Saturday, May 8, 2010

sometimes I wish people wouldn't die

Awoke this morning thinking how fortunate I had been to have a Zen teacher who left no Dharma heirs. I'm cannot claim to know why Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi did or didn't do what he did or didn't do but I felt fortunate to have been his student and been put in the face of that fact -- no Dharma heirs, no Dharma offspring, no continued teaching in a traditional sense, no 'lineage going all the way back to the Buddha,' as some advertisers put it.

Maybe Kyudo's students were not accomplished enough to warrant the transmission he might have bestowed. Maybe he did not want to burden them with something unnecessary. Maybe ... well, maybe anything. I don't know, but I do know I feel fortunate to have been instructed in his ways, however bumbling my own footsteps.

In 1163, when he was about to die, the Zen teacher Ta Hui was asked to write some final verse. It's a custom in long standing for Zen teachers to do this. And Ta Hui, who had been born in 1089, complied. He wrote:

Birth is thus
Death is thus
Verse or no verse
What's the fuss?

I hope, but don't know, that the translation is somewhere close to accurate. But even if it's not, still the sentiment and pointing are surely apt. Not just pithy or wise or witty or profound or encouraging ... just apt. A statement of fact, a no-screwing-around appreciation ... take it or leave it.

Sometimes I wish people wouldn't die. I don't wish it because they have entered a great, spooky 'unknown,' or because of the sorrow they leave in others' hearts. Rather, I wish it so that the the memories that later generations impose on them might be corrected by the source of those memories.

Yesterday, I got a note from a psychoanalyst in the UK who had run across the fact that my mother had gone to several shrinks at a time when psychology was getting its feet under it here in the U.S. She wanted to know the names of those shrinks and, although I could not immediately provide them, I said I would ask my mother.

At the time she went, I imagine my mother didn't think much of her actions -- other than to hope, like anyone else who goes to a shrink, that things could get better, that her understanding might be improved, and that there could be a little more peace in her life. And yet here was a person in later times who saw in my mother's actions something that was not apparent in those times -- something glistening and historic and ... well, some icing on the original cake.

And isn't that the way with appreciations, past or present -- a kind of compression of intent, a way of summing up who or what a person thought or said or did ... a hip-pocket appreciation of a person who had no similar appreciation of the scene?

The horror or delight of later times can be argued with a serene disregard of the fact that human beings cannot be limited in such ways. A thousand-thousand rivulets of intention and reaction went into their actions ... endless rivulets of a living life and yet now, now at another time, those rippling, rushing rivulets are reduced to "history" or "wisdom" or "understanding." And those who reduce others in such ways are satisfied with their summations, whatever protestations they might make about not wanting to paint a false portrait.

It is a strange habit and probably one that would be wise to cut off.

One-time U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins once described meeting a favorite author as "one of life's most reliable disappointments." And why? Because, I think, what is written on the page is limited, is dead ... whereas the author is not. The author is not ... until, of course, s/he is ... at which point s/he, like the pages s/he penned, is consigned to greatness or dismay or profundity or some other bright twinkling in another's mind.

Yes, sometimes I wish people wouldn't die or get old or 'be remembered.' Too many gravestones are erected, and yet, I guess, without the fables that gravestones tell, how would anyone see the fables that are the stuff of gravestones?

Kyudo left no off-spring. Ta Hui asked, "what's the fuss?" Were these people telling some wiser tale than any of us might tell? Were they afraid of life? Did they encourage a reliance on the dead? Wouldn't it be a grave insult to recall them as profound or wise or Buddhist or mediocre or downright laughable? Did they shimmy and shimmer in their time ... or even now?

Seriously, sometimes I wish people would leave off dying, hang around, and disabuse us of our diamond-cold memories.

The question has to be asked: Why aren't these people -- all of them, from 'us' to 'them,' first to last -- laughing?

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