Grace in the Golden Wind
To prepare for his mother’s death, our writer went on a retreat. He found peace—only after deprivation, pain, and a clash with a flatulent Buddhist.
By Roger Cox
A monk asked Yun-Men, his Zen teacher, "What is there when the leaves fall and the tree withers?" Yun-Men replied, "Golden Wind."
Many years ago, Dr. Noble Corral, the noted chest surgeon, told me that my mother would soon die from her beloved Winston cigarettes.
He held a large X-ray up to the light and pointed to a small area that appeared to him to be sharply different from the surrounding brain tissue.
“Your mother's lung cancer, that aggressive alveolar cell carcinoma, has metastasized to her brain. Radiation treatments will help slow the tumor growth down. These treatments should shrink the tumor and buy your mother some time.”
“No doubt where this is going?”
“No, no doubt.”
“How much time?”
“Sooner rather than later. Six months, maybe nine months. Of course, if your mother decides to come back north and stay here with us, we will do everything for her comfort.”
Metastasized to her brain?
Welcome to the endgame.
The busy, still hopeful period of Peggy's cancer was officially over.
Immediately, I made plans to move the next month to my mother's condo in Florida.
When I told little Peggy that business was terrible, and that I was coming down there to stay for a while, and that I was bringing my tennis racket, she got it. ”You're a good boy, Roger. We will talk about it all when you get down here. Quit those damned cigarettes, didn't you?”
The next morning, and with more than a little glee, I closed my sales business. What a relief! I had grown so tired of distraught purchasing agents calling me at 6 a.m. screaming “Where are my goddamned binders?”
And with true sadness, my girlfriend, sweet Julie, made plans to return home to Delaware.
My brothers and I spoke on the telephone that afternoon, but we didn't have much to say after I gave them Dr. Corral's news. Their quiet and steady retirement from the family should be marked from this moment.
Somehow or other, I would now be taking care of Peggy by myself, and I was definitely not prepared.
I hung up the telephone and retreated to my neighborhood Buddhist zendo (meditation hall) around the corner for Thursday evening sitting in Zen meditation, or zazen.
I rang the bell, and was checked in speakeasy-style.
The door closed behind me, chopping off New York City's racket and frenzy. Inside, the meditation hall members were already seated on cushions, facing the walls in two rows running along the sides of the small room.
A Buddha sat among candles and incense burners on a low, wooden table at the far end of the room. Ridiculously large drums and bells surrounded the simple altar.
I stepped into the hall, put my palms together, and bowed deeply offering an energetic gassho (greeting that expresses gratitude) to the stone Buddha at the end of the room.
Two quick steps took me to an empty cushion; I sat, arranged my robe, bowed, and took a deep breath to begin my practice. Traditional sandalwood incense guided my awareness inward.
The physical mechanics of zazen are stone simple. Mimicking a statue of Buddha, I sit as straight and as still as I possibly can with my legs crossed in front of me in a semi-lotus position. My hands sit in my lap with the left hand resting atop the right; the opposing thumbs just barely touch.
I focus my mind on my breath. I follow it in, and then I follow it out. This wordless, free-style meditation is called “Shikantaza!” Sounds simple enough, but it is damned difficult. Distractions are like rent; they just won't go away. And the inevitable leg pain is excruciating.
Every 45 minutes, the head monk of the zendo struck the rim of a small bell to begin kinhin, walking meditation. The group struggled to its feet to walk a rapid serpentine route through the zendo for 15 minutes of blood-pumping exercise.
All that evening, I struggled mightily to follow my breath, but finally, I crumbled. Thoughts of my mother's illness, my brothers’ estrangement, and Julie's leaving were too strong. My concentration splintered in a hundred directions; my mind was a chocolate mess.
No matter how poorly this evening's meditation had gone, it would prove to be a piece of cake compared to what lay ahead. For in two weeks, I would be attending my first sesshin—seven days devoted to Zen study.
In early October of 1977, I joined a small group that left from my neighborhood zendo to make the five-hour van drive up to Dai Bosatsu Zen Monastery in the Catskills Mountains for the Golden Wind sesshin. For one week, I would be a monastery monk living my life one breath at a time.
This deprivation and pain is for what?
Trade my warm home life with Sweet Julie to live in the cold dark with strangers? Rise at 3:30 a.m., retire at 9:00 p.m.? Eat only fruit, veggies, and rice? And then meditate through all the waking hours without speaking a word?
In 1976, I began to practice zazen to calm the nerve storm raging inside of my head, and I had some success. At least my head no longer felt like it was about to ignite. Now I was on my way up to the monastery for intense zazen hoping to make a leap, to find some lasting peace.
We drove through the dramatic Hudson River Valley, up above West Point, way beyond Croton-On-Hudson. This far north, the sap had already gone to ground in the hardwood trees, and the fall leaves were brilliant in the late afternoon sun.
And as we drove through one American Revolutionary hamlet after another, I was thinking about my mom, and how damned funny she was. And how when I was really little, she was young with auburn hair done up in that World War II style. Peggy was a terrific dancer; she could Charleston up a storm with my Aunt Kathryn. And no matter how badly my father behaved, Peggy stayed in there showing her boys how to live.
And then I thought: Everybody is going to die, but nobody knows when. So, what is important? To love our death as we love our life is important. How awfully sad it would be to be bitter and unhappy at the end.
And when Peggy is near the end, will I have it? Will I have the loving kindness, the compassion to help her?
All of these words, no matter how kindly and heartfelt, were, of course, of little or no help. The truth was in the work, in the diligence of my zazen. If I learned to direct loving kindness toward myself, I would be able to direct it towards my mother.
An hour south of our destination of Fishkill, New York, the narrow, two lane, blacktop road slipped into a tunnel of overhanging tree branches. We rolled down this back road through miles and miles of unbroken autumnal forest. The tiniest village had dropped away long ago.
The van driver, an old monastery hand, spoke up to point out that all eight of us passengers, had been on the road together almost all day in virtual silence, not saying a word about the monastery or about anything else for that matter.
We all burst out laughing, and then just as abruptly, we all fell silent again.
This retreat would not be easy. No matter what I would be doing, whether it was sitting zazen on my cushion, cleaning toilet bowls, raking gardens, or listening to master talks on Zen texts, I would be following my breath.
But I would not volunteer to meet one on one with the Roshi, the teacher, in a dokusan, or private Zen instruction. He was just too fierce for me.
Deep in the mountain forest, the van turned off of the paved road onto a muddy country road. We drove over rocks and roots to get to the top of a hill. We rolled past the gatekeeper's cottage; the roof was thick with wet, spongy moss.
At the end of a bumpy, two-mile ride into the woods, we parked the van among an assortment of fancy cars and hippie wrecks and hiked the last mile to the monastery, carrying our sleeping bags and duffel bags.
From a gentle rise in the woods, everybody pointed and nodded toward the classic stone and wood Japanese monastery. The low-slung building with the swooping roof sat above a sparkling pond. A great beaver dam squatted in the middle of the water.
“This isolated retreat used to be Harriet Beecher Stowe's estate,” one of the veterans among us remarked. “True. She's the lady who wrote ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin.’ This lake and some old buildings on the property were the last stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Canada is that way.”
All of us burst into a spontaneous run for the last quarter mile to the “mudroom” door into the monastery basement. Inside the door, the old monk told us to choose a futon on the second floor and to stow our gear up there. We all knew to run right back downstairs to the zendo and find a cushion for the first sitting of the sesshin.
So, there I was, a rookie up from the city standing there bare-footed and shivering in the entrance hall of the legendary Dai Bosatsu Zen monastery, quietly mustering the gumption to cross the great, polished wood floor to sit on a cushion for the next seven days.
Well, I did it.
I mean I did it all, damn it.
I crossed the great, polished floor; I sat on that cushion for seven agonizingly glorious days, and I took care of my mom.
A small number of blue-robed monks and lay people were already sitting ramrod straight and perfectly still on their black cushions facing the walls.
Approaching the men's line. I bowed to my new friend, the cushion; I bowed to my old self, for whom I feared; and I bowed to the effort to be made. Then I sat down, arranged my blue robe, and shoved off from the shore.
And the first four days were pure hell.
I eventually learned to embrace, not to block, the burning pain in my knees. Trying to focus on my breath was slippery, boring, and damn near impossible. At some point, I just stopped fighting. I watched the distractions come, and I watched them go, all the time doing my best to keep my heart in the work.
Never give up; always, always try again. A sustained effort was a big part of the point here. Peace and clarity must be around here someplace; I just had to stay in this work long, long after what might have seemed reasonable.
A saint was sitting on the cushion to my left side.
He was a gentle, pious Episcopal priest who visited the monastery twice a year to meditate and fast for the repose of his soul. His effortless effort was genuinely inspiring.
But even if you sit on a cushion in a monastery, or perhaps, especially if you sit on a cushion in a monastery, in the woods in Zen silence just a few miles from Canada, whatever drives you crazy in life, it will find you and test you. It will walk into the monastery, and it will sit down right next to you.
And there he was, ladies and gentlemen, on my right, the Buddhist from hell.
This perfect test for my notorious impatience was a wildebeest of a man, biblical in his deplorable personal hygiene.
For four days, this fellow did nothing but fidget, fart, and whine. And fool that I am, I let the smelly jerk get to me, to piss me off, to distract me from the work at hand.
Finally my choleric side triumphed. I made a fist, stuck it under his nose, and shook it at him. If he didn't settle down, my fist said, I was going to knock his block off.
He grabbed my fist and threw it down like it was a toy. In a flash, he had clobbered my pride. His victory had been so swift and so sure that my anger was left standing there waiting for a bus.
Mercifully, this clash cleared the air. The last three days of the sesshin were a slice of heaven. And while the wildebeest never really stopped rolling around in the mud, it didn't matter anymore.
After four days of intense meditation, and after patches of peace, a calm self-forgetfulness settled over me.
The ordinary claptrap that buzzed around and around in my head was dead, or on vacation, or too damned tired to make an appearance. Zazen had been transformed, from a process of pain into an experience of clarity and ease.
And like a surprise twist in a short story, the day before we left, while deep in prajnaparamita (transcending the ordinary state of mind), I looked down into the polished wood floor, and I saw the sky.
The floor that was holding up the cushion I was sitting on had dropped away and disappeared. I was looking into the vault of heaven.
My long, slow breath became one with the fathomless apparition in the floor. The thought of falling into the universe thrilled me.
Was this satori? Had I already attained enlightenment? The ultimate moment of my life?
No, not even close.
It was only a garden-variety vision not uncommon to budding Buddhists. But it was a sensational gift to me, and in the geography of my mind, I had found a new continent.
On our last evening at Dai Bosatsu, the Roshi led us in kinhin, a single file walking meditation around Beecher Lake. In these woods and streams, the word was out: Buddhists, they never kill anything.
The clear water pond was full of fat, old trout that could still jump high enough to gobble bugs out of the air.
In the early evening, fox, deer, and their smaller friends came out of the forest to drink water on the far shore of the lake. And on the monastery side, monks and novices with a free moment or a bad cigarette habit gathered near the shore to watch the animals.
This evening, the Roshi halted kinhin to share with us the shenanigans of his nemesis, the hilariously fat beaver who controlled the lake from high atop his gigantic dam.
The Roshi nicknamed the beaver “The Great One,” after Jackie Gleason, the fat comedian the Roshi loved to watch in reruns of the '50's television show, “The Honeymooners.”
The Great One lolled about the top of his dam slapping his broadtail this way and that, packing yet more and more clumps of mud on his home.
No matter how many of the monastery's trees they knocked down for their dam, the beavers knew that the Roshi would never harm them.
So, the beavers ruled.
And the Roshi just laughed and laughed.
A month after the “Golden Wind” sesshin at Dai Bosatsu monastery, I moved to Florida to be with my mother.
Peggy and I prayed together at sunrise and at sunset for as long as we were able to. Propped up in bed sporting little girl blue berets in her pixie radiation hairdo, Mom burned up the beads. She said rosary after rosary in deep devotion.
I sat on my cushion on the floor next to her bed doing zazen. Peggy thought my practice was both peculiar and sincere. But instead of focusing on my breath or chanting in Japanese, I followed Peggy's Hail Marys and her Our Fathers. I heard my mother's life story inside of those prayers.
Peggy slipped into a coma in early 1979. Following long periods of listless quiet, the brain cancer erupted and violently attacked her, possessed her, and finally, killed her.
Mercifully, mom died in my arms on January 27, 1979.
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Roger Cox is a writer, actor, and stage director whose career has taken him from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” to Walt Disney Imagineering and beyond. His last essay for SoMA was Oh, Brother!
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