Sheldon Kopp once wrote a book on Zen called, If You See the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him. Kopp was warning against false prophets.
But another Buddhist tradition warns that we frequently catch glimpses of the Buddha on the road, and we don't know it. Indeed, one of the tenets of most spiritual traditions is that enlightenment or grace or whatever you call it lies hidden in everyone and can show up without bidding. Our job is to be awake when the Buddha nature shows up.
Which leads me to a story about Marilyn, a girl I knew in high school. Marilyn and I were in the band together, she one year ahead of me. She was pretty and she seemed a more mature and knowing person than most girls in school.
I figured she was for me.
She played the clarinet. I played the french horn. Neither of us were very good.
Marilyn must have known that I was dreaming of her because she asked me to go to a dance, one held at La Villita in downtown San Antonio, a part of the old town that dated back to the days of rule by Spain and Mexico.
I was a junior then and I had never had a date. I also didn't have a car or even a license. So, to go to the dance we had to be driven by my father. Since it was potluck, Marilyn brought a dish, a large bowl of warm rice pudding.
I was wearing a new suit from JC Penney's, a stiff searsucker summer job that my father had bought me a week before for the special occasion. You can imagine that I was both mortified and thrilled to be riding in the front seat sitting next to the beautiful Marilyn, with Dad driving, and her chatting easily with him. I felt like they were on the date and I was tagging along and that maybe I should be in the back seat.
I could feel the heat of her arm next to me. It felt warmer than the bowl of rice pudding in my lap. As we pulled up in front of La Villita, my father was telling me to give him a call when we wanted to go home and I was starting to get out of the car with one foot on the ground and the rest of me back in the car feeling Marilyn's body next to me, when suddenly the very large bowl of warm rice pudding slipped and spilled its gelatinous goo into my lap, the very center of my anxious being at that particular moment.
It is at moments like this that the serial killer is born.
I felt as if the whole world had stopped and was looking at me with complete disgust and that a glowering god had caught my action and was now saying to me, "I can't believe you did something so stupid. You will now live the rest of your days on a remote, empty planet, far away humankind. Either that or Iceland."
But, then, I was saved.
Marilyn's Buddha self kicked in. Marilyn laughed easily, told my father to go on, and that we would take care of it. She helped me brush the rest of the pudding out of my lap, and then took me into the kitchen behind the dance floor to finish the clean-up. A friend's Mom working in the kitchen getting the food ready for the dance pitched in.
A few minutes later we were out on the dance floor and to my surprise I found that I could actually dance with Marilyn in my arms without fainting. My afternoons of practicing with Mom in our small living room paid off. Later in the evening, a friend volunteered to drive us home, double-date style. In the space of a couple of hours I had become something more than a goofy, bespecaled adolescent dreaming of Marilyn.
But not quite. As we were walking to the car with the other couple, a small dog came running up behind me and started barking and I almost jumped all the way back into my former doomed life but Marilyn had me firmly in hand and we got in the back seat and then we all went to Earl Abel's, the best 24-hour restaurant on the planet and I ordered coffee and pie for Marilyn and me just like the grown-up I was fast becoming.
I think I dated Marilyn only one more time, after I got my driver's license. But what she taught me back then I still am learning. Somewhere within us all is a true self that can suddenly surface and changes everything, helping us see things more clearly and to make our way.
I don't think Marilyn was trying to be nice or kind. I don't think she was trying to be anything. I think she had suddenly acted out of some other place, a place where everything is accepted, where everything belongs. She calmly acted as if a tall, skinny young man with rice pudding in his lap was the most natural thing in the universe, right up there with gravity and the stars in the sky.
Marilyn gave me a fleeting glimpse of what it means to see ourselves as we actually are, imperfect and cracked right down to the ground, and that it is all okay.
Marilyn, wherever you are, this is for you, a kiss that I never did give you, a kiss for your Buddha self.