By Leah Matsui The plans for my trip to America were jampacked: a seven-day mindfulness retreat with Amie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald, three days with my beloved aunt in Florida, and a meeting with my mother—the first in 24 years. I anticipated Florida as a high point—Aunt Helene and me drinking iced tea under the palm trees and reminiscing about my darling stepmother who died last January. It was a great scenario of peace, reconciliation, and comfort, especially for me. A perfect plan for happiness.
Imagine my shock when the day before my departure, I received news that Aunt Helene's only daughter had just had surgery for a malignant brain tumor! A second surgery would take place the day I planned to arrive in Palm Beach. My plans flew out the window.
Ironically, a few weeks before I had spoken about wanting to become a "big river" as the Buddha taught, with the capacity to absorb and transform suffering with ease. But in this moment, with plans dashed, I was a tiny stream inundated by a storm of emotions. As I sat in front of the Buddha in our living room, my mind whirled. "Should I go straight to Florida? Cancel the trip? Who can help us? Can my cousin survive? Can my aunt survive? Can I survive this suffering?" One decision was made for me—no part of the bargain air ticket from Japan could be changed. My aunt said, "Come anyway, Leah." But there was a chance she would be out of the state, consulting with specialists when I arrived.
Out of the confusion, I realized that the three Jewels —Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—are on-call 24 hours a day, but that it was up to me to make the call. First, I would be at a retreat. After the retreat, I could contact our teacher the Buddha, or Dharma brothers and sisters if things became turbulent. So I felt ready to go and meet whatever circumstances arose. The only meditator in my family, I planned to go as a "good Buddhist." Maybe I could be a "Compassion Distribution Center" in the midst of crisis. Maybe my practice could help others.
Many things worked favorably for my cousin, and when I landed in Palm Beach, my aunt was waiting. Luckily, as soon as we hugged at the airport, my preconceived notion that I was on a "mission of mercy" disappeared. I was able to hug my aunt in the present moment. I was able to be myself and she felt just like herself in my arms.
Aunt Helene and I have been talking about feelings since I was three and she was sixteen. Now, forty years later, we were together in Florida, talking and listening from the heart. Anchored in the present by conscious breathing, I was able to relax my grip on how things "should" be. I felt joy and gratitude for my aunt's smile, the melon pink sunset, and the fact that my cousin had survived this day. Before bed that night, Aunt Helene and I practiced hugging meditation.
Early the next morning, I sat in meditation. Then, walking into the Florida dawn, I met a wild jackrabbit. My aunt prepared "American Bagels" for breakfast—a real treat. I gave her a Japanese Shiatsu hand massage. Later, my cousin called. She was out of intensive care and very upset. She was losing big clumps of hair. We talked, and for me, it was one of the deepest interactions I've ever had with her. She asked for a hat. "Please," she said, "so I won't be embarrassed in the hospital."
That afternoon, my aunt and I went hat shopping. It was tough for me as we started out. I have always admired my cousin's beautiful hair. On this shopping trip, only the present moment could offer peace. "When you live a long time, there are a lot of ups and downs," my aunt told me. We found the perfect hat in a surf shop, and then enjoyed some delicious iced tea.
Nothing that day went according to my "plans" for happiness, but for me it was the best day and the worst day at the same time. There was no need to be the Buddhist of the family or to hand out any prepackaged compassion. My aunt and I took turns, each sometimes embodying terror or equanimity. We were both in touch with plenty of genuine peace during the storm.
Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that the conditions for happiness are right before us. He often stresses that "happiness is being fully alive in the present moment." I have always been moved by the possibilities this teaching offers. But until recently, it has just been an idea. We each study and practice the Dharma at our own pace. On this trip, it was my turn to really practice dwelling deeply in the present and letting go of worries and plans.
Looking back now, I see that expectations gave in to reality, and with that came fear and confusion. The surf was up, the waves were rough, but the anchor of the present held me firm and stable. On the retreat, Arnie Kotler had quoted Dogen-zenji: "Every day is a good day." And so it was for me. Thanks to the Buddha's teaching, I was able to open up to the present, and enjoy the gift of three wonderful days in Florida.
As of June 2000, Cousin Alicia is back home, a joyful wife and mother of two. Officially cancerfree, to me, she is more beautiful than ever. May all beings be protected and safe.
Leah Matsui, True Light of Awakening, practices with the Sazanami Sangha in Kumamoto, Japan.