Bodhi-Santa

So, the thing you need to know is that I studied vipassana meditation pretty seriously for about five years before I gave it up. It was college, I had some Buddhist leanings, and it helped justify my rampant hallucinogenic drug use.

I was never very good at it. You know all the cool things you’re supposed to see? The infinite peace you’re supposed to feel? The oneness? Never got that far. It was great for relaxation. It was also great if you were a sanctimonious little prick — which I was for much of college — because you could walk the quad afterward, looking around at people while thinking to yourself, “These sad, unenlightened masses. I was just meditating. I’m such a better person than they could ever hope to be.” It was the moral equivalent of having just gone jogging.

Then I graduated and got work as a systems analyst, a job that will beat the sanctimony right out of you and barely leave you time to meditate besides. Now for relaxation I watch TV like the rest of America. Lately, I’ve been stuck on Heroes, although that “Save the cheerleader, save the word” ad campaign has started to annoy the fuck out of me. But I digress.

Anyway, this is last winter, almost a year ago. It had come the Christmastide once more, and the same as every year I had waited to do my shopping until the last minute. Which meant that Christmas-eve-eve, by the time I made it home from fighting the crowds at the mall, fighting the traffic back into the city, and struggling my packages up the stairs, it was almost 11:00 p.m. I was exhausted and fed up with my fellow man as only the holidays can make a person. Every brain cell I still had working wanted nothing more than a half hour of TV and 12 hours of sleep.

But I had to be in the car bright and early the next morning to get out to my brother’s place for the dreaded Large Family Function, and I still had all my gift wrapping to do.

So I butched up, poured myself a tall drink of the brown liquor, and got wrapping. I got everything done (even the cousins and nephews — stupid Catholic side of the family) about two hours and three drinks later.

And as I was sitting there at my dining room table, surrounded by the remains of tape and ribbon and foil, with my brain in that curious neutral gear that long hours and alcohol can combine to create, I started to really look at this one piece of wrapping paper. There was Santa Claus and his sleigh, with a big bag of presents over his shoulder, and large, stylized snowflakes drifting down, all against a background of green and silver and red.

And these images and patterns of color repeated themselves across the paper, in that way that wrapping paper does, for the entire length of the roll. But there was something about the way they were repeated — something familiar somehow. For a minute there it reminded me of one of those Mandelbrot-set fractals you sometimes see made into posters for hippies or math geeks.

Then it hit me. It was laid out almost exactly like a Tibetan mandala I had once tried to use for meditation. Except where all the Bodhisattvas wending their mindful, eight-fold paths to Nirvana should have been, you had Santa Claus.

I just sat there staring at it with a big, doofy grin on my face, thinking how some Buddhist art director out there — maybe as far away as India or China — had put one over on people celebrating a Christian holiday. It was like being in on this so-subtle-it-almost-wasn’t-there joke.

I stared at it so long that, almost without willing myself to it, I unfocused my eyes, straightened my spine, and began breathing deeply from my diaphragm. I was into the trance state I was familiar with almost instantly. But then, after a while, something different happened.

I’m pretty sure I just fell asleep. I’m pretty sure I just dreamed the whole thing. But I’ve never had a dream quite like it before or since. In my memory, it’s like something that actually happened — not like the way a dream fades, becoming less and less real the more you try to pin it down.

On the other hand, I’ve never had another meditation like that one since. Not with the same wrapping paper, different wrapping paper, an actual Tibetan mandala, or just all by myself with nothing at all. And believe me, I’ve tried.

All I can say is that I reached an amazingly clear, lucid state, which was still very different from my normal waking state. Light seemed to be coming from all directions, and the colors in my dining room became especially vivid.

Oh, and Santa Claus was standing in the middle of my dining room. Looking right at me.

You know how you’ll see a Santa at a department store, or ringing a bell on the street, and there’s always something that’s not quite right about him? He’s too fat or too thin, too young or too old, the beard looks fake or the hat looks wrong. Those Santas that get most of the details down are the “good” Santas, but there is always something. I think it’s a holdover from when you were a kid and still half believed, so you were always checking to see if that Santa was the Santa.

Anyway, this guy had nothing wrong with him. You know how even the best Santa suits look like Halloween outfits? Well, this guy’s suit looked like you could actually wear it at the North Pole — that white fur trim was definitely not for show. His cheeks were rosy. His eyes were merry. And I knew what the first words out of his mouth would be before he even said them.

“Merry Christmas!”

Then he laughed, and yes, his belly shook. I should mention here that while the man is fat — I’d have to put him at a shade over 300 pounds — it isn’t wussy-fat. It’s truck-stop fat. A body based on a wide, load-bearing frame that had spent a few decades enjoying the good life and maybe not getting enough cardio, but still retained almost all its power. Also, the laugh. You could write it out “ho ho ho,” but he didn’t actually say, “hoe hoe hoe,” if you get me — like that terrible Santa at the end of A Christmas Story. No, this was just a fat, older man’s belly laugh.

“I’m sorry for laughing,” he went on, “but you should see the look on your face.”

“Well,” I said, “you’re not who I was expecting.”

“Who were you expecting?” he asked.

“Uh, actually, I don’t suppose I was expecting anyone,” I said. “But the person you’re supposed to see when you’re meditating — if you see anyone at all — is the Buddha.”

“Well, he and I share a lot in common,” he said. “Both of us could stand to lose a few pounds, and from the statues I’ve seen, he’s a pretty jolly fellow. And in a sense we both come from the same place.”

“I can’t picture anyone who dresses in open-toed sandals and off-the-shoulder saffron robes being too comfortable at the North Pole.”

He gave that laugh again, and it was hard not to laugh along with him. “No, that’s not what I mean. What is that old saying? ‘If you see the Buddha on the road …’?”

“‘Kill him,’” I finished. “It’s a way of saying that, while the Buddha is great and all, he’s not the point of Buddhism. He’s just an arrow pointing the way to the Buddha-nature that’s in everyone.”

“Exactly!” Santa said. “Say, do you mind if I smoke?” He pulled out a chair and sat down, stripped off his big, black gloves, and dug out a little red tobacco pouch and a little white clay pipe that he began to stuff.

“So wait …” I said. He stopped stuffing the pipe and shot me a small, disappointed look that made him appear for all the world like a big kid. “Oh, no, the pipe is fine. I’m just confused. Are you telling me that you’re some inner Santa-nature that I have? That I’m talking to a figment of my own imagination here?”

“Well,” said Santa, lighting his pipe with a wooden match, “not just your imagination. After all, I’ve been around a lot longer than you have.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but I don’t see how my imagination can have you here like this. I don’t believe in you. I haven’t believed in you since kindergarten. You don’t exist. You’re not real.”

“Now really,” said Santa, puffing on his pipe, “I’m a little offended. There are plenty of people who are real but don’t exist. Just the other day I went bowling with Tarzan, the Easter Bunny, and Ronald McDonald.”

I sat there staring at him.

“The Bunny rolled a 260,” he deadpanned perfectly. Then he just couldn’t hold it any longer and busted out laughing. And so did I. It was hard not to like the guy.

When his belly stopped shaking he took another puff or two on his pipe and said, “What I mean is, all those characters, all those stories, are in some sense true if they tell us something true about ourselves.”

“Well, yes,” I said, “it is true that people like to get presents, and I suppose they always have and will. So I guess you don’t have to worry about job security.”

Santa leaned back and crossed his arms. He shot me a wink that was terribly sly and said, “You seem to think I’m the world’s oldest marketing gimmick, don’t you? I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I have if that was all there was to me.”

Then he leaned in close and motioned me in with a crooked finger. I leaned in — I could smell tobacco and chocolate, cinnamon and peppermint — and he whispered, “Do you want to know the real reason? Why everyone knows me, why everyone knows stories about me? It isn’t for the things I bring … It’s for the things I take away.”

I frowned. “You mean,” I whispered back, “… you mean the milk and cookies?”

“Ho ho ho!” he rocked back and laughed until there were tears in the corners of his eyes. “No, but the milk and cookies are a part of it. They’re an echo of something older. Have you ever heard of Ded Moroz?”

“No.”

“He’s me when I’m in Russia. ‘Grandfather Frost.’ I have a great time being him. One of the old men of the village gets chosen to be me, and then I go from door to door. I don’t bring presents, but at every stop I get a little something to drink, a little something to eat. They wish me well and say good-bye and send me on my way to the next house.”

“You have identity issues, did you know that?” I said.

Santa gave a little dismissive wave. “The point is,” he said, “in saying good-bye to me they say good-bye to the winter, good-bye to the tough times just past. I take the frost away with me, and along with it I take a little of the darkness, the coldness in their own lives. Winter, you see, can be very hard. To survive often times means being selfish. And here, with the frost leaving, they didn’t have to be any more.

“The Romans,” he went on, “held a feast for Saturn at the end of every year to celebrate the birth of the sun. Master and servant switched places, the whole order of their society was upended. There was feasting, drinking, revels. Responsibilities were put aside, debts forgotten and forgiven.

“What made it all right for all of this to happen was that they elected a new king from among the lowliest, and he ‘reigned’ for the duration of the festival. When it came time for the festival to end, the Romans would look at each other and decide all of the nonsense of the past few days must have been because they were badly led. The king would be deposed and cast out, and take with him all the guilt, all the blame for everything foolish and exciting that had happened. Then they could go back to their normal lives.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “This mock king of theirs … portly? Sport a big bushy beard? Jolly?”

“Most times,” Santa said.

“But you don’t do that any more,” I said. “I mean, you don’t work like that any more. No one who overeats during the holidays and steps on a scale in January says, ‘Damn that Santa Claus!’ No one who spends too much on presents and has a whopping Visa bill the next month says, ‘Santa made me do it.’”

“Tell me something,” he said. “Why do people give gifts to one another at Christmas?”

“I guess because we always have,” I said. “Because it feels good.”

“Because what feels good?” he asked. “Do you mean the giving, or the getting?”

“Well, both,” I said. “But at Christmas it’s supposed to be about the giving. About this opportunity to be generous.”

“Generosity,” he repeated, sounding out the syllables. “To give without expecting anything back. But how to do that, though? How to make sure the act of giving isn’t … well … tainted by the expectation of something in return?”

“You could give anonymously, I suppose,” I said. Then I smacked myself on the forehead for being an idiot. “Or, you could make up some crazy story about how the gift was from this fat guy in a red suit.”

I regretted saying fat the second it was out of my mouth. But I suppose he must get that a lot because it didn’t seem to faze him. Santa just nodded and said, “That sense of self — the ego, whatever you want to call it — it gets in the way of real happiness. I just help get around that.”

“So, we get Santa Claus.”

Santa smiled and nodded. “So, we get Santa Claus.” He had finished his pipe, and knocked out the ash in my potted plant. Then he got up to go, saying, “I should be on my merry way. It’s my busy time of year.”

“Hey, hold on a second,” I said.

Santa was pulling on his gloves again. He raised his bushy white eyebrows. “Yes?”

“If you’re a figment of my imagination, it means I’m basically talking to myself here. It means you only know what’s already inside my head, right?”

“Why do you ask?” said Santa.

“Well,” I said, “that Dead Morris guy from Russia …”

“Ded Moroz,” he corrected.

“Okay, well, the point is, I never heard of him before.”

“Hum,” said Santa. “Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

He pondered for a moment, tapping one black-gloved finger on his chin. “Well, maybe you overheard it, say at a Christmas party somewhere, and just forgot about it.”

“That’s possible …” I said.

“Or,” Santa went on, “maybe you’ve tapped into some wider field of human knowledge. But that sounds a bit like some kind of Eastern mysticism to me.”

“And of course,” I said, “you wouldn’t have anything to do with that sort of thing, would you?”

At that he smiled. Then he winked, and laying a finger beside his nose, he was just … gone. My dining room was back to normal and I was wide awake.

In case you’re wondering, I did check the potted plant, and there was something in there that might have been a tiny clump of pipe ash. But it might have been just cigarette ash from days or even weeks before. I mean, I do have people over now and again.

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