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Twenty Years

A monk asked Toshi, “Is it true that ‘All sounds are the voice of the Buddha’?”

Toshi said, “Yes.”

The monk said, “Don’t fart.”

Toshi hit him.

Another question was, “Is it true ‘Coarse words and fine speech all end in ultimate truth’?”

Toshi said, “Yes.”

The monk said, “Can I call you an ass?”

Toshi hit him.

-- The Blue Cliff Record, Case 79

This week we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of our sitting together as a group on Tuesday evenings.

There was a predecessor ZCSI group which sat on the third floor of our house. That first manifestation began sitting even before Tokudo, almost as soon as Dee and I bought the house. Jishu thought it was a fine offering but didn’t authorize me to offer teisho. Instead, I read from Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Jishu officiated at our Eye Opening Ceremony. Bernie and Genro attended, and we all sat around in our living room for refreshments after the ceremony. It was the first time that either Bernie or Jishu had been to our house.

At the end of February, 1998, Jishu was back in our zendo for the celebration that marked the beginning of my three-month Shuso period. One aspect of that practice was for me to sit early each morning. A number of sangha members joined me each morning.

The Shuso period was to conclude with a Street Retreat which I would lead and then a closing ceremony, again in our zendo, at which Jishu would officiate.

Halfway through the Shuso period, Jishu died suddenly. Jamie was born four months later.

Tuesday Evenings

On Tuesday evenings, Dee and I would take turns staying down stairs with her while the other would sit in the zendo. We used the baby monitor so that Dee could hear the liturgy and the talk while keeping an eye on Jamie. When Jamie got a little bit older, she would crawl around the zendo while we sat and sit on my lap during teisho. As she got a little older still (and more toddler disruptive), we discontinued the group. It was getting too complicated.

By then, Bernie had sent me to Roshi Bob Kennedy in Jersey City to do koan study. I was sitting with his group weekly and attending sesshins, mostly at the Jesuit Retreat House, St. Ignatius, in Manhasset, a couple of times a year.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was sitting in my car, parked near Clove Lake Park, waiting for a dermatology appointment.

I had been Mr. Mom for a bit more than a year and a half by then and had already dropped Jamie at her Montessori preschool at Snug Harbor. I was listening to music on the radio when the regularly scheduled programming was interrupted for a special announcement: the World Trade Center had been attacked.

I called Dee’s father, John. His sister worked in the World Trade Center. Had he heard anything?

Nothing yet.

I watched the second plane hit on the television in the dermatologist’s waiting room.

I got a call from Jamie’s school. “Could I come to pick Jamie up right away?” There was a fear that Snug Harbor Cultural Center might be the next target. An absurd idea, but I picked her up.

The Next Nine Months

The next nine months are imprinted. For a couple of weeks, Staten Island became very quiet. There was no honking. A strange peacefulness, until things went back to “normal”.

Paco and I had been trying to build a consulting business, mostly based in the Bronx where Paco knew the potential clients. He was the rainmaker. I did most of the facilitation of the creative planning process which was the main thing we were offering clients. We believed in it, a wonderful methodology for helping businesses and organizations solve a wide range of problems.

I was travelling to the Bronx from Staten Island a couple of times a week and suddenly I couldn’t go through Manhattan. The trip became convoluted. I would drop Jamie off at school, drive to the Bronx for meetings and be back on Staten Island to pick her up, hanging outside on the Snug Harbor lawn with the other parents waiting for our children to appear, hanging some more while they played, taking Jamie to her art class and music lessons also at Snug Harbor and dance classes not always there. I was not the only father playing Mr. Mom, I was enjoying it. I’d never expected to be a father.

Dee was working as Chief of the Children and Youth Service at South Beach Psychiatric Center. Within days of 9/11, she got a call from the FDNY Counseling Service. “Could she volunteer?” They needed help. They were setting up an emergency counseling program at Mt. Manresa, the Jesuit Retreat House on Staten Island. So many fire fighters lived on Staten Island. So many had died at the World Trade Center. They were anticipating the need to provide counseling to many children.

Dee didn’t have the time, working, parenting. “Try my husband,” she told them. “He’s retired.”

They called. I went over to Mt. Manresa the next day. I had never been there before.

I felt lost for a couple of moments.

Fire Fighter Families

And then I was busy meeting with fire fighter families. It was very moving, to listen to their stories. I didn’t see any children. It was crazy busy for a month or more and I was going to Manresa twice a week. Not only had the Jesuits opened their space for the counseling team, they were also providing housing for the droves of fire fighters who were coming from around the country, just to be present at the funerals which seemed a daily event on Staten Island, sometimes as many as six in a day, to bear witness. On and on. Every time a body was recovered from the World Trade Center rubble, there would be another funeral.

I learned later how important these out-of-town fire fighters were. Part of the ritual of the fire fighter funeral were the lines of blue uniforms in the street, the lines of fire trucks in the funeral procession. “This,” I was told, “meant a great deal to the families. With multiple funerals in a day, the lines would have been skimpy if it weren’t for the out-of-town guys who came.”

As things settled down, I was going to Mt. Manresa once a week for an ongoing, open-ended group. There was a core of guys who came every week and the core would change. Sometimes people would leave the group because they went back on the job. New people would join. Eventually the group ended when the fire department decided to stop all the medical leaves related to World Trade Center trauma. Everyone was forced back to work. Or into retirement.

Week after week, we would sit and I would listen to their stories. Wonderful stories. What was I doing? I asked once why people were coming. Didn’t they talk about what they had been through on the job? They have a lot of down time between fires. They cook and eat and hang out and sleep.

“No. We never talk this way, about our feelings.”
I just held the space. And listened to their stories.

That Spring

That Spring Roshi Bob was invited to lead a sesshin at the Trappist Monastery at Snowmass, near Aspen, Colorado, St. Joseph’s Monastery. He invited me to join him.

I couldn’t believe the opportunity. Trappist priest, Thomas Merton, had been one of my most important companions on the Way. As I threw myself into Zen practice, I was aware of how strange this seemed to almost everyone I knew. The spiritual people in my life were few and far between. Making my spiritual practice important was so isolating. I was badly in need of spiritual friends when I discovered Merton’s diaries. They were only just coming out and I waited for each new volume as if it were, a few years later when Jamie was older, a Harry Potter movie.

Would I ever have an opportunity to spend a night in a Trappist monastery?

I jumped at the opportunity. The monastery, surrounded by mountains, was inspiring, awesome. The Abbot, -- it turned out that he was from Brooklyn, -- was wearing an FDNY hat. His brother was a fire fighter. The circling hawks in an otherwise empty sky were a koan. One night I got up in the early morning hours to walk across the campus from the guest side to the Trappist chapel, to sit in the service with monks who shared this life to which Merton had been devoted, this life of prayer and silence.

Walking back across the campus to my room, walking along a field bounded by a wire fence, I was startled by a crash against the fence. Only two feet from me, a coyote had charged at me from the blackness and had been thrown back by the fence. It was Zen master’s shout. “Wake up.”

During dokusan with Roshi Bob, he commented, “That’s a beautiful rakusu.”

I rarely wore a rakusu, had never worn it to dokusan in Jersey City or Manhasset, but I felt, going to this far away to a Trappist monastery that I didn’t want to appear to be trying to “pass” as Catholic. So I was wearing it.

It’s my Dharma Holder rakusu,” I told Bob, the rakusu that Bernie had given me when he made me a Dharma Holder at Litchfield in January, 1999.

Bob was surprised. Embarrassed, I think. “I didn’t know that you were a Dharma Holder. You have to give the Dharma talk tomorrow.” He probably asked if I would. I was a bit frightened. I had never given a talk outside our Staten Island zendo, but I was thrilled.

Every Voice

“Every voice is the voice of the Buddha.”

Dharma talks, teisho, frequently take a koan as a jumping off point.

“Every voice is the voice of the Buddha.”

I shared a firefighter story.

I had come to these fire fighter meetings with all my own biases. I think I was on guard. Some of the guys picked up on it.

“We rank on everyone,” one explained. He was from Tottenville, way out west on Staten Island. Tottenville was notorious in those days for an Appalachian vibe. “When you’re from Tottenville,” he said, “you can get a divorce, but remember, she’ll always be your sister.”

Everyone laughed.

One of the guys was working at a house in Williamsburg, in the heart of the Hasidic section of Brooklyn. A couple of days after 9/11, the house bell rings in the early morning. Our guy drags himself up and out of bed to answer the door. There’s this Jewish guy, super orthodox. He says he been looking at the pictures and names on the wall of the house. “Are those fire fighters from this house who died on 9/11?”

“Yes.” And the orthodox guy turns and walks away. Our guy can’t believe he’s been dragged from bed just to answer that question. Everyone is asking them questions. All the time.

An hour later the bell rings again. Our guy drags himself out of bed and downstairs again. The same orthodox guy is at the door. What now, he’s thinking.

Handing our guy a brown paper bag, he says, “From the community. For the families.” And he turns and walks away. Nothing more. He doesn’t give a name. Nothing.

Our guy opens the brown bag. It’s stuffed with cash.

Telling the story at Snowmass, I have the same goose bumps I had when I first heard the story at Mt. Manresa.

Every voice is the voice of the Buddha.

On the flight home, I am seated next to Russ Ball. Russ and his family are patrons of the Jesuits and St. Ignatius. He is a big supporter of Bob and was instrumental in bringing Bob and Zen to the Manhasset retreat house. He tells me about a recent private dinner he had with the Jesuit Provincial, kind of like a Bishop for Northeastern Jesuits. “The Provincial is committed,” he tells me, “to having a Zen meditation offering at every retreat center in the Province.” I am impressed that he is having private dinners with the provincial.

This news is exciting. I am feeling in those days that Bernie’s commitment to interfaith practice is the most powerful aspect of his teaching. He has broken barriers by giving transmission not only to Bob, a Catholic priest, but to a Jewish Rabbi and a Sufi Sheik. His vision for a House of One People, where all faiths could be respected and practice, was inspiring.

Mt. Manresa

I tell Russ, “If you ever do something at Mt. Manresa, I would love to help.” I am happy to make the gesture but the next thing I know I am back at Mt. Manresa for a meeting with Russ, Bob, Rosemary OConnell and Father Ed Quinnan, the priest in charge. Ed drives us in a golf cart to the top of the hill from which he had watched the towers burn. He shows us the crypt which, when Manresa had been a private home, was a bear pit. He is thrilled to host the Zen group. We agree that we will split the contributions which weekly sitters make between the Zen Community of Staten Island and Mt. Manresa. We will hold a monthly zazenkai. Manresa will provide the food for which the Zennies will pay. Ed is happy. We will help to keep the kitchen staff working.

When do we start?

Tuesday nights work for me. The first September Tuesday after the Labor Day weekend works for Ed and Bob. September 10. It is only later that I realize that we will begin sitting on the eve of the first anniversary of 9/11.

Manresa seems to be the perfect place.

Every voice is the voice of the Buddha.

[1] Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record, translated by Thomas Cleary, pp. 269-270.

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