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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Protection against Ghosts and Demons

I meant to post this around Halloween . . .

The quote is from Dr. Terry Clifford’s Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Psychiatry, a book that many think is one of the best on the subject of Tibetan Medicine:

Compassion is also understood to be a supreme medicine and protection against ghosts and demons. For according to Dharma psychology, when we try to reject something, we actually become more vulnerable to it. We come to realize this through the practice of meditation and watching the mind. We let unconscious material surface without rejecting or identifying with it. And thus it begins to lose its power over us.”

gb-1Clifford says that to the Tibetans, demons are symbolic.  They can represent negative emotions, mental afflictions.

I’ve wrestled with a few demons. Haven’t you? Ghosts, though, not so much.

When Clifford writes about trying to reject something, this can be the reverse side to attachment. In Buddhism, we normally use the word aversion in the context of anger and hatred, but aversion can also mean “rejection,” a strong dislike, a prejudice against someone or something – as detrimental to our well-being as seizing and clinging.

How does this attitude link to compassion? The Diamond Sutra tells us to cultivate a “non-discriminating mind.” The Buddha says that compassion requires one to free the mind of concepts, give to others with no thought of self or gain, cease making distinctions between beings who are worthy or unworthy, and ultimately, to consider that “when vast and immeasurable numbers of beings have been liberated, actually there is not any being liberated.”

Why is this? The Buddha in the Diamond Sutra tell us it is because “no compassionate person who is truly compassionate holds to the idea of a self, a being, or a separate individual.”

That explanation is teaching compassion from the ultimate truth. From the relative view, because there are others, there can be compassion. And compassion is good medicine, an antidote to self-cherishing, negative emotions and mental afflictions.

Keep in mind this from Lama Zopa Rinpoche, found in Ultimate Healing:

A loving, compassionate person heals others simply by existing. Wherever they are, compassionate people are healing, because they do everything they can to help others with their body, speech and mind. Merely being near a compassionate person heals us because it brings us peace and happiness.”

– – – – – – – – – –

Photo from The Ghost Breakers (1940): Bob Hope & Paulette Goddard

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Problems and Benefits

That ‘Old Philosopher’ and poet of Ancient China, Lao Tzu said, “The acceptable and the unacceptable are both acceptable.”

This means to take life as it is. Sounds simple. Well, it is easy to accept the acceptable, but to accept what is unacceptable seems counter-intuitive to normal way of thinking. What is unacceptable is undesirable, unsatisfactory, intolerable, unreasonable – why would we want to embrace that?

If we look at it from a psychological point of view, it is important to be in touch with our negativity. We cannot overcome anger, sadness or other bad feelings unless we deal with them. Buddhism teaches that suffering comes from our thoughts and feelings, so it seems rather obvious that denial is not a strategy we want to employ. We can expand this to cover just about everything else in life.

Early Buddhists developed a meditation practice designed to help us accept the unacceptable. It is called Kammatthana, a Pali word that means “basis of meditation” or “place of work”. These are meditation subjects suited to individual temperaments and inclinations.

Buddhaghosa, in his epic meditation text Visuddhi-magga (“Path of Purification”) listed 40 kammatthanas, and they range from subjects such as the non-existence of a permanent self and the idea of friendliness to some really unacceptable ones like the impurity and wretchedness of life and a the idea of a corpse in a state of decomposition.

Buddhaghosa wrote, “When the mind is familiar with the perception of foulness, then even divine objects do not tempt a person to greed.”

I have never meditated on the idea of a rotting corpse, and I don’t I ever shall. But I do get the intention behind it.

The first step in accepting the unacceptable is recognizing that to divide things into acceptable and unacceptable, good and bad, and so on, is dualistic thinking. That is not as simple as it sounds, either.  It is difficult to undo thought patterns that are nearly habitual. A way to break down this wall of duality that might be more helpful than corpse contemplation might be to just do away with the idea of unacceptable, tear down the concept of foulness.

To give you an example, one of the most unacceptable things in life is illness. Definitely one of the worst problems we can have. In his book, Ultimate Healing, Lama Zopa Rinpoche advises us that “To transform our problems into happiness, we have to learn to see them as pleasant.”

He goes on to say that to see problems as problems, illness as illness, unacceptable as unacceptable has many disadvantages and that we can turn it around if we meditate on the benefits of problems, which is probably a more difficult notion to hold in the mind than the idea of a corpse.

I don’t think I need to discuss the various ways in which embracing the unacceptable is beneficial. If you open your mind, they will come to you. When it comes to thoughts and emotions, we must be willing to experience even our negative thoughts and emotions fully. We can’t allow ourselves to reject them as invalid. Everything is valid. Whatever arises in our life is acceptable. Take life as it is.

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