When Karen Derris was diagnosed with cancer, she turned to books—and Buddhist books in particular. A professor of Buddhist narrative and ethics, Derris has dedicated her professional life to studying Buddhist stories, and they have, in turn, transformed how she thinks and lives. After her diagnosis, she began to seek out new ways of reading the stories she had long studied, now with an eye to her embodied experience of illness.
In her new memoir, Storied Companions: Trauma, Cancer, and Discovering Guides for Living in Buddhist Narratives, Derris shares stories from Buddhist literary traditions that have become her companions and compass, interweaving them with her own narratives of illness and trauma. Tricycle recently spoke with Derris about living with a terminal illness, our cultural discomfort with death, and reading as a mode of care.
You’ve titled this book Storied Companions. What does it mean for a story to be a companion? When I was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, I wanted to find ways to continue living well up to my death. While my loved ones were caring for me in every way possible, they didn’t have the resources to understand what it meant to be living under these new conditions. Often, that left me feeling very lonely, so I began looking for resources that could keep me company as I tried to stay alive with purpose and meaning. I kept turning back to Buddhist stories as a potential source for that companionship—stories I loved, stories I had been intensely engaged with for many, many years. These stories became companions and guides, and they were a key condition for living well while I knew I was dying.
How did Buddhist stories become companions for you? Different stories came to me as the nature of my illness evolved. It was a very relational experience: if my mind and heart were open, then the stories could give me space to step into them. They could reach out to me, but I also had to reach out to them—I had to create new ways of reading that honored my lived experience of impermanence. I was rereading them with a new purpose, and that purpose was how to live well with the knowledge the cause of my death was already inside my body.
A number of stories reached out to me in this way, and they came through long-held attention and intellectual practice. Many of them are what we might call mythological, and I had to be open to seeing them as true even though they contain dimensions that might seem far from our reality, like flying bodhisattvas or hidden codes and messages. If I could reread them with my heart and mind open to their truth, then they could accompany me and help me feel less alone.
One of the stories you focus on is that of Siddhartha and the four signs, sometimes called the four sights. How did this story help you feel seen in a world where the sick and dying are so often made invisible? We live in a society that attempts to avoid questions of death at all costs, and the story of Prince Siddhartha and the four omens is a great example of this avoidance. When Siddhartha is born, sages predict two possible futures for him: if he is shielded from suffering, he will become the world’s greatest emperor; if he encounters impermanence and the suffering it causes, he will leave the royal life and become the world’s greatest spiritual leader. As a result, his father, the king, shields him from suffering and keeps him safe inside the palace, surrounded by every kind of pleasure.
As he grows older, Siddhartha asks to leave the palace and see the city. His father complies but orders the city cleaned and decorated so as to hide all signs of suffering. The king’s men are commanded to remove all the old, sick, and dead people from the streets so that Siddhartha cannot see them. But the devas, or gods, know that Siddhartha must see these signs of suffering, so they carry the bodies of the old, sick, and dead back into view.
Siddhartha eventually sees each type of body, and these encounters with suffering create an existential shock for him. He asks his friend and chariot driver, Channa, if this will happen to him too, and Channa simply replies, “Yes.” Seeing these three bodies changes Siddhartha’s life completely, and when he sees the fourth sign, the renunciant, he is inspired to go forth and find a path to alleviate the suffering caused by willful ignorance of impermanence.
When I reread this story after my diagnosis, I started to understand it differently. For many people, knowing that I have a terminal form of cancer is something they don’t want to acknowledge—it’s too scary. No one wants to talk about it, no one wants to see it, and I end up feeling hidden or cast aside, just like the figures carted off by the king’s men. Now, I encounter this story from a different perspective: I am that sick body; I am that dying body; I am being hidden away. But at the same time, the devas realize that I have to be seen in order for Siddhartha to learn the truth of impermanence.
Rereading this story as a dying reader, I feel seen by it, but I also see that my impermanence can have purpose—that my embodied form of impermanence can have meaning if I confront it and have the strength to share it. And that’s what I tried to do with this book.
How has your relationship to impermanence changed through your diagnosis and through writing this book? Living with cancer has offered me a much deeper awareness of impermanence than I would be able to have through my dharma practice. My diagnosis gave me an embodied lesson in impermanence, as I suddenly found myself crashing into it, or it into me. Eventually, we will all encounter the conditions that will be the source of our dying; I know that that condition is already in my body. It’s in my brain, and it’s with me all the time. That brings with it a certain amount of fear. At different points in my life, I’ve tried to put that fear in a box on a shelf in my mental closet. But I came to see that ignoring it was not a good strategy—I needed to learn how to live with it.
Realizing that these Buddhist stories are there as a way of communicating impermanence helps me feel less afraid and less alone. In fact, if I am willing to step into these narratives and carry them with me through my life, I’m far from alone. It’s as if the stories are holding my hand as I move into my uncertain future.
Do you have any recommendations for how to step into Buddhist stories? I think reading requires an openness to being transformed. I have to open myself up to the stories, to read them again and again and carry them with me, not just when I’m sitting with the text in front of me but also throughout my daily life. In the book, I share some of the practices that have helped me see these narratives as a mirror for my everyday experience, like identifying with a certain character or taking a particular line of a text into my body. These practices make the opportunities of tying my life to the stories more apparent.
The generosity of the dhamma is that it gives us these ties. But the reader does the work of noticing the connections and letting their relationship to their ordinary experience be transformed. These connections infuse my life with guidance from the dhamma, and this helps me in my search for meaning and purpose. This is one way reading becomes an act of care.
In rereading stories from this new perspective of impermanence and care, I’ve attempted to be a humble and grateful reader. I don’t make any claims that my way of reading these stories is the only way or that I know everything about them. Each story contains endless possibilities. I’m not trying to master this material—I’m simply sharing the gifts that have been so valuable to me.
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