“. . . without vulnerability
there can be no relationship.”
David Brooks *
I don’t know what losses, what anguish, may have led New York Times opinion writer David Brooks to this consolation, maybe his brick wall of certainty, of control, of this is me, crumbled, reality gone, the reality we walk hand in hand with until the hand drops, and we are left staring into the void. So now Who am I? Who can I turn to?
Pema Khandro Rinpoche writes that it is “when we lose the illusion of control–when we’re most vulnerable and exposed–that we can discover the potential of our lives” (“Breaking Open in the Bardo,” Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time, 15 July 2017). She is referring to the Tibetan Buddhism state of existence between death and rebirth–the bardo or “intermediate state,” a disruption of our “normal sense of certainty,” and we find ourselves “entombed between death and rebirth.”
This state, Ms. Rinpoche explains, “is not just a reference to the afterlife.” It occurs when something happens to cause us to lose “our old reality and it is no longer available to us.” The solid ground we stood upon has become sifting sand, has become thin air beneath our feet, what we feared, our lost reality: Things Fall Apart. “What remains is a new moment spontaneously meeting us again and again.”
I don’t claim to understand this, but I know it. You know it. Afterwards, life impossibly goes on. We breathe in, breathe out, place one foot in front of the other. Can anything good come of this feared, new reality? Yes. Maybe.
I’m trying to write toward discovery, understanding, a creative acceptance of the present, the today: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psalms 90: 12, KJV). Jesus admonished his disciples: “So do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6: 34, The Jerusalem Bible). Focus, Jesus said, on your heavenly Father’s kingdom, his righteousness (Matthew 6: 33, The Jerusalem Bible), that kingdom I am trying to comprehend–heaven now, in the present, to me, with me, freed of my past and my future, loving and serving in the creative, even joyful and playful now, having emerged from the bardo to discover and “reenter the flow of life with a new sense of groundlessness,” taking no thought of tomorrow’s troubles, its impermanence, “an illuminator of newness, the ever-unfolding present moment and its creativity” (“The Four Essential Points of Letting Go in the Bardo”).
I’m pretty sure my 1968 Marine Officer Candidate School drill instructor was not applying Christian or Buddhism theology when he told my platoon of recent college graduates soon to find ourselves in Vietnam and responsible for the lives of teenagers become men overnight, told us, lined up in the squad bay, to look to the Marine on our right, the Marine on our left, and know that soon one of them would be dead, the life expectancy of 1968’s Marine second lieutenants arriving in country being hours, maybe a day or two. Of course none of us considered we were that Marine.
It’s funny what we recall when the test results come back positive; when the telephone rings in the middle dark of night; when we must suddenly navigate the space of silent rooms in a house we no longer recognize, the tenure of our lives revoked. This is, I think, the bardo, a term I only recently encountered in the title of George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo, for Abraham Lincoln that state of existing, of going on, after the death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie. An existence that can lead us unto religion, for me–Jesus’s life and teachings, but maybe also Buddhism unaware.
So, what I recalled (I looked it up) is what poet and editor Janet McCann wrote in her introduction to the 1994 poetry anthology Odd Angles of Heaven: Contemporary Poetry By People Of Faith (Harold Shaw Publishers). Referring to three of my poems in the anthology, Janet wrote: “What I think of as Zen Christian poetry is work which merges Eastern meditative practice, and often a Haiku sensitivity to the tiniest of natural facts, with Christian belief. David Craig and Robert A. Fink may be considered here” (p. xx). The first two of the three poems I suppose could be considered the spiritual struggle of an elementary-school poet in the bardo, but the third poem I want to believe reveals the saving present of an East Texas farming family.
Am I permitted to call the bardo “tomb time”? I think that is the case for the Gerasene demoniac of Mark 5: 1-20, who all night and all day howled among the tombs in the mountains, gashing himself with stones, snapping whatever chains and fetters with which the townspeople had bound him. When the mad man rushed toward Jesus, he cast out the man’s legion of demons, and the townspeople found the man clothed and in his full senses, grateful, knowing he was free of the bardo, reborn into the peace of his present moment.
And what about Lazarus called forth from his tomb, a living witness to the new reality, the saving empathy and love of Jesus? And didn’t Jesus, himself, know the tomb, those three days underground harrowing hell, declaring victory over Death, over the intermediate state, the bardo that will come for us all, but can be met with an acceptance of what each day brings, the potential for a kind of joy, a gallows-humor playfulness?
No one, I think, knows this better than my friends at the City Light Community Ministries Mission–the staff, the volunteers, the patrons who come for the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday noontime meals, the Sunday morning breakfast and bible lesson. I’ve been volunteering at City Light since last August. Having lost my University family of students and colleagues, forty-two years that passed like a day, I did not anticipate being accepted into a new family, one that has taught me what can be discovered having risen from the bardo. Still thinking of myself as a poet, I carry with me my Blackwing notebook, but I leave it in the car. Our time together is too sacred to profane by writing notes like some reporter. I take those notes somewhere inside and recall my friends’ stories later, coming close to their truth, the truth they help me realize about myself. I have filled three pages with names. It’s important to call each person by name:
The workers and volunteers–Lynn, in charge, knowing all the stories, her laugh spontaneous, nothing held in reserve; Robert, Jersey, Rosie–my special friends, my teachers; Monty and Angela; Olga, her son John and his wife Dustin; Maura, Barbara, Katherine, and Pearl; Mary; Era Jo; Wanda and Ronny; Dr. Lockhart, Dr. Monhollon; Ken and Tom; Kaylynn; Era Jo, Caroline, Kaitlin, and Deanne.
The patrons–Will, improvising jazz at the out-of-tune piano; Mark of the three-year beard; Lil, her voice still waters; Edith and Freida; Shawn; Terry and Paul; Cowboy and Tiger and Frank-The-Desperado; Judy; Bubba; J. C., too young and pretty to find herself on the street; Patrick; Elaine and her adult son, Joel; Lonnie, Kevin, and Carl–three of Katrina’s former students; Jerita; Eric; Wilbur; Leon and his wife Jodi; Clara who teases me about my Jesus sandals; Charmaine shouting my name like a laugh in church; Ant; Bob; Stan, the cross-country bicyclist; David-The-Pastor–“I know you, Bob”; Traci; Trista; Naomi; John; Loretto; Susan and Vickie; Joe; Eugene; Estelle and Eddy; Jessie and Robert; Elisa, Sissy, and Charlotte; Donella and Jeanette; Jimmy; Moses, and so many others, names I’m still learning, not yet recorded in the book, especially that of the silent man who will not look at me when he ignores my offer of a cup of sweet tea, will not sit at a table, his fixed smile a challenge to my asking again his name.
So many others still in the bardo. A few almost free. And always pastor John Moore, the good shepherd, tall and substantial, a soft word turning away the wrath of so many of us, what seethes beneath our exteriors. John prays a blessing over us all. I have come to love this family.
So what do you think? I don’t know what I’m talking about? I should never have started writing these Posts? Yes should be your answer. But every day a thin child, weeping, balanced at the edge of his bed, is handed a puppy who, of course, licks the child’s face. Every day my friends Jersey, Rosie, and Robert show up, coming forth to proclaim with Jesus, “I have drunk the cup of anguish. I have died and risen from the tomb. Laugh with us. We know the worst. Let go.”
* David Brooks, “And Now, a Word From a Fanatic,” The New York Times Opinion Section on line, 5 Sept. 2019.