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Buddhadharma : Fall 2015
26 buDDhaDharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 1 5 Of course, not all illnesses are beneficial in this way. I remember years ago when Zen teacher Maurine Stuart got liver cancer. It was incurable, and everyone understood that she was going to die of it fairly soon. One day she gave a talk in which she emphatically said, “I am not sick!” Everyone was shocked. It is disturbing when it appears as though the great teacher has suddenly lost it and is descending into a grand delusion. Since Maurine was an impressive Zen teacher who carried herself with great power and grace, it wasn’t so easy to tell her she was in denial and off base. It’s like mommy going off her rocker and the kids not knowing what to do. So people talked among themselves. But after a while someone screwed up the courage to ask her respectfully what she actually meant when she said she wasn’t sick. She said, “I know I have cancer, and I know I will die of this cancer soon. I am saying that I am not sick, I am really not sick. I am fine with this.” That is, Maurine could understand and accept the objective facts of her body’s process. But she did not need to add on top of this a host of thoughts, identities, and emotions to go with them. She didn’t need to tell herself that she was ill or dying. In reality, her situation had not changed at all. She was always going to die, and there was always a limited amount of time left in her life. An illness was always going to come to take away her life— and if not an illness, something else. She had always been a vulnerable human being with a limited life span, and she had always been, at the same time, a buddha whose life is without end. Cancer, yes, but in fact nothing had changed. On one level, she knew her body was in trouble. In conventional terms, she was sick. But in reality, she was living her life day by day. And when later she was hospitalized ZOkETSu nOrMan FISChEr is the founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation and a senior teacher and former abbot of San Francisco Zen Center. his latest book is Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. determinations about it—thinking that the pain was terrible, that this time it wasn’t going to go away, that I would have to make this and that adjustment to my schedule and life to allow for the pain, and so on. The thoughts, and the emotions that went with the thoughts, were actually making the pain worse. It was much easier if I could stay with the actual sensation of pain and let all the thinking about the pain come and go, without taking it too seriously. When I did that, even in the middle of the night, I was better off. I could even occasionally be cheerful. I could see humor in pacing up and down in my house in the middle of the night. There are advantages to being up in the middle of the night. As I walked around, loosening up the pain while creating alternative sensations to pay attention to, I could read entertaining and interesting stuff that I wouldn’t ordinarily get time to read. It was a real challenge, of course. But I didn’t have to make more out of it than it was. I didn’t have to get into the woe-is-me mentality. This has happened to me many times, and it is getting easier each time. Not that the pain is getting less, although that might be true. But my way of dealing with the pain is getting better, which gives me more confidence when it happens the next time—which I fully assume it will. Also, to make the episodes less likely and less severe, I have a big incentive to keep up with my exercise program. So I consider this problem to be a benefit in the end rather than a detriment to my health. Our strong Zen mind doesn’t help us transcend our illness. It is the other way around: our illness, our human vulnerability, humanizes and deepens our Zen mind. christinealicino