Nonfiction by Ann Sihler
I drove up into the hills. No wonder they’d built the cemetery here. It was high, spacious, and quiet enough I could almost forget I was in a big city. Landscaping obscured the neighboring houses, and the cropped green lawns offered a view of the river far below. Douglas fir trees, dark and tall, stretched up to touch the endless expanse of sky.
I was on my way to the memorial service for my Buddhist meditation teacher, Irene. I hadn’t planned on becoming Buddhist when I started meditating. But somehow, after classes and programs and many hours sitting on the cushion, I found my way there. Irene was one of my early teachers. I came to know her face: penetrating eyes framed by round glasses, front teeth trying ever so hard to cross, salt and pepper hair even thicker and straighter than my own. I envied her smooth skin. I even knew her outfits, like the floral pinafore she often wore on the first night of class, and the pants that hid the weight that seemed to have migrated downward to her hips over years of meditating. The top I liked best was her yellow sweatshirt, which made Irene look cheerful and fresh — a human daffodil.
Earnest and clear, steady and good-humored, Irene seemed to know exactly who she was and what in life was real. I leaned on her as I approached the path of dharma until I could start walking it myself. All the while, the teachings shone through her to me.
A teaching on impermanence: Death is real, comes without warning. This body will be a corpse.
Irene had plans to move away, to teach in New England for a few years. But in the middle of the packing and well-wishing came sudden bleeding, medical tests, surgery. We held her goodbye party anyway because all the arrangements had been made, all the food bought. I watched her, dressed in elegant blue and silver, welcome people in. She lifted her pinky in that characteristic Irene way as she explained the situation. Even then she was calm and true to her name, which comes from the Greek word for “peace.”
Inside I was anything but peaceful, sensing that her goodbye party was, indeed, a goodbye. But I wondered how someone so healthy-looking and whole, so warm and capable, could also be so sick.
Four months later Irene died, at home, with an expression of eagerness on her face.
A teaching on rebirth: Cyclical existence is an ocean of suffering, unendurable, unbearably intense.
As I drove to the cemetery I pondered death. Maybe we are afraid not of death itself or of being dead, but of not dying, or at least of not doing it properly. Our stories are full of ghosts and monsters that somehow couldn’t complete the process of dying. Dracula, the mummy, Frankenstein’s monster … all are stuck forever in an in-between world of anguish and fury, desperately seeking eternal rest. From this perspective, Buddhists’ negative view of rebirth made sense. Continually cycling through life after life, snatching at moments of happiness that cannot last, is the very definition of suffering. Maybe we don’t want to live forever. Maybe what we really want is to die — to exit the cycle of rebirth.
A teaching on life: Joyful to have such a human birth, difficult to find, free and well-favored. Now I must do something meaningful.
The afternoon sun was waning when I arrived. Inside, Irene’s body lay in a simple wooden coffin, draped with yellow flowers. Poster boards and tables displayed ephemera of her life: A diploma. The program from a guitar recital. Photos of her camping and hiking, celebrating with friends. An exuberant, youthful note to her sister: “Hey Jude. Thought you should know there’s someone really special in my life. Have you guessed who it is? You! How lucky is that? Your always loving sister, Irene.”
During the service Doug read a poem about sunlight passing through Irene’s sickroom. A solemn young man described reciting short songs of enlightenment with Irene when they both were on retreat. One after another, people spoke about her integrity, openness, and humor, about how she’d influenced them, how she’d helped them, how they would miss her.
* * *
The next day dawned still and foggy, moisture hanging thickly in the air. Or was it air, so insubstantial, hanging in the moisture? Drops of water clung to each twig of the skeletal trees, tumescent, waiting to fall to earth.
On the ground, dark-headed juncos flitted in the empty garden beds, searching for insects in the dead leaves and mounds of wood chips. They blended in with the garden soil, making the ground seem to shift and move.
I watched from the window, feeling as heavy and dark as the fog, wondering how long the gloom would last. I remembered Irene poking her head out the front door of a retreat building as I approached. I had been the only one who showed up for a two-day program she was teaching, but she taught me anyway.
Then a single word sounded in my head, “generosity,” as if Irene had said it herself. Was she there with me? Looking out into the fog I could feel her just behind me, near my head and neck, whispering first in one ear and then the other, calling to mind episodes from my life, and hers.
“Effort” — Irene in class, lifting up a worn dharma book, its spine broken, the whole thing held together by a rubber band. The book overflowed with sticky tabs, bookmarks, and note cards Irene had used in preparing for that night’s class. “It may be falling apart,” she grinned, “but the teachings remain undamaged!”
“Discipline” — Irene passing around a dharma magazine with a photo of students lounging on the floor, slumped and rumpled. Only one sat upright, straight-backed and alert, listening.
“Patience” — Irene at the table in front of me in the coffee shop, explaining again the commitment I’d be making in taking my Buddhist vows, likening it to a marriage vow.
“Meditation” — Irene cross-legged at the front of the shrine room, ringing the gong to begin another session of sitting.
“Wisdom” — Irene making her way through a crowd of students at the end of my first Buddhist class, catching me on my way to the door, looking me square in the eye. “You know the prajna we talked about in class — ‘best knowing’? You have that.”
Generosity, effort, discipline, patience, meditation, wisdom. These were the six paramitas, the practices of Bodhisattvas, who have formally dedicated their lives to helping others. We had studied the paramitas in class so I understood them intellectually, but now they were unfolding in my own mind, as living examples taken directly from Irene’s life. They seemed to coalesce, to become a living, integrated whole that somehow was part of myself.
But how was that happening? Was it Irene? Or was it my own mind, finally starting to understand her teachings?
Outside the fog began to thin and the sun broke through. A light wind caused the droplets hanging from the mountain ash to shimmer before, finally, they let go and disappeared into the ever-patient, ever-welcoming earth. A sense of warmth and appreciation came over me, but I also felt the depth of my loss.
* * *
Weeks later I was riding my bike in the dark through soft, warm air — the season’s first. After what I had thought was aimless wandering, I found myself at Irene’s house. I got off my bike and looked at the darkened windows and the bird feeder still half full of sunflower seeds. Irene had been my teacher. But standing in front of her house that night, I knew that Irene herself was a teaching — that by remembering the teachings I would remember her, and that by remembering her I would experience the teachings.
The wind shifted and caught the sweet, singing scent of flowering plum. I got back on my bike and followed it home.