Sunday, September 18, 2011

May Their Compassion Embrace Us - A Tribute to Ginny Morgan

I feel compelled to interrupt the flow of my Alpine Stream of Consciousness series in order to pay homage to a woman whose Dharma teaching has had a profound impact on me for over four years now. I just learned that Ginny Morgan passed away on Tuesday, August 30th after living with cancer for longer than I have known her. Readers of this blog will know that, despite my being a Soto Zen practitioner, I’ve tried to recognize wisdom wherever it is to be found – be it amongst the various branches of Buddhism, the Abrahamic religions, Native American Spirituality, Yoga, Tai Chi, etc. In that regard, Ginny and I are kindred spirits.



Ginny was a teacher in the Insight Meditation tradition. She lived a couple of hours away in Columbia, Missouri, and so I only ever saw her when I was attending one of the meditation retreats that she was leading. During those retreats her Dharma talks often took on a free form sort of character – not without structure, mind you, but nevertheless shaped by the needs of the present moment and whatever issues were arising amongst the practitioners in attendance. She would have a notebook beside her as she spoke, and frequently she would rifle through it in order to find a quote or a poem or a story from any one of the various “wisdom traditions”, as she referred to them, or from someone whose personal experience of suffering was so profound as to spontaneously transform them in ways that those wisdom traditions attempt to convey. In that spirit, then, please allow me to honor Ginny within the context of the wisdom tradition that is my home.

In the Soto Zen tradition we chant what we call ‘the lineage’ every week during our formal Sunday service. The lineage is a list of the names of all of the teachers who have brought the Dharma from India to China, Japan, and America. The chanting of the lineage is initiated by a designated individual (the doan), who intones the following introduction:
We honor the boundless virtue of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,
May their compassion embrace us,
We prostrate ourselves before Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,
May their wondrous power enter our hearts.
Now that we have chanted the Heart Sutra,
All merits elicited in this recitation are dedicated to:
All present then proceed to chant the eighty-eight names of those who have passed the teachings down through space and time, from individual to individual, from mind to mind, from the time of the Buddha to this very moment. The final name that we chant at the Missouri Zen Center is that of Jikai Dainin Daiosho – the formal honorific of our teacher’s teacher, Katagiri roshi. In fact, our teacher, Rosan Yoshida roshi, has another formal teacher, Tsugen roshi. Every once in a while we talk about the fact that the lineage we chant should incorporate that of Tsugen roshi, as well, branching off from some common Ancestor and converging in the person of Yoshida roshi. We haven’t quite figured that one out, though! After the actual chanting of the eighty-eight names, the doan continues:
We express our heartfelt gratitude
and acknowledge our obligation
to all successive Buddhas and Ancestors
who have transmitted the Right Dharma
through India, China, Japan and America.

This part of the Soto Zen service encompasses two key and interrelated aspects of Buddhist practice: gratitude and compassion. It is compassion that motivated our Ancestors to purify their practice and actualize the Dharma in order to alleviate the suffering of all beings. At this point we can shrug our shoulders and say to ourselves: “well that’s kind of a nice ritual”, or we can really, really “get” the reality of what others have done for us, thereby allowing a profound sense of gratitude to arise – a sense of gratitude so profound that we can’t help but feel obligated to act on it. Of course, such action will involve us actualizing the Dharma in our own unique way, offering the universe our own sense of compassion for all beings as we strive to be the best “self that is not other” that we can possibly be. And so the Dharma is passed on through time and space in an unbroken chain of gratitude and compassion, gratitude and compassion, gratitude and compassion….
     
I have a profound sense of gratitude for Ginny. The multi-day residential retreats that she led over the New Year’s Eve holiday became a regular part of my practice in recent years. That yearly retreat was a touchstone of sorts – a return to a place of refuge. The very first of these retreats that I attended with Ginny was with my wife (from whom I am now divorced). To this day that retreat remains for me one of the highlights of our marriage. Inexplicably, three months later our marriage was over. I returned to that same retreat center the very next year, with Ginny leading and with many of the same practitioners in attendance – but not my wife. That retreat remains for me one of the most deep and raw and moving experiences of my life. I had entered the crucible, and by doing so my sense of gratitude and compassion became so much stronger than it ever could have become otherwise – as if forged in the fires of suffering.

Ginny’s retreats were quite commonly places of such transformation. There was never a reason to doubt the safety of the spiritual environment that she was instrumental in bringing forth. No matter how deep, or raw, or painful a place your practice might be taking you, you always knew that Ginny was prepared to be a guide for you. You always knew that she had been to that place herself

Ginny embodied the wisdom of meeting suffering head on, thereby allowing it to transform you. As I have said, from the very first time I met Ginny I knew that she was living with cancer. At times – due to the harshness of chemotherapy, I presume – her hair was but a wispy remnant of its previous self and her movements were slower and more measured. I never once, however, sensed even a shred of self-pity on her part. I never once sensed any diminishment of her capacity to be with others in their suffering. It would have been easy for someone in Ginny’s position to spend her time living for herself, working her way through some ‘bucket-list’ of desires rather than spending her remaining days leading us out of the forests of our suffering. But that is not the way of the Bodhisattva. It might have been easy, as well, and maybe even instructive on some level, for her to give us all a wakeup call, saying: “You know, each of you have time to get over your divorces, resolve your relationship difficulties, come to terms with rejecting parents, heal from past abuse, find your path in life…; I, on the other hand, am dying.” She never, ever did. She was as present with others’ concerns as if they were the only thing worth dealing with, and as if there were all the time in the world to deal with them. Of course, with her passing, Ginny does give us that wakeup call; and amongst the many teachings she has left us with, one of the most powerful is the gift of the profound realization of the impermanence of all things.

Let me close with a metta offering, an offering of loving kindness. It is one that I learned from Ginny – one that I’ve come to know has incredible potential to open one’s heart:
May all beings be safe and protected.
May all beings live with ease and wellbeing.
May all beings be free from both inner and outer harm.
May all beings come to embody the gift of freedom in this very life
– not one left out.

I know that there are many family members, friends, and students who will be coming to grips with Ginny’s passing for a long time to come. I hope that we are all able to find comfort in the knowledge that Ginny is a Bodhisattva, and her compassion will continue to embrace us for as long we hold her in our hearts.

2 comments:

  1. My sincerest condolences on your loss. She sounds like an amazing person, and I'm jealous that I never got the chance to meet her. May she live on in your memory.

    ReplyDelete
  2. She was very amazing, Kristen. Perhaps Ginny can live on in your memory now also.

    ReplyDelete