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Singing to the Choir

A lyrical excerpt from Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

Sister Melody sang from the moment she awoke until she closed her eyes to sleep. She sang ballads, love songs, sonnets, marches, folk, traditional, blues, and spirituals throughout the day and night. She couldn’t help herself. It was her nature.

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Though she had a beautiful voice, her singing could be annoying during times of quiet meditation. Nobody had the heart to ask her to stop, but many of the Sisters approached the Abbott and asked her to do something. “I’ll see what I can do,” the Abbott always replied, but did nothing.

After a few years of inaction, the Sisters took matters into their own hands. They told Sister Melody that the Abbott had asked her to sustain from singing another song.

Sister Melody was heartbroken, but complied. She became increasingly depressed and morose. Eventually, the Abbott noticed and asked her what had brought on such a state in one who had previously been so joyful.

“You surely know,” Sister Melody replied. “Without song, there is no life. I am dying.”

“Why aren’t you singing?”

“I was told that you forbade me to do so.”

“I did no such thing.”

“You didn’t?”

The Abbott shook her head. Sister Melody immediately broke into song. Her face beamed with delight.

“As a result of their lies, I will have the sisters who told you I’d asked you to stop singing join you every day and have you start a choir. You will practice from ten in the morning until two in the afternoon, daily. You are the director.”

“Thank you Abbott,” Sister Melody sang. “You are the sunshine of my life.”

“Tell me,” the Abbott frowned. “Who is it that told you I’d forbid you to sing?”

“I heard it through the grapevine. I can’t name names.”

“In that case, the entire community will join you. We will bring the same vigor and insight we bring to our meditation practice.”

“Oh happy day!”

Many tuneful stories at: Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

I Can’t Hear You!

A sleep-deprived excerpt from Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

There was an older man named Alejandro, who lived down the road from the Abbott’s monastery. He loved playing music from Mexico and the land of the Incas and played it night and day. He was hard of hearing so he had to play the music as loudly as he could, so he could hear his own voice and accompanying drum. Sometimes, he would drum and sing until he fell asleep just as the sun rose.

A number of the nuns were upset with Alejandro and complained to Abbott Tova about his annoying, and off-key voice and drumming, keeping them awake night after night.

The good Abbott knew that Alejandro pined for his childhood sweetheart, whom he’d married and lived with for sixty years. She wasn’t about to ask him to stop, but also understood how difficult it could be to sleep when his voice and instrument’s sounds traveled through the night air and seeped through one’s pores like slow torture.

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“Please, do something,” one of the senior nun’s, Sam, implored Abbott Tova.

“I cannot ask him to stop, nor will I,” the Abbott replied.

“Then many of the nuns will fall asleep during practice and miss their chance for enlightenment,” Sister Sam retorted.

“If they are not able to awaken during sleep, then I have taught them nothing.”

“Many of the chores will not be done if they are sleeping during the day,” Sister Sam continued. “The garden will not be planted. The meals will not be prepared and the floors will not be swept.”

“So what?”

“So what? We’ll starve and live in filth, is so what.”

“You are only seeing two alternatives Sister Sam. Telling Alejandro that he can no longer sing for his lost love and find what little comfort it gives him, or letting him sing and our community goes to ruin.”

“I don’t see any other way,” Sister Sam surmised.

“Then you are caught in Limited Mind and must have slept badly. There is always another way.” Abbott Tova went to her chest and began rummaging around and throwing out one item after another. “Ah, here they are,” she said, and handed a bag to Sister Sam.

Sister Sam opened the bag, picked up a small wax ball and said, “What in the Goddesses name are these?”

“Are you blind, as well as sleep-deprived?” the Abbott laughed. “They’re earplugs.” Abbott Tova took a pair from the bag and placed them in her ears. “I’ve been wearing them for years and sleep like a baby. Hand them out to the nuns and there will be no more problems.”

“Oye veh!” Sister Sam exclaimed. “Why didn’t I think of this?”

“What?” Abbott Tova said, as she began replacing the items she’d removed from her chest.

“I said, I should have thought of this!”

“What? Speak up.”

“I said . . . oh it’s nothing.”

Sister Sam bowed three times, turned around counter-clockwise twice, and left with the bag of earplugs, amazed as always at the wisdom and compassion of the great Abbott.

More deaf-defying stories at: Zen Master Tova Tarantino Toshiba: The Illustrious and Delusional Abbess of Satire.

Bowling Buddhist Nuns

Bowing Buddhist Nuns Die From Bad Jokes

Our daughter and her family recently went to an event that was a fundraiser for some Buddhist nuns. They attended because of some familial connections to the “comic” who also performed at the fundraiser. In addition to people donating for every line bowled by the nuns and their teams, the stand-up comedienne did his routine for everyone in the “birthday party room” at the bowling ally and MC’d the event. Our daughter said the vibes were very uncomfortable and wicked strange. Here’s why.

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It turns out that the comic was actually an ex-marine and a Republican and all his jokes (some racist) were about being in the Marines and killing people. That is bad enough on its own merit, but to have him perform this in front of a group of non-violent peace-seeking Buddhist nuns is like putting Michael Vick in charge of the SPCA. Who knows, perhaps more of the nuns energy was transmitted to the comic than vice-a-verse. After all, you can’t always preach to the choir.

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The caption for this event could have had numerous headlines (including the title of this post). Here are some other ideas.

Marine Preaches Benefits of Killing

Buddhist Nuns Go To Boot Camp

The Benefits of Killing for Peace

What do you get when you put an ex-marine making jokes about killing people in a room of 50 Buddhist nuns? An oxymoron.

Nuns Get Ear-full From Veteran

Comedy Relief or Torture?

It’s No Joke.

Buddhists Nuns and the Comedy of War

Killing Them Softly With A Big Stick

Did you hear the one about the ex-Marine telling Buddhist nuns how humorous killing can be?

Marine Bowls Over Buddhist Nuns

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Buddha’s Wife (Excerpt)

Excerpt from novel Buddha’s Wife. Told in the first person by Yasodhara who has left the order and is dying. Ambapali was one of the first women Bhikkhunis (nuns), as was Pajapati (Siddhartha’s step-mother) and Yasodhara (Siddhartha’s wife).

Chapter 10

Ambapali was in secluded meditation at the vihara of Jetavana. She was bald, having cut off her silky black hair when she joined the Sangha. She wore a simple brown robe, with a single sash to tie at the waist. In her early seventies, her arthritic knees were acting up far more often then she liked to admit. She had to sit on a small stool or recline completely to meditate for long periods of time. Her once sensuous hands; hands that had caressed and brought hundreds of men pleasure in her younger years; were now knotted and swollen like her knees. The skin around her eyes were lined with wrinkles, but her cheeks and lips retained the soft, alluring quality she had had when she first gazed upon her future mentor and lover, Siddhartha. It was in those dark brown pools, of her now enlightened eyes, that The Buddha, Siddhartha of Gotama, had temporarily strayed, allowing his senses to define his consciousness.

It was one of Ambapli’s nuns, who brought her one bowl of food per day, who told her of my failing health. Without explanation or hesitation she picked up her shoulder bag and begging bowl and informed the other nuns, who were also on retreat, that she was going south to see me in Rajagaha.

“But she’s not even a follower!” Bishaka, one of her younger disciples, exclaimed. “What about us, your devotees? We need you here.”

Ambapali put her hand gently on Bishaka’s shoulder. “Yasodhara is my friend. There is nothing greater than the love of friends.”

“But she no longer follows The Way or practices the precepts.”

Ambapali smiled. “She lives The Way. She is as much a Buddha as you or I.” She bowed to Bishaka, turned and walked away, leaving her devoted devotee staring at her backside pondering how an old woman who had left the order a decade ago could be compared to her beloved, enlightened Ambapali.

***

As Ambapali left the protected encampment a torrent of emotions, thoughts and images assaulted her memory. With relentless ferocity they took her into the past, provoking anxiety and doubt about seeing her friend, the woman whose husband she had laid with, consuming his body and his mind.

Shortly after Siddhartha’s death Ambapali had tried to bridge the unspoken gap of misunderstanding. I had told her there was no need to talk of the past. “We both loved the same man,” I’d proclaimed, tears streaming down my face,“There is nothing wrong with love.”

“No,” Ambapali had insisted, “I loved what he stood for, what he had become.”

“I loved him as a man and as a teacher,” I’d replied. “He was my first love and my last.”

We had embraced as sisters.

Her expression of sympathy and attempt to take down the fence that had been erected between us while we lived together as nuns, were heartfelt. We had finally acknowledged that the fence existed and agreed to open the gate to forgiveness.

She knew that she and Siddhartha had been seen together several times. When she first joined the order she had taken every opportunity to seduce him, to find out what he was made off. For some time she had been successful. Even though they were painfully discreet she had felt the eyes of others in the night; the eyes of those who would not and could not understand her need to discover if this was The Buddha, The Enlightened One or simply a man with human needs like all the rest.

***

She stumbled on a root and stopped from falling by grabbing onto a knotted branch that looked like her hands. As she found her balance and told her self to pay more attention to what was in front of her, an image of her mother, who had also been a courtesan, came upon her.

Her mother was thirty and she was fifteen when she realized what her mother did to survive. She had promised that she would never follow in her footsteps. Her mother promised to find her a respectable husband to marry. How she could fulfill that promise was a mystery, but one her mother had tenaciously held to her death.

They had been walking along a path, like the one she was on now, when her mother stopped dead in her tracks and fell to the ground convulsing, phlegm oozing from the corner of her mouth. She remembered screaming, “Mother . . . mother!” Her mother’s eyes had rolled back in her head as her jaw clamped shut. Her breath came in spurts. She shook her again and again crying, “Please . . . somebody!” but no one could hear her cries. It was soon over.

It had been quick; without warning. She’d lept from her mother’s side and ran. She ran and ran, as fast as she could. She ran to her uncle Sikhura’s house and told him what had happened. In spite of his wife’s lamentations to not get involved with “that woman”, he followed Ambapali back to his sister’s body and brought her home for cremation and religious services.

After the funeral Sikhura offered to take in Ambapali, but his wife would have no part in it. “I won’t let a woman like that in my house!” she insisted.

“She’s just a kid,” Sikhura replied. “She needs a home.”

“She’s old enough to know what to do with you,” she’d said venomously.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “Where’s she supposed to go?”

“She can stay with her mother’s people,” his wife spat, “they’ll take care of her.”

“Take care of her?” Sikhura surmised. “You know what they’ll do.”

“It’s where she belongs,” his wife concluded. “I won’t allow a whore in this house!”

Ambapali overheard their conversation. She was ashamed and left in the middle of the night. Not knowing where else to turn, she found her way back to her previous residence, the House of Yoniatma. After several lonesome months of mourning she was “put to use” and “taught a trade”. She began her training in the art of Kama Sutra, the art of “making” love and was taught how to minister too and please men.

***

“I’m sorry Mother,” she said out loud, as she walked towards Rajagaha, being careful to not stumble again and fall on her face. “I did what I had to do.”

She had been very successful at her vocation. It had given her access to many powerful and wealthy men, but had never brought her happiness or peace. She soon realized why her mother had wanted her to take a different path.

It wasn’t until she had encountered Siddhartha in her mango grove that she had ever entertained the thought that there was something more, something beyond the known, the physical. His words had sparked a smoldering fire that lit her curiosity. She became determined to see if his words were real or more false promises. She vowed to find the truth, even if it cost her some clients or ironically, sullied her reputation.

Five years after following The Buddha’s teachings and meditation practices from the time she opened her eyes in the morning until she fell asleep in the night, Ambapali discovered that she knew so little and wanted to experiencing everything. She left her courtesan life, took her vows to follow the precepts and lived as a nun.

There had been a particularly long winter when the brothers and sisters of the Sangha (believers of the Buddha’s teachings) had been in retreat throughout the rainy season. Ambapali had finished eating her only meal of the day and was mindfully washing out her bowl, contemplating its emptiness, when she awakened to something beyond her self, something that was greater than her ego or self-consciousness. It was indescribable, yet she had tried.

“It felt like a rush of air filling a gigantic void inside my heart,” she told me and Pajapati. “It is as though ‘I’ do not exist, yet here I am. Everywhere I look I see one heart, one love.”

We listened rapturously, trying to absorb some of the peace and wisdom she radiated. “It’s not something I can hold on to. If I try to contain it, it blows through my fingers like the wind. If I try to grasp for it or label it, it melts like dew drops in the sun.” She looked fervently into my eyes. “I wish I could give you this joy, this happiness and peace.”

“Oh, but you have,” I had said. “We can feel it.”

“You’re like a warm fire,” Pajapati smiled. “We are basking in the glow of your compassion.”

Thirty-eight years later the glow remained. She had become so unselfconscious that she was often not aware of herself as a separate entity. As long as she was in her physical body, thoughts, emotions and sensations would continue, but her compassionate nature was so ingrained that people wanted to be around her, to touch her, to bask in her presence.

Now, if her knees would allow it and the rest of her aging body permit, she would see me once again. The woman who had shared her intimacies, fears and joys; the one she had unintentionally hurt beyond comprehension.

***

“Hold on sister,” Ambapali whispered between her labored breath, as she walked towards Rajagaha. “Hold on sister of my heart.”

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