Not Just Perfect, But Beautiful

Mn. Vanessa Zuisei Goddard, MRO

Featured in Mountain Record 28.3, Spring 2010

I had never fully grasped the finality of death until the moment that I kissed Daido Roshi goodbye for the last time. He had passed away only twenty minutes earlier, and the monastics were gathered at his bedside to perform a service and wash the body in preparation for the cremation. When my turn came, I stepped up to the bed and touched my lips to Roshi’s forehead, and as I did so, I knew instantly and viscerally that he was gone. The man whom I owed my life to, the man I had fiercely loved and admired, fought, and at times resented, was indisputably no longer there. I cried then, feeling the loss of a life that had, for the last fourteen years, been so closely linked to mine. Yet I also felt a clear sense of closure, something I had not experienced on hearing, at a distance, of either my mother’s or my brother’s deaths. There was something about that last contact with my teacher, about the feel of his leathery skin under my lips and the sense of vacancy that accompanied this touch that let me know without a doubt that a natural cycle had come to an end.

In the weeks that followed, as we began to prepare for Roshi’s funeral, I found myself thinking of a story he had told during a dharma discourse a few years before. When the ninth century Zen master Dongshan was close to death, he took his seat in the monks’ hall, bade farewell to the assembly, and appeared to die. The monks, beside themselves, began to wail with grief. Immediately, Dongshan opened his eyes and berated them for carrying on in such a way, then ordered them to prepare a banquet for stupidity. He feasted with the assembly, extending his life for another seven days, again said goodbye to his monks, and quietly passed away in the zazen posture.