It’s 2:00 a.m. at Deer Park Monastery, and later today, Thich Nhat Hanh will ordain me as a lay member of the Order of Interbeing. I’m lying wide awake on my bunk, not yet sure if I’ll make it. More specifically, not sure if I’ll be able to be there.
My husband, Jim, is fast asleep in the men’s bunkhouse. My daughter, Ariel, is sleeping soundly two bunks away. Part of me is so touched and grateful for her presence, but another part of me feels like throttling her. I am afraid, extremely afraid, that she has done something beyond foolish which could cause my imminent death.
No Death, No Fear
Last night after evening meditation, we all walked back to our dorms. Maintaining noble silence, my five bunkmates and I removed our shoes before entering. We took turns using the bathroom and I was last, after Ariel. When I closed the door, I saw a note above the sink written in her handwriting. It said:
“Please be aware. I discovered a small scorpion on the floor near the toilet. Of course I wouldn’t violate the precepts to kill it, and having no way to capture it, I shooed it under the sink cabinet where I am sure it will enjoy a peaceful night’s safe sleep.”
A scorpion?! Loose in the bathroom where we walk barefoot? In the spirit of the retreat, I practiced calming my rising pique with measured breathing, brushed my teeth, and climbed into bed, where I fell promptly into a deep sleep.
About an hour ago, around 1:00 a.m., I awoke, padded sleepily into the bathroom, and sat down on the toilet. Just as I relaxed, I felt a blazing, piercing sting on the side of my right foot. I barely stopped myself from screaming aloud. It jolted me awake like an electric shock, and I turned on the light. There on the floor next to my bare foot, with its tail arched menacingly over its horny body, was the scorpion. I imploded with a rush of feelings: panic, fear, and rage. What to do?
Deer Park, miles from town, generally doesn’t have cell phone coverage. I had no idea where Sister (doctor) Dang Nghiem was sleeping, only that it was too far away in Lower Hamlet. Shaking with fear, I reacted impulsively. Gathering a huge wad of toilet paper, I scooped up the scorpion and flushed it down the toilet. Trembling, hoping maybe it would survive the flush, I turned out the light and climbed back onto my bunk. Had I just broken the sacred precept not to kill?
Probably the one I really wanted to flush down the toilet was my own beloved daughter! What was she thinking?! I thought about waking her, but decided that would be self-indulgent acting out. There wasn’t anything she could do for me now. I’d have been waking her up out of pique. A fleeting thought crossed my mind: “Won’t she feel horrible when she discovers my lifeless body?” I chastised myself for that petty thought.
From John Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl, I knew that scorpion stings could be deadly. I also remembered that baby rattlesnakes deliver more fatal venom than grown ones. Nervously, I wondered if small scorpions were the same.
There was more than one irony to this predicament. For years, I was sure I didn’t want to be ordained. My Buddhist practice had been both beautiful and sustaining, but it was also something private and personal. Now, once I’d made this commitment, maybe I wouldn’t survive long enough to attend the ceremony. A further twist: one of the things that had helped me change my mind was Thay’s incredible talk “No Death, No Fear” at the UCLA Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Conference I helped to organize in 2006. So, I decided simply to breathe deeply, meditate, and wait. I would practice Thay’s teaching: face death without fear. If this was my fate, I would embrace it.
In the Here and Now
So, I have been lying here in my sleeping bag for an hour, tracking every sensation in my foot, ankle, and leg. I feel them throbbing and swelling up. My leg feels hot, and I’m aware of a pulsing sensation. But I am not dead yet.
At the same time, I find myself smiling. What a beautiful ending to my blessed life. Here I am, held safe in this spiritual sanctuary, my loved ones nearby, about to be ordained by Thay, who teaches us how to face death utterly fearlessly. There doesn’t seem to be much I can do right now anyway, but simply watch and wait. If the pain really amps up, I’ll ask for help. But it continues, steadily throbbing, yet stable.
I continue breathing deeply, smiling into fear, calmly watching my thoughts like a movie in my mind. I realize I am deeply meditating. I am fully present. I am here in the now. I am fearless. I am happy. And then I smile to myself. I have been ordained by a scorpion!
A True Precious Smile
By 3:00 a.m., I decide that I will survive the bite. I will limp, and it will hurt, but I’ll be fine. Amazed and grateful that the teaching “This too shall pass” is yet again revealed to be wise and true, I fall into a short but deep sleep before the bell sounds for morning meditation and the day of my ordination.
The ceremony is profoundly moving. Fourteen of us are seated in the center of the great meditation hall on our zafus and zabutons. Behind the monks and nuns are all those who have come for the ceremony. I can’t turn around to find Jim and Ariel, but I feel their presence and it lifts me.
The ceremony begins with chanting, then a recitation of the Heart Sutra, and an invitation to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. All the ordinees are called to stand and come forward to “touch the earth,” to make three full prostrations in gratitude for our parents, our teachers, our friends, and all beings who have guided and supported us. That is easy, as my heart is brimming with gratitude. As each of the Fourteen Trainings is read, we make our commitment to practice it, prostrating our bodies.
Reciting each one, I realize I am finally fully owning my values and holding myself responsible to these philosophical and spiritual precepts. Performing seventeen deep prostrations is a real challenge to my old knees and shoulders, but I feel tears of gratitude that I can do it, and that, for this moment, I have completely forgotten my other ordination. I hope the scorpion swam to safety and is out in the field where she belongs. If she has died, I ask forgiveness and send her gratitude for her deep teaching, knowing that truly, we inter-are.
Finally Thay calls us forward, one by one, to give us our certificates of ordination and to bestow Dharma names chosen by our mentors and Dharma teachers with Thay. When I step forward and kneel before him, Thay hands me my certificate and grins broadly, his eyes twinkling at me as he says my Dharma name: True Precious Smile.
May I never forget today’s deep teaching—no death, no fear—and the preciousness of a smile. May I practice breathing with deep gratitude for each being who supports me intentionally or accidentally, and for each present moment throughout the rest of my wakeful life.
Santa Cruz, California psychologist/psychoanalyst Harriet Kimble Wrye, True Precious Smile, is the author of Pulling Up Stakes: Stepping Into Freedom, due to be released in April of 2012. For information, go to www.pullingupstakesbook.com.