“To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”
-Michel de Montaigne; Complete Essays, Chapter XIX
“Followers of the Way, the Dharma of the Buddhas calls for no special undertakings. Just act ordinary, without trying to do anything particular. Move your bowels, piss, get dressed, eat your rice, and if you get tired, then lie down. Fools may laugh at me, but wise men will know what I mean.”
– Linji Yixuan, 9th c. China
A Buddha is someone who finds freedom in good fortune and bad. Such is his power that karma can’t hold him. No matter what kind of karma, a Buddha transforms it. Heaven and hell are nothing to him. But the awareness of a mortal is dim compared to that of a Buddha, who penetrates everything, inside and out. – Bodhidharma
“I feel sorry that I cannot help you very much. But the way to study true Zen is not verbal. Just open yourself and give up everything. Whatever happens, whether you think it is good or bad, study closely and see what you find out. This is the fundamental attitude. Sometimes you will do things without much reason, like a child who draws pictures whether they are good or bad. If that is difficult for you, you are not actually ready to practice zazen.”
— Shunryu Suzuki, Not Always So
It’s really this simple: like unzipping a zipper.
When Daoxin (the 4th Patriarch) was 14 he traveled to see Sengkan, so named since his transformative encounter with Master Hui’ke.
Daoxin pleaded “I beg the master to have mercy. Please instruct me on how to achieve release.”
The master said “Is there someone who constrains you?”
Daoxin said “There is no such person.”
The master said “Why then seek release when you are constrained by no one?”
“Only hope to make empty that which exists.
Be careful not to make real that which does not exist.”
-Shōbōgenzō, Case 16
I went back to the Nespelem Cemetery Monday, this time without a camera. The last time I came through was ten years ago, after a visit to the Okanogan Family Faire (aka ‘barter faire’) in Tonasket. Having grown up knowing the story of Chief Joseph and having just read Lucullus McWhorter’s ‘Yellow Wolf’ I felt compelled to visit and pay my respects in the act of pursuing my avocation of cemetery/memorial photographer.
When I arrived at Joseph’s grave back then I was regretful. Other visitors had thought to bring an offering, some of which were so appropriate and intentioned their inclusion bespoke the wisdom of the giver. A ranger from the Naches Ranger District had left a collar badge from their uniform. Others had left polished stones, coins, braids of sweet grass, toy horses, and small red cloth bundles. On Yellow Wolf’s grave –the resting place of a supernaturally powerful warrior– someone had left an open pen knife, the stainless blade alive with potential even among green and tarnished coins. I had nothing to offer, and ultimately continued on my way leaving only words in the wind. When I got back to Seattle my wife and I separated for good.
I carried my failure with me. Having visited their resting places did not absolve me of my admiration of these men. I marked the debt in my mental ledger.
My brother, stepfather, and I undertook a trip to the Grand Coulee Dam as a sort of homage to Woody Guthrie, to culminate in the last viewing of the laser light show of the season. Grand Coulee Dam is just 14 miles from the Nespelem Cemetery where Joseph and so pitifully few of his heroic original band lie in repose. I’d get to get some bugs on my car, hang with my boys, grub on fine small-town vittles, and satisfy my debt if I could talk my companions into it. Rather than risk this addition to our itinerary being seen as one of my habitual photographic wanderings through country graveyards I fairly insisted on it, and was rewarded with enthusiastic support.
The cemetery hadn’t gotten up and wandered off in the ten years since my footprints marked this land. North side of Nespelem on high ground. In so small a town at times streets could be mistaken for driveways. You have to know where you are going and be at least marginally brave.
Joseph’s memorial stone is unmistakable if only from the well-worn path of visitors leading respectfully around the corner of a row of unmarked graves and on to the collection of offerings at its foot. The people had continued to leave bright stones, coins, horse figurines, and trinkets for him but this time I saw where one had placed a hand mirror face-down over where his head presumably lies. Another had left two long horsehair braids; someone else a silver concho bracelet.
I felt a little pressure to walk with my companions. The conversations I needed to have were short, however. Tearing the filter off of a strong tobacco cigarette I wedged it between a gleaming river stone and the weathered white marble of his marker, with words in the wind marking the fulfillment and renewal of a debt of respect. For Yellow Wolf too, so the smell of fresh tobacco would blow in the wind with him.
Among the photos from my last visit certain friends and relatives of those whose memorials were included left questions or comments on those photos; some not insignificantly resentful. Going so regularly in places full of private pain…so full of the dichotomy of spirit and mortality…one learns not only to walk carefully but to transform oneself into a recognizable agent of respect: to walk in a state of unintentioned mindfulness. It is not the bones you risk offending but the broken hearts of living human beings and the spirits, whose persistence around and among us you have by being a ledger-keeper and tobacco-offerer long ago accepted. When you speak aloud the names mutely inscribed before you you do not do so lightly. You do so with gratitude, with admiration, with commiseration, with respect. If you are a photographer you have come to take, so to satisfy your conscience you transform the taking into an act of reverence.
I hated that, despite the priestly care I take to travel lightly and kindly in such places, I was unable to assuage the pain of these friends and relatives: pain I had inadvertently caused. At the time I was far away from that hillside in Nespelem so all I had to offer them was words in the wind: cold comfort indeed delivered digitally and without context. This too I marked in my mental ledger as a debt: either to be repaid if possible or to further spur my conscience to right action going forward.
It was with this in mind that I went to say the names of Elroy James Shavehead, a natural athlete with a big smile and heart; Thomas L. Waters, known to loved ones as “Babycakes”, from a far-flung and long-loving family; the coyote doctor Pow-U-Ton-Ow-Wit, and to signify my respect and peaceful intentions with a tobacco offering nestled among the other remembrances left for them. If past is prologue someone somewhere on down the line will search the internet for mention of these men and find this post. If as before that person is a loved one I hope they will understand that when informed of it I accepted and carried my obligation to these men and their families as if they were my own kin. I returned to make it clear to any and all that my mind was clean: that my coming and going were that of the silent mourner whose passing is known but to God.