The teacher said, “If you are awakened on hearing it the first time, you can teach buddhas and ancestors. If you are awakened on hearing it the second time, you can teach humans and gods. If you are awakened on hearing it the third time, you won’t even be able to save yourself.”

A student asked, “When were you awakened, teacher?”

The teacher said, “The moon sets at midnight; I walk alone through the marketplace.”

~ The Book of Serenity, Shoushan’s Three Phrases, Case 76

It is not often that a story comes to me that demands to be told. Going into sesshin recently, I was asked to give a talk, and I developed a story, coupled with a koan. But the story below kept coming up, again and again, and it was mysteriously linked to another koan, which at the time I could not see its fit. So I threw out the first story, and went with the one below, even though it was only partly formed.

About a month ago, my high school class held its 50th reunion. It was at a small yacht club on an industrial slough in Alameda. The club needed a fresh coat of paint, the appetizers of meatballs and cheese squares stuck with toothpicks ran out quickly, though the dried-out chicken and rock-hard salmon, with a side of overboiled mixed veggies, moved slowly. Perfect food for a high school reunion.

After a couple of drinks on the deck out back, people lit up and seemed to enjoy themselves. Some gathered in old cliques, while others chatted with near strangers. I found if I entered a conversation without expectations, it was invariably interesting: people’s lives of careers, marriage, children, and perhaps more marriage, were all rich. G successfully founded a bicycle company; M became a school teacher and piano tuner, and J a hairstylist.

Only 35 of the original 200 came; 40 had already passed away. One of them was B, who had been a Varsity football player. I asked his friend how B died, and he said, “In the end, it was the drugs and booze.”

D, who I had known a bit as a Freshman, also attended. She had asked me to the Sadie Hawkins Day dance, where the girl asks the boy. I was a strange choice. She was a cheerleader, budding into a beautiful young woman. I was a third-string football player, and young even for a 14-year old. My sister, a Senior at the time, said I should go, and offered us a ride with she and her date. We picked up D at her house and drove to the dance. We danced a little bit, hung out with friends, and toward the end, she went off to go talk with a few other people. When the dance was over, I couldn’t find her to take her home. I walked into the night outside, around the corner of the now empty gym, and there she was with B, the football player, kissing passionately. I said to D, “Do you need a ride?” She came with me, and we said nothing in the back seat on the way to her house.

Though laughable now for this sixty-something, as a young teenager on my first date, I was deeply ashamed and hurt. I had been trying to construct a young self that was low-profile and low-risk. I felt I had been lured out of my shell and stung. We never spoke again. D went on to become a Varsity cheerleader and class officer, while B became a star athlete. Meanwhile, I began to buy grunge clothes at the Goodwill and became a wilderness hiker and Zen Buddhist. I never went to another high school dance.

For 50 years, whenever I got a notice of a high school reunion, I was reminded of the incident. And in trying to repair my own self, I had created a self for D, as well: she was a manipulator, or perhaps easily manipulated; cold, and frankly, uninteresting. I said hello to her at a couple of reunions over the decades, but we never once talked.

Before the 50th reunion, I read her bio and found it far more fascinating than I imagined: she had raised her children in the wilderness, and they had gone on to interesting jobs in environmental science and the arts.

As the reunion was winding down, I saw D sitting alone, finishing a piece of cake. I sat next to her, asked her about one of the other folks attending, and then said, “D, I read your bio, and realized I never really knew you.” She nodded quietly and looked down at her cake. Someone came up to the table, and I left the party.

We walk through the marketplace, and we must do it alone. But fortunately, we have each other to walk with.

Those Who Do Not Dance

by Gabriela Mistral
(tr. Maria Giachetti, from “Women in Praise of the Sacred”,
Jane Hirshfield, editor)

An invalid girl asked,
“How do I dance?”
We told her:
let your heart dance.

The the crippled girl asked,
”How do I sing?”
We told her:
let your heart sing.

A poor dead thistle asked,
”How do I dance?”
We told it:
let your heart fly in the wind

God asked from on high,
”How do I come down from the blueness?”
We told Him:
come dance with us in the light

The entire valley is dancing
in a chorus under the sun.
The hearts of those absent
return to ashes.