How Have You Been, Master Ma?
Master Ma was unwell. The superintendent of the monastery asked him, “How have you been feeling lately?”
The Master replied, “Sun-Faced Buddha, Moon-Faced Buddha.”
~The Blue Cliff Record, Case 3
In coming weeks we will investigate issues of illness and death as a prelude a visit by Frank Ostaseski, founder of the Zen Hospice Project and the Metta Institute, to our Zen Luminaries series on Monday April 24. The above koan, which we beautifully read last Sunday, is one of the great cases of perhaps the greatest koan collection, The Blue Cliff Record.
Most often we examine this koan from the position of Mazu, who is nearing the end of his life. But in the past week, my place in the koan shifted to that of the superintendent, the well-wisher, the caregiver. It is I who asks the question: How have you been feeling lately, Master Ma?
A little over a week ago, a dear friend and teacher was admitted to the hospital with a severe gastro-intestinal ailment, while under Covid watch. I was not able to stay with him, help feed him, get him to the toilet, or read to him. Like the superintendent, my only act of service was to ask the question, “How have you been feeling lately?” Somehow, that seemed to be enough.
In his book, The Four Invitations, Frank Ostaseski relates a story of his very first hospice person in what became the Zen Hospice Project. Blaze, a sometimes displaced person who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, was given an empty room in the San Francisco Zen Center. Before she died, her wish was to see her brother; they had been abandoned as kids, growing up in orphanages and foster homes, and were estranged for 25 years. He had become a rodeo-circuit rider, she a street person. Travis showed up at Zen Center in his cowboy hat and silver belt buckle to visit his dying sister.
As youngsters, he had been physically abusive toward her, and for days wished to apologize, but could not find the words. After pouring his heart out to Frank, he went to her room. Realizing what was coming, Blaze stopped him, saying, “In this place, Travis, I have someone who feeds me. I have someone who bathes me. I am surrounded by love. There is no blame.”
Frank sees the story as one of forgiveness, but I see it also as a touching example of just being present with the one who is not well, with Master Ma. And that, in and of itself, is a full and complete gift, healing to both the one who is ill and to the one who is concerned.
In his book, Frank quotes Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., who examines the various attitudes and attachments of the caregiver. “Helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life,” she writes, ”When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be work of the ego, and service is the work of the soul.”
How have you been feeling lately, Master Ma?
I can’t leave without copying Xuedou’s appreciatory verse to the koan “Master Ma is Unwell.” It is my favorite in all the collection of the hundred cases:
Sun-Faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha
What kind of people were the ancient Emperors?
For twenty years I have suffered bitterly.
How many times have I gone down into the Blue Dragon’s cave for you?
This distress is worth recounting.
Clear-eyed patch-robed monks should not take it lightly.
Art: Sitting Buddha, by Mayumi Oda. See www.mayumioda.net