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Buddhadharma : Fall 2015
fall 2 0 1 5 buDDhaDharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 27 and died, she accepted that with the same grace and power and courage she always had. To be sure, Maurine, at least as far as I knew her, was a stoical, tough matriarch from the Canadian prairies. But even if her emotional makeup had been very different, if she had been a person much more naturally given to emotional expression, I think the situation would have been essentially the same. She still wouldn’t have been sick. She might have wept, she might have said tearful good-byes to many people (as maybe she did; I wasn’t around during her last weeks), but even so, she would also have known she wasn’t sick. This is very much like the story of Dongshan’s illness. Donshan is in bed, his body unable to perform as it usually does. He is ill, but also he is not ill. That is, there is someone who is not ill, and Dongshan is in touch with this person. The monastic’s question is a good one: does the one who’s not ill look after you? In other words, does your good free Zen mind protect you from your illness? You would expect so. You would hope so. Dongshan’s answer is a little surprising: “No, he doesn’t look after me, I look after him.” Our strong Zen mind doesn’t help us transcend our illness. It is the other way round: our illness, our human vulnerability, humanizes and deepens our Zen mind. We give ourselves to our illness when the time comes to do that. As Suzuki Roshi said when he had cancer, “Now I am cancer.” Cancer was his practice, just as it was Maurine’s, Darlene Cohen’s, Myogen Steve Stucky’s, and many other practitioners past and present. In all these cases, the one who is ill takes care of the one who isn’t ill. In this way illness is a practice that can bring tremendous spiritual gifts. And then what? Dongashan says, “Then I see that there is no illness.” Through the practice of illness, we go beyond illness. It is okay to be ill. There can be joy in it from time to time. But first we have to practice being ill. We can’t get around it. In order to practice when you are ill, it helps to have practiced a lot already. Maybe you can begin practice after you become ill, as some do, coming to practice with that as motivation. Illness definitely focuses your life. And practice makes your illness into a path rather than a mistake. But it is much easier to practice illness if you have practiced for a long time before you fall ill—like Suzuki Roshi and Maurine and Darlene and Steve did, all of them seasoned Zen teachers. Then your daily practice of many years can be a resource for you in your time of need. We’ve had several household pets who’ve gotten sick and eventually died. We always had the great problem of deciding whether or not to call the vet to put the dog or cat “to sleep,” as they say. So far we have never done this. I have observed our animals in their suffering to see if they were suffering so much that it would be humane to put an end to it, but it has never been clear to me that their suffering was that way. I am not saying that you shouldn't put your animal to sleep—or that we were correct in the decisions we made. I am only saying that so far it has not seemed to us that the animals were suffering in such a way that it was clear the suffering needed to be ended sooner. In fact, it has seemed to me that our animals bore their suffering with a great patience and dignity. I am sure they did not think they were sick. They ate when they could, they slept, they found places in the sun to rest and be comfortable. In other words, they lived. And when it was time, they crawled off to someplace quiet and warm and died. Later on, Dongshan, too, was ready to die. He shaved his head, got all dressed up, rang the bell to assemble the monastics, sat in the zendo, and died. It must have been quite dramatic. Everyone cried and wailed with grief. Dongshan then woke