I want to share some thoughts and feelings I have about Peter Matthiessen, who passed away last Saturday.
Peter was in the hospital till Friday, and I was told that he talked very little to none at all in the last few days of his life. But Michel Engu Dobbs, his successor, said that on Wednesday evening, when he visited, he asked him if he wished to chant the Heart Sutra in Japanese, or the Shingyo, as they did in his Ocean Zendo. Peter said yes, and the sick, mostly silent man and Engu chanted the entire thing in Japanese without missing a beat.
The next night Engu visited him again, and this time Peter was silent. But as Engu was leaving he noticed that Fox News was on the TV screen, so he asked Peter: “Do you want Fox News on the TV?” and Peter barked out in that low voice of his: “No!” “Do you want me to change the channel?” “Yes!” I think those were the last words he spoke to Engu.
These two vignettes say so much about the man. On the one hand he was deeply, almost vehemently devoted to a practice of realizing the oneness of life, and especially the practice of zazen. He delved deeply into the Heart Sutra’s Form is no other than emptiness; in fact, many of us still use the translation he did of it along with Bernie. And at the same time he had a passion for justice and decency in this world. Even in his later, older years he didn’t lose his anger over what we were doing to plants and animals who share this planet with us and continued to speak loudly and clearly on behalf of people he felt were wronged. He refused to find solace in transcendence.
In my experience, he was unlike many practitioners who seem to feel that since justice and injustice, right and wrong, are just more pairs of dualities, what’s there to get excited about? It’s easy to get turned off by a religious and political climate that is often highly fundamentalist and partisan, find refuge in concepts such as emptiness and oneness, and not act. Or else, not knowing what to do and feeling paralyzed, try to accept things as they are and leave it at that.
That was not Peter Muryo. He was conflicted and unsure of many things, liked to say he was the world’s worst Zen student, but he couldn’t stand neutrally aside in the face of injustice. I remember when we were on safari in Tanzania with him some years ago. Among us was a man with a high position in the Pentagon and one of Donald Rumsfeld’s advisers. Peter was always deeply courteous and gracious, never once said a word that betrayed his passionate differences with the Bush administration, especially over their treatment of the environment. But one evening after dinner someone asked him a question, and this man who preferred to never give a talk without copious notes at his side launched spontaneously into a deeply moving portrayal of what we, who’d been out in the savannah every day, couldn’t see: the world-wide depredation, the scramble by flora and fauna to adapt to this two-legged predator, and especially the responsibility to the planet that we, as Americans, had betrayed. It was a cry from the heart: scholarly, eloquent, low-key—and a cry nevertheless.
I recently came across this quote by Hannah Arendt: Moral conduct depends on the intercourse of man with himself. It comes out of bearing witness and reflection on what one has seen. It doesn’t come out of books, dogmas, or the media, but is a deeply personal matter.
Peter took the world personally; he spoke and wrote for it. He never equated the practice of letting go with apathy. He was as deeply engaged off the cushion as he was on it. I feel his aliveness deeply, even now.