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Buddhadharma : Winter 2007
buddhadharma| 19 |winter 2007 Q ask the teachers send yOur questiOns By mail Or tO teachers@theBuddhadharma.cOm zenkei Blanche hartman is FOrmer aBBess OF the san FranciscO zen center. geshe tenzin Wangyal rinPOche is a lineage hOlder OF the Bön dzOgchen traditiOn OF tiBet. narayan lieBensOn grady is a guiding teacher at camBridge insight meditatiOn center. PHOTOSBY(l-R):BARBARAwENgER,MARYEllENMCCOURT,MARYlANg questiOn: I received a breast cancer diagnosis in January and have almost finished chemotherapy, which will be followed by radiation treatment. Many cancer survivors say that attitude is key to survival. I understand that having hope and a good attitude, eating the right food, exercising, and so on can probably help, but there is always the pos- sibility that the cancer will recur. Some of this disease is purely genetic; good diet and attitude may make no difference. So I’m confused about where to stand between accepting impermanence and having the hope and desire to live until my old age, which may help my recovery. zenkei Blanche hartman: I see no conflict at all between accepting impermanence and also wanting to live as long as you can. After my own experi- ences of near-fatal illnesses, it is exactly where I find myself. However, I have one feeling of caution as I read your letter. It is the possibility that if you were to have a recurrence, even after following all the best medical advice available, you might blame yourself “because you didn’t have the right attitude.” please don’t set yourself up for a guilt trip. An encounter with impermanence can make one acutely aware, for the first time, of one’s own mortality, and this can be terrifying. As Master Mumon said in one of his commentaries, “You’d better pay attention to what I am saying, or when it comes time for the five elements to separate, you’ll be like a crab in a pot, scrabbling with all eight arms and legs to get out.” The great teacher Nagarjuna said, “In this world of birth and death, seeing into imperma- nence is bodhicitta, the mind of awakening.” It can turn one’s mind toward practice, as it did for me. I became focused on the question, “How do you live if you know you’re going to die?” In my search, I was introduced to Zen practice and met Suzuki Roshi. He seemed to me to know what I needed to know, and I began to practice with great enthusiasm, like a drowning person grabbing a life preserver. So my experience of a critical illness actually gave me the gift of practice. Twenty years later, I had a heart attack. As I stepped into the sunlight after leaving the hospi- tal, I had the thought, “Wow! I’m alive! I could be dead. The rest of my life is just a free gift! Oh, wow, it’s always been a gift. Too bad I didn’t notice it before.” The overwhelming and continu- ing sense of gratitude that has resulted from that realization has never left me. The one thing I’ve learned in this life that I want to give to others is this gratitude for everything, including the gift of this precious human life. I hope you will enjoy your gift of life for as long as it is given to you. geshe tenzin Wangyal rinPOche: Open awareness is our natural state of mind, which allows all positive qualities to be experienced and expressed in life. When facing challenges such as living with a life- threatening illness, openness can be easily obscured by our fears as well as our hopes. Even when using the word “openness,” we need to observe whether we are creating expectations only to become disap- pointed when those expectations are not fulfilled. That is expectation, not openness. With openness, whatever the outcome, we are fine. Openness cre- ates a dynamic other than hope and fear. We become familiar with the power of open- ness through reflecting upon impermanence and death. This is part of dharma practice throughout one’s life and not only when one is sick or dying. The moment one is born is the moment to realize impermanence is true. In the West, impermanence often has a nega- tive association. While the initial reflection on the truth of impermanence or the inevitability of one’s death might be unpleasant or even shocking, deeper exploration leads to the freedom to live life fully in the present moment. If you become sad or depressed while reflecting on impermanence, look closer at your experience. You’ll discover it is your attach- ment that causes you to suffer. Once you recognize that attachment, notice how you experience it in your body, your emotions, and in your mind. You may notice tensions in your body, restrictions in your breathing, or agitation in your mind. Through gentle physical exercise, skillful pranic breathing exercises, and mindfulness-awareness practices, you can release those negative habits. We are often more familiar with our ten- sions, sadness, and negative thoughts; we need to