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Thread: when faced with the ultimate reality

  1. #1

    when faced with the ultimate reality

    This question was recently posted on the Dogen Sangha Blog:

    What advice would you give regarding zazen practice for someone facing a life-threatening illness? Accepting impermanence is easy to do when one is healthy. But when faced with the ultimate reality, our confidence deserts us and we lose faith in the words that gave us strength. (But they were just words, anyway.)
    As far as questions go, it's right up there with the best of them.
    I thought I'd bring it here to Treeleaf for us all to consider

    gassho,
    Keishin[/b]

  2. #2
    Hello Keishin,

    Well, I need to be careful here, because a "life threatening" illness is not necessarily a "terminal" illness. So, first I can tell you how a Zen practitioner might face a true terminal illness:

    About the same way, I think, as any human being facing such a crisis.

    It has been said that the typical stages of grief reaction to news of a terminal illness are:


    1. Denial: Used by almost all patients in some form. It is a usually temporary shock response to bad news. ... People can slip back into this stage when there are new developments or the person feels they can no longer cope.

    2. Anger: Different ways of expression

    -... "Why me?" Feeling that others are more deserving.

    -Envy of others: Other people don't seem to care, they are enjoying life while the dying person experiences pain. Others aren't dying. Anger at [the universe/God].

    -Projected on environment: Anger towards doctors, nurses, and families.

    3. Bargaining: A brief stage, hard to study because it is often between patient and [the Universe/God].

    -Attempts to postpone: "If only I could live to see . . ."

    4. Depression: ...

    5. Acceptance: This is not a "happy" stage, it is usually void of feelings. It takes a while to reach this stage and a person who fights until the end will not reach it. It consists of basically giving up and realizing that death is inevitable.

    * Hope is an important aspect of all stages. A person's hope can help them through difficult times.

    http://www.utexas.edu/student/cmhc/book ... grief.html

    also:

    it is common to feel . . .

    * like you are "going crazy"

    * unable to focus or concentrate

    * irritable or angry (at the deceased, oneself, others, higher powers)

    * frustrated or misunderstood

    * anxious, nervous, or fearful

    * like you want to "escape"

    * guilt or remorse

    * ambivalence

    * numbness

    http://www.utexas.edu/student/cmhc/book ... grief.html
    So, how does a Zen practitioner react? Probably, about the same way as all that, as other people do ... But, hopefully, with some acceptance of the fact of his or her doing so [.e.g., I am depressed and angry today. That's to be expected. I hate the world today ... that is to be expected for a human being facing this.].

    Perhaps we would be a bit faster to get to a stage of acceptance, but (more than resigned acceptance or tolerant allowing) a true embracing of the situation. We might possibly even come to smile about it, enjoy it [depends on the person and the situation of the Zen practitioner, I imagine].

    Now, in the case of a "life threatening' situation, I would expect the person to also go through similar stages, and I would not expect that person to react in some non-human way ... maybe sometimes, even MANY times, they might react in ways that non-Zen practitioners would not [such as being faster to shrug off the situation, or even laugh about and enjoy it], but I would not demand such stellar behavior from them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Perhaps, however, they could learn to embrace and allow and even enjoy!! the situation fully, all while doing whatever medical care needs to be done.

    That is my thought, having been through a couple of losses myself.

    My first Zen Teacher at Soji-ji, many years ago, Azuma Ikuo Roshi lost his wife. One day, soon after, as we talked about it, I foolishly asked him how he reacted to his wife's death (expecting some Zen Master-like answer). What he said was, "I was sad. I cry." I was surprised at this, and asked why a Zen Master could cry in the face of death. He said, "I cry, because wife die."

    Gassho, Jundo

  3. #3

    ulitimate question

    Hello Jundo:

    The question was:

    Quote:
    What advice would you give regarding zazen practice for someone facing a life-threatening illness? Accepting impermanence is easy to do when one is healthy. But when faced with the ultimate reality, our confidence deserts us and we lose faith in the words that gave us strength. (But they were just words, anyway.)


    gassho,
    Keishin

  4. #4
    Hello Keishin,

    Perhaps I do not understand the question. I am sorry. Do you mean what I would tell someone with a life threatening illness who would come to me asking how to practice Zazen?

    I guess I would say something like, "just sit" without expectations, do not try to change anything about your Zazen or about your physical situation. If you cannot sit due to your condition, recline. If you are in pain, be in pain. If you are feeling not in pain, be without pain.

    It is not very much different from the advise I would give to someone who is not ill.

    Let me know if I still miss the point of your asking.

    Gassho, Jundo

    P.S.- Life, of course, is constantly a 'life threatening' situation for all of us. Our Zen practice includes our coming to terms with that.

  5. #5
    I've found greater acceptance of my mortality in sitting. Well, greater acceptance of any, really. Somehow paying attention to what is 15" in front of me keeps me from fearing tomorrow. I spent a long time feeling sad about the fact that I can't enjoy this life forever. I emailed a nearby Buddhist priest about this. She told me, as best I remember, "Of course."

    There is a mindfulness, a greater appreciation of each day and each relationship, that often comes to those who are dying.

    The fear and saddness that accompany attachment to life, loves and our favorite pair of shoes are the fear and saddness that accompany our attachment to... Ignorance lies in increasing attachment and in being attached to things of no worth.

    I think sitting loosens our grip. Maybe someday our hand opens. And then, of course, our heart as well.

  6. #6

    when faced with the ultimate reality

    Hello Jundo:
    Thank you for both your answers, and I really appreciate your patience with me in taking it back to square one. This question just cuts right to the beating heart of the matter--these words we use (well, what else can we--especially when on computer--unless we can send each other amazing photos like the one Mensch took of that Buddha in a shop window on a rainy Monday--or the cartoonish drawing of carrots in total fright--(I believe that was courtesy of PaxAnimi?)). These words we use--when we are beyond the reach of words, what do we have? How can we be reached?
    If we only have confidence and faith when we are healthy, then maybe we don't have confidence or faith--we just have health!
    Maybe this is the first real opportunity for this questioner--here at the deep end of the pool--to be steadfast with themself, to be with themself no matter what. Isn't this after all what we do in zazen?

    Your postscript "Life, of course, is constantly a 'life threatening' situation for all of us." just sparkled for me.

    And Rev. Don: I concur with you in finding 'greater acceptance of my mortality in sitting.'

    Thank you both.

    gassho,
    Keishin

  7. #7
    Senior Member kirkmc's Avatar
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    Without sounding presumptuous, let me reply to the question, because I am sort of in that situation. I have a neurological condition, which, while not officially "life-threatening", could become so at any time. This appeared two years ago today, in fact, and changed my life greatly.

    First, I went through all the stages that Jundo mentioned, aside from denial. I didn't really have much anger, though there was some resentment that doctors, over the years, didn't see my symptoms and go further to discover the real cause. But they are only human, and medical technology has improved greatly; in my case, they wouldn't have found what I have the first time I had symptoms (about 25 years ago).

    I didn't really bargain, because I don't have the kind of deadline someone would have with, say, terminal cancer. But, I did quickly realize that, as I think Thich Nhat Hanh says in one of his books, "we are all terminally ill". We will all die.

    What I've done is try and rearrange my life accordingly - I can no longer work full-time, but fortunately I don't have monetary worries, having decent disability insurance. I have tried to spend more time doing things I want to, in particular writing fiction, something I've wanted to do for a long time. I have also devoted a fair amount of time to helping others with the same condition, via a patients' advocacy association.

    When all is said and done, my life is more or less as it was. This problem did prompt me to get back into sitting, and the timely appearence of Tree Leaf was another thing that helped me there. When sitting, I don't think about the time I have left being more or less than before; I try not to think about time. I guess if I did have a deadline - say only a few months to live - it would be different. But ideally we should all live as though we only had a few months, even a few weeks to live.

    Kirk

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Anonymous
    Jundo's advice of "Just sit" is probably best. If confronted with the question of "why?" I'd probably answer "because you aren't dead."

    It reads rather cold in print, but it is not an easy subject to tackle even for the wisest of men. Like the original post said, it is easy to accept our mortality when we are healthy. It is also easy to wax poetic on the subject of death, but what do the living truly know of being dead?
    For all of us "death approaches rapidly".

  9. #9
    Transciences is what life is. Things come and they go. You come and you go. People come and they go. Experiences come and they go.

    Every moment is a chance to be reborn into the vast experience of your life. Why spend time worrying about death when you are not dead. Death is something that happens, but up until that point you only have your experience and your life right now.

    There are things we would like to do with our life ie. write fiction novels, but these things that we want to do shouldn't be attachments and why feel remorse about these things if we don't achieve them? They are enjoyable maybe, but they are transient. You have the chance to feel your experience right now. Sometimes we forget this. That is why teachers are good to have around. hehe :-) but we are all teachers.

  10. #10
    It has helped to understand my attachment as pointing to appreciation. IOW, going from "I wish I could have this forever" to "Now. Joy."

  11. #11

  12. #12
    Senior Member Oheso's Avatar
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    thank you Keishin for your question and thanks to Jundo and all contributors to this thread.

    one's and my own mortality is a sobering companion. I'm currently reading "A year to live" by Stephen Levine. has anyone else?

    gassho,

    Robt
    only saps buy vowels

  13. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by Oheso View Post
    thank you Keishin for your question and thanks to Jundo and all contributors to this thread.

    one's and my own mortality is a sobering companion. I'm currently reading "A year to live" by Stephen Levine. has anyone else?

    gassho,

    Robt
    And Robt,

    You really found this old thread from 2007!

    Nice to see if what I wrote still holds water.

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 11-14-2013 at 12:25 AM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  14. #14
    Senior Member Nengyo's Avatar
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    Not a bad thread to dig up. I'm not sure what I would do if I found out I were terminally ill. I'd hope that I would just keep sitting, making bad jokes, and playing with my son. No need to make things more difficult than necessary.
    Try not to be a jerk-- one of the Buddhas

  15. #15
    Thank you for the question you bring Keishin.

    I read it as, is there anything different we might say about practice if giving advice to someone with a terminal illness? Jundo answered well and I agree with his words.

    If I might just add - what you wrote about the possibility that what we interpret as confidence may just be 'good health' rather than a faith and confidence that is firmly grounded - no matter what - raises an interesting question.

    I think in a 'normal' lifespan we will be tested many times over on this - if not with ill health then with other situations. We all have to come to terms with loss and grief. The imminence of loss is always with us.

    I 'lost' my health is quite a dramatic way over 20 years ago. After a period of adjustment I gradually (over many years) was able to loosen the hold of a fixed attachment to a view that life has to be a certain way.

    I still have fleeting moments of anger, envy, fear and despair but I now experience these emotions as less overwhelming. I do feel that practicing zazen - as taught here - has considerably deepened my ability to go with the flow of whatever life brings.

    Will my confidence and faith in this practice hold if I am ever faced with terminal illness? I can't answer that - none of us can. We can only have faith that it might be so.

    Gassho

    Willow
    Last edited by willow; 11-14-2013 at 04:38 PM.

  16. #16
    Senior Member Oheso's Avatar
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    I'm not sure how close my few medical "emergencies" have brought me to death, really. my health so far has been pretty darn good. deep bows to all concerned for this tremendous gift. I've never been anywhere near a bright light tunnel or anything like that. but of course one doesnt get to be 60, experiencing the deaths of those near to us, without the opportunity of feeling the breeze of Mr.D's close passing on one's cheeks. certainly the last few years have been like this for me. next 1 or 2 will be too.

    death poem of Master Sheng Yen:

    Busy with nothing, growing old.
    Within emptiness, weeping, laughing.
    Intrinsically, there is no "I."
    Life and death, thus cast aside.

    (thank you Jundo for once posting this for me to find)

    at least part of what I strive for in my no-striving practice is to attain the mind that will be capable of similar sentiment and utterance in the hour of my death, amen. a tenacious christian perspective on my part perhaps.

    gassho,

    Robert

    ps. I'm currently reading "A year to live" by Stephen Levine. has anyone else?
    Last edited by Oheso; 11-15-2013 at 04:27 PM.
    only saps buy vowels

  17. #17
    Robert,

    I haven't read that book; is it good?

    Gassho,

    Risho

  18. #18
    Keishin,

    What a wonderful question. Thank you for posting this. So much to learn from everyone's responses.

    Jundo, "He said, "I cry, because wife die."-gave me goosebumps. I notice a common theme with your teachings. That is, accept the expression of life as it is. When we're happy, be happy, when we are sad, be sad.
    Shinjin datsuraku, datsuraku shinjin..Body-mind drop off, mind-body drop off..

  19. #19
    What advice would you give regarding zazen practice for someone facing a life-threatening illness? Accepting impermanence is easy to do when one is healthy. But when faced with the ultimate reality, our confidence deserts us and we lose faith in the words that gave us strength. (But they were just words, anyway.)
    Just this.


    It's been my experience that reality is completely indifferent to my degree of acceptance, confidence, or faith. My level of understanding or enlightenment is not considered; my permission, agreement, or acquiescence is neither required nor solicited. When my delusions, fixed views, cherished paradigms, entrenched dogmas, fondest wishes, fervent prayers, attachments and aversions are stripped away (or blown away in one of life's explosions), all I am left with is just this...just as it is. Not how I want it to be, not how I wish it were; just this.

    Yeah; it still pisses me off a little that the universe steadfastly refuses to recognize my importance by at least extending the minimal courtesy of at least acknowledging my opinions on the matter, but there it is; isn't it?
    May all beings everywhere plagued with sufferings of body and mind
    quickly be freed from their illnesses.
    May those frightened cease to be afraid
    and may those bound be free.
    May the powerless find power
    and may people think of befriending one another.

  20. #20
    Senior Member Oheso's Avatar
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    it's a very thought provoking book Risho, thanks for asking. I like Levine's idea of completing one's birth being the the ultimate preparation for death. I think this is the being one with just this Piobair refers to.

    gassho,

    Robert
    Last edited by Oheso; 11-16-2013 at 03:53 PM.
    only saps buy vowels

  21. #21
    Senior Member Tiwala's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Piobair View Post
    Just this.


    It's been my experience that reality is completely indifferent to my degree of acceptance, confidence, or faith. My level of understanding or enlightenment is not considered; my permission, agreement, or acquiescence is neither required nor solicited. When my delusions, fixed views, cherished paradigms, entrenched dogmas, fondest wishes, fervent prayers, attachments and aversions are stripped away (or blown away in one of life's explosions), all I am left with is just this...just as it is. Not how I want it to be, not how I wish it were; just this.

    Yeah; it still pisses me off a little that the universe steadfastly refuses to recognize my importance by at least extending the minimal courtesy of at least acknowledging my opinions on the matter, but there it is; isn't it?
    Thank you.

    Gassho, Ben
    Gassho
    Ben

  22. #22
    Member Cooperix's Avatar
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    Because I am in my late 60s I have lost many friends over the years.
    this is about two recent losses.
    George was diagnosed with a cancer that was terminal. He was given 2months to live. When his partner fell to the floor in despair at the diagnosis asking "how can we do this?" His reply was " one day at a time" as he helped her up off the floor. He was always upbeat, joyful almost in those months he had left. On a visit I asked him..."how can you do this with such grace" and his answer was "I am part of nature, death is part of nature, any other response would be disingenuous. I have total respect for nature."
    George was a forest ranger and had spent most of his adult life in the wilderness. He was present and lovely to the end. He lived 8 months after his diagnosis.

    John was given the startling diagnosis of 2 weeks to live. When I visited him on day 11 and asked him the ridiculous question of how he felt about the diagnosis, his answer surprised me. He said he had no fear, a small amount of anger but mostly curiosity. He had brain cancer and wondered how it would affect his mind. He also was full of humor. He laughed and called it "tumor humor"! His humor and gentle kindness never left, nor did his curiosity as his disease progressed. He lived 6 weeks.

    I am so grateful to have known these men, been present for their grace and gentleness in the dire face of their diagnosis. such equanimity and curiosity and humor...

    Anne
    Last edited by Cooperix; 12-19-2013 at 09:51 PM. Reason: Misspelling

  23. #23
    My mum was diagnosed with cancer about 2 months ago, she lives in the UK and I live in Spain. So a couple of weeks ago I visited, I went back to to spend a week with her, find out exactly what the prognosis is and make profound comments about life and death and suffering. (She is not buddhist)
    None of that happened, we just sat round chatting, watching television together, went out for a couple of meals with the family and just enjoyed our time together. This wasn't denial, it was my mum for the first time I can remember living in the now, all that cancer stuff was for the docs to manage, she was alive today with a lets make the best of it attitude.
    I still have no idea what the prognosis is but it was a lovely visit living in the now,

  24. #24
    Senior Member Nengyo's Avatar
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    Death is just an illusion. A very persistent one, but an illusion none the less. At least that's what I tell people who are about to get in the car with me.
    Try not to be a jerk-- one of the Buddhas

  25. #25
    Quote Originally Posted by Stev View Post
    My mum was diagnosed with cancer about 2 months ago, she lives in the UK and I live in Spain. So a couple of weeks ago I visited, I went back to to spend a week with her, find out exactly what the prognosis is and make profound comments about life and death and suffering. (She is not buddhist)
    None of that happened, we just sat round chatting, watching television together, went out for a couple of meals with the family and just enjoyed our time together. This wasn't denial, it was my mum for the first time I can remember living in the now, all that cancer stuff was for the docs to manage, she was alive today with a lets make the best of it attitude.
    I still have no idea what the prognosis is but it was a lovely visit living in the now,
    Hello Stev,

    I am sorry to hear about your mom's diagnoses, this must be hard on both of you. I can empathize with your situation as my mom is a breast cancer survivor of many years now. Knowing what I know now and wish I knew back then is to just be with everyone moment ... whether good or bad, each moment is precious. I hope all turns out well and sending much metta to you both. =)

    Gassho
    Shingen
    真 眼

    As a trainee priest, please take any commentary by me on matters of the Dharma with a pinch of salt.

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