December 06 Newsletter » Inexhaustible Desires and Answered Prayers
Thoughts on Jukai



After receiving Jukai, and the powerful Dharma name, Kyusho—which means “penetrating the brightness”—I was inspired to rehabilitate my altar at home. With two active cats in a small one-bedroom, which accumulates dust like the sands of the Gobi, I had let the altar go. It tumbled across the top of a crammed bookshelf like an abandoned lot. In order to anchor my commitment to the precepts, I needed the symbol of a well-tended altar. And statuary, too, if we’re being serious, instead of postcard depictions of Buddha. But not just any statue. I needed Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, with his delusion-cutting sword, to sharpen the point in my Dharma name. I set out into the city, in search of Manjusri.

Just blocks from the Village Zendo, behind street-construction barriers on Mercer, I found a little import shop with Buddhas in the window. Incense perfumed the air, and flute music trilled from hidden speakers. Surely, the wild swordsman was waiting. 

“Do you know the Buddhist statue, Manjusri?” I asked the young saleswoman. “The one with the sword?”

“We don’t have a lot of Buddhas,” she answered, with a sweep of her hand. “They’re kind of just scattered around.”

The long showroom was draped and studded with merchandise, which seemed to deepen far to the back. I told her not to worry, I’d just browse.

Squeezing among the Indian fabrics and Chinese fans, the African masks and Japanese cloissonné, I saw standing Buddhas and sitting Buddhas. There were male Buddhas with female Buddhas, bronze, brass, and jade Buddhas. Not a lot of Buddhas? The saleswoman must be kidding.

“There’s also this,” she said, sidling up behind me to gesture at a locked case full of statues.

“Sure, that’s him,” I said and pointed at the six-inch fellow with the upraised sword. “That’s Manjusri.”

She reached for a key.

$390, plus tax. Right.

“They’re all from Nepal,” the saleswoman explained.

“Beautiful.” I handed him back.

By this point, the desire for Manjusri was a tight ball of hot energy in my gut. I thought: it’s just a statue, for crying out loud, just something else to which I’ve formulated an attachment. With a breath, I began wending my way to the door. I felt a little bad walking out empty-handed after all of her help. I tried to breathe into that attachment as well.

“What about this?” The saleswoman was beside me, holding a tiny statue in the palm of her hand. A little sword was raised above a little head. Mini-Manjusri.


“And if you shake it, it’s supposed to answer prayers.” She gave it a shake and Manjusri rattled.

I wondered what happened if you shook Manjusri without praying. Then I breathed into that, too.

She wrapped him in tissue paper, slid him into a plastic envelope and sealed it, then stapled the whole package into a paper bag.

“He’ll never get out of that,” I said.

Outside, I crossed the construction barriers. It was after six, and even though it’s summer, I was probably late for service. Breathe. Then I stopped. On a flattened piece of cardboard at the corner of Spring, like a living altar, a beautiful young woman sat on the sidewalk reading a paperback. She looked like an actress or a student, her long chestnut hair as combed as the street breeze allowed. Clothes and other stuff were arranged around her, including a stuffed toy. She had a filthy paper cup placed before her, a few coins at the bottom. “Homeless” was scrawled on a cardboard square, like an afterthought. It flashed through my mind: a good-looking girl like this, what’s she going to do once it gets dark? What will it take for her to get through the night? I crouched down and folded a dollar bill into the cup. It barely nicked the skin of her misery.

“Take care of yourself,” I said.

She nodded thanks and went back to her book.

By that evening, Manjusri centered my renovated altar. He sits full-lotus, atop the kechyimyaku, along with the postcard Buddhas. His sword is ever ready, and he assures me that if you don’t say a prayer when you shake him, that’s all right. He’ll do what he can for the nearest one in need.

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