Burning Pain for the Journey

I had the pleasure of meeting Jimmy Carter once. It was in 1982. He was in Los Angeles to promote his book Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President and staying at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel where I worked. A few of us had copies of the book and one of the Secret Service guys took them up to Carter’s suite for him to sign. That evening we were asked stand outside the entrance to greet the former President as he left the hotel to attend some event. Flashing that famous grin, Carter shook all our hands. As he shook mine, I thanked him for signing the book and he replied, “My pleasure.” A brief but memorable encounter.

I have always admired Jimmy Carter. Many people believe his was a failed presidency. I don’t know. He made a number of tough, unpopular decisions. He followed his conscience, stayed true to his beliefs. I respect that. Most of all, he made a campaign promise never lie to the American people. As far as I know, he never did.

Now, Jimmy Carter is battling cancer. He had surgery on Aug. 3rd to remove a cancerous tumor from his liver. There are a number of different ways to deal with tumors on the liver. With me, it was with inter-arterial chemotherapy and radio frequency ablation – using chemo and high frequency radio waves to bombard a tumor and kill it. Carter had a resection where they cut out about one-tenth of his liver. A healthy liver, which I assume his is, will regenerate very quickly.

During a press conference, Carter said his doctors suspected the cancer had originated in another part of his body. Later, they discovered melanoma spots about “two millimeters” in size on his brain. Cancer that spreads from the place where it first started to another place in the body is metastatic cancer. That is what has also happened to me.

I had cancerous tumors on my liver but we thought my cancer was a thing of the past after I had a liver transplant in May 2014. For months, my scans looked fine, and then this past April my doctors found a malignant tumor in my left femur. It was metastatic. It came from somewhere else, probably my liver. How could this happen, I asked. It wasn’t a question that could be answered. Perhaps there were minute traces of cancer that got into the bone marrow. Perhaps the doctors simply missed it. Medicine is not an exact science.

They cut my leg open, drilled a hole in the bone, removed as much of the cancer as they could, and then put a rod in to give the bone support. After the surgery, I received ten radiation treatments to wipe out any remaining traces of the cancer. I believe Carter is also to have radiation treatments.

Since the surgery, I have had a couple of CT scans and a full bone scan at the end of June. Everything has looked good, but, very likely the cancer is still there, somewhere, hiding.

The problem with metastatic cancer is that evidently there is no effective way to control it. Eventually it will spread to some area of the body where there are vital organs and it will kill you. I don’t think Jimmy Carter’s case is any exception. From what my oncologist told me, mine is not, either.

Carter has one advantage I don’t. He has an immune system. He will be taking a drug called Keytruda to boost his immune system, supercharge it. My immune system is pretty much non-existent because of the medicines I take to suppress it. If I had a healthy immune system, my body would try to reject the transplanted liver.

At his news conference, Carter said, “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes.” I can’t say that I am perfectly at ease with the recent turn of events, but I have found it acceptable.

To paraphrase a passage in the 2nd chapter of Chuang Tzu, “Both the acceptable and unacceptable are acceptable.”

You can’t waste your life worrying about your death. When you accept that sufferings and death are both inevitable, you gain a certain amount of freedom. It is not that you resign yourself to a particular fate but rather you become liberated from it. The idea is to free your mind, to make it bamboo mind. Most bamboo is wind tolerant. Because it bends and yields to the wind, it is very stable. A purpose of Buddhist practice is to develop a mind that is stable, so that you can withstand the fierce winds of suffering.

Everyone knows they will die.  We usually think of death happening sometime far off in the future. To truly accept the reality that death may come sooner than you expected is one way you learn to flow and harmonize with life.

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.”

– Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), Japanese poet


Something You Already Know

Dharamsala-June 1 (dalailama.com)

I hadn’t heard about the Dalai Lama’s remarks to young Tibetans in Dharamasala when I published my last post, although it would have been a neat trick if I had, since I wrote the post a day before he spoke. However, I had similar thoughts in mind. Paraphrasing his remarks, the Tibet Post International reports that the Dalai Lama told the young people “no [one] can say that one religion is good and another religion is bad. Usually, religion is just like medicine. We have to prescribe it according to the conditions of each patient and each disease.”

These remarks were made on June 1, the beginning of a three day session in which Tibet’s spiritual leader conducted teachings to introduce Tibetan Buddhism to young Tibetans and students in Dharamsala, using as his texts, Tsongkhapa’s In Praise of the Buddha for His Teaching on Dependent Arising and Nagarjuna’s Drops of Nourishment for People.

I have to admit that I am not as generous or ecumenical as the Dalai Lama. I’m not so sure that I agree with him about what one can say about a particular religion or that religion itself is usually like medicine. Nevertheless, in my post, I did compare Buddhism, which I don’t really consider a religion, to medicine.

I mentioned how the Buddha is called “The Great Physician” because of his diagnosis of the disease of suffering and his prescription for its treatment.

Continuing with that theme, Chapter 3 of the Bodhicaryavatara (“Conduct or Way of the Bodhisattva”) by Shantideva contains a verse that is part of a well-known “aspirational prayer”:

May I be the medicine
For all beings ailing in the world,
May I be their doctor, their nurse,
Until their every sickness has been healed.

Although Shantideva is considered the author of a great work of literature, and his poetry is praised for its profundity and depth, his book contains many “stock” phrases (not unusual in Buddhist literature), and in this instance he may have been inspired by a passage included in his other work, Siksasamuccaya (“Compendium of Doctrine), from the Vajradhvaja Sutra:

May all beings be like efficacious medicines and drugs. May all beings stay far from the poisons of greed, anger, and delusion. May all beings be like the sun arising, by scattering the veil of darkness and gloom for all beings.”

The wish to become medicine is just one expression of the greater aim of bodhicitta, the “aspiration for awakening,” which is the subject of the Bodhicaryavatara. The Dalai Lama says that

Bodhichitta itself has two aspects: aspiration and application. Aspiration is simply wishing to attain enlightenment for all beings, the desire to pursue the path. Application begins with taking the vow of bodhichitta and promising to put it into action. Aspiration is like simply wanting to go somewhere; application is actually going.”

Actually, I think it is difficult to say that any religion or spiritual philosophy by itself is medicine. The people who use spiritual teachings to improve their lives and to help others are the real medicine. Elsewhere in the Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva says, “If the doctor’s instructions are ignored, how will a patient in need of a cure be healed by the medicine?” It stands to reason that if we don’t practice Buddhism and try to put the teachings in action through the course of our daily living, then having such an great physician and effective treatment does us very little good.

According to dictionary.com, the word “medicine” comes to us “via Old French from Latin medicina ( ars ) (art of) healing, from medicus  doctor, from mederi  to heal].” All of which implies action taken. A doctor engages in the practice of medicine, “to heal” means to engage in the art of healing. The Buddhist art of healing consists of aspiration and application, and both aim at healing ourselves and others. One without the other is like a one-wheeled cart: it won’t take you very far.

If you’re like me you’ve heard this sentiment about taking action, applying the teachings and so on many times. But it is such an important point that it’s good to recollect it often. Or as Woody Guthrie once said, “Let me be remembered as the man who told you something you already knew”