We just had five great days in Philadelphia and New York, promoting The Novice. Up here in Canada, we tend to be critical of the good old U.S.A. — which is to say U.S. politics — while actually feeling pretty good about the people. Some of them still seem to think we all live in igloos. That’s okay guys; we make fun of you too. Really though, we are cousins — two countries born from the loins of the same strangely repressed-adventurous Anglo-Saxon stock, then strengthened with language, culture, cuisine, religion skin-color and attitudes from a worldwide gene pool.
Glenn Wallis and the Won Institute of Graduate Studies gave us a warm welcome and a full house for my talk on Friday morning. Glenn was generous in his praise, which is to say that he and I see eye-to-eye on most things Buddhist. Like me, he has little time for supernatural nonsense about the Buddha and the Buddhist saints, and can only imagine the man Siddhattha as just that — a man, and hard-core empiricist to boot. To think othewise is to put his accomplishment beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, which is about as disrespectful of the Buddha’s life as you can get. Glenn and his wife Friederike fed us a wonderful dinner at their home while we tried to figure out why so many ’Buddhists’ end up as uncritical believers in search of spiritual security, far from the groundless, iconoclastic role model of the Buddha himself.
New York was strangely peaceful. It took us a while to figure out just how: as usual, the traffic was crazy, the sidewalks crowded with weaving, slouching, cell-phoning, jay-walking, happy, sad, crazy, tall, short, slim — unexpectedly not so wide — people of every color, size and shape; the sky hummed with airplanes, helicopters and radio waves. Then we realized what had changed — no honking. The formerly endless barking of cars, trucks and mostly taxis had finally been silenced by a new by-law equipped with a $350 fine. What a difference! The noisiest place of all turned out to be our hotel room in the Millennium Hilton — I mention it so you know to avoid it at all costs — which faced right into ground zero and it’s relentless 24/7 construction schedule. Still, as sleepless as our nights were, it was impossible to ignore the momentous significance of this mass murder site. I gazed again and again into the haunted, empty space.
The most unusual part of our trip was my talk at Tibet House — rather than a full house, it was intimate and select. One by one, the visitors filed in and introduced themselves as I put out chairs — a fine-artist, a copy writer, a young man in search of himself, a lady curious about Buddhist debate and — just as I was beginning, a straggler. An older man walked in carrying a seventies-era briefcase wound with duct-tape and a bulging plastic bag; he looked as self-possessed as he did out of place. He unfolded a chair right between Caroline and me, blocking our view of each other. Making himself comfortable, he folded his hands and stared at me.
“Good evening,” I ventured. He stared at me with expressionless intensity.
“You’ve come to hear about The Novice, then?” That’s about as good as I get at small talk.
“Is that your book,” he asked abruptly, pointing.
I held it up. “The Novice? Yes.”
He reached for it. I handed it over. He examined it minutely.
I wondered if he wasn’t all there and said, “I’m going to talk about it. You’ll be able to buy it if you want.”
He didn’t look up.
“I’ll begin now, then, I said more loudly.”
He continued to ignore me, opening the first page.
By now, everyone was staring at him from all sides. He was oblivious, seemingly unperturbed. Suddenly, he raised his head, gave the faintest of smiles and blurted out, “I’m deaf. I can’t hear.”
“You’re deaf?” I asked. “Completely?”
But he’d already turned back to the book.
“You can’t hear anything?” I said, this time very loudly. He didn’t look up.
He read for about twenty minutes while I spoke, then closed the the book and placed it face down on the floor. Concerned for its resale value, I reached towards it.
“I’m going to buy it,” he assured me. “I’m going to buy it.” He opened his briefcase, which was neatly packed to the brim, pulled out a check book and filled out a stub, then a check. He handed it over.
I opened the book and wrote in it, ‘To Richard O’Neill’ — the name on the check — ‘who came to hear me speak.’ I signed it.
He accepted the book without a smile, without a word of thanks and yet in some way I can’t explain, graciously. I thought his eye twinkled, but can’t swear to it. He leaned back and watched me for the remaining hour and forty minutes with rapt attention. At first I mouthed my words precisely, but had no sense that he was lip reading, or had any idea what I was saying. When at the end he got up to leave, he came to me and asked, “Where can I write to you?”
I pointed to my web site address on the dust cover.
He nodded, satisfied, and then announced. “I’m writing a book.”
“A memoir? I asked. Disappointingly, he didn’t even respond to that; he just turned on his heel and made a bee line for the door.
We were all wide-eyed as he left without a backward glance. Nobody was untouched by this man. Even by New York standards, he was unique. He made our evening unforgettable.