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Buddhadharma : Fall 2011
35 fall 2 01 1 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly OOn January 12, 2009, my dear friend of forty years, my best friend who was more than a brother to me, Rabbi Alan Lew, died without any warning or any known illness. I won’t go on about our long friend- ship; there’s too much to say. Suffice it to say, we were as close as people can be; we were spiritually linked. We knew each other before either of us had started on our religious paths, and then we began practicing Zen at the same time. We studied for many years together at the Zen Center in Berkeley and went to Tassajara Zen Moun- tain Center where we were monks together. As time went on, we created our own version of Jewish meditation and together we founded Makor Or, a Jewish meditation center in San Francisco. We practiced there together, side by side, for more than a decade. So when Alan died all of a sudden, it was hard to take. I’m guessing that I will not get over it, that his death probably holds a permanent place of sadness in me. I’m not so sure that I want to get over it. The sadness is okay. It’s not so bad. About a week before he died, we led a retreat together. At that retreat he gave me what turned out to be his last teach- ing, although we didn’t know it at the time. Alan was really a great person and a great rabbi, but his teachings were often humorous. He would present very profound things in a silly way. It would take you a while to realize how profound his teaching actually was. For some years Alan had been collecting fountain pens, which he liked to tell me about. I like fountain pens myself. I didn’t think much of it until I went over to his house one day, and he showed me his collection. It was an astonish- ing thing. There were hundreds and hundreds, maybe five hundred, fountain pens that he kept neatly in special binders that are made for such collections. These were rare antiques that were worth quite a bit of money. Apparently, there’s a whole world of fountain pen collectors out there. There are fountain pen conventions and fountain pen websites. There’s even a whole kind of stock market of fountain pens; you buy and sell and the prices go up and down. I didn’t know this, but it’s a huge deal. A few months before his death, Alan decided he would sell off some of his fountain pens. He brokered the transaction online and sent thousands of dollars worth of pens to some person he found online. While he was waiting for the check to come in the mail, the guy who had purchased the pens from him died suddenly. His widow hired a lawyer to clear the estate, but the lawyer didn’t find a convincing paper trail for these fountain pens, so he informed Alan that he was not going to get paid for them. Alan thought, “Well, I could get a lawyer, and no doubt I would win the case, but by the time I pay the lawyer, it’s prob- ably not worth it. So the heck with it.” He never pursued it. He said, “You know, I don’t mind losing that money, because I learned something that’s worth every penny of it.” I asked him what he had learned. “I learned that when you’re dead, you can’t do anything,” he said. “This guy was a very decent person and he would cer- tainly have paid the money, but he was dead, and he couldn’t do anything. You’d think that I would have already known this. And in a way I suppose I did. But I didn’t really know it. Now, with the loss of all this money, I really know it. When you’re dead, you can’t do anything.” This is a really profound teaching. When someone you love is gone, that person can’t do anything anymore. This means that you have to do something, or that you have to do something differently. Somehow, you, who are connected to that person, have to do what they can no longer do. You have to ask yourself, “Now that this has happened, what will I do, what will I do in place of my friend?” There is always something to be done. This was Alan’s last teaching to me. The Real Path Norman fischer explains why it’s suffering that gives us the incentive, vision, and strength to transform our lives. photo deNNis fischer