Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

Home » Literature Archives » White Death

Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(March 6, 2011)

White Death
by Abbot John

Thank God I don't believe in dreams or else that time I was wearing a white wedding dress waiting for Pegasus would have really thrown me for a loop.


I keep having this recurring nightmare: I'm sitting on a chair in my living room with my dog Balto lying at my feet and I'm getting claustrophobic because my windows are completely banked with snow. Then I wake up and realize I still have the Cabin Fever that I caught in December and I still can't see out of my windows because the snow is piled up against the glass. This is especially troublesome for people of my temperament since we spend a lot of time staring out of windows. From upstairs, I can see that everything is a shimmering white that looks a lot like a movie screen where if we're not careful our entire past life can roll across the silvered landscape. Reflections are so much clearer on these pristine surfaces.

I've had a hard enough time staying one step ahead of the fellows in white coats so I will not go into the details of my dreams. I prefer to dwell on the real events that also appear on the screen since they may hold some significance for my sons. As I keep trying to tell them, the worst days of my life are always days of the past. I never really had much of a problem with the present.

One of those reflected stories floated up into consciousness when I was talking to one of my sons recently. We were discussing something irrelevant when he mentioned that he was getting along fine at his job and was able to supplement his income by playing internet poker games. After I swallowed my surprise I immediately went into protest mode. He claimed, as all nascent gamblers do, that I had nothing to worry about. He always knew when to call it quits and in any case he hardly ever lost. The phrase "famous last words" echoed in my brain.

Gambling, I gratefully acknowledge, is one of the few - the very few - vices that I've been able to avoid, for the most part, since I'm never entirely innocent about anything. The dire financial lesson came early in my life, and as I stood at my upstairs window contemplating the white crystalline lawn I could see the whole scene play out as if it were only yesterday that it happened.

I was preparing to enter my first year of college (on a scholarship or charity grant - I can't remember which - (it depends on the story I'm telling) and had worked all summer for the "pocket money" that I thought I would need for that year. I had saved a grand total of two hundred dollars. And all of it was in my pocket.

I remember all the boys in my high school senior class getting together for one last bash. We spent the evening and night playing cards and drinking flavored liquors that seemed to be the rave back then. Round about midnight, the coaches, as always, turned into pumpkins. I was in one last hand of a game called "Guts." It's a simply poker game where bluffing plays an integral part. I was "all in" with all my money, dreaming of having twice as much in the coming year. And these are the lessons I learned that I tried to impart to my son. (I should add that my sons are both past the age of reason and are fully adult men, one is a sergeant in the U.S. Army and the other has a degree in Psychology. But I still feel the urge or need to 'father' them for some reason.)

So I did my paternal best and passed on the lessons I learned that night and on a few other nights I prefer not to remember:

Lesson one: never try to bluff the richest kid in the neighborhood who's playing with his dad's money.

Lesson two: crying and begging to get your money back never works. Eighteen year old rich kids don't care about your poverty. I suspect that holds true for all ages and social classes.

Lesson three: you don't need a lot of money in college if you can stand the cafeteria food and don't go out much.

Lesson four: Nietzsche makes more sense when you're broke.

Lesson five: the social scene is more responsive to your needs when you have money.

Lesson six: you find out who the rules are made for when you're broke.

Lesson seven: dorms can induce manic depression when you're forced to stay in them 24/7.

Lesson eight: money is not the root of all evil. Sometimes it's the things you can see right in front of you.

I didn't think I was holding his attention, so I summed up my fatherly wisdom and brought our dialogue to a close. "If you ever want to experience eternity," I said, "show up at college without a dime in your pocket and where you know absolutely no one."

As I turned my gaze away, he had that look on his face that seemed to say that he thought I was kidding or making the whole thing up. I get that a lot.

But being my son, after all, it occurred to him to feign interest in my means of acquiring knowledge. He wanted to know about my sojourn in a Benedictine Monastery. He peppered me with questions. What did I think about the Pope? How did I feel about Confession? What about transubstantiation versus consubstantiation? Was Exorcism worth the trouble? Considering Bingo, how did the Church feel about gambling?

I pressed my palms together and brought my fingertips up to my chin and pursed my lips. It gives the distinct impression of knowing what you are talking about. I nodded affirmatively in that knowledgeable way and said, "While we are in the womb of the Tathagatas all reality is within our reach. The wisdom of the ages is in our hands. It is only later that we come to realize that the same idiot who opened the door and entered is the same idiot who closed the door and left." This seemed to satisfy him and he nodded and walked away.

Since I could still see the big snow screen, I lapsed into my seminary reveries. Anthony Hopkins was on my mind and I realized that I didn't stay in the Seminary long enough to get to the part where they taught us how to "cast out demons" unless, of course, I was actually part of the course and was used as the exemplar when they cast me ot of the dorm rooms. Someone told me that they sprinkled my end of the room with holy water after I left. I thought to myself that I might have stayed longer if they taught me exorcism first instead of Latin and Greek Naturally, when they caught me laughing in the Confessional that didn't help my case. Then there was that episode when they found me in the boiler room of a nearby convent with a bottle of wine and a picnic basket. I swear I was set up. They must have thought that I had potential because they asked me to consider studying to be a Deacon - who can marry and do a few extra things that they were not allowed to do... technically, that is... But that seemed more like a bench-warming position so I told them, "If I ain't startin', I'll be departin'."

My childhood dream of one day becoming Pope was dashed. Even Cardinal now seemed beyond my grasp. Inch by inch I moved slowly back to a more practical lifestyle, the color red fading from view, until here I was, inundated by cold white snow.

An outside door opened, letting in cold air and my wife who was crying on purpose. We have plans to move to Indiana - near my hometown - and she is not entirely enthusiastic about rural environments. She happened to speak to a neighbor - a man, no less - who insouciantly asked her what she would do out there all alone if I should die. And so she asked me what she was supposed to do alone in Indiana with me dead. I was trying to think of a cogent response, but my mind went blank. "What would you do if I died here?" She treated my remark as if it were a plan. This gave an added dimension to her tears. It was late. "Maybe we should sleep on it," I said.

Through the night she, too, had dreams. She awakened several times screaming "They're having a half price sale atWal Mart!" Then she'd cry. I finally was sufficiently awake to think clearly. I pressed her Saks credit card against her forehead and said, "Heal!" It seemed to allay all her anxieties. I did not sleep well and decided to change my life. I would take my religion more seriously. It was the least a Zen abbot could do.

I had intended to get up early and go to my meditation room. It was snowing again. When I woke up I decided to make an entire pot of Typhoo tea. Someone had called my wife to tell her that the house she had designed for the lot in Indiana was too big. "The way I figure it," she said, "we can bring in landfill and buy some topsoil." For more than a moment it sounded logical to me. Then I snapped into consciousness and got scared. I decided to lay off the Avatamsaka for awhile.

I drank my tea and, without giving it a chance to percolate through me, I went into my meditation room and forced my legs into full lotus. They would loosen up, I thought. But somehow I had aged overnight, or at least I had only just begun to notice what had been happening for quite a while. I had resolved to cease sacrificing my personal practice to my personal lethargy. The thought of it made me glad. By the time I'm eighty I'll be barely conscious, I reasoned. It wasn't a revelation. Every time I look around at everyone I know who is eighty, I can see that they really are barely conscious. I decided maybe I needed a better doctor or another one to add to the list. I didn't want to start tweakin' Drano or radiator fluid. Thoughts of this magnitude lulled me to sleep. The lotus posture is intended to keep a person upright, at least to keep his spine straight. Mine stayed straight but I toppled sideways off my zafu . I could not unsplay my pins and needles legs. I rolled onto my back with my legs still in their pretzel posture. My head and shoulders were on the floor but my back was still on the zabuton. My legs were perpendicular to the rest of me. I was in a state of paralysis. I tried to wiggle and free my legs, but nothing happened. I recalled how athletes visualized themselves going through their routines, so I saw myself at the reins of a snow sled, peddling to get it started, hollering "Mush, Balto! Mush!" It did not help. I thought of the Gordian Knot and that made me feel much worse; and so I was reduced to doing the most foolish thing a man can do. I called for my wife. (This is another lesson.) For the twenty minutes it took her to unwind me I had to listen to a steady stream of consciousness on the subject of religious commitment. "And tell me again," she said in several different ways, "you do this.... because...?"

I went back to my snow covered window and looked into infinity.