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Octogenarians, Intellect, and Buddhism

It was an extraordinary weekend. Joe, the father of my friend Kate (aka Pho Nguyen, the nun who is SuCo Dieu Thien’s student) was in town for his annual visit with his daughter, staying at the meditation center. He was freed momentarily from Kate’s mom, who stayed in Michigan because she won’t countenance her daughter’s Buddhism, and clearly he was feeling frisky. He called me early Sunday to say he’d been up since 4:30 and had about all he could take of Vietnamese ritual for one day, was walking to mass at the nearest Roman Catholic church, and hoped I would pick him up there and see what else we could do with the day. I love this guy. He’s 80, a medical doctor with a great sense of humor and a sharp mind, and he and I have had several meetings and fifty or so emails about Buddhism, his daughter, and SuCo Dieu Thien. I picked him up at the Catholic church and we went to the Unitarian Universalist church, to hear my friend John’s mother Mary talk about daring and unconventional women in the genealogy of Jesus to a group of non-Christian skeptics. Mary is approaching 80, is a graduate of the Univ of Chicago, and has the kind of articulate intelligence I usually only encounter in great books, so I wasn’t going to miss this! Naturally, Joe was gob-smacked by Mary, so several of us went out for a Tex-Mex lunch and watched Joe flatter and flirt with Mary, who parried his attentions with grace and a certain blushing pleasure. The intellectual play between them gave new meaning to gallantry. After that, I took Joe back to the meditation center, where SuCo was waiting for the two of us with a lesson that has left me walking a-tilt, considering once again that maybe she IS a teacher of great wisdom.

On the way to the Center I told Joe that I hang out with Unitarians because they THINK; I love working with prisoners because they THINK; and while thinking as a passtime seems to be in decline, I delight in it. And there are always books and films–the ones that make me THINK. He told me the story of his sister’s death, a few months ago. She had also been a great one for thinking and word-play, but a stroke had taken all her words away. Joe sensed that when he talked to her, she became depressed by her inability to talk back. So as he sat beside her on the hospital bed, it came to him to whistle. He gazed into her eyes and whistled, and she got it. There were no more words they needed to make. Just a whistle, taking them back to their childhoods and the truth beyond words. She started laughing, threw her one good arm and her seventy-nine pounds at him and held on fiercely, laughing till she cried, and then lapsed into the final coma. “She died laughing,” he said.

SuCo had set up a tea table for herself, Pho Nguyen, and the two wayward western rebels, Kendall and Joe. She served tea and asked us how our day had been. Joe leapt right in, full of energy and joy, regaling her with stories and words. “Do you see something in there?” she asked. Joe and I looked at each other, knowing a lesson was on its way and beginning, as we always do around SuCo, to feel slightly stupid. I can’t transcribe the whole lesson, that lasted over an hour, but I can say what I came away with.

I came away seeing that I delight myself with intellect, with mind-stretching, with words, and with stories. As Adrienne Rich says, our wounds come from the same source as our power. I see also that there is something beyond intellect, beyond words: the point Joe’s sister reached just before her death, when he met her with whistling. Laughter lives there. There is touch, like the touch of my cat on my lap as I sit at the computer. One of the many things mind does is create suffering: fear of things that have not happened, desire for things that may or may not come, memories and reflections, stories, grief over what (or who) is gone. I saw that when I am really IN the suffering of loss, grief, longing, or shame, I don’t want the suffering to continue, even though it links me with other people. When I TOUCH suffering, I do want to find an end of it–first for all people, and then, if I am deeply honest, for myself as well. Zen Buddhism in its many different cultural faces does encourage us to go beyond intellect, to reach into the moment and even beyond this moment into the eternal moment, of which this moment is only an apparent fragment. The fragmentation is an illusion that delights me like stained glass windows and quilts and “things of couple-color like a brinded [brindled] cow” (Hopkins). But there is something beyond delight. SuCo wants us to TOUCH that moment, not think it, not speak of it: to touch it, and keep touching it, and “know the root.” The concept of knowing the root is still not meaningful for me, but I have renewed respect for SuCo and her teaching.

Saturday, the day before all this happened, I stumbled across a report by an American Buddhist who studied for a while in Japan, and was troubled by the austerities and (needless?) abuses the monks discipline themselves to accept. This, too, troubles me. Artificial suffering. I see no need for that. Life gives us all we need of hell. But I do have great respect for the wisdom of that way. There is probably some “middle way” that takes us beyond the distraction (lovely though it may be) of words and intellect, and which, without rejecting those delights, delivers us laughing to the door of a whistle.

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