Back when I was the in-house private eye for the Pan Buddhist Ethics Review Commission, cases passed through my office like pedestrians on a four-way downtown crosswalk at noon. Abbots absconding with sangha funds, teachers misusing sex, sages operating under suspect credentials—you name it, I investigated it. The crumbs from the Dharma pie falling my way were crusty and sweet and I’d gotten fat. The biz had landed me more than once on the wrong side of the law. One morning I woke up from the bad dream that I’d sold my non-self out at the corner of Buddha Way and Market Street, and I knew something had to change.
It did, as it always does, in the form of a sweet young thing by the name of Pearl. Pearl was Downtown Dharma Center’s crown jewel, rumored to be a living, breathing bodhisattva, no less than an incarnation of Avalokitesvara: “She Who Hears the Cries of the World.” Peeking out from her long black hair was, indeed, a well-turned pair of ears. Finely turned ankles, too, she had, with bells jingling the heart-mind of the sangha. Curves robes couldn’t straighten out. Lips so luscious they looked like they’d kissed the Perfection of Wisdom. When she led metta, the Dharma hall was packed. Business thrived at DDC.
But then her hearing went bad, some say from too many mindfulness bells. Buddhism’s poster child faded from the public eye—and then one day she was gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. That’s when I got called into the abbot’s office. “There’s a lot of loose speech going around on account of our missing bodhisattva, Mr. Axlerod, and it’s tearing the sangha apart. Some are saying she couldn’t take coming down to the level of ordinary folks, and what kind of compassion is that?” Bodhisattva, or no bodhisattva? That’s the mystery the board sent my way. Find her and bring her back so we could clear it up. Between you and me, I wasn’t concerned. Maybe she’d just stepped down from her lotus throne into the muck of the big world. Sometimes that’s what bodhisattvas have to do. The hard-of-hearing part might well have been a red herring, just a convenient way out. “Now, Mr. Axlerod, get on it,” he urged. “As you know, all things pass quickly away.”
Time did pass quickly but took me nowhere fast. Everyone I talked to about her, from the small-time grifter to the big-time mafioso, seemed to want her back as much as if she were their own personal mystery. I followed every lead into every back alley, walked the edge of life and death and failed to resolve duality. Apparently, she’d taken a fast track to hell or a slow boat to China. But she stuck in my mind like a jewel in Indra’s Net, and it seemed I saw her reflection wherever I looked: in the waitress, her face as she poured my coffee as common as the face of any waitress in any greasy spoon in America; in the lady of the night, asking for a light, knowing with a knowledge I couldn’t afford. The illusion of her—if it was illusion—got more beat down with the years. The last time I thought I saw her was as a street lady pushing a shopping cart, load tottering with the karma of the universe.
Descending into the lower realms, I eventually gave up all hope of bringing Pearl back. There was no back. Through the layers of tobacco smoke, dope and smog, the Dharma hall where she’d first held forth became more and more obscure, like the blue sky from the bottom of the sea. But I didn’t give up. My motivation now was strictly personal. I just wanted to talk to her, not so much to get her story as for her to get mine, what it felt like being on the track of understanding but never quite getting it. One lonesome night I found myself broke as a beggar’s bowl held out for alms that never come. Normally I’d have pulled out the bottle I keep in the bottom drawer of my desk, put my feet up and listened to the sirens of the city, meditating myself into private oblivion. But tonight this private eye needed to be in public. I headed to Pinky’s. Pinky was wiping the counter of the bar, as usual.
“Hey, Axe, long time no see. Busy?”
“Busy as a drifter on a park bench, Pinky. Scotch, no ice. Any new frails around? I could use a pretty ear to bend.”
“Got just the gal for you, Axe, back corner booth. She’s been coming in every night for a while now. Guys, gals, can’t stay away from her, sit down and talk, just talk. And she listens, just listens. After a while they get up and go out, a little lighter on their feet, I’d say. Give her a chance. Can’t hurt.”
I looked around. From a distance I could see that the long glossy hair was cut short, silver as a much-used spoon, the curvaceous figure bent. Glass in hand and heart in my gumshoes, I made the long walk across the room. As I neared, she turned a face my way showing the lines of every weak and woeful face I’d ever seen knocking around this beat world—weak and woeful as my own unshaved mug reflected back at me from the unsilvered mirrors of too many cheap hotel rooms. Her eyes were blurry from blinking away the tears of the world. But the mouth—even in the dimness I could make out those lush lips. I was as smitten as any old fool falling into the eyes of a long-lost love.
“All alone tonight, honey?” I asked. She motioned me to the seat across from her.
“I could tell you a story,” I said. “Care to hear?”
She leaned toward me and I toward her. “I’m all ears,” she said.
“Did she really say that?” the abbot asked as I wound up my story.
“I wouldn’t make it up. In my trade, it’s the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”
“I like that,” he chuckled, “a bodhisattva with a sense of humor, taking it all in, cries and laughter. Now, you say she wouldn’t come back. Did she explain herself?”
“She didn’t explain much of anything. In fact she didn’t talk much at all, mostly listened.”
“Listened, you say?”
“Listened. As I pursued Pearl over the years, I came to think I wanted to be heard, but when I found her I realized that what I really wanted was someone who could listen. That someone was her, the real-deal bodhisattva. But as I told my story, in the silence of her listening I also began to listen—to myself telling it but also to the other stories right around me in the bar: Pinky’s story, worrying out loud if selling liquor was really Right Livelihood; heartbreak in the next booth; the clink of ice and glass promising the end of suffering.”
What more was there to say? Looking into the face of the abbot, I was startled to see how soft, somehow feminized, he’d become with all he’d listened to himself over the many years. In the silence between us, I could hear the sounds of the temple—clappers, bells, chanting. As I took my turn at listening, they drifted like smoke out the window, into the general downtown rush.
For twenty-five years Patrick McMahon has been investigating the public cases of the old T’ang Dynasty Ch’an (Zen) detectives and still hasn’t solved a single one.