My Cold-Blooded Buddhist Teacher

A bathroom in central Flroida may not be the place you would look for a bodhisattva, a Buddha to be, nor would a lizard be the most likely teacher of Buddhist “skillful means.” (“Skillful means” are your own unique methods of living as a bodhisattva, ending suffering and teaching Buddhist truth.)

Only some three or four days a year are so cold here that I bring my orchids and carnivorous plants inside. Since they don’t like the dry air of a heated house, I practice some gardening skillful means, putting them into my tub-and-shower.

(Aren’t we supposed to be talking about a bodhisattva, at least a Buddhist teacher?)

Personal hygiene gets exotic, as I tiptoe through the orchids, paranoid as I stand naked before a carnivorous plant. This year, I discovered that one of the little green lizards (anoles) had moved in with the plants.

Perhaps my bathroom seemed a great winter retreat. Since she eats insects, I thought she would not find much food, and so I resolved to rescue her; whenever I grabbed at her, however, she sped away. One seldom gets a chance to become a bodhisattva (a Buddhist aspiring to be a Buddha) in one’s own bathroom, but a few nights later, I found her on the side of the trashcan, looking over the rim. I decided it was time for some skillful means.

If I am inside the house, and the lizards are outside the screen, they don’t respond to my movements. Either they literally do not see my hand, or lizard brains are hardwired (as some bird brains are) for attack to come from above. So, I might become a bodhisattva of compassion yet.

I inched over so that I was standing across from her. From her perspective, I was below her. I slowly lifted the trashcan and moved through the hall to the front door, opened it, and took the can and the lizard outside. I felt her paws, as she jumped from the trashcan to the back of my hand, and then into…

Nirvana? (This is a Buddhist tale.)

I had just rescued the lizard from the non-Buddhist illusion that my bathroom would make a great winter resort and had liberated her by my skillful means. I wonder if she appreciated what a bodhisattva I was.

In The Lotus Sutra the Buddha, our first Buddhist teacher, tells about a father who, enticing his children to leave a burning house, tells them to come see his beautiful carts. He is lying, but his “skillful means” save the children.

If we talk about Buddhist truth, we have to decide how to do it. Will we call it the Buddhist religion, the Buddhist philosophy, or the Buddhist way of life, the bodhisattva path? We have to decide the “skillful means” to communicate Buddhist truth with fellow Buddhists.

So, the lizard got me in touch with my inner bodhisattva, Samantabhadra, the bodhisattva of skillful means. She took no Buddhist wisdom from our encounter, certainly not to trust a good Buddhist trying to catch you. She taught me to think like a lizard. If I, like Samantabhadra, rode around the world on an elephant with six tusks, I might be tempted to carve a notch on one of them, before moving on to the next name on the scroll, which might be my own.

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