by Maureen Jisho Ford
originally publishing in Mountain Record journal: Wellness (1990)
It was in the fall of 1985 that I first came to Zen Mountain Monastery. What had brought me here was the same search that, 25 years earlier, had taken me to the Novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy. The decision to be a nun had been made in early childhood, and, in retrospect, I realize that it arose from a desire to experience God. As a child I had been fascinated by the stories of the saints and mystics, and although many of the stories had an almost fairy tale quality, I nevertheless sensed that, at their core, they contained an account of something I wanted for myself, namely, union with God, the mystical experience. What better place to find God, I reasoned, than in a convent.
The incredible upheaval within the Church brought on by Vatican Council II raised many issues for me on an intellectual level, but they had nothing to do with my decision to leave the convent after nine years. It’s difficult to capture on paper the sense of spiritual desolation that finally led me to take what had always been an unthinkable step. My entire life had been a search for God, and yet I was overwhelmed with the sense that the search was utterly hopeless. I vacillated between questioning the existence of God on the one hand and doubting my ability to ever achieve union with Him on the other. It wasn’t until many years later, when I read a book by William Johnston, S.J., called The Still Point, that I was able to gain a deeper insight into this painful experience. In his book, Father Johnston discusses the experience of both Zen and Christian mystics. He refers to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (in which I had been trained) as being the prayer of a beginner, and he stresses how absolutely important it is to go beyond this level of discursive prayer if one is not to give up the spiritual search. I realized that, in all my nine years, I had never gone beyond the prayer of the beginner.
It was the desire to go deeper that finally led me to look to the East for answers. Eventually the search brought me to this Monastery. After meeting with Daido Roshi, I was determined to become his student. I recognized immediately the depths of his spirituality. I was overjoyed to have found an authentic teacher.
Shortly after I became a student, Daidoshi assigned me the koan Mu. After several months of frantic practice, I presented my understanding of Mu in the dokusan room. Daidoshi began to test my understanding; my response to each of his questions was immediate until he came to the last one. I was speechless, incapable of any response. He reassured me. “Come to the next sesshin,” he said. “There’s a very good chance you will break through.”
Heaven and earth could not contain my pride. It was very obvious to me that I was one of the most exceptional students that Daidoshi had ever had. I came to sesshin. Nothing would stop me, I vowed. I would bring Daidoshi Mu, and I would do it in record time. I had joined the Great Race for Enlightenment. Every student had suddenly become my competitor.
Needless to say, sesshin came and went without my breaking through. My practice became that last question. Arrogance and pride were replaced with pain and anguish. I had swallowed the red hot iron ball of Mu, and I could neither bring it up nor pass it out. It consumed me, and it gave me no peace. As I struggled with Mu, I learned that my father was dying of cancer. His illness brought up many painful issues for me. I had long ago abandoned belief in the idea of heaven. What would happen to him? Where would he go? I asked Daidoshi but there was no comfort in his response. My father lingered for a few short months, and then, surrounded by his family, he died as my sister and I held him. Why? Why do we have to die? Why does it have to be so painful? I wept for my father and for myself. Six weeks later I was told I had cancer. And then the news got worse.
My cancer had been discovered too late. I underwent surgery and the tumor was removed from my colon, but not before it had spread to both my lungs. I was numb. “I hardly ever recommend chemotherapy to colon cancer patients,” the oncologist said. “Why is that?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “the drugs we have available hardly ever work. They’re just not very effective against this type of cancer.” He recommended surgery. The lung surgeon said he couldn’t operate because I’d just keep growing more tumors. He recommended chemotherapy! I cried. My heart ached for the daughter I would leave behind. She was only eight years old.
I called Daidoshi. I told him I was going to live a deeper, more spiritual life or I was going to die well. (I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic.) He came to the hospital. When he walked into my room, I held up one finger and told him I was certain now that I could bring him Mu. He just smiled and suggested that I wait for dokusan. I was disappointed. After all I’d been through, I was certain that I must have achieved some deep spiritual insight. Needless to say, I was completely deluded.
Tentatively, I reached for his hand. I was frightened. We spoke for a while, and then he told me he was going to work with me as I healed myself. Daidoshi’s visit filled me with hope. I began to see that if I accepted the doctors’ prognosis I was in effect signing my own death certificate. I resolved to fight for my life, not just for my own sake but for the sake of the people who loved me. It hurt to see the pain in their eyes—my daughter Kathleen, so vulnerable; my partner Natalie, so dear; my mother and my sister, still grieving for my father. Always, in the past, suffering had been a catalyst for spiritual growth. What would it be now? I realized that the choice was mine.
I went down to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. The story was the same one I’d heard upstate. There was, however, an experimental treatment program available. I volunteered. Then, before the treatments began, a strange thing occurred. One of the growths in my lung disappeared, and the level of cancer activity in my body (measured by a blood test) decreased on its own. The doctors were dumbfounded. I was overjoyed! They were convinced there was a mistake on the original CT scan. I was positive it was the visualization meditation I was doing. They were uncertain whether or not to go ahead with the treatments. I insisted.
An Infusaport was surgically implanted in my body, because the drugs were so powerful they would destroy the veins in my hands and arms. I was continuously infused (24 hours a day, for five consecutive days each month) with the traditional drug used for colon cancer. They administered this drug along with another drug, called platinol, which is so toxic that it would have killed me were I not given four or five other drugs to offset its side effects.
Words can never describe how devastating those treatments were. They made me sicker than the cancer ever did. The drugs affected not only my body, but my mind as well. At their very worst, they brought on severe anxiety attacks that found me pacing the floor at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, ranting semi-hysterically and flinging pillows at the walls. I was utterly terrified of going to sleep. As the drugs left my body the attacks would stop, my ability to focus my attention would return, and, gratefully, I was able to do zazen again. The process had to be repeated every month. Since the effects of the drugs were cumulative, I got sicker each month, and it took longer and longer for their effects to wear off.
The chemotherapy, administered locally at Benedictine Hospital in Kingston, was done under the direction of my doctor at Sloan-Kettering. This meant periodic trips down to NYC so my progress could be evaluated. I dreaded those trips. They brought me face to face with incredible suffering. The patients waiting to see a doctor on the fourth floor shared a large common waiting area that easily seated 75 people. Many of them were my age or younger. (I had always thought that mostly older people got cancer.) They came clutching large manila envelopes containing CT scans and lab reports. They were sent by other doctors, doctors who could no longer help them. They held the hand of their spouse, their friend, their child. They spoke softly. Some of them read, some of them paced, some of them cried. Many of them looked thin and sickly, some of them had lost their hair, some of them tried to hide their pain, all of them had eyes full of suffering. And I could not stand to look at any of them! I hid in my practice. I closed my eyes and did zazen. They were dying and I was not! I had to shut them out. I had to separate myself from them! As my treatment continued, that became more and more difficult to do. Gradually, I lost my hair. I began to look sickly and yellowish. I looked just like the people in the waiting room! I stopped looking at myself in the mirror. Soon there would be no place left for me to hide.
One afternoon at the end of zazen, I started the healing meditation, as I usually did. Since I had been told to end the meditation by visualizing my whole body as being well, I focused on a healing light emanating from my hara and spreading throughout my entire body. But on this particular day, it was as if I had no control over the meditation. The light kept expanding beyond my body, encompassing more and more beings. I saw addicts shooting up, destitute human beings living in squalor, drunks lying in alleyways, children crying out in hunger and pain. I saw the elderly, the lonely, the abandoned, the dying. I saw the horror of war and I saw unspeakable atrocities. I saw the anguish of the mentally ill and I saw into the hearts of the walking wounded, behind their masks. I saw loneliness, fear, and unbelievable suffering. I saw it all, and I felt it all. It was overwhelming. The sheer intensity of it caused me to tremble and to sob. It shook me to the very core of my being, and I recoiled from it in horror. I wanted no part of it! I wanted to run and get away from it all. I was afraid to sit afraid that all those feelings would come up again.
And they did. Over the next few days the experience repeated itself each time I sat. I was overwhelmed. I took it to my teacher. Daidoshi told me I was afraid because I was unwilling to take responsibility for it. I didn’t understand. What did he mean? How could I possibly take responsibility for the whole thing? If I was responsible for it, did that mean that somehow I had caused it all? I had come face to face with the First Noble Truth: life is suffering. My blinders had been ripped off. Everywhere I looked I saw unspeakable pain and suffering. It was as if I had developed some kind of x-ray vision. I could see behind the mask, behind the smile. Even before people began to speak to me, I could read it in their face and in their eyes. I took it to dokusan. Still barely able to believe it, I told Daidoshi “Ninety-nine percent of all the people in the world are suffering.” Daidoshi nodded that it was so. “It seems as though life is some kind of macabre joke. What kind of a God could allow such suffering?” He agreed that life could seem like a macabre joke. “It doesn’t seem to me that the human race is evolving at all. We’re still robbing, killing, raping, and looting. We’re still committing terrible atrocities.” Again he agreed with me. I was getting angry. I didn’t want him to agree with me; I wanted answers. “Why? Why is there suffering? How can I stop it?” He had no answers to give me.
I was certain that if I worded my question more precisely, he would give me the answer. The following week I went back. “Buddhism teaches that it’s possible to end suffering but I just don’t see how. Even if I had billions of dollars and could feed the hungry and build homes for the homeless, and if I could cure all illness and destroy all weapons, still,” I said, “there would be suffering. Isn’t that so?” He agreed with me. “So tell me how? How can I stop it? It seems so hopeless.” “It is,” he said. “It’s utterly hopeless.” My eyes opened wide in shock and disbelief. He rang the bell. I was furious. What’s the matter with him? What kind of teaching is that? It can’t be hopeless. Obviously he didn’t understand my question. I would explain it to him when I went back.
“In Dante’s Inferno, do you know what’s carved over the gates of hell?” I asked. Before he had a chance to respond, I told him, “It says ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’ How can it be hopeless,” I cried. “No hope is hell!” “We should carve those words over the gates of this Monastery,” he said. I was dumbfounded. “We should carve those words over this very moment,” he continued. Why was he doing this? Couldn’t he see I needed to know? I tried another approach. “Even if I realize myself and become enlightened, that still won’t stop the suffering.” He agreed, and added that a bodhisattva would, however, keep returning until all sentient beings were saved. “Great,” I responded, “so all I have to look forward to is endless lifetimes of suffering, trying to save all sentient beings. It was easier being a Catholic. They’ve got the right idea. You’re born, you suffer, you die, and then you get to go to heaven!” “You already tried that way,” Daidoshi reminded me. I shrugged that he was right. “Besides,” he said, “there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever realize yourself, no matter how long you sit.” “Great,” I said. “It just keeps getting worse. First you tell me it’s hopeless, now you tell me there are no guarantees.” I wasn’t ready to give up yet. “Buddhism teaches there’s a way out,” I protested, “There has to be a way to end it!” “It’s utterly hopeless,” he said. “Then Buddhism is full of shit and so are you!” I shot back, “You’re all fools, and I’m the biggest fool of all because I’m sitting here listening to you!” He rang the bell, and I left in more pain than when I went in.
My pain drove me. Between treatments I sat for longer and longer periods. It seemed as if my life consisted of treatments, zazen, and visits to the doctor. On one of those visits, I encountered a man outside the doctor’s office. It was a warm sunny day, and he was sitting in a wheel chair. His shirt was partly unbuttoned, revealing a still raw scar from a very recent operation. He was hunched over in the chair, weighed down with a heavy burden. He lifted his head as I approached, and I looked into eyes that knew suffering intimately. He never said a word, but he touched me as no other stranger ever had. In the course of my lifetime, I’d encountered the suffering stranger, the suffering friend many times. Always my reaction had been the same, “Thank God it’s not me.” I’d offer money, a quick solution, a trite phrase of comfort or wisdom, and then make a quick getaway. I was ill at ease and self-conscious in the presence of pain. What could I possibly do? If I couldn’t make it better, I wanted no part of it. This time, with the man in the wheel chair, it had been different. For the very first time I responded honestly to someone in pain, instead of turning away.
My treatments continued. The CT scan showed that the growths in my lungs were shrinking. As the treatments progressed, I lost feeling in my hands, feet, arms, and legs. It was the warning signal the doctors has been waiting for: the platinol had caused toxic nerve damage. If they gave me any more, it would kill me. I was overjoyed! After seven months, the treatments would finally come to an end. My joy was short-lived. After the last treatment, a CT scan had been taken. I called my doctor’s office for the results. “There’s still something in one of your lungs,” he told me. My stomach tightened. “And we see something suspicious in the left breast, the liver, and one of the ovaries.” My knees began to tremble. I sat down. “What do you mean, ‘suspicious’?” I asked. He sounded almost as upset as I was. “The breast and the ovary could very well be cysts, but the liver…,” he paused. “Is surgery on the liver a possibility?” I wanted to know. He wasn’t certain what to do about the liver, but he felt that the problem in the lung had to be addressed first.
I called the lung surgeon who had initially refused to operate. “Your CT scan shows no improvement compared to the one I saw seven months ago.” “How can that be?” I cried. “I don’t agree with the findings in the report,” he said. “I still see the same tumors in your lungs.” “Can’t you operate?” I asked. “How much of your lungs can I remove?” he replied. “You’ll just keep growing more tumors.” He estimated how much longer I had to live, told me he was sorry, and wished me good luck. I couldn’t stop shaking. I called Daidoshi. “Come to sesshin,” he said.
Sesshin had begun the night before. Natalie drove me to the Monastery. We arrived shortly after the 10 am sitting had begun. Both of us stood outside the zendo door. I was too frightened to go in and too scared to go home. We hugged. It was an embrace full of pain, impossible to know where hers ended and mine began. Gently she disentangled herself and guided me toward the zendo door. I took a deep breath and went in. Daidoshi saw me almost immediately in dokusan. He was reassuring and supportive, but he couldn’t take away my pain. It was mine. I had created it, and only I could take it away.
That simple truth was something I had yet to realize for myself. And so I used my mind to create more pain. As I sat, frightening thoughts kept arising, and instead of letting them go, I chased after them. The thoughts in turn gave rise to strong emotions of fear, hopelessness, and despair. I greeted these emotions with revulsion and struggled to get rid of them. I played and replayed my conversation with each doctor, frantically looking for some loophole, some way out. By the end of the day I was in a state of absolutely frenzy. I asked to see Daidoshi again in dokusan.
“I don’t know what kind of a game you’re playing,” he roared “but I’m having no part in it!” I was so stunned that I have no clear recollection of my response. I was out of control. “What did the doctors say?” he demanded. He was almost as angry with them as he was with me. “And how do you feel?” he asked, making no effort to conceal his rage. “Okay,” I whined, “except for the pain in my breast.” He shot me a withering look. “When did the pain start?” “When the doctor told me there was something in my breast,” I responded. “Go home!” he shouted. “Go home and crawl under your bed and wait to die.” “No!” I shot back, “No! I won’t do that!” “Bring me Mu!” he roared. “I can’t! I can’t do it!” I cried. But he was far too compassionate to let me go. He filled the room with the sound of Mu. We did it together, again and again. And then the bell rang. I left in utter despair. I was at the very edge of my practice, the very edge of my life, and still I could not break through. The end of sesshin found me still struggling with my pain and fear. It was undoubtedly the most pain filled sesshin I had ever sat.
When I got home I called Sloan-Kettering and spoke with Dr. McClure. I told her what the lung surgeon in Kingston had said. She was outraged that he’d sent me home to die without referring me to someone with more experience. She had seen my CT scan and agreed to operate.
I was scheduled for surgery at 8:00 A.M. the following morning. Natalie was there before seven. She helped me climb onto the gurney that would take me to the operating room. She held my hand as they wheeled me down the corridor and onto the elevator. She held my hand until we came to the large double doors that led to the pre-op area and then we said goodby. I was wheeled through yet another set of double doors. As the doors swung open, I saw fourteen or fifteen cancer patients, like me, waiting for surgery. Tears welled up in my eyes and ran down my cheeks. I could actually feel the pain in that room. A nurse came in and started an IV in my arm. We talked. I wished she could have stayed longer. I was cold. Someone covered me with a blanket. And then I was wheeled to the operating room. It was a long ride down a winding corridor. I directed my attention to my hara. The operating room was filled with people. I slid onto the table. It was narrow and high. My eyes searched for a familiar face and found Dr. McClure. She came over to the table. A surgical mask covered most of her face, but I could see the smile in her eyes. She held my hand and spoke gently and reassuringly. It was the last thing I remember.
When I awoke in the recovery room, she was the first person I saw. I struggled to focus my attention, to take in what she was saying. She was smiling. “We took it out,” she said. “It was a cancerous growth but it was small.” “Is that good?” I asked. I was confused. “Does that mean I’m going to be okay?” She couldn’t give me what I wanted, because what I wanted was a guarantee.
The day after surgery, Dr. Kalema, the oncologist, came to see me. She pronounced the chemotherapy and the surgery a success. “They found scar tissue in both your lungs,” she announced. I looked puzzled. She explained that the scar tissue was formed when the chemotherapy destroyed the cancer. “What about my liver?” I wanted to know. “We don’t know what’s on the CT scan, but we’re pretty sure it’s not cancer.’ That’s good enough for me, I thought. “What about…?” Dr. Kalema finished the question for me. “ …the breast and the ovary? Very likely they’re both cysts.” She smiled. “So, does that mean I’m cured?” I asked hopefully. She couldn’t give me a guarantee either. What she could give me was more chemotherapy. I groaned. Since I could no longer tolerate the platinol, I would be getting just the traditional drug used for colon cancer. “It’s much easier to tolerate,” she promised me. We’ll see, I thought.
I returned home, weak but hopeful that the worst was behind me and still struggling with Mu. Maybe, I thought, if I had remembered to breathe out Mu as I went under the anesthesia, I would have seen it when I came to. I played the maybe game a lot. Maybe if I weren’t taking so many drugs I’d break through. Maybe if I tried harder. And, finally, the most devastating thought of all: Maybe, I just don’t have what it takes. Hadn’t Daidoshi said there were no guarantees? He was trying to let me down gently. All the effort in the world couldn’t turn an ordinary athlete into one of world-class stature. It was the same, I decided, with spiritual practice. Clearly, I was lacking in spiritual ability. I had been driven by the cancer to the very edge of the cliff, and still I hung on, too terrified to make the leap. The cancer had been an incredible opportunity, and I had blown it. I had to face the truth, painful as it was, that I was a mediocre student.
Daidoshi seemed to confirm my worst fears after yet another futile attempt to bring him Mu. “You’re turning into a total neurotic. I want you to stop working on Mu.” I wanted to hug him. It felt as if a huge burden had been taken from me. “I want you to do shikantaza instead,” he said. I was devastated. Shikantaza is for wimps, I thought. All the serious students did koan study. Daidoshi had done koan study. All the monks and senior students did it. Shikantaza was for students who couldn’t make the grade! He must have seen the resistance on my face, because he softened the blow by telling me it would just be for a little while. I agreed. I was delighted to be free of Mu but crushed that Daidoshi seemed to be confirming my mediocrity. Truly there was no way out. To give up practice was unthinkable, to live with my failure was painful. I decided not to tell anyone that I’d flunked Mu.
Over the course of the next few months, Daidoshi began gently to prod me to examine why I’d created the cancer. He did it with such great skill that he conveyed no sense of guilt or judgment. It was simply something I had to take responsibility for or I would just keep growing more tumors. It wasn’t a case of “I’m a bad person and my life is terrible,” but rather a challenge to grow and to go deeper. “How can my life be fuller and richer? What am I holding on to? Why am I creating obstacles?” I threw myself into my practice with new vigor. Shikantaza wasn’t so bad, I decided—just so long as nobody found out that I hadn’t passed Mu.
Interestingly, it was at this time that Daidoshi made it very clear to me that he had done absolutely nothing to heal me. It was very important, he said, for me to know I had done it myself. I would need all the confidence I could muster because shortly after that conversation, the whole thing came crashing down again with one phone call from my doctor. My latest CT scan showed another spot on my lung. The only way to tell whether it was cancer was to wait and take a scan in two months time. I was angry. I wanted it all to be over with. My last surgery had been just four months ago, and now I was certain I was already growing another tumor. I decided to try something different. I stopped taking the chemotherapy. It was not a difficult decision to make since not even my doctors seemed to have much faith in the drug I was taking.
I had heard stories about a Chinese Master who taught ancient Chinese healing practices. I decided to get in touch with him. Daidoshi encouraged me. He told me the man had lived at the Monastery when he first came to this country and that he was not a charlatan. His name was Master Shih but everyone called him T.K. He agreed to teach me the ancient practice of Chi Kung. Chi, he explained, means energy or life force. Through a series of slow graceful movements similar to Tai Chi, energy is focused in the body and guided to the various organs in need of healing. Chi Kung requires total concentration and is, in many respects, meditation in motion.
T.K. proved to be a demanding teacher. The Chi Kung would have to be done for two hours every day and not just any two hours would do. It had to be done every morning, outdoors, between the hours of 3 am and 5 am. “Why can’t it be done later?” I protested. “Cancer cells are most active early in the morning,” he explained. “You must do the Chi Kung before the cells become active.” I bargained. ‘’I’ll do more Chi Kung later in the day.” He was adamant. It was his way or no way. Very reluctantly, I agreed.
Although he was sixty years old, he moved with the grace and agility of a truly great ballet dancer. Awkwardly I tried to duplicate his movements. “No! No!” he would correct, “must relax! Must be peaceful, happy, and relaxed.” “How can I be relaxed,” I wanted to know, “when I’m probably growing another tumor in my lungs?” “Just do!” he would say sternly. It was drudgery, dragging myself out of bed every morning before 3 am. The early morning air was cold, and my bed was warm and comfortable. I fought T.K. every inch of the way. I badgered him with questions, the most frequent one being, “How much longer do I have to do this stuff?” “No questions,” he would reprimand, “just do! You all the time thinking! No thinking!” How, I wondered, did he know I was thinking? Finally, I pushed him to the limit of his patience. “Go to Western doctor,” he told me. “I cannot help you.” “No!” I begged him. I pleaded for one more chance. “No more questions. No more thinking,” I promised. He mulled it over, or so it seemed to me, before he finally relented and agreed to give me one last chance.
I was confused. Daidoshi was prodding me to go deeper and uncover the causes of the cancer, and T.K. was pushing me to be peaceful. “You’re both driving me crazy,” I told Daidoshi. “I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place. How am I supposed to be peaceful and happy when I’m knee deep in shit?” “T.K.’s telling you where you have to get to,” he responded, “and I’m telling you how to do it.” “But how,” I wanted to know, “how do I do it?” “You have to believe 100% in what you’re doing to heal yourself but you must also let go of the end result—whether you live or die.” “But that’s a contradiction!” I cried. “Do it!” he said, and rang the bell. I left dokusan convinced that Daidoshi and T.K. were both trying to drive me out of my mind.
It’s difficult to convey what happened over the next few months because nothing dramatic, immediate, or noticeable occurred. There were very small, barely perceptible, and subtle changes taking place. I stopped resisting T.K. and gave myself up wholeheartedly to the practice of Chi Kung. What had once been drudgery became delight. I did it joyfully. My days were filled with zazen and Chi Kung, work practice and rest practice. And along with all of that, there was the always present need to go deeper. Daidoshi and I spoke about Jukai, and we agreed that I would take the precepts. Taking the precepts was certainly a way to go deeper.
As a nun, I had taken part in some of the most dramatic and powerful liturgical services that Catholicism had to offer. Certainly there was nothing that could compare with the investiture ceremony when I became a novice and received the habit. And yet, for all its pageantry and power, for all its beauty and solemnity, it never touched me the way receiving the precepts did. I was totally unprepared for the depths of my emotional response. As Daidoshi placed the rakusu over my head, I began to cry, and I had absolutely no idea why I was crying. After we received the precepts, Daidoshi asked us three times if we would maintain them. Each time we were supposed to respond, “I will.” But “I will” couldn’t convey the intensity of my feelings or the depth of my commitment. I wanted to shout, “With every fiber of my being! With my whole body and mind! With all the strength that I possess!” I settled for three heartfelt “I wills.”
Now that I was no longer wrestling with Mu, I had a chance to deal with unresolved issues arising from the cancer. Was I a spiritual masochist? I wondered. Was it just a coincidence that the scar from the colon cancer was so near my hara? If I could neither pass Mu nor bring it up, did I think a surgeon’s scalpel could cut it out? Was it a bid for attention, a sort of “Over here, Daidoshi; notice me, see what a serious student I am”? Instinctively, I sensed that there was truth in all those statements but still I did not see it clearly. I needed to go deeper.
Sesshin was the perfect way to do that. At other times it was possible for me to distract myself, to keep my fears about the cancer under control, but in sesshin there was no place to hide. All the anxious, fear-filled thoughts would come up, and I would deal with them the way I usually did: I’d talk to myself about them. Halfway through this particular sesshin, however, I saw for the first time that there was another way to use my mind. This time, when a thought arose, bringing with it strong feelings of terror, I neither recoiled from it in horror nor engaged in dialogue about it. I simply watched it, and it fell away. And with it went my fear!
I raced into dokusan when my turn came. “Now I understand the lines in the Heart Sutra! No hindrance in the mind, therefore no fear. No suffering, no cause of suffering. I’m the cause of suffering. I create it by how I use my mind! I’m the hindrance!” Daidoshi nodded that it was so. “That’s how you live your whole life, isn’t it?” Again he nodded. I was wide-eyed with awe. “That’s how I want to live my life!” I exclaimed. He cautioned me that it took years of practice. “Don’t be disappointed if you can’t maintain it when you leave sesshin.” I left dokusan elated. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t maintain it; I had glimpsed the possibilities.
I began to notice that my sitting felt freer. There was absolutely no pressure. Truly there was nothing to do, nothing to bring Daidoshi in dokusan. I began to realize that it was possible to experience deep peace in the midst of uncertainty about the cancer. There was, however, just so much peace and tranquility that a confirmed psychological masochist could tolerate. It didn’t feel right; I was getting bored. I recalled what I’d said in open sozan after my first cancer surgery. I’d expected that sesshin to be filled with pain; instead it was absolutely still. In fact it was so still that I’d gone to Daidoshi convinced that I was doing something wrong. “Nothing’s happening,” I complained. He assured me that it was okay. Could he be right, I had wondered. I summed it up in open sozan: “Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to Italian opera, but I’d always thought if there wasn’t drama, tragedy, and pain, nothing was happening. Now I’m beginning to see that that ain’t necessarily so.”
Suddenly, the whole thing became clear to me. I needed the pain! Suffering gave meaning to my life. In the words of the popular song, “Suffering was the only thing that made me feel I was alive.” It was the way I had lived my whole life. It felt right, it felt familiar, and it was, I thought, the only way to grow spiritually. I watched in amazement as I used my mind almost frantically to create problems and pain to replace my peace.
Without the slightest bit of doubt, I presented my understanding to Daidoshi. It was the answer to the question of why I needed to create the cancer. When I finished, he asked, “Are you in therapy?” I nodded yes. He rang the bell, and it was over.
Two weeks later, I went for the CT scan that would determine what was going on in my lungs. The suspicious spot had grown very slightly. It was cancer. I decided I could deal with it. The consultations with the doctors began. They weren’t sure what to do. “What do you mean you don’t know what to do? What do you usually do with a patient like me?” I asked. “I’ve never had a patient like you,” the oncologist responded. “We hardly ever save someone like you,” she said. She presented my case to a board of doctors at Sloan-Kettering. Dr. McClure recommended surgery at the meeting. The other doctors agreed. I concurred. She would operate after Thanksgiving weekend, It would be my third operation in fifteen months.
I could see the worry and the fear in my mother’s eyes. “Everything will be okay,” I told her. I had a very deep sense of peace as I lay in my hospital bed. It didn’t matter what they found when they cut me open, I knew that I would be able to deal with it. Dr. McClure visited me the night before surgery. “No guarantees,” she said. I wondered if she knew Daidoshi. She spelled out the possibilities. “You could grow another tumor three months from now.” She paused long enough for me to take it in before she continued. “When we cut you open, there’s also the possibility of finding many small cancerous growths that are too numerous to remove.” I nodded that I understood. She volunteered that she didn’t expect that to be the case. “If you were going to blossom with it, I think you would have done it by now.” Before she left she told me she had a feeling everything would be okay. What a wonderful unscientific thing to say. I loved it!
The nurse offered me a sleeping pill. I turned it down. I watched TV for a while, did zazen, and went to sleep. Morning came quickly. Again Natalie was there. I repeated Dr. McClure’s words to her, hoping she would find comfort in them. Again I climbed onto the gurney for the long ride to pre-op, and as before, she walked with me and held my hand. I was alert and calm. This time I had not been given a tranquilizer before being wheeled out. Finally we came to the double doors, which once again barred Natalie from going any further. A squeezed hand, a hug, a kiss goodby, the doors swung open, and she was gone. I found myself in the same pre-op area I’d been in only seven months ago. There were only four or five patients there at first, but it began to fill up quickly. The woman who lay on the gurney next to me began to talk. She must have been sedated because her speech was somewhat slurred. I don’t remember her name; I don’t remember what she said; I only remember holding her hand. And then they came to wheel her into surgery. I was next. Why, I wondered, are operating rooms always so cold? Dr. McClure came over to the long narrow table I was lying on. Once again she held my hand. She smiled, we talked, we even laughed, and then everything went black.
Several days after surgery, my oncologist, Dr. Kalema walked into my room. She was delighted with the results of the surgery and wanted to know what I’d been doing. She was apparently willing to entertain the radical idea that something I had done could have influenced the outcome of my surgery. “What do you mean?” I wanted to know. “We can’t explain what we found in your lung,” she said. “What did you find?” I asked. She explained that they had indeed found and removed a small cancerous growth. But they also found very recently formed scar tissue that had not been there when they last operated. The consensus was that the scar tissue represented newly formed cancerous growths that my body had somehow healed by itself. She pointed out that since I had elected to stop the chemotherapy three months ago, the drugs could not be responsible. I proceeded to tell her about visualization meditation and Chinese healing practices. For the first time, she listened. When I finished, she said, “We don’t understand how Chinese medicine works, but we want you to keep doing whatever it is you’ve been doing.” I was delighted. It was a wonderful conversation, but it wasn’t the high point of my hospital stay. That would come the following morning.
The hospital was just starting to come alive. My room was still dark, but the shift had changed and the level of noise and activity on the corridor was slowly escalating. The day nurse came into my room and lowered the guard rail on the side of my bed. I was still hurting from the surgery, still taking pain medication in order to sleep. I was awake but just barely. “There’s something I want you to see,” she said. The only thing I wanted to see was my pillow. Before I had a chance to protest, she had me out of bed and standing on unsteady feet. Slowly she guided me to the window. We were on the fifteenth floor, overlooking the East River. Beyond the river lay Queens, still cloaked in darkness. There was the barest glimmer of light below the horizon. I stood, mesmerized by the incredible breathtaking spectacle that slowly unfolded before my eyes. My pain was gone. I lost all track of time. I never even heard the nurse leave my side. I watched in silent awe as the sun climbed over the horizon and set the heavens ablaze in a sea of scarlet and pink. I stood there until the sun had completed its breathtaking ascent. As I turned to go back to my bed, I brushed my hand lightly against my face. My cheeks were wet with my tears. I was crying, and I hadn’t even realized it. I began to sob. It was impossible to contain my gratitude, impossible even to say what I was grateful for or to whom I was grateful. It was simply gratitude, boundless gratitude that excluded nothing, not even the cancer.
Several nights later, I had an opportunity to express my gratitude. I shared my hospital room with a woman named Agnes. She was seventy years old and had undergone lung surgery about three weeks earlier. She was still hooked up to some kind of machine because her lungs had not sealed properly. Her doctors were trying to spare her the very painful procedure that would remedy the problem. After exhausting all other possibilities, however, it was decided that there was no other alternative. At ten o’clock on this particular night, the procedure was begun, and Agnes received a morphine injection to help her tolerate the pain.
Since it was my bedtime, I popped in my ear plugs, put on my sleep mask, and turned out my light. (Hospitals, I had learned, are not meant for sleeping so I had come well prepared.) The ear plugs didn’t shut out the sounds of Agnes’s moans. There is nothing I can do, I told myself, as I burrowed deeper into my pillow. After all, I reasoned, it’s not my responsibility. I just had major surgery. I need my rest.
It didn’t work. I got out of bed and rang for the nurse. No nurse came. I put on my robe and slippers and walked down to the nurses’ station. Couldn’t they do something? They already had; if the morphine wasn’t helping there wasn’t anything else they could give her. I went back to our room and liid the only thing I could think of: I lied. “Agnes,” I said, “it will take a while before the morphine works, so let’s see if we can do something in the meantime to help with the pain.” “Please,” she said. The doctors were hopeful that the drug that had been introduced into her lungs would seal the area that was leaking. Agnes had to change position every fifteen minutes, lying first on her back, then on her right side, her stomach, and her left side. She had to do this for two hours.
I pulled a chair up to her bed and began speaking in a very slow, soothing voice. “Watch your breath,” I told her. “On the in breath feel yourself breathing in strength and energy. Now let it go on the out breath. Let go of the pain. Feel it leaving your body. Feel your body relaxing. Breathe in strength, breathe out the pain.” I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but it seemed to be helping. Agnes began to respond. “My body feels wonderful. It feels so light.” Maybe the morphine had a delayed reaction? Could it be hypnosis? Was it a variation of the Lamaze technique? Whatever it was it didn’t matter. Agnes was mastering her pain. I sat and marveled at the strength of this seventy-year-old woman. She was succeeding at something I’d never been able to do. I recalled vividly my own dismal failure with Lamaze when my daughter was born. I’d spent most of my labor hollering my head off. Agnes was truly an amazing woman.
Finally midnight came. “You made it, Agnes, the two hours are up.” I squeezed her hand and kissed her on the forehead. As I turned to go back to my bed, she cried out that the pain was back. “Don’t leave me,” she said. “Agnes, you made the pain go away before; you can make it go away now.” “You’re right!” She smiled, and fell asleep before I did.
I left the hospital a week and a half before Christmas. It was for me an especially poignant holiday. I was all too aware of how very fragile and precious the gift of life was. More and more I was coming to realize that all I had was the moment and that in the moment I had absolute freedom to use my mind any way I chose. The possibilities were truly boundless. The only barriers or boundaries that existed were the ones I chose to create. Naively, I wondered if there were any more barriers, while one of the biggest ones had been staring me right in the face. It had to do with a very old and painful relationship that I had never laid to rest. I had begun having dreams which had to do with reconciliation, acceptance, and forgiveness. I decided it was time to contact that person, Chris.
I was ill prepared for the Pandora’s Box I had unlocked. I fell right back into the same old pattern of relating. I watched in horror as once again my neediness rose to the surface. Nothing had changed. How was it possible, I wondered, to have grown in so many other ways and still be so infantile when it came to this relationship? My answer to this question came from a very unexpected source. At the time I was still seeing Master Shih. (He no longer had me getting up at 3 A.M., but I was still doing Chi Kung.) He rarely asked me personal questions, but on this particular day he did. He wanted to know if I was in a relationship. I replied that I was. He looked me right in the eye and said, “Wanting is not good.” My jaw dropped open! How did he know? He just smiled and repeated himself and then added, “All energy must go to healing your body from the surgery and not to wanting.” “After my body is healed, is wanting O.K.?” I was shocked by my question. T.K. just shook his head. No wonder the relationship was still the same. I realized that I didn’t want it to change. I liked the ups and downs, the highs and lows. It was full of excitement, and I was hooked on it.
I needed to see it for what it was. It was an obstacle to spiritual growth. Only when I finally saw it in that light was I prepared to do anything about it. I sat with it and let the whole thing come up. Anger and hurt, denied for years, threatened to drown me. At first my anger was directed at Chris for treating me so shabbily, but then I realized that I had allowed it to happen. I was really angry at myself! Slowly the anger and hurt ran their course. I did nothing to hinder them. I simply let them be until they were gone. After they had passed, I went through a period of intense grieving. I mourned the relationship. I grieved for what it was as well as for what it could never be. Months later, I realized that the pain I’d created and carried for sixteen years was finally gone. The relationship was over.
Almost paradoxically, by letting go, I got back more than I could have imagined. The relationship that I am in now (and had been in for seven years) began to flourish and grow beyond my greatest expectations. Drama and tragedy made great opera, I decided, but I no longer had room for them in my life.
This story has no ending because I’m beginning to realize that there is no end to practice. Before I stop writing, however, I would like to go back to the beginning of this article. For me, the spiritual journey began as a search for God, and yet in reflecting on my experience with cancer, I realize that I never said a single prayer, never lit a candle, never made a novena, never asked the question, “Why me?” When I sat with it, I realized that to even ask the question, “Why me?” is to give rise to the pain that comes from separation. Somewhere on my journey I had let go of the idea of God, the idea that God was a person, that God was separate and distinct from myself. There is nothing I can point to that is not God and yet, if I so much as raise my hand to point, I have missed it.
At first I thought practice had to do with knowing the answer to the ultimate question. Now I am just beginning to see the necessity of truly not knowing, of “don’t know” mind. Daidoshi has told me that I need to be stupid. As hard as I can, I’m working on it!
Maureen Jisho Ford has been an MRO lay student since 1985 and continues to enjoy good health and well-being in her practice. She recently moved near the Monastery with Natalie, her wife, of 38 years.