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Please Take Care of Bernie

I have been slowly reading my friend Nancy Mujo Baker’s new book, Opening to Oneness. I say slowly because it takes me two or three days or more to read each chapter, slowly digesting. The chapter on the 10th Grave Precept, “Non-Abusing the Three Treasure,” fed this reflection.

There was one final sesshin at ZCNY, after we had purchased the convent and the sisters had moved out, -- until then, we had only been renting the old mansion, -- and before Greyston began the construction which would convert the convent into an AIDS residence. It was an interesting sesshin, not too long I think after Maezumi Roshi’s passing. Many of his senior students were there. Many of them would be finishing up with Bernie, getting transmission from Bernie.

The start of the sesshin was delayed a day. Bernie had forgotten when scheduling the sesshin that he had committed to leading a workshop at Omega. So most of us attending the sesshin caravanned with Bernie up to Omega. “No,” his workshop was the following weekend, so we all headed back to Yonkers. Seisen Saunders rode with me. She was one of those seniors from California who was finishing up with Bernie. I had never spent much time with Seisen before and I enjoyed getting to know her. We took the scenic route along the Hudson. We stopped for dinner at an outdoor restaurant right on the river. It was a beautiful evening. We had wine. We laughed. We would be late. Bernie would be pissed.

We laughed some more.

After dinner, as we drove, I took a chance. I had been sitting for a while by then with something that I was burning to share, probably for well over a year, something that I had been holding since Maezumi’s last visit to Yonkers. During my years there, I think he visited only two or three times. On the last visit, Bernie and Jishu were away. During our Saturday sitting, Maezumi offered interviews. I had an interview with Maezumi Roshi. That was a rare and special opportunity, an interview with my teacher’s teacher.

Riding along the Hudson toward Yonkers, I said to Seisen, “I know that what happens in dokusan is supposed to be confidential, but I had an interview with Maezumi the last time he was here. Can I tell you what he told me?”

I was feeling safe with her. I was sure she would say, “Of course.”


I was stuck with my secret.

Can I even tell it now? I know I am making too much of this. After all, many koans recount the interaction between teacher and student that occurred in dokusan. Somebody told these stories.

Still, I hesitate. It feels like violating a taboo.

At the end of the interview, Roshi said, “Please take care of Sensei.”

When talking to Bernie’s students, Maezumi never referred to him by name, neither as Bernie nor Tetsugen, always as Sensei.

I was staggered. I tried to minimize. “Maezumi probably said this to everyone.”

Was I afraid of the burden? Was I afraid of being special? Did I want to be special but afraid to admit it?

Maybe Maezumi had said the same thing to everyone. But apparently not. I kept looking for hints in conversation with fellow students.

Who else had been asked to take care of Bernie? Why me? It seems very weird now that here I am almost 30 years later still taking care of Bernie.

Ordaining to become Jishu’s first shuso, part of Bernie’s dream.

Carrying Bernie’s social entrepreneurship dharma.

Preserving his legacy. Organizing annual birthday celebrations and memorials. Pulling together The Bernie Koans.

Four years after his passing, still taking care of Bernie. It’s not that Bernie needs to be taken care of. It’s my privilege.

The tenth Grave Precept, Not Speaking Ill of the Three Treasures, like the other precepts seems negatively cast. For a long time, I understood it that way. Don’t talk trash about Bernie with other students. Don’t rag about other students.

But here this negative expression seems to more totally miss the fundamental point. I have been shaped by the gifts that I have received, the gifts of Zen. I am grateful for the teaching and the teacher and for the community of students who supported me on this path. My gratitude needs to be expressed. Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. To the whole line of Buddhas, and particularly to my teacher. How do I express my gratitude? In every way that I can.

Bernie taught me about lineage through his relationship with his teacher. He taught me in so many ways, the way he made us clean the Zendo when Maezumi was coming, the way he made sure that we were all ready to play our roles in services and sitting, every detail, for those occasions.

It was just amazing to see them together. I felt something. “Oh,” I thought, “this is lineage.”

One evening I asked Bernie, “I know I have to shave my head for Tokudo, but do I have to shave my beard?”

There was no hesitancy. He answered immediately, “As long as Maezumi is alive.”

Déjà vu. I had been there before, many years earlier. Maybe we were twelve years old, in my friend Allan’s kitchen, when he asked his mother, “Do we have to keep kosher for Passover?”

The same immediacy: “As long as your grandmother is alive.”

That was not speaking ill of the three treasures.

Did Maezumi ask everyone to take care of Bernie?

I am hoping that he did. It would not make me or anyone else less special. It is the most wonderful teaching of the tenth grave precept.

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