I fall in love with chanting at the retreat. Our first sitting practice each day begins at 6am. The windows are all still open before the heat comes. I have a big screen door at my back. The desert is quiet in the early morning, the soft, steady cheep cheep cheep of a verdin, the rarer song of a house finch. Sometimes I hear the wind moving outside the zendo, or the louvered curtains knocking against each other. The teacher rings the bell three times at 6:45, and we begin to chant. There are teaching chants, monotones with dips and rises. Following them uses all of me, keeps me present. Sister Dhamma Dera has written songs, too, and plays for us on a beautiful wooden stringed instrument laid across her lap. I like the singing best, and watching her concentrate, her sweet heart leaping and shining. Singing with all these open-hearted people reminds me of Girl Scout camp. I come home with one chant in my head though I don’t know if I have the melody right. I Google it and discover it’s one of the most common. What I remember from our chant book is the “jewel of compassion.” I want that—for myself, for others.
I sing it when we leave at the end of the retreat, and the woman driving isn’t sure we are going the right way on the dirt road. She’s afraid of getting stuck in the sand, of dying in the desert, and I think heading out without knowing the directions is only asking for trouble. So I sing “Om Mani Padme Hum” because I don’t know her very well, and it’s all I can think of doing to get out of the way, to be of any help. Now, the chant comes to me in odd moments, its steady rhythm silent inside me. I sing it out loud after yoga when I’m riding my bike to go vote. I pass a man standing at a bus stop underneath a big tree. When he turns toward me I draw in my breath. His face is blackened by the shade, his eyes big, desperate. My heart goes out to him, but I am shocked, too. I hadn’t expected what I see in his face. I don’t stop. The next day I see him outside the grocery store peering in the open doors. “Can I get you something to eat?” I ask. He nods. I have to get him to tell me what he’d like. “A sandwich and a soda?” he asks. When I return, he thanks me. “I’ll pray for you,” he says. Twice. I thank him. I am glad to see him again, to have this chance to respond to what I saw in him the day before. His eyes seem less bruised today, less haunted. I hope it’s true. I sing the chant out loud again on my way home, my voice quiet and sure, the air warm against my skin as I ride. “Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum om mani padme hum.”