In this three-part essay series, Donovan Irven details his personal and philosophical exploration of Zen Buddhism and the practice of zazen in the context of a situational mental health crisis.
I sat quarter lotus on a raised wooden tan in the sunlit zendo. Unadorned windows let light filter freely through the meditation hall. Sogen, a black-and-grey-robed Zen monk, knelt on his tan in seiza, knees folded, lower legs beneath him, cushioned by the small, round zafu tucked under his buttocks. Beside me on the next tan was a camera, pointed at Sogen and his shaved head. He was providing an orientation to Zen Buddhism and the practice of his temple to me and another person attending virtually. The sangha, or Buddhist community, had just reopened after the initial waves of Covid in 2020-21.
I had gone to the Haku-un-ji Zen Center in Tempe, Arizona because I was depressed. I can’t say that I wanted to kill myself. But the idea of not existing was appealing. The strange idea of annihilation, the loss of self and the cessation of suffering that goes with it, keeps drawing me back to Buddhism.
I had lost my job in February 2020, just as Covid was descending upon the world. It was a contingent faculty gig at a north-central Texas vocational college posing as a liberal arts school. I taught four classes every semester, allowing students to enroll over the course caps and serving the core curriculum. But I was on year-to-year contracts teaching philosophy and was an ally to, Nathan Jun, a Jewish professor who was being harassed and threatened by local neo-Nazis and white supremacists. He was ultimately run out of town and antagonistically dumped by the university the same year he had been promoted to full professor. Part of the destruction of Nathan Jun involved not renewing my contract with the Department of English, Philosophy, and Humanities so that they could, ostensibly, hire a writing instructor. With a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Literature, I was certainly qualified to teach writing, but never mind the details.
Given my competencies, I had been assigned the dubiously titled course “Asian Philosophy and Religion,” which I centered largely on Buddhist philosophy, and so it was easy for me to turn to the familiar texts that I had studied since my undergrad days— Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, the Diamond, Heart, and Platform Sutras, and the Bodhicaryavatara. I often take Basho’s travel writing and hakku with me when I do my own traveling. I like the simple power of his language and his habit of stopping to commemorate certain moments on the journey with a word or observation. I needed that kind of distance from Texas, higher education, and everything that went with them.
We were still safe.
My spouse had given birth to our son in April 2019. He was less than a year old when I lost my job and our health insurance. Over the summer of 2020, riding the first crest of the Covid waves, we moved from north Texas to Arizona, where my spouse had landed a coveted lectureship (still not tenure track) in her hometown. The three of us moved into her father’s small suburban house to save money and began shopping for a home of our own.
Even though I am not invested in the traditional norms of masculinity, I have to admit it was harder than I had anticipated for me to lose the role I played in our family’s breadwinning. We had been young professionals. Childcare was affordable and we were happy with what we were able to work out in Texas. We never planned on one of us staying at home. We were “partners,” as the progressive term suggests, teammates sharing the load of life together. I was transitioning, successfully at first, into a role as a program director for Filo Sofi Arts, an art gallery run by Gabrielle Aruta, a friend I had known for years and who was making progress with a business that infused art education with philosophy. With the switch to Zoom and digital programming, it was a silver lining for me to work remotely.
My pay was not steady, not like it had been in academia, but when things were good, they were really good, and I could earnestly start calling myself a “writer.” I was publishing more and caring less about whether or not my publications would count toward the infinite nothing that were my chances at tenure. I needed to rethink my relationship with professional philosophy and a little Buddhist detachment could go a long way there.
By the end of 2020, we had given up our house search. One more attachment to lose. We had put in several offers, all at the top of our price range for modest, single-family houses, but we were systematically outbid by tens of thousands of dollars over the asking prices. The rental market was even worse. I recently read of an Arizona family living in a hotel because they could not find an affordable alternative when they were evicted.
I thought about this as Sogen explained the basics of Buddhism—things I knew quite well but was eager to hear again in this setting. Something that first grabbed me about Buddhism was its apparently logical introduction. The basic tenets are distilled in the Four Noble Truths, and these proceed in an almost syllogistic fashion from the basic premise that “life is suffering.” That word, “suffering,” translates dukkha, and this Sanskrit word does not always mean to “suffer” in an extreme or agonistic sense, but also covers a general, existential feeling that something is off with the world, that something is just not right. It is this feeling of a deep and lingering dissatisfaction with the world that I identify with dukkha more so than obvious, intense physical and emotional pains.
I began to really feel dukkha. Things were just not where I wanted them to be. It wasn’t anything catastrophic— not yet— but everything was out of place. I felt we were increasingly trapped. Where once I felt some direction and agency in the world, I now felt adrift, unmoored, and, frankly, a little piled on. How odd I was—driving into this little Tempe suburb, with the hope that some improbably white bodhisattva could show me how big a Nothing it all was.
Did I even want to let go? There were memories that even then, sitting quarter lotus, I was desperately clinging to.
My great-aunt and great-grandmother had both died of Covid within a week of one another over the winter of 2020-21. My grandfather was hospitalized for over a month with the virus. He lived but will never fully recover. Covid tore through the family unchecked back in my small, Appalachian hometown in Allegany County, Maryland. I worried for months that more of them would die, that whole branches of my family would not survive. I was told by a thousand sources that this was fine. That they were old, and we all had to sacrifice to get back to normal. But nothing has been normal. I’m tired of being told otherwise.
Read “The Locking Spine“
If we accept the first Noble Truth, that life is suffering, we can move to the Second, which concerns the causes of suffering. The cause of suffering is attachment. There is perhaps one implied premise here, that suffering is bad. This implicit value judgment makes the move from the Second to the Third Noble Truth an easy step.
Of course, if we know the problem and its cause, we can move to its solution, which is expressed in the Third Noble Truth, concerning the cessation of suffering. If attachment causes suffering, then the cessation of these attachments, of our desire to cling to things, to demand that the impermanent world be permanent, should result in the cessation of suffering. The end of suffering is the end of attachment.
In August of 2021, my spouse was diagnosed with breast cancer. An avalanche of doctor’s appointments and consultations rained on us as we went masked from office to office, our near-total quarantine broken by an illness that had come from nowhere, catching us entirely by surprise. As an ironic bonus, it was probably her pregnancy that exacerbated the tumors’ growth. Tumors, as in plural, in both breasts, independently developing. Different stages even.
It is on the Third Noble Truth, on our way to the blossoming of the Eightfold Path, that I always stumble. I think everyone must stumble because here I was, in the middle of an intensely personal crisis where my spouse—the relation that I had chosen for myself above all others—was actively dying, and Buddhism’s first injunction is to let go of that attachment. It asks me to see the illusory nature of that commitment, into which I have to say I freely entered.
As I sat in the zendo listening to Sogen relate the story of the Buddha, I found myself thinking about some of my former students and their objections to what they saw as a selfish and callous attitude in the Buddha’s quest for moksha.
Born a prince in the North-Central border region between modern-day India and Nepal, Siddhartha Gautama lived a sheltered, pampered life until one day he went riding outside the palace and saw for himself the ravages of sickness, old age, and death. Struck by the suffering of the world, to which he had been ignorant, he left his home, abandoning wife and child, to seek enlightenment, studying at the feet of the best gurus and yogis he could find but never attaining the insight he sought. At last, without a teacher, it is said that Siddhartha Gautama sat down beneath the Bodhi tree and vowed to remain in meditation until he was enlightened. There, he was at last awakened to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and received the title “Awakened One” or “Buddha,” recognized as one of many such enlightened people throughout history.
My spouse and I were living with the ravages of disease. I was supporting her as she recovered from a double mastectomy. My mother would fly out from Maryland to help for a week post-surgery. We couldn’t explain to our toddler what exactly was happening, but there was no hiding it either. Mommy has boo-boos. We’re doing everything we can to make them better. Everything is going to be okay. But who were we trying to convince?
I couldn’t be with my spouse in the hospital through these traumatic surgeries because of Covid restrictions. So again, we sacrificed while others went around acting like nothing was wrong, like half a million people hadn’t died. Or, I guess they died “with Covid” but not “of Covid.” What stupidity.
I could visit the evening after her surgery, while my father-in-law watched the kid. Now, we hadn’t explicitly used the old “in sickness and in health” line, but it was certainly implicit in the vows we had written for one another. The full weight of that vow was sinking in. I worried I wasn’t up to the task. That this was, in the end, going to be too much. I couldn’t imagine raising our son without my spouse, my partner in crime. I couldn’t really work anymore. Writing fell to the back burner. Eventually it seemed to evaporate into nothing.
We attempted to eat outside, at the local mall, while my mother was in town, after my spouse felt she could move and insisted we get out of the house. I had a panic attack after sitting uncomfortably on a sun-drenched outdoor patio for a few minutes. I couldn’t make it back to the car. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before.
I couldn’t or wouldn’t tell Sogen any of this as he patiently rehearsed the Four Nobles Truths, leading me and the virtual practitioner beamed into the zendo beside me to the Eightfold Path. To Right Action and Right Mindfulness. After the simple elegance of the Four Noble Truths, the proverbial thousand blossoms bloom and there is an Eightfold Path and very many “right” ways to speak and act and eat and work and think and be alive that have become the topic of endless reams of commentaries and sutras across the centuries. Like every religion, Buddhism has branches, such as the Theravada with their austere arhats who attain enlightenment for themselves apart from the earthly concerns of humanity. Then there are the Mahayana, where my interests mostly lie, with the bodhisattvas who tarry here and encourage enlightenment among the people.
I went back to the Zen Center a week after orientation to sit zazen. A terrible contradiction swelled within me as I was called at home to the most profound of my duties—to care, selflessly, for the woman I loved and might lose. To be a father, to show strength and compassion and that these were not incompatible things. To still try, in all of this, to nurse myself, my own psychic wounds and find a way back to the sense of belonging and authenticity that I had felt upon assuming my place in academia when I went off to grad school.
But all of this, Zen lovingly assures, is Nothing. To be a better husband, detach yourself from the desire to be husband. There is no husband, no wife, no son, no cancer, no Covid, no job. There is. There is not. Release yourself from these ties and find yourself free. The cessation of suffering is the cessation of desire.
My spouse convulses with tears, her hands gesturing, as if they could pull the cancer from her breasts and fling it into the trash. I reach out, I want to take it from her, I want the cessation of suffering. My spouse is resolute. She will not stop. I cannot stop. The end of suffering is the end of desire.
So, I sit zazen in the bright morning light of the Haku-un-ji Zen Center. An older gentleman, a stranger, sits on his tan across from me in the hall. His feet are planted firmly on the floor, his hands, like mine, resting dharmadhatu-mudra in his lap. My eyes rest, half-focused, facing down as the fukodu strikes the han sharply.
I drift into the tiles on the floor beneath the man across from me. Can I find it there? Nirvana between a stranger’s feet.
Donovan is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction. He currently teaches eighth-grade science and offers philosophical consultations with the Lawn Chair Philosophy Foundation.
The author of two novels and a collection of philosophical essays, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Emerge, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.
He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Literature from Purdue University.