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This fish tale has a Zen ending

by Gordon Dillow, Orange County Register, March 28, 2007

Orange County, CA (USA) -- The other day I was driving through the northern San Diego County town of Bonsall. And I decided to stop by the Dai Dang Zen Buddhist monastery.

The Vietnamese monastery, a former private residence situated on a hillside outside of town, is home to 18 Buddhist monks. It's been in the news off and on for the past few years, because the monks want to build a large Zen meditation center on the 9-acre property – a plan that some of the neighbors strongly oppose.

But I wasn't at the monastery to look for news, or even to seek enlightenment.

I just wanted to visit my fish.

Or at least they used to be my fish. You see, some years ago, when my beloved wife, Tule, and I lived in Carbon Canyon in Brea, we turned a large, old hot tub into a koi pond. We put half a dozen six-inch koi – they're basically glorified goldfish – into the pond, and over the years they grew and grew, some to 18 inches or more. They were good fish, as fish go.

Well, as some of you know, three years ago this month, Tule, God rest her soul, died of cancer, and I put our house up for sale and prepared to move. Our two dogs had already died of illness and old age, as had our cat and our canary. Everything in that house was dead, except for me. And the fish.

So I asked around, trying to find a good home for them, and finally I got a call from a nice Vietnamese man – I'm not certain, but I think his name was Mr. Tran – who was a lay associate of a Zen Buddhist monastery in Bonsall. He said he'd be happy to take the fish.

I'm not a Buddhist. But Zen Buddhism emphasizes lives of humility and labor and service, of prayer and gratitude and meditation. It sounded like it would be a good home for the fish.

So the next day Mr. Tran showed up, armed with four large ice chests and a net. The idea was to fill the chests with pond water, put the koi in them and take them to the monastery.

The first five fish cooperated. But the last one, an 18-incher named Porky, because of his unusually large girth, obviously didn't want to leave. Koi are usually sluggards, slow-moving and listless, but Porky kept racing around that pond, eluding the net.

Then it happened – and I swear I'm not making this up. I lunged with the net and suddenly Porky jumped out of the water like Shamu, arcing through the air, out of the pond, flying, flying, until he landed – splash! – unhurt in the water-filled ice chest that was waiting for him.

An accident? A coincidence? A moment of Zen? I don't know.

In any event, before he drove away with the fish Mr. Tran told me, "You can visit fish anytime you want." I told him maybe I would someday.

It's been a long time since then, a time of many trials and sorrows. I hadn't spent much time thinking about those fish.

But as I said, the other day I was driving near the monastery with my friend, Debbie, the mother of a fine young Marine I know. And I decided to drop in.

So we drove up to the monastery, where we were greeted by an old dog and a young monk named Dang Tinh, who hails from the Vietnamese city of Hue, a gentle man dressed in a saffron robe. He bowed, we bowed, and I explained my mission.

No problem, Mr. Tinh said. He led us along stone walkways down the beautifully landscaped hillside, past stone lions and topiary shrubs, to a large pond with a waterfall and a couple of dozen koi fish in it.

And there they were – or at least I'm pretty sure it was them. There was Porky, fat as ever, and 'Weenie, short for Halloweenie, because he's orange and black, and Blackie, who's actually sort of a dark charcoal, and maybe some of the others.

It wasn't an emotional reunion on the fishes' part. Fish aren't dogs; they don't jump up and lick your face when you're reunited. But even though they're just fish, I have to confess it was a somewhat misty-eyed moment for me.

"Very peaceful," Mr. Tinh observed, and I agreed that it was. It was the perfect place.

We didn't stay long, just a few minutes. The gracious Mr. Tinh walked us back up the hill, and he bowed, and we bowed. And then we drove away.

Now, I don't know that there's any larger truth to be found in this story, or even much of a point. Maybe there is none.

Still, it occurs to me that given life's troubles and tumult, at one time or another most of us are forced against our will to leap out of the happy waters that we know and into a world unknown. And sometimes, through God or fate or enlightenment or whatever you choose to call it, somehow we eventually land in a place that offers us a measure of tranquility, and moments of peace.

Sometimes that happens to people.

And sometimes it happens to fish.



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