Yunmen said, “You come and go by daylight, you make people out by daylight. But suddenly it’s midnight and there’s no sun, no moon, no lamp. If it’s a place you’ve been to, then of course it might be possible, but if it’s a place you’ve never been, how will you get hold of something?

~ Blue Cliff Record, Case 86 commentary

When we think of Zen, we usually think of a kind of self-help; as individuals, we are trying to live a more full and happy life. But what about those around us? How do we help them? How do we get a hold of something for them when there is no sun, moon or lamp? I was recently speaking with a friend whose partner’s father took his own life about five years ago. Since then, the partner’s family has itself struggled mightily with depression. It made me think of my own father’s last months. And though he did not take his own life, in some ways he was taking the life away from those around him. I have talked about this story a bit before.

My father, who was a pretty tough guy ~ “Buck” was the name he adopted as a young man ~ was falling down a lot and going into the hospital in the last months of his life. I visited him once in the county hospital, in Martinez, which was sparkling new and seemed to have an energetic and caring staff. Despite the great care, I felt Buck was being really rough on the attending physicians and nurses. Late that evening, after witnessing an episode of what I considered rude and ungrateful behavior, I said, “Dad, these folks are taking great care of you. Could you try to be a little nicer to them?” He responded, “Oh fuck you!” So, I shouted back, “No, fuck you!” And this back and forth went on in high volume for some minutes, until I realized we were probably keeping up the whole hospital wing. Finally, I stood down.

From that time on, I decided to give him a gift. I had wished for him an epiphany near the end, where we could hold hands, share warm memories, and maybe shed a tear, or two. It was not to be. So, from my standpoint, I gave him the gift of finishing his life on his own terms, as he wished. Or perhaps, as he could not help. Miserable, or not.

Doing that meant I was no longer making him wrong, no longer making him “Bad Dad.” It also freed me, tremendously. I could be around him with far more ease, irascible or not. He did not need to be a certain way, nor did I. A couple of months after our shouting match, Buck died in the hospital alone. I later had a dream of him wandering, lost, through a parkland as a homeless person. Years later, I had another dream of him. He was smiling, as if in a portrait, with my mother. I hope he has now found his way through the dark, and perhaps gotten a hold of something ~ the sun, the moon, or a lamp ~ to guide him.