Passing through Hell

I gave this Dharma talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Tuesday, October 13, 2015.

“If you are despised by others and are about to drop into hell because of evil karma from your previous life, then because you are despised by others, the evil karma of your previous life will be extinguished.”

Blue Cliff Record Case 97: The Diamond Sutra and Evil Karma

I just passed through a week from hell.

Two weeks ago this past Monday my 79-year old mother was hospitalized with a serious intestinal condition requiring emergency surgery.  Her system had gone septic, and she was teetering on the edge of death.

I booked the next flight to Colorado, which had me departing the next day at the crack of dawn.

My mom was still in surgery as I landed in Denver, which is a two-and-a-half drive from my parents’ home.  One of my brothers was waiting at the hospital for news from the surgeons.  He called about an hour into my drive to say that our mother had come through the surgery, barely, but was by no means out of the woods.

He and I had both been calling my parents’ house that morning to check on my father.  My mother had been caring for him at home, though she was barely able to do so.  My dad wasn’t answering the phone.

My brother went from the hospital to my parents’ house after the surgery and found my dad lying face down on the floor, conscious, but unable to get up, and with a big bump on his head from the wood step he hit when he fell some hours ago.  He couldn’t say when.  He’s on a blood thinner, so falls are risky; they can lead to fatal internal bleeding.

I arrived at my parents’ place shortly after my brother did.  We called 911 and followed the ambulance to the hospital where my mother was still in the recovery room.

As if all this weren’t enough, my wife texted me around this time to say that two falls her mother had recently were caused by strokes, that she was undergoing an urgent series of tests to determine whether she was in immediate risk of another, and that she and my wife’s father would not be able to travel to Boston from the UK (where they live) to visit us later that week.

Stress.  Fear.  Sadness.  Exhaustion.  Hell.

Over the next 48 hours, my mom began to stabilize, the doctors determined my father hadn’t been seriously injured in his fall, and my mother-in-law was cleared to visit us (but still requires more testing and, possibly, treatment).  The aging parent thing has become ten times more intense for us overnight, but the immediate danger for each of them seemed to pass almost as quickly as it emerged.

The koan with which I opened this talk describes another sort of hellish experience: being despised by others.  Perhaps one is despised because of something one did, like taking another life; perhaps it’s because one is a member of a minority racial group or religion; perhaps it’s because of a combination of these or other factors.

It is tempting to read this koan as if it’s about some cosmic algebraic equation; an equality in which we gain future karmic happiness in proportion to our present karmic misery caused by past karmic transgressions.

But this is 21st Zen Buddhism we’re practicing.  That can’t possibly be what we mean.  Indeed, that can’t even be what the ancient masters meant. Can it?

I suspect this sort of good/bad, past/present/future karmic accounting has helped countless people cope with the difficulties of life throughout the ages, including this one – and not only in the Buddhist world, but through similar notions in other religious traditions.

Yet I think this koan extends another sort of invitation.  It’s the same invitation extended by the Five Remembrances that we recite each week.  That verse reminds us that we’re of the nature to grow old, become ill, and die, and that there’s no escaping this.

Life really was hell a couple of weeks ago; it truly felt like hell.  We really are watching our parents grow old, and become ill.  We will say goodbye to them in time . . . if we ourselves outlive them, and we must remember that’s not guaranteed.

The Five Remembrances can be a real shocker for those new to Zen: they certainly have a bubble bursting quality that one doesn’t find much in religion.  But bursting the bubble in which we’re bound to keep searching for that mythical way out, that door from hell to heaven, is only half of the real Zen equation.

Whether we feel we’re in heaven or hell or someplace in-between, the door, the Dharma gate, actually is always right here, and always has been.  It’s a gateless gate.  A boundless gate.  And it leads to this.

Sitting alone at my mom’s bedside in the ICU as she laid there on life support, unaware of my presence, holding her cold, swollen, unmoving hand, hell seemed so . . . solid.  That moment, tortuous as it was in one sense, seemed so solid.

So trustable.

And so bearable.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful for it all somehow.  Grateful for her.  Grateful for the presence of mind and spirit to be present to that moment.

All is blessed. Every day is a good day, as old Master Yun-men said when asked about his own illness and impending death.

Even the hell states.  Even the hell states in which we can’t manage to see that all is blessed.

I credit Zen practice for helping me experience that moment this way.  But I think you know this isn’t the product of some great yogic feat of mental discipline in which we banish all our fears and anxieties or cultivate a stoic detachment from this world of pain and suffering.  Quite the opposite.

It’s by actually allowing ourselves to be in hell when we’re in hell.  And by discovering there and elsewhere, including on these cushions, that we contain hell, rather than the other way around.

Knowing in our bones that we’re part of it all; submitting to that reality.  Finally letting it have us, as, in fact, it has all along.

Knowing that we’re both dew drop and this very dew containing universe. Or, in this case, tear drops.

We find our liberation and our peace in that.  We ultimately find the exemption we’ve been seeking by realizing – by which I simply mean being – the raw reality, the brute fact that we’re not exempt.

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