A teacher and his student went to a house to make a condolence call…

~The Blue Cliff Record, case 55

A few days ago, having lunch with a Zen friend, he talked of his recent visit to his old residence, a Zen house located in the Castro District, in San Francisco. He was once a student of the iconic Issan (Tommy) Dorsey, and he helped run an 8-bed hospice in the house, in the late 1980s, that served hundreds of AIDS-stricken men and women. My friend recently sponsored a speaking engagement at the center given by a visiting forest monk from Thailand. I could tell he was in mourning for his old house and the people he once knew there. “There was a new resident at the house who hissed at me for walking in front the zendo altar,” my friend expressed with some frustration. “I declined to tell her that it was I who had washed and carried the bodies of the several Zen monks whose pictures adorned that altar.” I gave him my condolences.

His story pulled me into my own: not yet two weeks ago, my first teacher passed. I remembered how many years ago, visiting his house, perched high on a hill overlooking Mt Diablo and its namesake valley, was like going into a high-voltage dokusan. I can still feel the crunch underfoot of the brown gravel in his yard, can hear the sound of the wind chimes rattled by a west wind, and can see the green pile of his living room carpet. Then time and time passed, the house was unchanged in its finish, which dulled and dirtied, and my teacher weakened from the polio that had taken the life from his legs. He had always been crazy, energetic and joyful, but for the last couple of years had been confined to his bed and CNN.

I called up Harry & David today to cancel the monthly fruit shipment I sent him for a long time. He really loved that fruit, and the auto-email notice of its periodic shipment became a kind of prompt for me to check in with him, though for some reason, last month I did not. Looking to transfer the remaining five months of shipments to a different address, I called his caregiver, Dr Lito. A few days before he passed, my teacher received a large box of Rainier cherries. The caregivers mashed and pureed the fruit so he could taste it. “He did not want me to call you in the days before he died,” the caregiver said, “but told me to call afterward and thank you for the fruit.” He gave me his condolences.