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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Healing Buddha

When faced with a life-threatening disease, many people turn to faith. I am no different, except I don’t consider it a turn to “faith,” rather I have turned to the “tools” of Buddhism.

Japanese image of the Healing Buddha (Yakushi Nyorai) from the 12th Century

One tool is practice centered on the Healing or Medicine Buddha. My interest in the Healing Buddha is not new. I began studying Healing Buddha teachings over a decade ago, and participated in several “Medicine Buddha Empowerments,” including one given by Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche in 2002. In Tibetan Buddhism, an empowerment initiates or gives permission for a student to engage in a specific tantric practice, usually some form of deity worship.

I’m not sure that empowerments are all that helpful (or necessary) since most people don’t understand what’s going on during these rituals and therefore, they are not any better prepared to undertake a particular practice than they were before. This, I think, is especially true of the kind of large gathering empowerments like those given by the Dalai Lama. I feel more personalized instruction with a competent teacher is much better.

Moreover, I don’t worship deities. But neither do tantric practitioners, not if they are approaching this sort of practice, also known as “deity-yoga” in the right way. These “deities” are not supernatural beings to be “worshipped.” They are archetypes to use as objects of meditation. They symbolize inner forces or potentials:

However, even if we admit that all the powers and faculties of the universe are within us, unless we have activated them through practice or made them accessible through training they will never become realities that influence our life . . . Just because the depth-consciousness (which I think is a better term than the “unconscious”) contains an unlimited wealth of forces, qualities, and experiences, it requires a well-ordered, purposeful and trained mind to make use of this wealth in a meaningful way, i.e. to call up only those forces, contents of consciousness or their respective archetypal symbols which are beneficial to the particular situation and spiritual level of the individual and give meaning to his life.”

Lama Govinda, Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness

Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine or Healing Buddha, has been one of the most popular of these archetypal figures, revered in India, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. Meditating on the Healing Buddha is a tool for harnessing our natural healing energies, and because compassion is a prime motivation for engaging in any Buddhist activity, it’s also a tool for helping others to heal.

This is not a substitute for conventional or alternative medical practices and procedures.  It’s not faith healing, based upon a belief in divine intervention. Nor does it fall under the category of spiritual healing, the belief in mystic energy. As I see it, there is nothing divine or supernatural about this. It’s an aid to natural healing, tapping into the energies of thought and emotion, a tool for strengthening the power of the body to heal itself, which the body is designed to do. Healing the mind, as well.

Meditation on the Healing Buddha often involves visualization: you visualize yourself becoming the Healing Buddha. Chanting the Healing Buddha mantra is a meditation practice that may or may not involve visualization. The mantra is derived from the Bhaisajyaguru-vaiduryaprabharaja Sutra (“Healing Buddha Sutra”) and although you will see various spellings, it basically goes “TAD-YA-THA OM BHE-KAN-ZAY BHE-KAN-ZAY MAHA BHE-KAN-ZAY RAZA SA-MUN-GA-TAY SOHA.”

There are various interpretations of the meaning, too. I think a reasonable one is something like “Thus: Om Healer, Healer, Great Healer, gone to awakening, awaken in me.”

I’ll have more to say about the mantra and the Healing Buddha in upcoming posts. In the meantime, here is a short video I put together of the Healing Buddha Mantra set to music.

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