This morning I sat, the window above the altar, and noticed a black animal hopping up and down in the snowy slope behind our house. Looks like Aussie, I thought drowsily. Then: It is Aussie!
I jumped up and ran downstairs in my yellow-and-white bathrobe, slipped on a pair of boots because it was snowing. There’s a fence outside to keep her in, and she’d obviously found a way out. She was nowhere to be seen so I went out front and yelled for her, and she came sprinting down the driveway, as happy as could be.
“Okay,” I said, leading her to the back, “show me how you got out.”
Proudly she scampered towards two bird feeders that had obviously drawn her attention, walked behind the maple, and I saw it. The roots of the maple were above-ground, the fence behind it had been lowered by a bear interested in said bird feeders last spring, and by scampering up the roots she was able to bound up and over the lowered fence.
Doggedly (yes, even people walk doggedly), I went to the back shed where I found a large, broken trash barrel. We live in New England; no one throws anything away. It had snow and ice inside even this early in the season, so I emptied it, took it back to Aussie’s escape route, and planted it smack between the tree and the lowered fence, blocking her way to freedom.
She sniffed it, first from one side, then from the other. “You blocked my way to having fun,” she says.
“I’m keeping you safe,” I tell her.
“I don’t want to be safe, I’m young. I need to differentiate and individuate.”
“What does that mean?”
“I need to run away,” she says.
“You need to be safe,” I tell her.
“I need to have fun, run, do my thing,” she says.
“You, Aussie, are a juvenile delinquent!”
“And proud of it!” she retorts.
For most of his life, Bernie didn’t play it safe.
A couple, students of his for almost 40 years, told me he was the freest man they ever knew.
“The way he led Greyston was like dancing on the precipice of an abyss,” someone else said. “I see him in my dreams dancing on the edge, holding on to an umbrella, and laughing at our fears and worries, just laughing.” Add to that a cigar in his mouth and a red beret on his head, I think to myself, and yes, that was him. We still shake our heads incredulously at what he and a small community of talented but incompetent Zen students were able to build in southwest Yonkers: businesses, apartments for homeless families, a child care center, apartments and day center for folks with AIDS.
“You have no experience,” people told him.
“You have no money.”
He waved the beret in the air.
And finally, the remark that was so classic back then: “This isn’t Zen.”
That drew the biggest guffaw of all.
He had enormous failures, but then you have to define failure. He knew better than anyone that the lifeblood of the Buddha flows endlessly. He looked at the battered, depressed southwest corner of Yonkers, the city referred to by others as the armpit of Westchester County, and saw a cathedral city. That’s how he referred to Yonkers, a Cathedral City. Most of us saw red crack vials littering the sidewalks, big housing projects surrounded by police cars day and night, unsafe night streets, break-ins and violence. He saw a Cathedral City.
Who saw life as it really was?
Our dokusan, or Zen interviews between teacher and student, took place on the bakery floor, over a second-hand, broken-down Apple desktop that refused to print out that day’s orders, or driving to the weekly farmers market to sell our baked goods. In one of them I complained to him that we had no money.
“We have the Buddha’s wealth right at the tips of our fingers,” he shot right back.
“The Buddha had to beg,” I moped.
Some people called him financially reckless, but many Zen Peacemakers lost their fear of money, or lack of it, by going on the streets or working with him. More important, they learned to do their own kind of begging, sometimes called fundraising, to finance the Greystons they wanted to build.
The freest man they ever met, our friends said. And my mind went back to an evening of just him and me.
He: “Why do you talk of the past? The practice is to drop attachments.”
“For some it’s to develop them,” I retorted.
Free. Safe. Free. Safe. Free. Safe.