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Dongshan Is Unwell - Practicing With Illness

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 29, 2011
Location: Headlands Institute
In topic: Koan Studies
Norman speaks on the Koan Dongshan Is Unwell Case 94 of the Book of Serenity and how we practice with illness. This recording is at lower than optimum volume due to technical difficulties.
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Dongshan Is Unwell - Practicing With Illness

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 29, 2011

Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum

Once upon a time, when Dongshan was ill, a monastic asked him, "You are ill, teacher, but is there anyone who doesn't get ill?"  Dongshan said, "There is."  The monastic said, "Does the one who doesn't get ill look after you?"  Dongshan said, "I look after him."  The monastic said, "How is it when you look after him?"  Dongshan said, "There I don't see that he has any illness."

So we all get sick from time to time.  Usually when that happens, the first thing that goes out the window is our practice, because our illness is very compelling and occupies all of our attention.  We forget all about all the noble things that we were trying to do - like spiritual practice.  Our whole mind is occupied with the illness.  We become crabby and fearful.

Or, if we have a big, complicated life, we try to say, "Forget about the illness.  I am just going to go on anyway."  So we try to ignore our illness and just soldier on, doing all the things that we are supposed to do.  "Get on with it.  I'll just override this illness."  Sometimes we can actually do this; but even if we can do it, there seems to be a dulling or dragging effect on our general mood and frame of mind.  Even if we could cover it up in public, when we go home at the end of the day, we are not happy.

So either way, whether the illness completely floors us or it doesn't, it takes over our lives, and we are just waiting for it to go away.  Or, perhaps, fearing that it won't go away.  Sometimes we know that it is not going to go away.  For some of us, when this happens, practice can seem like a dream or a luxury, and we don't practice.  But the story is telling us something else.  It is saying that there is a way to practice with our illness.  It is telling us that, actually, the best thing we can do for ourselves when we are ill is practice. 

I had a chance to study this question a few months ago when I had another episode - which I get every couple of years - of my usual back, leg, and sciatic nerve pain.  The worst part of it was when I was lying down.  This time it hurt the worst when I was lying down, which, of course, meant that I couldn't sleep at night.  So I would sleep for a little while, and then I would get up.  I think I went for four or five days without really sleeping at night, except for an hour here or there.  

While all of this was going on, I tried to practice, paying really close attention to the painful sensations that I was having.  I noticed that it could get worse and worse and worse, the more that I began to speculate about what was going on.  The more I began to think about it, define it, make determinations about it and resolutions about it, the more I thought, "This is terrible.  Maybe this time it won't go away.  I am going to have to change my life."  The more that I began to speculate and think about those things, the worse the pain got. 

Then there were emotions that went along with these various thoughts and speculations.  All of this also had a direct relationship to the feeling of pain.  It was making it worse.  I could actually see that.  I realized that it was a lot easier if I could just stay with the actual sensations of the pain, and let all the attendant thoughts and emotions about the pain come and go, without taking it too seriously.  I saw that if I could do that, even in the middle of the night, the pain was much better.  I could even be, from time to time, cheerful. 

So it was challenging.  It wasn't that easy.  But I realized that I did not have to make more out of it than it was.  There was absolutely no reason for me to get into a "woe is me" mentality.  Sure enough, just like every time so far, it went away, and then I forgot about it.  It happens to me every now and then, sometimes for no reason that I can tell.  But it is getting easier each time, less difficult.  Maybe the pain is less, too.  It's hard to tell.  But no doubt my way of dealing with the pain is getting better, and that gives me more confidence, so that the next time it happens, I freak out less than I did before. 

To be sure, not all illnesses have side benefits.  I remember years ago when our teacher, Maurine Stuart, got liver cancer, a disease that has virtually no positive benefit.  It was an incurable cancer.  It was going to take her life.  It was clear to everyone that she was going to die.  Liver cancer is also fairly quick.  You don't live that long.

The next time she came to visit us, she gave a dharma talk and shocked everybody by saying in her forthright, powerful way, "I'm not sick."  This really shocked everybody.  It is a very disturbing thing when the great Zen teacher has suddenly lost it and is descending into delusion.  Very disturbing to everybody.  Since she was a great Zen teacher and carried herself with such power and grace, it was not so easy to tell her, "Gee, you know, I think that there is something wrong here."  Everybody was talking about it.  Nobody said anything to her, but after a while, somebody did screw up their courage and asked her, very respectfully, "Maurine, what do you actually mean when you say you are not sick?"  She said something like, "Well, I know that I have cancer, and I know that there is no cure for this cancer, and I know that it will kill me within a year, but I'm not sick.  This is just what is happening.  I am okay with it."

So she could understand and accept the objective fact of her body's process, but she also realized that she did not need to add on top of this a host of thoughts and afflictive emotions that go with those thoughts.  She did not need to give herself a new story of her life that was all about how she was tragically ill, how she was dying.  When she thought about it, it was obvious that her situation had not changed at all with this illness.  She was always going to die.  There was always a limited amount of time left in her life.  There was always going to be an illness coming - or something else coming to take away her life.  In other words, there wasn't a day of her life previous to this in which she had not been a vulnerable human being with a limited lifespan.  But she also had always been - exactly because of that fact - a Buddha, whose life is without end. 

So, yes, she knew she had cancer.  She was aware that in conventional terms she was sick; but when she gave her dharma talk, she was not speaking in conventional terms.  In reality, she was living her life day by day as she always had.  Later on, when she was hospitalized and did die, she accepted that with the same grace and power and courage that she always had. 

The story of Maurine is very similar, in a way, to the story of Dongshan's illness.  Dongshan is ill.  He is in bed, and his body cannot perform as it usually does.  But also, Dongshan is not ill.  There is someone who is not ill.  Dongshan is in touch with this person. 

So the monastic asks a great question: "Does this person who is not ill, this person that you are in touch with, take care of you?"  In other words, does your good, free, strong Zen mind protect you from your illness?  You would think so.  You would hope so, right?  So Dongshan's answer is actually a little surprising.  "No!  He doesn't take care of me.  I take care of him."

Our strong Zen mind doesn't help us to transcend our illness.  It is the other way around.  Our human vulnerability humanizes and deepens our Zen mind.  When the time comes for us to fully give way to the illness, we do that.  That is our practice.  When Suzuki Roshi had cancer, toward the end, he said, "Now I am cancer."  Cancer was his practice.  It was Maurine's practice.  It became Darleen Cohen's practice.  In all these cases, the one who was ill takes care of the one who isn't ill.  That is how there comes to be a practice of illness.  People can grow tremendously, and give us great gifts, when they practice their illness.

"And then what?" [asked the monastic.]  Dongshan says, "Then I see there is no illness."

Through the practice of illness, we go beyond illness, and it can be okay to be ill.   We can even be joyous from time to time.  But first we actually have to be willing to be ill.  We can't get around it. 

In order to practice when you are ill, probably it is good if you have practiced a long time before that.  Some people do start practicing when they are ill, because they are ill.  Nothing like a life-threatening illness or some serious illness to give you motivation for practice!  It is a very good motivator.  It focuses your life.  Practice can make your illness into a path, rather than a tragedy.  You have seen this many times.  But I think it is much easier if you have practiced a long time before you get ill.   If you can be like Suzuki Roshi or Maurine or Darlene, your daily practice of many years can be a resource for you in your time of need. 

Later on in his life, Dongshan was ready to die.  Maybe some of you know the famous story of Dongshan's death.  He shaved his head; he got all dressed up in his finest robes; he rang the bell and assembled the community, sat down in the zendo, and died.  A dramatic thing.  Everybody cried and wept, "Oh my God, our great teacher dying!"  Dongshan got so disgusted by this that he woke up from being dead. [Laughter] Maybe he wasn't dead. Maybe he was only unconscious.  Either a resurrection story, or he wasn't really dead.  Anyway, he woke up from being dead, and then he called for a feast.  He called it "A Feast for the Stupid."  He put on a big feast, and he himself attended the feast. Then he lived for another week, hanging around with his disciples.  Then he died for good.  In that week, maybe, he got them used to the idea. 

Once when Daowu returned from attending the sick, Guishan asked him, "How many people were sick?"  Daowu said, "There were the sick and the not-sick."  Guishan said, "Aren't you the one not sick?"  Daowu said, "Being sick and not being sick have nothing to do with him at all." 

So this "him" that Daowu refers to is the same person that Dongshan refers to as "The one who is not sick." 

This is the person who is so intimate with us that she is us.  In other words, she is closer to us than we could ever be with ourselves.  At the same time, she is not us.  It is the person who completely depends on us, and on whom we completely depend.  It is the person that we reach out to in our need, but also the person that we are quite frightened of, because when we get close to this person, we touch our own radical vulnerability and the folly of all of our human constructions, including our identity.  So maybe we aren't that interested in getting too acquainted, because it is a little unsettling.  Whether we know it or not, this is the person we are coming out to meet when we sit down on our cushions. 

Zazen is great this way, because, although zazen can sometimes be daunting and difficult, it gives us a pretty safe and supportive way to meet this person.  Little by little, we get used to our encounters with this person.  Otherwise, without that ongoing place of meeting that is our zazen cushion, it might be too scary.  If we met this person only once in our lives, in the last moment of our lives, it might be a little much for us.  It would be a lot better if we had some preparation for the encounter. 

In the story, Daowu isn't sick.  He's out visiting the sick, as a good priest should.  It might appear, as Guishan suggests, that Daowu is "the one not sick," and he is attending to the ones who are sick; but Daowu knows better than this.  This person is beyond the one who is sick and the one who is not sick.  That is, this person includes both and transcends both.   Being well acquainted with this person, Daowu doesn't accept the concept that he, Daowu, is not sick, and the people he is visiting are sick.  He knows that being sick and not being sick are temporary, expedient designations. 

I always talk about these stories when I am hanging around with my hospice worker friends - doctors and nurses and chaplains and volunteers - that we train in the Metta Institute.  I tell them that it is short-sighted to think that they are well and living, and that the patient in the bed is sick and dying.  Furthermore, this is not helpful to the patient.  It is also not helpful to the caregiver.  If the caregiver thinks that he or she is in a different situation than the patient is in, and - as a consequence of the great difference - feels pity and sorrow for the poor patient, the caregiver won't be much help.  Like children, patients with serious illnesses see completely through all your baloney, right straight to your heart.  They feel the pity, and they feel this sense of separation that comes from someone looking at you and basically thinking, "Thank God you're not me, and I'm not you."  They feel that sense of separation.  This makes them feel terribly, terribly alone. 

This is often the worst part of serious illness.  Worse than the illness, worse than the fear, is this deep sense of total abandonment.  Nobody knows what you are going through.  Nobody is willing to go there with you.  All their comforting words, all their pretty efforts to help, are all ways of creating distance from the fear that they have.  So you feel really alone. 

It is only when we accept that we are all in this together, that the one who is sick and the one who is not sick are really and have always been together, then we can help.  When we accept that we are both of these people, and we are willing to go there with the person, then we can help.  Although you might be in bed now, and I'm not in bed, very quickly I will be in bed, and someone else will not be in bed, ministering to me. 

This is what we do for each other.  This is what we have always done for each other, through the generations.  We are sick and well together.  This is our human life.  Your illness is an offering to me.   My illness is an offering to you.  Sometimes it is hard for us to give and receive these gifts.  We think, "Oh, I'm fine.  I don't want to be a burden to anybody.  It's fine."  I am kind of like that, you know.  "I'm fine.  I don't need anything."  I guess it is good to feel like that, in a way.  But also, we need to understand that our illness is an offering to others. 

When we receive the gift of taking care of someone, or when we give the gift of allowing someone to take care of us, we are also taking care of ourselves.  Everyone gets taken care of, because we are being together in loving-kindness, in the midst of this intense and poignant situation that we have always been together in.  From that place, we can be together and help each other out in whatever way is possible.  I am sure that Daowu, knowing this as well as he knew this, was a really good caregiver.  I am sure that when he came to visit people, they were really glad to see him, because he could be there.  They weren't alone when they were with Daowu.