COMFORT: NOT A WORD FOR A ZEN WARRIOR

Photo by Peter Cunningham

I continue to be semi-hoarse since my time in Israel; maybe my voice is changing. The message I get is: Now may be a good time to shut up.

Unless he was talking about work, Bernie tended towards silence, especially in the personal sphere. As everyone knows who was around him, he talked a mile a minute with enormous confidence and enthusiasm, but put him around the dinner table and tell him your mother wasn’t feeling well or you don’t know what to do about this book or that, or even about your whole life, and he had nothing to say.

“Zen masters don’t talk.”

“He talked plenty, Stanley, just not personally. And I wanted to talk, not about Trump or things like that, but about how I was feeling and what was coming up.”

“Zen is about silence.”

“That’s a sad delusion, Stan. Meditation isn’t just about sitting or silence, it’s about everything, including talk. You know what I used to tell Bernie, Stanley? ‘I feel like an electric wire seeking to make a connection, only the socket ain’t there.’”

“That’s a terrible way to talk about your beloved husband who’s now dead and can’t defend himself.”

“Oh Stanley, why don’t you go back to being dead? And speaking about someone else who’s dead and can’t defend himself, let me tell you this story about my old friend, Hans Hokanson, a big, silent Swede, a Zen priest who made massive, gorgeous pieces of furniture. Massive and gorgeous described Hans.”

“Is he dead, too?”

“Yes, Stanley, Hans has been dead for over 20 years.”

“Then I don’t think you should talk about—“

“Just listen, Stan. Back in 1996 I flew with Hans to Vietnam on Singapore Airways. It was a long, long trip that went through Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Singapore, till we finally landed in Vietnam. In all those endless hours of travel, Hans and me sitting side by side, I think Hans may have uttered about six words.

“On our final leg from Singapore to Vietnam, the plane starts to wobble. We get into heavy clouds and wind over the Gulf of Thailand and the plane shakes. The passengers look around nervously. Of course, food is being served right then—“

“What kind of food? Steak?”

“Stop with the food, Stanley. The plane careens this way and that, plates and glasses falling all over the place. From the cockpit, nothing. Nobody says a goddamn word. Finally the plane plunges quite a way down and people scream.

“‘I wish he’d say something,’ I tell Hans.

“Hans deigns to look at me. ‘Who?’

‘’The captain, or the co-pilot. Someone should say something.’

“The plane plunges again. More screams. Silence from the cockpit.

“’Why?’ says Hans.

“’To explain to us what is happening,’ I say.

“’Why?’ says Hans.

“’Because I want to know. I’ll feel better if I know.’

“’If you die, just die,‘ says Hans.

“’I think it would calm most of us—maybe not you, but most of us—if he’d say something, the way they do on American planes.’

“’If we’re going to die what difference will it make?’

“’I’m not talking about dying, Hans, I just want some comfort!’

“Comfort. Does that word appear anywhere in Zen? ‘Why?’ says Hans, who then proceeds with the Buddha’s story of the man wounded by an arrow shot at him. Do you bother with checking whether the arrow was made in China? asks the Great Physician. Do you spend time checking out if it’s aluminum or plastic, and what other colors it comes in? Of course not. You take care of the sick man. ‘It’s the same thing,’ concludes my companion.

“’Hans,’ I say faintly, shocked by his sudden verbosity, ‘I just want the pilot to talk to us.’”

“I don’t think you should tell stories about somebody who’s dead and can’t defend himself,” says Stanley.

“Defend himself against charges he was too silent? Not Hans, Spook. Not in a million years.”