Feb 062013

Excerpt from the Afterword written by Shodo Harada Roshi, abbot of Sogenji, a Rinzai Zen temple in Okayama, Japan and head of the worldwide One Drop Zen Buddhist Community:

“Feeling that the day was somehow unusually pleasant, I moved to the porch to enjoy the fresh air, the wafting breeze—the breeze that came across the porch, blowing through the white heavenly bamboo flowers. What a great feeling breeze! An indescribably wonderful feeling came to me, and a thought arose. In this weak, sickness-stricken body, I was struck by the question, ‘What is this wonderful breeze?’

“And then a thought occurred to me—I was so deeply struck, as if I had been hit with an iron bar! ‘This breeze! It is air!’ While this body was so ridden with sickness I could barely sit up straight, I became riveted to the thought ‘This breeze is air; there is always air!’ Everyone had abandoned me, but there is air, which never has left me alone, not even for a single second. And not just me, but everyone is held like this. We cannot live only by our own bodies; we are all embraced and given life by a huge power.

“Usually when we think of air, it is only an idea about air. This most precious air, without which we cannot live for even one minute—it is so important and yet we take it for granted! All day and all night without any break whatsoever, whether we are working or resting or sleeping or waking, we may forget it, but air has never ever forgotten us!”

Realizing this so deeply and totally and seeing how true it was, he wanted to shout it to the skies. A new energy and motivation rose up in him. Without even thinking about it, the words came out of his mouth,

Oh Great All Embracing Mind!
A clear realization,
Brought to me by this morning’s cool wafting breeze.

This is the writing of my teacher, Mumon Yamada Roshi, when he told about his own experience. These are his words that I am here putting into my own words. My teacher almost died from tuberculosis. He was on death’s edge for a long time; for years he lived with this threat. Then in this life of sickness, he discovered a deep truth he expressed in these words.

People are born, and then they live their whole life facing death. How many people are truly full of joy? Most people are melancholy and face the end of their life thinking that it is the end of everything. But life is not something melancholy. We each have received and are always receiving grace from so many others in order to stay alive—it is immeasurable.

At Enso House, grace is delivered by those people who help take care of guests nearing the end of their life. A professional doctor and nurse are on duty twenty-four hours a day. What is important there is that the caregivers and those who are dying are connected by prayer.

Zazen is prayer, and while it is sometimes done by crossing the legs, zazen is not our body sitting—it is our mind sitting. We are letting everything go except today’s life, being it completely and not looking away from it—not speaking, not doing, but seeing that with which we are born, our pure true nature—this is zazen.

Feb 052013

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.

Feb 052013

Excerpt from the chapter, The Practice of Caregiving:

At Enso House, guests are cared for twenty-four hours a day. That means a core caregiver needs to be in the room or nearby, at least in a semi-awake state. I asked our fulltime volunteer nurse, MyoO, how she does it. “You have done many night shifts; how do you usually do it? Do you stay awake the whole night in a chair? What do you do?” She explained,

“It really depends on what the person needs. If it’s a night shift and I can trust that they will ring the bell, then I can sleep in my room. I turn on the monitor really loud, so I can really hear it. It’s not really deep sleep. You can listen somehow with one ear. I have to be very careful that I don’t get too tired, because if I get too tired, there is a higher risk that I won’t hear it.

“I think you really have to be careful that you get your sleep, so that you make the right decisions in the night; you do what needs to be done and don’t make compromises because you’re tired.

“If a patient needs more help, then you may need to sleep in the room—like if they have a catheter. We had a patient who was always pulling at the catheter. So we had to sleep in the room and really be careful because she could just pull it out. It really depends on what the patient needs.”

Feb 052013

Excerpt from the chapter, The Practice of Caregiving:

During a prescreening interview for Kay, a potential guest, Ann inquired about what things she liked to eat and drink. At this point, Kay was not eating any solid food; all she could swallow now was pureed fruit or vegetables. She mainly drank water. But Ann learned from close family member Allan, that in the past, Kay used to enjoy a glass of white Zinfandel or a Bloody Mary. A few days later, Kay came to stay at Enso House. It was a beautiful spring day, and birds were flitting about in the pasture grass. She settled into her new room overlooking the pasture. There was a bird feeder hanging just outside the window, swinging from side to side as birds jostled for the best feeding perch.

Leaving Kay’s room, Ann turned to Allan and asked, “How do you make a Bloody Mary?” She had already picked up a can of tomato juice and a bottle of vodka. Together they scrounged lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco in the kitchen. Ann had a sip and exclaimed, “Wow! This is really good. I like this!” So as Kay gazed out the window from her new bed, Ann said to her,

“We’re going to have lunch soon. Would you care for a Bloody Mary before lunch?”

Suddenly, Kay’s face relaxed completely. She smiled and nodded yes. Ann placed a small bottle of white Zinfandel on the bedside table for later.

Jul 272012

Excerpt from the chapter, Commitment, about “Chisan,” a Zen teacher intimately connected with the establishment of Enso House:

Priscilla Storandt (later “Chisan”) developed an interest in meditation at a young age. One day she was sitting very still in her room at home when her mother came in and said, “Priscilla! Stop that at once! You’re weirding me out!”

Despite her mother’s misgivings, Priscilla continued to explore the practice of meditation into her adult years. At the age of nineteen, she read a book about Zen and was intrigued by the connection between Zen and pottery in Japan. The connection felt like a mystery: how was meditation practice related to the stunningly beautiful Japanese tea bowls she had seen?

While in her mid-twenties, a plan began to take shape. She would go to Japan and learn all about oriental art and pottery—how to make vases, tea bowls, and tea ceremony water jars. Maybe she could also find a Zen master who would explain the connection between Zen and pottery. She figured it would take about two months, and then she would return to the States.

On her way to Japan, she stopped in Seattle, where a friend told her, “Go to Takayama. It was my favorite place in Japan.” It hadn’t occurred to her to establish some contacts in Japan before leaving. On her way to Takayama, she arrived in Kyoto, not knowing a single person and not speaking a word of Japanese.

At a bank in Kyoto, she tried to change some dollars into yen. Standing next to her was a Frenchman who spoke some Japanese and offered to help her. She knew more words in French than Japanese, and from their conversation, he figured that she must be a potter. He lit up when he learned that she was going to Takayama and said that he was on his way there too. In fact, he knew a potter there he could introduce her to.

The potter in Takayama had pottery students, and he also made teacups to sell to tourists. He thought he could use an assistant over the summer to help him make his production of one thousand teacups a week. He assumed that Priscilla was an experienced potter, so to confirm she had the skills he needed, he asked her to please make a teacup.

Undaunted, she fashioned something that looked more like a toilet bowl than something you would drink out of. Then he asked her to make a smaller teacup, and she produced a smaller toilet bowl. He must have been thinking, “Oh my god! There is no polite way out of this!” So he deferred to his father. His father studied Priscilla’s hands closely and grunted affirmatively.

Chisan remembers,

“That was the end of that. So for the rest of my time in Takayama, I was a pottery apprentice to this potter. He did teach me—bless his heart. I went through the winter and summer with no Japanese, and he spoke no English. I received ten thousand yen from him and a place to live. So it all worked out fine.”

Priscilla also sought out Zen in the town where she had landed. She found that there was a family temple there and a priest who sat zazen every morning. She started to go there and join the priest for meditation. But she wasn’t accustomed to the Japanese value of strict punctuality, so she would sometimes start work at 8:30, sometimes 9:00 or 9:30. When the priest learned of this, he gave Priscilla some fatherly advice.

“He said to me, ‘You can’t do two things at once. You either have to do pottery or zazen. Make your choice.’ But I was pretty sure I had to do two things at once. Doing zazen was more and more important to me. I really felt a deep conflict. I felt that in order to do pottery, I would have to do zazen. They were not separate. Pottery to me was my original meditation in action.”

Finally the priest suggested that she meet another Zen priest who spoke some English. She could meet him in Hokkaido, where he was going to open a new hondo, a Japanese hall of worship, at a Zen temple there. Priscilla would need to take leave from her apprentice job to attend the ceremony. Her pottery teacher assented and wished her the best.

She arrived at the temple in Hokkaido. In the hondo, there were long rows of Zen priests sitting on either side in dark robes. True to form, Priscilla was wearing a long skirt, a colorful bandana, and pigtails. The staid quality of a Japanese Zen temple met the bold energy of a young, exuberant American woman. Suddenly someone came up to her and said, “Take off your bandana.” They handed her a slip of paper and said, “Write your name on the paper and put it on the tray.”

At the far end of the hall, she saw a tiny man with a white beard perched on a huge cushion. He would have a major influence on her life. Before the ceremony started, Priscilla got the opportunity to ask her question about Zen and pottery. Even though the roshi was able to speak some English, he didn’t understand a word of what she was saying. So another person helped translate and explained how she had come to Japan to do pottery, but in order to do pottery, she wanted to do Zen. She felt that pottery was an expression of her Zen. Could he help her understand the connection?

He thought for a moment and then said, “Pottery—Zen: one path.”

At the dedication ceremony, Priscilla was in tears. She remembers,

“My life had just changed in every direction, and I couldn’t breathe. I had discovered what I had come to Japan for, but I didn’t know it would actually happen.”

After the ceremony she was introduced to the roshi: Yamada Mumon, head of the Myoshinji temple, the center of Rinzai Zen Buddhism in Japan, and president of Hanazono University.