84,000 Gates to the Dharma

 And mine is best.

What a waste!

Do your practice. Enjoy your life

And let the world

Argue and discuss itself

To death.

—Rick Fields, 9/13/98

Rick Fields was fifty-seven years old when he died on Sunday, June 6, and had occupied a preeminent position in the unfolding of dharma in the West for almost twenty years. After being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 1995, Fields chose to battle his illness, maintaining to the end that “Death is not the enemy. Cancer is the enemy.” He died mid-day at home in Fairfax, California, lying beside his wife, Marcia Cohen Fields. He is also survived by his parents, Al and Reva Fields, and his sisters, JoAnna Bogin and Laura Jawitz.

Photo by Marcia Cohen Fields.

As a writer, a wandering bard, and an editor, a journalist, chronicler, charmer, champion of the underdog, adventuresome dharma bum, and superb raconteur, Fields played the role of witness and messenger to a fledgling Buddhist scene. His own practice began with Zen, but primarily he studied Tibetan Buddhism with the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and with the Himalayan Nyingma master Chatral Rinpoche.

With perfect pitch, his insights, research, and Harvard-trained discipline came together in his book How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in the United States, first published by Shambhala in 1981. Swans begins with West Coast Chinese immigrants and East Coast Transcendentalists, then follows the subterranean currents that led to the Beat Zen of the fifties and later the psychedelic counterculture dharma of the sixties; it ends with the establishment of Buddhist practice communities.

Swans will remain the definitive classic for this subject, but for the new Buddhists, Swans was more than a history. It was our history. It was a story told to those practitioners who had rushed to embrace the dharma without knowing our elders—not the ones in Asia but the ones who had mined Gold Mountain, who had lived in Concord and Berkeley, those educated in Oregon, incarcerated in Wyoming, born in New Jersey. With Swans, Fields expanded a present moment in ways that both mirrored and contributed to the depth and breadth of Buddhist activity in this country. He strung the little movie frames together to bring us a history of our time and made the byways of Buddhism more accessible to new seekers.

Photo by Nancy Cohen.
Photo by Nancy Cohen.

In the 1970s Fields was involved in experimental Buddhist publications including Loka and Zero. Following the publication of How the Swans Came to the Lake, he returned to Boulder to be near Trungpa Rinpoche and to edit the community newspaper, The Vajradhatu Sun (now Shambhala Sun). Subsequently he was instrumental in starting Tricycle and was the editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal. In addition, he was the author of The Code of the Warrior; co-translator of The Turquoise Bee: Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama; co-author of Instructions to the Cook; Chop Wood, Carry Water; Taking Refuge in L.A.; and editor of The Awakened Warrior. In 1997 he published a chapbook called Fuck You, Cancer & Other Poems.

With wondrous generosity, Rick and Marcia Fields created a zone in which Rick’s illness, his cancer, and his dying could be discussed, confronted, railed against, or joked about with a bravery so raw in its truth, and so unprotected by sentimentality, that the atmosphere around them increasingly inspired people to live more fully in the light of Rick’s dying.

I saw Rick at his house the Thursday before he died. His skin was sallow and buttery soft, his eyes luminescent. With scratchy, slurred words, he explained that he was feeling whoosy. Two other friends were visiting; one was massaging his feet. Then came a moment when we were alone. In a clear voice suddenly delivered of static, he spoke of the interview that we had done for Tricycle in 1997. “Do you remember when you said to me,” recalled Rick, “you’re dying and I’m dying. And you have cancer and I don’t. Is there a difference?” Then he continued, trying once more in this lifetime, to help me get it right: “Well, one way of understanding that difference, is that I’m in the bardo of dying and you’re not.”

A few months earlier Rick had written The Bardo of Dying in his journal, inspired by the bardo teachings in Sogyal Rinpoche’s book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. The bardo of dying begins when you are diagnosed with an incurable illness. Rick had come across these same teachings many times, but he wrote that this time they “clearly revealed where I am, where I live in the cycle of existence – the endless wheel of life and death. . . . To realize this replaces ignorance with knowledge, perhaps even wisdom, or its beginning at least. Ah, this is where I am.” He wrote of the companionship of those who inhabit the same bardo, and of how others of us “live in different bardos, move perhaps at different speeds, perceive, think, feel perhaps at different frequencies.” Then he wrote that these teachings addressed “one of the most paradoxical aspects of this journey: I’ve never felt more prepared for death as now; simultaneously, I’ve never felt such passion and yes—thirst and hunger—and yes—joy for living as now.”

Photo by Mary Goodell.
Photo by Mary Goodell.

Following his last breath, Rick’s body was not touched or moved for three days, which according to Buddhist understanding is the time it generally takes for consciousness to separate from the physical body. Friends and neighbors came to sit with him in his room, each embraced by the grace of his passage.

Sharing his dying and his death was Rick’s last gift. With the warrior spirit that he embodied all his life, Rick has shown us that growing into one’s death is to expand the parameters of life and of love; he has shown us that intense practice does make a difference, and that accepting one’s death can release a new-felt tenderness, and immeasurable dignity.

For many people, including myself, Rick’s death brings enormous personal loss and an unspeakable sadness. Yet his contributions – both public and private – have a lasting life of their own. In Swans, Rick, master navigator, mapped out a big piece of historical territory; then, at the end, undertaking another kind of journey, he emerged again with so much to offer that the lessons left in his wake will continue to inform the way we live and the way we die.