Our Dark Places: For Gensei

Walking along a narrow path at the foot of a mountain
I come to an ancient cemetery filled with countless tombstones
And thousand-year-old oaks and pines.
The day is ending with a lonely, plaintive wind.
The names on the tombs are completely faded,
And even the relatives have forgotten who they were,
Choked with tears, unable to speak,
I take my staff and return home.

~ Ryokan

 Gensei departing

Death is a time of reflection like no other. On March 15, at what I imagine to have been some overwhelming moment of despair when being in this world seemed too much for him, our dharma friend Ross Gensei Morris took his own life. He was 37. We had lost touch these last few years, but in the early days of practice, he was a dear brother. When I heard the news, before the sadness I expected, I felt a strong anger with him for this choice. When someone so young dies in this way, an enormous “No!” erupts from us, the survivors. Even if we saw signs, the shock is enormous, the grief wrenching and we beg some absent celestial power to go back to the approaching days to do it over again. Even though we know it will not change the moment, our minds want to find out why, and we go through every could have and should have to try to make some sense of this irreversible and final act.

The day is ending with a lonely, plaintive wind.

When this is the choice of a person of practice, it’s hard not to think it a failure of practice or a failure of the community. But after hearing people share about their experiences with Gensei at his funeral, I came away with a different story, one that requires a wider heart to hold the unknown with the known together; I let go of settling for explanations and instead embraced the depth and mystery of this life, in which we equally triumph and struggle. Listening to dharma brothers and sisters elaborate about the ways his life influenced their own, I learned something about humility and deep respect for what it means to practice Zen in the face of difficult and dark karma. For if any truth was told at this memorial, it is the story that our lives cannot be evaluated by our ending, the moment we call death, but are whole and far reaching, each day of lived life. Whether we shrink before our dragons one day, or defeat or tame them another; if it is in the context of practice, it is perfect as it is. We continue to practice together in this place we call death as we did in life.

I first met Gensei when he walked up the driveway where I was sweeping for a small sitting group I attended (a group that later became the Eugene Zendo). Later he would tease that I had given him some cryptic Zen response to his question whether this was the right place or not, to which he scoffed. To this more outgoing middle aged woman, he was easy to overlook – in his young 20’s, quiet and socially awkward. I hardly remember him saying a word in those early days. In that group, people read each other well, approaching to the degree that seemed welcomed by each individual. This is the beauty of Zen practice centers. You’re free to be as you are as long as you’re not harming anyone. No one tried to suggest he should be more friendly or outgoing. He was just accepted and embraced, like the rest of us, right where we were, and given a broom. Anyone who wants to practice, come on along! So days led to months and he just kept coming back week after week.

As this group moved from one venue to the other before settling into its current home, something magical happened for Gensei along the way. His zazen deepened and he began to open up and interact with others – to make rye jokes and share his encyclopedic knowledge of Dogen. Soon, Gensei playingI saw a sweet child emerge as he started to roll around playfully with the zendo cats, play with the priest’s young children, and before long he and I began this teasing banter with one another. He, making fun of my very serious “touchy feely” emotional reflections and sometimes cryptic Zen references; I giving it back to him about his fastidiousness or some attachment to having things done a particularly Dogen way. (It’s handy to be bilinguial – I am personally fluent in “east coast” including the brotherly “take down” oddly meant to communicate we’re in it together. Love at a safe but recognizable distance.)

Over the years and building of the zendo, he, I and others became family in the way that it happens in biological families, not necessarily because of heredity, but by simply spending time with one another doing the basic things of life. Over time, Gensei learned to not just cook, but to cook well, serving in the role of tenzo for many years, creating magnificent dishes during this time. He eventually took on the monk’s robes and helped show other newcomers the Zen forms. He became exacting in his mastery of these forms that both inspired, confused and exasperated others.

Like many of us, Gensei was brought up a second time within the context of practice, and renewed and rejuvenated a core life force that served the dharma. From re-learning baby steps in kinhin and the rakusu bibs, we get a second go around to retrieve, reconnect and let go of the  attachment to self.  Through Zen, many of us learn to love and be loved, in our own way. Despite Gensei’s well known aversion to hugging, sharing feelings or being touched, he had offered comfort to many in the old days.  I particularly remember a cookie turning up on my zafu or sitting with me in silence while I felt adrift. I knew he knew when I was struggling and that’s what seemed to matter.

Through Zen, Gensei came to life. But of course, this is only one part of the story (all stories are part stories). For those who shared at the funeral also acknowledged the dark side, the part of our dharma brother that would not and could not be reached; a shadow that emerged in his irritation, his tight hold on the way things should be, and his unrequited loves over the years. I imagine for this one fateful moment on March 15th, this part gained the upper hand and lived out energy quietly waiting. This is a truth we must also face in practice – that we also contain our dark sides for which Zen is not a cure, but an approach to integration.

Walking along a narrow path at the foot of a mountain

I come to an ancient cemetery filled with countless tombstones

And thousand-year-old oaks and pines.

We are all on this narrow path circling the mountain. We must take our own steps, and yet, here we are together in this predicament. How is it that we often only know how much we loved after someone is gone – as I know now I loved Gensei like a younger brother, but never once expressed that to him in a straightforward way. We had re-grown up together in the dharma.  Even though our life situations and personalities couldn’t have been more different – for we would not have even interacted outside the context of practice – the common intention of sangha allowed for us to meet and bond in our sincerity and longing for the way. Despite our teasing take downs, we had a deep unspoken respect for that mind that seeks the way that is solid and palpable, the kind of force water has to split rock when frozen, or tree roots have to lift sidewalks and push houses. Though he left formal practice in these later years, I have no doubt that that bodhicitta remained as strong as ever.

That 80 people came to say their goodbyes at the recent memorial says something about the way Gensei influenced us all. And though he would groan and tease to hear me say this, (yes, I hear you my friend) I feel as if he held the role of orphan for us all as he was adopted and held by many people who gave him work, encouragement, shelter and material support over the last 15 years. The sense of being an orphan is very common in our sanghas, an internal dissonance about being separated from something primal, a feeling that we’ve forgotten where we belong. It’s a universal archetype that speaks our deeper seeking for a return. Mmany people describe that their early days in practice feel like “coming home,” a touching inward to something familiar and deep and old. It is not a coincidence that many of our ancestor’s stories in Zen begin with having lost their mothers or being orphaned, from Shakyamuni Buddha to Dogen and several ancestors in the Denkoroku.

I think Gensei allowed us to touch the orphan inside us, for, from the point of view of Buddhism, to have a human body and singular self is to be an orphan. Recognizing this allows us to tap into our compassion for the sometimes melancholy, lonely parts that long for a return that is at onceGensei to SFZC our birthright.  Regardless of our apparent functional lives, the sense of being separated is universal and how we respond to this makes all the difference. Because Gensei gave himself so freely and openly to the practice, struggled, succeeded and struggled again, taught others as much as it did him, in the way that we all influence each other simply by living our lives fully in the light of the dharma together and bearing witness. Sometimes it is only in times of death that we see this so clearly, as we all so deeply wished the other day that Gensei could have waited and heard how important his ordinary life was to others.

Choked with tears, unable to speak,

I take my staff and return home.

Although Gensei was well known for his love of Dogen, I am not sure everyone knew he also loved Dogen’s cure – Ryokan. In many ways, Gensei lived Ryokan’s life, a solitary monk who embraced wholeheartedly the loneliness, longing and playful side of enlightenment lived in and amongst the world; while some part of him remained always in his monk’s hut, even after he’d taken off his formal robes. When Gensei first ordained, I gave him two things – a book of Ryokan and a carved wooden dragon, which is how I will remember him best. I close with a poem he told me he liked most, and look out the window and tell him with watery eyes, that we will carry you now as you did us with your wide monk’s robes.  You taught me something in life and also in death for which I am very grateful. Carry on my friend.   ~ Palm to palm, Seido

It is not that

I do not wish

To mix with others

But living alone in freedom

Is a better Path for me.

 

When I think

About the misery

Of those in this world,

Their sadness

Becomes mine.

 

Oh, that my monk’s robe

Was wide enough

To gather up all

The suffering people

In this floating world. 

 

~ Ryokan

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