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Where Do We Go?

August 10, 2013

by Stephen Damon

Every now and then we each have a day that is so out of the ordinary we know we won’t have another one just like that.  I had such a day on Wednesday while I was volunteering at the Zen Guest House.  Of course, each time I arrive at the Guest House I am aware that I am stepping closer to the Great Unknown that surrounds but often goes unnoticed.  But Wednesday felt different to me.

I have to start my story by saying that although my shift begins at 1 p.m. I got it into my head that it started at noon.  So I rushed through as many chores as I could, not knowing why I didn’t seem to have enough time to accomplish what I needed to do.  When I got to the Guest House at noon, I was surprised that my shift mate had not arrived yet.  So I went upstairs to visit a resident that I had bonded with a few days earlier and who had  a stroke the day before.

When I got into his room I was comforted to see his daughter sitting in the overstuffed chair to the side, but I was concerned by his sporadic breathing.  From my limited experience at the bed side of the dying I knew that my friend was getting very close. He was awake, but could hardly talk so we held hands in silence.  I felt good that when I squeezed his hand, he would squeeze mine.  But he was struggling for air and occasionally would struggle to say a word or two.  During this time I continued a conversation with his daughter that we had started a few days before. We took turns holding his hand and putting our hands through his matted hair as he slowly descended into a nothingness that I could not imagine.

He died very peacefully just a couple of minutes after 1, the time I would have arrived at the Guest House.  When I looked at my watch I felt that for a reason I really couldn’t comprehend I was meant to be there for my friend.  I wondered if my mistaking the time was just a coincidence or synchronicity.  I should say that this wasn’t an intellectual question.  It came from my gut.  It saturated every cell of my being and has stayed with me ever since.

After his daughter and son left the room I took a chair beside his bed and sat two periods of zazen, trying to take in the magnitude of what had just happened.  After I finished I got up and bowed and leaned over to kiss him.  And then another question appeared: Where did he go!  I remembered asking my mother that question when my great-grandmother died.  I don’t remember her response,  but I do know that question has stayed with me throughout my life.

This unanswerable question was my “don’t know mind!”  Now of course, I have studied and practiced this Zen precept for many years, but to be honest I have to admit that even when I told myself I was practicing this state of mind that Suzuki Roshi called, “Beginner’s Mind,” I never really felt like a beginner.  After all, I had learned a lot of stuff in school and in my practice.  But on Wednesday I felt how impossibly unknown the question was.  And I felt free and alive!

On the way home I remembered my friend and I enjoying the sayings of Yogi Berra a few days before.  We had found a website that seemed to have nearly everything he had ever said.  I remembered our laughing about one in particular: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.  And I wondered if it was over for my friend or if it never really is over.  I don’t know.



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