In the fall of 2008 on becoming a formal Zen student I took part in a small private ceremony where over tea and light conversation my teacher, Daido Roshi, presented each of us with our grey student robes, and our oryoki bowls. Items linking us in the long line of Zen practitioners back to the time of The Buddha.
It is customary for the student to offer a small gift of appreciation to the teacher at this time, but what do you give to the man who has everything? It had to be something personal, something with history, something with a story.
Starting in the 90’s I began spending my vacations is a little town on the western tip of Jamaica. I often stay in the same small hotel, and I have become friendly with the families, restaurateurs, and shopkeepers in the little neighborhood close to the hotel. In these years I also began to explore eastern philosophy and to practice various forms of meditation. Mornings in Negril became synonymous with deep introspection peppered with ganja and robust coffee while gazing into the void of the great Caribbean Sea.
Several months after beginning to study with Daido Roshi I found myself back in Negril, this time with my Dad. On the first day, my friend Elvis called me over to his stand just outside the hotel’s gate. The first thing he asked was, “How are the brothers doing?” as if they were old friends who’d emigrated to the States a few years earlier. Actually “The Brothers” were a pair of crescent moons carved from planks of pimento wood with beautiful expressive Jamaican faces he’d made for me as a birthday gift for my daughter. Elvis is a gifted artist with the ability to get right to the heart of the matter.
He held up a block of wood, ironwood he told me, and as he held it he began to ask in a mystical sort of way, “What can I show you in this block? What do you see?” Along with being a wonderful carver Elvis was no slouch as a salesman, but I was in a hurry to get back to my Dad so I blurted out, “Have you ever carved a Buddha?” This got him. He looked at me puzzling images through his mind until a light went on, “The fat one, wit ‘im big belly?” “Not exactly,” I replied and began to speak of the type of Buddha I was referring to. He listened with rapt attention and finally replied, “I’ll look on the internet and we’ll talk tomorrow.”
The next evening Dad and I returned from a day of sightseeing and I stopped by to see Elvis who showed me a catalog of some kind containing several Buddha images. As we looked at them he said, ” ‘im like Rasta men in the mountain praying on Jah Rastafari.” He turned the rough-hewn block in his work worn hands, placed the it on the workbench, and crouching down he began to describe the finished sculpture which he could clearly see. I didn’t interfere, he got it, he got it in a way that filled the whole room. I thanked him, and said I’d see him in a few days.
Dad had left for the states, but I still had a few more days in town, and I hadn’t seen Elvis in a week. The next morning I went out to forage the fruit stand for breakfast when I saw Elvis’ smiling face waving me over. The statue was wrapped in some kind of oiled cloth and Elvis was rubbing it furiously as if to whet my appetite. When he unveiled it, I was blown away. The statue was so much cooler than I could have ever imagined. Imagination tethered to experience simply limits possibilities, but in this statue Elvis’ world met mine. I paid the first price he mentioned without a haggle.
I knew that one day I’d donate this treasure to Zen Mountain Monastery, and when the subject of a gift on becoming a student came up, I knew exactly what to do. I was so happy to let go of this unique piece of art that held such strong meaning for me, but with Daidoshi’s illness seeming to be taking hold at the time I went through this process, I never had an opportunity to share what this item actually was.
My next trip to Jamaica was in the Spring of ’08 and I hoped Elvis and I could collaborate on another unique carving, but several months earlier he’d stepped on a nail and was having serious health issues. Routine health care isn’t routine in a country as poor as Jamaica. Later that year I became a formal Zen student and I gave the Rastaman Buddha to my teacher.
I didn’t return to Jamaica again till September ’09 where I found Elvis’ carving stand abandoned. I asked around and was heartbroken to hear that my friend had passed away in the same month I offered his work as a gift. He’d lost his foot to the nail, and weakened by tetanus he succumbed to “flu”, probably pneumonia, a month or so later.
I spent a little time sitting in the dilapidated old stand sharing beers with Elvis’ brother who was working to sell off what carvings he could. Sadly in their weathered state they were not appealing to the passing tourists who would never have the honor to know the sweet man I knew as “Elvis The Carver.”
4 Comments January 16, 2010