Three years ago, just as winter as turning into spring, I stood with my friend Cookie Mueller on an elevated companion above the main reception room of a glittery New York nightclub. Cookie, who had been ill with AIDS for some time, and in fact had only six months to live, turned to me and said: “You know, getting this disease is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Knowing Cookie’s flair for the dramatic, I found this statement hard to credit. Now I know just what she meant. When I first became ill with AIDS, I experienced a marked contraction of energy and spirit. It was hard to imagine continuing any rigorous physical activity, including even my long-standing yoga practice, and I was tempted to slip into numbness. But through the good fortune of having excellent teachers, I perceived that I could literally breathe into my illness and be complete in my limitations. While dualistic thinking persuades us that health and illness are opposites, here was a dynamic physiological koan—or paradox—synthesizing seeming opposites by showing the perfect nature of illness—marking a shift from a horizontal view of the world (gathering experience) to a vertical one (going deeper).

So much of what formerly was abstract Zen practice now has concrete meaning. For example, I can say empirically that one-pointedness is the antidote to fear; that compassion is the natural outgrowth of embracing one’s own suffering; and that equanimity is healing.

Issan Dorsey, founder of the Hartford Street zendo and its adjunct AIDS hospice in the heart of San Francisco’s Castro—ground zero for the current epidemic—exemplified the way a Buddhist practitioner might die. When he met Zen master Shunryu Suzuki some thirty years ago, Issan was a barefoot junkie living on the streets of the Tenderloin. Right before his death, he was installed as abbot at Hartford Street, and left behind a flourishing hospice and Zen community, both animated, to a large degree, by his personal example of transformation.

The first time I visited Issan at the zendo, we had tea in his austere monk’s room. Hanging on one wall was a striking vintage photograph of a bosomy young woman in a sweater set and pearls. I questioned him about the picture. It was a portrait of Issan from a time when he performed a drag act called “The Boy Who Looks Like the Girl Who Lives Next Door.” The last time I saw Issan was at San Francisco General Hospital. We pushed our beds near each other and held hands while chemotherapy was administered to each of us. He was quite weak and his mind had begun to wander. I was anxious and the cumulative cocktail of drugs made me irritable and breathless. There was little to say, but Issan’s presence affected me profoundly.

Issan had a characteristic levity which carried through to his death—he radiated sweetness and serenity. After a lifetime of cultivating equanimity and non-attachment, Issan was steeped in these qualities: they could not fail to communicate themselves. It was a sharp contrast to the precious solemnity which characterizes most death and dying “experts.” His buoyancy reflected the texture of reality as described in Mahayana Buddhist psychology: an interdependent net of mutual awarenesses that is not at all solid. His acceptance of his illness had an active quality. One can think of this in terms of daily personal economy: resignation represents a steady outflow of energy; acceptance a net gain. When my beloved yoga teacher died from AIDS, I experienced a moment of the most pure and complete crystalline sadness, and was strengthened by the purity of that experience.

The first time I needed to receive chemotherapy I decided to go to the hospital alone. The Golden Gate Bridge, the blue sky, the raggedy garden around Ward 86, the cold breeze, the other patients, all were remarkable to me that day. I was in a state of concentration, like the kind of samadhi you experience at the end of a long meditation retreat. I felt like I was seeing everything for the last time, and it was all marvelous. As it happened, this particular day was Halloween—Halloween in San Francisco. An intravenous line was inserted into my arm by a giant green frog.

Applying the Buddhist practice of paying attention allowed me to perceive my pain and fear in terms of their fragmentary components. At that point they dissolve into ordinary bits of raw experience. It also liberated deep affection for the people around me, especially the hospital staff. One nurse confirmed that a profound bonding is not unusual under these circumstances. Over and over I am experiencing boundless kindness; and certain individuals in this world are its representatives.

Reb Anderson, the Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, told me that “the study of dying is the proper work of monks.” Of course, it is everyone’s proper work, too. But in a religious community we are encouraged, and have the opportunity, to study the mystery of life and death.

In 1989, I returned to Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm, which, for a long time had been (along with its monastery Tassajara) my antidote to a fast-track life in Manhattan. Since I love cooking, I applied to work in the kitchen. Green Gulch’s then director of the kitchen told me that this sort of work was unsuited to a person with AIDS because it posed a health danger. This prohibition, probably born of unexamined fear, was irrational and also illegal. It was nearly a full year before the community’s position was stated in writing: “No person shall be prevented from working in the kitchen solely because of being AIDS-infected.” Since that time my occasional work in the kitchen has been a source of healing. It has allowed me to come together with my Zen family in the practice of, literally, nurturing ourselves.

I mention this incident in the spirit of “no blame.” Sex and death are challenging topics. If individually or collectively we elect not to acknowledge the shadow side of ourselves, then these feelings begin to ferment. I am choosing not to do this. I believe that members of the Green Gulch community feared both death and AIDS and sought to distance themselves from these issues. This wish was largely unacknowledged. Fostering this disavowal is not consistent with the clarity and insight we seek to cultivate. This illness is an opportunity to direct attention to the most dynamic problem confronting American Buddhist practice: how to acknowledge the truth about hard things we would rather not face, with psychological and spiritual maturity and with compassion.

For most of the last two years I have lived in a collective household of meditators in Muir Beach, California, nicknamed “Spirit of the Valley.” Set on a stream that washes down through Muir Woods, the hue is surrounded by a forest of alders. Though mountains are all around, sometimes the sound of ocean surf travels up the stream.

When I first came here I shared a wing with a lovely poetess who had a new-born baby named Joshua Tai. He and I coincided wonderfully in our schedules for eating and napping. Bringing together someone at the start of his life with someone perhaps at the end of his, was a revelation for us all. It recalls immemorial practice, now largely lost, of people living in clans, where birth and death are not only visible but visibly connected. In this lovely house across the fields from Green Gulch Farm the inhabitants have made a studious effort to overcome their fear of AIDS vis-a-vis myself. The result is a magic circle where life, not death, is invited to flourish in an arena of supportive, non-judgmental witnessing.

The great fifth-century meditator’s manual, the Visudimagga, teaches that out of the forty possible contemplative paths, only two are consistently and in every way beneficial: the contemplation of dying and the encouragement of friendliness. Indeed these two practices seem to spring from a single source.

None of us believes he or she is going to die. In point of fact, however, our death commences at birth and all through the time that remains we “die by inches.” As the Visudimagga puts it: “As budding toadstools always come up lifting dust on their tops, so beings are born along with aging and death.”

Have been compelled by my failing health to acknowledge that I am dying, I see the world in a vastly different way. Buddhist psychology urges that we recognize that dying is a continuous process, going on all the time—a “perpetual succession of extremely short-lived events.” To recognize this authentically is to experience some form of enlightenment. Like kensho (seeing into one’s own nature) or stream-entering, it is an illumination of an experience that is really always with us but which, with a sudden jolt, we may actually notice. And like kensho, it is an experience that we then long to recover and rest in. This is an experience you can have right now. You are dying. That is what the Visudimagga means when it enjoins the reader to “practice as if your turban were on fire.” In such a case one doesn’t dawdle.

Monoprint by Daniel Berlin. Memento Mori
Untitled by Daniel Berlin, 1990, monoprint.

Some branches of Buddhism are characterized by “graveyard” practices. Alexandra David-Neel, for example, offers a particularly grisly account of the Tibetan practice of chod, the ongoing visualization of one’s decomposition. Ironically, such practices are designed to pacify lustful thoughts which can distract the meditator. Nevertheless, contemplating my demise head-on has exposed the mutability of the human experience, the entropy inherent in our taking this physical form, and our boundless potential for suffering. If one can begin to think about all this with equanimity, then perhaps one can look at the business of being alive with some calm. The personal experience of suffering unites us with other people: it is the dynamo that generates compassion, which, by its nature, is transpersonal. This same awareness was reinforced when I heard Sogyal Rinpoche, the Tibetan teacher, talk about The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The nature of life and death is not fixed or solid; it is incredibly spacious, fluid, and light. For myself, I refer to this state as “activated not knowing.” It is a state that causes daily experience to become saturated in meaning. And in this way it does indeed serve as an antidote to suffering, not lust.

At the end of his life, Carl Jung wrote: “Only here, in life on earth, where the opposites clash together, can the general level of consciousness be raised.” Progress comes from resolving seeming opposites, a process we often choose to dramatize as conflict. What sort of understanding can one bring to the condition of being covered in purple lesions, as I am? Or of seeing my friend Cookie lose her mind at age forty; or her husband attached to a respirator for the last year of his life? To reduce these states merely to “illness,” the opposite of health, obscures a more profound meaning. Chagdud Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who is also a practicing physician, teaches that the point and privilege of having a human incarnation is to resolve seeming paradoxes. To acknowledge that you are dying is to recognize that you are alive.

Yesterday I made the rounds of the hospital and took chemotherapy. Today our house is filled with young people. One is writing; one is cleaning; another is cooking; Zach is sleeping. Outside, the willow tree shows the palest aura of spring green. As the warm wind ruffles the hundred Shinto prayers in the peace tree, somehow it seems like the most natural thing in the world to be writing about dying.

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