Maria, the Buddhist

Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Jan Turner-Jones

I once had a friend named Maria who was a Buddhist – which always seemed a contradiction in terms to me.

Her joy was to give statues of Buddha as gifts – glowing red ones from Oriental shops, artistic carvings from folk festivals, concrete pressings from garden shops …  At one stage I had 10.

I don’t know why I was the main recipient of Maria’s largesse.  Perhaps she considered me either a challenge or a push-over, but year after year in spite of polite protests, the Buddhas kept arriving and I managed to find shelves and corners to display them because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

When she found out she was dying, she came to see me with a jade Buddha and put it into my bookcase with its back to the room.

‘Turn him around so he can join the party at least,’ I said laughing, but she shook her head.  ‘Always keep him facing East,’ she instructed me, ‘always’.

I asked her why she became a Buddhist in the first place.

‘So I wouldn’t feel afraid,’ she said. ‘I grew up beaten and abused, afraid of everything and everyone. Now I’m at peace with whatever comes my way.’

We all have our reasons for life decisions or lack of them and Maria seemed genuinely at peace with herself and the world — although I knew she knew it would take more than a collection of Buddas to convince me to accept whatever came my way.  I prefer to curse and complain until any intrusion to my own peace has settled. I’m a terrible sick/wounded human being.  I swat annoying insects without guilt.  I’m a great hater.  In short, I would be an embarrassing Buddhist on any continent on Earth..

‘Why so many statues?’ I asked her one day.

‘Because there are so many different lives,’ she said smiling. In spite of the impression I may have given, Maria was a very funny person.  Wherever she went, laughter followed, whether it was giving particular Buddas ‘street’ names or showing off the collection of insects she’d saved – while admitting that at first she kept them in a small terrarium together until discovering that some survivors had eaten others with relish.

After the rawness of her death wore off, I decided to have a Budda round-up and collected 10 statues and carvings which I took to the local Charity Shop.

‘I don’t suppose you’d be interested in these?’ I asked a woman dusting the shelves. She looked in my bag and out they came, a long line of Buddhas sitting on the counter amongst plastic flowers, old jewel boxes, key rings and tarnished cuff links .. ‘Oh yes,’ she said, ‘people like this sort of thing these days.’

I kept Maria’s jade Buddha for sentimental reasons and friends often asked what he had done to be placed in the naughty corner, back to the room.  I usually got a quizzical look when I said he had to face East for eternity.  On odd occasions people surreptitiously turned the Buddha around to face the room without comment, waiting for my reaction.

I recently found more Buddhas at home.  One large black happy chap with a big smile and bigger stomach, was in the back of a drawer under a towel I rarely used and a tiny gold one with a serious face was tucked inside the toe of a shoe.

A few months later I discovered another statue under a bush in the garden when a plumber was fitting an outdoor tap.

Currently I own the jade Budda, a stone Buddha, the happy chap carved from dark wood and the small, sombre, travelling Buddha, and sometimes, just in case,  I go searching for other lost icons like a child on an Easter egg hunt.

I wonder if Maria is laughing and I also wonder if she’d thought about life in a new body?  Perhaps she was pulling my leg all along!  Unless there are more icons she’s hidden away in sneaky moments, I think four Buddhas will be sufficient for me this time around.