Since Dan's death, I've been doing a lot of musing and brooding on the topic of grief. I was out at Green Gulch Farm the other week, a lovely Zen Buddhist retreat center tucked away along the shoreline of Northern California. It was cold, wet. The trees were heavy with rain. Standing under a massive pine tree, I thought to myself, "Grief in this life is as inevitable as getting dripped on when standing under a rain-soaked tree." The weather, the scenery, the mood of the moment all felt very contemplative; very Zen.
Okay, so we've covered that topic. Now, let's look at the flip side. I with spending the weekend with my family in Berkeley to celebrate the release of my dad’s immensely huge translation of the life's work of Zen master Dogen Zenji, which has taken my father exactly 50 years to complete. Along with the fancy dinners, Buddhist lectures, and meet-and-greets with all of the heavy hitters in the American Zen Buddhist community, I have attended what feels like panel after panel of scholarly discussion on various subjects relating to Dogen, poetry translation, and the practice of Zen. I had an exciting insight during one such lecture.
As one of the women gave her presentation, she referenced a Dogen quote from a movie called "Zen" that had been screened the night before. Just to give you a little background, this was a Japanese biopic on the life of Dogen, and by Japanese I don't just mean it was set in East Asia with Asian-looking characters and English subtitles. This film was JAPANESE to the bone-- cheesy, sentimental, blandly written and un-creatively executed. Also, it was chalk full of utterly campy, cheap-looking visual effects. In the scene where Dogen gets enlightened, he closes his eyes and a giant floating lotus appears, and somehow he ends up sitting on top of the lotus and the lotus shoots straight into the sky with him right along with it. There's another scene where a war has just broken out and we see a pile of severed heads on the ground with bad CG butterflies flying all around them. Suddenly one of the heads opens its eyes, screams, and shoots into the lens of the camera. My friend Brad and I had a good laugh when the movie was through. We brainstormed a bunch of ideas about an interactive Rocky horror-type showing where we all throw paper butterflies at the screen.
The quote this woman referred to in her lecture was completely un-funny. It had more to do with Dogen's philosophy than any of the movie’s corndog camp. But to me, the corndog camp was so overpowering, I burst out laughing at the movie’s mere mention. It was totally inappropriate, especially given that we were sitting in a very formal-looking meditation hall. I hid behind my hair so I could avoid being too conspicuous. But I didn't hold back because I was experiencing something truly awesome: THE OPPOSITE OF GRIEF.
I've experienced the other sensation a lot lately in the process of grieving Dan. "Dammit," I would think, "Every time I see this thing or think that thought that reminds me of him, I'm going to get really sad and PROBABLY cry, PROBABLY in an embarrassing public situation. Or if not, I'll it least go into that heavy, contemplative, reflect-on-life mode." But let's flip that coin onto the backside of our opposite hand and notice, just NOTICE, the things that make us reflexively, unquestionably, unconditionally happy. What is that thing for you? Also, let's think of a word to describe the experience so we can call it by its proper name.
Side Note: The above picture is my dad and my brother at one of the weekend's panels being simultaneously goofy in that subtle, Japanese sort of way. I don't yet have a verbal answer for the question I posed in this entry. This picture is the closest I could come.