The following is adapted from a talk Myogen Steve Stücky gave at San Francisco Zen Center, where he served as abbot. Stucky passed away from cancer one year ago, the morning prior to New Year’s Day 2014. —Eds.
To what shall
I liken the world?
Shaken from a crane’s bill.
—Dogen, Zen Master
Feeling funny in my mind, Lord,
I believe I’m fixin’ to die, fixin’ to die.
Feeling funny in my mind, Lord
I believe I’m fixin’ to die
Well, I don’t mind dyin’,
but I hate to hear my children cryin’.
—Bukka White, Blues Singer
I had an appointment with the oncologist. We went through beautiful imagery from the CAT scan, and he started pointing out little lesions in my lungs, in my liver, in the spleen, in the pancreas. There was a whole mass in the pancreas. The doctor was very straightforward and knowledgeable. He said, “Without treatment, you can expect to live three to six months. It’s stage four.” And my wife Lane asked, “Well, what’s stage five like?” There is no stage five.
I don’t mind dyin’, but I do hate to leave everything, everyone. I have to accept the limitation, and I have to let everyone down. Facing the unknown, which is what we’re doing every day, is intensified with the lens of having a terminal diagnosis.
People have been more freely telling me they love me, and I’m more freely telling people, “I love you.” That’s good to acknowledge, and so poignant, because it means signing up for grief, signing up for loss. That’s part of what we need to do as human beings: actually sign up for being human. The relationships that we have we know are on the one hand fabricated. Delusion and self-clinging are involved. And at the same time, it’s how we manifest our connectedness—it goes beyond any kind of dualistic sense of you and me.
I’ve been working with the phrase that comes from Dogen’s teaching on the Buddha in which he quotes another ancient who says, “The entire earth is the true human body.” Each human body is independent, and simultaneously, the entire earth. Sometimes you may see this when you let go of your particular attachment to some small identity. The tree is as much a part of me as my shoulder. The sky is as much a part of me as my eyelashes. And the sound of the ocean is as much a part of me as the sound of my own breathing. In taking care of this body, I don’t want to neglect the whole.
The thought is to bring awareness to the earth, to the impact on this part of our body. How do we take care of it? It’s so big that we have to look at it as a whole society. We have to look at it, but we haven’t. Actually, as a civilization we don’t even have the organizational skill to regulate the greediness in our own culture.
It’s hard for most people to imagine having oil in the ground and leaving it there. What an idea! A practice of restraint. To actually accept that leaving it would be healthier for the whole body. To look at how we contribute to the imbalance of carbon in the atmosphere.
We human beings, as a species, feel right in what we’re doing even while other species are becoming extinct. We really need to inform ourselves about the earth as part of our body. And it’s painful. It’s painful even to know about it. More painful, I think, than this cancer.
Taking care of one’s own internal body and the practices of awareness— mindfulness, sitting still, deeply investigating what’s going on internally—actually help your whole life: to actually attend to the body around you, all the relationships, to consider those relationships as your own body while understanding that there are boundaries within that—that is our responsibility. Everything will become more and more known and familiar. And it becomes clearer, moment to moment, what to do, how to respond, what to take care of, and how to take care of it.
Buddhist practice is a wonderful, very important expression of people’s interest in something that goes beyond their own self-interest. It is a profound practice, a lineage practice. We actually have the capacity, and, in a sense, each of us has the responsibility—whether we know it or not or like it or not—to understand it. Study it. Practice it. Make it available to others. And in that way, this lineage can continue to be sustained and evolve and develop and be helpful. This has been the most important thing: to do this practice. I propose to each of you, if you can find something better, then do that. But whatever it is, make it the most profound expression of your life.
I know that I can die and there are people here who will take care of that, take care of this practice. And isn’t that great? For me to think that I can do very much is a mistaken idea. At the same time, to think that I can’t do anything is a mistaken idea. Each of us can do something, you know, right up to the last moment.
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