One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck



Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Phil, dreaming of gummy bears, sees angels descending.

The mind is a terrible thing to waste.


Now Phil was dying. Perhaps as long as a year before, he’d reached back for his chair which wasn’t there and fell breaking his assbone. Thus began a slow decline. I was alarmed. It’s hard to say that a Zen Master, especially one that I loved, had given up on life, so I won't. But progressive blindness had stolen the delight of seeing words on a page, physical pain made the formal posture of zazen impossible and now immobility obliterated the comforting routine of meditation, gabbing, study, jokes, and food. Not physical therapy with Baker Roshi’s student Joe Muscles, not Chinese food with taro root, not even gummy bears, could turn the tide. The ever present good cheer, except when it suddenly disappeared, felt concocted. The veneer was wearing thin. I didn’t feel the bitter resignation of a person fed up with life. It was more a sense that he’d just had enough. He invited the dying to begin, and the invitation had been accepted. It would be long and slow.


Some sages claim that this was a good way for a meditator to die, as if waving a long slow goodbye to everything that had been assembled to make you--a precious death. In a way I feel that this is a bit like sticking a smiley face on a Hallmark condolence card. It masks the uncertainty of each piece tumbling into oblivion. Phil was always so kind to those who were helping him, but on the other hand he couldn’t hide the day to day frustrations. 


He would rail at the dying steps prescribed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, saying "I have to decide if I’m at the bargaining stage or the resignation stage.” But he seemed to be following them exactly, or at least that was the framework that I carried into my conversations with him. I actually felt that he’d only taken baby steps away from the anger stage, but all that is extremely subjective. Perhaps I was still angry with him for ending the Maitri experiment, or screaming at me in the hallway, or harping on that old time religion. 


Zenshin’s mind had always been clear as a bell, much clearer than his vision. His memory for words, phrases, even pages in a book, had been almost photographic. I wonder how much of this was compensatory.


Once when I was entertaining some weird questions about presumed Kundalini energy in meditation, what Phil called the “squigglies,” he said, “Ol’ Luk Luk has something to say about that.  ”Middle case, third shelf, second from the left. (I think it was Charles Luk’s “Secrets of Chinese Meditation, but it might have been “Empty Cloud.”) Page 63, middle paragraph, beginning at the forth sentence. That’s the interesting part. Read back to me. Then he gently told me that focusing on the heart might be good practice rather than chasing swirling whirling wisps of energy all over the place.


Another time when we were reading “Scenes from the Capital,” we got to a part where he talks about Gerald Manley Hopkins. He started to recite “The Windhover” not with his flat voice, not with his whimsical voice, but reverently, almost like plainchant. When he stumbled, he pointed to the first case, second shelf, 12th book from the right, page 43, “Just start reading.” 


  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.



When I was sitting with him in a bright room of the Zen Center Hospice on Page Street, he asked me, “Do you see them?”

“Who?”

“The angels.

“No actually, I don’t. Where are they?”

“Right there, floating around,” pointing towards the upper corner to the left of his bed.

“No, I still don’t see them.”

“Look, goddamn it.” His voice sounded plaintive, perhaps wistful.

“What do they look like?”

“Just like the ones on the Macy’s gift bags.”

I can’t see them Phil, what would you like me to do?”

“Call the police, they’re reliable.”


Together we looked. I could see nothing while at the same time I wondered where his mind had gone. The Mind is a terrible thing to waste, he used to joke. What mind? Here we were using what was left to search for angels.

The angels on the Macy’s bag too “Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.”


When he died I arrived late to the crematorium in South City. Baker Roshi read from one of his poems a line about eating delicious raspberries. Then we filed past, bowed and placed a raspberry in the plain box that held his body. 


Contrary to Zen custom, I visualized dumping buckets of crimson raspberries gashing gold-vermillion. I couldn’t stop myself.


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