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Robert Hirschfield gives his account of an unexpected interaction in India.

SEEING MY FIRST child monk in Bodh Gaya, I think, Way to go! Start early and you will have a mind like clear space before puberty. Not like the mind that wobbles before you, willing to pick any cherry from the spirit tree, hoping it will taste of deliverance. A word that’s too big for you. For me too. But I am not convinced of that, though I like to pretend otherwise.

Some inner something alerts you to my presence. You bow low, a small saffron fruit scraping the warm ground.

You wave me over. “You from?

“America,” I say. “And you?”

“Bangladesh.”

A stubbled monk in a saffron sweatshirt is watching us closely from the opposite end of the ledge. A gaudy father bird keeping an eye on things.

“My teacher,” you say. Teacher smiles. You tell me your name: Atish. “There is also another boy who is monk: Siddharta.”

“Tell me about your meditation practice?”

“I follow the breath. That is my practice. Breathe in, I know. Breathe out, I know.”

You are prying open Siddharta’s mouth, and I am thinking anything can happen anywhere in this world.

You close your eyes and meditate for me, as if you are demonstrating an appliance. I am impressed by how you let yourself be taken by the formless. I leave you to photograph the pilgrims collecting like ants around the stupas. When I return, you are with your teacher, and another boy in saffron, who I take to be Siddharta.

“Can you help us?” you ask.

Where have I heard those words before? Not here, surely, in the shadow of the Bodhi tree. You are prying open Siddharta’s mouth, and I am thinking anything can happen anywhere in this world. You are pointing to a bone sticking out of the darkness of an afflicted gum.

“He needs an operation. Can you pay for the operation?”

The teacher inserts his own fingers into the boy’s mouth as if to underscore the gravity of his condition. I am catapulted from my imagined role as spiritual companion to your imagined role for me as benefactor passing through.

A little seedy perhaps, but what the hell? I find your stereotype insulting, Atish. I prefer my own. Equally idiotic, but somehow more cuddly.

I say “no” six or seven times in rapid succession like one of those crazed gunman in the movies whose lover was really asking for it.

I turn and leave.

“Tomorrow morning. I will be here waiting for you,” you say, still seeing some hope for our relationship. You are as good as your word. Sensitive to my dismay of yesterday, you begin by asking me about the food, the room, the folks at the Root Institute where I am staying. I give you my answers, heavy as quarry stones.

“OK, not money for an operation, but can you buy me a new school bag?”

You show me the old one. It is frayed. You are one pushy contemplative. I hear someone other than my resisting self, clearing his throat.

“OK, I will buy you a bag.”

Community Connection

Dental problems are one travel issue addressed in this post, Top 10 Travel Health Problems & How to Handle Them.

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