All life is suffering. At the zendo where Jolie went Thursdays after sixth period, not much in the way of portable wisdom got dispensed, but this was, near as she could tell, the through line. It didn’t show up in quizzes or drills. Only twice had she even encountered it as a verbal formulation: once among some pamphlets racked in black plastic by the door; once in a piece of supplemental reading – the Dhammapada, maybe. Or Wikipedia. But by the time she stumbled into the antechamber for what would turn out to be her final visit, this First Noble Truth no longer seemed like a subtlety. She was five minutes late. She was possibly a little tipsy. She forgot to ditch her backpack before bending to remove her shoes, and it whammed into an end table behind her. And when she turned to keep the delicate alms bowl on top from falling, what struck her about the room beyond was her own sadness, flashing back at her from every surface.
There were the mats, for example, reed mats so thin their only conceivable purpose was to call attention to the cushioning they failed to provide. And there was the roshi, nearly as thin in his penitential sweater. Her mental imagery going into this had been shaped, admittedly, by the statues in Chinese restaurants – smiling and slightly louche Buddhas in 70s vests and love beads, their plump bellies begging to be rubbed – but Roshi Steve could only muster
a glower. And then suffusing everything was the light from the picture window that ran the basement’s far wall. Something had been done to the glass or to the courtyard outside to lend each object in here a terrible clarity. The hard linoleum. Her clumsy fingers. The kamikaze bowl.
People looked up from their meditations just in time to see the bowl shatter. The usual Open Session crowd was office workers in their twenties, a few fixie dudes with man buns and frockish shirts mixed in, but the light brought out lines in their faces. (Rivers, she used to call them, running a thumb from the corners of her mother’s eyes. Mommy, another river.) Mindfulness on such faces could look like anything from fatigue to a sort of pinched constipation, but never like actual enlightenment. Yet when the roshi sighed and used his bamboo thing to indicate a mat – could he smell the booze from there? – Jolie tried to accept his wisdom. The shards at her feet were an illusion, and could wait. Her soul could not. And the desolation she’d spent these last months circling the edges of? That was just what life was. The way a fire was its burning.