Altar at Tibetan Buddhist Center

Succeed Immediately

Yes, those were the words: Succeed immediately. Was that possible, or even desirable?

Sudip’s father died. When I heard about the Medicine Buddha Puja in his honor, I decided to attend, though I wasn’t sure what a Medicine Buddha Puja was.

The ceremony was held at a Tibetan Buddhist center in a Boston suburb. Driving there, I missed a turn my phone instructed me to take. As I was trying to find my way back to the main road, I turned a corner and saw the moon— huge and full and beautiful— rising above an empty parking lot.

Sudip’s wife, my friend Anne, greeted me at the door, showed me where to sit, and handed me a prayer book. We were in a large room with about twenty people. Several nearly life-sized golden Buddha statues were displayed in glass cases along the front wall. There were prayer flags and a photo of the Dali Lama. Candles and offerings of flowers, fruit and candy crowded a table top.

Several Tibetan monks in maroon robes were quietly talking. The rest of the people looked American. Most had malas of brown beads wrapped around their wrists. A photograph of a handsome man in his 70s, smiling ever-so-slightly, had been placed on a small table next to the altar. The man looked a lot like Sudip.

“Because the monks are here, the service will be in Tibetan,” whispered Anne. “You can follow the transliteration along with the translation.”

The chanting began. The transliteration was hard to follow. I kept getting lost. When everyone else turned a page, I did too, so it looked like I was participating.

And then a phrase in the English translation stood out because it was both clear and shocking: May all my pure prayers succeed immediately.

Immediately? I reread the sentence to make sure I’d read it correctly. I had. May all my pure prayers succeed immediately.

The thought of my prayers, few that they were, being answered, immediately, seemed implausible to me. Preposterous. Out of the realm of possibility.

Things don’t happen that way. Prayers aren’t answered. Or if they are, only at a rate no greater than chance.

You work hard. You struggle. You suffer. Like Job, you may lose everything except your oozing boils. Like Milarepa, you have to keep rebuilding the tower your master keeps knocking down. Isn’t that how it goes?

Yes, there was, perhaps, a slight possibility that your prayers would be answered. But later, much later—in the next life, or kalpas of lifetimes later.

The words of the Medicine Buddha Puja seemed to be grossly overpromising. Or was the phrase aspirational, like the Bodhisattva vows or May all beings be happy—a phrase I repeat at the end of every meditation session. Not that there’s a chance in hell of this happening, but because I recognize the benefit of sending good intentions into the world as a way of opening my own taut heart.

We turned another page. The ceremony went on for a while. At one point, we were served bowls of warm rice pudding. It was delicious, though I wasn’t sure of its purpose or what would happen to the bag of  Kit Kats I’d brought as an offering. Would they be offered to the neighborhood kids at Halloween?

We resumed chanting. I followed in the text and the words came by again: May all my pure prayers succeed immediately. Maybe it wasn’t so much about what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief,” as the meaning of the word may.

May. Used to express a desire or ardent wish. We so commonly petition the impossible: Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas, Have a Nice Day. Dylan himself, in the famous lullaby for his son, May your wishes all come true.

You, dear reader, who have read this far, May your prayers succeed. May your wishes come true. Immediately.