One day in January 2010, my friend and Dharma teacher Joanne Friday called me and shared that she had a significant birthday coming up, her sixtieth. Westerners are used to celebrating every birthday under the same zodiacal sign; but under the Chinese astrological calendar, one’s birth sign recurs only every sixty years. Joanne had been born under the sign of the metal tiger. Her sixtieth birthday marked the only recurrence of her birth year that she would ever likely celebrate, and celebrate she intended to do, being filled with gratitude to all of her non-self elements for the fact that she would be celebrating at all.
“I plan to have a potlatch,” she told me, explaining that this is an event where the hostess gives gifts to the guests. “I have received so much,” she said. “I want nothing for my birthday but to give back.”
The woman is delusional, I thought, as the words of the Apostle Paul came to mind—“being poured out like a drink offering.” Joanne was always pouring herself out, giving and giving back, but when had we ever given anything to her?
I first met Joanne in August 2007 when she oriented me to the practice and welcomed me to Thay’s retreat at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. What joy was in my heart the day I arrived at my first Sangha gathering to find that Joanne was the Dharma teacher! Then in March 2008, Joanne was diagnosed with breast cancer. About the time she received this diagnosis came the news that her mother was dying. While Joanne was visiting her mother, twenty of us met in a Sangha home to offer the Ceremony to Support the Sick, and afterward each of us shared how Joanne had touched his or her life. How beautiful and refreshing it was to eulogize the living!
Joanne underwent a year of cancer treatment: two surgeries, life-threatening chemotherapy, and radiation. She scheduled her treatments around our twice-monthly gatherings at her home, facilitating one Day of Mindfulness on a Saturday after spending Friday night in the emergency room and another after undergoing surgery on a Thursday. She attended a weekend retreat in Cape Cod only a couple of hours after receiving permission from her doctor to travel. At one meeting she spoke wistfully of missing Thay.
“A potlatch,” I thought wonderingly, after Joanne’s phone call. Joanne wanted to give on her birthday, so surely the loving thing to do was to let her give. But her phone call planted a seed in my brain and reminded me of the beauty of those shared eulogies. I visualized a scrapbook filled with loving tributes from many people, together with funds enabling Joanne and her husband Richard to spend three weeks at Plum Village. After consulting with Richard, I went to work.
Into cyberspace went an invitation to send a card bearing testimony of a transformation catalyzed by Joanne, to contribute money for the trip if feasible, to share the invitation with any who might be interested, and to keep the project secret from Joanne. We would present the scrapbook and trip funds at the February mid-month meeting, one week after Joanne’s potlatch and three days before her actual birthday.
Before long I was swamped with contributions: people sent money, cards, and even letters of gratitude to me for giving them this opportunity to express their love and appreciation for Joanne. “Here is my check—thank you so much for asking!” My positive seeds were receiving so much nourishment; I was like a pond in danger of eutrophication! Affirmations from complete strangers left me in awe of the distance an action travels to come to fruition.
Joanne made the February meeting a joyful expression of gratitude for her sixtieth birthday. She invited Clear Heart Sangha to a festive dinner, cooked by her, which included foods from the garden tended by Sangha members. After dinner, thirty-seven people congregated for sitting meditation. Joanne had planned a tea ceremony, with cookies and chamomile tea, to follow the meditation. As tea was poured, she gave a discourse on love, and everyone was invited to share something of significance to him or her, such as a poem or a song.
At the end of our sharing, I presented Joanne with the scrapbook and an envelope with a business card reading, “Shamatha Travel” (shamatha means stopping, calming, resting, healing). Inside was a mock travel brochure featuring Plum Village, the European Institute of Applied Buddhism, and the destination of your dreams, with Avalokiteshvara as the agent to call. Also in the envelope were two simulated airline tickets, together (coincidentally?) with the amount of money I had estimated the trip would cost!
Joanne couldn’t have been happier or more surprised. She spoke of how much she had missed Thay and kept repeating, “I just can’t believe it.” Referring to her discourse during the tea ceremony, she said, “And I thought I had something to tell you about love!” I told her what a gift it was to us to be able to offer her this tribute. She agreed that this was clear from the joy on everyone’s face.
During the planning and realization of this gift to Joanne, I felt strongly that it was not my project and that I was acting as a conduit for Sangha energy. I am left with a sense of happiness and humility at having been instrumental in the realization of a vision; gratitude that I was able to be open for the project to unfold and fall so “perfectly” into place; a sense of interbeing with the greater Sangha community; a deepened commitment to the aspirant process; and a sense of new spaciousness now that the project is behind me.
Yes, but, Joanne says, the lesson is that you simply cannot give without receiving; you simply cannot receive without giving; giver and receiver inter-are—which seems to perfectly paraphrase the familiar gatha:
The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both, by nature, empty. Therefore the communication between them is inexpressibly perfect.
Or, in the words of Joanne as she looked out at the gathering: “I am looking at all my non-self elements, and I am gorgeous!”