30 or 40 of us gathered from a variety of faith traditions for a women's only evening, sponsored by the women of the Ahmadiyya Muslic Community of Greater Harrisburg. It was a dark and cold evening, and after a long day at work, I really didn't feel much like going out and searching for the mosque in unfamiliar geography, but when I arrived and opened the front door, all of my weariness disappeared.
The great room was warm, brightly lit and welcoming, and I was the first to arrive. I helped Mahmooda, who had organized the evening, finish putting table cloths on the tables, and then she led me through hallways, up stairs, past classrooms to the Women's prayer room.
I took my boots off, stepped onto the plush, red carpet, and took a seat, following along as best I could in an English prayer book.
The women before me, ranging in age from 12 to 60, offered prostrations and prayers, led by the beautiful, lilting song of prayer offered by the mullah. He was on the other side of an opaque curtain that stretched from end of the room to the other, invisible to the eye, but sublimely present.
The sight of covered heads and all different types of socks was deeply tender. I recognized that compulsion to prayer, to use the body for sacred movement as the words defined a physical shape of the spiritual--simple, mindful, inexplicably tender.
Downstairs, our gathering began with a delicious meal of spicy lentils, basmati rice, cucumbers and onion in yogurt and a veggie dish that left the tongue happily burning! I sat with one of the cooks, and we had lots to talk about: favorite spices, raising children, jobs lost and found. When she pointed out her 12 year old twins, I recognized the girl who had patiently explained the order of prayer and prostration while we were in the Women's prayer room...all the other girls had gathered round, whispering and giggling.
The only way I could talk about sacrifice was to talk about the first Paramita of Dana, of selfless giving, and to explain that in our practice, sacrificing does not represent a loss, but a profound opportunity toward enlightenment. In fact, sacrifice is not a word I have ever used in my years as a Buddhist, but I had to be very clear in my comments about this.
It helped to use the example of Otagaki Rengetsu, 19th Century Japanese Zen Nun, poet and artist--her story is one of sadness and intense suffering, but also of profound enlightenment--the death of 5 children and 2 husbands, seemingly no home, no resources and no future, yet a Zen heart-mind that defined her life.
Rengetsu was sought after as a writer, caligrapher and potter, so much so that she remained on the move so that she could have a bit of quiet for her practice. But people always found her.
One night, as she entered a small village searching for a meal and place to spend the night, she was turned away at each door. The villagers were suspicious of an old Zen woman out on the road alone; she could have been an evil spirit. She was obviously a Zen Nun, and Zen was at that time so revolutionary, it was considered dangerous!
In fact, it is dangerous and it is revolution, but the villagers were threatened by the non-traditional practice.
So Rengetsu left the village and found a cherry tree in an open field where she could at least rest her back against the trunk of the tree. The evening was cold, it was early Spring, and it was next to impossible to sleep. Around midnight, she awoke fitfully. She didn't know where she was, but as she looked up into the tree branches, she spotted a hazy moon filtering down through the newly opened cherry blossoms. She noticed how the blossoms danced in the moonlight and how the layers of light shifted ever so slightly.
Rising, she faced the direction of the village and prostrated herself in gratitude. She realized if she had stayed in a house for the night, she would have missed this moment in the moonlight, beneath the fresh blossoms, and she thanked all those who had turned her away.
Though it appears to us as a tremendous sacrifice to be out in the open, all alone on a cold, dark night, with an empty belly, Rengetsu was an enlightened being who saw her life as being one with the Tatagatha, and as such, a sense of sacrifice simply does not exist.
After the discussion, I gave my notes on Rengetsu to a young Muslim woman who told me that the story had inspired her to consider painting the scene beneath the cherry tree. I hope she paints that scene, and I hope it further inspires her to consider the path of "no sacrifice", of giving and gratitude.