During the 1960’s, Haiku Zendo – later to become Kannon Do – was a small meditation hall in what had been a garage of a private home in Los Altos. In those early days of Zen in America and the Bay Area, Suzuki-roshi would travel once each week from San Francisco to Los Altos, with a Zen Center student as his driver. Following zazen, his Wednesday evening lectures included a question and answer dialog with his Santa Clara Valley Zen students.
One of those students was Allen – a smart, energetic, gregarious young man, always ready to laugh. He was in his mid twenties, attending medical school at Stanford. His girlfriend, Beth, was also a graduate student at Stanford. A great future was anticipated.
One Wednesday evening, Allan had a question for Suzuki-roshi:
Allan: Rōshi, I am very afraid a lot of the time. I am afraid now. Can you help me?
Suzuki-rōshi: Afraid of something of which you cannot figure out, you mean?
Allan: I think I’m afraid of being hurt, and then lost.
Suzuki-rōshi: Lost? No, it is not possible to be lost. You are here, and there is no need to be afraid. Maybe you are afraid because you are changing and because everything is always changing. But if you are always changing, why don’t you try to change for the better? As long as you make that kind of effort, there will be no need to be afraid of anything. Even a little bit of change for the better will work.
Roshi saw Allan’s plea for help not as problem to be solved analytically or emotionally, but as a spiritual dilemma. So he does not ask: What is it that you are afraid of? as might a psychologist or psychiatrist. Instead he encourages Allan to embrace his own true nature, to accept that he – along with everyone and everything – is constantly changing. And he subtly nudges Allan towards a creative approach to his fear and a more positive view of himself.
Few of us will admit to being fearful; usually we are careful to hide our vulnerability from each other. But Allan felt safe asking his question in the crowded zendo, feeling supported by fellow Sangha members and his teacher. Suzuki-roshi demonstrated that support by offering an optimistic world-view for Allan to consider: It is not possible to be lost.
A year later, Allan died suddenly of a heart attack. The Haiku Zendo community was shocked. He had no known history of illness.
In our humanity, we try to create a path for our life that will provide opportunity, satisfaction, and peace of mind. Yet despite our best efforts, inevitably and without warning, life presents us with tragedy, confusion, or fear. Not knowing what will come along, our best response to impermanence and disruptive change is to continue our practice in the midst of uncertainty, to reflect on the truth of our lives, to nurture our community, and to live each day with optimism.
In meetings and discussions with Kannon Do members – in person and via Zoom – I feel reassured that individuals are maintaining balance in the face of the Covid pandemic and the confrontations arising out of the protests around the country and the world. But not everyone is fortunate to have the support of a community like ours. We continually meet with men and women who are feeling emotional pain about what is happening around them. They feel fearful and lost; we should stay sensitive to that truth. So to everyone we meet in our everyday lives, we should speak to the mind when necessary, but we should always remember to aim for the heart.
Abbot of Kannon Do