Excerpt from the chapter, Guests as Teachers:
In September 2003 it had been two years since the dedication of Kannon Dojo, the home that became known as Enso House. A new 501(c)(3) nonprofit legal entity had been established. All of the necessary remodeling jobs had been completed. We had approval for an Adult Family Home in Washington State. We had a sufficient quantity of medical equipment, including motorized hospital beds, walkers, and wheelchairs. Our core caregivers, all volunteers, a physician, a nurse, and an assistant from the monastery were all on board. Now all we needed was our first patient, or “guest.”
Roshi was back on Whidbey Island leading the September sesshin of 2003, and there was a feeling of expectation in the air.
Jack lived at Possession Point, a promontory overlooking the waters of Puget Sound. Heavily forested with Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar on the southern tip of Whidbey Island, Possession Point affords a magnificent view of Mount Rainier. A road runs down to the beach, a narrow stretch of gravel covered with driftwood. A couple dozen homes are perched between the beach and a steep cliff behind them. They are linked together by a meandering pathway called Possession Beach Walk.
Before moving to Whidbey Island, Jack had lived a rich and varied life. He had been a professional musician in a symphony orchestra, an author, and an explorer, climbing mountains in Alaska and meditating in remote caves. Jack was not one to engage in small talk, and he didn’t socialize much in the community. He preferred to work alone and pursue his passion for writing poetry. He seemed to have boundless energy, doing odd jobs and mowing lawns. He hand-built a breakwater out of creosote logs he had salvaged on the beach.
Originally, Jack built himself a shack up among the trees on the edge of a cliff. It was only accessible by a series of ladders and ropes. One winter, heavy Northwest rains loosened the soil under the dwelling, causing the shack to slide down to the beach. Fortunately, he wasn’t inside at the time.
Then Jack built a new house from recycled materials at the far end of Possession Beach Walk, tucked up into the cliff, among the blackberry, vine maple, and red alder. He added a loft for his bed. A bookshelf on the wall served a dual purpose: it held his many books and served as a ladder to the loft.
Jack managed just fine without electricity or plumbing or running water. He kept to himself and didn’t say much. Then, Jack was diagnosed with lung cancer. A few of his friends came to his aid, but as Jack grew weaker, taking care of him became an increasingly challenging task.
Gaea is a registered nurse on Whidbey Island. As she spent time with Jack, she developed a fondness for him.
“He didn’t speak much at all. Just his presence—he would look you straight in the eye. It was like receiving darshan (blessing). In fact, he was a gentle soul. I learned to appreciate him. Oftentimes when getting to know someone, words get in the way. I felt like being with this person, who was just present and didn’t speak much, I was really able to get to know him.”
The day that Jack arrived at Enso House, I had a chance to meet him briefly myself. MyoO had pushed his wheelchair outdoors, where Jack could enjoy the vista of the pasture and the pond. Greeting him, I was immediately taken by his gaze. His penetrating eyes made me feel that it was pointless to hide anything from this man: it was impossible to put on any airs or feign any niceties. I simply thanked him for coming to Enso House.
One of the Enso House volunteers at the time was Kitty, an eighty-year-old woman who loved to keep birds. She had a cockatiel she was quite fond of, named Karuna, which is the Sanskrit name for “compassionate service.” Nicknamed “Runi,” the bird loved to sit on Kitty’s shoulder and go wherever Kitty went. But Kitty was serving as Tenzo (cook) for the September 2003 sesshin at Tahoma, and birds were not allowed in the kitchen, so Runi took to riding on MyoO’s shoulder at Enso House.
As Jack was lying in bed at Enso House, Runi hopped from MyoO’s shoulder onto Jack. The bird would sit on his toe or his shoulder or the top of his head. Jack felt quite comfortable with the bird on his body. As a child, he had kept birds and felt an affinity for them.
If any crumbs dropped into Jack’s beard, Runi would be there instantly to fetch a bite to eat. The bird was very insistent about staying with Jack—Runi really didn’t want to leave. MyoO and Ann were awestruck and impressed by the bird’s behavior. Others were taken aback.
Eventually, it was decided that it would be best for the bird to be put in a cage in the solarium, the big sunny space adjacent to Jack’s room. But the bird protested loudly and persistently. It sounded like Runi was going berserk.
Jack had a twelve-year-old female cat that he loved. Jack had worried about what was going to happen to her after he died. Gaea had promised him that she would make sure that his cat had a home, but now that he was out of his house, she really didn’t know what she was going to do with the cat. She knew of an animal communicator, a woman by the name of Jacqueline, who lived on Whidbey. Gaea called up Jacqueline and explained the situation. They arranged for Jacqueline to come over to meet the cat to see if she could find out where the cat would like to go after Jack died. But at the scheduled time, she didn’t show up—she had gotten lost. So she called and apologized, “Sorry; I couldn’t find the place. Can we do it on Monday?”
Before Gaea hung up the phone, she asked Jacqueline about Runi’s strange behavior. She explained, “We have this bird that just doesn’t want to leave him and complains loudly when we separate them.”
Jacqueline asked, “Well, what’s the bird’s name?”
“Karuna. We call him ‘“Runi.”
According to Gaea, animal communicators don’t need to be physically present with the animals in order to communicate with them.
When Runi was separated from Jack, he began squawking and carrying on, obviously upset. But as soon as Jacqueline started communicating with him, he suddenly became absolutely silent. Jacqueline described what she picked up as Runi’s thoughts. She said that Runi wanted Jack to focus on a point three feet above him and imagine spreading his arms like wings and taking flight, as if he were leaving his body.
Gaea asked, “Would you be willing to tell Jack this now?” She held the phone to Jack’s ear while Jacqueline talked to him. That was the day before Jack died.
Around ten o’clock that evening, as Gaea was about to leave, she said to Jack, “Well, I’m leaving. Remember the message from Runi that you’re supposed to focus on that point three feet above you and imagine taking flight.”
When she got a call from Ann early the next morning, she went directly over to Enso House. Gaea went into Jack’s room and was alone with him. She took his hand and said, “Okay, I’m here now.” Then the two of them breathed together. She reminded him to focus on the point and imagine himself taking wing. Then he consciously left his body.
Fortunately, an old friend of Jack’s offered to provide a home for his cat.