Buddhism and Grief: Where it Gets Tricky

(I spent the winter of 2012 in silence on a self-guided retreat at the Forest Refuge, a Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts. This twice-monthly blog, which begins with this installment, explores daily life in the silence, and how intensive retreats offer a compass for everyday life).

It is a warm afternoon, early March. I am deep into the retreat — ten weeks so far. As I head out for my daily walk in the forest that surrounds the center, I pass the communal message board near the dining room. A note is posted with my name on it. This is very odd. I read: Someone has called with news that my friend Bob died.

I turn back and return to my single dorm room, lie down, and cry. It’s a brief, clear, unobstructed cry. A few minutes later, I head out again to walk in the forest.

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Blood Brothers

The first time I donated blood was August, 1973. I was 14 years old and weighed 100 pounds. I met neither the age nor weight requirement for blood donation. They took it anyway.

The blood clinic was at Long Island Jewish Hospital. My older brother, my only sibling, was a patient in the pediatric unit. The blood was for him.

Mark had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia eight months earlier. With today’s treatments, as many as 90 percent of children survive it . But in the early 1970s, the grim medical consensus was incurable.

That didn’t stop my parents from trying, of course.

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Rishikesh, India March 2015

My favorite childhood book was a 1950s, pre-Harry Potter fantasy called “Knight’s Castle.” A group of four children set up an imaginary battlefield with toy soldiers from the time of Ivanhoe. They don’t know that one of the tin soldiers has magic power, and in the middle of the night the children are transported through time to a dreamlike kingdom. Their playfield has come alive.  

Welcome to Rishikesh, India! Laxman Jhula, to be precise.
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Europe September, 2012

For the fourth time in two years, I have just spent a chunk of time in Europe. One month this go-around: England, France, and Germany (other recent trips included Spain and Italy). There’s no compelling reason I haven’t sent dispatches from these journeys, other than, perhaps, European travel lacks the shocking novelty of some other places where I have spent time (even as it is still wonderful and evocative). This letter skims a few thematic resonances that echoed through the most recent trip. I send it in the context of the Jewish New Year – for Jews the holiest season of the year, a time for reflection, renewal, remembrance, and rebirth.

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Puja for a friend

February 14, 2013

We held a puja for Chris this evening, at sunset, on the banks of the Ganga River (mother Ganga, throughout India, the holiest of rivers), outside the Sacha Dam Ashram in Laxman Jhula. The sun was just setting, perfectly round and glowing pink/orange/red. The air was warm and glorious, the late afternoon unusually still and quiet for India.

Chris died eight months earlier.   We had spent a full week together in Rishikesh a few years back.   On my return, Kai, his widow and my beloved frien, offered me some of his ashes to bring with me.
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Home Free: Reflections on Nine Years Without a Fixed Address

December 2010, Green River, Vermont. I’m with my friend Craig in his comfortable old farmhouse, nestled in a picture-postcard setting. The kitchen windows look out on the gentle river and a covered wooden bridge. The place screams “Vermont!” like a cheesy advertisement from the Chamber of Commerce. He and I are having a fine visit. I am home.

February 2009, Rishikesh, India. It’s my third stay in four years at the cheap, funky, zero-star Hotel Ishan. I’m in my favorite room, overlooking the bustling Laxman Jhula footbridge that spans the Ganges. The sacred river sparkles below as the noisy jangle of townspeople and pilgrims rises up to my small porch. I love it here. It’s not my country, or my culture, and I’m home. Continue reading

Across the Great Divide: Hiking Over the Hump of the Continent, and Something Else

 I am hiking to the Continental Divide for the first time, and I am excited.

I first learned about this geographic novelty in 1968, in Mrs. Granich’s fifth-grade class, from mimeographed sheets redolent with the smell of fresh ink. On one side of the Divide, all water flows east—spilling and seeping its gradual way into the Atlantic Ocean. On the other, it flows west, rushing or rolling inexorably toward the Pacific. It’s a spiny fulcrum bisecting the Americas, from Alaska to the nether tip of South America. My starting base is an intentional farming community near the sleepy Costa Rican village of Buenos Aires. From here it’s a two-day climb to the Divide, which in this remote region remains an unspoiled, uncharted cloud- and rainforest. Continue reading

Into the Silence: Can I Renounce Speech, and Almost Everything Else, for Three Months?

I’m sitting at a picnic table behind the institutional but stately brick building that houses the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. It’s the last day of summer, and glorious. Blue sky, the air warm and hinting at humidity, even a tad sultry. I’m staring into a thick forest that skirts the property. I can see the forest’s edge, but not what lies just a bit deeper within.

For the 60-odd people gathered here, it’s not just the end of summer. It’s the last day of many things. Soon we will enter into the protracted agonies, delights, monotony, and strangeness of a long communal silence.              Continue reading

Israel, April 2010

Near the end of the Seder, the ritual re-telling of the Jewish exodus from Egyptian slavery millennia ago, there comes a wish that every Jew familiar with the holiday of Passover (Pesach) knows by heart: “Next year in Jerusalem.” I have just ended a seven week journey to Israel, most of it in Jerusalem. Because I had the good fortune to be invited to a wonderful (and long) seder during my visit, for me it was this year in Jerusalem. As has become my custom, I offer this letter (admittedly too long for email – I apologize) to share some reflections on my time in what one friend aptly called our “challenging, invigorating and maddening homeland.”                  Continue reading

India January 2009

It’s 8:00am in Rishikesh, India, and the sun has not yet risen above the hills that line the Ganges River (the Ganga). January is a bit chilly here in the evenings and the mornings, especially on days when the fog rolls in and mists cover the hillsides, and one hears the wind howl and watches it snarl and unfurl the scarves and shawls most people wear for warmth. Soon, the sun will crest the hills (hills? small mountains, really – foothills of the not-too-distant Himalayas), the sacred river – the soft green of a ripe avocado — will sparkle in her currents, and the noisy, lively, vibrant bustle of Laxman Jhula will again rise to full throttle.                                                                                  Continue reading