In the following story, some of the details have been changed. As the author writes in the introduction of his book, Single White Monk, “This book is a collision of journal entries, reportage, creative misremembering, and fictional devices including compressed and invented events and characters. (I rarely use real names excerpt for pets.) I call this genre personal mythology. The stories told are not a record of objective reality. They are the fever dream of a man wrestling with his memory, his teacher, his lovers, his peers, and himself. Let’s just say the whole book was inspired by a true story—as if there were such a thing.”
In my first memory of Daishin, he is on his knees, tucking the top kimono part of my disheveled student robes into the bottom hakama part. He looks up at me from under vintage wire-rim glasses. His warm blue eyes are a good place for your own eyes to land when you’re anxiously glancing to and fro.
It is my first weeklong dai-sesshin [intensive meditation] retreat. I’ve been minding my own mind on the cushion for five days, but now I have a job. He has just given me detailed instructions on how to serve a Zen meal—a formal affair with bells and clappers and chanting that is only slightly less choreographed than a Broadway musical. He is fit, vibrant, 60 going on 30, and speaks with a trace of a lisp, like an extremely intelligent child.
“Zen practice is strict, but the great thing about it is that even if your life is falling apart and you’re a total mess inside, at least your robes are on straight.” He rolls his shoulders back. He does this a lot. Such gestures are both rhythmic and compulsive, like he’s taught his tics to dance. “A formal meal isn’t a performance. It’s a practice. Zen is a practice that you teach yourself.” He hands me the bronze gong to ring the zendo down for breakfast. “If you get lost during the meal, I’ll be right here.” He points to the table at the far end of the dining hall.
I am looking at that table now. It’s a decade later. The dining hall is empty. Daishin is speaking to me through the phone. He’s just given me the diagnosis. If it were up to me, cancer would target assholes, and the cure would be: stop being an asshole. But cancer does not have human logic. It does not have a human heart. Six months later I rent a 30-foot RV and set out for Daishin’s deathbed with Roshi [my teacher] and Lizzie [another student]. The trip is complicated by the fact that Roshi is dying too, slowly, of old age. He is like the sun setting. Still luminous, but there’s less and less of him on our side. The trip is his idea, but can he make it?
Not long ago, cancer came for Lucy, our temple cat—ate her from the inside out. The vet put her down one morning, which seemed like a strange time to die, as everyone was going to work, and the sun was shining, and the birds were chirping and landing on the windowsill.
I’ve lost pets, friends, family, and more than a few illusions this past year. Some days, I feel haunted by the ghosts of grief, which take the form of anger, resentment, despair—the howling banshees of the inner life. We so desperately want to find something to hold on to, but everything changes, everything dies, and so we grasp after absences, we hurl our hearts into the vacuum where the things that we have loved and lost used to be. One thing I’ve learned is that grief only ends when we can let go of the idea that there is something outside of us that can make us whole, and that that something is now gone.
“Oh no!” Lizzie shouts
I pull the RV off the 10 Freeway into the parking lot of a community college. It is empty but lit like a football stadium. This is helpful, for I am looking into Roshi’s stomach through a dark slit where his rubber feeding tube has popped out.
“It must have happened when we moved him from his room to the RV,” Lizzie says. A tall, Japanese-speaking Southerner, Lizzie moves quickly and clearly through life, and expects the same from others. Her eyes are steady and bright this evening, but her spiky brown hair cannot decide which direction it wants to go in.
After Roshi’s brutal struggle with aspiration pneumonia, the doctors told us that he would be dead within a week. The G-tube was supposed to be a temporary measure to give him nutrition before his imminent passing. That was two and a half years ago. The G-tube is now gnarled and flesh-brown from multiple feedings, extending from a hole in his side like a rubber umbilical cord. Roshi is a fighter. He is making death take its time.
We do a U-turn, drive back to LA, and park in the street outside our temple. It’s midnight. Lizzie retrieves a new G-tube from Roshi’s apartment and, with the steady hands of a Civil War surgeon on the battlefield, pops it into his stomach with a fleshy slurp. My job is to look on and nearly faint.
We sleep in the RV. A flock of wild parrots wakes us at dawn. We tell Roshi that the trip is over. We are worried that it will kill him.
“Don’t give up,” he says.
“Arizona is hot, OK? And it’s far away. If the heat doesn’t kill him he’s going to keel over and die from exhaustion,” I tell Lizzie.
She studies Roshi, who is lying motionlessly on the couch. His fulltime caregiver for seven years, she is the “Roshi whisperer,” and one very good reason that he has lived to be 107 years old.
“He wants to go,” she says.
I knew she was going to say that.
We complete the seven-hour drive by 6:00 p.m. and arrive on Daishin’s doorstep wired and smelling of cold-pressed coffee. Faith, Daishin’s wife, reaches up and hugs me with her thin arms. A small crowd is gathered in the living room of this tightly appointed adobe home. Daishin sits on the couch, wearing a hakama skirt and a linen shirt. His legs are up on a table. None of his pants fit anymore. His calves are as bulbous as Popeye’s forearms. His collarbone protrudes nakedly, like rebar. He looks like a skeleton from the waist up and a sumo wrestler from the waist down. My eyes travel up the sharp lines of his ravaged upper body. The higher I go the worse it gets, until I arrive at his face. There is more death in it than Daishin.
I hug him—his hard skeleton. I am smiling like someone who has been punched in the gut. I despise myself for not knowing what to say. He doesn’t stop me when I put my hand on his swollen thigh. I stroke a small, safe patch of it that I’ve staked out as my area of responsibility. I stroke and stroke, and I’m crying in my throat.
There is a lot of hullaballoo around Roshi, who is nearly unconscious with fatigue.
Several of Daishin’s students are creating a makeshift bed for him out of tables, cushions, a spare mattress.
“We are here because Roshi said ‘Don’t give up,’” Lizzie, Roshi’s PR person, announces.
“See,” shouts a young bald man, fluffing a pillow. “Don’t give up!”
The student is referring to a last-ditch lifesaving treatment that is being whispered about. However, deep within Daishin’s warm blue eyes there is clarity and understanding. He gives me those eyes for a second. We always had an unspoken understanding, two soft and anxious men struggling to teach ourselves Zen—the art of knowing when to hold tight and when to let go. I can read his mind: I am not fighting for my life anymore. I am struggling to let go of it.
Roshi sleeps for 24 hours straight. We are trying to keep him alive; we are trying to help Daishin die. It is a little confusing. At one point we put the two of them in bed together. The sun is rising in that merciless way that it has after you’ve been up all night. Daishin’s cat curls up between them. “Is this a Kodak moment?” Faith asks.
Later, I sit down before a bowl of oatmeal. Daishin breathes heavily on the couch in the corner of my eye. I try to eat invisibly. My fear is that he wants me to go back to LA, but he’s too kind to ask. People’s character traits are amplified on their deathbed, and Daishin’s instinct is to give. The last thing I want to do is prevail upon him with my presence when he needs all his energy just to breathe.
He whispers. I rush to his side. Oxygen hisses from a cannula into his nostrils. His eyes keep rolling around in his head. His voice trails off into non-sequiturs.
“I can’t talk,” he finally rasps.
“That’s a first,” I say.
He smiles with his eyes closed. “Let’s watch TV.”
And this is where the afternoon gets weird. First of all, he is flipping through the stations when a commercial comes on from an ambulance-chasing law firm: “If you have mesothelioma, join us in a class-action lawsuit!” It’s kind of a moment, because mesothelioma is the cancer that Daishin is dying from.
Yes! I think. Let’s sue somebody!
“Ugh,” he says, and changes the channel.
He stops on the David Lynch art-house film The Elephant Man. It is so depressing that it makes me feel as though I am also dying of cancer. Daishin is transfixed. Gradually the movie takes hold of me. Every half hour I help Daishin walk across the stone floor and back, for a little exercise, but our eyes never leave the TV.
The film is based on the life of Joseph Merrick, a saintly but deformed Victorian-era Englishman played with sweet sophistication by John Hurt. As I massage Daishin’s swollen feet I can’t help but notice that he, like the Elephant Man, is trapped in a monstrous body. I am in a heightened state of viewing. Every image enters me like a divine vision. When you’re dying, or with the dying, you need art, not bullshit. Real art is not about how hopeless things are, it’s about what human beings do in the face of all that hopelessness.
I have seen this movie before. In college I even acted in The Elephant Man stage play—furthermore, I was in the final climactic scene. Yet my mind refuses to remember how this damn story ends.
Over the Elephant Man’s hospital bed there hangs a picture of a child sleeping softly. If the Elephant Man lies down like the boy in that picture he will suffocate to death due to his massively deformed skull. Yet, fully lying down is his dream; it signals the peace and normalcy that has always eluded him. After a particularly spectacular evening that includes his receiving a standing ovation at the London opera, the Elephant Man stands alone in his hospital room and gazes at the picture of the sleeping child. Then he studies a photo of his beloved deceased mother at his bedside.
Then he lies down fully in his bed.
And here the film dissolves into a surreal Lynchian sequence. Stars float past us. The haunting violins of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings build. The disembodied voice of the Elephant Man’s mother whispers over the appearance of her spectral image in the cosmic backdrop.
“Never never, nothing will die.
The stream flows, the wind blows . . . the heart beats . . . ”
An eclipsed sun appears, along with dark clouds, which are sucked backward into the mother’s image.
“Nothing will die.”
That night I lay awake on a bed of zabutan cushions in the zendo behind the house. The final words of the movie play on an endless loop in my head as images of Daishin’s and the Elephant Man’s swollen limbs merge and become indistinguishable.
Nothing will die.
Is it true? I try to picture my own death. I wonder if I should donate to a sperm bank to keep my bloodline going. It is an appealing thought, turning my most embarrassing habit into my most enduring legacy. Try as I might, though, I cannot sustain any coherent thought regarding my own inevitable ultimate absence. It is one of life’s ironies that the greatest truth about the human condition is also the hardest to imagine.
“I don’t know why this is happening to me,” Daishin told me that afternoon. “I’m just really sad I won’t be able to practice with you anymore. When I’m gone, that also means you’ll be gone to me.”
That’s when I lost it.
“It’s OK,” he said, patting my hand, “I’m tired of struggling with my demons.”
The first time we roomed together at the monastery, he said, “Sometimes you may find me a little difficult to work with. I have some problems.” Then he dumped out his entire suitcase, spread his tube socks and toiletries and Vanity Fair magazines across the floor, and spent the next hour rearranging them on the carpet according to some private pattern that only he understood. Later that night, he showed no sign of embarrassment when I caught him alone in the washroom, talking to the mirror.
“Sometimes I talk to myself,” he said. Then he went back to flossing his teeth.
It was one of the many moments where I fell in love with him all over again. Daishin never pretended that he had his shit together. He taught me that you cannot be something other than yourself, no matter how enlightened you pretend to be, and so you must manifest yourself fully, each and every moment; you must bring all your subterranean selves, all your thoughts and feelings, no matter how grim and unbearable, to the surface, and to completion—dissolving them through your connection to the world around you so that a new pure self, and a new world along with it, can arise the next instant.
Now, on his deathbed, Daishin is bringing his life, his very self itself, to completion. I cannot emphasize enough just how exhausting it is trying to help him die. The job gets harder and harder the closer he gets. You want to save him, but this is not about what you want. You have to help him let go, which means you have to let go too, over and over.
I am on a surrender bender.
The zendo door swings open at 6 a.m. I make out Faith’s outline in the rising sun. “He told me to call hospice. They’ll be here by two this afternoon.”
Death moves quickly, through the shadows, like a predator in the night. It is there, then it is not . . . then suddenly you’re staring into its eyes. Within the hour Daishin is palpably weaker. Faith, so thin, so light, cannot lift him by herself anymore. Suddenly I am essential to this operation. And what an operation it is. Daishin has turned the seemingly straightforward act of dying into one of his usual complicated procedures, with his special rules and rituals and slightly nonsensical ways of doing things.
He’s doing this thing where he says “One . . . two . . . three!” at which point Faith and I are supposed to pull him to his feet so that he can—what? Get some exercise? On his deathbed? The problem is, he counts off “One . . . two . . . three . . .” and then he does not move. Instead he keeps on counting: “four . . . five . . . six . . . ” and then suddenly tries to get up at a random number of his choosing.
“Tailbone,” he says, when he finally stands.
Of his many pains, the one just above his butt is the worst. He is emaciated and his tailbone is jutting out like a large marble—sitting on it is torture. The cure for this is apparently a spanking.
“Go ahead,” he says.
I sort of shiatsu the aching protrusion.
“Ahhhhh,” he says, shaking his tail feathers.
“Every room he walks into automatically becomes a better place,” I tell Faith. She laughs: “I think so. But he drives some people crazy!”
Now it’s time for his hourly constitutional. He has this all worked out. Faith stands in front of him, facing forward. He puts his hands on her shoulders. I stand behind him. “Brace me,” he says. I put my hands on his hip bones. He lifts one 20-pound foot. Puts it down. Lifts the other. Puts it down. We are like a very slow-moving conga line.
It takes us 10 minutes to walk a few feet and back. He collapses on the couch and puts his lips to a water bottle but does not suck. I realize that he is, through repetition and ritual, turning his death into a spiritual exercise, albeit a torturous one.
“Do you want a spike?” Faith asks.
“I’ll have a spike,” he gasps.
Faith hands him a painkiller and makes a mark in a notebook. I sit down and close my eyes beside him on the couch. I keep having these random memories. This time I’m facing him on the stone steps outside the monastery office. I’m so angry I can almost taste it in my mouth. I scream at him because I do not know what else to do and because he will take it—I blame his whole generation of oshos, or Zen priests, for the problems we are facing in our community, problems that have nothing to do with him, and he nods and never flinches or breaks eye contact, and later, when I return to my cabin, I discover that he has gone down the hill during his hour break and bought me a coffee and an oatmeal scone and put it on my desk, and when I see him again he apologizes because he knows I probably wanted a blueberry muffin instead.
“Scones are my thing, I know you have more of a sweet tooth. I can go back down . . . ”
I want thank him now for that scone. You’re not the only one with demons, I want to say. Thank you for helping me exorcise mine.
Lizzie shouts from the bedroom: “Coming!”
She wheels Roshi into the living room. He’s lost too much weight this past year. He looks like a miniature version of himself, his features distinct but diminished, like the branches of a bonsai tree. He has become a highly specialized human being; he’s almost not there, and yet he’s completely present. Lizzie rolls his wheelchair next to the couch. His eyes are shut and he’s slumped forward. The trip has nearly killed him.
“Ohayo Gozaimasu!” I shout in his good ear. “Good morning Roshi!”
He opens his mouth and shuts it.
I whisper, “We have to be careful when hospice comes or they might walk off with the wrong guy.”
Lizzie cuts me in two with one glance.
Fuck, that was inappropriate. Fuck, I’m tired. Being mean is a defense mechanism, my way of swimming away from the escalating undertow of Death in this house.
Roshi and Daishin are separated by Daishin’s bare feet, which are propped up on a footstool between the two of them. Roshi’s eyes pop open and these feet are the first thing he sees—inches from his face, as enormous as a pair of astronaut’s boots. In Japanese culture it is a great insult to show the master the bottoms of your feet. Roshi studies them with that new expression of his (every time he nearly dies, as he nearly did two-and-a-half years ago, he comes back with a new expression), which is like a baby lying in a crib, staring up at a glittering mobile.
Daishin points to his feet: “Not so delicate.”
Roshi nods. His eyes remain alert and alive, and they are the focus of the room. He reaches out and takes each of Daishin’s feet in his hands. I don’t know why he does this, but it is perfect. They stay like this, connected through Daishin’s feet, for 10 minutes, then 20, and then for I don’t know how long. Daishin is in a kind of connection coma. Roshi’s eyes are shut and his chin is tilted down. The flesh of his face sags, as though it might slip right off his skull. It’s all they can do to sit before the big picture window, with the sun shining off their bald heads, and say goodbye.
Daishin is gazing at Roshi. The harder death crushes down on him, the shinier his eyes become, like two coal pieces being pressed into diamonds.
“What a teacher,” he says.
The image of him gazing at our teacher will stay with me until my own death. But it is not my last memory of Daishin. This comes next, and it dovetails perfectly with my first memory of him.
I am filling my water bottle in the kitchen when I hear a loud banging on the front door. I rush into the living room and see a transport van in the driveway through the window. Faith opens the front door. Two goofy grim reapers from hospice walk in. Biff and Sparky are loud and their shirts are too small for their barrel chests. They don’t take off their shoes. They act as though they’re here to pick up a broken refrigerator. Faith takes a clipboard and signs some papers. It’s all happening so fast. Biff and Sparky position the clattering hospice gurney beside the couch and lunge for Daishin.
“Hold on!” I shout, “Come on now.”
Faith and Lizzie and I help Daishin to his feet. We sit him down on the gurney. I go on my knees before him, as he once went on his knees before me, to fix my robes, and with what I hope is the same gentleness I lift his legs and pivot his torso and lay him across the gurney. Maybe there is some possessiveness in my gesture. People behave strangely around the dying. They want to be the ones who matter.
Roshi is sitting in his chair across the room. He is made out of electricity. Daishin is distilled down to his very essence, pure consciousness with just enough juice left over to keep his heart pumping. They are locked onto each other. Biff and Sparky go on either side of Daishin and take the gurney handles and begin to wheel him toward the door. Daishin folds his hands in the gassho prayer mudra, his eyes staying on our teacher, and then fanning out across the room, touching all of us.
Lizzie bursts into tears. She begins wailing, almost screaming. Daishin tilts his head a little to one side, as though he doesn’t quite understand.
“You can come see me in the hospital. OK?”
And this is my final memory of Daishin: his hands in gassho as he is wheeled backward through the front door. Those warm blue eyes never leaving us.
He dies two days later.
A memorial service is scheduled at our LA temple. I few days beforehand, I ask Faith to give a eulogy. I ask an old Zen priest. I ask one of Daishin’s friends. They all decline: if they have to get up there and talk about him, they will start crying. And so the task falls to me.
I’m pretty sure I won’t cry. There is a part of me that wants to throw this life away simply because I do not understand death and all that comes with it—the pain, futility, sadness. It is a constant struggle, especially as I grow older and death grows nearer; it gets harder and harder to find reasons to go on living. I want to give up. I want to stop trying. I want to take a nap—for 300 years. But every time I close my eyes, I see Daishin.
Once, I shouted at him from my bunk bed that the only way I was getting up that morning was to go to the medicine cabinet and swallow a whole bottle of aspirin. He laughed at me from under his glasses and rolled his shoulders back.
On those difficult days, when he could not operate at full capacity as a human being, rather than give up and backslide into depression or sloth, Daishin would tell himself, “Just maintain,” over and over. “Don’t give up, just maintain.”
He taught me the difference between giving up and letting go, between despair and surrender. I have to let go of the anger I feel about Daishin’s death, but I cannot give up on the whole human condition, cannot write it off as an ugly and stupid little experiment enacted by a cruel and indifferent universe. I must give death its due. Here’s the key to grieving properly: you must completely die with the deceased and be reborn without him. If you can’t do this, you will be haunted forever by the ghosts of grief.
We the living tend to privilege the values of life: strength, courage, youth, victory, expansion. But these values don’t occur in a vacuum. Death is an equal if opposite activity, working in tandem with life. It is the vessel through which life flows, the space into which it grows—until the growing is over. Then the tables are turned and life upholds and nurtures death, until death is complete, giving way to the birth of something new. Death has its own values, which are often alien and frightful to the living: weakness, closure, darkness, surrender, contraction. Zen practice is about learning to accept the activity of death in the midst of life, so that ultimately we can manifest the values of both life and death with total freedom.
Daishin knew this. He told me, “I’m ready for death.” But death comes when it is ready, not when you are ready. What I saw during Daishin’s last days was a monk struggling to welcome his own demise. True surrender means that you let something happen to you on its terms, not your own.
The night before the memorial service I sit in the zendo at our LA temple, where Daishin practiced the art of dying and being reborn on the cushion for so many years. I realize that in his final days he gifted me with a vision of the ultimate practice: total surrender to the dying activity. Such is the crux of the eulogy I carefully craft and memorize.
Before he died, Faith told Daishin, “I’ll miss you,” and he said, “You’ll feel me in the spaces between things.” The morning of his memorial service it is as though he is speaking to me from the spaces between things. Mourners arrive, and I feel none of their sorrow. When the time comes, I stand before 80 people at the head of our zendo. I close my eyes, as I always do when I speak before crowds
And then I can’t speak.
I have this image in my head—Daishin sitting beside me on the couch as we watch
Elephant Man together.
Never, never, nothing will die.
The stream flows, the wind blows . . . the heart beats . . .
I stand up there for a whole minute without saying anything.
It does not feel right to try and hold my shit together at Daishin’s funeral, and so I let go. For a good three minutes. These are not loud sobs, just obvious ones, and they won’t stop. I bite my lip until I can taste blood, but this only works if you’re trying not to laugh. Nothing works if you’re trying not to cry.
Finally the words come. And I tell everyone the story I just told you.
From Single White Monk by Shozan Jack Haubner © 2017 by Shozan Jack Haubner. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.