Image: Medicine Buddha, Maeyumi Oda
A monk asked Pai Chang, “What is the extraordinary affair?” Change replied, “Sitting alone on Great Hero Peak.”
~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 26
How extraordinary these times are. Social distancing. State of emergency. Executive order. Lockdown. Shelter in place. Only a couple of weeks ago, these words were as novel to us as this Corona Virus. But each day now, the stories coming from the emergency rooms in New York City, the old folks’ homes in Kirkland, Wa, and the makeshift morgues in New Orleans, seem to grow ever more horrible and desperate. It is a time when we terribly want to come together, yet we are being told to sit alone on Great Hero Peak. It can be hard to be alone.
This sacrifice of isolation, of course, is not to primarily to protect ourselves. Though growing rapidly, our individual odds of getting sick are still exceedingly small. But the body of our community is becoming gravely ill, and at an exponential rate. We are sitting alone on Great Hero Peak for that body: for nurses and doctors, at-risk seniors, our “gig economy” drivers and restaurant workers. As Bodhisattvas, we shelter in place to shelter all things.
Nor do we really sit alone. This very place ~ in the center of this vast world, surrounded and supported by the ten thousand things ~ is itself Great Hero Peak. Just as we shelter all things, we sit with all things on this wonderful mountain, and those things support us.
Even so, in this second week of sheltering, the novelty is wearing off and the feeling of an extended siege has begun to set in. Driving down our lane yesterday to pick up take-out food at our favorite Burmese-Chinese restaurant, people in ones and twos were out for a meandering walk. For a moment, I thought it the set of the zombie television show, The Walking Dead.
We got to the restaurant, and all tables and chairs in the narrow space were pushed and stacked against the wall, making a wider avenue for patrons to come in to pay and pickup. Waiting there inside, but at a distance, was a young mother with her three-year old daughter, who was wearing a soft kitten hat with ears. She clung to her mother and occasionally would glance at me under her cap and bangs. I smiled and waved with a crooked forefinger, but she did not respond. Her mother had to leave the girl for a couple of minutes to go 30 feet behind the makeshift desk to use Apple Pay, and left the girl on her own. It almost bought tears to my eyes to see the mother tell the little girl to stay put, that she would be back in a moment, and that the child would be safe. For a second, those few yards between the mother and her anxious toddler seemed like a vast chasm.
So, this life, lived on the peak of Great Hero Mountain, is an extraordinary affair. It is wonderful to isolate for others, to know we are never alone, and also to be a bit sad when we feel that we are.