Friday, July 09, 2004

Matter and Consciousness Part 3

Back in May 1996 I had a dream in which I was murdered, or at least that was the sense I woke up with. But it wasn't me, it was someone else I knew was me. The dying itself I couldn't remember.

I joked with my friends about it being a past life. They took the notion seriously. I wrote a short story based on this character from this dream, in a way I gave form to her being. She became Clara.

I've just looked back at the journal I wrote at this time.

May 31, 1996 I keep having this image from a dream from several days ago come into consciousness. I am in a house, bare floor boards, no furniture. Front door opens into a front room and other rooms branch off. Money has been stashed here from a heist or laundered money. Stacks and stacks. I have come here with others to pick up the money. Big, dangerous men, not ones you want to cross.

Now I see me/her. She is a wispy thing, blond hair, thin, dressed in a shifty thing like a night gown. Barely more than a child, she is more like the property of one of the men than a member of the gang. She participates fully yet like a frightened muskrat, fully expecting at any moment to be hit or hurt or killed.

A week later I went on sesshin. During this time in my life I was attending just about every one I could. I wrote in a journal throughout during rest and reflection periods. I was grappling with the feeling of separateness. "How can I ever be anything but self-contained? How can I feel the truth of not-two?" I became irritated by Gyokuko in sanzen, which is a very special container created between teacher, student, and ritual that allows the dharma to surface and flow freely. I felt she was treating me like a beginner. She said I needed to find the place in myself where I was truly OK. I thought I had. She said, "I think you've touched the surface, you haven't reached the depths you can go. You're trying to be small, no, trying is judging...this is not a criticism. You're too hard on yourself. You think you don't deserve it."

I kept pressing on this question. "Do I think I've gone into that place of truly OK?" and my answer was "oh yes." (This, by the way, is an excellent example of the Soto Zen view of the koan arising in daily life.) I returned to sanzen with Gyokuko and told her about Clara. It made sense to her then. She said working on past lives was Bodhisattva work. She gave me a way to work with it, telling me past life karma work was much like this current life karma work, "unraveling the karmic threads." After that encounter, I realized she'd been right, "I haven't felt truly OK to that depth: I have to find that truly OK sense of self in past lives too." This occurred during the evening meditation.

Thursday, June 6, 1996, from quick note before bed: Then, during Vespers I sang along with and to Clara, and I felt she felt more than I ever have the compassion and acceptance of those verses. She rejoices. I cried at her rejoicing. [Om to the One Who leaps beyond all fear! Having adored Thee, may I enter into the heart of the Noble, Adored Kanzeon! Thy life is the completion of meaning; It is pure, it is that which makes all beings victorious and cleanses the path of all existence]

Friday, June 7, 1996, 1:15 pm: As she integrates I feel the presence of Clara practicing right along with me. I feel in her the pleasure of beginner's mind, feeling the soft touch of this compassionate practice. Sometimes I feel I have to say to her, "I'm doing this practice," because she is having a beginner's reaction to it, many of the reactions I've long been through: wanting to do it all; feeling irritated at having to do some things. I feel as though I've had some small very tiny glimpse into the world of a person with multiple personalities.

In the years to come, whenever someone would tell me they just loved my voice when we sang Vespers, I've always felt it was Clara they were hearing.

It is good I have looked back at this. I now have an answer to that nagging question of separateness: love. I hadn't yet experienced that love that swept away all notion of self. I have now.

It was very important to me at this time to work through this as a past life, to experience Clara as a separate self. In the years since, she has informed my understanding of multitudes of selves, no one permanent self, no unchanging self, many heaps of selves arising and falling.

When I met the man who was to become my husband, and he scoffed at the notion of past lives, I had to concede I couldn't really know if it was actually a past physical life, but that it had been useful and important to me at that time to believe it that. The karmic work I had done would not have been as powerful.

Now, with the experience even more distant, I notice I had that dream at the end of May, near the anniversary of my brother's death. He committed suicide on May 25, 1986, on the day after his own birthday. On my birthday. Six years later thanks to my Buddhist practice I began the therapeutic work of untangling that karma. In the life of dreams, Clara could very well have been the me that was still wounded by that past karma, still not OK, even while the main me felt truly OK. If she was a past life, she could very well have been a past self of this life right now.

I just don't know. I am still puzzling over my friend Rinchen's note: "...born before the beginning; has slipped out of his skin again." My good friend H. has bristled over the use of nirvana in advertising, because non-Buddhists think it means heaven, but really it means extinction of rebirth. No more rebirths, and do they really want to use extinction of self to market a sweet fru-fru? No more lives. My eyes start to cross as I try to delve into this notion of the karmic stream, not exactly a soul, but a bundle of conditions leaving the physical body and traveling on some other plane of existence to the next physical body. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is all about negotiating those other planes, the bardos, and is spoken to the dead to remind them not to be afraid of nirvana, of extinction. I don't understand how something whose form lacks substance can continue to exist beyond the body, and really, is exist the right word anyway?

Zen seems to worry itself much less about what happens after death, but more about this life. Yet during a Zen funeral, exhortations are read that are meant to guide the recently departed, just like the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And I wonder, is it that I am a sleepy stupid Buddha and haven't yet awakened to this understanding? or is this a religious construction that helps us who are living feel better about our eventual death?

Thursday, July 08, 2004

I have good teeth!

I went to the dentist today after about two years. I am a lucky one: I don't develop a lot of plaque, don't get many cavities. Going to the dentist is different than when I was a kid. (I still hear my mom moaning to the drill's whine in the next room....she always had bad teeth.) The dentist did everything, and he drilled without laughing gas. I hear other dentists used it, but not him. His assistant would hand him the things he needed, like a nurse with doctor.

Now, in a different state and a new kind of health care system, the dentist pokes his head in the room for a few moments as the expert consultant. The x-rays, the scraping and rinsing, even the preliminary diagnosis, are done by the assistant, I guess the term is dental hygienist. Actually when I was really little, the dentist didn't use x-rays, just found the cavities by inspection. I remember my brothers inspecting their teeth before going, and showing me how to look for cavities. We all went at the same time, a family appointment you could say. It was a dark place, with dreary wood paneling. It was the seventies. For a reward we would get these little plastic pop-up toys.

Today the hygienist gasped when she looked in my mouth. Scared me, but then she said, "You hardly have any cavities!" (filled ones) Maybe she was camping it up. I chuckled and replied, "and I don't do anything special." She tutted at that. Clearly I don't floss, and it's been two years since my last cleaning. She also remarked that my teeth were so straight with just the right space between. I've never had braces.

It's so odd holding a conversation with someone between rinse and vacuum, looking up at her upside down face. Even more surreal, she was chit-chatting with me, especially after she went to fetch the dentist and I commented that I liked the fish mobiles she had hanging from the ceiling. She'd found them in Newport, Oregon. She asked if I'd been to the aquarium. She'd taken her daughter to see Keiko. I want to visit, but I've only been to the Seaside Aquarium.

Then the dentist came in, and he started the chit-chat. Asked me where I was from. Started naming towns in Wisconsin. Oostburg. He knew Oostburg was north of Milwaukee about 50 miles, same as I had described my hometown of Waldo. Oconomowoc. One of his patients was from Oconomowoc. Maybe he collects patients' place names. I grew up 10 or 15 miles from Oostburg, but can't say I've been there. When I said I'd moved to New Mexico for school, he asked if I'd gone to St. John's. "Are you a johnny?" Now that was shocking, who expects her dentist to know her college jargon? His best friend's son had just graduated last year.

That was his cue to ask me if I was well-read, and for a confused moment, I pondered, how did he know I worked for the library? So the chit-chat segued into books, and the hygienist carried on with a book review of A Short History of Nearly Everything, on CD. 15 CDs! She told me something about a man dissecting a huge animal (was it a rhino?) in the kitchen, and a man who acquired a head (was it the same one, or different?) and how the head fell and rolled down the street.

I left in befuddlement, my bag heavier with a flouride rinse purchase. The hygienist was concerned I might have the beginning of decay between some teeth, but she also muttered something about minerals coming back. So did she mean teeth repair themselves? I wasn't used to this friendly chit-chat from Kaiser staff. At the doctor, everyone's always in a rush. I often have to say "Wait, what about..." as the doctor is almost out the door. I guess dentists are just less likely to be overbooked.

The dentist also told me I have good teeth. That reminds me of an encounter I had a few years back. Some bbw-lovin' swingers found me online, and one of his questions for me was "Do you have good teeth?" He and his adventurous wife had met some people at a party that were pretty fine-lookin', but they had really bad teeth, and that just grossed him out. In his mind there was no reason for bad teeth, they could get them fixed. I joined him and his bevy of friends for a trip to Sauvie Island. Normally I wouldn't just go somewhere with strangers like that, but it turned out Steve had gone to school with him, and I'd always wanted to experience the nude beach there.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Hugh Draney, Rinchen Dorje

My friend Hugh, aka Rinchen Dorje, or as we liked to call him when he started using the name Rinchen, RD, died on June 22. I wrote a few words to some friends, but after his funeral on June 26, I couldn't bring myself to write anything down. RD was a quiet one, but his influence could run deep. A sangha member, Rich Mackin, shared his thoughts on June 24 and 27.

Hugh died of lung cancer, so it was no surprise. I regretted not seeing him recently, but since my orbit hadn't spiraled near the Zen Center for a couple of weeks, I wasn't aware that he had begun to decline so quickly. I learned later folks thought he would live through the summer.

California was the place he considered home. He came up here to take care of his dad (still living). He was the quiet one, absorbing all we talked about at our Sunday lunches. Once in a while his eyes would bug out at us. He wouldn't eat much: would often get coffee and eat a couple of fries with his mustard (more mustard than fry...more salsa than chip, too). He pretty much made money through odd jobs, home maintenance, and lived simply by cooking up a big pot of beans and living on burritos. Steve and I hired him a few times. He helped paint our walls. Picture in your head the quintessential hobo, a skinny one...that was him. Grey scraggly hair, craggy face, big eyes.

He told us a story of his hobo days once, how he camped in a field and he was happy there. (Not all that long ago.) It was a ways away from the tracks, too dangerous to live as a homeless man near the tracks, but he would go there to hang out.

He had just gone through the application process of living at the Zen Center when he was diagnosed, and a team of caregivers was put together. The Zen Center isn't a hospice, but sorta became one because he happened to be a resident. He stopped coming to Sunday lunch with us then because the team wanted to have lunch with him at the center. I wish I'd had more time to spend with him during his illness, I missed him. He continued to do his volunteer jobs all through his illness...taping dharma talks, making the coffee, countless other things.

He left this note in his room, which his sisters found:

Hugh Draney, AKA Rinchen Dorje, born before the beginning; has slipped out of his skin again. Cake, ice cream and remembering will be this [Saturday, 10am to noon]. Friends, ZCO, and all others invited. - Being around people who still include me in the living...

So at the funeral and memorial service, we all had cake (more like brownies) and ice cream, and shared our stories of Hugh. We did still include him in the living with our stories. I think I learned to love him more deeply as I heard about his other past selves in relation to these people. Several sangha members find him still living in their homes, through the remodeling work he did for them. Come to think of it, no one mentioned the kitchen remodel he did a lot of at the center's Sangha House. RD started out getting paid, but when the money ran out, he just kept going.

One woman read a letter from her husband currently in England. He'd worked with Hugh 20 years ago, and had considered him a great mentor when they worked together in a little cafe. Hugh's quiet focused presence had taught him a lot. Stories from his sisters, photos from his past, I found pieces of him that simply hadn't existed for me before. I could regret not knowing more of his life. I could think maybe he wasn't as good a friend as I'd thought, with so many pieces unknown. I don't think that matters, I know we loved each other as good friends. I could feel it in our hugs.