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

Showing posts with label Yeshe Dorje. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Yeshe Dorje. Show all posts

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Buddhist Heaven

Three Cheers for Grandmother Zen!

“It is much more difficult to control one's mind than to control the weather.” --Yeshe Dorje

A lonely sheet of paper lies on the top of my desk with some scribbled notes. I picked them to see if I could get back to the moment when it felt important to jot them down. Now they just look random but I tell myself that there is some rhyme and reason. There has to be, or does there?

There seems to be some notion floating around that if it ain’t hard nosed, tough no nonsense practice, it ain’t Zen. It certainly can’t be compassionate--or something.

To any macho Zen priest out there having a hard time adjusting to becoming a hospice monk, too bad, or as they say, suck it up. If you saw Issan in the kitchen trying to get his recipe for chocolate chip cookies right, with a temperature over a hundred and sweat on his shaved head, you might change your mind. You might even call it courageous Grandmother Zen.


One of my dearest friends, Michael, was suffering a long, painful and slow death from AIDS. His partner was an older, very proper, even stuffy, English queen. When I suggested that they might come and visit Maitri to see if it might be a good place for Michael’s final days, the partner was emphatic. He said “never.” He called it “The House of Death.” I was shocked.

Great pain and denial go hand in hand.

I vacillated between those two views many times every day. Before I moved into Hartford Street I imagined that I would be doing some modern version of the ancient Tibetan practice of living in the cremation grounds. The reality was somewhere between cooking mashed potatoes to suit a resident’s particular taste and making sure the cable bill was paid.

The Tibetan Yogi, Lama Yeshe jporje Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama’s rainmaker, visited Maitri. Issan welcomed him with a big hug and a kiss, to which the startled Tibetan sage responded with a huge grin. I’m told there was immediate chemistry. Issan took him from room to room, probably pointing with his light but careful attention to their detail, the convenience of the bathrooms, light filling the bedrooms in the early morning hours, things that made Hartford Street feel like home, really more like your grandmother’s house. Yeshe-la was so impressed that he blurted out that Issan had created Buddhist heaven.

Stories of the rainmakers' visit were repeated so often they assumed the status legend. I asked Issan if Yeshe Dorje had even talked about Buddhist heaven. Issan said, “Yes,” he remembered their conversation very well. “He was a lovely guy,” but added “he didn’t pay the electricity bill.”

Whether or not Yeshe Dorje was capable of confounding the clouds, he certainly had experience trying to push out the bounds of the order of things. Beyond incantations and spells, a rainmaker needs to be able to read tell-tale signs in the sky that escape ordinary sky-gazing, not so much to control as to see which way the wind is blowing. When a storm is brewing, seek safe shelter.

In the various cultures that have invited Buddhist teachings to stay a while, even as a guest, we find at least several, if not many versions of heaven. Currently the most prevalent myths about this transition between life and death in the West is a kind of instantaneous shift, an escape, shaking off the bonds of our earthly body. New Age Spirituality has us as spirits temporarily inhabiting a corporeal form. At this stage of my life, I find this very odd notion, and very much at odds with the Buddhist notion that the gift of the human body is the result of eons of conscious efforts to wake to the path of liberation.

This popping out of the bottle story line is, I think, a hangover from our 19th century bout with American and European Spiritualism. More ancient Western myths are deeper and more nuanced. The narratives and anecdotes of the gospel of Jesus have defied easy classification; Ovid persisted into the Medieval world, and of course Dante was no shape-shifter. We can trace these stories of the transition back to Homer and the wealth of half-remembered lore that animated the ancient world. Most of them are more in line with a fairly consistent tread throughout Buddhist teaching--that the path from this life to the next is determined by our choices, limited and difficult they may be, and the depth of our practice.

The New Age holds accounts of near death experiences in awe, and, perhaps I am being harsh, imagines death as a kind of “This is Your Life” TV rerun. There may be some truth in the analogy, but it also is colored, fatally in my view, with easy admonitions about loving beyond petty grudges, good over evil, heroic virtue idealized. I admit that “This is Your Life” captivated my childhood imagination, but I think that was more due to the genius of its writers, and their sentimentality, rather than a glimpse into Perennial Philosophy.

Still there are stories that connect us with who we are, ordinary places where we can recognize who we really are.

I remember a rather handsome younger man who often visited his friend in Maitri, a sweet man who had the small room at the top of the stairs on the second floor, facing the street. Like so many of us in the early 1990’s, this young man spent an enormous amount of time visiting friends in several of the places where they were dying, Coming Home Hospice, the Missionaries of Charity’s Arc of Love, Garden Sullivan, Wards 86 and 5B of San Francisco General Hospital. When the time came, he attended their memorial services as most of us did--we all struggled to honor the deep connections that linked us with so many friends who were dying way too young. He was so grateful for the care his friend had received that he wanted to give something back. He came to me and asked how he could help.

The room needed a quick paint job if we could get it done before the bed was filled again. I said if he could help me paint it we could do it in a few hours. As we worked together, he told me that he sensed something different at Maitri. He said he always felt like he was visiting his grandmother. I knew he wasn't talking about the “This is Your Life” version of grandmother.

Yeshe Dorje was right. Issan created Buddhist Heaven. 

Three Cheers for Grandmother Zen.

Come home to the empty house
Longing for the warmth of a fire
Or chocolate chip cookies

You notice your picture hanging on her wall
Right where she left it
Her uncompromising love that seeks only your happiness

It is a blessing
To touch this heart of grief and create a miracle
Fill that house once again

This is the great way

Buddhist Heaven

Three Cheers for Grandmother Zen! “It is much more difficult to control one's mind than to control the weather.” --Yeshe Dorje A lonely...