this one coffee shop in particular. It sat (sits, though I only ever drive past it nowadays on the way to the pediatrician) right on the edge of the U of M campus, where the university meets the bars, which meet the vegetarian restaurants, which meet the low-income housing. It's an amazing conflux of places, and in those days, it was an amazing conflux of people. Students reading, professors grading, homeless people staying warm, young punked-up parents with their green-haired toddlers--they all roamed around together and somehow seemed to all enjoy one another.

I had recently started smoking (don't worry, I've quit since), and every possible evening was spent with my friends in that coffee shop, smoking, playing cards, and drinking--as often as not, Jolt. (Remember Jolt? Man, I could totally go for "twice the caffeine" these days.) And we always made friends. One night, a very intelligent, though incredibly superior, man taught me to play Go. He spent hours explaining the history and significance of every aspect of the game. I can explain to you the many ways in which Go reflects the culture from which it originates; I cannot tell you how to play it. Another night, we met a man who wanted to play cards with us. In hindsight, and with greater sympathy, I realize he was almost certainly quite ill. At the time, he seemed simply entertaining. He didn't follow the rules of rummy and kept slapping down cards at unpredictable times, and he repeatedly tapped his cigarette over his head, even after we offered him an ash tray. Another man just stared at the fish tank all night, every night. One evening, my friend was waiting for us in line and started talking with the fish tank guy. He was a little confused, hard to follow, but really kind and easy to talk to. Turned out, most people were.

One night I was there alone--maybe I'd just been dying to get out of the house, maybe I was waiting for my friends, I don't remember. But I got to talking with the guy at the next table. He was probably in his 20s, graduated from the university not too many years before, just hanging out and reading the paper. And while we were talking about whatever it was, we hit on the topic of teaching and learning. And he told me a story about an introductory philosophy course he had taken. It was taught, he said, by a very well-respected man who was in every way the stereotypical professor--glasses, crazy graying hair, etc. (I always think of him as looking like Richard Dreyfuss, possibly because my dad is also a college professor and he looks a little like a cross between Richard Dreyfuss and Geraldo Rivera, but that's neither here nor there.) They were discussing Buddhism and the professor was explaining its basic tenets and the life story of the Buddha that had given rise to Buddhism. In the back of the class was a kid who was sort of the classic dumb college kid--got in by the skin of his teeth, athletic scholarship, taking this class and hoping it would be easy. And when the professor asked for comments or questions, this student burst out with, "Buddha was a cool fuckin' dude!" The class, of course, all laughed, especially my companion and his friends. When the class was over, the professor asked them to stay behind, and he asked why they had laughed. They said it was just such a strange thing to say about Buddha. And the professor thoughtfully replied, "Buddha was a cool fuckin' dude. And it just goes to show how unenlightened you are that you would laugh at another man's enlightenment."

My new friend didn't say much after that, at least not much that stayed with me. He left or went back to his paper. My friends showed up, or I went home. I don't remember. But I have always remembered that story. This morning, I overheard a person I didn't know saying that someone else I didn't know was "a cool dude." And for the millionth time since that night, I thought of that story. Moments of true enlightenment are rare and usually arrive unnoticed until later. But that was one for me. Like everyone else, I struggle with the daily battles, internal and external, that make up my life as I try to make sense of my world. And like the student in that philosophy class, I hope that I will always be able to see the truths that plainly, that I will always be able to speak them so clearly, and that I will always be brave enough to announce my own enlightenment. And that I will always be enlightened enough never to laugh at another man's.


Sarah said...

My response to this post, with zero honesty or laughter, I promise you, was "DUDE." Everything about it reminded me of the pre-mommy days, in a great way, and yes I do remember Jolt! I was in it mostly for "all the sugar", and I'm grateful that I'm not a diabetic now to prove it... but really, truly, your final wish to easily sense your own enlightenment, to be fearless in sharing it, and never to laugh at another's... I can fully identify with those thoughts. It's so easy to assume that those around you are on the same page, in the same moment, but you just never know. It's a shame more of us don't find it a priviledge to share those moments, rather than an opportunity to feel superior. Thanks for telling your story!

Sarah said...

Uh...LOL! I meant WITH honesty and zero laughter!! :D

Bex said...

I had one of those warm, nostalgic feelings reading that story. Warmth from thinking of all the sweetest little moments in are lives, the ones we collect like stones and take out to look at time and time again; nostalgia for the old student days when we spent all our time in coffee shops, talking, feeling happy with ourselves, and always learning. I really miss that. Why is it so hard to recreate with jobs, houses, and children?

Wendi said...

Great, great story!

jasmine said...

I loved Jolt. It was a problem for me.

Jasmine said...

You could possibly be the BEST commenter EVER. Sadie and I were saying how much we love your comments. Thanks for the support!