Bernie died a year ago today..
Many people believe in reincarnation. My friend in the UK showed me a video of a tiny child, 2 years at the oldest, listening to classical music, a piece by the Armenian composer, Khachaturian. The child is conducting. There’s no other word to describe it. He puts his arms together, hands moving in a relaxed way till the melody surges, when he raises his arms dramatically. When a certain instrument comes in he points with one arm, as if pointing to a section of the orchestra, and when the music fades he brings his arms down slowly, as if bringing the piece to a close.
Bernie didn’t believe much in reincarnation, but to my eyes he was a Chan hermit in a past life, one of those masters who chose an independent, self-contained life, walking up and down Chinese mountains to visit with other hermits, engage in verbal jousts and test each other’s understanding. He was spontaneous, unrestrained, and full of laughter.
“He was the freest man we knew,” one couple told me. And I’d groan to myself in agreement: Yes, because he had no attachments.
“Don’t worry about this,” he’d say about one thing or another. “You’re too attached.”
“And you could use an attachment or two,” I’d say right back.
So now I’m off to Poland, and tomorrow I will bring his ashes to Auschwitz-Birkenau and leave them there, as he asked. He and I first went to the site of that concentration camp in December of 1994, almost exactly 25 years ago, before we became a couple, and while I went to pieces there along with many others, he watched the effect the place had on people. Enlightenment is not another decoration for you to wear, it’s a total unraveling. He saw that that’s exactly the impact that place had; it could change people’s lives provided there was a strong container and support for those who went there.
Bernie was a master of upayas, of skillful means, Not for him to rest in the same old tried and true techniques, the various forms of meditation and koan study, the retreats and meetings with teachers. Not everybody wakes up in the same way, he said again and again; some ways work for some but not for others. He meditated daily, but his job, as he saw it, was to develop other means, too. So he brought people to Auschwitz-Birkenau and he took them to live on the streets.
After the stroke he could no longer think of new skillful means; he lost a lot of that evaluating, discriminative ability. Instead he seemed to go right back to essence, to what it is to be alive and awake in a very sick, disabled body. He would enjoy the irony of how a man who refused to exercise his entire life now had to do it again and again just to keep in place, just to keep afloat. When he could no longer judge what worked for others he plunged into the depths of his own self, and stayed there.
“Harry, what are you doing in Heathrow Airport?”
“Come home, Boss. Aussie’s chewing on my back legs and chasing my tail. We need you.”
“I’m sure you’re well taken care of, Harry. I have a job to do for Bernie.”
“Never met him.”
“The thing is, Harry, it took me a long time to realize that I married a hermit.”
“Hermits are people without a pack. They leave the pack and go off on their own.”
“Was he looking for a female, Boss?”
“I think he was looking for something else, Harry.”
“What else is there?”
“My point is, Harry, I got together with a hermit.”
“You mean you got into a pack with someone who didn’t want to be in a pack?”
“That’s it exactly, Harry.”
“Sounds like a problem, Boss.”
“Bernie was a pack of one.”
“Aussie said you used to have lots of folks around.”
“Bernie always had lots of folks around him, but they were more like visitors, see?”
“Didn’t he chase them away?”
“Boss, what’s a pack of one?”
“It’s a Zen thing, Harry.”
“Must take lots of practice.”
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