The man who taught me the most about Buddhism wasn't a monk with a shaved head. He didn't speak Sanskrit, and he didn't live in a Himalayan monastery. In fact he wasn't even a Buddhist. He was Carl Taylor, a lifelong San Franciscan who looked to be in his late 40s. At the moment, he appeared cold, sitting upright in a bed rolled into the gardens off the hospice ward at Laguna Honda Hospital. It was a blue-sky summer afternoon, but in this city that often means a bone-penetrating chill. Carl was dying of cancer.
I was spending a week with the Zen Hospice Project, a Buddhist organization whose volunteers assist the staff of the 25-bed hospice unit at the hospital, perhaps the largest public long-term care facility in the United States. The project, now emulated around the world, uses two of Buddhism's central teachings—awareness of the present moment and compassion for others—as tools to help bring a degree of dignity and humanity to those in the last stages of their lives. They're not easy lessons to learn.