this is the stone
drenched in rain
that marks the way
Church bells are ringing in San Miguel, all of them, for the last ten minutes. This cobblestone city is 500-years old and it feels medieval, these bells filling the air, tolling the last public Catholic mass as we await the plague.
Novel Corona virus – the killer infection no one can see. So we wash our hands, spray and carefully disinfect, not blindly but feeling blind. Mexico is perhaps three weeks from the worst, maybe a month. No one knows. But we anticipate death among friends, acquaintances, many people we’ll never know. We anticipate, perhaps, our own death.
Ancient Buddhist sects used graveyards as meditation grounds to sharpen their awareness of the precision of death and life. No student of Zen, Dr. Samuel Johnson nevertheless also had penetrating understanding: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” So yes, meditate: every day sit, sit, sit. The Buddha still meditates. And as the charnel house approaches, find that life feels especially precious. This is the stone drenched in rain that marks the way.
One thing I know more clearly now is that feeling death is feeling life. Yet, despite this urgency, hidden emotions rear up and dismay me.
I have a Mexican friend, Teo, who owns a tiny restaurant in the front of his house up on Las Moras street. Teo’s lived there since before they had running water, before there was electricity, when Las Moras was a dirt track. From his storefront he sees everyone pass and they hail him: “¡Hola Don Teo!” Don—that sign of respect. They call him El Alcalde—the mayor—and he greets them with his raspy, whiskey voice. Teo is eighty-one years old, has thirteen grandchildren, all of whom he can name; though occasionally the list stalls as he counts on his fingers, he unfailingly knows them by sight. Last time we had lunch together we simply sat and ate, he waved to passersby, and we chewed some more. Not much talk. Not much to say. We simply ate arrachera tacos.
Like me only more so, Teo is high risk to die from Corona virus. His restaurant is closed to all but take-out and still I worry about him. Thirteen grandchildren means exposure; Mexican families mingle and physical distance is difficult. Teo dying would grieve me. One day, thinking about sharing my sorrow with friends, I was taken by another feeling: I imagined the warmth of sympathy that would be mine, and admiration, because I loved another. I flushed with shame—What kind of creature am I? Compassion hijacked by ego! What knotted skein of feelings has these two so close together?
We all have zombie needs. I have past trauma from suffering Tourette syndrome as a child, being shunned and ridiculed, being out of control of my body and mind. This desire for acceptance and acknowledgement is sometimes present, the present moment, for me. Like Corona virus, neither-alive-nor-dead, we propagate past identities that don’t correspond to our present. So we learn to see our humanity with compassion. The Buddha still meditates.
I have another, deeper fear the plague has revealed. Childhood asthma robbed me of my breath. Decades before albuterol inhalers, I thrashed in bed, alone in my asphyxiating body, consoled only by my aggrieved parents and a machine spraying water vapor and Vicks VapoRub. I’m not afraid of death, but I do fear dying. Corona virus offers an ugly death-by-drowning as your lungs fill with body fluids. This is not a reality I want to revisit. And yet here I am, all the bells of San Miguel warning of that very thing.
I don’t know of what use meditation is in the midst of dying by Corona virus. How do I follow my breath if I can’t breathe? I do not know. What a koan it is. Buddhism teaches many things but nothing more important at that awful moment than “all things change.” The struggle will end. So we endure.
This fear is not my life now. Now, I wash this plate, see green sunlight through a palm leaf, take my next step. Our ordinary lives are what we have, each moment, and here is paradise. Bearing witness to life in the midst of uncertainty and death, losing our way sometimes, there is always opportunity to say, “What about the next moment?” To find a place of rest, of peace, of solace and equanimity.
This is the stone drenched in rain, splashed with our tears, perhaps dusted with our ashes. The way is marked and we walk it with compassion, for ourselves and others, as best we can.
Larry Barber now practices with Roshi Joseph Bobrow of Deep Streams Zen Institute. He lived and studied at Zen Center of Los Angeles, under Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao. He wrote and produced television in Los Angeles, and has two books published, one about U.S. military survivors of the U.S. atmospheric nuclear testing program, and a second about Tourette syndrome. He lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.