(Introductory note: In the story that follows, the word “gate” is pronounced “gah-tay”.)
I was intently digging through the bananas in the grocery story, trying to find some that were to my liking, when I heard a woman’s voice say, “Excuse me, do you mind if I ask what that song is that you’re humming? It sounds familiar, but I can’t place it.”
I turned to her and in my mind did the usual, bowing to her, holding out my imaginary arms to offer a lotus flower, and saying, “A lotus for you, a Buddha to be.” I’m not really a Buddhist in the deepest sense of the word, but saying that phrase in my mind relaxes me, and has a way of making me more open to people.
“It’s a song I learned at a Zen Center many years ago,” I said, giving her my complete attention, but somewhat expecting that to be the end of the discussion. Mention of the phrase “Zen Center” tends to scare most people off.
“Do you know the words to the song?,” she asked, not running away.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “They are, ’Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha’. Those are the only words. That line is repeated many times as a form of chanting.”
“How pretty,” she said. “Do you know what the words mean?”
What a brave and curious human, I thought. “Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Loosely translated they mean, ’Gone, gone, totally gone, totally completely gone, enlightened, so be it.’”
“Oh,” she said, and then paused for a long time.
“It’s from an ancient text called, ’The Heart Sutra’”, I said.
I considered offering more explanation, but some parts of the dance must be left to the questioner.
“Well,” she said, pausing for a long time. As she seemed to struggle with what to say next, I wondered if she would ask the next question. I continued to gently give her my complete attention.
“Thank you,” she eventually finished.
“You’re welcome,” I replied. “Have a nice day,” I said, bowing ’goodbye’ to her in my mind and returning to the bananas as she slowly walked away.