We cycle through heavens and hells
because we keep setting out
on the dark roads of ignorance~
dark road after dark road,
when will we be free from birth and death?
~ Hakuin Ekaku, Song in Praise of Meditation
This past week we held a Pacific Zen retreat at Mt Madonna Center, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which has at its heart a Hindu temple. The theme of the retreat was the writings of the famous Japanese Zen master Hakuin Ekaku (d. 1769), and a clear thread of the talks and discussions was of demons, a favorite of Hakuin’s. Perhaps synchronistically , last night the Hindu temple was celebrating the festival of Dussehra, which marks Lord Rama’s victory over the demon-king Ravana, who kidnapped Rama’s wife, Sita. The community shot arrows, then pulled down and burned parts of a massive and artfully constructed effigy of Ravana.
In the weeks before the retreat, certain demons returned to my life in a dream of my father, which I gave a talk about. Buck was a tough guy: an elite Marine parachutist in World War II and a hard-charging, and harder-drinking news cameraman in the Hunter’s Point, Berkeley and Oakland riots of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He was charming to strangers, but could be hell for his family. To his credit, he quit the booze late in life, but he still often simmered with anger and resentment. The last couple years of his life were especially hard for him, and he was sometimes abusive to his caregivers and family. With emotional and physical demons pressing on him, he passed nine years ago all alone, in sharp contrast to my mother, who one week later died with all her six children around her.
A year, or so, after he died, Buck visited my dreams. I saw him from a bird’s eye view, aimlessly wandering around a park, lost and confused. But time passed, and two years ago, while napping in the car as I visited East Coast colleges with our two girls, both he and my mother appeared in portrait, in that place between waking and sleeping. Smiling, they seemed to want to reassure me that my girls would be alright as they transitioned to adulthood. And then, just before this week’s retreat, in a dream, Buck was driving me in a car to let me off at the closest highway on-ramp so I could hitchhike from the East Bay to a retreat at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. He was being kind.
As his death approached, I had always wished for some softening and epiphany between myself and my father. It never came. But for me, the healing process began when I gifted Buck the freedom of choice to be as big an asshole (a favorite word of his) as he wished. And that gifting released my demons of disappointment, anger, and fear. My dream of him showed me that the healing process ~ for me, and hopefully for him ~ can continue on even after death. I trust his dark road is lighting up as he travels through his own heavens and hells. I know mine is.