There was once on Vashon Island a brilliant Buddhist teacher who was well respected by everyone in his community. He was 40 years old, the abbot at a Soto Zen Center, a longtime practitioner of the dharma, capable and honest, perhaps a little proud, and loved by everyone. Every morning he stumbled off his cot in the back room of his temple, where he slept and practiced the same quiet ritual every day for an hour. After washing his face and drinking a cup of tea, he sat down on his frayed meditation cushion in front of a simple altar. He’d sat on this mushroom-shaped pillow for twenty years, and it was threadbare, almost shapeless, and stained from use. He spoke fluent Japanese and read the sutras in both Sanskrit and Pali. All there was to know about traditional rituals and temple management, he knew. He was somewhat like an island himself, relying completely on nothing and no one but himself, as the Buddha advised his monks to do.

Before his morning ritual, he did not open a newspaper or look at his laptop for what he knew would be nonstop stories about all the terrible things people were saying and doing to one another. He wanted none of that. The world and its depressing news could always wait until he had a chance to quietly balance his thoughts and feelings. But something about this day felt different. His mind wasn’t as settled as he hoped it would be, as if his practice were becoming stale, dry, or boring, or had even stopped completely. Something crucial for his spiritual growth felt missing, but he didn’t know what, or how to find light in this darkness.

These mildly troubling thoughts made the abbot wonder if he should reach out to his own teacher for counseling.  He decided that this would be his first order of business before anyone arrived for morning meditation at six a.m. However, as things turned out, he would not make that call. Although the temple would not open for group meditation for an hour, he heard the loud beeping of a car’s horn outside the front door.

is tahat so zen story
Illustration by Frederica Bordoni

He hurried with his sandals slapping against his heels, threw open the door, and saw a Nissan Armada idling in front of the wooden building. The harsh beeping that went through him like a shock was replaced by the crying of a baby. A couple in their mid-50s left their car idling in a plume of gas and came striding toward him, scowling, shaking with anger, the woman holding a blanketed baby tightly in her arms. He knew these people, but not especially well, though there was no way he could have forgotten them, because the man was potbellied, with a large, disorderly face and a lopsided smile, and the woman had frosted hair, high cheeks, and a raspy, roosterish voice. When he hosted an open house or community event, they came to his temple with their daughter, a thin, nice-looking girl, 16 years old, who occasionally helped when he performed initiations for new members.

You,” said the man as the woman shoved the child into the abbot’s arms, “How could you do this?”

“I don’t understand,” the abbot struggled to hold the baby’s head upright, to not let it slip out of his trembling hands. “What are you talking about?”

“We’re talking about this baby!” The woman’s eyes were squinted into narrow slits. “At first our daughter wouldn’t tell us who the father was. She was too ashamed. But last night, she confessed. It was you!

Instantly, the abbot felt ill. He was speechless, unable to string a sentence together, feeling as if he’d stumbled into someone else’s dream. Then:

“That’s not so. I can’t be the father.”

“You’re lying,” she said, “and that’s breaking another of your vows. I’m going to let everyone know what you have done to our daughter, who trusted you. This baby has your eyes, your nose! And she’s your responsibility now.”

“Really?” said the abbot. “Is that so?”

But now the baby’s grandparents were piling back into their car, leaving him holding a helpless creature that needed attention every moment if it was going to survive from one day to the next. A living, breathing being more real than all the impressive sermons, words, concepts, and dharma talks that had earned him his reputation as a roshi, a teacher to be respected. He thought, How can this be? I have a life already. I have my own dreams. The baby did not come with an instruction manual, and so he was certain he would fail at being a caregiver.

Predictably, word about his being the child’s father spread like a virus from one end of Vashon to the other. His scandal became a sound on the lips of strangers. People talked about him like he had a tail. And just as predictably, many lay practitioners fell away from his temple. On the island, he became a pariah, an outcast. His protests that he was not the father fell on deaf ears. But two women he’d instructed in dharma did not abandon him. They were disappointed, yes, by how he had morally failed and fallen in the eyes of everyone, but they were young mothers themselves, knew what babies needed, and did not want to see the abbot’s child neglected in any way.

But the baby still had no name. His first impulse was to call her Bhara, which in Sanskrit means “burden.” But one of the women said she should be called Dana, meaning “gift,” and that name stuck.

is that so zen story 2
Illustration by Frederica Bordoni

During those first few days, then weeks, the baby was everywhere in his slowly dilapidating temple—pacifiers of plastic and rubber in the room once reserved for his sermons. A folding playpen and bottle warmers for her formula filled the small kitchen area. Wadded-up diapers with thick yellow poop piled up in the garbage pails. His sleep habits changed. He slept when she slept, and felt he could take something to eat only when he was certain she’d been properly fed. It didn’t help his morale one bit when he plunged into reading about ways to care for a baby and saw a study that said it takes $310,000 to raise a child to the age of 18. He fretted over how he would provide for Dana’s future. And how he could shield her from harm. He worried if she was quiet for too long, or if she cried and he couldn’t tell if it was because she was hungry, or wet, or tired, or gassy, or too hot or cold. At night, he slept close to her, listening for her sleeping breath as she sucked in her tiny teaspoon of air, and was instantly alert and for a moment alarmed if she suddenly turned, thumbing against her crib. Babies, the abbot quickly learned, were a test of patience and endurance like he’d never known before.

Donations at his temple dried up. The abbot was forced to take a job washing dishes at May’s Kitchen, a Thai restaurant on the island, and later a second job working behind the concession counter at Vashon Theater. Many nights, he wept over his destroyed standing in the island community. He wept, too, because he felt he was never doing enough for the baby’s well-being and happiness. But he had little time to think about himself, what he wanted or desired, because to care for a child he had to stop being a child himself. He kept Dana nearby wherever he worked: he never left her alone for long.  In a way, perhaps the Way, the baby became his teacher, his new spiritual practice. Another name for love, he began to realize in the depths of his despair, was attention. Before Dana was thrust upon him, he had learned how to practice meditating for hours with a ribbon of unbroken concentration and focus, as if his life depended on it. Now he deepened that focused samadhi because the fragile life of another did depend on it.

In that moment, he saw most clearly that she had given birth to him as a father and a mother.

For a caregiver, there was always something to do, like bathing her in lukewarm water, carefully trimming her nails, rocking her gently in his arms as she chirped with birdlike sounds of her own making, singing her lullabies, reading to her every night to help her fall asleep. Little by little, he came to see that caring required not just attention but also creativity, since no being like her had ever lived before or would exist again. Over time, her precious human birth became dearer to him than his own. For the abbot she became the background music ever in his mind. And then a miracle occurred in their first year together when he watched her gain the benchmark abilities to sit and stand, with (he saw) the entire world required to support her as she peered at the world with a beginner’s mind, which became his mind. When she stared at him, lifting her lips in a smile or trilled laughter, effervescent, bubbly, sparkling and bright, he felt they had become one, inseparable. In that moment, he saw most clearly that she had given birth to him as a father and a mother.

But then came a day that was bound to come.

As he was playing with the baby one rainy evening, the Nissan Armada pulled up in front of his temple that was in such great disrepair, for in the past year and a half he’d had no time or money for fixing things. Rain rattled on the temple’s roof. He barely heard the knock on his door. When he opened it, holding the baby, who was blissfully sucking on her right knuckle, he saw her grandparents, both looking quiet, subdued, and a little pained beneath the dripping umbrella the man was holding. They entered the temple’s foyer with short, tentative steps, bumping into each other, then bowed deeply at the waist.

“Roshi,” said the grandfather, “we are so very sorry. . . .”

The abbot asked, “For what?”

With her head tilted, and avoiding the abbot’s gaze, the grandmother said, “We told everyone you were the father of our daughter’s child. But she has now told us the truth. The father is one of her high school classmates. She wanted to protect him. But she can no longer live with this lie, and they are ready to raise their child.” Now her voice shook a little and slipped down an octave. “Roshi, we beg you for forgiveness. We will tell everyone the truth and give as much as we can to your temple.”

Only after a few seconds was the abbot able to say, “Is that so?”

They carried the child to their car. And so, things ended as they began, with the baby crying just as she had when she was brought to him, but hers were now tears of separation. This letting go and loss felt to the abbot like they were tearing away a part of him, leaving an emptiness at the center of his being, but also, he knew, it was a gift helping him to awaken to the necessity of a fuller, deeper, more perfectly realized broken heart.