Dora is excited for me to have my fortune told. After a lunch of stir fried tofu served soup-kitchen style in a back room, I follow her back to the main sanctuary. The rows of little sitting benches have been put away and Dora drags out a bigger prayer bench. This one has a slanted top allowing for an easier up and down movements required for sequences of prostrations. She positions it in front of the altar.
“Remember I told you how to talk to Buddha?”
I nod. I hadn’t realized she intended me to use those instructions today.
“Good. You do it. At the end, ask an important question.”
She points at the bench and I assume the position. I rest my knees on the platform and bend at the waist so that my forehead rests on the taller edge closest to the altar. I turn my cupped hands palm up as if I were holding the feet of baby Buddha. Just as Dora explained, I formally introduce myself. I provide the year and location of my birth, my current whereabouts, and a few details about my home life. I wrack my brain for a significant question. Finally, I decide on an issue that’s been weighing heavily on me: should I write about these religious experiences I’ve been seeking? So far, I’ve taken a few notes here and there, but I haven’t committed to undergoing the long, arduous effort of arranging it on paper. I feel extreme trepidation. As a None, is this even a topic about which I have a right to write?
When I open my eyes and come up, Dora is standing before me with a jar filled with small bamboo slats, a big grin on her face like she is presenting a bouquet of chopsticks.
“Pick,” she commands.
I pull one out and look at it. Burnt onto the tip is a number.
Dora takes it. “Come,” she says.
I follow her into an adjacent room. Along the wall is a series of little drawers like you might see in a garage to organize nuts and bolts. She opens the one with the same number as my stick and pulls out a slip of paper no bigger than a receipt. She studies it before letting me look. On it, are the Chinese characters for a Buddhist Sutra; even if I could read it, there’s no guarantee I’d understand if or how that ancient poem answered my question.
“Let’s get a nun,” Dora suggests. “She’ll tell us.”
I try to keep up with Dora as she hurries around, scanning for a particular nun. We find her out front, wishing visitors well as they depart. Dora hands her the piece of paper and points to me. I hadn’t been planning to put too much stock in the outcome of this exercise, but now I start to worry. What if Buddha puts the kibosh on this subject? I hadn’t realized how excited I had become about the possibility.
For several minutes, Dora and the nun go back and forth. Dora looks very serious, and the tone of their conversation seems heated. This cannot be a good sign, I think. I suppose if Buddha says ‘no’, I’d still give the endeavor a shot. I mean I can’t just throw up my arms in defeat based on a sutra I got from pulling a random bamboo stick from a jar. That would be bonkers, right?
Finally, Dora turns to me. I brace myself for the news.
“The answer is ‘yes’,” Dora announces.
She continues, “But so much work. So hard. You must be strong for it to be ‘yes’. Otherwise, it’s ‘no’. So much struggle. Barriers to overcome. So hard.”
All the way home, Dora repeats how difficult whatever it is I’ve asked will be, how easily it could tip to “no” if I’m not tough as nails. She seems apologetic, as if she wishes I had received a rosier fortune on her watch. But I’m satisfied. I never expected it would be an easy undertaking. Already it’s been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done—and the most rewarding. I can only imagine how much more challenging it will be to try to tell it in some coherent fashion.
I’m happy with a hard-earned “yes.” Thank Buddha.