The Emperor Tries to Understand
The Emperor asked, ‘What should I do after you are gone?’ The teacher said, ‘Build me a seamless tomb.’ The Emperor said, ‘Please tell me what kind of design you wish for your tomb.’ The teacher was silent for a while and then asked, ‘Do you understand?’
~ Blue Cliff Record, Case 18
Sometimes in our lives we find a deep and abiding narrative ~ perhaps it is love, youth, or health ~ where repeatedly we are visited by that story. Perhaps it is synchronicity. For me, in recent months, I have been visited and revisited by a sad story, one of survivors carrying memories of loved ones who have done violence to themselves. Suicide and suicide survivors.
Yesterday I was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, and I saw a lone man, leaning precariously over the rail, looking far down into the water, as a bridge worker headed his way. This morning, trying to get into the City both BART and Caltrain were stopped for several hours because of separate incidences of ‘a major medical emergency’, which are code words for a jumper.
I have been struck by the high number of survivors in our Zen sangha, far more than might be expected by annual suicide statistics of 13 deaths per 100,000. Survivors may hold guilt and shame, There is anger and confusion: ’Why he did he do it?,’ cried a mother of a 16-year old joining a survivor’s group. ‘Why didn’t we see anything, why we didn’t we know anything?’ And there can be relief: ‘After years of drinking and violence, I was glad he was gone’, said another member of that group talking of her father, ‘though not until now was I able to say it.’.
Finally, there can be room for healing: survivors re-entering life. ‘I started with the basics,’ said a daughter whose mother killed herself. ‘I breathed in and the breathed out. I drank some water.’
Not so long ago, I met with a man who was new to meditation and was visiting various centers. Dark haired and complexioned, he had a powerful Latin look that drew my eyes to him. A month before he came to sit with us, he had tried to take his own life, but un-expectantly woke in the morning alive. Since, he had been getting daily care and was closely attended by his family.
I had no treatment to offer, though I felt this was a man with a strong life force. In joining the sangha, even for a few hours, he was a making gesture toward life. Together we looked out the window at the overgrown garden, the cottonwood trees and broken clouds. He said after sitting that he would go to his favorite café near Bodega Bay and have coffee. I said that sounded lovely.
For just a moment, we sat together in a tomb that was without seams.