kyogen carlson, sallie jiko tisdale, lion's roar, buddhadharma

A Sudden Goodbye

When her teacher Kyogen Carlson died suddenly on September 18, 2014, Sallie Jiko Tisdale reeled from the shock of it. Then she quickly got down to work.

By Sallie Jiko Tisdale

Photo by Pamela Plow Hiebert.

When her teacher Kyogen Carlson died suddenly on September 18, 2014, Sallie Jiko Tisdale reeled from the shock of it. Then she quickly got down to work.

It is a fine Thursday in September. My brother is visiting; we are about to go out for breakfast when Kakumyo calls.

What’s up? His voice is serious and the words instantly fade out of reach. I hear only “Kyogen” and “heart attack” before I yelp. What! No! and then I am coping: Okay, I’m coming, which hospital?

And then he says, Wait.

And then he says, He died.

When I hang up, my brother is hovering beside me, confused. I try to explain, already ticking off the list of what I need to bring: my rakusu, my tablet, a copy of the exhortations. The dog? What should I do with the dog? My brother shifts from foot to foot: What happened? Tell me what happened. And then I just crumple to the floor and weep while he pats me awkwardly, saying, Breathe.

I get lost driving to a hospital I’ve been to many times before, park in the wrong lot, go to the wrong building, get lost twice more before I find the room. And when I walk in, I am walking into a new world, where my teacher of three decades lies in a hospital bed—so clearly himself and so clearly not alive. He is wearing a gown he would joke about if he could still joke. Gyokuko, his wife and the co-abbot of the Dharma Rain sangha, sits in a chair beside him. She is crying; she has been crying for quite a while; I am crying too, and it feels that I have cried for hours. There is nothing to say, so I say, Oh. Oh.

A few weeks earlier, I had begun leading a sangha discussion group on death and dying. We planned to talk about the Buddhist view of death, funeral plans, and the many tasks of death: those of the dying person, of the caregiver, of the grieving. During the first class, I asked each person to describe their ideal death—the sometimes vague, sometimes detailed image we have of how we will die. I also asked them to close their eyes and imagine that they would die in two minutes—that there was no time for any of the plans. We read a portion of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra: “Impermanent are all compounded things. How could this be otherwise?”

The resident monks arrive and we work through the tasks: Set up the traveling altar. Recite the exhortation for the moment of death, which passed in a crazed flurry of CPR. Bathe him gently. Shave his head of a few days’ stubble, but, after a brief discussion, leave the goatee of which he was inordinately pleased. Dress him in a white kimono with a white rakusu, and then spend some time trying to get the mala to fit properly in his stiffening hands. All these things, he taught me to do; all these things, I’ve done with him by my side.

I think, He died, and a wave of disbelief breaks over me. The Buddha lay down to die in front of everyone, saying with his every breath: Don’t look away. Decades of practice and many hours at the bedsides of the dying and the dead, the loss of other beloveds—what these give me now is not acceptance but awareness of denial. The chance to not resist my resistance. To see my disbelief for what it is. A willingness—which may only be a decreased ability to lie to myself—to feel the pain.

Details emerge in stuttering conversation. The chest pain he finally admitted to his doctor, the treadmill test a day before, the new prescriptions. The collapse on the sidewalk. The ambulance, the desperate effort to get a stent in to open the occluded vessels, the long minutes of compressions and breaths and shocks and finally, giving up. Giving in.

Kakumyo—Gyokuko’s student and the senior monk—and I divide up a list of other seniors and start making calls. Many people are at work; I send urgent texts and leave voice messages telegraphing an unexplained disaster. I suddenly remember that tonight is the death and dying group, and I send an email to everyone to cancel the meeting.

His body is in the last room on the cardiovascular unit, which is half empty today. The nurses are patient as we take over the hallway outside his door and dig in for a long day. One person after the other peeks in the unit’s double doors: Is this the place? Some are crying, others look numb and barren. A few march straight into the room while others slow down or veer away, steps dragging. A few walk as though injured, leaning, or led.

There are people who cannot get away from work or must find a babysitter; one person is 150 miles away and begs us to wait, to keep the body there until he can reach us. Meanwhile, people come out of business meetings or the gym and return my calls. Bad news, I say, and begin to explain. They only hear “Kyogen” and “heart attack” before they yelp, What? No! and then, Okay, I’m coming, which hospital?

And I say, Wait.

And I say, He died.

Tasks of the grieving. I take on the funeral home. I pick one I know from past experience and explain our unusual requirements: no embalming, a group going into the crematorium, bones to be left alone. I am put on hold, transferred, to explain again.

In the room, people cry quietly or whisper, and then lapse into silence; in the hallway, laughter and stories and hugs.

Hours go by. We have forgotten to eat. A bereavement cart arrives with coffee and tea; someone brings in cottage cheese and celery sticks and yogurt. We poke at everything. I go for a walk. Now and then a fog settles over me, a kind of confusion. Then another friend comes through the doors, and we start over.

Once he said to me, Put down your sword. Once he called me a terrier with a bone. If it isn’t broke, he told me when I asked him for guidance, I won’t try to fix it. Whenever I gave a dharma talk, he would wait until the questions and then hold up a finger and say, If I can just add one thing? He ate his morning oatmeal quickly every day, then fiddled a bit while everyone else finished, swiping a finger around the edge of his bowl. Once I watched him drop his oryoki set in a spectacular crash in front of several visiting dignitaries. Oops, he said, in the silent zendo. With shocking clarity, like a bell, I can hear him laughing: his demented titter and his great guffaw.

Five hours, ten hours go by. A senior student who works at a hospice brings a pile of little booklets on grief. Out in the hallway, we read them out loud: “You will forget they are gone and then remember again,” I recite, “and your heart will break one more time.”

“You may experience anger and rage, and you may want to blame someone,” reads a friend.

The long-distance member arrives at last, road-weary, strung out. Fourteen hours. I am stretched to transparency. “At times you may be surprised by what you feel.”

Finally I tell the nurses to call the tissue-donation service. But when they arrive, it suddenly seems impossible to say good-bye. Impossible to let them slide the body into the heavy black bag. The empty body.

Friday morning, a few of us sit down to figure out the immediate, immense details of death. I take notes for the obituary, the writing of which seems a privilege and a heavy burden at once. Kakumyo, Gyokuko, and I go to the funeral home. Sign papers. Buy an urn. Gyokuko is unswerving: that one, the big, beautiful maple box, made in Oregon.

He was a guide at first; he became indispensable. Then, slowly and without words, he taught me to live without him.

We tour the building. Is it big enough? Led by Kyogen’s optimism and vision, the sangha bought fourteen acres last year for an integrated temple complex—a project so enormous and expensive and long that we can hardly imagine it. The zendo is a shell; the last time I saw him, we walked on the new subflooring, and he took photographs of our future. We’ve sold the last of our three scattered buildings and moved into two little rented bungalows next to the land. Weekday zazen is in one of the living rooms; the big weekend service is held in an elementary school cafeteria.

The funeral home will have to do.

Saturday. Timelessness. A beautiful autumn day, hot and clear. I walk up a butte with two of my closest friends to stand under the blue sky in the golden grass. Wildfire smoke trickles through the air to the east. He was a guide at first; he became indispensable. Then, slowly and without words, he taught me to live without him. I want to ask him how he knew.

Sunday morning, more than a hundred people fill the school cafeteria for zazen and a short service. Then we hold a silent shosan ceremony, the traditional public questioning of the teacher. On the other side of the bowing mat, instead of my teacher of thirty-one years sits his photograph, his whisk laid in front. One by one, each person walks up and asks a question with the ritual opening, “Kyogen, hear!” His answers are silent. Many say a simple thank you and others whisper; a few are angry, many are confused. And some are satisfied with their answer and others are not and step aside only with reluctance, waiting for the words that will not come.

At the funeral home, a team swarms the meeting room to set up an elaborate altar and a wall of photographs and carry in the big taiko drum. David, the funeral director, is a patient, quiet man who meets our every request with grace. He wheels a gurney with the body into a small room where I wait with Kakumyo, Gyokuko, and Jyoshin, one of Kyogen’s monastic disciples and the current head trainee. Kyogen is dressed in a plastic coverall suit; the tissue service took his long bones and a lot of skin and the heart valves, and his body is not the same. We have to dress him in the white kimono over the coverall, rolling and pulling and tugging; the body gurgles and sighs, and the room fills with an odd smell. His skin feels like damp wax and his fingers are wrinkled and shrunken and won’t hold the mala right.

Do not look away.

I think of our long line of ancestors, name after name; I imagine them gurgling and loosening their hold just like this, the skandhas unwinding like a braid. I imagine grieving disciples preparing them for the fire. For a moment, I feel one with every broken human being consigned to struggle with the fact of change, the immeasurable wonder and disaster of it. We billions, who love and cry and try to understand.

As I walk across the parking lot, I glance up at the crematory chimney. I can’t see the smoke in the sun-bright sky. But looking down, I see its shadow, dancing and wavering across the asphalt.

A group of disciples and visiting teachers do the first ceremony, bowing shoulder to shoulder in the little room. Then we process in with the coffin. Then the long funeral, everyone worn out with aching feet and sore backs, pursuing a singular, unrepeatable quest. The coffin is covered; the celebrant, a priest from another Zen sangha, draws an enso in ink on a white silk scarf that will go into the fire as well. The taiko drum pounds. Many voices. A single voice. Many voices.

Finally the coffin is pushed to the door of the crematorium, and the big crowd gathers around the door. More ceremony. More bows, on the cold concrete floor, and more incense, and then the bearers push the coffin in and Gyokuko pushes the button. A high whoosh of flame fills the room.

As I walk across the parking lot, I glance up at the crematory chimney. I can’t see the smoke in the sun-bright sky. But looking down, I see its shadow, dancing and wavering across the asphalt.

Monday morning, Kakumyo, Gyokuko, Jyoshin, and I go back for the big metal tray filled with bones. David has left it for us to sort, on top of the crushing machine he usually uses to turn bones into ash. They are frail but easy to recognize, and we can sort them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: vertebrae, part of the pelvis, metatarsals, sections of ulna and radius with epiphyses. Pieces of the ribs, parts of the skull, some with pink and black marks that I think might be the sterile traces of blood and brain. Then we set aside little pieces to share with disciples and friends.

I notice a strange tool on the shelf, a heavy iron weight with a flat plate on one side and a round knob on the other. David has been patiently hovering nearby. What is this for? I ask him. Usually we put adults in the machine, he says. But that is for the babies.

We put the urn on the altar and a bag of bones in the bottom drawer. Later I remember to call the sacristan and warn her about the bottom drawer.

In the weeks to come, I will bake a cake in the middle of the afternoon and leave out the sugar. I will go to the gym at odd hours, filled with nervous energy, and then feel too tired to walk home. I will watch a lot of television and read until very late at night and have many strange dreams that evaporate in the morning light. I will wake each morning to the shock, and take a deep breath, and reset my compass to this new world. We do a memorial on a muddy corner of the land, pockmarked with construction debris and trailers, and a great blue heron rises out of the long grass beside us and flaps away, slow as a cloud. I lead the death and dying study group, having changed the syllabus so we talk about grief sooner than I’d planned. In the weeks to come, I look sometimes at the last email he sent me, his last communication, the day before he died: Jiko, what say you? I think about what I shall say.

But that afternoon, after we sorted the bones, I was happy. I felt my no dissolve like cloud and smoke into a great spaciousness, warm and deep and calm—a slow wave, bright and quiet. A wave of happiness. What a luminous world.

That night, in the strange, pleasant, hypnagogic stillness, I had a waking dream, Kyogen’s life in a flickering rush: his face, young and then old, laughing, serious, silent, thoughtful; his slow, nodding attention while I talked; his dead body; the decaying leftovers; the coffin sliding into the furnace; the tray of bones, the bag of bits in the bottom drawer. All this flashed past me, disappearing as I watched.

We are a loose collection glued briefly into a provisional thing called self, and all such things are bound to dissolution. How could this be otherwise? I can hear him chuckling beside me. What did you expect? he asks. And I laugh. This little bag, these bits of bone. How obvious and whole.

Sallie Jiko Tisdale

Sallie Jiko Tisdale

Sallie Jiko Tisdale is a lay dharma teacher at Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of several books, including the recent Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them).