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Buddhist Monks Tour America

ISSUE:  Spring 1998

Monks have been spotted among us
Thumping cantaloupes and hefting some
Late season beefsteak tomatoes

At the produce stand downtown. Their scarlet
Robes and saffron sashes make them stand out
Among the conservatively dressed

Everyday hoi polloi. But this is not news. Since
The Chinese government drove them from their monasteries
In Tibet, the monks have dispersed themselves

Across the globe to gather money
Then one day reclaim their old independence. Today
They are here, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This morning they built a dazzling
Multi-colored sand mandala, which they
Later dissolved in the Rivanna

River at the city’s edge. Beauty
Is transient, and so are we. They made
Their point wonderfully, smiling

Wanly for the cameras. Soon
They will sing to us, the gathered faithful
Who long for their bliss. They will

Split their voices in difficult ways
That must please God. But as they shuffle
Onto the stage, robes sluicing

Around their feet, their faces
Reveal the wear of their travels. And why
Not? Ours is the thirty-seventh city

On their cross-country tour.
There are children playing tag in the aisle
To their right. Something has gone

Haywire with the footlights, too.
All the monks look jaundiced and faint.
Patiently, we wait for God

To make His presence felt
Among us tonight. But the magic
Will not happen. The seven-foot, carved

Ceremonial horn that rumbles melancholically
Is too much for its monk to master
With jet lag. The poor

Acoustics of the Albemarle County
Office Building don’t help,
Either. One serene young monk

In the chorus dozes between numbers,
A neat little trick since he is standing up.
I suppose there is something strange

About praying before a paying
Audience that doesn’t understand
A word of your language. Now

I wish I had skipped this performance.
Though others around me are standing
And clapping, demanding an encore

As the monks drift off stage, I find myself
Emptied of joy and unnurtured by music. I am
As ignorant, finally, as the brown trout who nibbles

The colored crystals that sink like food
Toward the river’s silted bottom from its bright surface,
Where the sunlight striking the ripples sparkles like spilled coins.


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