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Buddhadharma : Winter 2014
winter 2 0 1 4 buddhadharma: the Practitioner’s quarterly 59 realized—I am not obliged to try and enjoy this life ofmine.Idonothavetohaveareasontogoon living.Idonothavetobeahero.AllIhavetodois suit up and show up.” Many are the moments when a layperson shows me how to be a monk. They nonchalantly offer these nuggets of diamond-tight, luminous wis- dom as though they’re telling me something that I already know, and I nod sagely as though I do, while thinking, “I’m going to use that.” Suit up and show up. I thought of this as my fin- gers trembled, threading my priest’s belt into a knot over my koromo robe. The hospital bathroom was like a green room where I was preparing for a per- formance, only I had no idea what my lines were. I studied myself in the mirror—thankfully, it assured me that I was a monk. But I stared a little too long, and for a split second I could have sworn that I glimpsed a frightened fraud beneath the frock. Sandy, the large, angry nurse, told me that she often had to force herself to play the role of com- passionate caregiver. “Death is all around me in the hospital, but it always seems like the wrong people are dying. The assholes hang on to the bitter end,” she explained. “People think that nurses just auto- matically give a damn, like it’s in our genes. Let me tell you something—having the will to refrain from putting a pillow over the face of some bitter, dying bastard who also happens to be your patient is actually something you have to work at.” “It’s just like being a monk,” I said. “You fake it till you make it.” “No,” she said, raising her eyebrow, a hairless slash of blue. “You fake it till you’re not faking it anymore. It’s called trying.” What a sight I must have made, stepping into the hospital room bald-headed in what appeared to be a long black dress with sleeves big enough to lift me off the ground with the right gust of wind. There were four Taiwanese people in the room, and three of them looked up at me. A quarter of the room was sick and dying, which is a large percentage and accounted for the leaden atmosphere. I knew that I was the headliner. What I didn’t know was that there was an opening act, and she wanted my job. Tall and in her mid-fifties, her expression was per- manent and hard to describe, as though she’d told a plastic surgeon, “Make me look like someone who has just heard a joke that she doesn’t understand.” Not surprisingly, she was gripping a Bible. Her considerably shorter husband stood behind her, glaring at me as though he hoped I might use my Buddhist black magic to simply vanish off the face of the earth in a puff of sulfurous smoke. He was holding his wife’s hand, and she was holding the hand of an alert, shockingly young woman with the flushed pink face of a mother in labor, who was in turn holding her sick husband’s unresponsive hand. He was a blur on the bed in the corner of my eye. I could not quite look at him yet, for his wife seemed to want something from me. She could not reach out and shake my hand, weighed down as she was by Christianity on the one side and Death on the other. Like me, she seemed to be playing a role—the role of hostess at her husband’s deathbed. When the tall woman saw my robes and my big bald head, her eyes went wide and she started gab- bling furiously. Everyone’s eyes closed, then opened, and there was some post-prayer conversation, full of tired smiles, hugs, and good-byes. I understood nothing of what they said, but all deathbed con- versation is the same. Really straightforward, often mundane things—hospital food or plans for the evening—are discussed with a whispering intensity reserved for the White House War Room. People are exhausted and completely vitalized at the same time. Nothing like death to bring a little life to the room. How can a Zen priest be so self-absorbed? Perhaps meditation has honed my awareness to where I can see clearly how imperfect I am, but it has in no way helped me change this fact.