September, 1982: The opening of the Ring of Bone Zendo in Northern California. Roshi stands under a madrone tree, waiting for the conch to announce the beginning of ceremonies, beside him a silver-haired woman, in a flowing mu mu. My first sight of Anne. Even then, she seems frail. Frail and beautiful. But undoubtedly a queen.
I think it is love at first sight.
I am filming the proceedings. Discreetly. There is Yamada Roshi opening the eye of the zendo with strong vivid jabs into the air. There is Baker Roshi, fanning a parchment sutra book. Now Masa leads everyone into the zendo. As the Heart Sutra is chanted, people come forward to offer incense, walking into the shaft of sunlight streaming through the high windows, penetrating the incense smoke. The sun highlights Anne's silver hair. She gives her camera to Kathie Bunnell. "Would you mind taking photographs for me, dear?" she asks.
Afterwards, Roshi introduces us. Anne is welcoming, vivacious and warm, graciousness personified. There is no reserve, no eye of judgment, no gulf. I fall into her eyes. Her butterfly eyes.
"Butterfly Maiden is the female fertilizing force. Carrying the pollen from one place to another, she cross-fertilizes, just as the soul fertilizes mind with nightdreams, just as archetypes fertilize the mundane world. She is the center. She brings the opposites together by taking a little from here and putting it there. Transformation is no more complicated than that. This is what she teaches. This is how the butterfly does it. This is how the soul does it.î (1)
Anne accompanies Roshi to Australia first at the Lindfield house, then East Killara, and finally at Annandale. Our meetings are warm and light and pleasant. That smile, those eyes. She draws people close, makes them feel comfortable. Special.
Cathy Lukeman: "I was looking after Roshi and Anne when they were staying at the East Killara house. I was not well. And Anne kept asking how I was, noticing me, caring about me. When they returned the next year I felt a little like a stranger because I hadn't been involved in the sangha in the intervening time, nor sat sesshin. I went to a talk and potluck at Annandale and was hanging back, shy. So you can imagine how I felt when Anne came up and put her arms around me, and said, 'Cathy, how wonderful to see you!' And that was so important to me. Anne gave me substance, somehow. She validated me."
1987: Anne makes breakfast for Tony, Gully and I in a small rented house on a steep hill in Honolulu, most of the Aitken's worldly goods stacked high in cardboard boxes, waiting for a place to settle down. Waiting for Palolo. We eat papaya and boiled eggs under the merry gaze of a girl in blue, a family portrait of one of Anne's ancestors from the early nineteenth century in an ornate gold frame.
1990's: There is great concern in our sangha when we hear that Anne has a long bout of illness, great relief when she recovers. She and Roshi are not up to traveling to Australia anymore~ but we keep in touch. Anne initially makes it possible for Roberta to accompany John Tarrant on his journeys. Such generosity. In Sydney, a sangha women's group meets. When we begin to run women's sesshin, we dedicate them to Anne and I send her post-sesshin photos. Anne is our dharma mother, our guide, our friend.
1992: Tony and I are in Honolulu for a training period. As people gather for the sesshin that begins a few days after our arrival, I see Anne again after about six years, walking down the path on Roshi's arm. She is translucently beautiful now and I am unaccountably moved to tears. After sesshin, while people are helping themselves to ice cream, all I can do is weep. Anne is curious. Don't you have a mother, dear? she asks, tentatively....We are sitting on the bottom steps of the lanai at Koko An, near the pond.In the spring twilight
Oh yes, I have a perfectly fine mother. I don't know what these tears are about.
You and Tony remind me of my grandparents, Anne says, and seeing you both again is like a piece of my foundation that has somehow been missing.
We are family for each other in some mysterious way.
The training period begins. On my first day, I bring Anne flowers. I want to linger and speak to her, but she bustles me off to work. "That's why you're here, dear," she says, in a mock scolding voice. I'm not so sure. Each morning, before we pick up our hammers, Anne and Roshi emerge from their flat and we all gather in the Palolo office to chant the Emmei Jikku Kannon Gyo and Roshi's gatha to honor the day's work that lies ahead.
With every swing of my hammer I build the temple of Buddha. Thrushes and people and geckos, here is rest for your tired hearts......
Don Stoddard sets me to work in what will become the women's bathroom at Palolo. I become intimate with sheet-rock (gyp rock to us), nailing, taping and sanding day after day, an eerie ghost, my nostrils, hair and skin always dusted with fine plaster powder, even though I wear a mask and scarf. In my dreams I am sanding down highways of sheet-rock, everything is sheet-rock. From time to time over the next weeks, Don Stoddard comes to find me. "Anne would like to see you." My heart stands still. I go, filthy, into her domain, into the presence of the fairy queen, heartened by a photo of our magnificent Gorricks Run pumpkins on one wall. Anne tells me when she first heard about our women's sesshin, she wasn't sure but when she got the first after-sesshin photo, she knew it was all right. Sometimes Anne shows me her treasures. Lying amongst some initialed silver boxes is a heart-shaped Indian lacquer box containing three precious rings. She draws them out, one by one. Each has its story.
"This was Roshi's grandfather's fob watch, now a ring. This was my great aunt's amethyst ring. This is a Tibetan ring made of coral and jade, that Roshi bought for me in Nepal when he went there with students from the East-West Center."
Other times we just talk, about everything: books we are reading; how we live; what it is to have limited energy; Anne's strategies - a flask of coffee, some chocolate - to overcome sudden fatigue when she's out and about. Anne tells me she has about an hour of strong reliable energy a day. I learn from her that the process of aging requires intelligence and honesty. And humor. Anne is light with her revelations. She teaches that we can dance towards death. She teaches me about grace.
One Saturday, Helene, Anne's assistant, invites us to watch her ballet class. It is a hot day and the preceding class runs longer than expected. By the time Helene is gazelling across the room, Anne is noticeably wilting. I see for myself how quickly her energy can evaporate.
I resolve to videotape an interview with Anne before I return to Australia. As research, I track down the Spring 1979 issue of Kahawai which contains her only memoir, "In Spite of Myself". The editors have preceded her piece with this statement:
This sangha would not live without the love and dedication of Anne Aitken.
When Anne agrees to an interview, I wait for her to nominate a day, a time, prepared for it not to happen, that she might not feel up to it. One Saturday morning, Tony and I set up the camera on the back porch, with her orchids behind her, with the doves calling, calling.
Gilly: I have been reading "In Spite of Myself", your article from a 1979 issue of Kahawai (Journal of Women and Zen, published by the Diamond Sangha for ten years) and making notes. I wonder, of all the women you've met in Zen practice, who was for you the embodiment of compassion? Has there been a model for you, a female model?
Anne: PAUSE That's a very interesting idea. Isn't it strange - I have a sense you're right, that there is someone, but for some reason I can't summon it up at the moment.Gilly: That first sesshin you went to - you mentioned Satomi San....
Anne: I'm really glad you asked me about her because there's more I remember about her - to begin with she was very unusual-looking, in a way that was totally charming for Westerners but which the Japanese didn't consider beautiful. She had a very round little face, round little eyes, and the most gay and mischievous look on that sixty year-old face you've ever seen - just sparkling with fun and life. And for some reason the roundness of the face, which to us would have been a type we're completely used to and think is beautiful, they didn't think so at all.She was someone who accepted the role - not role, place - of one who was always working for others, she was doing everything for everybody else and she was incredibly efficient. For example, at that particular sesshin, which was in a very small country town, with very few facilities of any kind, she was cooking for at least twenty people in a little kitchen made of dark wood, about three by five in size, cooking on charcoal braziers, handling this with complete confidence and ease and in addition to that, she had the responsibility of heating up the fuel for the bath which was the most important thing in the Japanese person's day. I think the hot bath was available at around three and suppertime, a kind of open space when we weren't doing zazen, but she had to keep stoking up this huge hot boiler with wood to keep enough hot water for twenty people supplied while she was preparing supper and in addition she was Ino. And my most vivid memory, most lovable memory, when it came time for the sutras - to start with, Soen Roshi, breaking every law of correct behavior for Roshis, was acting as assistant in every way to Yasutani Roshi, in addition to translating for the Americans, he was in the Zendo all the time occupying all four leadership positions, except for the time for the Ino - well, what would happen, day after day, is that time would come for the sutras, sutra books would be passed out, there'd be this little silence, then suddenly there'd be this pattering of little footsteps running across the walkway from the kitchen to the zendo - with a great big smile on her face - there'd be something so pure and one immediately thought of the term "childlike", because she had this childlike face, this lovely, round happy face. But everything she did, she did well. She was always giggling as she ran in with that little bell, she knew she was late.
Gilly : Mitsuko Shimamura, Yamada Roshi's daughter, spent a week each month with Satomi San and said she was like a Kannon.
Anne: It was true. Part of it was she'd had a very difficult life - she'd had children - she'd been in the entertainment business - the less attractive aspects of it - and there was such joy in her heart that she'd come in touch with Yasutani Roshi. She adored him and it was her great joy that she could devote herself and all her energies to him and to everything that helped him.Gilly: And that's;what you've done - that's been your path too, it seems to me.
Anne: Well - I'll put it in words I can accept better. I found that when I was teaching school and I became assistant to the director, it was a very good place for me. I was very good as assistant to the director. She went away for one year and left me alone and I was director and it was a mess! It wasn't what I could do, but I always knew that I could do this other thing which was to be this support person. So, having found that out about myself and accepting this as the fact, it wasn't difficult for me naturally to go along and take part in what was happening and do what I could.Gilly: And everybody round you feels lucky too - it's a sort of good luck club. Back to Kannon - regarding some of the figures in the pantheon - one feels one's moving towards incorporating some of them within - I don't have a sense of anything to do with Fudo, for example, but there's a very strong affinity with Kanzeon -
Anne: I never verbalized it particularly that way to myself but I'm particularly fond of the figures of Kannon that we happen to have. And I think it's natural for anyone who has a strong Buddhist feeling to feel very strongly about Kannon, to feel that Kannon is more of a central figure in the pantheon because someone like Jizo or Kannon you can identify with more personally than someone like Bodhidharma - I mean, he's fabulous up there on the altar - but I don't feel a personal relationship. But I do feel this with Jizo. I feel very strongly about the Jizo figures too.Gilly: He's the protector of the unborn and guides people into the other world -
Anne: Children and travelers - like St. Anthony -Gilly: He's such a simple, sweet presence -
Anne: Yes, this great simplicity. And I think of this quality when I think of Satomi San and I think of these figures. One senses - well, I don't know how to verbalize it in anyway except by saying - I sort of call it simplicity. The word "simplicity" is in a way such an ordinary word but if we had a word (which I don't think we do), a way of saying "simplicityî in the way we'd say "the golden ballî - it's everything - it seems to me a core, precious quality. I think that often one recognizes that quality in people who've been through a great deal and for that reason have been able to let a lot drop off.Gilly: Well, Anne we probably should end soon - is there anything you'd like to add?
Anne: I have luckily a very vivid visual memory. It's interesting to me that the faces and voices and actions of so many people I knew and loved in Australia are very real to me; immediately. It was always very special to me when we went to Australia, the places we stayed in, the things we did. And I had a special affection for the Annandale house, I thought it had a great quality. I thought it was remarkable the way it adapted itself to the needs of the situation and to the atmosphere. It seemed astonishing that almost immediately the Zendo at Annandale had Zendo qualities - that does get created powerfully over the years, as we found at Koko An' but that seemed to me to happen almost at once. And I would love to go back and have visits with everyone but I have to face the fact that I'm not about to get there, I couldn't do it. I encourage everyone to come here! By the way, we must call it Palolo - with the stress on the first syllable - because this is supporting the Hawaiian people's culture....so we've got to start right away!
We have nights of frost and each morning my tent has ice on it. A beautiful Monarch butterfly, deep orange and black, flutters down onto my sleeping bag, Later, Sally finds another, resting on the grass, its wings folded. This is out of season, she says. During our sesshin we sing and dance and share our lives. Sally says we are dancing towards death. Our sesshin draws to a close and again, neighbors appear and take us back to the river.
Early next morning, Subhana rings to say Anne is in Queen's Hospital. I want to be with her, throw the I Ching. Waiting, it gives me, which turns to Gathering. I check on seats, find I can go on Thursday. When I ring the hospital, suddenly Roshi is on the phone. I tell him about the image of the resting butterfly. "If her body is as strong as her will, she will pull through," he says.
That night John Tarrant calls. Anne has died.
I want to be there for her funeral, for her ceremony, to honor her.
I have a dream that night. Tony and I are are at a gathering, being held on many levels. There are musicians, there is food, there are many, many people. At one stage, we are crossing from one level to another when I lose sight of Tony. I begin to search for him, going from one room to the next, only seeing strangers. I gradually realize Tony has gone to be with Roshi along with the other men, grieving with him. Then I see I am naked down to my waist, amongst strangers. I feel vulnerable and exposed and shrink back into the shadows, finding it hard to move around. I am still trying to find a hiding place, feeling abandoned, anguished. It's getting late. The musicians are packing up their instruments and I ask if they have seen my tee-shirt. They pull one down off a hook, black with a defiant mocking primitive face on it - but it's not my tee-shirt. I need to cover up, but can't wear this one. Mine is at the bottom of a pile on the hook, I can just see the familiar Buddhist Peace Fellowship rose.
The process by which the stellar goddess submits herself to concreteness and incarnation involves her unveiling. This motif suggests the removal of old illusions and false identities that may have served in the upper world but which count for nothing in the Netherworld. There one stands naked before the all-seeing eyes of the dark goddess. The unveiling means being stripped bare, the unveiling of the goddess to herself - the original striptease. It suggests a need to be utterly exposed, undefended, open to having one's soul searched by the eye of death, the dark eye of the Self. (3)
I wake up next morning exhausted and sad. Somehow the dream's message is that if I go to Honolulu, I must make a strong effort to connect with the feminine. When I describe a little of my dream to a friend, I am reprimanded. "It's Roshi's show."
That stubborn bullish defensive shadow of the gods is a fact of the patriarchy and its heroic ideals, ideals which overwhelm the feminine and struggle to control and hold their own in life, charging ahead, uncaring where they destroy playful sensitivity and empathetic relatedness. Innana's descent implies her confrontation with this archetypal patriarchal shadow. She must see the limit of the fathers and be witness to what was repressed: she must refind Ereshkigal. (4)
There is a shock when I collect my airline ticket - a minimum stay of seven days! This feels too long. I had hoped to come back as soon as possible. Now I feel I am being punished for something, recognize a familiar reaction or follow-up to any strong imperative I ever have - the bigger the action, the more profound the feelings afterwards of being punished. Until I leave, I feel weak and very disturbed, but am determined to continue with the journey to celebrate and honor Anne. No matter what.
This is like the first gate that Innana has to pass through to go to the Underworld - leaving behind her crown - her abilities - her confidence in herself. Next morning, I climb into the car and leave my two faithful dogs behind. No more unconditional love. At the airport, I leave the familiar world with Tony in it and pass into airport limbo. Now I am another unknown thing on a conveyor belt. I give myself up to it.
Emerging next morning in Honolulu, Molly Polanski is there to meet me wearing a tee-shirt with butterflies on it, Monarchs. This feels like a blessing. We have these in Australia, I tell her. But Molly tells me they are an American butterfly. I am perplexed. Are the Monarchs at Gorricks Run different? Are they Australian Monarchs? Molly and I have a long coffee and talk before I am taken to Palolo. I am not in a hurry to be at the site of the gathering. I am uncertain about my reception there. The dream's sense of loneliness and alienation is still very strong.
At Palolo, the head resident, Nanda, is genuinely welcoming. I need not put up my tent, there is a bed for me. I meet Trish Dougherty and go to her place for lunch....and there meet Cathy Radcliffe and 'Een Kiera, hear how Anne was admitted to the hospital, what happened in there. We share our grief. We will consecrate our work for the ceremony to Anne. 'Een and I drive back to Palolo. Hearts are wide open. Misunderstandings in the sangha are put aside.
On the altar, photos of Anne begin to appear. There she is, full-faced and young, here she is offering incense at the Buddha's Birthday Ceremony only last April, two wide-eyed little girls watching her graceful movement. Here she is with Roshi. And here, with her hands in gassho, a sideways look.
Roshi has placed Anne's ashes in a beautiful pottery container on the altar, just below Manjusri. While he sits alone in the Zendo I wait on the verandah, stroking Pindi the temple cat. Roshi touches my shoulder, shares the moments of Anne's death with me and I give him the envelopes from all the sangha members back home.
A sesshin was meant to begin today, but instead there is Anne's memorial ceremony. People are arriving at Palolo to sit with Roshi, people who have never met Anne. At a work meeting, everybody is given jobs to do to prepare for the event. Molly and I have been invited to prepare the flowers for the ceremony, pure pleasure. Sangha members have been bringing exotic blooms from their gardens. Professional florists' vans drive up with elaborate arrangements. The downstairs kitchen has bucketfuls of brilliant colors and shapes. We bring everything upstairs into the dining room and begin our work. There is a fierce joy in my heart. I love Anne, I love flowers, I love the sangha, I am where I need to be, where I want to be. 'Een teaches us an African women's working song and we form a circle in the kitchen. Later, I write words for her ceremony, shower, dress and make a cup of tea. Soon people will start arriving. Molly and I are ready to guide people up the stairs and into the Zendo. Ken MacDonald plays his mournful trombone from the tea-house.
The first to arrive are a family of four, dressed in black, who have flown over from Sacramento. I discover the woman, Cuk, is Anne's foster-daughter. She lived at Koko An with Anne and Roshi in the late sixties, as a student from Vietnam and never returned. Now she has two daughters, one named after Anne. Her husband, K.C. is a professor of history. A well-dressed woman pauses at the top of the stairs, looking a little lost. She turns out to be Marion, Anne's travel agent. "My day was always warmed by a phone call from Anne, or by a visit. She was a wonderful person," she tells me. Anne's warmth was not confined to the sangha. It spread out into the world.
Soon the densho starts ringing, and it's time to go into the Zendo. The ceremony is extremely moving. One by one people move to the altar, offer incense, speak to Anne. Again and again the words "generosity", "grace", "beauty", "encouragement". Anne's brothers and sister, Tom Aitken, sangha members, the professor of history one after another, people come forward to the altar and speak to Anne.
Thank you for your incandescent beauty, for your eyes, your smile, your grace. Thank you for your wisdom and insight. I vow to honor these gifts, in your name, to follow your way. I vow to remember you, always.
Nelson Foster brings the ceremony to a close. Trish chants Roshi's beautiful dedication:
Next morning, there is a leaders' meeting to plan the sesshin. But, will there even be a sesshin? someone asks, as Roshi will not be teaching this time. Nelson and John have to return to their sanghas as they have their own sesshin starting soon. When it is finally decided to go ahead, with a modified schedule, and sharing circles in place of teishos, Roshi is very pleased.Palolo mountains hold the Maha Sangha,
That first day, Nelson gives a teisho on Case 55 of the Blue Cliff Record. Dead or alive? I won't say, I won't say. He invites people to come to the mat and engage with him. That fragment of Anne's eighteen-year-old poem comes up: And all that we had gathered fell away.....
When Nelson says, "Some people last night said Anne is still alive. It's not so - Anne's dead", John Tarrant says, "She's alive!"
Dead or alive? I won't say, I won't say.
Grieving is like giving birth. Intense contractions - sobbing - long pauses, then the sobbing starts up again. On and on it goes. Heavy. Painful. I breathe dead, alive, dead alive. I breathe now, then, now, then. Old, new, old, new. My koan becomes, Where is Anne? and that question in Hakuin Zenji's Song of Zazen, "when shall we be freed from birth and death?" really comes home to roost, along with all my doubts. Grief is the ultimate abandonment.
One day, as we file out of the Zendo for lunch, I am carrying the question Where is Anne? along with my bowl set. As we put the bowls down on the long table I glimpse, spread eagled on the window's wire mesh, a large darkly-patterned moth.
What is life? What is death? What is this?
Seven women sages were traveling through the Forest of Corpses. One of the women pointed to a corpse and asked her sisters, "The corpse is here - where is the person?" The eldest sister said, "What? What?" and all seven together experienced tire tolerance of birthlessness But say, how many are like this? (5)
Footnote: August, 1994: Tony and I have a holiday together and visit a butterfly farm. Here I discover that the Monarch (also called the Wanderer) is an American butterfly that first reached Australia in 1870. And that moths, because they are night-flying, do not require color...........
1. Women who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Gillian Coote is a Sydney-based independent filmmaker, writer, teacher, and Zen student with the Sydney Zen Center, an affiliate of the Diamond Sangha, and edits their seasonal journal Mind Moon Circle.