Wednesday, July 21, 2004


I didn't know Michael very well, back then. I didn't know how hard he works -- few people do. How he'll get called out of the blue, in the night, by someone who is on the brink of suicide, some stranger just checking in to see if the Dharma has anything in it to keep them from pulling the trigger. He'll talk to them for two hours, sleep a few hours, and then get up to lead an all-day sit. Most everyone else goes home from that, after sitting and receiving teachings all day, exhausted; Michael goes on to the evening meditation, and ends his day by teaching for two more hours. And at the end of that two hours his mind is as sharp as it was in the morning.

He may or may not learn whether the person he talked to pulled the trigger. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. He gets to live with that.

A person in a position to know -- not Michael -- once told me, "People think of being a teacher, and think how groovy it would be to have everyone admire them. In fact, people usual come to a teacher pissed off, fed up with him, or fed up with the teachings." Having watched for a while, I see that it's true. What really inspires me to schedule interview time or blast off a two-page email is exasperation, anger, or despair. Michael gets a steady diet of that. But you'd never guess from how readily he laughs, from how delighted he seems at the questions he gets.

One evening I was to be omze, so we arrived a half hour early to open up the center. Sitting on the porch was a young man with wide eyes. I grinned at him. "Were you waiting for us to open up?" I asked. He looked at me blankly for a few moments. You get these people, sometimes. Sometimes they're people just off of retreat, rusty at the brisk patter, the rapid back-and-forth, of communication in the ordinary world. Sometimes they're mentally ill. Sometimes they're stoned. Slowly he focused on me, and made a gesture that might have been a nod, or might have been shaking his head. I went on past him to unlock the door, cravenly and wisely leaving him for Martha to deal with. Martha is gifted at dealing with such people.

As omze, I sit sideways to the shrine, so I could keep a bit of an eye on him. He sat restlessly, distractedly, twitching every now and then; not like someone with a nervous or muscular disorder (you become something of a specialist in twitches, if you observe much meditation), but like someone who just can't keep his mind on his work. Definitely not someone just out of retreat. Ill or stoned, then. But he seemed harmless enough. Martha had taken him under her wing, and gotten him seated.

After an hour's meditation, Michael fielded questions for an hour or so. It was by now nine o'clock, and he had been teaching for twelve hours, and he knew he would have still to talk to people after we officially stopped, too. He cast an eye across us, and spoke to the young man. "Did you have something you wanted to say?" A lot of us had made our evaluation of the young man by now -- there was a sizeable contingent of people in the room who had been hippies in the 60's, and they knew their stoners -- and I could see a few apprehensive looks, looks that said "for heaven's sake, leave well enough alone!"

The young man made some vague noises, clearly undecided. Michael encouraged him. More apprehensive looks from the gallery. The young man finally launched into a speech which I'm afraid I can no longer remember, nor simulate, except to say that if your youth was mispent like mine, you'd immediately recognize the wandering, disjointed, repetitive mystical observations of someone far gone on (at my best guess) mescaline. He went on and on. Most people were staring at the floor, in various phases of mortification.  Michael's time was precious; we wanted Dharma, not chemically-induced maundering.  But I just watched Michael. He was listening with deep, deep attention. When there was a pause, he asked the young man a question, which set him off again. When the young man finally ground to a halt, another twenty minutes later, dimly aware maybe that most of his audience was not altogether with him, a heavy silence fell. I could tell that half a dozen people were trying to think of a way to wrap this up and get our visitor out the door. But usually Michael is the one to end the question period, and he usually does it after responding to the last question.

Michael was holding this young man's gaze very steadily, and smiling. There was clearly a connection being made, a sort of luminosity between them. When Michael spoke, he surprised me again, as he so often does. "What's your name?" he asked.

"What?" said the young man.

"What's your name?" repeated Michael.

"Daniel," he said warily.

"Are you from here, or just visiting?" The questions were so gently put and genuine, that Daniel realized as quick as the rest of us that this was no rhetorical trick, no teaching-moment. Michael chatted gently with him for a few moments, established that he was staying with friends and did know how to get back to them. I had the clearest possible vision of Michael carefully bringing a kite safely to ground, patiently and happily, as though he had no other interest in the world just then. We were an hour over-time by then.

"Thank you," Michael said to him, feelingly, as if he, Michael, had just received a wonderful gift; and then he ended the session.  We had, in fact, gotten Dharma.  It just took us a while to recognize it. 

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