Ronan Hession

Dharma Rats

Ronan Hession

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The house on Buck Street needed a bit of work, but otherwise it was perfectly suitable for use as a headquarters by the group. The group’s founder and teacher had died the previous month from a lingering illness that turned out to be lung cancer, even though she had never smoked in her life. Her name was Kshanti.

As a young woman named Kate, she had travelled through the US in the 1960s, and became involved in some of the early Zen centres on the West Coast, set up by the Japanese who had settled in California after the Second World War. She studied meditation under Zen master Sōseki Roshi and was given the name Kshanti, meaning patient endurance. She traced her cancer back to her handling of asbestos in an old barn they had converted to a meditation hall at that time. 

When her violent marriage ended, she left the US and came home, continuing her practice and eventually setting up her own meditation group. Over the years she had established a small but committed following among those who were drawn to a more traditional practice, rather than the modern, western-style Zen that most other groups seemed to offer, or “Big Mac Zen” as she called it.

The members of the group had cared for her in her final months, as she had no other family as far as they knew. They were happy to do it and had expected to learn something from how she coped with death, which they did, namely, that she was just the same as everyone else. Death was not so much a profound experience, as a drawn-out, painful one. It was all physical suffering, tiredness, drudgery, and hopelessness – powering through something that would only get worse. None of them had ever been through anything like that before, and their expectation of something sublime had gone unfulfilled. 

Having time to prepare for death allowed Kshanti to plan for the future of the group. In the months beforehand she had left strict instructions that they were not to introduce any new ideas of their own or to change the form of their practice. After she died, she said, there would be a dangerous vacuum for egos to make their mark on the group and that should be resisted. She correctly predicted that some members would leave, those whose practice had been one of dependence rather than commitment. For those who stayed, she warned them to be ever vigilant: not to start skipping their daily meditation or getting carried away with themselves.

Aside from leaving them hours and hours of recorded talks, as well as transcribed lectures and unpublished books, she had also left them a house. While she had very definite ideas about how the group was to be run, her will was brief and vague on the question of the house, merely saying that it was left to the Kshanti Trust to run it however it saw fit.

By that stage the group had about twelve core members and another eight or ten causals, who dropped in when they could. Within the core membership, Magnus was one of three people chosen to act as a trustee. He had joined the group over ten years previously as a place of refuge during the breakdown of his marriage and the emotional tailspin that followed. He had good horse sense, and tended to be the one that newer members of the group came to with real world problems about things like kids, work and money. He sometimes wondered why Kshanti had never drawn on her failed marriage in her teachings, but whenever he had asked her about it, she just warned him against living out of his past.

The other trustees were Frances and Simon. Frances was already a member by the time Magnus joined and had acted as Kshanti’s deputy over the years; with her good organisation skills and phlegmatic temperament, she proved a good foil to Kshanti’s intensity. 

Simon had a deep and committed practice and lived simply in a flat close to Kshanti’s house, having moved there a few years ago when it became clear how he wanted to spend his life. A bereavement counsellor by profession, Simon had taken on the main burden of caring for Kshanti when she was sick, even cutting back on his hours at work and using his knowledge of the health system to get her seen to sooner, or by more competent doctors. There was an unspoken understanding among the group that he was Kshanti’s most diligent student and most committed follower. For whatever reason, Kshanti played on this and was calculating in the way she withheld her approval of Simon, even to the extent that she imparted no private words of encouragement during the last few late night conversations they had had before she died.

Once the funeral was out of the way and the initial wave of departures from the group had settled down, the three trustees started to discuss what to do with the house. Obviously, they would use it for their monthly one-day retreats, and would offer to accommodate those who had to travel to attend. They would also make it the group headquarters and move their regular Monday sangha meetings there, leaving the Quaker hall they had been renting for the past number of years. Having a home of their own meant they could put in a library of Kshanti’s books, transcribed lectures and DVDs, as well maintaining a permanent shrine room, instead of setting up and dismantling the shrine every time another group wanted to use the Quaker space.

The main question was whether or not people were going to live in the house. Simon approached it rationally: it made sense that the house would be occupied as it would be looked after better, kept warm, and if they charged rent, the money could be used for its badly-needed renovation and for the benefit of the group. Frances, who had a house of her own and who hadn’t fully considered the question, said she would go along with whatever the others decided. Magnus was less comfortable. He had his own place, but was uneasy that Simon might be trying to insert himself as “Buddhist-in-residence” or was otherwise asserting a senior position in the group which, after all, had no hierarchy or differentiation in status among its members. That said, Simon made a good case on practical grounds. Magnus agreed that the house should be occupied and that there was no reason why all three bedrooms could not be used. Simon cautioned that there was a need to keep some of the bedrooms free for visitors to retreats and that Kshanti had lived alone, so maybe it would be better not to turn it into a doss house. He tried to make his case light-heartedly, saying that they didn’t want to end up like the Monkees TV show. Magnus suggested talking over the finer details with the wider group, which was as far as they could take it for now.

They discussed the options for the house over tea after the next Monday night sangha meeting. Simon circulated a two page note with some bullets and figures, none of which had been discussed or shared with the others beforehand. Frances said that they would be lost without him. Magnus didn’t want to sound churlish, so held his peace, but had started to watch Simon’s moves with a new alertness.

Simon made a clear and balanced case for having the house occupied, which he said was a non-decision really. He said that there was obviously a choice about how many people could move in, but that it would be important to have a trustee there and offered to move out of his flat. He would pay the same rent as he was paying in his current place, lest anyone think that he was acting out of self-interest. There was limited discussion as the other members had little interest in moving in and the overall presentation had been given by Simon in a way that did not dispel the misunderstanding that he had the full backing of Frances and Magnus. Perhaps impulsively, or perhaps in service of the wider group, Magnus said that he too would volunteer to move into the house—his choice of the word “volunteer” was deliberate—adding that he would pay the same level of rent as his current place, even though it was more than Simon was paying; it was a point made clumsily and with a detectable note of cattiness. There was a palpable tension in the room, which discouraged anyone else from volunteering. Simon drew the discussion to a close and gave Magnus a little bow, saying that he looked forward to them living together.

Magnus was annoyed with himself on the way home in the car for getting drawn into pettiness, especially as he liked the place he was already in and had spent some money recently painting it and getting new furniture. He couldn’t help himself though. There was an uneasy sense of a velvet coup being waged by Simon and he couldn’t allow that.

He had arranged to meet Simon at the weekend to talk through the practicalities and to make a start on clearing out the house. When he arrived, he had to shoo away a neighbourhood cat who was pawing at the porch door, trying to squeeze through. Simon had already moved in, and had made a point of choosing the smallest of the three rooms. He came downstairs with dusty hands, having already started the cleaning, and brought Magnus through to where he had some tea things ready. 

The first few days went fine. The initial tension had dissipated and Simon turned out to be an inconspicuous housemate, leaving for work early and spending most evenings in his room. Unlike Magnus, he had few friends or social opportunities, instead leading a quiet, quasi-monastic life.  Whenever Magnus invited him to join him for evenings out, Simon declined with ostentatious gratitude.

They woke every morning at 6 a.m. in silence and began their forty minute meditation sit at 6.15. It was the routine that Kshanti herself had kept when she lived in the house, the mind being that much stiller first thing, before the day’s torrent of language and thought was in full spate. Simon lit the candles on the shrine, from which he then lit a cedarwood incense stick; it would take forty minutes to burn and would act as their timekeeper. They sat opposite each other, cross-legged on cushions stuffed with buckwheat husks, their minds concentrating on the rise and fall of the abdomen.

The first sign of the rats was the smell. It was pungent and ambient, making it hard to locate. They emptied and cleaned the fridge, where they felt the smell was strongest, initially suspecting the residual stench of some rancid food. The smell continued even after they had cleaned the house and found nothing – it was a peculiar mix of nail varnish and natural gas, which seemed to cut through any air freshener and resisted any attempt to aerate the house. They discussed whether the smell was too bad for them to have the sangha meeting that Monday, but instead decided to say nothing and see if the others noticed it.

At the sangha meeting they followed the usual format of a forty minute sit, a chant of the Heart Sutra, a dharma talk, and then a discussion about their practice over tea. Nobody mentioned the smell.

Later that week, when Simon was out for a run, Magnus was sitting in the kitchen, absorbed in a book he was reading, when he caught the faintest sight of something moving in his peripheral vision near a basket of wet clothes. He doubted himself for a moment and paused, before returning to his book. As his concentration was now broken, he rested the book on his lap and listened. He couldn’t hear anything. He returned to his book but couldn’t remember anything of the last two pages he had supposedly read. Just to be sure, he went over to the basket of wet clothes and lifted one or two pairs of jeans from the top to peer in, not entirely confident that he knew what he would do if his suspicions were confirmed. It was hard to see into the basket, and he was undecided about whether sifting through it or moving it to a brighter spot would be more likely to disturb whatever might be in there. He decided to leave it alone and left the kitchen, turning off the light and closing the door behind him. Before he finally got to sleep that night he spent over an hour persuading himself that he both had and hadn’t seen anything.

He asked Simon about it the next day, who said that he couldn’t rule out vermin given the work going on near the canal opposite, but that it was natural to be jumpy while getting used to an unfamiliar old house. Kshanti had lived there for years without a problem, so whatever it was wouldn’t necessarily be around for long.

They were due to have their first full-day retreat at the house the following Saturday and Frances had called over the night before so that they could have a meeting about the group, make plans for the summer and have a friendly curry together, as they often did the night before a retreat. Halfway through the meal there was an audible scratching noise coming from underneath the front room window. The sound stayed within the wall but moved over towards the door and then upwards.  They followed it out to the hall, where it seemed to continue along the slant of the ceiling above the stairs.

“Mice or rats. Definitely,” said Frances. “Had them in my house – gives me the heebie-jeebies.” 

“What will we do?” asked Magnus.

“How do you mean?” said Simon.

“I mean, we’ll have to get rid of them.”

“Ah, it’s probably just one little stray fella who has come in from the cold. He’s all right. He’s probably more scared of us than we are of him.” Simon disappeared back into the kitchen, unimpressed by what was passing for drama in the house.

The next day, there were a dozen group members over for the retreat. There was a cheerful giddiness before they went into silence, like the atmosphere in a school hall before an important exam.

The day involved six meditation sits of forty minutes each, interspersed with walking meditation, silent tea breaks and a dharma talk from Kshanti’s recorded archive. Her talk was about the dangers of wilful practice, where the ego takes over the meditation. From the outside, the other group members looked to Magnus as though they were lost in a blissful trance, but he knew that they would each be deep in their own personal stories of leg pain, sexual craving, or inner shame. For the first two or three sits, Magnus sat alert for any signs of scratching or scurrying.  With nothing to divert his attention he feared that he would spend the whole day listening for rats. In one way he wanted to hear them so that he could prove in front of witnesses that they were indeed a real presence. By mid-morning his sits were calmer; he had persuaded himself that the rats, being nocturnal, were unlikely to become active as the day wore on.

Frances raised the subject in the Thai restaurant afterwards, where the group gone to eat and decompress after the day’s silence. 

“We heard him the other night, through the roof, scratching his way upstairs,” she said, “probably headed for the attic, burrowing under the insulation.”

“How many were there?” asked Karen, one of the new members, who was visibly uncomfortable discussing rats at the dinner table.

“One – I hope! I don’t know though. I suppose they are social creatures, so there may be others. What are you guys going to do about it?” asked Frances.

Simon just smiled.

“We haven’t really discussed it have we?” said Magnus to Simon. “I suppose we’ll keep it under review.  Can’t let it get out of hand.”

“Don’t delay anyway. Those thing breed like, well . . . like rats,” said Karen, “Get it sorted before you have an infestation. If that happens you’ll be invading their house, not them yours. I’m glad you didn’t tell me that before the retreat – I’d have been jumpy all day.”

“What about the first precept?” asked Simon.

“I knew someone would say that,” said Frances.

“What’s the first precept?” asked Karen.

“To refrain from killing,” answered Magnus, “But it’s not that simple. The rats carry disease and in a serious situation—and I’m not saying ours is a serious situation—but if it were, you couldn’t just jeopardise human health and let the rats run free. You can’t be black and white; there needs to be a middle way.”

“But isn’t that what a precept means? That it is black and white, a point of principle. A precept doesn’t change with circumstances based on the balance of advantage and disadvantage. The Buddha knew that there were times when it would suit people to kill—whether animals, each other, whatever—and he knew how malleable human logic is. He knew people would always suit themselves. That’s why he said: if you want to live the life I teach about, don’t kill.” Simon ended with definitive emphasis in his voice. Realising he’d gotten a little heavy, he added, “of course, you have volition. Nobody will stop you killing rats or mice or any other creatures, but you just can’t say that it’s part of your practice to do so.  We shouldn’t lie to ourselves.”

“But if you see clearly, then you take whatever action is necessary. No more or less,” answered Magnus, “You do it without anger or violence. Without ego. It is egoic killing that is wrong. Think about Joshu and the cat.”

“You’re playing games my friend. You’re trying to win an argument instead of seeing clearly,” answered Simon.

“What happened to Joshu’s cat?” asked Karen.

“It’s an old koan, a Zen story,” started Magnus, “This monk, Nansen, saw some other monks arguing about a cat. He held up the cat and said, ‘If you can give an answer, you will save the cat.  If not, I will kill it.’ No one could answer, so Nansen cut the cat in two. That evening Joshu returned, and Nansen told him all about the cat. Joshu took off his sandal, placed it on his head, and walked out.  And Nansen goes ‘If you had been there, you would have saved the cat.’ It’s an old story.”

“What does it mean?” asked Karen.

“Well, that’s a good question,” answered Simon, “It’s not meant as a riddle. It is beyond conceptual reasoning and can only be resolved by the deepest practice.”

When they got back to the house, just the two of them, Magnus took Simon aside.

“Seriously though, maybe I should get pest control out just to have a look.”

“You don’t need my permission Magnus. You’re a grown up.”

“I know, but I don’t want you to think I’m ignoring your wishes. I’m just trying to be considerate.”

“I promise you. Whatever you decide to do on your own account is none of my business. I am not looking to make things difficult for you. It’s all practice.”

Simon patted him on the shoulder, making eye contact so that Magnus would understand he was being straight and that this wasn’t some passive-aggressive little mind game.

Magnus had a fitful sleep that night. He seemed to wake every few minutes to house noises, creaking and plumbing sounds. He didn’t know whether it was all the talk about rats, eating late, or just all the unprocessed mental energy from an intense day’s sitting.

The next morning he slept it out and missed the 6 a.m. sit. When he made it down for breakfast, feeling woolly and tired, Simon was already busy sanding some of the door surrounds. He took off his face mask. 

“Hey. How are things? You look rough.”

“Sorry to miss the sit. Just slept right through. Didn’t even hear the alarm.”

“No need to apologise. Your body needed the rest; you were right to listen to it. The body is the boss.”

He got back to sanding and then interrupted himself again.

“Here, I was thinking about what you said last night. How about I buy some humane traps—you know, the ones that trap the rats, but don’t kill them—and then we can just release them afterwards. Sound ok? A bit more of a middle way?”

“Good idea Simon. Good thinking. Thank you. I have to admit that the rats are starting to encroach on my consciousness more than I’d like.”

Magnus took it easy over breakfast and then read the paper before going for a run. When he got back he went to put on some music on his radio alarm clock so he could hear it in the bathroom during his shower. He flicked it on and then headed in with his towel. He went back to double check he had hit the right button when no music came on. The digital display was dead, so he checked the plug. The wire had been gnawed through and there were droppings the size of sultanas all down the back of his locker. He went into the bathroom and vomited.

He decided to go visit his parents that afternoon, as the thought of sticking around the house made him feel too uneasy. The idea of rats in his bedroom while he slept, scuttling under his bed and around his shoes haunted his thoughts all day. He asked his Dad about it.

“Humane traps are rubbish,” he said, “You might catch one or two stupid ones, but they just see their pals trapped and they know not to go near them. You’re still left with all the aunties and uncles and cousins. Tell your Buddha friend to cop on. Get the pest control lads in.”

When Magnus came back, full of dread as he turned the key to the house, Simon was inside and excited.  He had bought some humane traps and had already caught something. The rat was shivering with fright; he was going to let him go but held on to show Magnus.

“You see. Not exactly kind to the poor fella, but I’ll let him out somewhere. Hopefully he’s just a curious sole trader.”  Simon seemed genuinely pleased to have found a Buddhist solution to the problem. Magnus still had the creeps from even seeing the rat in the cage, but he had to hand to Simon, he really lived the practice, even under pressure.

“Thanks Simon. It’s all a bit stressful though, isn’t it? Once you get the idea in your head, you can’t really get it out. You become a bit obsessive.”

“Well, you’re practising as long as I am. Just try and return to your breath and see if you can just observe the panic and let it go.”

“Yeah, I know. Easy to forget the basics.”

Simon caught two more rats over the weekend, as far as Magnus could count, though Simon had stopped telling him about successful trappings and just took care of it. 

The scratching continued all week. It was intermittent and random. Sometimes near the front wall, sometimes in the hall, other times it was in the ceiling. Magnus came to Simon with all his theories about where they were coming in, where they based themselves, and what had drawn them in. Simon began to distance himself from these conversations, which had become one-sided, intense and repetitive. Magnus felt himself sinking deeper into pure fear. Nothing that Simon could say would calm him, and no matter how many rats he caught, Magnus couldn’t shake the idea that the house was calling rats towards it; that it had been identified and singled out for some bad, bad reason. The worst was the long evenings, when Simon retired early to his room and Magnus was downstairs alone, unable to do anything but brace himself; deferring for as long as possible the decision to go to bed. All the while his mounting exhaustion was weakening his grasp on his own internal panic. Simon, a trained counsellor, tried to encourage him to see someone, to talk through his fear, or maybe even take something to help him calm down and get a handle on the racing obsession that was sending overloaded chemical responses through his enervated body.

The stress felt like a rope around Magnus’s intestines. No matter how he tried to calm himself, his body was intent on pumping flight hormones around his system. He had vivid, dark dreams. Not about rats exactly, but dreams filled with a sense of violation, of panicked searching for space, for light. 

One night, after a long week of scratching and nightmares, he awoke abruptly, struggling for breath and thinking that he had swallowed his tongue. He had wet himself. He felt utterly dismantled and just wanted to cry. The feeling that there were rats under his bed, waiting for him to fall asleep, gripped him. He was sweating and delusional, afraid to lift his soaking body out of the bed in case the rats were waiting in his shoes. He cried out. He wanted Simon to come in and turn on the light and make it go away.  He cried again, but his hoarse voice wouldn’t carry. He steadied himself for a few minutes and decided he would try and make it to Simon’s room. He would be ok. Nothing bad would happen. Nothing bad.

He lifted himself to the edge of the bed and paused to listen. No sound. No scratching. No scurrying across the cold laminate.

He heaved himself out of bed, his pyjama trousers drenched, his t-shirt stuck to him.

With all his effort he dragged himself over to the light switch and turned it on. He looked around the room, which was calm and normal. A room from a different world, a different life.

He made his way across the landing to Simon’s room and leaned his head on his forearm against the door.

“Simon!” he said, knocking, his throat ripped with dryness. “Simon!”

“Hi. Come on in. No need to knock.”

He opened the door. Simon was sitting upright on his bed reading. There were two rats on his bed eating crackers from a bowl. On the floor around his bed were opened traps, with rats scurrying around, hardly believing that the food in the tea tray before them was for real. There were six, seven, who knows how many rats in total.

“Hi buddy – all ok?” said Simon.

Magnus just stared, emptied with disbelief. “Crazy, crazy, crazy,” he whispered.

Simon went back to reading his book.

Magnus closed the door and limped downstairs, grabbing his coat from the banisters. He slipped on his shoes and took his keys from the hall table.

His hands were shaking as he tried to fit his key into the ignition.

“Crazy, crazy, crazy,” he muttered, “crazy, crazy, crazy.”

Ronan Hession

Ronan Hession is a new writer based Dublin – this is his first published story.  As Mumblin’ Deaf Ro, he has released three albums of storytelling songs. His third album Dictionary Crimes was was nominated for the Choice Music Prize.  Twitter @mumblindeafro