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Cleansing Ritual

ICSA Today, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2017, 20-21

Cleansing Ritual

Mary O’Connell

I leave the house at 5 a.m. to do the laundry. Not that I have to—I want to. It’s summer; I’m a teacher; I could do it any time during the day or night. But I have a ritual I love to follow: wheeling the small, black shopping cart (bought for its petite, pretty lines) out to the alleyway, the night still dark, the security light on, making me feel, indeed, secure. Once in the alley, I can see the night sky clearly: stars, moon, Milky Way. Here in Bay Ridge, most of the houses are one or two stories, so it’s easy to see the sky.

I open the gate, pass through, and I can see across the street my neighbor’s lights shining on the lovely tree that lives outside their house. Its branches spread out on the right and left side of its trunk in what jewelers call an east-west design. At Christmas, they decorate this tree with elegant Christmas lights; near Valentine’s Day, it’s kitted out1 with red hearts. In spring, it adorns itself in an abandoned profusion of green leaves that bloom straight through autumn. This tree is the first thing I see as I leave my little area and head out to the world.

Having passed through the gate, I turn left and push the cart down to 5th Avenue. No one is awake on my block, no one stirs. The world is mine. I can look up at the stars as I walk and not feel foolish. Sometimes a slight breeze will be stirring, and it does feel like a caress. I’m always in awe of the night sky, revealed through the trees—sometimes, especially in Indian summer, the clouds sweeping from one part of it to the other.

. . .

All the time I first lived in Queens, I missed the sky. And though Queens had many beautiful old trees, there were mostly apartment buildings where I lived that had a glamour of their own; but they blocked away the sky and made stargazing near to impossible.

I’d moved to Queens with my husband, whom I had met when I became a member of SGI (Soka Gakkai International), an international group purporting to be Buddhist, and dedicated “to world peace and the happiness and freedom of every individual.” I’d been introduced by a friend at work whose life seemed infinitely better than mine. I found out afterward that she had been trying to recruit me for a long while before she finally accomplished my conversion.

At first, things were wonderful. As a new member and a young member, I was fussed and fawned over. Every word I said and everything I did seemed to delight. People told me constantly how wonderful I was, how beautiful I was, what an invaluable addition I was to the group.

We were told every prayer would be answered, every desire fulfilled. No prayer was too trivial or selfish. When things happened in accord with our prayers, it was explained that was because the prayer was “correct,” and our activities within and our allegiance to the sacred group was “correct.” At first, life seemed to get immeasurably better. Soon, though, my life became immeasurably worse.

. . .

But now, the small houses on the block that I pass and take in, one by one, are quaint and lovingly cared for. Most have little gardens, or, at the very least, potted plants. In winter, quite a few are decorated for the Christmas season. The first winter I was here after I returned, it used to take me an extra 5 minutes to reach the morning bus for work because I would have to stand at each house and enjoy the scene.

Some houses were garish, but still joyful. One in particular was so elegant it was breathtaking. I stood outside that house quite a few times: no plastic Santas here! My neighbor paid homage to the season with potted fir trees, wreaths, reindeer made of bent birch. And white lights, of course, celebrating that which is numinous in all nature.

. . .

For the first 15 years that I was a member of SGI, celebrating Christmas was verboten. If you did so, you would be committing sacrilege. Putting up a Christmas tree was tantamount to blasphemy. You were putting your soul in danger. No matter how badly you wanted to visit your nonmember family, you couldn’t go. Such blithe disregard for the teachings of Nichiren Shoshu would result in your ancestors for seven generations back and descendants seven generations forward falling into the hell of incessant suffering.

I missed Christmas in those years, not because I believed in Christianity but because of everything that came along with it: happy people, polite people! festive buildings, crisp air, the certainty of new beginnings.

. . .

And now, I have it again, all of it, the flat-out (if unconscious) adoration of nature and gratitude to the earth. That is what drew me to Buddhism: the basic tenet that all of life is sacred.

When I get to 5th Avenue, I turn right and start toward 75th Street where my favorite laundromat is: Bubbles and Suds. 5th Avenue is, to me, another amazement. Between 100th Street and 69th Street, each and every block on the avenue has at least 3 benches on each side of the street. The benches are all forest-green, twisted metal spaced for 3 people. Each street has matching municipal garbage containers designed to contain the garbage while keeping it invisible to the eye. And, of course, more trees! 5th Avenue is like a village shopping area, only laid out lengthwise. The buildings in which the stores are located are two stories. Most are mom-and-pop operations. You can get anything you could ever want here: specialty chocolate, liquor, groceries, Greek food, Lebanese food, Chinese food, manicures, hairstylists, real estate, movie theaters, banks. Convenience within steps of residential bliss. I can have as much solitude and quiet as I want at home, and yet be smack in the heart of things in 7 minutes. The very best of both worlds!

. . .

In the SGI, there was no solitude. In various ways, it was discouraged. There was never time for quiet reflection, for downtime. We were expected to be in constant motion, continually serving. To seek time for ourselves was selfish. We were always in emergency mode: The clock was ticking and we had a world to save. No time to question, no time to think. That would be pure self-indulgence. Our master, Daisaku Ikeda, knew the direction we needed to go in. To ruminate over his decisions was to doubt. To doubt was to show disunity. To show disunity was a sin. There was always something to be done, some member who needed encouragement, some activity that needed to be attended to.

In those days, I would get up at 5 a.m.; do morning prayers; chant for an hour while kneeling in front of our altar; go to work; go to a meeting at 7 p.m., which I was responsible to lead; stay after the meeting to encourage people, to listen to their problems, to entice guests to join; stumble home by 10:30 p.m.; spend another half hour on the phone reporting; try to clean the house a bit; have a marriage; then fall into bed by 1 a.m.

On 4 hours’ sleep, I, like the others, was in a state of sleep deprivation, a most miserable condition. Not only was I too tired to reason, but my body ached. It felt like it was crying. I just felt lousy.

. . .

I walk along 5th Avenue. It’s still dark. A few people are out. Sometimes, especially in summer, in front of the local bar a few stragglers remain. I hurry past, hoping none of my teenage students are among them. That would be awkward. After a block or two, I take a break from the hot, humid air and sit on one of those friendly benches. What a luxury to feel safe, a woman all alone in the night, in the middle of the street. This is my hometown: Bay Ridge. This is the best of it: its safety, its quiet, its beauty.

I ran from this place when I was young because nothing ever happened here, because of its blandness. Buddhism seemed very exotic after a lifetime of Catholic nuns and people who had rules and explanations for everything, but no sensuality, no love of life.

And then, after the disaster, my life ruined, after finding out the particular group I’d been part of for 20 years was nothing more than fanatical, a cult, I began to long and long for this place.

For a long time, I stalked it! From my perfectly nice little studio apartment in Queens, I would look at pictures of Bay Ridge online: sledders at Shore Road park; 4th Avenue after Hurricane Sandy; the Verrazano Bridge at dusk or at dawn; any shot of a snowstorm. When I finally got the chance to move back, I could not believe my fortune. I was in a daze. I didn’t care that the only thing I could afford was a basement rental.

I rediscovered the fact that the water is never far away. I can easily walk to the water from my house (yes! before dawn: safe, secure, to watch the sun rise). And the land and the character of the buildings subtly change as they near land’s end. Just like in a beach town, everything gets spaced apart and calmer as you near the water. You can stand on the corner of 82nd Street and 3rd Avenue looking toward the Verrazano and swear you are in a summer resort town somewhere.

I reach the laundromat and the young man greets me with a smile as he opens the door. It’s a 24-hour center, but he sensibly locks the door between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. If I were still in the cult, at this time of day I’d be up and out of bed, not out of choice but obligation. I’d be on the floor, in front of my home altar for more than an hour, chanting. There would still be, according to the group, only one way to pray, only one way to see the world, only one way to understand it, and only one correct way to respond to it. There would be no time to feel the world, no time to, as the poet Girmay says, fall in love with its feral self.  

 My hometown laundromat is designed elegantly, well lit, bright, and cheerful. Hanging lamps are quasi bubble-shaped. There’s a well-appointed children’s play area with enough wonderful stuff to make you wish you were a kid again. There are two large-screen televisions. On Sunday mornings, they offer bagels, cream cheese, and coffee gratis. For me, the most exciting thing are the stacks and stacks of magazines.

The young man knows me. Without a word, he turns up the air conditioning and gives me a small, shy nod as he crosses the room. I thank him. It’s just the two of us here now, and he is not supposed to turn the air on until 7 a.m.

I put the white clothes and dark clothes into two different washers, add the soap and the money, watch them get started, and then sit down in the area near the magazines, right up front, right near the large picture window that my friend, the attendant, has made spotless. The window looks out onto the tranquil street, which is hanging in that exquisite moment before dawn, light just kissing the clean-swept pavement.

I am alone with it all: light, streets, trees, sky, the first of the day. It belongs to me because I love it so. I bow my head, make my obeisance, and let it overwhelm me. Ravaged, my heart is filled with joy.

Note

[1] A British term gaining popularity in the United States that means “equipped” or “decked out.”

About the Author

Mary O’Connell was a member of SGI, a Buddhist-based group, for close to 20 years. Her life was saved when she happened to find ICSA (then AFF) online. Subsequently, she met Lorna Goldberg, LCSW, PsyA, and past president of ICSA, who has helped her recover, imagine a new life, and create that new life.