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  • Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Closing Sesshin Reflection/Birth and Death

Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Closing Sesshin Reflection/Birth and Death

  • Thursday, March 14, 2024

Nomon Tim offers a reflection on the first evening of the practice period's closing sesshin.

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Tim's talk notes:

We're part of a culture that loves beginnings and struggles with endings.

There's a new baby in my life - Berwin Geno Opiyo - son of my Kenyan daughter Mercy Ukumu and her husband Max. Born on January 25th in Nairobi, Kenya. Stay tuned if you had a chance to meet Mercy when she was here in July for our wedding - we're trying to organize a visit from her in May with baby Berwin.

Amazing that life can just come together and express itself in that way. Amazing is too small of a word. An enormous miracle and his birth brought so many other changes in his new family. New joys and new challenges.

And there are a few new deaths in my life. Early in January our member and friend Michael Kelberer died from cancer - he was in his late 60's I think - and last Tuesday our long term member, friend, and sangha priest Edie Norton from heart disease and basically her body and mind just being done. Ready to go.

Michael was an enthusiastic late arrival to meditation. Michael was a joyful and enthusiastic man. He had all kinds of background from a varied career: publishing, geology, banking and finance. He had an intense curiosity about everything. Michael was also in long term recovery from alcohol, a trauma history, and had pretty low access to his emotions. His emotional blind spots made relationships with women and his children a real challenge but somehow that didn't seem to get him down. He'd just keep trying to connect.

Michael took one of my mindfulness classes soon after he moved to Bellingham from Minnesota. Maybe about 2015 or so. He was so excited. A new way to be in his mind. New insights. He was constantly telling me about new discoveries he was making about himself.

And he was impressed with the little non-profit I'd started to offer mindfulness and quickly progressed from a dedicated volunteer to a staff person to joining the Board of Directors. Along the way helping me with organizational stuff, finances, and straight up schlepping and organizing stuff. For a while he was kind of a personal assistant and wanted full access to my schedule: okay I said, I've never done that with anyone. But he had a tendency to run ahead of me a bit sometimes so after new meetings I'd never heard started popping up on my calendar I realized that was a bit too much. Pretty much he loved what I was doing, loved me, and wanted to help.

For 4 or 5 years he circled around the sangha too but stayed firmly rooted in the mindfulness side of my life. He'd sign up for a hike or a one day sit at Red Cedar and then cancel. I never did find out what was going on for him there, maybe he didn't know himself - somehow 100% of the time over a dozen or two Zen events something always came up that caused him to cancel. For a while he was even volunteer registrar, along with Judith Koontz, so he was intimately a part of Red Cedar in a way but we never saw him in the zendo on the Zen trail.

I can't remember if it was just before or after his cancer diagnosis and how it all connected to the pandemic years but in his last few years he got over the barrier to practice and started sitting and studying Zen. And his curious mind sprung into action again. Devouring books on Zen. Asking me and Kanho Chris lots of questions. And as a member he joined several committees and offered lots of ideas. One of his favorites was a fairly elaborate system, which did have a lovely logic to it, about how we should price our events with total rationality. In the end we honored him for the effort and did something simpler - but that's another story.

The important thing is in the sangha he found refuge. He found peace. In what turned out to be the last year of his life he started studying precepts. Chris and I supported him together in this and gave him the name Shūhō Hōken. Shūhō means to study the dharma: honoring his great energy around studying and digesting and absorbing everything he could. And Hōken means "phoenix revealed" - phoenix as you know is from Greek mythology - a bird that is reborn in fire - but our names are from Chinese characters so the character called "Hō" here is in Chinese "peng" which is a giant bird that transforms from a fish - the Chinese phoenix to honor the transformational change that was happening in him as he found Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. His jukai ended up being two months before his death.

When he got sick his curiosity was there to help him and protect him: he'd quiz his doctors on every medical detail. I hope they enjoyed giving him little graduate level seminars on the biology of cancer. Then he suddenly had a severe stroke and I was there when the neurologist came to his hospital room to explain how the blood clot had formed and moved into his brain and affected his visual cortex - he suddenly couldn't see but his eyes were shining with curiosity anyway and he asked lots of questions with much enthusiasm.

And we are all subject to change and suffering. The cancer was into his brain and he started having nightmares and visions and being deeply confused and upset in the last weeks. In the morning he felt too frightened and couldn't distinguish the stuff of his dreams and nightmares from the waking world. The veil getting thinner in a way.

Another great surprising blessing of his last couple of years was he and a dear friend Dawn reconnected. She's been a girlfriend, and then a platonic roommate, and how they reconnected as a unique kind of couple and got married. Dawn saw him through as a deeply caring, grounded caretaker. She's living in his house now above Lake Padden and finding her way into a new chapter of life. Bless you Dawn.

There's a line in the jukai ceremony - when you receive the precepts -  I appreciate deeply. When we're about to give the student their rakusu - their new clothing - we say that this garment is "to protect you in this life and in lives to come." I told him that sometimes the lives to come seem far off, we are subject to that illusion, but the great blessing of his presence that day was to remind all of us that the lives to come are right here. He appreciated my pointing that out, he said.

May you be well in your life to come, Michael. Good friend, colleague, student. You were a beautifully and perfectly flawed man of this saha world and now you practice in nirvana.

Edie's history with us is much longer. She came to Bellingham in 2004 I think. At the age of 68 or 69. Retired here from a varied career in the Bay Area of California. High school teacher, organizational consultant, a variety of administrative roles.

And she arrived with a deep and established Zen practice. I can't remember if there being a sangha here was one of the factors in her choosing Bellingham, probably. Edie had been practicing far longer than I had actually. She was instantly our most senior member in that way.

You can read some of these details with more accuracy in her wonderful book, Autumn Light, but here's the gist and a little about what I appreciated so deeply about Edie.

She met Zen in a time of crisis. She had two teenage sons, one from each of two marriages, was working and trying to raise them and her husband was in crisis. Severe alcoholic and depressed but also brilliant and with an academic interest in Buddhism and Zen. When she was just about at the breaking point it was actually her husband who suggested learning about Zen. She started reading Alan Watts at his suggestion and then was surprised to see a Zen class advertised at the local community college.

A fun side note is I also grew up in the Bay Area - in the next town over - so I know the neighborhood she lived in and the community college and all of the other places in her story.

At the college the instructor was a Japanese man who sort of danced into the room. Lively and excited on the one hand and yet deeply grounded on the other - kind of luminous. This turned out not to be a professor of Asian studies or something but an actual Zen master!

I never met Kobun Chino Otagawa myself but I've heard many stories from many of his students. He was part of the small group of Zen priests whom Suzuki Roshi invited over from Japan to help him with the growing convert Zen scene in California.

Kobun Chino founded groups all over and he was always in motion himself: Santa Cruz Zen Center where I started regular practice a decade later, a mountain retreat center in the Santa Cruz mountains called Jikoji, and a sitting group in a house in Los Altos where Edie practiced.

I can't say all of the many ways Edie's studies with Kobun and time with the sangha there started changing her. Her book is a bit better than my memories there. But it was a critical support during a difficult time and a turning point that would lead to a new life.

After her husband's death by suicide Kobun was right there with her. She showed me the other day a note he wrote her soon after. He wrote it in Japanese and someone translated it for her. I wish I had the wording for us but it was a powerful statement of encouragement to forgive and love her husband and to let him go and move on. To understand her own strength.

Kobun was a kind of wild character. For her first jukai ceremony with him he just showed up at her door one day and said "let's do a ceremony" - I think the rakusu was machine sewn, maybe he had some from Japan or somewhere. They sat down and she barely knew what was going on. He gave her the name  Shunko Myoko - Spring Light, Wonderful Happiness. I think this was not that long after her husband's death. What confidence in her he had! Confidence in her rebirth - Spring - and the human heart's ability to heal - wonderful happiness. That was in 1977.

Kobun then drifted off to New Mexico (mostly) and started sanghas there. To Europe too I think. And Edie started going up to Green Gulch Farm to practice. Another place deep in my practice history. There she connected to Tenshin Reb Anderson and did jukai again but in the way we tend to do it. Taking a class, learning about the precepts, sewing your own rakusu - a process that takes a year or so. Reb gave her her second name of  Zaren Shinge - Sitting Lotus, Deep Understanding. This was in 2000. And a few years later she joined our sangha.

When I was getting to know Edie who even though she was much older than me both chronologically and practice wise she said she was happy to have me as her teacher. I was surprised and honored and I actually asked her: "really? Why me?"  She said, "Well, I think you're smart, and determined, and you have created this wonderful sangha - you see things through - and I need someone that will see things through with me." 

She told me that while "of course" she's a lay person - having raised kids, had a career and so on - really her goal in retirement was to practice deeply and being retired she was curious how to approach practice I suggested to her that she be a "monk in the world" and that fit her well. So we worked on that together.

One of the difficult things for her about the monk side of that equation is that one aspect of home leaving is releasing from attachment to your family. She was in a bit of a crisis with her fully grown children. She was deeply involved and in constant touch, and it was getting to be too much for them. They love her deeply - I've been learning something about how deeply lately actually - but they were fed up and they were telling her so and it upset her deeply. Kind of rocked her to the core. If I'm not Alec and Dan's mother, who am I? She asked me.

She took the in-the-world part seriously too. Not just helping to take care of our sangha but doing serious volunteering in the community. On the planning commission. Boards of organizations. Helping many important groups in our town move forward with her keen intelligence, impeccable follow through, and organizational savvy.

And of course she knew full well in her head that here was a deep practice of letting go. And she did. She softened, she released, she was very deliberate and careful about it. She found a new way of being with them and after a while they relaxed too. She was able to reconnect in a new way and this was especially important in terms of her two granddaughters - Alec's sons in Florida - whom she loved and admired deeply.

After this big shift had played out it occurred to me to question the "of course I'm a lay person." I suggested that she honor her ongoing deep practice by ordaining. She was thrilled, and it turned out she'd thought of that years ago but given up on the idea. And we did that. She was ordained in September 2013 and that Fall entered monastic practice at Tassajara Zen Monastery at the age of 78.

Most of her book is about those three months and the years she spent afterwards digesting the lessons learned from that experience. Mostly about letting go and accepting things as they are in an ever deeper way. Accepting that she couldn't do everything "right" was a deep part.

Tassajara is a rigorous place. The wake up bell is before 4am. There is zazen and work all day. Sitting into the evening. Day after day after day after day. The training periods are 90 days long. It's challenging for young energetic bodies. You can imagine doing that in your late 70's. Our dear friend Kate took this on in her early 70's. One of these days I need to send a student there who's actually a reasonable age to be doing such things.

It was hard for sure. Very hard. But also valuable. Very valuable for her. Please do read her book.

Returning she served the sangha so deeply. She was a very strong president of our board who took on major organizational clarifications and improvements. She was steady. She was here. She got along well with almost everyone.

As a priest and emerging sangha she worked mostly with people one on one at her house. We periodically renew a mentorship program here - it's about time for another renewal actually - pairing senior students with newer folks and Edie's pairings always seemed to turn into deep dharma friendships that lasted the rest of her life. Word quietly spread that if you asked Edie she'd suggest tea and a dharma book to read together.

This turned out to be really fortunate because in the last years or her life it became increasingly hard for her to spend the energy to get to the Zendo. Especially with our primary practice happening in the evenings. And sesshin got to be too challenging physically - another opportunity for her to practice some challenging letting go. But she could still host students at her house and she did. There are many of them among us tonight.

Her last teaching for us was about conscious aging. She set her usual intelligence, organization, and thoughtfulness to the task. That's a whole other dharma talk maybe but she did exactly that. Aged consciously, carefully, step by step. Changing and modifying her routines and choices as her body changed. She wasn't always happy about that - this isn't the story of a perfect saint - but she accepted it.

The last two times I saw her. The 2nd to last she was pretty well house bound but mobile. Trailing an oxygen tube we made tea together and sat down at the table to plan her memorial ceremony - yes she planned her own memorial ceremony with me. A favorite late life story from her was when she called the burial at sea service to make arrangements to do that the captain said, "wow I don't think I've ever gotten a call from the person in the box before!" Conscious aging  to the max. Realistic. No denial. Step by step.

She also studied traditional Buddhist texts a bit and her last words probably reflect that. After her consciousness was starting to leave in the last few days, she'd been silent for maybe 36 hours, she woke up at 3am and said, "Access the light for this is a solemn moment!" Her daughter in law sitting with her snoozing in the chair asked her, "what was that Edie?" and she repeated those words very clearly ennunciating each one. Then she was again silent and withdrawn. A few hours later she left her body to us for one last teaching.

The last teaching: washing and dressing the body, sitting together, her drawing us together.

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