I wasn’t sure if I should post this. I learned a lot so I thought I would share.
We heard on the news that a woman was stabbed, wrapped in a piece of carpet and left in her driveway. Shocking, horrible! It was just another piece in the stream of news we hear daily…something happening outside.
Vernon was the temple keeper hired after Ginger left. I had been busy and traveling a lot and didn’t meet him. I heard bits and pieces of stuff about Vernon. Weird guy selling knives…had to disinfect his room…moved out of Palolo after repeatedly being asked to leave. Very ill…brain aneurysm, Crohn’s disease. I met him on the Wednesday after sesshin – July 10. There was something missing…life, heart. He extended his hand to shake mine and my reaction was to withdraw my hand. I shook his hand, but remember feeling uncomfortable about him.
I found out about his arrest in a Facebook message from a sangha sister in Maui. At first I didn’t believe it. I explored the Internet, reading articles about the crime, evidence found and reports about Mary Beth’s ex-husband being worried about her and finding her body in her driveway. How could this happen in my circle of comfort? How could we have let someone into our safe place? I trusted the sangha to be a safe place to come to…a refuge.
Now a video pan of our beloved zen center is online with an accompanying narrative about how the murder investigation has led deep into Palolo Valley. It was as if Vernon was a product of the zen center. I found myself feeling defensive. If they only knew that the main tenet of Buddhist Zen practice is one of not causing harm. The first of our precepts is not killing. Not this!
I was on the Big Island and I felt isolated from the sangha. Although our practice centers around silent meditation, things that affect the sangha are usually discussed, not swept under a carpet…no pretending, no buried feelings. The first communication I received was an email containing the official Honolulu Diamond Sangha statement to the press about Vernon’s connection with the sangha. As is the way of the Diamond Sangha, it was carefully worded without blame, without bias. It expressed sympathy for the pain Mary Beth’s family must be experiencing. So much was missing, though. Nothing like this has ever happened that I could compare it against. I felt alone, confused, angry. Should I call Michael (our teacher)? He’s being inundated with calls from the police, the press, and other sangha members, I was sure. I waited.
The next day Michael sent an email to the sangha inviting us to a meeting to talk about the trauma we were going through… individually and as a group. I’m normally not an outwardly emotional person, but I burst into tears upon receiving the email. I felt as though a hand had been extended. Until that moment, I hadn’t been aware of how deeply I was feeling-confused, angry, sad and isolated. I remember Michael saying (in another context) that we all had blood on our hands. I understood that to mean that we live in a society that kills…people, animals, the planet. I felt a very strong need to be with the sangha so I booked my ticket to Oahu.
When I arrived at the meeting, I noticed two young people that I didn’t recognize. It’s not uncommon for our sangha to include people who are not known to all members…I didn’t think much about it. I came to this meeting without an agenda. I didn’t plan to say anything. We sat in a circle on the lanai. It began with an introduction of the two visitors. His name was Phillip San Juan, the son of the murdered woman and she was, Laurin, her niece. Oh, my God! My immediate reaction was selfish, of course. How will we be able to speak freely with them here?
We began with a short period of zazen. A few of the sangha members talked about how stunned and horrified they were. Gratitude for this meeting was expressed. Phillip and Laurin listened.
Then a surprising thing happened. When Phillip spoke he spoke about love, the love that Mary Beth would have wanted to share. He was sharing it. He offered us comfort…said that she was free from the physical pain of our world. He and Laurin were acknowledging the gifts they were still receiving from her. He told us about a lei he found in his mom’s fridge. He had no idea who the lei had been intended for, but he said it was fragrant and fresh. He greeted Laurin at the airport with it. It takes a special kind of seeing to recognize the lei as a gift.
Phillip sat next to me. During the meeting he took my hand. It wasn’t because he needed me, I felt it was to comfort me. This is one amazing young man. He introduced us to Mary Beth, his mother, just by being there. They were very close, of one heart. He said she would have come to our meeting. Through him, she did.
When we asked Phillip what we could do for them, he asked that flowers be placed in Mary Beth’s driveway to make the spot of tragedy one of light. He and Laurin painted “LOVE” on a wall in the driveway in huge pink block letters. They were questioned by the security guard from the building next door about what they were doing. When the security guard realized that Phillip was Mary Beth’s son he expressed regret that he wasn’t able to do anything to save her. He was on duty the evening she was murdered and felt some how lacking. Phillip gave him a hug to make him feel better. Phillip’s presence at our meeting was just like that hug. It turned so many of us around and gave us another way of seeing.
I believe that I wasn’t the only one who came to the meeting with a bunch of stuff- anger, guilt, fear…wanting answers to questions that cannot be answered. Most of us are lucky in that we will never understand what would make someone harm another person is this horrible way, taking life. We have the soft spot that makes us civilized and gives us compassion for other beings. I can only feel gratitude that I have this refuge.