Tweedledum and Tweedledee perform an investigation

Last night I arrived back at the Zen Center in the middle of dinner and dished myself up some tagine while engaging in conversation with a resident who wanted to tell me how much the ginger cabbage and kokuho rice I made at breakfast on Tuesday had improved her mood. Wanting to be present with this person who was saying such good things to me at the end of a long and involved week, I nevertheless could not fail to notice when I heard “There’s Gretchen!” from behind me and was suddenly flanked by the Ino and Tanto standing side by side like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

As soon as I could end my interaction with the complimenting resident, I turned to Tweedledum and Tweedledee with a questioning look. The Tanto had that grin he wears when he’s up to some mischief.

“Well?”

The Ino spoke: “We want to talk to you about the tenken log …”
“And what is this about excessive partying on Tuesday night?” finished the Tanto.

The tenken log is the book in which we write our reasons for not being in attendance at required dharma events, like morning zazen.  So thoughts were coming up in sequence.  When first seeing them there I thought ‘they want me to do something.’  When I heard “tenken book” I thought ‘I have finally tripped the invisible line that triggers concern and/or reprimand from the practice committee about my attendance.’  And when I heard “excessive partying Tuesday night,” I thought ‘ah, no wonder they look so full of mischief. They’ve conjured up some story about a frumpy middle-aged Zen practitioner all of a sudden going nuts and hanging out in bars until the wee hours of the morning.’ They were looking for the Zen version of People magazine.

I leaned in conspiratorily.

“It was my BIRTHDAY…” pausing to think, “…and evidently I was unwilling to write THAT in the tenken log for everyone to see.”

What I WAS willing to write, what I actually wrote in the log, was this:

“Gretchen – AM – too many excesses of the night before.”

It wasn’t even really a correct sentence, possibly due to the two glasses of wine I’d had with my sister at dinner, a rather tame event that I decided not to describe to Tweedledum and Tweedledee so that they could continue to have their fantasy that I’d spent Tuesday night at some wild orgy or whatever it is they were imagining. A nice dinner, I got a little fuzzy-headed, I had some intense days of work ahead of me, no windows for rest, and I didn’t want to be trying to work through a brain full of concrete. So I decided to sleep late that morning rather than going to the zendo.  Maybe someone else would make a different choice – maybe I would make a different choice on a different day.   Probably the worst part of what I wrote, unless that sort of thing became a habit, is that it sets a questionable example for others at the beginning of a practice period.  Perhaps not my finest effort, but not fatal.

Some people really hate the tenken log, seeing it as an instrument used by the practice committee to pass judgment on the strength of their practice.  I think because I’m embracing transparency and collaboration more than I ever used to, the tenken log feels more like a device for seeing my practice just as it is, with the added bonus that other people can reflect back to me as a reality check.  If I’m afraid to write the truth in the tenken log, well, that should tell me something.  If I write the truth and the practice committee begins to question my judgment, well then, maybe I should listen to their concerns.

Awareness and familiarity often seem to dissipate my fears of something sinister going on.  Last year I started working with a financial coach who gave me a dashboard for tracking my spending and investments, and I feel much the same way about that as I do about the tenken log.  It lays it all out in front of me, telling me what areas are stable and which areas can get me into trouble fast.  Looking at it with my coach, I learn what beliefs I have about myself that are no longer serving me.  In our last meeting I told him that I was afraid I was overindulging myself in some areas.  “Gretchen, I WANT you to indulge yourself,” is how he responded.  He then showed me how disciplined I am, that the evidence was right in front of me on the dashboard. I was shocked — my belief about myself was that I am someone who is out of control, and here was this guy who’s worked with hundreds of people on their financial behavior and he was saying I was okay and that in fact, I should loosen up a bit.  That was a really nice reframe.

I’m always surprised when someone remarks on my notes in the tenken log.  It can feel like a personal diary or maybe a formality with no real traction in everyday life, but actually it’s a living document that shows us when viruses are spreading in the community, what interesting projects and demands are keeping some people from the zendo, and sometimes when there’s an excess of anxiety or agitation or depression among the residents – at least that’s what I think when I start to see the word “insomnia” creeping into the log more frequently, like it’s something contagious.  The feedback is both personal and communal.

Twedledum and Tweedledee seemed satisfied with my explanation of the “excesses of the night before.” I don’t think this was a formal investigation, but I don’t know.  I tend to be wound a little on the tight side when it comes to following rules so I don’t think I’ve crossed any lines.  Perhaps it might even be a good thing if I were to suddenly go crazy and get into some minor trouble. I’m leaving that open as an option for now.

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Smells like Zen spirit

This weekend while waiting in the gift shop for my enzyme bath at Osmosis, I spied these nifty little Good Karma candles made by Zensual.*  I’m not normally enthusiastic about candles and gift shops but something about the colors and design caught my attention, and as I opened them up one by one to smell their scents I learned that I could identify vanilla, green tea, cherry blossom (okay, “flowers,” close enough), and lavendar without looking at the label.

It occurred to me that someone at Zensual had intentionally chosen the colors and scents to go with the concepts of “Peace,” “Happiness,” “Love,” etc. printed on the outside, and that three layers of symbolic associations were interwoven in each little package, perhaps reflecting some deep cultural understandings of how the world works.

When I picked up the little package marked “Zen,” I was delighted, because I wasn’t aware of ever having considered what the color or smell of Zen might be.

Is the color of Zen the black of the robes that priests wear or the zafus and zabutons they sit on?  Or is the color of Zen the brown of the smooth wood surfaces of the tans and the floors in the zendo? Or the yellow of the tatami mats in the Buddha Hall?  Or the reddish orange of the ceremonial altar cloths from Eihei-ji we use during the Full Moon ceremony? Or the pinkish red of the bougainvillea outside in the courtyard?

Is the smell of Zen the scent of specially-made incense from Japan we use in the temple?  Or the fragrance of the huge pink peonies that the flower chiden bought to display in the Kaisando for the annual Suzuki Roshi Memorial?  Or the lemon ginger, peppermint, and other teas and cookies we put out for guests on Saturdays at 11:00?

Perhaps you have your own color/scent associations, and perhaps they are different from the associations that seemed correct to the Chief Symbologist at Zensual when they rolled out this product line.  Let’s find out – here’s a quiz just for you!

Quiz:  match each concept in the left column with its “proper” color and scent

Bonus question:  which candle did Gretchen choose to buy, and on what basis?  (concept, color, or scent?)

Prosperity          Yellow                             Blue Lotus

Love                    Dark Blue                       Vanilla Orchid

Peace                  Dark Green                    Lavendar

Health                Light Blue                       Lychee Blossom

Good Luck         Red                                  Green Tea

Zen                     Lavendar or Pink           Mojito

Tranquility        Light Yellow                   Bamboo & Lemongrass

Happiness          Light Green                   Cherry Blossom

(ANSWERS: Prosperity/dark green/bamboo & lemongrass; Love/pink or lavendar/lychee blossom; Peace/light yellow/vanilla orchid; Health/light green/green tea; Good luck/red/cherry blossom; Zen/light blue/blue lotus; Tranquility/dark blue/lavendar; Happiness/yellow/mojito. Bonus question:  Gretchen chose “Prosperity,” on the basis of its lovely scent)

*Honestly, I have no idea who these Zensual people are and I’m not getting paid to plug their product.

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does this guy need a visa?

I spent a gorgeous Sunday afternoon driving through the pastoral countryside of Sonoma and Marin Counties.  Every once in awhile it’s nice to open the view and remind oneself that there are other beings we share this planet with and that food doesn’t just come out of a grocery store bag.  I was driving through farm land (except for the startling sudden appearance of a dimly lit Redwood forest along Nicasio Valley Road) and there were the usual suspects loafing around in the grass or up on aerial lines:  cows, sheep, crows, the occasional hawk, a few horses and donkeys.

(A thought about cows: why do I always think they look so uncomfortable in their bodies?  Whereas a tiger looks to me as though she knows she won the lottery of corporeal apparatus, a body that performs at the Olympic gold level whether lounging or on the chase.)

It’s not shocking to me to see llamas or alpacas in California anymore. I’ve seen small herds out in the countryside, and in the residential neighborhoods of Montara and Berkeley.  I spotted one in Freestone today where I had stopped at Osmosis for an enzyme bath.

But the guy in this photo?  This guy had me laughing so hard I had to stop the car and take his picture.   A biker rode by and did a U-turn and laughed along with me.  And then this guy yawned five times to show us just how much lack of concern he had over the immigration of Bactrian camels into the midst of dairy cows in coastal California. We are all brothers and sisters, my friend.  Get used to it.

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RIP Lou Hartman

Lou Hartman died today at 3:45pm.  He was 96 years old.

(These are Lou’s poems from Inquiring Mind, Fall 2008 edition)

First Sesshin with Suzuki Roshi
What a laugh!
The actor serving tea in the zendo
Thinks he’s me!

Enlightenment
Enlightenment is like
The square root of minus one:
Imaginary but useful
In solving certain personal equations

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Old age, sickness, and death in the full moon

Tonight was our Full Moon ceremony, which we do every month, renewing our vows, the 16 Bodhisattva precepts of taking refuge and living in harmony with all beings.

Once a friend from work who is a casual participant in Zen Center events asked if she should come to a Full Moon ceremony.  Something about the question made me think that someone unfamiliar with the actual ceremony would conjure up something somewhat Dionysian, and I suggested perhaps a different ceremony would be good to start with because I wasn’t sure this one would meet her expectations. Later I regretted not having been more encouraging, but it does seem to me one of our more severe ceremonies.  We start with repentance and the vows get more and more commandment-sounding as the hour rolls on. They are not, in reality, commandments; I see them much more as an invitation to be intimate with experience, but it’s hard to convey this at a first encounter.  Then there is the arduousness of the ceremony:  one’s hands remain in gassho the whole time and there are 36 bows down to the floor.  Twenty-one bows just to get through the homages  – and in three layers of robes in a room full of people, I am usually sweating by the end.

Despite the severity of the ceremony I do find it beautiful. The precepts in their basic form are supplemented by poetry, like this:

I vow not to take what is not given.
The self and objects are such as they are, two yet one.  The gate of liberation stands open.”

Because I am currently the head chiden, I have an ongoing date with the Full Moon ceremony, if I didn’t otherwise think so. A chiden is someone who takes care of temple altars, either lighting up or cleaning them. The head chiden does a bit of both, but particularly in relation to “special” ceremonies such as the monthly Full Moon and Suzuki Roshi Memorial ceremonies, ordinations, solstice and equinox, weddings and funerals, Dogen’s birthday (coming up!), Buddha’s birthday and enlightenment … it goes on.  I take orders from the Ino – whatever he thinks I should be doing, that’s the job.  Mostly it involves gathering up tables and ceremonial cloths and altar elements and placing them in prescribed ways, and then taking everything apart and putting it all away again afterward.

Tonight we all have our attention on a good friend over in Zen Hospice down the street who appears to be in his last hours.  It’s been quite a bit of old age, sickness, and death around here lately.  First there was the death of Jerome Peterson before Christmas, then last week Darlene Cohen died after a long illness.  And now our friend over in Zen Hospice.  If we didn’t realize we weren’t immortal before, perhaps it sinks in a bit deeper now.  The doshi said a few words about our friend’s condition as we started, calling his name into the room and our thoughts.

But I was already thinking of him as I set up tonight for the Full Moon ceremony, because over the past few months that I’ve been head chiden he would come down a bit early with his walker and sit on the bench waiting and watching until the ceremony started. Our friend has been practicing for four decades and knows his temple forms inside out.  So one night when after the ceremony he said to me “that was quite a nice demonstration of someone lighting up the altar for a Full Moon ceremony,” I beamed inside just a bit.  And then he added “but aren’t the wall lights on the Page Street side also supposed to be on?”  Doh.  I often seem to miss some little thing – perhaps I forget to extinguish the jiko candle, or I place the kokyo’s zabuton in the wrong row of tatamis.  Tonight in honor of our friend I tried extra hard to pay attention.

Before the ceremony one of the guest students ambled into the entry way in a sort of directionless agitation.  She walked by me and catching my eye said “I’m so nervous, this is my first time doing this.”  I think she was just talking it out, not expecting a response, but after she walked away I wished I had offered some encouragement, telling her to just enjoy it, to enjoy beginner’s mind.  Ironically, that often seems to be most difficult for the beginner, who wants to quickly get away from the beginning the way teenagers want to fast-forward to adulthood.  The Buddha Hall was full of beginners tonight, or possibly visitors from other sanghas, but definitely folks who were unfamiliar with the dance of our particular Buddha Hall.  So as we offered incense and stood and turned and bowed and kneeled there was some hesitation and looking around, and the exit from the Buddha Hall – a choreography that feels a bit like solving a Rubik’s cube  – was not according to plan.  But actually the improvised version wasn’t bad.  And the guest student who was so nervous about her first time talked to me afterward with a note of triumph in her voice that she’d made it through.

And so we continue, all beginnings and endings; beginnings and endings appearing and disappearing over and over again.  In the midst of this we renew our vows (which are also beginnings and endings) under the light of the full moon:

To expound the Dharma with this body is foremost.  The virtue returns to the ocean of reality.  It is unfathomable; we just accept it with respect and gratitude.

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practice discussion

One form of practice in a Zen temple is the practice discussion, a brief one-on-one meeting with a teacher designed to explore the student’s personal practice and give them a direction for spiritual growth.  Here in San Francisco we have many teachers, and I occasionally schedule practice discussions with others besides the one teacher who is my teacher.  There are many ways to describe the dharma, and the diversity of language and approach that can be tapped into here is like cool water for thirsty beings.

Often these discussions with Zen priests feel like I’ve been taking an intermediate French class and then dropped into a cocktail party in the middle of Paris and instructed to talk to the natives. I haven’t steeped in Zen juice long enough to really speak the language yet.  I can generally follow what teachers are saying, even when they’re referring to tricky (to me) concepts like emptiness and non-attainment.  But my attempts to turn the conversation into a dialogue are comical; I feel like I’m mostly nodding my head and then spitting out a few words in garbled diction that are just noun statements with present-tense verbs attached and hoping the other person gets something of the gist of what was in my head that I’m trying to describe.

Lately what I’m butting up against is some sort of dukkha over my life trajectory.  I’m feeling friendlier with the present moment than ever in my life, but when I look over the whole arc – I’m old enough now that the limited nature of a lifetime has sunk in to moderate depth – I’m afraid that what life seems to be is a random walk, a series of haphazard lurches.  So is this a problem?  My friend Ed came up with this random walk concept and we consider its qualities and ramifications often during our regular breakfast rendezvous.  Ed celebrates the random walk and happily awaits the next chapter, which always seems to come out of a grab bag of unrelated items.  I’ll admit that often the random walk does seem like a fun romp, a series of short stories that have different themes but a common voice.  My voice.  But sometimes I want more.  I want the epic novel version of my life, not the version that comes in magazine installments.

Weirdly, I keep thinking about that Three Cups of Tea guy.  I’m not obsessed with him, but he seems to represent something to me that I can’t seem to shake, so when I’m mulling over this particular “problem” in my life, images of the mountains of Pakistan always appear.  I think that perhaps if I only had something I was that passionate about; if only when I woke up in the morning I knew I was doing my equivalent to building schools for girls in Pakistan; THEN my life would be complete.

Perhaps dukkha comes out of the act of separation, from labeling things as me vs. not me.  I bifurcate my existence into the things I am okay with and the things I find unacceptable.  It turns out to be acceptable to find myself daydreaming during zazen or running into people as I round the corners in this building when I have let my attention be focused all in my head.  I have my prejudices about whether I should or shouldn’t be doing those things, but I accept and incorporate those prejudices into my identity as well; okay, that’s me.  But for some reason it’s unacceptable to think that I could live another 40 years and not at some point become some idealized version of myself, a version that I can’t even define clearly if you ask me to describe it today.  Some part of me is cut off and dis-identified with.  Not me.

These priests I talk to in practice discussion are of no help, seeming all too happy to not answer the question that I think I am asking.  Given my inarticulateness in these situations it’s unclear whether I have just asked the question unclearly, or they know all too well what it is that I’m after and, having deemed the question I pose to be irrelevant or invalid, choose to answer the better question that they think I should have asked in the first place.

Perhaps I am asking them to collude with me in my delusions, to help me figure something out.  I know better even than to use those words, “figure out,” a Zen no-no that should be a red flag that I’m even thinking them to myself.  I am concerned with the status of my checklist that judges whether my life is adequate or not, whether I have accomplished something grand or not.  They are measuring against some other checklist, something to do with relating to the moment.  So I am stuck with my agitation.  I had assumed I’d let go of most of my judgments about who I am supposed to be, about whether my intelligence or accomplishments or acquisitions defined my worth, but it was only one layer of the onion and there are still plenty left.

Practice discussion is useful; even if my conscious brain doesn’t always know what has been transmitted, there is a certainty that some phrase has landed somewhere, some reframe that will provide an opening to a fuller understanding.  And the place to take this other-than-conscious transmission is zazen, so that’s where I’ll go for more clarity.  There’s a lovely voice I hear sometimes that is only audible when I’ve been sitting very still and paying attention.  It’s like coaxing a bunny rabbit out from behind a bush; it takes patience.  The voice just laughs at my left-leaning brain trying to “figure stuff out,” because there’s nothing to figure out.  When it’s time to move, movement appears.  Knowledge about that resides somewhere in my bodymind, but it is taking awhile to reach a threshold where I can begin to work with it skillfully.  So this is my practice today.

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Breakfast practice

Perhaps in a few more lifetimes I’ll reach the point where I can cook breakfast and stir the pot in front of me without also stirring the pot of ideas in my head.  Some people say that practice and enlightenment are not different from one another but I’m still working on that.  For me, only practice.

Today was a special day for cooking breakfast, because we’re returning from three and a half days of holiday, which meant no Zen Center programs of any sort and an open kitchen instead of a staffed kitchen crew.  Today was also the first day of interim – a week-long break from compulsory morning zazen – and the usual forms of drums and bells and offerings of food and incense were replaced by a skeleton program staffed by volunteers.

The unfortunate result of the long weekend of debauchery (Zen-style debauchery, which is mostly related to sleeping and food; I wouldn’t know about the sex, unfortunately, and I don’t want to know about any drugs or alcohol, which are ejectable offenses) was that the kitchen was a mess.  The recycling and compost bins were overflowing, there were frying pans on the stove with dried egg and a swimming pool of cooking oil, and the clean and dirty dish areas were still partying with clean and dirty dishes.

Irritation could be one response to walking into this situation, and indeed that was the general flavor of my state of mind upon first viewing the wreckage.  But irritation is not just irritation. It comes from somewhere.

A fellow resident quoted Paul Haller on Facebook today:  ‎”Buddhism teaches that we construct the realities we live by. We think them up and then act them out.” I’m not sure which comes first, the thinking up or the acting out, but either way the fun thing about being human is that there is always a story to explain what’s happening.  I think of it as the curse of being human, and also the gift.  We assign meaning to everything to ensure that what’s happening conforms to our familiar, cherished beliefs about the world and our place in relationship to it.

Most of the stories I made up to explain this messy kitchen were about others’ benign neglect, although when I looked at the stack of hotel pans in the drying rack I thought that perhaps some Bodhisattva had cleaned the empty pans of leftovers from the walk-in.  (Cleaning a pan that you’ve emptied is supposed to be a rule, but because leftover-foraging is a solitary pursuit with few witnesses, it doesn’t always happen.  And that’s another story I just made up.)  I also externalized and generalized the mess into stories about how the world is not fair, life is hard, and it’s an uphill battle.  Those are my usual stories, yours may be different, and I suppose a really unbalanced person might even have thought that the dirty dishes were aimed specifically at them – it’s easy enough to find out who the Tuesday breakfast cook will be and “mess” with them. Fortunately my mind doesn’t go there.  Rarely, and not today.

And then this morning as these stories started to take familiar form and tighten up in my gut, there was a magical turning.  Instead of bowing down in homage to my stories, imbuing them with greater detail and intensity, I thought that it really didn’t seem like a good plan to spend the next two hours muttering to myself about perceived injuries.  So I added the frying pans to the dirty pans I was going to wash anyway, and put the hotel pans away, and it was not a big deal.

My friend Cindy Henry McMahon describes the process of this magical turning in one of her old blog posts:

“… here’s the grace in it (if grace is what you call it): I felt those old feelings, succumbed for a little bit, and then caught myself. “Oh,” I said, “I see what’s happening here. It’s you, my old friend Mr. Anger. Nice of you to stop by, but the truth is, you’re not really needed now. Things are fine here.” We shook hands, and off he went. I breathed, and it was over. He was gone.”

It is not always so, but I take grace when the door is open, if grace is what you call it.  It’s much better than spending your time all pissed off.

As the morning progressed, the tenzo came in and cleaned up the dish area.  A few other Bodhisattvas straggled in and volunteered their efforts, including a friend on break from Tassajara, who could easily have abstained with the excuse that he was on holiday. But he helped anyway. Maybe he had a different story about it, one that’s just about seeing what needs to be done and then doing it.  Perhaps my friend is at one with the dishes, not separating out practice from enlightenment the way I do.  The answer?  More zazen!

See what I mean about stirring the pot?  So many words and I still haven’t told you about breakfast:  semolina with stewed fruit, cottage cheese, and mixed nuts.  I banged on the umpan to call everyone down to eat under a sky woven together with nursery pinks and blues.  Then I served myself and returned to a spot in the courtyard, and in the space of five minutes the grey had descended, which gradually morphed into the wet torrents we are experiencing tonight.

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She’s making a list

This just in from Rob Brezsny:

AQUARIUS (Jan. 20-Feb. 18): “The third-rate mind is only happy when it is
thinking with the majority,” said author A.A. Milne. “The second-rate mind
is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is
only happy when it is thinking.” You will have an excellent chance to
cultivate that definition of a first-rate mind in 2011, Aquarius. According
to my reading of the astrological omens, life will be conspiring to
strengthen your brain. You will have everything going for you if you make
it your intention to sharpen your wits, use language more precisely, and
see the world with greater clarity and objectivity. To get the fun started,
make a list of what you could do to push your intelligence beyond its
current limits.

My list so far:

1.  Start a new blog.

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grapefruit identity

My current obsession is grapefruit.  Its tart, juicy goodness calls my name, morning and night.  My habit is to peel the grapefruit like an orange, and eat it section by section.

One  evening I started in on half a fruit that I’d peeled the day before and couldn’t finish. The skin surrounding the pulp had dried and shrunk, tightening down around the pulp.  The skin seemed to thicken a bit as well, but when I peeled off a section from the rest, it came away easily, and when I bit into it, I heard (and felt) a light popping as the dry skin was punctured, splitting like old parchment and scattering tiny particles of pith dust into the air around my face.  This grapefruit was effervescent and playful, toying with me like a fairy does (you know how those fairies are, don’t you?).

This struck me as an entirely different grapefruit than I was used to, and I began to contemplate all the other grapefruits I had encountered in my life:

  • The just-peeled grapefruit with its thin moist membrane of skin encapsulating each section’s juicy pulp inside, which can be seen through its transparent cover but encountered directly only during mastication.  This grapefruit is a well-rounded grapefruit, happy to share its emotions but aware of appropriate boundaries;
  • The halved grapefruit, its pulp cut through in cross-section.  Because the rind remains intact, the pulp stays compressed and the juice rises to the top so that one can drink it like soup. This grapefruit is the most vulnerable grapefruit, with its insides cut open for all to see and prepped for attack by a sharp spoon;
  • The quartered, or sixthed, or eighthed grapefruit, easiest of all to eat, just cut it and plop it in your mouth, separating it from the rind with your teeth.  If cut in the traditional manner with the cuts parallel to the long axis of the segments, the little vesicles inside are stripped for maximum view.  This is the exhibitionist grapefruit, and also the toughest, but perhaps not the most resilient, as its toughness depends on the rind’s continuous support.

My contemplations leave me wondering where the identity of this grapefruit really lies and my culpability in creating grapefruit identity in the act of choosing how to eat the fruit.

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about Jerome

Long time Zen Center resident Jerome Peterson died at the age of 82 on December 12th.  He was one of the first American Zen students in San Francisco; in 1962 he showed up at the original Sokoji temple where Suzuki Roshi first taught.  I was never officially introduced to Jerome and after several months of living at the temple and seeing him shuffling between his usual spots (his room; the men’s bathroom; the small kitchen table; the front lobby) I was surprised to learn that he knew my name, in fact he knew many people’s names.  His normal countenance seemed so inwardly-focused; he might be concentrating one-pointedly on negotiating the next step on the back stairway, or sitting at the small kitchen table with a plate of food looking for all appearances as if in deep zazen.  But then when he spoke, the air flowed out of him and his face was in motion, and his voice was that of a melodious prince. “Greeeetings!” was a favorite phrase, the tones traveling up and down, all in one slowly issued breath.

One morning I joined his weekly group in reciting the Flower Ornament Sutra, out of curiosity, because he’d been doing it continuously for something like fourteen years.  At the end he passed out dried persimmon wedges that a friend had sent to him from Japan, each in its own package and oozing with sugar crystals. It took me days to eat that persimmon wedge, each bite was so sweet.

When he died, his body left the temple and then came back, one of those bureaucratic tangles that just had to be resolved in a certain convoluted way.  And then he was laid out in Room #1 on the ground floor on a bed of greenery, and anyone was invited to go in and sit with him.  His robe was laid over the top of his body, his head peeking out at the top, looking tiny compared with the largeness he projected in living form.  Ceremonial objects from his room were set on an altar next to the bed.  I went in on the last night before he went on to the crematorium.  Another resident sat with me and having another witness felt just right.

When I’d last seen Jerome he’d been on the hallway floor not breathing, his face a dark reddish brown color.  I’d thought to myself, is that blue?  because a person’s face is supposed to turn blue when they lose oxygen. But what I saw was reddish brown.  Now, lying in Room #1, Jerome’s face had returned to its normal color, white with rosy cheeks, and he looked like a little boy.  I sat with him awhile and kissed his shoulder, which felt hard and heavy and cold to touch, like marble.

Sitting with Jerome’s body was not what I imagined.  The room seemed exceedingly still and quiet, more still even than the zendo.  It felt like being out in a meadow on a snowy day when there is no wind and no animals about, a pleasant coldness and lack of vibration. Room #1 invited a longer stay, and more intimacy, than other situations where I’ve seen dead humans, mostly at open casket funerals.

For the first time I felt some regret that I wasn’t at my parents’ home in San Diego when my mom died in 2006, that I wasn’t with her as she died and didn’t sit with her body.  I don’t have any particular feeling about a person’s body after death.  Perhaps it is just carbon and other debris no longer needed, all aggregates disassembled.  But saying good-bye in the stillness of death seems to have a different quality to it than all the good-byes we make before death, even when we see death coming.  The body is familiar and we have a connection to it, and the connection is no longer complicated by the considerations we must always make when dealing with a live human being, filtering our thoughts through our past histories with that person, the things we’ve agreed to include or not include in our relationship, the unknown territory of how we each respond to the next word or action.

It felt like a gift, from Jerome to all of us, to sit with Jerome’s body and just reflect on his sweet nature, feeling good will toward his passage.  May it be so.

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