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Abbot John
Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(November 29, 2006)

by Abbot John

Something had been bothering me, bothering me greatly. There are occasions, one of my poet friends has suggested, when the world goes black before one's eyes. For a long while, the paroxysms of the outside world were able to penetrate the defenses I had erected to repel them. A darkness had obscured what I used to be able to see clearly. I could not figure out how this happened. What had I failed to do?

It certainly could not be that the problems of the world were any greater than they had always been. Perhaps it is was that I was not responding to them intelligently, in keeping with my training.. When I was a child I recall that in school we trained steadfastly to respond to catastrophe. "Duck and cover!" would come the command - sensibly given at irregular intervals - to scramble under our desks to avoid the effects of incoming atomic debris. Strategies like this preserved me and before long I became a teenager. My grandmother took over my fear response. In the southern states' atmosphere of my upbringing she always taught me to be afraid of the "boogie man" as she pronounced it. I thought she was referring to Elvis Presley. I survived even this and became somewhat of a "boogie man" myself, if only in my own mind. So what was going on now that had so flummoxed me and made my vision of the world so gloomy that I could discern nothing clearly?

Or was it that nothing was wrong with my vision at all? The world had actually grown dark?

I began to think, and that is usually the first sign of bad things to come.

Certainly my focus had begun to blur around the same time as 9/11; but it would take adroit revisionist history to make it a cause and effect synergy. After all, in the grand scheme of things laid out in the last century, it was a modest tragedy. Yet, while all that may be true, those other tragedies were far away - while this infamy happened a mere thirty miles from my home. When we drove to the top of the ridge where we live, we could see the rising black cloud. And just barely, but much worse, we could smell it - an acrid stench is the only polite way to describe it - on the days the wind was blowing wrong. I came to blame it, and I came to hate it. I came to hate the hyenas that caused it. I responded in the time-honored way of hatred: I wanted war, and I still remember to this very second the blood lust that surged through my temples. "You want a holy war? We’ll give you a holy war." At that point, I wasn’t even sure who it was I wanted to kill; but I was sure I wanted to kill somebody.

Thirty years ago, I lived in another town on Terpsichore Street in New Orleans. I didn't live there long, maybe for just a year or two. I remember it as a dark place with only one bright light at the time, a young girl, born and raised there, who knew no other world. I left…she stayed.

Right before the Katrina event I was in New Orleans and, on a whim, I checked the phone book. Her name had not changed. This intrigued me and I contacted her and we "caught up" with each other's lives. She was marvelously surprised that I had become a Buddhist priest and I was so very pleased to learn that she had joined a Hasidic group in New Orleans, "a reformed Hasidic group," she was quick to insert, reformed in the "Nawlens' way" to study the Kabbalah.

"Voodoo Kabbalah?" I slyly asked.

"Not quite," she answered.

I saw her again a month ago when business brought me back to New Orleans. She had emailed me saying that she was now living in her old house with her family, helping her folks to renovate their home. They had removed all the carpets and the floors were down to the concrete slab that certain New Orleans houses are built on. She explained that it was taking so "godawfull" long to get all the paperwork done and everything was so backed up at the insurance companies that she decided to etch the concrete with some kind of paint and she did it so well that I thought the house had been re-floored in granite slabs. She also wanted to kill someone, but she knew her target, The Army Corps of Engineers.

She drove me through the Ninth Ward, still completely in shambles, and through other places in various but similar states. All I could feel was a numbing sadness. There wasn't much to say.

Later we indulged in a New Orleans dinner, that for the uninitiated can seem exotic… but it only takes one dinner to convert.. a palate, a mood, an allegiance.

We were lingering over some voodoo red wine and the distant "wail of a downhearted frail," and I was noticing how soft the shadows of her face were in the candlelight, when the conversation turned to a personal matter that was vexing her. I waited for the details, like a fisherman whose line had just been tugged. Did I think she should keep the floors as they were and use the insurance money, if it ever came, for other things. Startled, blank-faced, and forced to vote, I chose the faux-granite concrete. My expression must have inspired her. She wanted to know how my "religion" prepared me for "things." What things? "Well...tragedy," she clarified. She had heard that Buddhists "were not attached to things" and could therefore deal with these "things" with a calmness born of taking the longer view. Was this true and if it was how did I attain that equanimity; and did I pray to a God? I smiled. I danced. I twirled the wine in my glass. "Ummm, How does yours prepare you?"

She began a long response in the "memorized staccato" of a telemarketer - a pitch that I thought could be summarized as the offer of a "comfort" - a view of the world that was bound by place, limited by tragedy, defined by myths murmured in an alien language, and superimposed on time.

Her enthusiastic delivery had left her panting. She took a sip of wine and insisted, "But what has the Buddha taught you?

"That I am my own worst enemy" was all I could say; but it was enough. I looked at my watch. The witching hour was over.

It was curious. That somber darkness that had obscured so much for so long dissolved into a tender glow. I lay upon my hotel bed, staring at the ceiling, recalling her yapping enthusiasm, and I found myself smiling. Who was I to feel impinged upon? Where did I get the idea that my pain was so unique. How did I justify hating anybody? Was it just because others hate? Was I looking for an excuse? Was I afraid of my failures? Was I embarrassed by my successes? Did I want to go back – back into the crowd? Did I forget that that One thing we do separates us, then joins us to the full reality? Did I want just a part of reality? Had I forgotten what was to be remembered? Was I remembering what was to be forgotten? Having seen the Lotus open did I prefer it closed? Was I not satisfied with its incomprehensibility? Did I suppose it lost its elegant simplicity when put in regal drag and mummery?

Still smiling, I went to the window to close the curtains when I saw three birds across the street on the ridge line of the roof silhouetted against the moon lit sky. A snippet from a poem by Hsu Yun flashed through my mind… ‘There in the wood’s underbrush, startled, We suddenly heard a dog bark…". The entire poem is below and I won’t spoil it for you but as I reflected on it I felt unbound by place, unlimited by tragedy, and totally in tune with all alien myths. And here I was, still in time, my own time.

The clamor of The Triple world can be stilled by the simple act of listening to what is behind the noise. Here are the words from Hsu Yun, a saint who always listened.

The Barking Dog

We went up across the ridge for the fun of it
Didn’t need to pack any more wine

On the precipice, flowers opened, smiling.
By the river, willows grew bright.

In the drizzling rain
the village smoke congealed, concealed.
The wind was slight and the grass was cool.

There in the wood’s underbrush, startled,
We suddenly heard a dog bark.

It wanted us to know the Master was aware.

Humming Bird

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