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Reclining Buddha

October 12, 2013

by Stephen Damon

She hadn’t moved or opened her eyes in several days and yet she seemed more fully alive than the rest of us.  From a medical point of view, she was unconscious, but from another point of view she was fully aware of everything. She seemed to be attending to not only her own situation but also to what was going on around her.  For example, when her daughters and friends were singing “Blowing in the Wind” she sang along every now and then. Each time she mouthed a word or two her daughters would point to her with a big smile.  Yes, her eyes were closed and her body was motionless, but she was not only listening to us but also able to respond.  How wonderful!

After spending a few hours with her I began to see that what others might describe as “unconscious” or “near death” was actually her resting more deeply than any of us could understand. To paraphrase St. Augustine, her heart was now resting in God.  Doing so, there was no need for her to move out of her bed or speak to her daughters.  Her presence, which filled the entire room, was emanating rest, stillness and peace.  Even if she could speak, I am sure that no words could better articulate “what she had to say” than the peaceful expression on her face.

In Zen, we often talk about the reality that is beyond the reach of language, but we often miss the fact that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to use words to describe that point.  Our mind is always trying to come up with words  that is really inexpressible. There are countless Zen stories to illustrate the point that truth is beyond letters.  And, while I had always suspected that was true, I now saw that it was true.  The peaceful expression on my friend’s face said more about the peace that “passes all understanding” than all the books I had read.

On one hand, I was serving her by holding her hand, cooling her forehead, massaging her feet, but on the other hand she was serving me by showing me things that I had never seen before. She was clearly in touch with what Suzuki Roshi called “things as it is” and she was showing that to me.  Making contact with the deepest part of her self, she emanated a deep love that you could physically feel.  In response to her love I filled with an immeasurable sense of compassion and love not only for her but for everything.  There was giving and receiving but they were indistinguishable. There was no me or her there was just love.

I told one of her daughters that her mother looked like the reclining Buddha in Ceylon.  Bringing that image to mind I was reminded of Thomas Merton’s description in his “Asian Journal” where he says that he had never seen such beauty and spiritual validity before.  He said that the statue was charged with dharmakaya, the inconceivable aspect of a Buddha, out of which Buddhas arise and to which they return after their dissolution.  Yes, that was it.  My friend had returned and she was showing us the way.



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