This amaryllis has been going strong for over a month. It opens up and opens up, and then, when you think it can’t anymore, it opens up some more. Eventually it’ll curl and crumple, fold into itself before shedding petals. But before that it will open till there’s nothing hidden.
I watch it day by day and think of Bob Lee, our friend who passed away last week (see below). He started out as a family physician and became a psychiatrist, eventually heading up the psychiatric services of Kaiser Permanente, probably the nation’s pre-eminent health insurance program.
Bob was also a Zen meditator for at least half a century. Unlike other Zen practitioners/therapists who tried to combine or reconcile the two approaches in some way, Bob kept both very separate. Instead, he helped many Zen practitioners, at no cost, to mediate relationships with partners, children, teachers, and inside the sangha.
When we were developing the Greyston organizations in Yonkers, New York, he’d fly over from San Francisco to be with us. We all knew we could talk to him individually and privately. The work was grueling and the hours were long, and in those early days we still hadn’t developed approaches to help us handle conflict and complexity in community.
Funny how naïve we were then, thinking that sitting meditation in silence would solve everything. Thankfully, we’ve learned some lessons since then.
But the Zen Community of New York had Bob. He’d sit in someone’s small bedroom and people would come to him with their troubled hearts. Years later Bernie and I would go to him for couple counseling during the year we lived in La Honda.
Again, it’s funny how tough so many of us were in those days. It was as if Zen practice was the antidote to everything. After all, there seemed to be a diagnosis: You’re confused because you don’t see that there is no self. So who’s there to get hurt? Diagnosis and cure all mixed together.
Funny what big circles we could run around feelings and wounds. It’s as though we had to become Spartans all, in denial of that most basic truth of the Buddha, that suffering was part and parcel of the whole shebang. The amount of energy spent on denial in Zen centers at that time could have powered our planet because many of us were warriors, gathering up strength not to open like the amaryllis, but to build stronger, thicker armor from the mess that is life, the mess that is love.
Along came Bob, who knew so much but seemed so simple. You’d talk to him, empty your heart overladen with the debris of denial, and he’d listen, giving a brief and low hmmm every once in a while. His voice was very low-pitched so that even in the early days you had to listen hard. At this point I don’t much remember the content as much as the softness he encouraged in me, addressing hurt in a kind and gentle language that one didn’t much find in Zen centers those days. He himself didn’t do long-term therapy, he felt that a lot could be done in just a few skillful sessions, eschewing stories of the past and focusing on the moment and our reactions now.
As he got older Bob was like the amaryllis, opening up and opening up. He became transparent in those later years, deriving so much joy from the people around him. Well, hello, you rascal, he would say to me in his low, lugubrious voice.
His eyes positively sparkled when he saw Bernie. He loved Bernie, and Bernie loved him back. They were from an old era, shared recollections of old teachers and friends. They had a language together that was coherent to others but contained a depth of emotion and association that I think only they recognized.
The years passed and Bob just unveiled and unveiled. Even as his body hardened and stiffened his mind seemed to grow more boyish, experiencing surprised delight at a new sun, a new book, and new/old faces.
Finally he crumpled, as the amaryllis will shortly do.
The Buddha may not have been right about everything, but he was right about many things, including the fact that one flower could transmit the dharma for many, many generations.