Aye, son —
a cup ay tea an a shite’ll
dae ye mair guid than a wank
Screenwriter Sergio Casci, author of The Caller and American Cousins, and I have been close friends for 30 years. We worked together at a magazine in Glasgow when I was writing Of Darkness and Light, my first novel, which I dedicated to him. I wrote the book in a few weeks in the summer of 1988, and every morning he would read what I'd written the night before and critique it for me. His encouragement was invaluable.
More than 20 years later, I named a psychopath after him in my erotic noir novella One for My Baby. As he's married to the brilliant neo-noir author Helen Fitzgerald, I gave the fictional criminal Sergio Casci a henchman named Fitzgerald.
The picture of us above was taken by another old and dear friend, American lawyer and journalist Nick Hentoff, in The Sparkle Horse, Glasgow, a couple nights ago.
The death this week of Canadian Buddhist teacher Shoken Michael Stone at the age of 42 is a heartbreaking reminder that it's vital for Buddhist teachers with mental health issues to be open about them and ask for help.
Stone had lifelong bipolar disorder, and, according to the statement released by his partner and others:
As versed as Michael was with the silence around mental health issues in our culture, he feared the stigma of his diagnosis. He was on the cusp of revealing publicly how shaped he was by bipolar disorder, and how he was doing.
I don't know how many people have come to me as a Zen teacher in the hope Zen practice could treat, or even cure, their mental health issues. I do know that they were all disappointed when I told them meditation could no more treat a mental illness than a physical one (though it might enable them to relate differently to the illness...or it might not). They also seemed disappointed when I told them that I have mental health issues myself, and that what treats mine effectively is not meditation, but Prozac. Some were upset when I told them to see a doctor before they attempted Zen practice. The Buddha Dharma relieves suffering, but it's not a cure-all, or even a cure-most.
I'm not bipolar, and have never been depressed, but here's what happens if I'm unmedicated: I see something that would normally make me smile in delight, maybe a flower in bloom or a happy couple walking hand in hand...but, instead of just feeling glad for them, I cry uncontrollable, shuddering tears of joy that can go on for hours. Or I might experience something mildly irritating, but instead of being mildly irritated I'll be filled with inconsolable rage. Both of these reactions (they're really the same), present a challenge in going about one's daily rounds...
I've been practicing Zen for almost 30 years, but meditation hasn't diminished these symptoms in the slightest. Medication, however, does the job very well, and I get to be delighted or irritated without being a basket case.
I understand that meds don't work well for everyone, but mental health issues require doctors, not spiritual teachers. To help our students, Buddhist teachers must be open about our humanity, our messes, our vulnerabilities. Hiding our realities behind a serene smile helps no one, and is vanity, not enlightenment. Our vow is to save all sentient beings, but to do that we have to be saved by all sentient beings.
I recently visited the Woodside Inn, scene of the climax of my story "Big Davey Joins the Majority" and of an important scene near the end of The Book of Man. I was pleasantly surprised to see John Gray, former Labour Councillor for Maryhill.
Born in Dick Street, he still lives in the area he represented for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was usually to be found in the Woodside Inn in the evenings, and he was as willing to listen to his constituents there as in his office. Now retired and in his 80s, he's still there. I was glad to be able to thank him for all that he did.
I've been sadly amused by the recent celebrations of Thoreau's 200th birthday, and the repeated claim that he embodies American individuality. The U.S., where I spent decades, is the most conformist culture I've ever experienced (including Japan, a nation that prides itself on being conformist).
As for Thoreau...I think Kathryn Schultz gets it right in this New Yorker piece.
A Saturday afternoon in July, and I'm meditating on a bench in the Botanic Gardens. An old woman is sitting by herself on a nearby bench. I hear a movement, look, and see a squirrel climbing behind her. I'm about to warn her, but she takes a piece of food out of her bag and offers it to the squirrel, who eats it out of her hand.
She sees me watching, laughing.
"A dae that aw ra time," she says. "They know me. They know they better no bite me, or A'll no gie them anything. They're no daft."
I tell her I moved back to Glasgow five months ago, after 29 years away, and that I never saw squirrels here back in those days.
"A never used tae see any afore A retired," she says."Then A started comin here every day, an A got tae know them."
“It’s so beautiful here,” I told
the man I was staying with on that
island in the North of Scotland.
“What’s beautiful about it?” he
asked, pouring me another dram.
“Everything,” I said. “Just look at
“What view?” he said. “There’s no
view. There’s only mountains and
heather and trees and water.”
When I went back to the city I
looked at it for the first time.
(first published in NorthWords, 1995)