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Before the Buddhist became president of the aid organization People to People, he was an ordinary Christian and a government official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was he who wrote the Foreign Minister’s speeches and thereby put words into the Foreign Minister’s mouth. It was a way of lying and at first it didn’t bother him any. Then it started bugging him because he found out he was a Buddhist. It didn’t just come to him all of a sudden that he was a Buddhist. The Buddhist, as an idea, more like crept up and settled in him shortly after his wife said she wanted a divorce. The Buddhist came in to him and sat down at the opposite side of his desk in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He contemplated the Buddhist and thought it was a good format to step into. Buddhists are good people. They’re deeper than most. Buddhists can see connections no one else can. These were all qualities he recognized in himself, but which all could be improved upon, and so he became a Buddhist. If he hadn’t become a Buddhist, the divorce would have hurt that much more, but a Buddhist gains insight through pain. The more it hurts, the wiser the Buddhist becomes, the government official thought, and stopped being a Lutheran.
• • •
Shortly after the Buddhist has divorced and become a Buddhist, he stands in front of the mirror looking at his face beneath his thin, mousy hair. His skin is pale, but the exterior is not what matters. The Dalai Lama would never lie on behalf of a government minister, and he would never tell international lies. More important, the Dalai Lama would never shy from pain. The Dalai Lama smiles when things hurt, and the more burdened the Dalai Lama, the more the world senses the Dalai Lama’s presence. Aim high, the Buddhist thinks to himself, and decides to write an article in a national newspaper. The article is about his place of work, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. More than that, it is about the lies that issue from the mouth of the Foreign Minister. The Prime Minister is a thief, and the Foreign Minister is a liar. I should know, because I’m the one who writes the speeches, the Buddhist writes in the newspaper, and the next day he is not afraid to go to work. Resistance builds character, and because the Buddhist is a government official employed by the state, the Foreign Minister cannot dismiss the Buddhist from his position. However, the Permanent Undersecretary can ride the elevator with him and have serious words, which is what he does. Up and down, up and down. Up and down with the Buddhist in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
• • •
Shortly after the article and the elevator ride with the Permanent Undersecretary, the Buddhist’s situation looks like this: he is divorced. He has been granted leave of absence at his own wish from his position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And now there are three things hurting. The Foreign Minister hurts. His wife and her wanting to sell the big house in Charlottenlund hurts. And last but not least, it hurts that his aptitude for implementing lasting change in the world, both as a Buddhist and as a former government official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is not being put to use. His desire to do good is overwhelming him. His need to implement positive change in the world around him keeps him awake at nights. He drives around Copenhagen, anxious to get to work and ready to adapt. He drives around in his red leisure activity vehicle, his Citroën Berlingo, and keeps an eye on his wife. He drives around in his red Citroën Berlingo and keeps an eye on the Foreign Minister. He wishes both of them well. Yet he also wants to molest them. It’s a paradox, but the Buddhist loves them both while at the same time wanting to molest them. I want to molest them, he says out loud to himself, and just at the very moment he hears the word molest hissing through his teeth, he sees himself in the rear-view mirror. What he sees there is a Buddhist. A good thing I’m a Buddhist, he thinks to himself. God knows what I could have done if I hadn’t been a Buddhist.
But he is a Buddhist, and Buddhists have expanding souls. He drives around in the affluence of northern Copenhagen in the night and learns that it is the Buddhist inside him who is the stronger. Inside him is an abundance of goodness. He can sense this is good, and he senses how meaningful it all is. The Universe is plotting coordinates for him. The Universe wants something of him. If the Universe hadn’t wanted something of him, then a) his wife would never have left him, and b) the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would never have pressured him into quitting. There is a meaning behind everything, and the Buddhist has had the feeling now for a long time that he is the kind of person who is able to grasp the meaning behind things. He has also had the feeling for a long time now that the world needs a strong, solitary man to save it. He is a Buddhist and a former government official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Two birds with one stone. He is a Buddhist, a former government official, and used to lying. Three in one.
• • •
It is not long before the Buddhist sees an advertisement in a national newspaper and takes it to be yet another sign from the Universe. The aid organization People to People, based in the city of Århus, is looking for a president. Aha, thinks the Buddhist, who at this point is also a divorced, unemployed subtenant in an apartment in the South Harbor district of Copenhagen. Aha, he thinks, an organization is a good place to begin if you want to change the world.
There are two reasons why an organization is a good place to begin changing the world. First, an organization sells convictions rather than products. Second, selling convictions is all about ideals. The Buddhist has plenty of ideals. But that’s not all. Ideals attract young people and other idealists. The young people and the idealists are all going to work for the Buddhist and the Cause. He can pretty much decide for himself what the Cause is going to be, as long as it involves people and aid. Both these things appeal to him. It would be good to have a world in which everyone was equally plump; not fat, but happy. The Buddhist decides now in his sublet apartment in the South Harbor that he wants to be president of the aid organization People to People. He also decides to call the volunteer workers World Ambassadors. The Buddhist wants to be their boss, or even better: he wants to be their leader.
• • •
To get the job he must lie. No, put that another way: to get the job he must put words into his own mouth. Which is allowed in a good cause, and he has lots of experience at it. He puts together a good, inaccurate letter of application. He has no problem omitting the fact that he is actually no longer married to the woman named as his wife. He has no problem either with his mail being redirected from the address in Charlottenlund. Removing various sticking points from his résumé is easy, and when it is done he sends the application. If he lies awake on his inflatable mattress on the floor in the South Harbor, it is not because he has lied. He has accepted now that the end justifies the means. If he lies awake it is because he is tense thinking whether there is any way the organization’s board of directors can get around him. Which of course there isn’t. The Chairman of the Board is convinced even as he opens the envelope and sees the letterhead of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Board is in complete agreement, and calls the Buddhist right away. The Board likes the sound of the Buddhist’s voice on the telephone. The Board likes the way the Buddhist is “ready to drive to Århus immediately.” At the interview the Board likes the way he drinks water from his glass. It likes the sound of his wedding ring when it chinks against the glass and taps against the desk. It likes his commitment to the problems of the world. It likes his dreams of a bigger, stronger People to People. The Buddhist is visionary. The Buddhist is a family man. The Buddhist once held a diplomatic passport. The Board has never seen the like. It is dazzled and ought to be wearing sunglasses. The Buddhist is more than convincing. There was, as the Board would later state, “absolutely no getting around him.” Or, as the female member of the Board told a reporter from the Århus daily: He wore leather elbow patches. We thought he was an intellectual. But she doesn’t say that until later.
• • •
For we are now at the point at which the Buddhist has become the leader of a movement, and it is at this point, just prior to his relocating, that he acquires his little dog. The little dog is a black Labrador and he calls it Sancho. Buddhists are kind to animals, and leadership is about incorporating soft values into work structures, and Sancho is soft. The Buddhist puts the dog on the floor of his Berlingo, and drives away from the South Harbor. The Buddhist is now on his way to Århus with plans for his life and for the world. He has an inflatable mattress on the rear seat and ten pairs of clean underpants. He has plans for the world and the key to a provided residence in Århus. He is the new president of the aid organization People to People and he has been in the newspapers. Now he is driving toward a greater future than the one he envisaged before. He is driving toward the kind of future that women will appreciate. Who knows, he may even meet the Foreign Minister one day on a plantation in some developing country with himself as host for the whole thing. He smiles at the thought and stops the car only when Sancho needs to urinate. He himself is a Buddhist and urinates only when he wants to.
• • •
It is at a rest area west of Odense while the dog is urinating that he happens to look at his car, the Berlingo. He thinks about how it is just the right car for him. From headlamp to tailgate the Berlingo signals roominess. The particular design of the model with its sliding rear doors makes it that much easier getting in and out with school bags, groceries, and the desire to make a difference in the world. You couldn’t say the Berlingo was a sexy car, the Buddhist thinks. But that’s okay, because the Berlingo is meant to signal inner, rather than outer, values. The design is meant to indicate that the owner is practical, reliable, and flexible. The fact that the Berlingo is a safe car is hardly immaterial either. Around the cabin is a metal frame said to be so solid that nothing bad can ever get to anyone inside.
The Buddhist puts the dog onto the floor of the car again and as he drives away from the rest area he realizes that the Berlingo is yet another sign from the Universe. He is driving the safest car on the market. He is driving a car in which no one can die. But even though dangerous things like death can’t get into the Berlingo from the outside, that doesn’t mean danger is not already inside the car. It strikes the Buddhist that if he were a force of evil in the world, then he would be afraid of himself. If I were evil, I would hate me, the Buddhist thinks. And if I were someone who wanted to do good in the world, what car would I choose?, the Buddhist asks himself as he overtakes a Volvo with Swedish license plates. It’s a hypothetical question. The Buddhist has already chosen the Berlingo.
• • •
It appears a short moment after he overtakes the Volvo: the omen. The Buddhist receives an omen, and the omen manifests itself above the Lillebælt Bridge, which he is now approaching. In the sky over Fredericia, or perhaps even the whole region, he sees a great halo. The closer he gets to the Lillebælt Bridge, the brighter becomes the halo. The moment the wheels of the Berlingo touch the Lillebælt Bridge, the gray metal of the Lillebælt Bridge is transformed into a shining Bifröst arching across the strait and stretching up into the sky. It is like a mirage and yet quite real. The Buddhist is driving on an astral body and he is heading in the direction of the heavens. Down in Denmark, far below him, people scurry out into their gardens and point up at him and the Berlingo. They point at the red Berlingo driving across the sky as though it were Halley’s Comet. The Buddhist feels the energy rushing into him from the Universe and lets himself be driven in great sweeping movements through the clouds. He waves at Denmark below, and parts of northern Germany, and then eventually he arrives at a shining gateway. He does not inquire of himself whether he is supposed to drive through the gateway. He is the Chosen One. The whole meaning of the gateway is for him to drive through it, and so he does. He drives until the car stops all by itself, high above central Jutland. He takes the dog under his arm, opens the door and steps out into the heavens. He can walk on the clouds. He cannot fall, and he senses a figure in orange garments, with a clean-shaven head and large spectacles coming toward him. There is no need to look closer; it is obviously the Lama. The Buddhist kneels and hopes that the dog will not urinate at this hallowed moment. He dares not lift his head. He feels like a pixie and wants to tell the Lama so, but he dares not lift his head to look at him. He thinks that if pure goodness looks at pure goodness something might explode. Thank you, he says simply. Thank you for your goodness and wisdom, and the Lama lays his hand on his head and replies: Don’t mention it, my boy, and remember now, it takes chaos to birth a dancing star.
• • •
It is in this scene, which may or may not have been played out in the skies above Jutland, or perhaps somewhere far inside the Buddhist, that we must seek the reason why the Buddhist, four months later, locks himself inside his office with a jerry can full of gasoline and a disposable lighter. It is here that we meet him again. He is sitting at his desk staring beyond the jerry can and yet hardly noticing the room that encloses him. He is locked inside a mental cage. No one can get in, and the Chairman of the Board wants to speak to the Buddhist. The Buddhist is being dismissed from his position for abuse of office, deceit, negligence, emotionally grounded dismissals, creative accounting, massaging subscription figures, misappropriation of public funds, sex with subordinates, and more of the same. But most of all, the Buddhist is being dismissed on account of his ravings and the trail of chaos he has drawn behind him through the aid organization People to People. He is being dismissed for having made a charitable organization his plaything, for having big ideas about himself, and he is being allowed to resign nicely if he wants. Discreetly, and with the right to cook up a story. But he is being dismissed, and he won’t go. It’s not because he loves his work that he won’t go. It’s because going just isn’t an option. None of the great mavericks could ever have been dismissed: Stalin, Hitler, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama. He has no qualms about uttering these names in the same breath. They have lots in common. None of them could ever be dismissed, for instance. The Buddhist has locked himself inside his office with the gasoline, the dog, his ex-wife’s phone number, and the female board member tied to a chair with the minutes of a meeting in her mouth. He has locked himself in with his dream of a better world and a jerry can from the Statoil station around the corner. He has locked himself in with his goodness, and the rest is history.
Dorthe Nors is author of three novels. Her latest book is Kantslag (Karate Chop), a collection of short stories published in 2008.
Martin Aitken lives and works in rural Denmark. His translations of Danish literature have appeared or are forthcoming in Calque, AGNI, Fence, The Literary Review, and PRISM International, among others.
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