Friday morning, standing in the middle of the administrative building at the treatment center, a call came in to my watch. It was a number I didn’t recognize. Initially I thought it was a telemarker making a “Cold-call,” inviting me to buy some product I absolutely don’t need, and won’t buy. Pausing for a moment… instead of declining, I tapped answer. I said hello, and all the sudden someone was on the other end screaming. People standing around me, began looking at me. I darted through the halls, and went into my office trying to figure out who it was and decipher what was wrong… and then I heard the words… “I think Mike is dead.” Suddenly I realized who’s voice it was on the other end, though I’d never heard it in that way before.
Instantly we called 911… Mike was someone that I had the honor of sponsoring and mentoring. He was a great guy. We practiced recovery and Buddhism at great depth. December 3, 2021… Unexpectedly he dropped his body, his consciousness, a collapsing wave into undifferentiated Oceanic Presence.
This experience on many levels is both shocking and jarring. When I sponsor, mentor, or train people in Zen, I have one personal rule… I have to like the person, in some way. I’ve seen people sponsor, mentor or train people they didn’t like, and it always seems to go badly on some level. In that way, my relationships with people are as clean, clear and healthy as possible. It sounds weird to have to mention that, but the reality is, it’s not uncommon for people to do the opposite, approaching people as a ”Project,” or ”Fixer upper.” It’s really important to know what we appreciate and care for, so that we can be on each other’s “Team,” as I like to say. Mike was more than someone I guided, he was my friend and brother. Our bond is solid, even in death. And so my grief… turning into it… assimilating…integrating and try to make sense of, not just as a Buddhist monk, but a very ordinary human-being. I kinda like that from time
to time I can “Take a vacation moment,” indulging my ongoing affection for Swedish fish, going on random adventures, or watching sci-fi movies, like when I was a kid.
Grief isn’t something to ”Get through,” or “Get over.” Grief is something to be with and hold space for, not passing by or through the life of others or ourselves transactionally. I say this a lot, and repeat it all the time. In American culture we have a lot of fear and weird ideas about the word “Grief.” It’s often regarded as a negative rather than a positive. For me, grief means I gave a shit about the person… that there was substance and meaning to our connection.
In different ways we can intentionally and unintentionally suppress our grief. Instead of suppressing it or avoiding it, the way of Zen is to turn solidly into it, meeting it with as much completeness as possible. I needed to be able to do that, because in 2015, my mother and sister died of cancer. Adding to the sadness, my brother dropped his body as a result of not taking care of his diabetes. Shortly after that, I spent about six months, caring for one of my fellow residents at the Zen temple. It was then that I heard Genjo Marinello, Roshi refer to death as “Phantom missing limb person.“ In this way, grief for me is my way of saying I miss someone’s physical presence in my life, having a phantom sense that I’d like to reach out and call them up, or turn around and ask them to have coffee or a bowl of green tea, so we can share time and talk.
Mike is very much phantom missing limb person for me. He was a great friend and conversationalist. He gave time, attention, compassion, his ear, and coffee to new comers in recovery. He was also attentive to the people that weren’t the squeaky wheels in recovery. He said, in many instances, it had been his experience that it was the quite one’s that had the most to say. Like me, he got clean young, and pre-covid at a particular young people’s meeting every week, supporting a mutual friend who secretaried there; helping to hold space, and was a source of inspiration to many of them. He was incredibly likable. He laughed easily, and always could notice the humor and irony of present moment experience. And now how do we honor his life and what it meant for him? For me it‘s holding space and solidarity with his partner, and people he sponsored. I had a lot of calls to make. There were and still are innumerable tears shared. And it continues to be shock and surprise, because Mike… in the way American Society tends to rate and measure things was ”Winning,” on so many levels, and in a moment those things he’s been up to… he no longer has the same kind of relationship, with the dropping of his body. WTF! It’s gonna take me a minute to assimilate and integrate what’s happening in real-time. “Surreal,” is a really good feeling word for me right now.
As a matter of transparency I’m deeply reflective of all the transitions going on. And this is were things could get weird. Two weeks ago, two people that were kinda legends in the recovery land I grew up im… Billy Zimmerman, and Alexander Sutton died, on the same day, each with more than 40 years clean. Since being a young person in recovery, I looked up to them and admired them a lot. I respected them both quite a bit. I was amazed by not only their personal recovery, but how they both shared their love of recovery with others in such a caring and generous way. On top of that my first sponsors sponsee brother is currently laying in a hospital in Baltimore, healing from brain surgery related to cancer. Time for him is now a very serious question. I’ve known him for a pretty good minute. At the same time, a woman that I’ve know since 2012, who herself is extraordinarily gifted in recovery was diagnosed with cancer, not given long to live. It was a kind moment to be able to get time with her, among a group of friends so that we could say goodbye with mindfulness and care.
Adding to the surrealness, two months ago, Charlie Powell passed related to heart disease. i was the youngest Clincial director in running addiction treatment centers. He was extremely influential in my career, seeing things in me I definitely didn’t see a recognize within myself. Four months ago Junpo Denis Kelly died of cancer. He accepted me into Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo Ji in 1990, to begin my Zen training. Five months ago my sponsor and mentor Ruth Friscoe died, of a heart failure. A month before one of my professional mentors Dr. Jospeh C. Boschulte dropped his body when he had an Aneurysm in his stomach. I didn’t even know such a thing was possible. The above experiences have given me the sensation of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual whiplash… without a seatbelt.
Adding to this list in the last six months Richard “Chard” Lis dropped his body related to cancer. Jin-Ah Kim died in a car accident... she was only 30 years old. Dale Spence, passed from COVID—19, and about nine friends have died as a result of active addiction or suicide as a causal factor. It’s been a lot to take in. the volume level on “Life is precious,” and it can end without warning, at any moment has been at a sustained 10 in my direct experience.
A natural question that arises is… what am I doing to meet so much phantom missing limb person? The answer is surprisingly simple. Meet each experience with the Bodhisattva vows, I took up as monk and priest. That includes doing what I can to manifest our shared Universal Identity of Loving Presence… to the best of my ability, do not cause harm… show up with as much authenticity and integrity as possible… and esteem the three treasures that are the everlasting principles of all the Buddha’s, helping people based on their needs, Being fully on their Team with creative action and goodwill... and remember those that are here for me, and can hold space with my heart and mind. It doesn’t get realer than that, as far as I’m concerned. I have the recollection of venerable Zen Master Sheng-Yen saying just prior to his death… "The universe may one day perish, yet my vows are eternal." When I heard those words, I took them to heart and mind.
Today, I’m mindful of something I once heard Shunryu Suzuki Roshi once say in a recording of a dharma talk he gave: “Unless you know how to practice zazen, no one can help you. Heavy rain may wash away the small seed when it has not taken root. You should not be like a sesame with no roots, or your practice will be washed away. But if you have a really good root, the heavy rain will help you a lot.”
Before we’re dead… how will we live our life? Will it be Buddha or bumpkin? Will it be with a mind that we’re damaged goods, perpetually undeserving, trying to validate our existence or genuine human-beings spontaneously manifesting compassion and friendliness; based on the immediate and direct needs of the moment? Will it be with a stale and stagnant heart and mind, or one that’s fresh, alert, spacious, devoted, and passionate? When I give dharma talks or share my experiences in recovery spaces, I like to say… the details of our pain and suffering are different, but what unifies us is that it feels equally the same. I can also say… of all the people that have died recently… the details of their life and death have all been different… but without exception… the Buddha nature… the Universal Identity of Loving Presence is precisely the same.
In completing this cloud and water note, into this open journal of experience, it seems appropriate to offer the dharma words… words of grace from Zen Master Seung Sahn. It’s from his poem… “The Human Route.”
Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed — that is human. When you are born, where do you come from? When you die, where do you go? Life is like a floating cloud which appears. Death is like a floating cloud which disappears. The floating cloud itself originally does not exist. Life and death, coming and going, are also like that. But there is one thing which always remains clear. It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death. Then what is the one pure and clear thing
[to know and do before we are dead?]
一Dignity and Grace