Last year on Buddha’s Birthday I played the Buddha. I didn’t want to, not at all. The person cast to be the Buddha didn’t show. “OK, I’ll do it—but just for rehearsal,” I reluctantly agreed. I yearned to play in the pageant orchestra, trumpeting full volume on the long yellow plastic Tibetan horn that heralds the entrance of Queen Mayaderi’s magical elephant. Instead, I was old man Buddha, standing stone-still in the middle of a field far beyond form and emptiness.
It was clear after the first rehearsal that I was trapped. “You’re it,” said Norman, passing me the huge golden Buddha mask. It was a good fit: I pulled on the heavy mask and became the virtual Buddha.
It was hot inside the huge mask. Sometimes I would take the head off just to assure my friends that I hadn’t been swallowed up by the Buddha. On the day of the pageant I donned the mask and peered out at the crowd through the Buddha’s nostrils.
During the actual pageant, the Buddha was so huge and central that he was almost invisible. Yet as the audience howled and hissed at the players in the revolving wheel of samsara, Buddha stood still in the middle, anchoring the play. He was like the submerged keel of a ship or the hidden webwork of matted roots that hold up a forest.
After the pageant ended, I stayed inside the mask. I couldn’t take it off. Streams of little kids coursed across the green meadow to dance with Buddha. With unbridled delight, they looked directly into Buddha’s golden face. They asked questions, told their secrets to Buddha. Their unprotected gaze worked on me.
I thought that I could hide behind this mask, disappear. And so I did. But Buddha didn’t. Buddha stepped out, from the inside out, up through the smoke hole, and out to dance with the people of this world for one brief moment. And when it was finally time to unmask, I walked slowly home to the protection of my enclosed garden. Somehow, this garden had gotten bigger. Our star magnolia tree had become a dark pipal, shading the Jeta Grove of Anathapindika’s park. I knelt beneath the tree to remove the big gold mask. A little boy had followed me into the garden. He watched the white-haired lady step out of the inside of Buddha’s glory, and he began to cry. “I thought you were Buddha!” he sobbed. “I know,” I said, looking into the dark pool of his grief. “I know.”
Later, when I told one of the Zen Center teachers about this encounter, he became animated with religious conviction. “You should have told him you are Buddha,” he insisted. “You are Buddha.” Now, this teacher is a friend of mine and someone I trust. We’ve been practicing together for a long time. “It’s bigger than that,” I thought, remembering the brilliant green blades of grass on the pageant meadow—as seen through the bones of Buddha’s skull.