You'll find this article on page 64 of the magazine.
Playing With Buddha
“The Buddha is with you,” his mother used to say. “Believe in him.” At age seven, IRA SUKRUNGRUANG believed that the Buddha was more than a bronze statue. The Buddha was his best friend.
used to stare at the meditating Buddha in our living room: his
straightbacked posture, his wide shoulders and narrow waist, his elegant
hands resting humbly in his lap. This statue sat on a shelf seven feet
high. Around him were other Buddhas, two yellow candles, and a cup of
rice to hold incense sticks. He could rest comfortably in my palm and
weighed no more than a couple of pounds. Yet he was heavy in spiritual
weight, my father always said.
Buddha, like my mother and father, was not native to America. He had
been in my family for years, ever since my father was a barefoot boy
running wildly in Ayutthaya, Thailand. I wondered if the Buddha, too,
felt misplaced in this new world—a world without the heat and humidity
of his native home, without the familiar sounds of geckos and mynahs and
the evening song of croaking frogs. This was America. This was
Illinois. This was Chicago. Here, the house shook on Mondays when the
garbage truck rumbled by. Here, our neighbor Jack rode endless loops on
his riding lawn mower.
family revolved around the Buddha. Each morning, before I went to
school, I prayed to him. Some days, my mother allowed me to stand on a
dining-room chair to
offer him a shot glass of coffee—cream, no sugar. Other days, she let
me light the candles and incense before we prayed. I was supposed to
close my eyes and think only good thoughts, but my eyes remained open,
fixed on the Buddha. I imagined that, at any moment, he would rise and
float down like an autumn leaf. I imagined he would impart vital
secrets, and I could ask him the questions that plagued me. There, in
the living room, he would walk onto the palms of my hands and we would
spend the evening—boy and Buddha—speaking like friends.
“The Buddha is with you,” my mother used to say. “Believe in him.”
so I believed that the Buddha was more than a bronze statue, that he
was solid like a body is solid—the way it gives a bit when you lean
against it, the way it molds to accept the presence of another. He
possessed the gift of language and was bilingual like me, skipping
freely between English and Thai. We spoke often, our conversations in
hushed whispers, and he sounded soothing, not harsh like my elementary
school principal or gargled like the monks at temple. Buddha was the
holder of my secrets. He understood that loneliness and emptiness were
one and the same.
Once, when I was in the living room, my mother asked from the kitchen who I was talking to.
“Buddha,” I told her.
“Excellent,” she said. “Speak to him every day, okay?”
Mrs. Slusarchak, my second grade teacher, asked my mother to come for a meeting one afternoon.
patient teacher, Mrs. S lived in Munster, Indiana. “I live in Munster,”
she always said, “like the stinky cheese.” But I thought she was saying
Monster, and imagined hairy demons living in cheese-shaped houses. I
liked her. She wore bright dresses—Hawaiian pastels—that seemed to ward
off the dreary Chicago winter days. She looked pretty with her short
hair and small glasses and laughed with her whole body, which was
shocking but funny.
day of the meeting, my mother came straight from work, still in her
nurse’s uniform. She smiled timidly, her purse in her lap, and sat
across from Mrs. S. I was next to my mother, but I aimed my eyes out the
window at the swing set.
S said that I was a math champ every week and that my penmanship was
the best in the class. My mother patted my head and said, “We practice
can tell,” Mrs. S said, then let out a laugh that nearly knocked my
mother off the chair. “But I’m concerned about his behavior.”
he been bad?” my mother said. “I will tell him to be better.” Mrs. S
shook her head. “Not in the least. He’s just terribly shy.”
went on to talk about what had happened at recess. How I’d wanted to
get on the swing but Tommy W told me to go away, so I did and sat on the
bench, staring at my hands. This was what I did often, she said. Stare
at my hands. I could never meet her eyes. I could never speak more than
two words at a time. “There are days,” she said, “that I don’t hear a
word from him.”
“Is this true?” my mother asked me in Thai.
stared at my hands and my mother sighed. It was a sigh that said she
knew exactly what Mrs. S was talking about. “I’m sorry for him,” she
said. “He is like me.” She, too, had a fear that gripped her. It made
her hide in her room, reading magazines and sewing endless dresses she
would never wear.
S nodded. She understood. She suggested my mother enroll me in Cub
Scouts or other activities, so that I would be encouraged to meet some
friends. My mother agreed, and the next day she sent me to school with a
bagful of apples for my teacher.
what I wanted to say was that I had a friend: Buddha, and within him
was a heart that beat strong and that awakened something in me.
was not a spiritual awakening—not a recognition beyond the self as many
theologians would define it. Nor was it a sudden epiphany to a
transcendent crisis. I was too young to comprehend such lofty ideas, too
young to fully understand what Buddhism was or why my family was so
devoted to it. I was being awakened in the way a newborn registers it
has fingers and toes, and those fingers and toes have function. I was
being awakened in the same way you realize that if you see one bird, you
might see another and another. You realize that you are not as alone as
you thought you were. The world is filled with birds, or in this case,
with buddhas, and every buddha is a friend.
spoke to him every day,” my friend told me. “His name was Bob.” My
friend and I were in our early twenties, and in the best place to be on a
hot summer evening in Chicago—an over-air-conditioned bar. He was
relaying tales of the imaginary friend he had when he lived clear across
the ocean, growing up in a semi-affluent family in Poland.
“What did you two talk about?” I asked.
“Bob was well-versed in all subjects.”
We laughed. “Do you remember when he started appearing?” I said.
“About the time when my mom was about to ditch my dad and come here.”
think that’s why Bob appeared?” Imaginary friends, I’d discovered
through research, often materialize during stressful moments in a
child’s life. It is how the child grasps and copes with the turmoil of
his or her situation.
friend shrugged and seemed to speak more to his drink than to me. “I
remember what Bob looked like, though.” Then he went on to describe Bob,
who had crazy wild hair that went in all directions and who always
appeared barefoot and in a blue-and-white-striped sweater and khaki
shorts. “Isn’t that crazy?” he said.
I shook my head.
“What’s crazier,” said my friend, “is that I thought I saw him the other day. At work.”
“An older Bob or young Bob?
“The same Bob.”
“Was he barefoot?” I asked.
“Can’t be barefoot in Home Depot. But he had on the same sweater and he was holding hands with his dad.”
“Are you sure it was Bob?” I asked.
“Nope.” My friend ordered another drink. “When you talk about imaginary friends, you really can’t be sure of anything.”
I can’t be sure of Buddha. But I am sure that when I was seven I was
picked on and bullied. I am sure that I was born an only child and spent
much of my time by myself. I am sure that I am the son of two immigrant
parents who loved me with all their being, even more than they loved
each other, and sometimes, because of this love, they smothered me with
suffocating affection. I am sure that my family was scared and they,
too, turned to Buddha for day-to-day guidance through this world that
was not Thailand, where it snowed when there should have been hot,
devouring sun. I am sure that I possessed an overactive imagination. I
am sure that when I felt overwhelmed, I hid myself within the darkness
of my arms and made the world sound hollow like a cave. I am sure that
the safest place in the world when I was small was the back of my
mother’s knees. I am sure that the mind is a mysterious muscle, and the
mind of a child is even more mysterious.
of this I am positive: every time I looked at the Buddha in the living
room, I found myself calm, serene, as if caught in a moment before
waking or sleeping.
I went to sleep, I talked to Buddha. My parents were trying to reclaim
their bedroom. Up until then, I’d wedged myself between them on their
handmade bed. I was a husky boy and prone to tossing and turning. When I
was three or four, this was fine, but now I possessed a larger body
that took up more of the bed, and my father was tired of having my hand
slapping his face.
night my new room scared me, even though my mother and father had
painted it the light shade of green I’d asked for, and even though I’d
been in it countless times during the day. Darkness changed the
landscape of the room. There was an absence of color, and that absence
felt oppressive. The only furniture was a twin bed and a metal desk, and
there was nothing on the walls, except for a small Buddha pendant
hanging above the bed and a picture of my father when he was a monk.
Although it was only half the size of my parents’, my room seemed too
big, sonorous. I felt there were places for monsters to hide, especially
in the closet, and I convinced myself there were things that existed in
there. Unpleasant things.
I frequently ended up back in my parents’ bed until my father put his foot down. “Big boys sleep in their own rooms,” he said.
“You are a big boy, yes?”
“Nothing can hurt you,” he said. “Buddha protects us.
he did. He sat cross-legged on my bed, not in a meditating fashion, but
how I sat when Mrs. S read to us. My Buddha did not speak sage advice.
He adopted schoolyard lingo, and told me the kids at school were dork
noses and that I was much better than they were. At night, Buddha eased
me to sleep with his wild stories. “One time,” he’d begin, and the tale
would take off in bizarre and outrageous directions, always ending with a
hero who stood tall and was not afraid to take on the world. We played
rock, paper, scissors, and Buddha was always shocked when I beat him.
Then when the darkest part of the night came, he hovered above me and I
could feel the heat of his presence. His skin glowed, like a
day imaginary friends are there and the next they are not. This is true
of real friends, also. The friends we had when we were in school—what
happened to them? Jody is now a photographer in North Carolina. Casey
works for USAA in Texas. Andrea is a schoolteacher in Illinois. What we
share is a past, a period in time. We become a memory. We become part of
a sentence that begins with, “Remember Ira…”
seldom do we remember our imagined friends, because to admit to them is
to somehow admit to a deficiency on our part. Yet they existed, too.
They were essential. But now we want to keep our friends a secret—to
protect them from ridicule, from sideway glances. They protected us when
we were younger, and now it’s our turn to protect them.
“Remember Buddha?” I want to say. “Dude told the craziest stories.”
Buddha became Buddha, he was a boy. He was Prince Siddhartha, heir to
his father’s throne, groomed to be the greatest king to ever live. This
was the pressure he lived with day in, day out. I imagine this to be
stifling, every limb weighed down with lead. I imagine that even
Siddhartha, a boy destined for greatness, might crumble under that
pressure. And the king sensed it too. He feared his son would leave the
palace, so he built other palaces within the palace; there would be no
need for Siddhartha to leave. But what does a boy do without others
I wondered about this.
As soon as I learned how to read, my mother gave me a book entitled The Story of Buddha.
It was published by a press in New Delhi in 1978 and had pictures on
every other page. What I remember most about the book were the times
Siddhartha spent alone, something that displeased his father. The king
bemoaned his son’s lack of interest in his education as a king. He
complained how Siddhartha would rather be alone in the garden than with
his teachers. But was he alone? Did he speak to the butterflies, the
birds, the critters that scampered around in green? Could Siddhartha,
who possessed an extraordinary mind, have imagined someone in that
garden with him, someone to assuage his loneliness?
when Siddhartha became Buddha, he would teach us that nothing is ever
truly alone; everything is in relation to everything else.
God is in everything. He is everywhere. He is always with you. Sitting
with my wife’s family at their Presbyterian church, I often hear these
words, which are not dissimilar to the ones I heard when I was a boy
sitting in temple listening to a monk’s sermon. Buddha is with you. Keep him in your mind and heart. We
look to these spiritual guides for ways to calm our tumultuous lives.
There is comfort in the notion that we are never alone, that we are
connected by an invisible thread to everything else in the world, the
seen and the unseen.
remained unseen when I traveled down the stairs in a laundry basket,
one of my favorite games. But he was there, sitting with me. He remained
unseen when we wrestled with body pillows. But he was there, with a
pulverizing elbow. He remained unseen when I played with my action
figures. But he was there, making my GI Joes move in combative
maneuvers. He remained unseen when I played football outside. But he was
there, my wide receiver, catching passes for touchdowns.
real Buddha would not do such things. The real Buddha would have
preached peace and emphasized the life of the mind. But my Buddha was a
mix of wisdom and mischief. He was my friend, after all, and as friends
we were on equal ground.
friendship, this very idea of Buddha, made me change, if only a little.
It made me yearn for real companionship, and perhaps that was the
reason I fought against my shyness. If I could speak to Buddha, why
couldn’t I speak to the weird boy with the spiked hair who looked just
as lonely as I was? Or the other boy with the golden hair and thick
glasses? Or the other boy who was as gangly as a bean? Perhaps they had
imaginary friends, too, and in this we shared something. Perhaps our
imaginary friends would not be needed anymore, and they would simply
what moment my imaginary friend disappeared, I don’t remember. But he
did, and so did the Buddha on the shelf one evening when I was a
teenager. Then there was a new Buddha, a green one made of jade and
covered in sparkling gold robes. This new Buddha was beautiful the way
something new is beautiful, but I found myself looking for the familiar
tarnish, the layer of dust that blanketed the old Buddha. The old Buddha
went when my father went; it was his, after all, and was one of the
only things he took with him after the divorce.
missed that old Buddha, my friend— missed his presence, his watchful
gaze on the shelf. There were questions I still wanted to ask, guidance I
still sought. I wonder what the view is like where he is now, and does
he remember the boy who used to talk to him? He sat there for fifteen
years of my life, and though Buddha has become Buddha again and not my
play pal, he is never far from my mind. All I have to do is close my
eyes to see him: his straight-backed posture, his wide shoulders and
narrow waist, his elegant hands resting humbly in his lap.
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoir Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy and the co-editor of What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology.
ILLUSTRATION: Tomi Um