Tribute to Charlie Malat

By Friends Charles A. Malat, known to many hundreds at Plum Village as Charlie, died among friends and family in Ithaca, New York, on September 25,1994, of cancerous tumors discovered just two months earlier. He is survived by his parents, Doris and Hyman Malat, his brother David, many relatives, and an international network of close friends.

Charlie was bom on November 16,1961, and grew up in Oceanside, Long Island, a short distance from New York City. His rare combination of spirit and depth blossomed during his college years. He first studied drama, and later continued on for a Master's degree in philosophy, seeking answers to the existential questions of life. As an adult he found many ways to celebrate and protect life: as a health-restaurant cook, food co-op manager, Big Brother, suicide counselor, leader in Ithaca's Men's Network, sexual abuse counselor, AIDS counselor, and especially as a close, caring friend.

In 1990 Charlie went to Plum Village for a summer retreat and then lived, studied, and stayed, on and off, for most of the next four years. Thay's teachings and the life of Plum Village challenged and comforted Charlie, and in return he gave himself totally. In 1992 he was ordained into the core community of the Order of Interbeing and given the Dharma name True Energy.

Charlie had many bodhisattva-like qualities. Like Avalokitesvara, he could listen with wholehearted attention and hear both what was said and what was left unsaid. Like Manjusri, he could look deeply and understand the roots of suffering in himself and others. And like Samantabhadra, he often could find the compassionate and appropriate action—the warm glance, the cup of tea, the helpful suggestion.

To celebrate Charlie's life, and to comfort one another for his too-early passing, The Mindfulness Bell asked many friends to share how Charlie touched their lives.

Jayne Demakos, Ithaca, New York

I feel as if I have known Charlie for a very long time. In reality, I only knew him for a year and a half. I met Charlie upon his return from France in the Spring of 1993. We formed a close relationship, often playful and for many reasons difficult When we met, Charlie said to me, "I am a very rich man, and I have no money." Some of the riches I received from him were the teachings of Thay which came alive for me through Charlie. Another gift was the honor of being able to participate in Charlie's journey during these last months of his illness and dying.

When Charlie was well, we shared strengths and weaknesses and supported each other as peers. In facing his death, Charlie deepened and matured beyond his years—and mine. He struggled with his fears, anger, and sadness, and uncovered layers of shame around his illness. He watched his body become sicker and sicker. He had pain. He couldn't eat. He faced chemotherapy. He also faced difficult issues in his life, relationships that needed healing. Then there were all the little and big indignities of being ill and needing care. But there seemed to be some great teaching going on for Charlie and for those close to him. We witnessed a deep transformation in Charlie as he met each challenge, each day of his illness, with grace, courage, humor, and, above all, great honesty. As days passed, I saw anger and bitterness wash away, and I often felt Charlie's deep love, unencumbered by the usual baggage. His face, though sad and thin, looked beautiful. To the overworked hospital staff, Charlie showed kindness and tolerance, always saying "thank you," even under the most difficult situations. Behind each mundane task, Charlie touched the human being who was present. It is testimony to the depth of Charlie's practice that even in those times when he had no will to "practice," loving kindness was present, Charlie was present.

During the illness, Charlie was never alone. Friends came from all over the world to see him, and a handful of close friends provided 24-hour care in rotating shifts, sensitively responding to his needs from physical to spiritual and offering help. This, along with the love and support of his family, allowed Charlie very deep rest. He expressed his gratitude many times in many ways.

Those of us who helped care for Charlie were deeply moved by the experience, and Charlie is still present in our relations with each other and the comfort we find there. He is present in the depth of the life teachings we learned from him and he is in our grief, in our sense of the preciousness and precariousness of life. I feel Charlie's presence when I come back to my breathing, especially when sitting in my car in heavy traffic, when I laugh, and also when I sing. Charlie said to me during his illness, "If you lose your ability to smile, it would make me very sad." So I practice through my sadness to smile. I practice for Charlie and, when I can, for myself. I practice for those around me. I practice the way I play Bach for someone on the piano—each time the spirit comes alive again.

Scott Mayer, Portland, Oregon

Aitken Roshi said, "In a very short time, we all slip from life onto a piece of paper, into a photograph." In front of me now is Charlie's photo taken during the last week of his life, with Metta and Gaby sitting with him. As I look at it, I feel this empty space in my heart and console myself in the ways Charlie still lives in me, or through me, beyond this paper image.

I can see Charlie in my cooking, especially in the lemon and cayenne he taught me to use. He saved me more than once from near culinary disaster in the Upper Hamlet. (Saving burnt pea soup is no easy feat.) But the deepest part of me that carries Charlie, the one that is the saddest and aches the most, is my lost brother in our shared struggle to reconcile the apparent conflict between our love for the teachings of Buddhism and our life's ambitions, desires, and assumptions. I The words "sexuality," "relationships," and "competency frequently peppered our conversations. Charlie knew himself well enough and was too intelligent to unquestioningly accept any easy formulas for his life. When his understanding of the teachings didn't fit with his experience, he knew it and would struggle, and many of us heard. In times of my deepest doubt and despair, I came to turn first to Charlie for an ear. He was open to my difficulties, he understood. Charlie got to me. He has not only slipped into this photo, but into me.

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Mitchell Ratner, Takoma Park, Maryland 

After I spoke with Charlie on the telephone a week before he died, my wife looked at my face and said, "You really love him, don't you?" I nodded, "Yes." I came to know Charlie during two winter retreats at Plum Village. We spent many hours talking by the dining hall stove or walking together to the Lower Hamlet, discussing our understandings of the Dharma, our deepest questions, and our emotional responses. Charlie was wise in the ways of Plum Village. I liked being with him and learning from him. He had a wonderfully good read on me. Some of his wisdom is in me now.

Charlie was totally honest with himself. He could admit when the teachings as he understood them didn't match his own sorrows and joys or his sense of fairness and justice. Charlie's spirit was large enough to acknowledge and explore the many doubts and questions while committing himself absolutely to the practice of mindfulness. I miss my good friend dearly.

Ivar, Plum Village

Charlie often shared songs when we gathered for walking meditation. One of his favorites was:

And when I rise, Please let me rise, Like a bird, Joyfully.

And when I fall, Please let me fall, Like a leaf, Gracefully, Without regret.

For me, this will always be Charlie's song.

Matthew Wiener, Tucson, Arizona

Charlie and I met around 1980. It was a time in our lives of great confusion, exploration, and excitement—we called it college. We grew to be fast friends, but even more than that, we became intellectual and aesthetic coconspirators. We fancied ourselves as artistic terrorists in the corridors of the theater department. We auditioned for the same plays and were hardly ever cast. We discovered a mutual pleasure and passion in arguing about everything. We inhaled Bertolt Brecht and William Shakespeare, we devoured Harold Pinter and Samuel Becket, and we chewed on Jean Genet and Eugene Ionesco.

I directed Charlie in what may have been his last acting role in college. He was one of the Players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard. I recall that he and I were fascinated with one particular passage. In response to the question "What do you know about death?" the Leading Player responds: "It's what actors do best. They have to exploit whatever talent is given to them, and their talent is dying. My own talent is more general. I extract significance from melodrama, a significance which it does not in fact contain; but occasionally, from out of this matter, there escapes a thin beam of light that, seen at the right angle, can crack the shell of mortality."

Later on, in graduate school, I was taught that the job of an artist is to be an archeologist of the soul. Charlie was an artist of the highest order.

Wendy Johnson, Muir Beach, California

I met Charlie during the June 1990 retreat at Plum Village. My 18-month-old daughter Alisa was with me, and she took a real shine to Charlie. They used to go together to the old bam to visit the litter of newborn "yeows," as Alisa called the tiny kittens. "I think that name is a combination of 'meow' and 'yeow-wee!' which is what I always yell out when she picks up the kitties by their ears," Charlie mused, as Alisa locked him in a vice-like hug from behind his knees.

Long after we'd returned to California, Charlie sent Alisa a little pink and white engineer's cap. It was big on her but she loved it. She knew just where it came from. One day she turned around in her stroller to !ook at me. The cap covered the right side of her face. "Go see yeows, Mama," she whispered, holding onto her cap.

Svein Myreng, Oslo, Norway

Dear Charlie! How much poorer life would have been without your friendship, your willingness to help, and your songs and great funny stories. I remember the mini-Dharma talks you humorously inserted into many announcements at the Summer Openings and the tender moments we shared in reflection on the Dharma on how to live this life with all its joys and difficulties. As a true friend you live in us all. Blessings for your further journey of no coming-no going.

Patrick Lacoste, Plum Village

Just before Charlie left Plum Village at the end of the winter, I gave him money to buy and send me a pair of Teva sandals, the kind that many of the retreatants wear during the summer. I received them and wore them almost every day throughout the summer. Every time I put them on, I felt grateful for my fellow bicycle rider who made possible this small daily pleasure of walking comfortably.

When Charlie got stuck in his hospital bed with swollen legs and feet, I told him on the telephone how he made me happy. Then, remembering an exercise Thay gave, I said, "You know, Charlie, I walk for you." I heard, from over the ocean, his soft laughter overcoming for a few seconds his pain and exhaustion, and it touched me deeply. Since then, I have been walking for you, Charlie. I don't need the sandals anymore to remember.

Brother Gary Stuard, Plum Village

What I remember most about Charlie was his bigheartedness, his attentiveness to the needs of others, and his ability to be playful and to laugh. During the summer retreats at Plum Village, Charlie would always be available to listen and respond to those who had problems, needs, and concerns. His presence and practice made a deep and joyful impression on many people. Once when I co-facilitated a discussion group with him, I saw how remarkably gifted Charlie was in discerning who was having difficulties and really needed attention, as well as his ability to share his experiences in the practice in an honest, simple, and humorous way. Like a mother hen, Charlie watched over and tended his fellow Sangha members. Charlie was, and still is, a big brother to me. He taught me much about being honest with myself and others, being willing to be vulnerable, and the importance and joy of not taking ourselves too seriously. Thank you, my friend.

Jorgen Hannibal, Hilsinge, Denmark

Hello, Charlie! What a lesson in impermanence. A line from one of Mike's songs comes to mind: "When you leave the room, please close the door with care. You may never pass this way again." I remember one time when you were guiding us through a total relaxation meditation. In apparently deep relaxation, someone passed wind and a few people started laughing. You handled the situation very mindfully by encouraging everyone to have a really good laugh, and huge waves of laughter rolled through Transformation Hall. The relaxation that followed was very deep. Thank you, Charlie, for everything.

Ellen Peskin, Oakland, California

At Plum Village, a deep, gentle bond quickly developed between us, as we found ourselves sharing our innermost desires and grappling with challenges. We shared many laughs, some tears, and innumerable heartfelt hugs. I will carry you with me always, my sweet brother.

Shalom, Plum Village

In the silent light of morning meditation, we hear you calling.

In the trees, the wind, and the fullness of the ripening plums, we hear you calling.

Pausing in the sweat of the midday sun, waking suddenly in the night, we hear you calling.

And Charlie, moment by moment, step by miraculous step, we call back to you.

Keep your heart wide open.

Arnie Kotler, Berkeley, California

Charlie was mature beyond his 32 years, and his loving spirit and kind, great humor, live in all who knew him. Somehow I especially remember a skit he performed at the end of the June 1990 retreat in which he played a Mr. Rodgers-like character, singing: "It's a wonderful day in the Sa-angha...". I love you, Charlie. Fare well.

Therese Fitzgerald, Berkeley, California

Charlie, gone suddenly, swiftly. May the liberation of your spirit be as radical and thorough.

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