And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.
-- “The Sermon” chapter 9 from Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The content of the true teachings [of Shakyamuni] is that “the origin of sentient beings’ suffering is egoistic desire.” So if this teaching’s influence weakens, the effects of egoistic desire increase. …[So Shinran] said if we do not entrust ourselves to [Amida] Tathagata’s compassionate vow, we will not have a chance for liberation.
-- Kigoshi Yasushi, “True Disciple of Buddha in Contemporary Society” [The Pure Land journal, no.27, 2012-2013, published summer 2017]
In an email from Mike Conway, in response to my telling him I was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, he wrote:
This opportunity to live out our human karma--with all of its pains and joys, ups and downs--is really a precious one. Soga [Ryojin] talks about Dharmakara experimenting with each of our karma, taking on what comes and ensuring it leads to the liberation of all sentient beings.
In a way, it made me see the forty-eight vows as Dharmakara’s various experiments to experience people’s different kinds of suffering and of course, there are much more than forty-eight of those. I imagine Soga Ryojin would say that is why Dharmakara is continually in practice, birthing himself in each person as they struggle through new travails. Yet as Mike pointed out in his Dobo magazine article on the first verse of the Jodo Wasan, Shinran experienced Dharmakara’s becoming Amida Buddha as right now as well as “ten kalpas ago.”
When I first announced my cancer on Facebook in Japanese, Kumika Soga (wife of Rev. Jeffrey Soga, Nishi Honganji minister in Hawaii, no relation to Soga Ryojin), commented: “Cancer? I think we all spend our days not knowing tomorrow's life. I'm not [with] cancer, but I don't know if I live longer than you. Let's walk with the Buddha with a smile.” At first I thought of the image of Jesus walking in front, back or at the side of the believer, but after reading Mike’s email, I realized Kumika-san meant that Amida Buddha is within us as we walk through life, not as a separate set of footsteps.
So this metaphysical invasion of my body by the spirit of Dharmakara/Amida is a comforting thought as medicines and devices enter my system. For all my life I prided myself in never having to be in a hospital (until the diverticulitis attack in 2013 which I blame on the stress of becoming the full-time minister) or having an operation (they treated the diverticulitis with intervenous antibiotics). But in the process of diagnosing and treating my cancer, I’ve had to be invaded – the stinging darts shot through the biopsy needles, the radioactive serum for the PET scan and then the frightening first experience of being on an operating table for the port to be inserted – the titanium device slipped into my upper chest and the tube snaked down through a slit in my neck. With the twilight anesthesia I didn’t feel the surgery but for days afterward, I felt the discomfort of having foreign bodies placed under my skin.
Then yesterday was the hours long chemotherapy treatment of four different drugs specific to my triple-positive breast cancer. My husband was with me at the beginning – and everyone in the infusion room must’ve wondered what is this “Natsu Matsuri” those two people are yelling about at each other (it’s the temple’s annual “summer festival” fundraiser this Sunday causing much stress for the both of us). He eventually left to continue with the preparations at the temple, so I had some quiet time to start studying Brazilian Portuguese with a workbook and CD. People told me for chemo I should listen to relaxation talkers or meditation music, but I felt like being productive. My sister-in-law came by to chat and I was grateful she was there when I started feeling chilled and light-headed – the small talk kept me in the moment. When I felt more calmed down and tired, I let her leave (she understood, having sat through the chemo treatment of her friends).
Then I started reading Moby Dick, the book I chose to get me through chemo. I was drawn immediately into Melville’s well-crafted prose with much entertaining humor (particularly in Biblical allusions). But like Twain’s description of how the riverboats awakened his hometown Hannibal to the romance of travel, Ishmael describes his frequent desire to be at sea as a common dream of all men. How I wish to be on the move – sailing through the clouds in a plane. At the Qigong class at the temple we had a visitor from China tell us the story of a man who was diagnosed with terminal cancer but instead of treatment, he chose to travel the whole country by bicycle. After several months, he returned home cancer-free – so that story made me wonder if my cancer is just my rotting wanderlust balled up and expanding with frustration.
[preface verse of Shozomatsu Wasan]
Today I’m staying home to rest up. I’m grateful for the handful of volunteers who stepped up to take care of my Natsu Matsuri prep duties, but I still feel guilty about not being at the temple on such a busy workday. But I read two reminders of how f***ed up I am and how I need to get back to the nembutsu teachings instead of my self-absorption with illness and mortality. One is the paper by Kigoshi-san in the Pure Land journal I just received in the mail. The title was just as I mentioned in my last post “true disciple of the Buddha.” And the other reminder was in “The Sermon” chapter of Moby Dick where the preacher describes and comments on the story of Jonah and the whale. (see quotes above)
My wanting to wander and be free of the restrictions of my current situation is all my egoistic desires – that is, just wanting pleasures for myself. The ego-self can’t let go of its desires so the only hope of overriding its grip is to immerse one’s self in Amida’s vow, or God’s will – the flow of true life which will carry one along to unknown and mostly painful experiences and eventually death. To want to escape that is as futile as Jonah seeking flight on a ship to Spain and then ending up in the belly of the whale. As the preacher points out, it is only when Jonah gratefully acknowledges his punishment instead of begging for mercy, that God brings him to liberation into the life he is meant to live - the whale spits Jonah out on the beach. This whale of cancer – I’m stuck in it for now and who knows what beach it will spit me out on.