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Zengine of Ingenuity

I
had been a student of Zen Buddhism prior to the accident.
My spiritual path had begun twenty-five years before, when I
had stumbled across a wonderful book, “The Snow Leopard,”
by Peter Matthiessen, which had just won the National Book
Award. The book chronicled Matthiessen’s search for meaning through
Zen and Tibetan Buddhism after his wife’s death from cancer, cul-
minating in a trip to the Himalayas where he searched for the elusive
snow leopard, as well as the elusive wisdom embodied by reclusive
Buddhist monks at the remote and mysterious Crystal Mountain mon-
astery. Reading that book led to taking a comparative religions course,
where my professor, Dr. Joel Smith of Skidmore College’s Philosophy
& Religion Department, not only taught us in the classroom about
the world’s great religions, but took us to a Buddhist monastery in the
Catskills for an optional weekend retreat. As much as those influences
had intrigued me, in my adult life I had been a spiritual dabbler; family,
children, work and a wife who didn’t approve had all been obstacles to
my becoming a more serious student.
The crisis in my marriage before the accident had turned me into
someone I barely recognized. I would respond to my wife’s taunts by
becoming angry and yelling back at her. I would be short and cross with

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the kids. This was not the calm, peaceful, loving person I wanted to be.
I was an agitated, emotional mess. I had reached a turning point in my
life that caused a newfound search for meaning, for happiness: Who was
I? Who did I want to be? From my previous exposure to Zen Buddhism
I thought that finding a meditation group might help calm my emo-
tions. I sought out a meditation group near my home and was amazed
and delighted to find that Peter Matthiessen had a small country zendo,
or meditation center, about an hour from where I lived, which he called
The Ocean Zendo. In the years since he had written “The Snow Leop-
ard” he had become even more immersed in Zen and had become a
Zen roshi, or master priest. I sent him a letter, and received a gentle
and wonderful invitation to join his sangha, or Zen congregation. So I
began to make the hour-long drive once or twice a week to the zendo,
where I would meditate, join discussion groups on Zen Buddhist phi-
losophy, and receive regular instruction from several of the teachers.
At the same time I set up a small altar with black meditation cushions
in a corner of my home office, and I would get up early each morning,
before the children or my wife were awake and meditate for a half hour.
All of this had a steady hand in helping me deal with the crises in
my life: a failing marriage, a failing business, a mother’s crippling
accident. I was in the midst of this new path when my own accident
occurred. Would Zen and meditation also help me deal with this new
crisis? How would an ancient belief system coexist with modern medi-
cine, if at all? Would the two complement or contradict each other?
In one of my first meetings with my new neurologist, Dr. Mark
Rubino, in Naples after the accident, I gingerly asked him about my
Zen meditation: I told him of my Zen practice, and my daily morning
meditation sessions that had been a regular part of my life before the
accident. Dr. Rubino was the lead physician in the pantheon of doc-
tors and therapists who had become the focus of my daily existence. He
always took time to listen and to answer my questions fully. He was also
my mother’s neurologist. I liked and trusted him.
“Can I still meditate?” I warily asked “Would meditation would be
good or bad for my recovery?”
Even though Dr. Rubino was young—I guessed somewhere in his
early thirties—and bright, insightful, energetic and wonderfully funny
and seemingly open-minded, I fully expected him to be dismissive,

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since such irrational hocus-pocus as Zen would seem to be inconsistent


with modern, rational scientific medicine. I grew up trained in a west-
ern, rational mind-set, and I fully expected a similarly trained Western
doctor to pooh-pooh meditation as ancient Eastern superstition. Medi-
tation had little in common with modern medicine and its emphasis
on brain chemistry, drugs, machines—treatment modalities that had
all been carefully researched and tested. I even thought that since Zen
meditation emphasizes non-thinking, and since my whole problem was
getting my brain to start thinking clearly again, that perhaps meditation
would be detrimental to my recovery.
Instead I was surprised by his answer.
“That’s great,” he said, “it will be good for you. A lot of research
has shown that meditation can help with anxiety, concentration, mem-
ory and other cognitive functions. Go for it.”
That early encouragement to integrate ancient Zen practice into
modern rehabilitative practice had a profound effect. It meant that Zen
would not only help my brain heal, but would continue to be a vital part
of my life, to grow and flower in ways that I would never have thought
possible, and ultimately to become part of how I would write the book
that Dr. Rubino had been encouraging me to write.
Ever since I discovered Zen in college I had been fascinated by the
beautiful brevity of its art forms, from the mysterious energy of the
calligraphic brushstroke in an ensõ—the circle of enlightenment—to
the freshness of a Japanese haiku, which opens slowly in the mind
like a flower opening to the morning dew. So after my accident, as
I searched for a way to tell my tale in a way that would be creative,
beautiful, enlightening and helpful to others, I began to envision a
way to write that was in the footsteps of this great and ancient tra-
dition, a way to tell a story that owed much to the sensibilities of
venerable Japanese poets such as Matsuo Basho or more modern poets
such as Soen Nakagawa Roshi, one of the first Japanese Zen teachers
to come to the United States. Basho’s “Narrow Road to the Interior”
is one of the best-loved books of Japanese literature and tells the story
of a five-month, 1,233 mile journey Basho undertook on foot as a wan-
dering poet, accompanied by his friend Kawai Sora. This thin, spare
book is written as a travelogue, combining both prose and poetry into
a single, cohesive whole.

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Soen Roshi did not write a book, per se, but the book “Endless
Vow: The Zen Path of Soen Nakagawa” is a collection of his poetry,
letters and calligraphy. It is travelogue of sorts in both poetry and prose,
although it covers much more ground, from his youth in Japan to his
voyage to America to his role in founding Dai Bosatsu Zendo, the first
Japanese Zen monastery in the United States in New York’s Catskill
Mountains. I felt a certain kindred spirit with Soen Roshi, not only
from his writings, but because he himself suffered a Traumatic Brain
Injury in his mid-50’s when he fell from a tree in Japan.
Exactly what happened to Soen Roshi is unclear, but according to
the stories, he was missing for several days at the monastery. This in
itself was not unusual, as he was known to be a bit eccentric and would
often disappear for long stretches of time. In monasteries, someone
going off alone into a quiet corner for meditation and solitude is the
norm. But after he failed to show up for several meals and services, the
other monks went searching for him and found him lying unconscious
beneath a large tree, supposedly with a sharp piece of bamboo piercing
his skull. The stories say that he had been unconscious for three days.
The words Traumatic Brain Injury are never used in these accounts,
but in 1967 TBI was little understood. It was assumed that Soen Roshi
had fallen out of the tree, although what he was doing up in its branches
nobody knew for certain. He could have been meditating, sitting in
a crook of the tree, or he could have just climbed up to enjoy a better
view. That’s the kind of person he was.
In later years Soen became a hard drinker, likely an alcoholic, and
eventually drowned in his own bathtub, drunk. His drinking was
said to be an attempt to deaden the constant pain he felt as a result of
the brain injury, however Matthiessen Roshi has wondered how true
this story is, since he spent much time with Soen Roshi and never saw
a scar on Soen’s shaved head. Peter has wondered whether the story
might be an apologia for Soen Roshi’s hard drinking, since sake is an
integral part of Japanese culture, even among spiritual leaders. Even if
the bamboo stake is an embellishment, I have no doubt about the brain
injury part of the story. The narrative is too detailed to be fabricated out
of whole cloth. And I understand only too well the pain, both physical
and mental, that can result from a traumatic brain injury. Darkness,
depression and despair are some of the very real symptoms that many

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people who suffer a traumatic brain injury experience, symptoms that


stay with them for the rest of their lives. Quite a few TBI sufferers
have been known to succumb to depression and take their own lives.
It is one more possibility I have to guard against, one more outcome I
shall always worry about. If a devoted, enlightened Zen monk could
not escape the ravages of depression brought on by a Traumatic Brain
Injury, what hope do I have?
And yet I refused to sink into despair. Partly out of kinship with
forefathers like Basho and Soen Roshi, I began writing my own short
poetry, something that could focus on the beauty of life. But partly
because my cognitive functioning was so diminished, so childlike, all I
could write were very short, very focused little compositions, often no
more than a few words, even shorter than a haiku. My interest in short
poetry—mainly haiku—had already existed before the accident, but
now the allure of short verse took on a new urgency. These diminu-
tive poems were something I could still write—and remember. Here
was a way of doing something I loved—playing with words—that
was still within the grasp of my flawed memory. Here was something
I could throw myself into to help alleviate the pain of losing my chil-
dren, my mother, my home, my own sense of self. Here was something
that might stave off future pain, keeping me from sinking beneath the
waves of a bathtub in my later years. Writing these poems was a form of
therapy, a joyful celebration of what was possible.
To help me remember what I had been thinking when I wrote
these short poems, I would write notes to go with them—reflections
on life, my life, the human condition, brain injury—and a book-length
narrative began to take shape, an odyssey comprised of both poetry and
prose, a travelogue recounting my own journey from the hellish depths
of despair and hopelessness to the Olympian heights of contentment
and peace. It was a story more about healing than about accidents; a
story where one could easily substitute other personal hurdles for the
words TBI: cancer, divorce, childhood abuse, depression or a thousand
other afflictions; a story that would help others searching for meaning in
the face of great personal difficulties.
At first, the short poems were a necessary result of my brain injury,
but over time, as I healed, I came to see their simplicity as a gift, an
art form unto themselves, and I continued to write them. I could have

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said goodbye to them as vestiges of my brain damage, like therapists to


be left behind once my cognitive functioning had improved, but they
seemed to have value beyond just a record of my recovery. They were
the world’s shortest poems, but they carried a universe of meaning.
In a strange way my disability made me much more aware of the
nuance and power of each individual syllable and punctuation mark.
I did not need umpteen words to tell a story. I developed a sixth sense
for the emotional power of simple word relationships and the coupling
between words and the human heart that I had only vaguely glimpsed
before my accident. I felt like someone who has lost the use of their legs
but finds new strength in their arms for, say, rock climbing. I talked to
Dr. Rubino about how I felt and he said, “You’ve only injured certain
parts of your brain, and other parts will now become stronger to com-
pensate. You’re like the Stevie Wonder of writers.”

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