Two Zen Stories

People came in and out of the room. I'm in a bed. Some wanted to know my name and birthday. I knew my name, but endeavored to recall numbers. I knew the name of a women who was in the room. She was my wife, as I would later learn, of nearly twenty years.

But I knew nothing of my past, my profession, my education, not even where I lived. I was told I was in hospital and had been there for two weeks. I understood English, and was told I had been hit by a truck. There was traumatic brain injury and 3d degree burns on lower extremities. I recalled nothing of the accident nor of the two weeks that had passed since.

The brain was laying down memories now; there was a sense of time passing, and thought was possible. Consciousness was coming back. I had been gone and now I was back, or so I was told.

There was a flickering picture box that was always on. I knew it was called a TV. The letters CNN were in the corner, but I knew not how to turn it off. I was moved about through the day by wheelchair and noted many people. The box showed many people too—far more people, and I realized I was one of many. Through the long night I thought of the staff and patients about me that I had seen. I thought of those the box showed and spoke of.

One person had just been killed by a highly skilled team operating with extreme prejudice. It was a big news story. The man killed had apparently done horrible things. He was called Osama, but I didn't know who he was. He was a bad man, the box noted, and the box spoke of many others.

I lay in the dark, in the hospital room, trying to determine if the people about me were good or evil. I tried to recall everyone I'd meet that day, to burrow inside them, and they seemed good, caring, well intended.

Hours passed. I decided the box tended to focus on the bad more so than the good and so gave a distorted view. I fell asleep after concluding that most people endeavored to be good—that I need not fear them. In fact, they were doing wonderful things and I was alive because they did.

The next day I continued to hear that I was back. Everyone seemed pleased. I too started to think I was back from near-death, but I wasn't sure. I wondered what it meant to "be back."

When quiet time came I thought about it. Okay, let's see, thought consciousness was back. That seemed fairly clear.

I understood I had been gone for two weeks. But, really, it was just consciousness that was back. Was it mine? Was mine different from that of others? Perhaps it was just thought consciousness that was back. That "I" might be back seemed trivial.

There was a long silence in my head and a new thought came to me. Like a revelation I heard thought say, it was the "Buddha mind" that had come back.

It seemed an odd thought. I felt it was not one I would normally think and that those around me would not think it either. Where had it come from? More interesting, what did it mean?

Time passed.

I realized that if the Buddha mind, whatever that might be, had come back, then alas "I" did not have access to it. I sensed that if it was back, then that was maybe far more important than that "I" was back. But I didn't know.

Then clarity came. What had come back was the potential to access it, to be at one with the Buddha mind.

I may not know the slightest thing about it, but conscious again, alive, I at least had the chance to know it. Being alive seemed to be all the better for that reason. But I didn't really know anything, and so told no one—suspecting that a psychiatrist would be added to my list of doctors. Did I have a religious experience? A religious thought?


A month or so passed and I could walk and talk again. A cognitive therapist explained that as most of the damage was on the right side of the brain, the left side might seek to become dominate. She recommended a list of right brain activities I should take up. Although not on her list, my immediate thought was that I should take up meditation, but I said nothing at the time.

Back at home after a month in the hospital, I googled for a local meditation center. I share everything and all with my wife, and was delighted that she felt she would benefit as well, having in a sense truly been hit harder by the truck and the mess that followed than I had been. My memories were coming back, and I recalled a prior interest in Zen. There were two Sanghas in town and plans were made. I told my therapist of our intent to attend and she enthusiastically approved.

One Zen center was noticeably conducted in the Japanese tradition (the other followed Thich Nhat Hanh). I remembered that as an adolescent I had taken an interest in Zen literature and had been a heavy browser of the genre for about ten years.

As a college dropout I guess I had to do something, but proclivities change and after I went back to college I recall taking up J. Krishnamurti et al. for some years and had ceased to think in Zen terms. I hadn't thought in Zen for a couple of decades prior to the accident which is why the thought of "Buddha mind" had seemed strange. Although I had read my Zen, I had never known anyone who shared my perversion and never lived near any Zen centers—I just read.

On my first visit to the local Zen center we meditated, and a fellow who had once spent a lot of time at the San Francisco Zen Center gave a Dharma talk. I looked in wonder at the first person I had ever heard speaking Zen. I was aghast; dumbfounded. I found I understood every Zen word, every allusion, knew every name dropped. I knew why he was saying what he was saying, where he was going with it, and even thought of how he might talk the Zen talk better to make his points.

I was appalled that I had misspent so much of my youth. How had I wasted so much time reading Zen without understanding a single word of it? My stupidity must be for the record book.

For years I had turned my thought consciousness upon Zen with guns blazing but had failed to practice it. Was this not insanity defined?

I resolved to do better with what life remained. Practicing mindfulness might be of value, but keeping my ignorant mouth shut would surely improve the world. I would go to group meditations to further my practice, but only to practice.

If talking Zen is best avoided, writing about it—adding to the Zen literature—had a perversely ironic appeal. Hence these words. Perhaps my story, and yes it's all as true as I can tell it, has some clinical interest to those who love trauma/abnormal psychology. But hopefully all others can just learn the easy way—learn from my mistakes.

Therefore endeavor to think well (insofar as you do think), and at all other times endeavor to be mindful.



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