On April 27th, the trees were dancing in the wind. In the middle of the afternoon several Sangha members made their way to Cool Oaks to remember Todd Tansuhaj, who passed away 14 years ago on that day. Todd’s ashes are interned in a little granite house nestled in the roots of a huge oak tree. After cleaning the little shrine for Todd, we had 45 minutes of silent meditation followed by some paritta, or protective, chanting.
Luang Por Pasanno made his way out on the loop trail to Cool Oaks before the meditation. It had been at least eight years since he went there due to past injuries making it hard to walk on hills and uneven trails. Cool Oaks is hidden away in a series of small canyons. The strong wind at other parts of the monastery was reduced to a gentle breeze at this spot. As we meditated, California Nutmeg trees provided a subtle medicinal scent, and Goat Creek gurgled next to us. Memories of Todd from 15 years previous resurfaced.
In early 2005, Todd, at the age of 9, ordained as a novice at Abhayagiri. Ajahn Prateep, a Thai monk living with us at the time, shaved Todd’s head before his ordination. I held a bowl with water and his hair shavings and remember Tan Ahiṃsako was present as well. Todd was exclaiming of his new lack of hair, “It’s cold! It’s cold!” After this, Luang Por Pasanno performed the ordination ceremony and gave Todd the Pali name Piyasīlo, meaning “one of endearing virtue.”
Todd suffered from a rare condition called thalassemia. He was set to receive stem-cell therapy to remedy the condition, which would entail months in the hospital and a major surgical procedure. Back in Thailand, a very senior and highly regarded monk, Luang Por Opaht, was consulted as to how to move forward with this. Luang Por Opaht had said that if Todd ordained as a novice for a short period of time, it might be a helpful foundation for him to move into this treatment.
The days spent with Sāmaṇera Piyasīlo were quite enjoyable. He would show up for morning chanting - a 9-year-old trying to wake up before 5am. A few of us would help safety-pin his robe together so it wouldn’t fall off. He then attempted to stay awake for the chanting and meditation. About halfway through the meditation you could hear a little buzzing noise, a timed injector putting medicine into his arm. One morning, he got up suddenly and ran out during the meditation. After the closing chanting we went to check on him. He said, “Sorry, I had to go. I suddenly had some diarrhea.”
Sāmaṇera Piyasīlo was incredibly kind and pure-hearted, very enjoyable to be around. As a novice, he had an alms bowl and did the alms round at least once. The lay community was able to joyously show their support by giving him food offerings. His young, innocent, lighthearted energy gave a big boost to the monks, as he helped out with things like bowl washing after the meal. I remember hanging out with him in the middle of the day drawing pictures. He loved Spongebob Squarepants, and I attempted a rendition. Piyasīlo said it was pretty good. Before becoming a novice he had drawn pictures of the Buddha. Later, while on a feeding tube in the hospital he had a dream that he was a famous chef offering food to the Buddha and the Sangha. He also dreamt of paying respects to many of his Ajahns.
After his week as a novice, I asked Todd, “Do you think you’ll come back and ordain with us longer?” He said, “Yea, I’d like to come back. I’ve got this big surgery, then I can come back.” Soon after that I went to Thailand for a year. Near the end of that year I heard that Todd had passed away in the hospital. I was saddened by that news. I was so looking forward to seeing him again. Todd’s little body couldn’t take the immune system suppression medicines, and was overcome by illness. Death is like this. It is the reality, but I wish it were otherwise. Death is not an ending but more of a transition, and we have to find ways to move on. Grief isn’t necessarily something we get over but is something we metabolize and integrate into a new way of living, more sober and reflective.
Near the end of the meditation, more of the community showed up at Cool Oaks. We did our chanting, sending sincere good wishes and blessings to Todd, wherever he may be, and to all the friends and family who were connected with him. If Todd were still alive, he would be 25. I like to think he would be one of the monks at Abhayagiri.