Cancer Again (Naturally)

In December, I started having knee pain. I didn’t think too much about it, even though the pain was intense at times. I’ve had intermittent knee problems for some years, and figured it was probably arthritis or age. It went away after about a week, but then it came roaring back in January – deep throbbing pain that would not go away. I went to a couple of orthopedic surgeons and a rheumatologist. They discovered a lesion in my left femur. Possible cancerous. Possibly not, said one orthopedic oncologist.

The only way to know for sure was to do a biopsy. Last Wednesday, they drilled a hole in my bone, went into the left femur, removed tissue from the lesion, and the pathologist on hand during the surgery declared it cancer. Metastasis, to be exact, cancer that spreads from one part of the body to other parts. We, meaning I and the doctors, thought all the cancer was removed when they took out my old liver and gave me a new one.  But, I’m not getting that easy.  There must have been some cancer cells hiding somewhere, perhaps in bone marrow.

Needless to say, having a hole drilled in your bone is extremely painful.  They put a rod in to prevent fractures and make the leg weight bearing. Still, it hurts like hell and pain medication does not provide total relief.

Next is to get with the oncologist I worked with before and decide how to start fighting this thing. From what I understand there are three modes of treatment: radiation, chemotherapy, amputation.

And two battlefronts: the external one, involving the treatments I just mentioned, along with any others that might be available, and there is the inner front, the battlefield of bodymind and spirit. In future posts, as I did before, I plan to share a few of the highlights of my wayfaring through these stages of cancer.

I do have mixed feelings about putting my personal business in front of the public. But, ancient Buddhist texts describe two kinds of illness: those of the unenlightened, and those of the enlightened. The latter are for the purpose of providing opportunities to teach. I would never claim to be enlightened (I can pretty much guarantee you I’m not), nor am I egotistic enough to think I have much of anything to teach anyone.  Yet, if sharing more of my healing journey can be of benefit to others, so be it.

My approach to inner healing is centered on the Healing Buddha (whose image appears in the new header above), and my way is a bit unorthodox. In Tibet, Medicine Buddha is among the Highest Yoga Tantra. I received a Medicine Buddha Empowerment from Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche in 2002, but I am not convinced that such empowerments are necessary.

In Teachings from the Medicine Buddha Retreat (Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, 2009), Lama Zopa Rinpoche says that in Healing Buddha teachings, “The person has to practice Medicine Buddha and have a good heart, with a sincere wish to help others.”

That is the only requirement, and this sentiment fully captures the essence ofBuddhist practice. Just do it. Try to help others. All awakening stems from that.

Now, for some reason, the song, “Alone Again (Naturally)” has been in my head lately.  There are some nice versions available (Sarah Vaughn, Diana Krall) but I chose the original because I liked it when it was first released and it has a beat.  Since I started letting folks know about this new development, the most frequent response I have received from family and friends has been, “I am so sorry you have to go through this.”  I’m sorry about it, too. It’s a real drag, and I am very tired of the pain, but what can I do? I got it. It’s mine.  I own it. I have to heal it.  Actually, that makes it sound as if cancer were something completely external.  It’s not.  I am the cancer.  I have to heal myself.

I have to admit, though, there are times when I feel downhearted.  So, dear readers, here is about the only self-pitying you will get from me, and it will be over in three minutes and forty-two seconds:

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Like the Flow of a River

The meditation practiced by most people these days, known as “mindfulness,” is very simple and to some extent easy. I’ve always found that the real challenge is being consistent. Too often I approach my morning meditation with a begrudging attitude, as if the practice were something imposed on me, instead of something about which I should have a sense of eagerness.

A Buddhist teacher once gave a talk, and when he was finished he asked the people gathered around what they “practiced out of,” meaning what was their motivation for practice. He went around the room and received various answers and then came to the last person, a Japanese-American man. The teacher said to him, “Well, what do you practice out of?”

“Desperation?”

“No! Joy! You should practice out of great joy!”

The teacher was right. We should approach our practice with joy, and appreciation. It is truly a wonderful thing that we have this great tool for transformation. When I win over my begrudging attitude, I can feel how appreciation is the key that opens the door to enthusiasm. And then, it’s much easier to carry that enthusiasm over into my daily life and cultivate a genuine joy for living.

To sit and meditate is relatively easy. Joy, appreciation, and the rest of it is challenging. At least that has been my experience.

The late Geshe Gyeltsen (1923-2009), the marvelous Tibetan lama and human rights activist who founded the Thubten Dhargye Ling (“Land of Flourishing Dharma”) center in Long Beach, CA, wrote in his book Mirror of Wisdom,

Geshe Gyeltsen
Geshe Gyeltsen

The great Indian master, Chandrakirti, says that all kinds of accomplishments follow from diligence, consistency and enthusiasm. If we apply ourselves correctly to the proper practice we will eventually reach our destination. He says that if we don’t have constant enthusiasm, even if we are very intelligent we are not going to achieve very much. Intelligence is like a drawing made on water but constant enthusiasm in our practice is like a carving made in rock—it remains for a much longer time.

So, whatever practice each of us does, big or small, if we do it consistently, over the course of time we will find great progress within ourselves. One of the examples used in Buddhist literature is that our enthusiasm should be constant, like the flow of a river.”

The river represents flowing water, which in turn is a symbol for continuity and consistency. Rivers flow freely. When they meet obstacles such as rocks, water flows over them and keeps flowing. Eventually, it wears away the rocks.

In this manner, water can be hard, but as it says in the Tao Te Ching, nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. The takeaway here is that enthusiasm should not be forced, it must come naturally. Practice, too, should not be too hard or rigid. And yet, one thing I have learned in my 30 years as a Buddhist, is that those times when you want to practice the least is usually when you really need to practice the most.

To have a practice that flows like a river is to find the middle way.

Many, many years ago in New Orleans, long before they built the Riverfront up, I used to sit on the rocks beneath the Café du Monde, the legendary coffeehouse that serves beignets and coffee with chicory, and I would watch the water of the Mississippi River flow past the city, moving down toward the Gulf of Mexico. I was enthralled with the way that muddy water never stopped flowing, how it was ever constant. Of course, all rivers are like that, but there is something different about the Mississippi, perhaps because it’s so wide . . . and it just keeps moving, and you wonder how long has it been like that, how long will it continue . . . it makes you feel like you’re in the presence of eternity.

Did you ever stand and shiver,
Just because you were lookin’ at a river?

– Ramblin’ Jack Elliott singing about the Mississippi in “912 Greens”

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Poetry: Word Atoms Emitting Light

Since it is now April, that means it is National Poetry Month, sponsored by Academy of American Poets who began this yearly celebration of poetry in 1996. It is the largest literary celebration in the world, with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, poets and poetry lovers joining together to laud and bring attention to this sublime form of literature.

NPM15_ForSite_FINAL_FINALEach year, the Academy of American Poets, along with award-winning designer Chip Kidd, commission a poster in celebration of National Poetry Month. This year’s poster (on the left) was designed by Roz Chast , a New Yorker cartoonist and 2014 National Book Award finalist. It’s based on a line of poetry from Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry.”

T. S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” That is not only a good description of poetry, but to my mind, it also describes Buddha-dharma. Poetry has been an integral part of Buddhist literature, many of the sutras have large sections of text composed in verse, and Buddhist poetry is nearly a genre of its own. So it seems fitting for a Buddhist blog to join the National Poetry Month celebration.  And, as in previous years, I will feature poetry in many of this month’s posts.

Today, something from Jack Kerouac, whom many people consider a Buddhist writer, although his interest in Buddhism lasted only a few years, from 1953-57. During that time, he was, in his own uniquely Beat fashion, a rather dedicated Buddhist, and a number of his novels, particularly The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, are infused with Buddhist philosophy.

I don’t recall who it was, but one of his fellow Beats once suggested to Kerouac that he should write his own sutra. And so, he did. The Scripture of the Golden Eternity contains 66 prose poems and was first published in 1960. Here is perhaps the most famous of those poems:

kerouac-1b3c22

Stare deep into the world before you as if it were the void: innumerable holy ghosts, buddhies, and savior gods there hide, smiling. All the atoms emitting light inside wavehood, there is no personal separation of any of it. A hummingbird can come into a house and a hawk will not: so rest and be assured. While looking for the light, you may suddenly be devoured by the darkness and find the true light.

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