From the Notebook: Maybe my posting a picture of cats a few days ago brought this memory back.
“Two kinds of dogs on the streets here…one lies flat-out in death-like positions, too tired, hungry or sick to move away from the feet of passersby or the wheels of cars. The second has a wired energy, quick intelligence, their eyes scan people for some aura or transfer of energy. My eyes instinctively avoid contact with these dogs. Yesterday evening, at a bus stop, a dog turned on its heels and trotted toward me––a tattered black coat of matted hair with black-purple patches of flaking skin worn bone thin. He came into pitiful, sharp view and then sat down on its haunches looking up into my eyes. His frightened eyes opened wide, stabbing straight into my heart. His head turned left then right, then jerked upward, once, twice, in a primal body language. I need food. I need food. Yes, hear me, I need food. This is a smart animal, I thought. As if reading my mind, he barked one time. Yes, I’m talking to you right now. Hear me. I need food. I had no food so I turned away quickly, walking away, trying not to look back. When I turned, he was trailing me discretely, plaintively. Take me with you. I’ll come with you. I thought about taking him home and pictured the taxi driver’s face watching me open the door with a sorry city mongrel. When I went outside again the dog had returned to the bus stop. He was prancing in a quick dance, beseeching people getting off the bus with a chorus of discrete barks, high and crisp, talking, not threatening. Then he stopped, knelt back on his haunches like before, and sang his song directly in front of a lady who carried an umbrella and a grocery sack. I’m life too. This is Me-Dog. I need help. Give. He nipped at the woman’s plastic bag. Share something. I was frozen. Another life marker, a slice of life to be buried inside my heart––this dog’s open, plaintive eyes and his language, his need. He was talking directly to people and no one took any action.
The next evening the bus stop was empty, but for that dog curled up into himself, a black mass burrowed into the day’s papers and trash. His head rested on his front paws. His eyes stared straight ahead, and he didn’t look up or speak as I placed food in front of his mouth and walked away.”
Abandonment, ignoring real need, ignoring a chance to do good: That dog haunts me. Still, I stumble out of bed each morning and automatically resurrect psychological walls between me and things that I can help change for the better. I go through each day mostly anesthetized to others’ pain––mothers and children living on the streets, fathers unable to provide, traumatized animals, the war against nature––as if calling myself an adult requires that I accept people and animals in pain and the abuse of the physical world. Ignore it, or risk looking immature, soft hearted, naive or stupid. It’s one thing to worry about things on the other side of the world, and another to walk away from what directly confronts our senses. I’m guilty of voluntarily shutting down my natural responses to do good acts. If our acts are ever totaled up in the ledger of life, we all are. We’re so much smarter than we act. The only minimal response to the pain and abuse in the world is to do as many acts of physical kindness as we can each morning and each evening. That may be too little, but if we keep it in mind and act on it maybe it’s enough to keep us human, to break down the wall.
A Vietnamese Monk in Grand Prairie and a Philipino Zen Master in Dallas
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so––William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II
Thich Tre Hien was a small, wiry Vietnamese monk with a wispy, white beard who had studied for nine years in a Zen monastery in Japan. In early 1988, on a hot summer day in Grand Prairie, Texas, he noticed three men and a woman pacing back and forth on the sidewalk opposite his house, which served as a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple. They carried handmade signs with English writing. Tre Hien’s English was simple, but he could read the writing: “No Vietnamese here,” “Buddhism is a godless religion” and “Repent.” A few cars honked horns as they drove past the house in the blue-collar neighborhood, where many people worked on assembly lines for the large aircraft and automotive manufacturing plants.
Tre Hien had been assigned to Texas a few years earlier by his Vietnamese Buddhist order. He opened his home-temple, Chua Phap Quang (Lotus Dharma), in the suburb just beyond the Dallas city limits to serve the large Vietnamese community. Most were recent refugees who were known as the boat people. Grand Prairie, with its redneck reputation, is a long downtown strip of commercial stores on US 180 running west out of Dallas. Southern Baptist fundamentalist churches dominate the area.
Stories about the demonstration appeared in the Dallas newspapers. A few days later, I visited Tre Hien to what was going on. The white clapboard house was shaded by towering pecan trees on a spacious lot surrounded by a well-tended garden of roses and native wildflowers in full bloom, offering bursts of color and beauty in an otherwise drab, car-in-the-yard neighborhood. There were ferns and flowering bushes, bird feeders, wind chimes and a rock pathway winding along the side of the house, where several old cars were parked outside a side door. Dozens of shoes were scattered in front of the door.
I peaked through the screen door into a kitchen. A half dozen Vietnamese sitting on the floor turned to look, a silent pause during an evening meal of noodle soup. Tre Hin came to the door, business like, walking in the slightly flat-footed way that comes from years in a Japanese monastery. He motioned for me to take off my shoes and come inside. Tre Hien was the first true Zen man I had ever met. I say that having never heard him give a teisho, or Zen talk, but based on our conversations in simple English, I am sure of it.
“Please sit, have tea,” he said, smiling. I smiled at everyone and took a seat on the kitchen floor beside a low table holding bowls of pungent Asian food. Tre Hin wore brown, baggy pants and a light yellow T-shirt. A white-haired Vietnamese woman silently cut vegetables, her teeth stained dark red from chewing betel nut. I could see Tre Hein’s sleeping mat on the floor in his bedroom. A bookshelf with a Kuan Yin statue was next to his sleeping mat. He said he didn’t teach Americans at his temple because his English was too poor. Yes, I could meditate in the temple room of the house anytime I wished. There were also two Americans who had recently ordained as a monk living in a small room in the back of the house.
Later that evening, after a large bowl of noodles and duck egg soup, and many cups of tea, I meditated for thirty minutes alone in the temple room, the first time I had actually meditated anywhere outside of my house. The living room had been converted into a temple room with a bright red carpet and a three-foot gold Buddha statue surrounded by a display of flowers from the garden. Chalky spirals of pungent incense drifted across the Buddha’s downcast eyes. I was certain it was the biggest Buddha statue ever to appear in Grand Prairie. I was happy to be sitting alone in the room, breathing slower and slower with the muffled sounds of Vietnamese coming from the kitchen. The sound of Tre Hien’s faint voice steadily rose and fell. I felt like a foreigner in another country––a little self-conscious, on-show. But I began to feel at home in a house full of Vietnamese immigrants.
My legs were in the half-lotus position. A few months before, I had started sitting in my home. As my leg muscles relaxed, I felt a comforting strength rise up my spinal column. After a few minutes, my breathing was almost imperceptible, and my back and shoulders grew more erect. My attention focused on the movement of my breath in and out. I felt a bridge opening up between my head and my stomach, air coming in through my nose, slowly expanding my lungs, expanding my stomach slightly, before passing out again, ever more slowly and naturally. My stomach muscles moved like a bellows, drawing in, expanding, and letting go naturally. The space in my mind cleared as my breath and thoughts moved slower and slower. My body, breath and mind settled and, most important, I was aware of the settling and yet removed at the same time. I smiled inside.
I was 46 years old. I sensed that I had finally found a place that I had been moving toward ever since I read a 61-page book on Zen Buddhism published by The Peter Pauper Press in 1959, when I was seventeen. It was a collection of excerpts from books by D.T. Suzuki. The book had found me early, but why had it taken so long for the journey from that little book to meditating in Tre Hien’s house in Grand Prairie?
Sitting in his temple that night instantly connected me to the tradition of formal Buddhist meditation in a practice that is thousands of years old, a structured, practical way to pursue a well-worn path of fulfilling growth, a way to take hold of one’s life. Tre Hien had come from the East to a redneck suburban neighborhood in Texas to offer me a place to experience my breath slowly moving in and out. He had created a place where I could still my thoughts and energize my mind and body. When I meditate now, decades later, I can taste exactly what it was like to meditate that first time in his home-temple. Tre Hien’s journey from the East to Grand Prairie was the reverse of the journey I took West as a young army recruit, assigned to Vietnam in the first wave of a few hundred Americans who entered the country in 1961, and then again as a grown man ready to start a new life in Thailand.
For two years, I sat three or four nights a week in the temple, along with a fellow American, Ananda, aka Steve Emory, a lanky, 6-foot, 4-inch Dallas native in his early thirties who had lived in the temple for the past year. Gentle and soft-spoken, Ananda guided me into a regular meditation practice and brought me along so that within two months I could in the full-lotus position for a two-hour meditation period with three breaks of five minutes walking meditation. Together, we deepened our practice together, usually ending the night with tea in the kitchen.
After meditation, Tre Hien frequently joined us as we sat on the floor at the low kitchen table. I watched him carefully, but nothing ever seemed to happen out of the ordinary. Then I understood that was it. Nothing out of the ordinary. What is is. It’s an amazing teaching to truly absorb and fully practice. We shared simple conversations, but, even more important, we shared time together and we were comfortable sitting in the silent house sipping tea.
One night, he asked, “How is your meditation?”
“Sometimes things feel far away, ” I said.
“You’re always closer than you think,” he said. That became a teaching that has never left me.
Over the next two years, the little home-temple attracted more Vietnamese .
A few Americans drifted in and out, but few developed a rigorous meditation practice. The temple had many Vietnamese supporters, but few practiced meditation. Eventually, it expanded into a large, red brick temple constructed in a vacant area behind the house.
I began to think about finding another place where I could meet more people interested in meditation and Zen. Somehow I came across the name of Sister Pascaline, a Catholic nun who lived at a retreat in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. I wrote her a letter asking if she knew of a meditation group in the Fort Worth-Dallas area. She immediately wrote back giving me a name: Ruben Habito, who lived in Dallas. I called and he answered. Yes, he had just started sitting with two or three people a few evenings each week in a room in a small house near the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas. Bring your zafu, he said, you’re welcome to join us. There’s a Zen saying: When you’re ready, the teacher will appear. I didn’t know it at the time, but an authorized Zen teacher had finally come to Texas. He was ready to organize a zendo, and I had found my second teacher.