In honor of our latest memoir, Zen Encounters with Loneliness by Terrance Keenan, we are sharing excerpts from our memoir collection this month. This week's morsel comes from Lin Jensen's Bad Dog, a collection of stories and essays on his tumultuous early life, marriages, and path to Zen. In the selection below, he reflects on a new practice and how it relates to his family and humanity as a whole.
At a recent stay at Shasta Abbey, I happened to learn of a practice the monks kept while traveling by car. Whenever they saw the remains of a road kill—some squirrel or deer or raccoon, some dog or cat or magpie or hawk all scattered, torn, or crushed along the swift margins of pavement—all but the driver would raise their hands, palm to palm before bowed heads, and intone a brief memorial to the slain animal. When circumstances permitted, the monks sometimes stopped and performed a short roadside burial and service. “It’s one way,” they told me, “to pay homage to the source of life.”
It’s not possible, the monks said, to live without doing harm to others—and this is as true of driving as with anything else. But, they explained, you can do a lot less harm by slowing down and by braking or swerving to avoid collision wherever possible. No one, they told me, could drive the agricultural roads of California’s Central Valley in spring or summer without killing insects, whose tiny deaths accumulate in splatters on the windshield. “But we have learned that if you drive slowly in these areas, it’s possible to kill far fewer. And when we stop, we can say a brief memorial for the ones we have killed.”
At the end of a week I left the monastery and drove home. I had not gone thirty miles when, along a stretch of road lined with deep woods, I came upon a smear of fur and raw flesh stamped onto the pavement by the continual passing of automobile tires. Flung against a cut bank nearby was the crumpled blackness of a raven that had been drawn to feed on whatever had been killed trying to cross the road. I was alone in the car but in my mind’s eye I saw the monks from Shasta press their hands together and bow to the two lives that had ended there.
My thought goes back to a brief incident of this past winter. It was early morning, a dark half-light and quite cold. I awoke to find that Karen had already left the bed. Getting up myself, I found the living room warming from a fire Karen had started in the stove, but she herself was nowhere in the house. And then I saw her from the living room window. She was bundled up in a parka with a hood, and she wore gloves and snow boots that irregularly broke through the frozen crust of the snow as she walked, causing her to sink suddenly and struggle to keep her balance.
I saw then where she was headed in all that frozen darkness. She was making her way to the seed feeder we had set out for the winter birds. The seed on the platform and in the feeder tubes was covered over and frozen, and she was concerned that the wakening birds would be deprived of a food source they had come to depend on. It was a simple act; just a natural sympathy that had arisen in her, some sense of responsibility she felt for having raised expectations in a flock of thirty or so juncos.
At the feeder, she scraped some stiff snow off the platform. Then she took each of the two feeder tubes in hand and shook them until seed fell down to where the birds could get to it. How sensible and ordinary an act. And yet, in that shaking there, something shook down in me, settled, and was taken up again in nourishment throughout the whole of that winter day and still feeds me now.
My mother, eighty-four-years-old, called me recently on the phone. She was newly widowed this past winter and she said to me, “You know, son, I have never before lived alone.” But she’d no sooner said that then she launched into the latest episodes involving Mike, an aging dog she and my father had shared their lives with for many years. She was telling me about the relationship Mike had established with Charlie, a yearling cat my sister had brought to help keep her and Mike company. Apparently, Charlie had done the trick, for here was our mother telling me not only how much Charlie cheered her up but how his kittenish antics had finally coaxed Mike off the foot of the bed where her husband had once lain and which Mike had refused to leave for hours at a time. As she went on about these things, I saw that my mother was not, in fact, living alone.
We humans are not living alone. The earth teems with countless lives other than our own. If we listen, our hearts are always telling us this. We are well advised to slow down, be prepared to brake or swerve if necessary, reduce the extent of our harm, pay homage. Everywhere I look, I see some shaking down to be done.
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How to cite this document:
© Lin Jensen, Bad Dog! A Memoir of Love, Beauty and Redemption in Dark Places (Wisdom Publications, 2005)
This selection from Bad Dog! by Lin Jensen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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