Here is some advice that Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave to someone who was very sick:
“Think that I am the most fortunate one, that I have this sickness, I am the most fortunate one. Why? Because by having this sickness now I can practice pure Dharma. I have been given the opportunity to practice pure Dharma. So I can experience all sentient beings’ pain, disease, spirit harm, negative karma, and obscurations, and they can all achieve the Dharmakaya.”
Among other things, Dharmakaya represents the true nature of the Buddha, which is not separate from reality. I look at it as our natural state of mind. Lama Zopa is talking about attitude. Some people believe that attitude is everything, the most important thing for business and personal success. Attitude is important in awakening, too. In Buddhism, we want to generate a bodhisattva attitude. In secular terms, we would call it an altruistic attitude.
I can tell you from my own experience that seeing your ailment as an opportunity to deepen your practice is illuminating, while having the thought of using your sickness or injury for the benefit of others is liberating.
In February 2015, I was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. My oncologist said it would kill me. Well, dying time is getting closer. My left leg is riddled with tumors. Some tumors elsewhere. The doctors say that my life expectancy is now three months to a year. A year and a half is possible. Two years, highly doubtful. But I have beaten the odds so far, no one expected me to last this long.
In a sense, I have already overcome death. Because I have changed my thinking about it. It’s been a long process that didn’t just begin with the cancer diagnoses. Using thought transformation, I’ve changed my attitude. It’s nothing special, anyone can do it.
Death is a natural process. There’s no real need to be troubled by it. However, Buddhism considers untimely death, like mine, to be unnatural. Damn right. It’s also unfair and unreasonable… but I can give my untimely, unnatural death a purpose.
Dedicating one’s sickness or death to the welfare of others is a bit abstract. Yet, in the world of mind, for the person who is sick or dying, it has a healing quality. Bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, has power. It’s not supernatural power, but the power of attitude that comes from mind-development (bhavana), insight, and having purpose, and it is therapeutic both emotionally and psychologically. We can start to transcend sickness and death, or any other suffering, by viewing them as empty thought constructions rising from our luminous mind.
There are times when I am depressed, and frustrated, especially in regards to the physical pain I experience, but then I think of the pain of others…
“All that mass of pain and evil karma I take into my own body . . . I take upon myself the burden of sorrow; I resolve to do so; I endure it all. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble . . . I am not afraid . . . nor do I despair. Assuredly, I must bear the burdens of all beings . . . for I have resolved to save them all. I must set them all free, I must save the whole world from the forest of birth, old age, disease, and rebirth, from misfortune and sin, from the round of birth and death, from the toils of illusion.”
– Vajradhvaja Sutra
The word ‘purpose’ comes from purposer, which means “to intend.” In Tibetan Buddhism, bodhicitta is often called “altruistic intention.” Some psychologists maintain that people with a sense of purpose tend to live longer. I don’t think I will get a chance to test that theory. However, the heightened sense of purpose I’ve felt has enhanced the quality of my life, and sometimes quality is more important than longevity. Most of us have a sense of purpose already or feel that our life has meaning, but this is a different meaning, this altruistic intention has a nobler sense of purpose.
Bodhicitta is not a new concept for me. I’ve written about it before. My first real insight into the thought of awakening came from a Dalai Lama teaching in 1996. Since death is such a heavy thing, I find my intention, my sense of purpose, charged with new energy. When we realize that our ultimate purpose for everything we do is to be of benefit to others, we turn the Buddha’s First Noble Truth around and life is no longer suffering, rather it is joy, fulfillment, nirvana. That was his intention, his purpose, for us to turn it around.
This is not a Pollyanna vision of life. Joy is not always constant. Fulfillment is often challenged. And nirvana is a dynamic state of mind that must be steadily nurtured and protected.
“Our spiritual destination is personal nirvana.”
– Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen
My impending death has become a new path to get there.