By Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara given 12/99
What is it to heal, really? Behind the word ‘heal’ lurks the Old English and Anglo Saxon roots meaning ‘whole.’ We can see how to heal is to make whole, to bring something that is damaged and not intact back to a state of wholeness. For example, when we have the flu we hope to heal ourselves so we can come back to the way we were before we had the flu. But that model is inaccurate, because that time when we had the flu is completely that time when we had the flu and is as ‘whole’ as that time when we didn’t have the flu! Or as the time when later we won’t have the flu. So it’s a misperception to imagine that we need to be healed from the flu. What needs to be healed is our idea that we are not whole at this moment. Is there anything that is not whole? Right now in this moment, is there anything that is not this moment? Even dying is also being whole — wholly dying. And being dead is also the whole.
Dying is healing. Pain is healing. They’re not separate, dying and pain, from healing. And we can see that on the level of our bodies, and on the level of our emotions, on the level of our relationships, and in the world, in the communities we live in. If we’re able to realize that suffering and death and disability are also part of the whole, whether it applies to us personally, or the quality of our relationship, or the way that our community is, then we will not neglect or separate from these aspects. If we’re not able to realize this then we’re constantly trying to shunt these aspects out of our view, to destroy them.
In the last few days there have been two harsh examples of how pain and tragedy can lead people to reject parts of the whole. Here in Manhattan a woman was brutally hit with a brick in midtown as she walked on the street. For some reason all of the media talked of the perpetrator as a ‘homeless person.’ There was no evidence of this and it was later proven to be untrue. Yet the mentally unstable man found responsible was instantly labeled ‘homeless.’ A few days later there was the tragedy in Western Massachusetts where five firemen were killed in a fire, allegedly started by some ‘homeless’ people. In this case, the couple who apparently started the fire was involved with heavy drug use and was in fact without a permanent address. In both cases the media and public officials were quick to blame ‘the homeless.’ And the word homeless was repeated over and over in relation to these two tragedies. As we feel pain for those who were injured and killed, and for their loved ones, we can see how easy it is to fall into a blaming mind that wants to cut off that offending part of the whole, that which is ‘homeless.’ As is the case here in New York City, the emphasis is not on compassionate intervention, but on rejecting, the poor,’getting rid of them.’ In Texas, a simple method for getting rid of the undesirables is a very active capital punishment program. Shall we just exterminate that part of the whole that is sick? Cast out those sick elements of society? Or cast out our partner, our mate, our boss or co-worker? Or cast out our own sick elements — cast out our cancer, our HIV, our MS, our imperfect bodies? Do we say, ‘there’s the whole world, the whole universe, there’s the Buddha, but my —–(blank, you fill in your own ‘deficiency’), no way, that doesn’t fit into the whole. I have to suppress that’?
Layman Vimalakirti is ill, lying in his sickbed attended by thousands of beings. Manjusri asks Vimalakirti how to comfort someone who is sick, and Vimalakirti says, ‘Tell the person about the impermanence of the body, but do not tell him to despise or turn away from the body,’ and tell him to use him own illness as a means of sympathizing with the illness of others.’
Think of Sybil-Myoshin who has been struggling with cancer again this past year. For her, a great insight was that her cancer was not something she was going to ‘cure’ to ‘get over’, but that it is a chronic condition that she has, it is a part of her life, and when she has cancer she is whole and complete and has cancer and when there is no cancer she is whole and complete. Every mammogram does not need to be an occasion for judgment and a sense of failure. Refocusing on this moment, this wholeness, whether or not it contains cancer, is a liberating view, an awareness of what it is to live in wholeness, whether or not you are someone who has a propensity for cancer.
Think of Michael-Unzan who so many of us visited in the hospital — how Michael took care of us as we filed in one by one to see him: nervous people who had never visited anyone in the hospital before, and didn’t know how to behave, didn’t know what to do when the nurses came in. There was Michael, directing us, with his oxygen mask on and off, telling us what to do, giving each of us such an incredible opportunity for compassion. He sent us a note thanking us for visiting him in the hospital, and when I opened it I thought, well thank you Michael, thank you for giving us your illness so that we could experience the impermanence of our own lives, so that we could see the sick body and not turn away.
Our Shuso, Randall-Chijo, the Head Zen student for this period, had a diagnosis of MS this year. What courage he shows, to face this disease and to take on such a demanding task. It would be easy to want to avoid, to hide. Instead, our Shuso offers it up to us, to look at our lives, to look at our bodies, at the impermanence of our bodies, at the opportunity to experience impermanence and compassion, to heal, to be whole in each moment.
‘Use your own illness as a means of sympathizing with the illness of others.’ Can we remember that pain and weakness and death are not the enemies? That it is our fear and rejection of pain and weakness and death, which are the enemies? That it is that rejection, that casting out that incapacitates us and does not allow us to live life with courage and fearlessness?
There¹s a teaching about this in the koan ‘Dongshan is Unwell.’ When Dongshan was unwell, a monk asked, ‘You are ill, teacher, but is there anyone who is not ill?’ Dongshan said, ‘There is.’ The monk said, ‘Does the one who is not ill look after you?” Dongshan said, ” I have the opportunity to look after him.’ The monk said, ‘How is it when you look after him?’ Dongshan said, ‘Then I don¹t see that he has any illness.’
Dongshan was on his deathbed, imagine that, lying on your deathbed, and someone asks, ‘is there anyone who is not ill?’ Now whatever the monk¹s intentions, he is pointing to what we have been talking about today, the nature of illness and wholeness. He inquires, he tests, and Dongshan replies, ‘there is,’ leading him on. The monk just follows right along: ‘Does the one who is not ill look after you?’ Does the universe take care of you? Does the Absolute, does God take care of you – as we westerners might say? And Dongshan replies, ‘I have the opportunity to look after him.’ Or, as we women might hear it, I have the opportunity to look after her. Her or him, everything. Nothing left out. Does it take care of me or do I take care of it? The monk is kind of confused now. Huh? ‘How is it when you look after him?’ How is it when you look after her? What’s it like? Dongshan replies. ‘Then I don’t see that he has any illness.’ Then I don’t see that she has any illness.
When I take care of it, I don’t see that there is any illness, I only see the wholeness. Wan-sung, who collected these stories some time later, said, ‘this is where everyday practice empowers you when you are dying.’ It’s very blunt. We can hear him say, ‘Did you not get it, you 21st century readers, let me just tell you that this is where everyday practice empowers you when you are dying.’
‘I don’t see that he has any illness.’ There’s the great void, or the great fullness, the sky is that what we¹re afraid to enter? When we sit down on our cushions and say, ‘well, I’m really going to go deep,’ and then blah blah blah, anything rather than jumping off into that great ocean, that great sky. And also when we die — anything to keep from going there. You’d think we’d have a little more curiosity about it.
‘II have the opportunity to look after him.’ We have so much to look after whatever our state is, whatever suffering we’re going through, looking at our relationship, looking at our life situation, looking at what’s going on in this city, looking at what’s going on in this world. ‘Then I don¹t see that he has any illness.’ Not rejecting anyone, any circumstance, but bringing it all home, healing, and making whole.