This is the kind of post no blogger ever wants to write and these are the words that no person ever wants to find themselves saying: I have cancer.

Yep. The Big C. Liver cancer to be precise.

About fifteen or so years ago, I was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, a chronic virus that affects the liver. I have no idea how I got it. HVC is spread by blood-to-blood contact. I didn’t shoot up drugs, I had no transfusions or surgeries, and it’s doubtful I was infected from a sexual encounter. The one likely suspect I can come up with is a tattoo I got in the late 70s (maybe the needles were dirty), because once you’re infected it’s supposed to take HVC about 15-30 years to show up and then an additional 15-30 years for it to kill you. The tattoo fits the pattern.

Not that I have spent a great deal of time trying to figure it out. It’s like the story the Buddha told about the arrow. Does knowing who made the arrow that pierced you relieve the suffering?

The doctors told me at the time I had a very mild case and not to worry because any number of other things would probably get me before HVC did. Looks like they were wrong.

Last year, an MRI revealed some lesions on my liver. It’s taken them quite a while but finally they have diagnosed it as cancer and now, barring any unforeseen developments, I am on the fast track for treatment. Later this month I will go into the hospital for a day or so to receive an intra-arterial chemotherapy treatment which involves inserting a needle into the artery of my groin and placing a catheter there to supply drugs to cause the cancer cells to die. Sounds like real fun. I am so looking forward to it.

Needless to say, I probably won’t be blogging for a few days.

The good news is that it’s pretty much a one shot deal. If the chemo does a good job, they might repeat it again in a few months, but it won’t be a regimen I’ll have to go through like other chemo treatments.

Nor is it a cure, but it might stall the progress of the cancer and keep the tumor small enough so that I can qualify for a liver transplant, which will cure the cancer . . . but then the new liver will just get infected with the HVC virus, taking me back to where I was 15 years ago. A vicious cycle, but it beats death by a mile. Maybe two miles.

The Buddha taught that there is birth, old age, sickness, and death. This is the cycle of existence that no one can get out of and it is often characterized by suffering, usually of our own making. This is my suffering. I have skipped over the stages where I look for someone or something to blame, or questioned why me, and this I think has given me an advantage because the conquest of suffering begins when we accept the truth of suffering.

I believe, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, that “We should look at our suffering in such a way that the suffering can become a positive thing.”  In Japanese Buddhism, this is called hendoku-iyaku or “changing poison into medicine.” I don’t know what this positive thing, this medicine, will be yet, but I feel confident that in due time, it will manifest itself.

Fortunately, I have been able to keep my spirits up and have this wonderful sense of humor that has endeared me to millions world-wide to help see me through. I’m sure that in the days and weeks ahead I will have more to say about all this and perhaps I will be able to share the “medicine” that comes from this “poison” with you.

For today, I will close with more of the Thich Nhat Hanh quote. I find it inspiring.  I might note that when he says, “go to the Buddha,” he is referring to ‘going for refuge.’ But he is also speaking figuratively. To for refuge, to really go to the Buddha, you have to look within because that is the only place where true refuge and the Buddha can be found.

Thich Nhat Hanh:

The Buddha said that if you have not suffered, there is no way you can learn. If the Buddha has arrived at full enlightenment, that is just because he had suffered a lot. The suffering was the path that helped him to arrive at full enlightenment, at full compassion, at full understanding. If you want to go to the Buddha, you need your suffering . . .

Suffering is the path . . . By true suffering you can see the path of enlightenment, the path of compassion, the path of love. According to the teaching of the Buddha, it is by looking deeply into the nature of your sorrow, your pain, of your suffering, that you can discover the way out. If you have not suffered, you cannot go to the Buddha. You have no chance to touch peace, to touch love. It is exactly because of the fact that you have suffered, that now you have an opportunity to recognize the path leading to liberation, leading to love, leading to understanding.

Don’t be discouraged when you see that in the past you have suffered and you have made other people suffer. If we know how to handle the suffering, we will be able to profit from our suffering. It is like an organic gardener. If she knows how to handle the garbage, she will get a lot of compost for the growth of her vegetables and her flowers. It is with the compost of the suffering that we can nourish the flower of understanding, of peace, of love. That is why we have to learn how to manage our suffering, how to cherish our suffering, how to transform our suffering.”

Yesterday, a friend said to me, “I was thinking about all life being suffering and wondering whether if that’s so, then does death end the suffering? No one knows what happens after death, but is there anything you’ve read about that?”

The traditional Buddhist view is that we go through a cycle of birth and death. Death, then, in one life is just opening a door to another life, and since we carry karma with us, we carry sufferings along, too. Our karma being a means through which we experience suffering. Theoretically, if one were to practice Buddhism lifetime after lifetime, eventually one would reach a stage where nirvana is attained and then there are no more rebirths and that’s the end of suffering.

But, rebirth is just a theory. Many people find it hard to accept. Personally, I suspect that when you die, that’s it. It’s over. Finis. Then, your sufferings do come to an end. The bad news is you’re dead. And that’s not much fun. Not only that, you leave behind people who suffer over your loss. As another friend of mine once remarked, “Sufferings, man, are a bitch.”

Mahayana Buddhism, having a different view on sufferings and nirvana, is rather pessimistic about the possibility of stopping the cycle of rebirth. In Mahayana, nirvana is not a place or some exalted realm of being, rather it’s a state of mind. And nirvana is available to us right here, right now. That’s why the Lotus Sutra says, “Suffering are nirvana, only when one realizes that the entity of human life is neither created nor destroyed throughout its cycle of birth and death.”

The important part of that statement is not about transmigration in the cycle of birth and death, although it does point out the understanding that I mentioned above about one life flowing into another. Nothing is really born in the sense that we arise from a beginningless beginning, and nothing dies, because what we call death is merely a passive stage of existence. But that is speculation. For us, the crucial part is “sufferings are nirvana.”

We can’t put an end to suffering but we can put a stop to the power that suffering has to control our lives. This is what I mean by transcending them. We have to be stronger than suffering. Say you are diagnosed with cancer. That can be devastating. Cancer is serious suffering. So the question is whether or not you let the suffering of cancer destroy your spirit. It may destroy you in the end, but if your spirit stays strong, then as long as you are breathing, there is still life to be lived and enjoyed.

In Buddhism, how we die is important. It is considered advantageous for one’s rebirth to die peacefully. That aspect aside, it just makes compassionate sense. No one should have their last moments tainted by anxiety, stress or fear.

A great book on this subject is Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (not to be confused with the famous “TibetanBook of the Dead”). In one section, Sogyal Rinpoche offers some inspiring words about facing death. First, he quotes the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”:

O son/daughter . . . what is called ‘death’ has now arrived, so adopt this attitude: ‘I have arrived at the time of death, so now, by means of this death, I will adopt only the attitude of the enlightened state of mind, loving-kindness and compassion, and attain perfect enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings who are as limitless as space . . .”

Sogyal Rinpoche then relates how one of his students came to him and said that one of her friends was in pain, dying from leukemia and he kept asking her “What can I do with all this useless, horrible suffering?”

I told her to tell him: ‘I know how much pain you’re in. Imagine now all the others in the world who are in pain like yours, or even greater. Fill your heart with compassion for them. And pray to whomever you believe in and ask that your suffering should help alleviate theirs. Again and again dedicate your pain to the alleviation of their pain. And you will quickly discover in yourself a new source of strength, a compassion you’ll hardly be able to imagine, and a certainty, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that your suffering is not only not being wasted, but has now a marvelous meaning.”

I think this is the sort of attitude to have in any situation in which suffering arises. No one wants suffering but it’s unavoidable. We know that positive thoughts cause positive changes in the brain, so having positive thoughts toward others can only benefit us in both mind and body.

If we can summon up this sort of attitude in life then no suffering is meaningless and, in fact, suffering is our helper, for without it we could not have empathy with the suffering of others.

And, of course, when you are thinking of others, your own sufferings don’t seem as large or even that important. Sufferings are defeated when you no longer have enough room in your mind or time on your hands to dwell on them.

I wrote in the last post of how the Buddha thought compassion has a redemptive, liberating quality. There is no end to suffering, but there is liberation.

Like everyone, I experience brief periods of depression from time to time, but I don’t think I have ever felt as blue as I have this past week. Not in a long while anyway. It’s not just the death of my cat. I’ve dealt with the death of loved ones before. I’ve counseled people who have suffered the loss of loved ones. Tara’s death has served as the catalyst for bringing up a multitude of  . . . stuff. Feelings about my life, where it’s going, where it’s been, etcetera  and etcetera.

I haven’t been able to focus on much of anything. Haven’t felt like focusing. At the same time, I haven’t felt like engaging in self-pity, feeling sorry for myself. Let’s just say, I’ve had better weeks.

Somewhat perversely, there may be nothing more effective for taking you out of the depths of your own suffering as witnessing the sufferings of others.

I’ve been watching the Casey Anthony trial off and on. Today I thought I would tune in for a moment or two to see what was happening and there was George Anthony testifying yet again. I have a lot of empathy for George and Cindy Anthony. To lose your only grandchild like that and then to have your own daughter accused and possibility guilty of murdering her – their pain must be excruciating.

Today, George Anthony testified that he was so grief-stricken over the loss of his granddaughter Caylee that he wanted to kill himself. In a statement that mirrors my own feelings about Tara, my cat, he said, “I believe I failed her.”

From the outside, George Anthony looks like a tough guy. A hardened ex-cop. But earlier in the day, he broke down while on the stand. As he wept, the judge asked if he need to take a break and he replied no, that he wanted to continue. He said, “I need to have something inside me to get through this.”

My first thought was “You already have something inside.” Yet, as soon as the thought appeared, it seemed insufficient. We hear it all the time: the answer is inside you. The truth is within. How many times I have written something similar to that just this month. After a while, it begins to sound trite I suppose . . . and insufficient.

For some reason I thought of This Light in Oneself by Jiddu Krishnamurti. I got it off the bookshelf and turned to the section from which the book gets its title:

Most of us, if we are at all aware of our inward confusion [want clarity]. Let us see if we can come upon this clarity, so that your mind and your heart are very clear, undisturbed, with no problems and no fear. It would be immensely worthwhile to see if one could be a light to oneself.”

I wondered, how is it possible to see a inner light when everything inside you is ablaze with the flames of incessant suffering?

To do that requires meditation . . . We are going to see for ourselves if we can come upon the state of mind that is always in meditation. To lay the foundation for that meditation one must understand what living is, living and dying. The understanding of life and the extraordinary meaning of death is meditation. It is not searching out some deep mystical experience, not a constant repetition of a series of words . . . That only makes the mind quiet, but it also makes it rather dull, stupid, mesmerized. You might just a well take a tranquilizer . . .

But Jiddu, I’d like to take a tranquilizer. I wish I could get my hands on some. I’d like to tranquilize myself for about a month.

We all want to accept someone who promises something, because we have no light in ourselves. But nobody can give you the light: no guru, no teacher, no savior, no one.

So, I guess pills are not the answer either.

He tells us not to accept authority, to follow no one, that there is no path. I’m not sure if I am familiar with Krishnamurti enough to know if he means this is same way that the Heart Sutra does, or if he is speaking literally. Either way, it still feels insufficient.

But It will always be insufficient, because the truth of this light in oneself is a lonely truth. In the end, we are left to our devices. Meditation is but a tool, not a tranquilizer that makes everything wonderful after we take it. Only we ourselves can make meditation work for us. It would much easier if there really was a God to absolve all our sins or a celestial Buddha in a Pure Land whose name we could chant with the confidence that after we die, we’ll be in paradise.

Yet, the fact is that it is by oneself that we must do the work of grinding through the hard karma and the jagged emotions that belong to us alone. This lonely truth doesn’t condemn us to loneliness, however.

We stand-alone but we are not solitary. We’re not talking about cutting ourselves off from others, living in a forest as a recluse or residing safely behind monastery walls. If we experience loneliness, it is only because we are forgetting how we are interconnected with everyone and everything around us.

We are standing in the real world where real suffering takes place and it’s much harder to cross over suffering here. We can’t hide. No one can take away our sufferings. No one can give us the light. But I think that when we get that light to shine in this place, it shines brighter because it reflects all the lights shining within others.

Elsewhere in the book, Krishnamurti says,

We are going together to investigate what it means to be a light to oneself, and see how extraordinarily important it is to have this light.”

We are going together . . .

A  week or so ago, in paraphrasing Prof. Trevor Ling, I wrote that the Four Noble Truths were not offered as religious beliefs, but rather as the Buddha’s analysis of the human situation. But that doesn’t mean that they are theories either. Technically, they are satya (“Arya-satya-pariksa”), a Sanskrit word defined in the Soothill Buddhist dictionary as “true, genuine, a proved or accepted truth.”

So here “truth” means something that conforms with the judging of a fact. When what is judged to be is, then the judging is true. They are facts. You could just as easily call them the Four Noble Facts. The Buddha looked around and saw a whole lot of suffering going on. It was true then, as it is now. Suffering is.

Now, the Buddha was not interested in merely proclaiming philosophical truths. He was also concerned with offering a method to solve human problems, a prescription to cure the dis-ease of dukkha (suffering). This is why, when the Buddha taught the Four Noble Facts, it is described as the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma. It unites the Buddha’s analysis, his statements of fact, with action. And that is really what the Eightfold Path of the Four Noble Facts is all about, the laying out of actions that can taken to reduce suffering.

We might say that the Buddha had a “scientific” approach because he arrived at this judging of fact through a process of investigation and critical analysis. Starting with the premise that the world is permeated by suffering, the Buddha wanted to find out if it was possible to transcend suffering. He did this by tracing the origins of suffering. The Four Noble Facts has its procedure: The first stage is to recognize that suffering has a cause. The second stage is to determine where suffering comes from, where the principle source of suffering lies. The third stage is to investigate whether or not it is possible to end or transcend suffering, while the fourth stage is to search for the way, or path, by which one can obtain liberation from suffering.

I believe the Buddha also wanted to free people’s minds from the prejudices of dogmatic tenets, so I don’t feel it is necessary to get hung up on having just one specific cause for dukkha, because even suffering does not exist from its own side. So it doesn’t matter if tanha (thirst, craving) is the primary cause or something else, or if there is just one cause or many. Once we have identified the fact that suffering has causes, we can then proceed to change the conditions by dealing with the vehicle for suffering, which in most cases is our very own mind.

Dogen-zenji said, “Teaching which does not sound as if it is forcing something on you is not true teaching.” The teaching itself is true, and in itself does not force anything upon us, but because of our human tendency we receive the teaching as if something was being forced on us. But whether we feel good or bad about it, this truth exists. If nothing exists, this truth does not exist. Buddhism exists because of each particular existence.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

In Root Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna says, “Samsara has nothing that distinguishes itself from Nirvana; Nirvana has nothing that distinguishes itself from Samsara. The limit of Nirvana is the limit of Samsara, there is not the slightest difference between the two.”

Samsara, as we know, is our mundane world of suffering, the world of birth and death. When Nagarjuna, talked about “samsara is nirvana,” he was referring primarily to the non-dual nature of samsara and nirvana.

Dogen put it this way in Shoji (On Life and Death): “Living and dying is what nirvana is.” In Bendowa (On Practicing the Way of Buddhas), he says, “You must realize that birth and death is in and of itself nirvana. Buddhism has never spoken of nirvana apart from birth and death.”

This is not just Dogen speaking figuratively, it is, to some extent, a literal fact, for the Buddha never taught that nirvana was outside of this world, or this life.

The word “nirvana” literally means “to blow out” or “to extinguish” and originally referred to the extinguishing of passion, desire, the blowing out of the flames that cause suffering.

In early Buddhism, nibbana [the Pali transliteration of nirvana] was seen, according to Nyanatiloka, as “The full ceasing of the groups of existence . . . ‘Nibbana without the groups remaining’, in other words, the coming to rest, or rather the ‘no-more-continuing’ of this physico-mental process of existence. This takes place at the death of the Arahat.” Nirvana/nibbana then was seen as the extinction of the human entity transmigrating through the cycle of birth and death.

But is that really what the Buddha had in mind? Professor Max Muller, quoted in Mind Unshaken by John Walters:

“If we look in the Dhammapada [one of the early collection of scriptures or sutras] at every passage where nibbana is mentioned, there is not one which would require that its meaning should be annihilation, while most, if not all, would become perfectly unintelligible if we assigned to the word nibbana that meaning.”

The idea of annihilation, of checking out of the cycle of birth and death, of nirvana as some other-worldly realm, or as pure nothingness, is definitely not what the Buddha was teaching. Most likely it was layered onto the Buddha’s teachings after his passing, possibly to bring Buddha-dharma more in line with the mainstream of Indian metaphysical thinking. However, Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book, The Buddha, writes,

The third noble truth concerns cessation (nirodha), and it is that the cessation of suffering is a consequence of the cessation of craving. The word used in this connection – nirodha – is a synonym of nibbana (in Sanskrit, nirvana), the best known name for the goal which Buddhist teaching has in view. Nirvana is the cessation of all evil passion, and because evil passion is regarded in Buddhist thought as a find of fever, its cessation may be thought of as a ‘cooling’ after fever, a recovery of health. In fact, in the Buddha’s time the associated adjective nubbuta seems to have been an everyday term to describe one who is well again after an illness. It is evident from this that  the original Buddhist goal, nirvana, was the restoration of healthy conditions of life here and now, rather than in some remote and transcendent realm beyond this life.

When Dogen used the phrase shoji soku nehan, or “birth and death are themselves nirvana”, he, like Nagarjuna was saying that our sufferings and nirvana are the same. We can reach nirvana at any time. Sufferings are already nirvana, if we choose to look at it in that way.

When we talk about nirvana as being the other shore, about ferrying living beings across the sea of suffering to the other shore of nirvana, this is simile. We are already standing on the other shore, we can’t see where where we are because of the fog of delusion, pride, ego, attachment.

If you practice, the fog will lift.

It’s funny. When I began editing this post, the marine layer was in, the sky was nice and gray. Now the morning sun has burned off the fog, and the sky is nice and kind of blue. There is still some haze remaining, perhaps it will a day of hazy sunshine as we often have here in Southern California.

Nirvana is like that, too. The dharma sun will burn off the fog and the haze remains because we will never be free of suffering. That’s okay. That’s the way life is, and should be. Buddhism does not really offer the promise of a peaceful life, rather the potential for a peaceful mind.

However, it is not as simple as merely saying, “Okay, from now on I’ll see that sufferings are nirvana.” It is not a purely intellectual thing but rather a sort of intuitive understanding that comes from the depths of one’s entire being. We practice in order to be able to get this message.

When we cool off the passions, when we recover from our fever and become healthy, whole – when our mind is clear, then we see that sufferings are nirvana. Indeed, without suffering, there is no way that we could know joy or peace.

In the Kevaddha-Sutta, the Buddha is asked, “Where do earth, water, fire, and air come to an end?” And the Buddha replies, “The  answer is: In the invisible, infinite, all-radiant, consciousness (Vinnanam anidassanam).”  This term, Vinnanam anidassanam refers to consciousness in its undivided purity, no longer split into the duality of subject and object. This consciousness is said to be identical with nirvana.

We do not need to look any further beyond our own world, our own lives and our suffering to find nirvana, for it is always within our mind. As the Dalai Lama says,

Samsara-our conditioned existence in the perpetual cycle of habitual tendencies and nirvana – genuine freedom from such an existence- are nothing but different manifestations of a basic continuum. So this continuity of consciousness us always present.