Death, dying, and the Dharma

As a hospice volunteer Paramananda gave himself to caring for the dying. When he left he was no wiser about death but more aware of life.

It is 10am on a Tuesday morning. I am standing on the steps of an elegant Victorian house on Page Street in San Francisco. Tod is taking longer than normal to answer the doorbell. Just up the street on the opposite side of the road stands an impressive two-story brick building. The majority of buildings around here are constructed from wood, so this one stands out. If you look closely you can see the Star of David in the wrought-ironwork of the balcony railings. This is the famous San Francisco Zen Center, which in former years was a hostel for young Jewish women. It is famous partly because of its founder Shunryu Suzuki, whose wonderful book Zen Mind Beginners Mind is regarded by many as a modern classic on meditation.

Zen Center is also famous for Richard Baker, the charismatic and controversial successor to Suzuki. Much of Zen Center’s success was due to Baker’s drive and leadership, although he is mostly remembered as the defendant in a Zen version of impeachment, which wrestled the leadership from him. It is famous because it was in the right place at the right time. Its history includes the Beats and the hippies, state governors and presidential hopefuls.

It is also an important part of the history of the hospice movement in the US. The house where I found myself every Tuesday morning for three years was the Zen Guest House — a four-bedded hospice that grew out of the Zen Center’s experience of caring for terminally ill members of its own community. It is a place to die.

Eight years before I moved to San Francisco partly because I felt exhausted by a decade of Thatcherite Britain. Both the actual and the social climate of England seemed gray, without the promise of a brighter future. After 37 years of living in London, it was time for a change. I was invited to San Francisco to help establish a Buddhist center, in cooperation with a group of Americans who had, by various and unlikely coincidences, become interested in the teachings of Sangharakshita. I had been ordained by this remarkable Englishman in 1985.

For me, San Francisco was a city I had seen in movies; it was also the city of the Beats, and a new way of living: the city of love, where flower power first blossomed. San Francisco drew many who felt alienated from the mainstream values of America, and it became a refuge for those who felt their sexuality made them outcasts in the vastness of Middle America. By the time I arrived the flowers had long since wilted. Out of the radical soil of the 60s had grown a vibrant gay culture, but AIDS began to devastate this community.

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