Bad news is supposed to travel fast, but this news took nearly three months to get from a snowcapped mountain in Vermont to my office in North Carolina. It finally arrived on a beautiful spring afternoon, eyes downcast, dragging its heels.
I’d just finished eating lunch at my desk. Instead of reading while I ate, I was trying to pay attention to my food. For a compulsive eater like me, this is a challenge. It wakes me up a little more. It keeps me from eating to satisfy a hunger food can never satisfy. When I don’t distract myself with a newspaper or magazine, I eat more slowly; I actually taste what I’m eating; each bite becomes a meal in itself — until my attention wanders, and I start reading the headlines inside my head, or the comics.
I was on my way downstairs to wash out my bowl when Bob, our production manager, called to me. “I think you ought to see this right away,” he said, handing me the letter he’d just opened.
I started reading, then had to sit down, my legs suddenly unsteady. As if trying to decipher code, I read the first paragraph again and again:
“On February 24 of this year, Stephen Butterfield went for a walk with his dog Juno and his partner. After going a short way into the raw, dark evening, he collapsed and died.”
I shook my head in disbelief. We’d just published Stephen’s essay “Bleeding Dharma” in our May issue. There was a copy on my desk. I stared at his name on the cover, as if it proved he was alive.
I remembered talking to Stephen last fall after his manuscript arrived here. I told him how moved I was by what he’d written: Betrayed by the woman he loved, he’d become convinced that life wasn’t worth living. He’d contemplated suicide — even began writing the suicide note — but finally decided that life, though painful and unpredictable, had a more compelling claim on him.
When we spoke again a few months later, he told me he was no longer depressed. He had resumed meditating. He was in love again. We joked good-naturedly: love, we agreed, makes fools of us all.
Now I wondered wildly if the letter might be a hoax. I get all kinds of mail: malcontents warning me the world is about to end; people channeling financial advice from ascended masters. Or maybe this was Stephen’s idea of a joke; like his sly guru, the late Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa, Stephen had a wry sense of humor.
“Twenty-four hours earlier,” the letter continued, “a group of us had just finished an all-day music session. We were happy, filled with the joy of the music and the love and communal spirit which comes from making music together. Stephen and I talked about Buddhist practice. He talked about emptiness and impermanence, about how, at times, this had led him to depression, to focus on death. He also talked about how he was invigorated by his music, his new relationship, his meditation practice. . . .”
The letter — from Steve Brittain, a Vermont neurologist and a friend of Stephen’s — was no hoax. Stephen Butterfield died of heart failure on a blustery night in February, at the age of fifty-three.
Like most readers of The Sun, I knew Stephen mostly through his writing. I never visited his little cottage in Vermont, surrounded by hills and trees, where, on clear nights, he had a full view of the stars. I never walked with him to class at Castleton State College, where he taught English for twenty-six years. I never heard him sing traditional Celtic tunes or play the guitar or the bouzouki with his band, When the Wind Shakes the Barley. I never met his three children.
But I admired his work tremendously. Whether he was writing about Buddhist teachings or an inglorious love affair, his essays were tough-minded and alive, intellectually sophisticated and psychologically acute. Even when I didn’t agree with him, I respected his willingness to embrace contradictions, to honor truth without denying our perplexing humanness.
Buddhism was his path, but he didn’t tiptoe down it, self-consciously spiritual, afraid of life. He knew that the spiritual journey may start on high — with a mystical vision or the touch of a master — but always leads us back to ourselves, and to the most ordinary of places: the kitchen, the bedroom, a car stuck in traffic. Thus, he never hesitated to present himself in an unflattering light. What better way to awaken compassion in his readers — not just for him, but for ourselves — than to expose, again and again, the unrelenting tyranny of the ego? “To escape dullness,” he wrote, “I have chased all forms of entertainment. To escape fear, I have stayed in the same general area on the planet, held a secure job, . . . and kept my political activity within conventional boundaries. To avoid jealousy, I have demanded monogamy from mates, lied about my own actions, and restricted my relationships. . . . I have lied, cheated, caused harm, used words like daggers to make others bleed, and then blamed the wounds on them.”
Yet, even as he admitted his flaws and engaged us in his story, he dispassionately reminded us that our individual selves aren’t real in any fixed sense; that the idea of a separate self is itself an illusion. Of course, as his scarred lungs reminded him with each breath — he suffered from a chronic, disabling condition called sarcoidosis — the illusion is as tough as nails, and as thin as our skin; therefore, compassion for our predicament is essential. He struggled to free himself from the prison of ego, yet reached through the illusory bars to shake hands.
There was his essay about buying a gun to protect himself after thieves broke into his house. “Any desire I had to appear highly evolved vanished in an instant,” he wrote. Yet, on another occasion, he ruminated for pages about whether or not to kill a fly! There was his devastatingly beautiful and funny memoir about his mother: “My mother always laughed at the Oedipus complex. ‘Remember Oedipus, dears,’ she said to her sons, fluttering her eyelashes and raising her eyebrows comically, peering over her bifocals. ‘He loooooved his mutha.’ ” There was “When the Teacher Fails,” the controversial essay he wrote about his guru’s successor, Osel Tendzin, who, it was discovered, had AIDS and made love to his students without telling them they were at risk. There was “On Being Unable to Breathe,” in which Stephen described having lost half his lungs to sarcoidosis — a “relentless and vivid reminder of death” that “wonderfully accelerates your spiritual journey.”
If he wrote frequently about death, it wasn’t just because he was unable to climb a flight of stairs without gasping. He believed that deep contemplation of one’s own death is essential for genuine happiness. “According to Buddhist tradition,” he explained, “if you pass the morning without remembering you are going to die, the morning will have been wasted, and if you pass the evening without remembering you are going to die, the evening will have been wasted.” I illustrated one of his essays with a drawing, by Seattle artist Richard Kirsten-Daiensai, of a naked woman locked in a passionate embrace with a grinning skeleton. The two are stretched atop a galloping horse with bulging eyes and flared nostrils, its mane splayed in the wind. I keep a framed copy of the drawing in my bedroom, a reminder that we’re all racing in the same direction.
Steve Brittain’s letter went on:
The night before Stephen died, we happened to talk of the time when thieves broke into his house, which he wrote about in The Sun. “I was tested,” he said, “and I failed.” Later, as I read Stephen’s account of his failed relationship in the May issue of The Sun, I recalled this comment. I recalled other struggles he had fought — with himself, with his anger, with his feelings of having been wronged — struggles he had shared with us. These are stories of love, kindness, and illumination as well as of frustration and failure. They are not stories of sanitized enlightenment. They are stories of a man vigorously attempting to find and express his authentic voice. Throughout them all, there is a strong current of seeking to establish and reestablish his (never lost) direct contact with the dharma. In describing his journey for us, Stephen has given us countless examples and insights into how we may do the same. If it is a “failure,” it is a glorious failure.
I’d always felt an uncanny connection with Stephen: about once a year, I’d start to wonder when I’d hear from him again — and within a week or so, a submission would turn up in the mail. Once, he suggested that we get together. (As with most people who write for The Sun, he’d never actually met me.) “Maybe,” he wrote, “I should come down there sometime and we can sit up late at night over a bottle of Irish whiskey and a pot of coffee, like old sixties refugees, and rap until far into the wee hours. My sense of things is that we would not be at a loss for conversation.”
When we finally did meet, about five years ago, we weren’t at a loss, though I think we both felt a little shy. I was accustomed to relating to his words, not to a flesh-and-blood human being, and he was more reserved than I’d imagined. When I hugged him at the end of the evening, he seemed surprised.
He wasn’t a close friend, yet I feel as if I’ve lost one. I’ll miss his eloquent voice in these pages: his skepticism and passion about things spiritual, his commitment to awareness, his ability to make us laugh.
“When he was old,” Stephen wrote of his father, “I tried to introduce him to the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness; I thought it would ease any anxiety he might be having about the imminence of death.
“ ‘Ultimately,’ I began, ‘you never were.’
“ ‘Maybe not,’ he said, . . . ‘but I made a hell of a splash where I should have been.’ ”
The day I learned of Stephen’s death, I wanted to celebrate the splash he had made, but I was three months too late: there was no wake to attend, no memorial service. So, that night, I took my wife out to dinner, with a stack of Stephen’s writings under my arm. We ordered a bottle of wine and told the waiter to take his time; we were in no hurry. For the next couple of hours I read aloud to Norma from Stephen’s essays. The more I read, the more sad I felt, and the more alive.
The drawing mentioned above is available as a PDF only. Click here to download.