Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Yesterday a friend of mine, JW Harrington, jumped from a bridge and died. He was the Executive Director of the Kwan Um School of Zen. He had been seriously ill for several months, unable to work. He was fifty years old.

We weren’t close friends. Most of our conversations were about business or the weather or the health and well-being of other sangha members. But I have the warmest feelings for him. He was incredibly efficient, but never officious or impersonal. His efficiency seemed very Zen-like, a by-product of complete attention and deep compassion. He was always patient and kind. And now he is gone, and I understand from the manner of his death that there was something about JW I never saw, something sad and lonely and desperate.

Several months ago I found myself briefly, but seriously, considering suicide. I felt that my life had no purpose, that I might as well kill myself. I instantly perceived what that would do to Margaret, how it would shatter her for a very long time, perhaps the rest of her life, and I knew that I could not cause her such pain. And there arose in my mind the faces of the people I love and who love me, all of whom would be devastated should I take my own life. At first I was only thinking about people who live near-by, people I see often, but by the time my imagination had rippled out east and west to both coasts and south to the Gulf and flown over the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, I understood: love gives life purpose and meaning.

How could JW not have known that? He had been a student of Zen for thirty years. He had a wife and a mother and literally thousands of friends. On Saturday, JW came to the Buddha’s Birthday celebration at the Providence Zen Center--just four days before he jumped from that bridge. Everybody was so happy to see him. And yet somehow he could not feel our love, our profound connection. He could not experience himself as part of the vast human network. This must be what every suicide feels, completely and hopelessly alone.

I read somewhere that every person who has survived jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge reports the same thing: once they were falling they realized they had made a terrible mistake. I can’t help but suppose that successful suicides also experience that urgent regret as they hurtle through space. And I can’t stop wondering about JW: in the seconds before he hit the water did he get it? Did he understand that his life had meaning no matter how sick he felt or depressed or discouraged?

We all die alone, but the solitude of the suicide is almost beyond imagination.


  1. The death of JW Harrington is a reminder how we need to tell people how important and loved they are by us as often as possible. Some time I am afraid of how vulnerable it make me to people when I express my appreciation of having them in life, but when I think about the people who have passed in my life, I always smile because I know I told them often "Wow, thanks for being here". I hope JW wife and family find some peace. Thanks for sharing Christina...

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your life. I too greatly miss a dear old friend. Your honesty touches my heart deeply.

  3. There is no hope in Zen Buddhism. Jesus Christ is the way to eternal life. Zen is the doctrine of demons. JW Harrington is now in Hell. Zen teachers are the blind leading the blind.

  4. Dear Pilgrim: funny you should bring this up. It turns out that JW was a practicing Catholic. And that just goes to show you that Christians can practice compassion and charity even though they so often practice judgment.