I believe that death is cyclical, a beginning, an opening, a matter of watching the world pass through. I began to formulate my belief that death is also not death as a Zen Buddhist in San Francisco in 2000. That winter, I lived alone for a month in a subletted studio on the second floor of an amazing Victorian on Steiner Street.
Working as a bike messenger at the time, I liked to come home exhausted knowing I’d have a refuge with stunning views. A garden with ancient succulents. The Bay on clear days. I liked the place because my friends were only a few blocks away, spread out through the Lower Haight. Shwermas at Ali Baba’s Cave, and Bean There’s lattes. Zen Center just a few streets down.
Zen Center. I went to their Saturday morning lectures for the free cookies and tea. Mindful pecan or chocolate-chip cookies. Then out to brunch afterwards on Haight Street. A little meditation, a little listening, then I gorged myself on ginger peach french toast at Kate’s Kitchen. Nothing too serious.
But the rain started to get to me. Cold and wet all day, riding around, my feet feeling like they had some sort of jungle rot. Cold apartment. Cold city. Dumped on Valentine’s Day and no heat. And one day the casual Saturday morning lecture sunk in.
Blanche, a sixty-something Zen abbess with cropped hair and robes, had discussed a section of Dogen’s Genjo Koan. She explained that Dogen wrote the koan in a letter to one of his students, and that he brought Buddhism from China to Japan. Then she read some of it, from a section called “Actualizing the Fundamental Point”: “Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death. Birth is an expression complete this moment. Death is an expression complete this moment. They are like winter and spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.”
Six months earlier my friend Jeb died in a car crash in Mexico. 21. An artist, he had just come out. We wrote a poem together before I graduated from Kenyon College and he left to study abroad. His death made me decide to pursue grad school, become a writer for his sake, to dive into sexuality, to dive in to the whirl and thunder and song. Because it’s fleeting. And here it was winter, waiting to hear from grad schools, nothing seemed able to take hold, my bike sliding out from under me, my own anonymous pair of legs on a green bike, who could get hit and dragged under a bus in two seconds flat and still end up getting cursed by the driver.
Who was I? I was ash, birth, death, winter and I wanted spring. I felt cold, the deep wavering depth of cold and mourning and loss. I felt it all in one rush walking past a used hypodermic needle exchange that was set up in the Duboce Bikeway, where junkies bought their shit and shot up. I walked past the blue tent and the table and the red, plastic barrel marked contaminated waste and the small throng of wastrels and the mist and I felt death and no-death. Like all that mattered was seeing.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.