The Halloween Monk
This essay was published in the Winter 2008 edition of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, a Buddhist magazine published by Shambhala Sun.
It was this Burmese monk’s first visit to America, and it was my first real visit with a monk. He was staying at a house in the Chicago suburbs, teaching anapanasati meditation — “watching the breath” — to anyone interested enough to stop by. I was eager to learn how to meditate (without bursting out laughing, like the first time I tried it), so he invited me to come and hang out for a few days.
Those five days in late October were a cultural exchange. The monk taught me how to watch my breath: in, out, in, out, breathing in, breathing out. And if l remember correctly, I got him to watch Star Wars.
On the morning of October 31, somewhat disconnected from the world, I suddenly remembered it was Halloween. I explained that children might be coming by that night trick-or-treating, and that we should be ready. He’d never heard of Halloween and asked me to tell him about it. So I did.
I gave him the lowdown on the holiday: ghosts, goblins, costumes, skeletons…
“Skeletons!” he exclaimed suddenly. “That is wonderful, wonderful! In Burma we do skeleton meditation. Very good, very good. We must get a skeleton! Continue.”
Then I explained trick-or-treating.
“Oh, that is wonderful. So much opportunity for giving. We must have lots of candy for the children and tell them all to come here. Wonderful, wonderful!”
So we hopped in the car and I drove him to a big discount store. Or at least tried to — it was raining hard and my windshield wipers were stuck, so I couldn’t see anything. We got lost, ending up on a highway I never meant to take.
“No matter,” he said, reassuring me with a serene smile. “This is wonderful. Now I am seeing more of this city. Very good.”
In the checkout line, we received lots of puzzled looks as people tried to figure out what this guy was supposed to be dressed up as.When we finally found the store, I took him to the Halloween aisle, where he carefully scrutinized the skeletons to find one that would serve our purpose best. And what would that purpose be, exactly? I wasn’t sure whether we were going to hang the skeleton on the outside of the front door or sit facing it with legs crossed, contemplating our mortality. In the end he settled on the biggest one he could find, a four-foot hanging skeleton made of black-and-white cardboard bones strung together that also glowed in the dark. I grabbed as many bags of candy as I could afford with the cash I had on hand (my favorite brands, of course).
There were already a few people in costume out and about, buying last-minute supplies. My monk friend was wearing the same rusty-brown robe he wore every day, wrapped around him like a pleated toga, and rubber flip-flops totally unsuited to the fall weather. In the checkout line, we received lots of puzzled looks and raised eyebrows as people tried to figure out what exactly this guy was supposed to be dressed up as.
When we got back to the house, my monk friend started shoving the one-pound bags of bite-size candy bars, unopened, up against the windows.
“What are you doing?” I asked, surprised.
“This is so the children will know we have candy for them,” he said, beaming with pride. “They will see the candy and they will come here.”
I explained that having the lights on would probably be a good enough sign and that hanging the skeleton on the door would also be, um, a dead giveaway. I suggested we put the candy on a tray, but he insisted we leave at least one bag where the kids would be most likely to see it. He put the rest into a big salad bowl.
Finally, shortly after dark, the first kids arrived.
“TRICK OR TREAT!” the little voices shouted as the monk opened the door, then their eyes went wide. “What are you supposed to be?” they asked, looking up, amazed and befuddled by his costume.
“I am Buddhist monk!” he said, grinning. That didn’t quite register with the kids, who quickly shifted their attention to the candy on offer.
“Take more, take more!” he insisted. “We must give if we want to receive.”
After closing the door, he turned to me with a radiant smile.
“All my life I have begging bowl. But this is not begging bowl. Today I have giving bowl! Wonderful, wonderful. I like Halloween!”
The next day, my monk friend sat and stared serenely at the glow-in-the-dark skeleton, contemplating his own mortality, while I munched on leftover bite-size candy bars, contemplating my unusual Buddhist Halloween.