My New Tumor

Two days after Senator John McCain announced he had a brain tumor, I underwent a biopsy to diagnose a new mass in my left leg and determine whether it is cancerous.

Medicine Buddha statues at Land of Medicine Buddha, Santa Cruz

It is.  It’s a big fat ugly tumor the size of a baseball.

I’m still in the dark about treatment.  My oncologist has mentioned something about an experimental drug.  Personally, I am leaning toward a drug that is non-experimental, one known to work.

When I know exactly what my options are, I will consider them with the knowledge that I am terminal.  Nothing is going to save my life.  That being the case, if my doctor’s plan is to subject me to an aggressive therapy that will make me sick and miserable, on top of the pain and misery I am already experiencing, further degrading the quality of my life, I am not sure that I am interested.  If the treatment might save my life, I would think differently.  But it’s just to keep me alive a while longer.  My feeling is that quality of life is more important than longevity.

Needless to say, I hate all this.  While it is tempting to bemoan my rotten fate, I have to look at this as an opportunity.   It’s as if the gods of destiny, fate, karma, whatever you want to call them, decided that I am just too lazy these days to practice on my own accord so they figured to give me something really serious to practice about.  They keep doing this and I wish they’d just leave me alone.

“With a good heart, compassion for others, whenever a problem arises, you experience it for others, on behalf of other sentient beings. If you experience happiness, you experience it for others. If you enjoy a luxury life, comfort, you dedicate it to others. And if you experience a problem, you experience it for others—for others to be free of problems and to have all happiness up to enlightenment, complete perfect peace and bliss. Wishing others to have all happiness, you experience problems on their behalf.”

– Lama Zopa Rinpoche, The Joy of Compassion

Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings were very instructive and encouraging to me a few years ago when I was preparing for a liver transplant.  Based on Medicine Buddha practices, some of it steeped in Buddhist mysticism, much of it practical and empowering.  He makes clear that healing begins and ends with our hearts and minds.  He maintains that there is no healing without compassion, and indeed, compassion itself is an important source of healing.

“The best healer is someone with the realization of bodhicitta, the altruistic thought to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all living beings…  Every single breath of someone with great compassion is medicine…”

What the immediate future holds I don’t know – but I have made a decision on the end.  I do not want to die in a hospital, or here at home, I want to die in a Buddhist setting, in fellowship with other Buddhists.  My thought is to conduct the end of my life as though it were a personal retreat.  I’ve been looking into Buddhist hospices.  Unfortunately, there are not many.  I’ve only found three:  Zen Hospice in San Francisco, Tara House at Land of Medicine Buddha, and Enso House in Washington state.  If you know of any or if you are a Buddhist caregiver, please contact me.

In the meantime, may you be happy and at ease, and free from suffering.

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Unbounded Wholeness

Holistic medicine is a still relatively new approach to healing in the West, and yet it has ancient roots – in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and even in the teachings of Hippocrates, the so-called father of medicine, who lived in the 4th century B.C. and emphasized the healing power of nature.  This approach to healing is called holistic because it looks at the whole person; joining all the different elements of the physical, mental, emotional, nutritional, social, and environmental into a whole system.

The term ‘holistic’ comes from the word ‘whole’, from the old English word ‘hale’, which means to be in good health, to be whole and healthy. The original meaning of ‘whole’ implied “keeping the original sense,” “that which has also survived,” and “to heal.” The prehistoric German root of whole is also the origin of ‘heal’, ‘health’, and ‘holy’. In addition, the word ‘wealth’ (‘weal’) has associations with words heal, health, holiness, and happiness.

To heal means to be whole and to be whole means to heal. To be wealthy is to be healthy and whole. To be holy is to heal and be whole. It is said that true happiness is only possible when we achieve complete wholeness and maximum health.

“Unbounded wholeness” is a concept in Dzogchen, a teaching traditional of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a rather complicated notion identified with Samantabhadra, one of the names of the Primordial Buddha. Professor Anne C. Klein, with Tenzin Wangyal, wrote a book on the subject, Unbounded Wholeness: Dzogchen, Bon, and the Logic of the Nonconceptual. In it, they offer this passage from The Great Profound Bliss Sutra:

Mind of mine, dwelling in the present
Uncontrived, uncoarsened, and untouched
Heart essence of all that is,
Dwells solely as wholeness unbounded.

We can find wholeness in the present because the present is always whole. The present may seem to have separate parts and dimensions but from the ultimate view, we find that it is indivisible. In the now, the past and future join the present to form a timeless reality. It is timeless when our mind is no longer tethered to the idea that the present must be divided into past, present and future.

A Healing Buddha mandala
A Healing Buddha mandala

The catalog of word forms above progressed in a circular motion, one definition leading into another and then back to the previous. A Buddhist symbol for wholeness is the mandala, which is often circular. Jung, in fact, called mandalas “archetypes of wholeness.” He saw the geometric pattern of the mandala as displaying a preexisting condition of consciousness. With this in mind, we might say that our journey to wholeness is a journey of rediscovery – uncovering the wholeness that has always been whole, and unbounded.

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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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Come Healing with Leonard Cohen

LC1bI first became interested in poetry around 3rd or 4th grade after I read e.e. cummings’ poem “in-just spring,” and I used to borrow books of poetry from the school and city libraries, but I didn’t actually own a book of poetry until years later. It was Selected Poems 1956–1968 by Leonard Cohen. I still have that book. If you were to open it, you’d find an inscription: “To David on his 17th birthday, Love Dad.”

That was a long time ago, and the book, its author, my dad, and I are all still around.

Not only that but the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter has a new live album titled Leonard Cohen – Live in Dublin set for release in December. The video from the album premiered on Oct. 16. It’s called “Come Healing” and it’s from his critically acclaimed 2012 studio album Old Ideas.

Now, as you probably know, in addition to being a poet and songwriter, Cohen is also a Buddhist. In fact, he ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in 1996 at the Mount Baldy Zen Center here in Southern California where he also spent several years on retreat.

Any influence that Buddhism has exerted on Cohen’s songwriting seems to be in between the lines of his lyrics. Like Bob Dylan, Cohen is Jewish, and yet both infuse their songs with Biblical imagery. In “Come Healing,”: ” The splinters that you carry/The cross you left behind” and “And let the heavens hear it/The penitential hymn.” The song is quintessential Cohen, dealing with reparation and devastation, desire and betrayal, faith and loss, and absolute love – reoccurring themes for the man someone once dubbed “the high priest of pathos.”

Yes, Leonard Cohen is still around, these days sporting a fedora that makes him look a bit like a latter-day Philip Marlowe, Private Rabbi, prowling the mean streets of the City of Lost Angels. According to Rolling Stone, he told the crowd toward the beginning of his one of his Dublin sets, “I’m not quite ready to hang up my boxing gloves just yet. I don’t know when we’ll meet again, but tonight we’ll give you everything we’ve got.”

Come watch Leonard Cohen drop to his knees to “Come healing of the body/Come healing of the mind.” Full lyrics after the video.

Come Healing

O gather up the brokenness
And bring it to me now
The fragrance of those promises
You never dared to vow

The splinters that you carry
The cross you left behind
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
The cruelty or the grace

O solitude of longing
Where love has been confined
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason
Come healing of the heart

O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The Heart beneath is teaching
To the broken Heart above

O let the heavens falter
And let the earth proclaim:
Come healing of the Altar
Come healing of the Name

O longing of the branches
To lift the little bud
O longing of the arteries
To purify the blood

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

O let the heavens hear it…

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White Light, Clear Light

Never having had a near death experience, I am not sure what to think about them. I am inclined to believe that they are mostly in the nature of hallucination. However, a panel of psychiatrists at the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDs) 2014 Conference held this past weekend in Newport Beach, Ca., stressed that while “there are people who have hallucinations and need certain treatments to function well and live healthy lives, near death experiences (NDEs) should not necessarily be lumped in with such hallucinations.”

People who have near-death experiences often report seeing a white light. Last year, researchers at the University of Michigan discovered some scientific evidence to explain this phenomenon. Evidently, the brain continues to function for up to 30 seconds after blood flow stops, and this electrical activity may account for the appearance of “light.”

In Tibetan Buddhism, it’s thought that certain practitioners also experience a white light or the “clear” luminosity of emptiness at the moment of death. Robert Thurman, in his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, describes clear light as “transparency,” for it is “the subtlest light that illuminates the profoundest reality of the universe . . . It is an inconceivable light, beyond the duality of bright and dark, a light of the self-luminosity of all things.”

The Dalai Lama, during a 1991 teaching in New York, explained clear light this way,

I don’t think that in the term clear light should be taken literally. It is sort of metaphoric. This could have its roots in our terminology of mental will. According to Buddhism, all consciousness or all cognitive mental events are said to be in the nature of clarity and luminosity. So it is from that point of view that the choice of the term light is used. Clear light is the most subtle level of mind, which can be seen as the basis or the source from which eventual experience or realization of Buddhahood, Buddha’s wisdom might come about, therefore it is called clear light.”

As an extremely subtle level of mind, the concept of clear light is akin to the notion of Buddha-nature, the purest state of mind in which one is able to apprehend the true nature of reality, a state of mind that is stable enough to withstand the vicissitudes of most mental afflictions, a mind imbued with a deep sense of compassion.

According to Buddhist teachings, the moment of death presents the greatest opportunity for realizing wisdom and healing, and that the scope for spiritual healing is not limited by death but can actually continue after death. Of course, it would be foolish and wasteful to wait until then to realize an enlightening state of mind. This is why Buddhism emphasizes the present moment, because awakening is always possible, always near at hand.

However, even though sudden flashes of clear light are available in the timeless reality of now, it requires effort, and time, to experience them, and once experienced it is not a fait accompli, a done deal, irreversible, requiring no further endeavor on our part. As I have said many times here, and you may know that it is the theme of The Endless Further, awakening is a continuous process, for if there is such a thing, how could it be anything else?  Awakening or enlightenment, cannot be defined, so how can it be a destination, an end point?  It is an ceaseless journey that takes place only though living, in daily life.  As Krishnamurti said, awakening means to be a light unto oneself, and in that way then, we are the clear light.

Here’s some guys who were clear light, too. Straight from L.A. circa 1966, a long-forgotten, unheralded psychedelic rock band named Clear Light:

Sand

See the sand
Lying by . . .
The ocean!
Golden sun
In metal sky
. . . Burning!
Shimmering heat lies heavy . . .
. . . Lies in
Grass brown search
For cooling air
Dying, dying with you!
Harshness flees,
Colors fade,
Night falls!
Quiet winds
Search silver sands
. . . Wandering!

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