After visiting Chozen Bays at Great Vow Monastery in Oregon, I proceeded to Tahoma Sogenji on Whidbey Island in Washington State. Sogenji is associated with the Japanese teacher Shodo Harada, although he is only there for occasional retreats. What prompted my visit was Enso House, a hospice program for the island community where Harada’s center is located.
I had developed a wax build up in my right ear during my tour of the west coast and was having trouble hearing. Chozen – who is a physician – had said she would willingly look at it, but circumstances prevented her from doing so. She emailed Dr. Ann Cutcher, the director of Enso House, to ask if she would examine me. So before we begin the interview, Ann takes me into a dispensary and flushes out both of my ears.
The grounds of Enso House are adjacent to the Tahoma monastery. Ann explains that they were “bought by a senior student of Harada Roshi and offered to him to use for whatever he wanted to use it for, and he wanted it to be a home for people who didn’t have a home to die in. So it’s a gift, essentially, to Harada Roshi, and it’s his vision that this should be an end-of-life-care home as a way to give back to this community which has supported Tahoma and helped it grow and as a way for his meditation students to take their practice off the cushion and apply it in life. “
She tells me the story of the hospice’s first “guest,” a man who had lived in isolation on the island. When people realized he was dying, a few tried to look after him but were unable to meet his needs. None of them were Buddhist, but they heard that Shodo Harada had determined to build a hospice and they came to Enso House. The hospice wasn’t ready to receive guests, but the board agreed to accept the old man. He was mute – possibly, Ann tells me, because he had fallen out of the habit of speaking. “However,” she says, “he had these bright, alive blue eyes, but he kept them shut for two full days when he arrived. I thought, ‘Oh, he’s angry about being torn from the only home he has ever known and being brought here.’ I felt terrible.”
Then Ann’s friend, Priscilla Storandt, visited and sat for a while with the guest. When she came out of his room, she told Ann, “He’s so grateful.” And, of course, Ann realized, he probably was. She understood that she hadn’t been seeing him at all but rather had been preoccupied by her projection of what she thought he was and what he was thinking. “So that’s one thing I find really helpful for me personally, to be reminded of that, that I am creating my own interpretation, and trying to make sure I see that all the time so that I can stay open to what’s really happening.”
We are having lunch together with two volunteers and a few supporters from the area.
“There was another guy,” Ann continues, “a fairly young man, who was really adamantly opposed to his dying. It was just not gonna happen. And it was happening. And he was angry and aggressive and sure of himself. Sure of himself in that this was not going to happen to him. And he was too physically weak and on too many incredibly powerful analgesics to safely move around the house. But he was still determined to do that. And I was concerned all the time that this man was gonna fall. He was wheeled in a wheel chair across this room, and he suddenly stood up and was gonna walk into the dining room. And as he stood up, the wheel chair went out from behind him sort of, and I pushed it under him, and I said, ‘You can’t do that!’ And he got really mad at me. And I pushed him into the dining room, and I said, ‘You just can’t do that. You’re going to fall. It’s too scary.’ He said, ‘No! You are the one who needs to calm down and cool off.’” The people around the table all chuckle. “He said, ‘You need to cool off!’” She pauses, then says, “True.”
The man had cancer. “He had an obstruction of his bowel. He was here for five weeks, not able to eat without incredible pain that required doubling the amount of intravenous narcotic that he was getting continuously. And in spite of that, he was determined to eat. That was another really difficult thing, to watch him roll himself into the kitchen and open the refrigerator knowing that once he swallowed something, we would have to dial up his narcotic and deal with excruciating discomfort.
“He was a rock-n-roll bassist who had played with a lot of people on the island over his life as a musician. And he wanted to gather all the musicians he’d played with together. And they all showed up, some of them on motorcycles, and they brought a cooler of beer, and they set up a whole trap drum set and two mikes for singers, and, you know, mikes for the guitars and amplifiers, and we moved everything around, and there was like Led Zeppelin music coming from this dining room. He was too weak to play, himself – he couldn’t hold his instrument – but he had a chair pulled up, and he sat in the chair, and someone gave him his bass, and the room got totally quiet, and he plucked off this song, and sang, ‘Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.’” The group laughs gently. “And everybody just like melted. That was pretty amazing.”
As I am leaving, Ann is scraping leftover pasta sauce into a Tupperware container. She calls my name as I head to the door and tells me in parting, “Rick, you know what the primary lesson of Enso House is? Flush out your ears!”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp. 124-132.