The Not-so-big “E”

Mark Hooper/Gallerystock

It took having an enlightenment experience to realize that it was no big deal.

by Peter Coyote

(Peter Coyote is a Zen priest and actor living in Mill Valley, California.)

In the first week of December 2009, I was 68 years old. Infirmity and dying were in the forefront of my mind. 45 years earlier I had contracted hepatitis C from shooting drugs. It had remained undiagnosed until the late 1990s, by which time the disease had been conscripting and destroying my liver cells for all those years.

My youth had left, snatching as it exited, the firm outlines of my body and my once distinct jaw-line and un-creased neck. The backs of my hands were dotted with liver spots, and shadows pooled below my eyes. My stamina had diminished and like most people who have aged beyond the notice of today’s diversions for the young, my acting career had settled into a stasis with no promise of any breakthroughs. Sickness, old age, and death had become tangible to me in ways that had been only romantic posturing in my twenties.

It was now incontrovertible that in a conceivable future, everything I held dear, every memory and achievement, every treasure, includ­ing my own body, would be stripped from me. That is the central, unavoidable fact of human existence (and a fundamental tenet of Buddhism) and when it changed from a notion into a certainty, my perspective changed with it, particularly my ideas about time. Looking backwards, the lengthening succession of dead friends and family dis­appeared into emptiness like a black thread being unspooled into a tub of ink. The only uncertainty in my future now was speculation about how savagely sickness, old age, and death would claim their due. With these thoughts as unpleasant companions, I decided to sit another seven-day sesshin [intensive retreat]. It was December again, time forRohatsu, the Great Cold sesshin.

Sesshins are always rough, and this time the first three days were particularly difficult. Though my shaking and convulsions had sub­sided many years before and I could now sit as solidly as those senior monks I’d once envied, my body was 40 years older. The pain in my knees was intense, debilitating, and distracting to the degree that dur­ing a private audience with my teacher on the third day, I confessed to him that I would have to quit the sesshinbecause I could not bear the pain any longer.

He was mildly critical of me for not paying closer attention to my body and for trying to bull my way through. “You’re nearly seventy,” he said. “It’s hard to admit that all your cards are on the table now and that you have none left to draw. You’ll have to play the ones you have as best you can. That is the central fact of your existence. That is reality and you’ll have to adjust to that. You are living what we mean when we say, ‘seeing without delusion.’ You only have one set of knees and you need to take care of them. If you have to sit in a chair, sit in a chair. Don’t cripple yourself trying to be tough or refusing to recognize the reality of your body or your age.”

He was correct of course and had pinpointed the underlying depres­sion amplifying my physical pain. After our conversation, I began alternating meditation periods between my cushion and a chair, calculating backwards from mealtimes so that the meditation period before a meal (which I preferred to take on my cushion) was done in a chair. This relieved the stress on my knees and the consequent reduction of pain allowed me to refocus and dedicate my efforts wholeheartedly. I aligned myself to the schedule without further resistance, and was able to focus my concentration on a question that had arisen for me on the sesshin‘s first day.

It was a simple question I had condensed into a short mnemonic phrase—”What is it?”—mental shorthand for the larger question­ “What is it I’m missing or still searching for?” By the end of day four I was completely absorbed by it. It accompanied each inhale and exhale, and resided within me, simmering on a back burner, whether meditat­ing, walking, or eating. It floated through my dreams…



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