As I mentioned the other day that I’ve been having problems with my medical team. I fell through the cracks for several months, and they failed to follow through and schedule a procedure to slice off one of my tumors, surgery they had me convinced I needed in order to buy time for the transplant.
When I was finally able to awake them from their slumber a couple of weeks ago, everyone assumed that during this long period the tumor had grown. None of the options presented to me looked promising. It appeared that any chance of getting a transplant was bleak.
The surgeon called me Wednesday with the result of Monday’s CT scan. I don’t need the resection. The tumor has not grown at all. In an ironic twist of fate, their lack of diligence saved me from undergoing unnecessary, and very risky, surgery. Naturally, this does not excuse their error, but I am very grateful I don’t have to face the resection. My condition is not wonderful but it is not as bad as everyone imagined.
None of this is easy on the mind. For the last couple of weeks I really thought it was possible I had no hope, that I was a dead man walking. If there was ever a time in my life where I felt close to being despondent, this was it. However, as I wrote some time back, I will resist letting this cancer completely control my life, even when faced with the prospect that there might not be much of it left. The same goes for the mental turmoil, and so, like two fighters in a ring, despondency and I slugged it out.
Despondency is no less deadly than cancer. Described as a state of low spirits caused by loss of hope or courage, despondency can lead to chronic depression, suicide (the 10th leading cause of death in the United States) – it can lead to murder. I wouldn’t say my depression was major, nor was I suicidal or murderous, but at times it was a real challenge to keep my spirits up.
Shantideva called despondency an evil, a major obstacle on the path. Many Mahayana texts warn against its power, and its futility.
The Dharma Mirror Sutra says,
If there is a remedy, what is the use of despondency? If there is no remedy, what is the use of despondency? Even in the remedy, one might fail if despondent and dazed by anger. From despair, one’s power goes, and one is caught in a worse trouble; by thinking of this in vain, they pass a short life again and again. Therefore by practice one should renounce that useless thing like something worthless.”
The text states that the rejection of despondency should be practiced “by casting away weakness and softness of mind . . . one’s mind is free from the likeness of cotton-wool.”
The remedy for despondency is to develop a strong mind. The Buddha taught that there are five strengths, or healing powers of the mind: conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.
Conviction is traditionally thought of as the faith that conquers doubt. I see it as being confident about your Buddha nature.
Persistence is never giving up.
Mindfulness means to have a mind unshaken.
Concentration is never losing sight of the essential point.
Wisdom is knowing the essential point.
Which is? I don’t know what the essential point is for you, but for me is the same as Dogen’s ‘fundamental point’: “the mind itself is Buddha”. My understanding of that may differ from his, however. I see the mind is Buddha as bringing these five powers of mind together as one, and they are not powers at all but actually different aspects of one potentiality within the mind – the potential to become a Buddha, and all a Buddha means is someone who awakens to suffering and then has the strength of mind to rise above it. The Gandavyuha Sutra says,
“You should cultivate a mind unconquerable . . . a mind invincible . . . a mind not shaken in the abyss and the currents of the ocean of evil temperaments.”
Of course, I don’t mean to intimate that I have that kind of mind, but having been at this Buddhism business for more than a few years now, I can say my mind is stronger than it once was. It is not often shaken, but frequently stirred.
By the way, genjo, from Dogen’s Genjo Koan, or “Actualizing the Fundamental Point”, is made up of two Chinese characters: xian, now or present, and cheng, complete or accomplish. A Buddha is also someone who can accomplish the now, be complete in the present.
This week, actress Valerie Harper announced she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and had perhaps only 3 more months to live. She said, “I don’t think of dying, I think of being here now.”
Be here now. Someone else said that, too. Ram Dass, I think. Good advice.
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