Cheri’s Willow

On Sunday October 15th, the last day of my retreat at Magnolia Grove Monastery for the US tour of Plum Village monastics, I held Cheri in my hand – literally. Her non-existence took on a concrete form as the ever-smiling Sister True Pearl (who was sent with Sister Annabel to assist with Cheri’s memorial service here in Madison) gently tapped out a small portion of Cheri’s ashes into the hands of nine forms of her continuations.

When Sr. True Pearl approached me as I was preparing to leave on Sunday and asked if I wished to stay and take part in the continuation ceremony, I was so surprised. My first thought was, “why me of all people – I didn’t even know her well.” My second thought was of all of you in our SnowFlower community that I wished could have been here, and surely knew her much better. 

It wasn’t until the nine of us had slowly crossed the bridge over the lotus pond, were quietly holding hands and standing on the small island under the towering marble statue of Guanyin that I knew my fears of being out of place didn’t matter. Just as Cheri could look at you with complete presence and afford you the feelings of peace, worth and love, these eight other people had similar looks – Cheri was working through them and they embraced me and each other so wholeheartedly.

As soon as we gathered, a butterfly with a broken wing touched down near us on the island. With her radiant smile, Sr. True Pearl said “it’s Cheri’s continuation” and we all stood watching it for a few minutes. The butterfly stayed around as Sr. True Pearl dedicated a beautiful young willow tree next to Guanyin to Cheri. We each went under its yellowing leaves to let go of the specks of ash in our hands, returning to the circle so we could share a few words between just a few people of the hundreds of thousands – if not millions – Cheri touched. When we finished, the butterfly picked up and flew across the pond, as if it knew it was time to move on.

During the sharing, Sr. Peace recounted her last call with Cheri, when she was able to tell her in July that she had received the lamp transmission and would bear witness to the work that Cheri was doing – something that was very important to Cheri. She also described the powerful dharma talk Cheri gave in Plum Village shortly before her accident, and how Thay used hand motions to ask his attendants them to shave him and robe him so that he could go see his teacher speak. In addition to the monastics, Al Lingo, who received the lamp transmission with Cheri and who was a civil rights activist with Martin Luther King Jr, and another fellow Dharma Teacher and friend, Leslie Rawls, were there.

As the short ceremony drew to a close under the beautiful fall skies of Mississippi and the loving gaze of Guanyin, Al led us in the song “Take me out to the ball game,” probably the first time it was sung at a monastery. The song drew some quizzical looks but opened up a wonderful opportunity to further Cheri’s continuation when we walked back to the other shore.

If you get the chance to be in Magnolia Grove, which I highly recommend, stop by Cheri’s willow and maybe take a look around for that butterfly with a broken wing.

3 thoughts on “Cheri’s Willow

  1. What a beautiful, tender, and poignant description of this wonderful sendoff. Thank you, Zach, for sharing this with us all. Your words are also a continuation of Cheri.

    Bowing deeply.

    Stephen Pradarelli
    Iowa City Sangha

  2. Zach,
    On many levels, your actions and these words are a profoundly heartwarming tribute to Cheri.

    With gratitude for your practice,
    Tom Loomis

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