A Place You’ll Never See
On Saturday, April 5, 2014, the writer Peter Matthiessen died at his home in Sagaponack where he had lived for 60 years. He was 86 years old. The next day the New York Times ran his obituary on page one, an honor bestowed on only a few dozen people each year. An important literary figure, Peter is the only person to have won a Pulitzer Prize for both non-fiction (“The Snow Leopard,” 1978) and fiction (“Shadow Country,” 2008). As a local author, he is probably best remembered for “Men’s Lives,” published in 1986, which chronicled the vanishing way of life of the baymen and commercial striped bass fishermen in the Hamptons. In a strange aligning of the literary planets, that same Sunday a black and white photo of Peter’s deeply lined face filled the cover of the Times Sunday Magazine, as usual printed several days before Sunday’s regular edition, making Peter probably the only person in The Time’s history to be on both covers on the same day.
Yet in all those thousands of words that Sunday, I struggled to find the man I knew so well, the man who showed me mysteries of the universe that are almost impossible to explain.
The Times obituary chronicled Peter’s fame and success as a writer, his longtime association with the Hamptons, his founding of The Paris Review (along with George Plimpton) as a young man in Paris, and even his brief stint with the CIA following his navy service in WWII.
Ostensibly, Peter was the subject of the cover story in the Sunday magazine because he had just published a new book, “In Paradise,” a fictionalized account of three trips he took to Auschwitz-Birkenau beginning in Thanksgiving 1996 as part of a spiritual group “bearing witness” to the horrors of the Nazi death camp. In reality the story was an homage to a lifetime of work that always explored the same themes: human nature, the natural world and man’s place in that world.
Both articles also touched on another of Peter’s pre-eminent achievements: Peter was a Zen Buddhist master, one of the few Americans to have received that honor. He learned Zen from the small wave of Japanese Zen masters who came to America in the 1960’s looking for new frontiers for Zen’s unique method of seeking ultimate truth. But for me, The Times barely scratched the surface of this incredible aspect of Peter’s life.
I was lucky to have Peter as my Zen teacher. In October 1999 I wrote him a letter asking if he was accepting new students. He wrote back a short hand-written note inviting me to join his small group. Almost every Saturday morning thereafter I would wake in the misty pre-dawn hours and drive to Sagaponack, where I would walk through an arched opening cut in a towering privet hedge that hid an old one-horse stable on Peter’s property that he had converted to a zendo, or Zen meditation hall. Beginning at 7am Peter would lead a small group of dedicated American Zen students in a half hour of chanting, bowing and bell-ringing, followed by a half-hour of silent meditation, sitting cross-legged on small black cushions facing the stark white walls just inches from their noses, the smell of sandalwood incense filling the room.
Once a month, Peter would lead a full-day silent retreat from 5am to 5pm. He also led hour-long silent meditation sessions on Monday nights, followed by a book reading and discussion on some esoteric Zen topic. Wednesday mornings his zendo would host a small group of meditators. Peter was often in attendance then as well, if he wasn’t traveling, as always dressed in his black Zen Master’s robes.
During those day-long retreats, he would have private one-on-one meetings with students to discuss their studies and their lives (which are inseparable in Zen), patiently sitting with each student in turn. One day, during my interview, after bowing and sitting crosslegged face to face with Peter—an intimate encounter in which there can be no falsehood—I asked him a simple question: “What is the secret of Zen?”
He sat looking at me intently, deciding whether I was ready for the answer. Finally, in a barely audible whisper, he uttered a single word. It was a private gift, a mantra, an idea, a sudden light—a secret passed on from teacher to student. It is a moment I have never forgotten; a word I utter to myself every day.
If I ever needed to talk to Peter in a less formal setting, the door to his writing studio was always open, any time of day or week. A number of times we sat on his back porch, having coffee, looking out over his reed-filled pond, discussing the great mysteries of life.
Never once did he ask for money, or anything in return. Just the opposite. He helped me through a difficult divorce, and offered to lend me money after I was in a serious accident that kept me from working. A number of times I slept on his couch, or in his spare bedroom, after he convinced me to stay because he was worried that I was too tired to drive home. To me he was the kindest, most compassionate, most giving man I have ever known, selflessly giving countless hours of his time to thousands of students over many years.
Of course, The Times would have had to dig deep to find that out about Peter, since he kept that part of his life mostly to himself. I was once in his office when a famous writer friend of his called, and he apologized that he couldn’t come to some event because he had “one of his little Zen things” scheduled.
We like to think of the East End as a magical place filled with water and light and good times, but after my accident and divorce, I returned from a year of rehab in Florida to a dismal and depressing place: my home gone, my children gone, my livelihood gone. But I went to the Zendo, and when Peter saw me he looked deep in my eyes the way only a Zen master can, quietly put his hands on my shoulders and said simply, “welcome home.”
After Peter died, his property was sold. The zendo, the Japanese rock garden, the wooden gate swinging crookedly on rusted hinges, the small stone Buddha statue in the snow, the one-room schoolhouse Peter bought and had moved to the property for his writer’s studio: all now gone. The old buildings on the property—several acres in one of the most expensive zip codes in America—have been bulldozed, including Peter’s unassuming but beautiful cedar shake saltbox home, only to be replaced by a giant, soulless house that someone thinks is more beautiful than what was already there.
One of his senior students, who Peter had named a “sensei,” or teacher, before he died, took the small group and moved it to a church in Bridgehampton, so Peter’s Zen teachings live on, as do his books, his ideas and his legacy.
I have worked as an estate manager and private yacht captain in the Hamptons, have known some of the Hamptons’ “wealthiest” people. I have been on some of the grandest estates. Yet I can unequivocally say that Peter was the richest man I knew, and his home the most magnificent I ever saw.
He called his small stable the “Ocean Zendo,” partly as an homage to the sea crashing one mile away, and partly because in Zen the great unfathomable depths of the ocean are a metaphor for our own minds. The Ocean Zendo is a place that will never come again. It is now only a memory, a mythic place, and perhaps that is how Peter wanted it. I once spoke to him about trying to raise money from wealthy benefactors to buy the property when he died, so it could live on as the Peter Matthiessen Writing, Nature and Zen study center, much like the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton, or the The Mabel & Victor D’Amico Studio & Archive house in the dunes overlooking Napeague Bay. Peter liked the idea, but then he contracted leukemia. He named no more successors, wanted no big memorial service. It was as if when his material body was no more, he wished to vanish as well.
As I move around the Hamptons now, watching people stuck in traffic, or racing from party to party to restaurant, or from house to beach to tennis court, I often wonder what Hamptonites would think if they knew that once upon a time, secreted away in their midst, hidden behind a privet hedge, was not yet another grand estate but instead a way of life so different as to be almost unfathomable, a way of life devoted not to material wealth, but to the true wealth of ocean, mind and home.