The Buddha said that noble (spiritual) friends are the whole of the path. The other evening, John Fowle, a noble friend, slipped away from this world, and now I understand what the Buddha meant. As a teacher said (actually roared) to me many years ago, “We don’t share what we know; we share what we are.” John shared kindness and openness.
At such moments, certain truths that are usually obscure become very clear. We dwell in mystery. We strive and strive and strive, but very, very, very often we can’t make things go the way we think they should, beloved people slip away, and there is nothing we can do about it.
Suddenly it seems clear that we are all just bumbling along clueless to the real situation, hurrying and worrying and somehow convincing ourselves that all of our enterprises are urgently important. Then something like this happens. Someone like John Fowle slips out of the world and it becomes clear what a life COULD be for. We can spend our time here cultivating the capacity to open our own hearts and minds. This is the way John came to use his life, especially at the end. He found the inner door in suffering and he opened it and passed through.
What that teacher said to me turns out to be true! In times like these we realize that there really is such a thing as presence—we spend all this time listening to words and views and the whole time it was some other ineffable quality of kind attention and well, presence, that was supporting and informing us, making us feel met.
My friend John’s presence is so palpable in the wake of his leaving, as if he has taken off his human mask and revealed his true radiance and the scope of his kindness, the way it shined and and spread to the back of the room and noticed the smallest things. A few weeks back, I visited John in the hospital, finding him very weak and in great pain, eyes closed. I sat close to the bed. “You look good in blue,” he said suddenly, commenting on my shirt. “You should wear blue.” Stories like this abound about John.
John served on the boards of the Insight Meditation Society and New York Insight Meditation Center, and his wise and compassionate support of both centers and its practitioners proved essential to their flourishing. John Fowle was not a saint, which is exactly what is so lovable and inspiring about him. In his own way, he showed there is no fixed self, that we are open systems, ever changing and evolving. Many friends knew John’s boyish twinkle (“You look wonderful,” he said to me after a sitting one day. “Have you been drinking New Castle Brown Ale?”) But I think of him as porous–light shined through him . John understood the power of kindness. How wonderful it felt to be welcomed into a space by him–as if you were met and more, literally led parched to drink from a well.
Born in Lincoln, in the North of England on November 19, 1942, John grew up knowing the loss and pain of war; his father died a month before his birth. A brilliant man, he helped his mother while working and studying the law, earning his qualification with a Distinction. He built a successful career in law and investment banking in England, the Bahamas, and finally New York, where he met his beloved wife, the Dharma teacher Gina Sharpe, ultimately retiring to study and practice Buddhist meditation full time.
John often spoke about his love and gratitude for all the people who helped “keep this body alive.” He actually marveled at the goodness in people. One day before his death he said, “There is generosity in each of us, longing to come out. When it takes the opportunity, it pours out.”
He spoke of becoming as helpless as a baby in terms of the ordinary business of making and doing. But here is the thing–all that while he was engaged in the great if very, very small work of making himself available to others and to life.
“I am a five-year-old who is growing, not a 71-year-old who is past learning,” John said during his last year. “I’m still learning new stuff all the time. I never realized how deep love is. I feel the love a child has—no boundaries, no limits. I’ve never felt the depth of love for things and people the way I do now. “
He taught me about getting around the tendency of the mind to worry and plan and think:
“A doctor of Chinese medicine told me I think too much. I wondered what senses I could move to instead. I took a walk. I smelled manure from nearby horses, grass, the breeze. I hadn’t noticed! There was hearing—gravel, the grass against my trousers made a noise. My hearing is heightened now. I hadn’t realized there was an orchestra—flies, birds, and animals talking to each other. There was sensing—it felt soft walking on the grass, hard on the gravel. There was seeing, of course. I was so grateful that I still had these functions and my legs were moving. Before this illness, I wouldn’t have noticed sensing it all.
Gina (his wife, Dharma teacher Gina Sharpe) is an angel. I never realized before how much we love each other and how connected we are. It’s incredible what we have to go through to appreciate such simple things. “
Another time, at gathering at New York Insight Meditation Center, he commented on how wonderful it was to hear words spoken fresh in the moment, from the heart, alive. The group of us happened to be sharing about painful and difficult things, about racism and violence. He understood about not running from pain. He understood that no matter what is going on there is a greater force of love and compassion in the universe, and that we know this when we open and allow it in.
On what turned out to be John Fowle’s last day, I was at a lunch in Manhattan, speaking with friends about the difference between fate and destiny (it was a Parabola lunch so we were speaking of such things). Drawing on ancient sources, my lunch companion said (and I paraphrase) fate is what happens to you; destiny is something higher—it is your ultimate human potential. It was John’s fate to die on Tuesday, July 29, 2015, surrounded by friends and family. But John also touched his destiny, his ultimate human potential, which is to be fully available to life, fully part of it, responsive in heart and mind. He showed those of us who knew and loved him that fulfilling our destiny is not accomplished by great deeds act but in small moments many times.
May we all have such friends.