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Buddhadharma : Summer 2017
88 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 2 0 1 7 TherewasatimeIwassomadat my Zen teacher I could hardly look her in the eye. Everything she did seemed unskillful. I could only see her imperfections. I learned later that she was angry with me too. She was hurt and thought I was pushing her away. For more than a year, we seethed in our corners, glowering and avoiding each other. And we suffered, deeply. But after one of my spiritual companions gently but firmly encouraged me, I went to my teacher’s house to reach out. After some awkward social chitchat, she snapped, “What do you want from me?” I told her it was painful to feel so separated, and over the next hour we began, tensely, to express what had puzzled and angered us. We explained to one another, as best we could, the conscious and unconscious causes and conditions that had motivated our actions. Finally, her face softened. “It was a mess, wasn’t it?” With that, our behavior shifted from mutual defensiveness to sharing. We went back over the difficult terrain of our interactions and explored together, now seeking to understand each other’s experience. “What were you feeling then?” “What was going on for you?” When we could once again be kind with one another, she asked, “Can you forgive me for the part I played?” “Yes,” I said. “Can you forgive me?” She nodded. We stood and bowed to one another. I still felt what she had done was wrong; I suspect she felt the same about me. We did not forgive each other for our particular Journeys me and my imperfect teacher by catherine toldi actions. What we did was acknowledge that our imperfect actions had arisen from pain, not malicious intent. We had both made mistakes. We forgave each other for our vulnerable humanness, our mutual imperfection. Just a few months after this conversation, my teacher fell in her home and hit her head. She entered a weeklong coma, then passed away. Because we had forgiven one another, I was able to join with those who came to sit by the hospice bed in her living room during her final week of life. I was able to share in the experience with an open heart and appreciative spirit. I was able to receive the final teaching of her steady, strong breath. I was able to feel the full intimacy of our twenty-two-year relationship. In our case, intimacy didn’t mean that everything got perfectly resolved and wrapped up with a pretty bow. Our love included wounds and scars and the knots of twining vines. We had both made mistakes that could never be fully undone. This is what we humans do—we live our lives as imperfect beings. We play out the consequences of our own mistakes, and the mistakes of our ancestors. If we are lucky, we find our way to seeing one another as fellow learners in an evolutionary process. We come to see how our imperfect lives can be lives of grace. And sometimes we seek to change the direction of our fate—this, too, is a life of grace. We receive a new insight. We release our grip on a seemingly unchangeable identity. We let go of our attachment to the story of the mistake. I like to believe that if I had known what was coming, I would have gone to her house sooner. But the truth is, when we say goodbye to one another, we never know if this moment might indeed be our last. “Life is transient, swiftly passing,” goes the Zen admonition. “Be aware of the great matter. Don’t waste time.” CATHeRine TolDi is a dharma teacher at santa Cruz Zen Center. PHOTO | david gabriel Fischer