It’s not that I’ve been intentionally unkempt. It’s just that I’m from Berkeley. But in a recent sojourn to visit my mother on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, I found I was long past relying on the heartiness and high color of youth for the fresh allure I’d secretly counted on. I ended up in a Third Avenue nail salon for a manicure and pedicure.
As I was ushered between the manicure stations, the astringent odor of nail polishes and removers overwhelmed my senses. At every nail station, attractive young Asian women ministered to the hands and feet of others, from teens to octogenarians. Averting my eyes from beauticians and clients alike, I passed through, a self-proclaimed alien, torn between discomfort for fussing over how I looked and shame (dared I admit it?) over my ragged nails.
In the pedicure “throne” next to mine a woman, perhaps my age, was already soaking her feet in vibrating green liquid. I dismissed this woman with coifed, dyed hair and a halter-top, her open-toed, rhinestone-studded mules by her patent leather purse. She seemed to epitomize a type who had always grated on my sensibilities.
But when my throne-mate smiled over to me, I attempted conversation. “This is my first time,” I admitted, the awkward virgin. Maybe I was harboring a hope that she’d take me under her wing. I imagined her crimson-nailed lineage—denizens of the superficial.
She nodded congenially, “I hadn’t ever tried it either until my daughter bought me one for Mother’s Day.”
Unexpectedly touched, I recalled that once, several years earlier, my own daughter, then eleven, had painted my toenails (which I’d flashed with a mix of embarrassment and chutzpah at a Buddhist meditation retreat). As I sat now with this lady, our feet in the warm liquid, our soles vibrating, we conversed back and forth about daughters and mothers. Snatches of other conversations at the manicure stations seemed to echo ours. In a corner a few beauticians on break passed around a photo album—a wedding, perhaps, or a birth. In spite of myself, I began to feel a sense of kinship with these women—of various races and backgrounds—attending to the beauty of our bodies in our precious years of vitality.
After my substantial soak, the young beautician who had ushered me in gently picked up one of my feet and dabbed the toes with cotton. “Toenails cut off?” she asked. After shaving, clipping and filing, she gingerly placed each foot back in the water. Bathed in the warm vibrating pool, tended with such care, my feet began to relax, and with them, the rest of me. I nodded in appreciation to this deva of foot care.
Taking up the first foot again, she rubbed in some new cream, pushed back the cuticles, and cleaned out whatever it was that had embedded itself around my nails—dust from the floors of our house, dirt from our yard, from all the yards where I had ever gardened or played. With a pumice stone, she scraped calluses off my heels. How could a barefoot gal survive with such tender feet? I began to wonder. A person must need some calluses for protection.
As I relaxed into a foot-washing reverie, stray thoughts and memories, imagery of feet and nails came to mind—often contrary, surprising. Didn’t someone once say that when we die our nails keep growing? I thought of cemeteries, of coffins, of an interview I’d once conducted with a Thai forest master on his meditations facing the truth of mortality in the charnel ground. Not a bad warning in the pedicure parlor.
Massaging in another cream, my beautician worked along the cuticle. With a brush, she scrubbed the ball, the top of the foot and the knuckles until both feet tingled. The light touch of the pumice tickled the tender skin of the arch. I remembered a painful moment from my seventh year when the great ballet choreographer Ballanchine held my foot in his hand and decreed that my arches were too flat for a dancer. Completing the wash, my foot deva poured a hot rinse over my now ecstatic feet and toweled them off. This foot washing was feeling suddenly intimate.
After gently kneading across the toes, she worked the whole foot using her thumb and fingers, and then massaged my tight calves. A whiff of new cream, coconut. She slid my feet into azure paper slippers, my toes, puckered from their long soak, peeking out. In three strokes, the varnish licked the nails—now glimmering with opalescence.
Before painting my fingernails, this lovely beautician invited me to use my still-dry fingers to get out my purse and pay. I opened my wallet, revealing the tiers of slots of various cards—driver’s license, bankcard, credit card, AAA card, and in the primo slot at the bottom, a laminated photograph. It was the portrait of a beaming Thai forest monk, the one I had interviewed on charnel ground practice. I had saved his photo for many years—tucked into my wallet as a good luck talisman.
Pointing at the photo, the young woman beautician gasped. “Who’s this? Is this relative?” Her brow furrowed in disbelief.
With his bald head, round happy face, and orange robes, the ajahn was seated in a lotus pose, his hands in a simple mudra on his lap. The photo emanated a strong presence, both settled and bright.
“Not my relative,” I shook my head. “This is my meditation teacher.”
Incredulous, the young beautician protested, “You are Buddhist?” Generally, I don’t like to identify myself as any kind of “ist.” But as her smile broadened and she nodded, “You are Buddhist,” how could I disappoint her? “I am from Nepal,” she confided. “I am Buddhist.” She bent towards me to take a good look at the picture. From the manicure station next to ours, another young woman beautician leaned over: “I’m from Thailand. My family is Buddhist, too.” She crossed to the other side of the table, admiring the ajahn. From the footbaths in the back, another voice chimed in. “In Korea, my grandmother was nun. My grandfather monk.” (How did that happen?) Excitement was growing in the shop, beauticians hailing from far-flung Asian Buddhist communities abandoning their manicure and pedicure stations and crowding around the talisman of the forest monk.
In the coming weeks, my opalescent nails offered frequent reminders of this encounter. I knew that immigrant women are often forced to take such jobs—with low pay, doing hard work serving others while exposed to toxic chemicals. Along with a concern for the hardship and dangers that they might be suffering, I felt a bond with these Buddhist women—so gifted in work which depended on attention and kindness. Beyond all apparent differences, in the world behind all appearances, we shared this common dedication to Buddhist teachings. I began to wonder: In the manicure and pedicure salons throughout the United States, were there similar enclaves of such Asian Buddhist bodhisattvas? I wondered as well about the history of hand and foot care. Had the practices evolved from more sacred rituals? In particular, my interest began to focus on that strange appendage, the foot.
Fifty million years ago, when the first humanlike beings stood upright, feet accustomed to bearing one quarter of the weight of the body now had to adapt to carrying a double load. People rarely honor how the feet support the weight of the body, how much hard work our feet do for us. I learned of the South Asian practice of washing people’s feet. There are sutta passages describing the Buddha having his feet washed for him. Were feet to be celebrated, adorned? I pursued these questions with an intensity I didn’t quite understand. Maybe I was trying—once and for all—to settle what felt like an essential conflict between the wisdom of renunciation and the beauty of artifice.
My investigations led to the Sanskrit word for foot, pada, which means “the point of contact with the earth.” A secondary meaning is “that which is a source of nourishment to the physical body.” According to some Ayurvedic lore, the foot, like the roots of a tree, draws energy from the Earth. I loved this mythology so in keeping with my own memories of walking barefoot in dirt, in grass, in sand and mud. The feet support the weight of the body, while all of the processes and cycles of the Earth support the feet. As the point of contact, the foot becomes an emblem for the way everything supports everything else.
My research on the foot led finally to footprints, and from there, to the footprints of the Buddha. In many Asian countries, footprints are said to have all of the qualities of the owners; hence, the footprints of great people are revered. Over thousands of years, people have made pilgrimages to see and worship the Buddha’s footprints. The Buddha was said to have left footprints behind as messages to his followers. According to one legend, he left the footprint of his left foot on the sacred mountain Sri Pada in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and in one wide stride, made the impression of his right in Phra Sat in Siam (now Thailand).
In a carving of a Buddha’s footprint preserved at the Miho Museum in Pakistan, the whorls are said to symbolize the complete teachings. A three-pronged symbol both on the heel and on the pad of the big toe represents the triratna, the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. The svasticas which mark the other four toe-tips are said in Sanskrit to indicate auspiciousness. In the center of the sole is a dharma wheel edged with a band of four-petaled flowers. This is a symbol of Buddhist law—a simple circle, lacking nothing. As the sermons of the Buddha turn the thousand-spoked dharma wheel, the teachings are said to penetrate the hearts of the faithful.
When I returned to Berkeley, I was ready to experiment further with nail care and avid, in particular, to find out whether this New York Buddhist-staffed nail salon was a fluke. At the first salon I tried, the beauticians, all Vietnamese, wore silk jackets and capris. The gentle lady attending to my toenails spoke very little English. I gathered through our minimal exchange that she was a grandmother. She worked with delicacy, perusing my nails through her gold-rimmed spectacles. Before the manicure, when the moment came to pay, I could barely contain my curiosity. Studying her face, I took out my wallet and opened to the tiers of cards. A gasp. Her mouth open, her eyes wide—like those of her Nepalese counterpart on Third Avenue—she pointed at the picture of the ajahn. “Buddhist?” she asked. “I am Buddhist.” Waving her hand, she invited one of her fellow beauticians to take a look. The two of them bent over my shoulder, exclaiming in Vietnamese and smiling. Again I sensed a communion beneath the realm of appearances. I imagined the footprints of the Buddha with the turning of the dharma wheel—radiating out from the Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini, across Asia, a giant stride traversing the Pacific to San Francisco, then another across North America to New York City.
After my fingernails were painted and dry, just before I was about to leave the shop, my new friend waylaid me and called me back to her station. She rushed over to get her own handbag and took out her wallet. Of course, I realized, she’s going to show me her Buddhist teacher. She opened her wallet and pointed proudly. I squinted at her picture, trying to make out the familiar contours, imagining the robes, the bald head. In the unseen world of the spirit, I’d found our essential commonality, and this Vietnamese deva of the foot would mirror that back to me.
But that simple resolution was not to be offered. The resolution, if there was one, was more mysterious. There, smiling out from her wallet, was a photo of her grandson—it was unmistakable—in his sailor suit, and, at a jaunty tilt, his sailor hat in red, white and blue.