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Buddhadharma : Winter 2014
60 buddhadharma: the Practitioner’s quarterly winter 2 0 1 4 Then it was just me, the wife, and the dying man. “Sorry about that. We were Christian. Five years ago we converted to Buddhism,” she said, rolling her eyes. I nodded. If there’s anything that intense Christians are useful for, it’s helping non-Christian strangers bond. I took a wooden mallet and a mokugyo drum the size of a grapefruit out of my backpack. I passed the wife a chant book. The desk nurse had told me that the wife requested two things, a prayer and a blessing for her husband. “Zen monks don’t really do either of those things,” I tried to explain. Chant- ing was my substitute for a prayer. I didn’t know yet what my substitute for a blessing would be. I watched the wife sink into her uncomfortable chair in a kind of dead-relaxed stupor. Then she began sobbing. I wanted to get up out of my own uncomfortable chair and hug her, but I felt weird about doing this in front of her ailing husband, as though he might suspect that I was trying to poach her right before his dying eyes. And who knows, maybe the thought crossed my mind. During times of sublime anguish, I sometimes can’t distinguish intense feelings of love from sexual urges. I still have an image in my head of this young woman sitting up impeccably straight, her hands folded in her lap over her fashionable black pants, shedding, it seemed to me, the perfect number of tears, right down to the very last one. They streamed down her face and throat and turned the white collar of her blouse gray. She chanted like a champ and we made our way through the Heart Sutra, the Dharani of Compassion, and the ten-page, sleep-inducing excerpt from the Lotus Sutra. We both faced her husband, but I still hadn’t really looked at him yet. After I brought the chanting home with a warbling flourish, the wife stood up. We were on either side of the dying man. Her cheeks and eyes were glisten- ing and she seemed refreshed, like the sky after a good, quick rain. “I will introduce you to my husband.” For the first time I really took him in, and I felt the truth of the phrase My heart goes out to you. He had the face of a child. His young body was twisted, his spine arched, so that it looked like he was gouging into the bed with his shoulder blades. It was as though you’d swung a baseball bat into his back a week ago, and he was still frozen in that initial contortion of pain. His eyes were wide open. There was nothing drugged about them. Everything else about him looked drugged, but not those eyes. I once cornered a huge wood rat in a bathroom. As I bent over with a bucket to try and capture it with the intention of then throwing it into the toilet and flushing it into oblivion, I looked into its eyes. They looked back. The body of this little animal was quivering, its tiny shoulders shaking in fast for- ward, and in its eyes I saw the pure sentient terror of a creature the instant before its life is snatched away. I saw that same animal terror in this man’s eyes. I had come to the blessing part of his wife’s request. I needed to do something. I took his hand out from under the blanket. It was limp and luke- warm; life was leaving it. I said his name and put Many are the moments when a layperson shows me how to be a monk. They nonchalantly offer these nuggets of wisdom as if they’re telling me something I already know. I nod sagely as though I do, while thinking, “I’m going to use that.”