Last fall in my house we had some serious bad news: my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. (There have been a number of ways in which I have hoped to emulate Ken Wilber, but this sure wasn’t one of them.) The good news is it was not a particularly severe variety as cancers go; with proper treatment it would not be life-threatening. But those treatments have been rough, with an extended recovery period.
It has, as you may imagine, been a difficult time for both of us. I am happy to say that things are much better than they were, but the hard times are not yet over. My wife’s story is hers to tell, and she has told it magnificently. On my side, something major has happened that I did not expect: for the first time, I have come to consider myself a Buddhist. Not merely “Buddhist-influenced”, but a Buddhist, full stop.
As with a previous difficult episode in my life, I found myself again praying to Mañjuśrī as things began to get hard. This turned out to be quite helpful and I will be saying more about it soon. But the most decisive, and unexpected, moment came before things got rough.
We were sitting in the breast-cancer unit of the excellent Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The staffer asked my wife the usual barrage of questions, including that deceptively simple question, “What is your religion?”
For her the answer was not hard: Unitarian. She was raised a Unitarian Universalist in the New England tradition, even baptized Unitarian, and admires that tradition’s thinkers like Emerson. The one formal event we regularly attend at any “religious” institution is the Christmas service at her stepmother’s Unitarian church.
But what if I had been asked the same question? For me the question had no good answer – or so I thought. Regular readers will know my many objections to the concept of “religion”, all of which still stand. In this context, though, it was clear that they had a good reason for asking. A large number of the people walking through that centre’s doors – us fortunately not among them – would soon be facing their own imminent deaths. Under those circumstances people need someone to talk to, someone learned enough to help us think through what we’re about to face. And a psychotherapist is unlikely to cut it. Psychotherapy, like other forms of medical practice, is supposed to be about restoring oneself to normal human functioning – but in the end, death is normal human functioning, and that is itself the problem.
So hospitals have chaplains: those trained in a “religious” tradition who can (one hopes) offer wise counsel in a time of need. At a well funded cancer center in a large multicultural American city, it is taken for granted that patients will come from many backgrounds, and a Catholic priest will have a hard time offering counsel to a Buddhist or vice versa. So one needs to provide one’s “religious” affiliation in order to get an appropriate chaplain.
And I asked myself: if I needed such a service, what chaplain would I want? The answer came to me far more quickly than I had expected: a Buddhist. Suddenly it was obvious.
Nor would I feel any more comfortable with a Unitarian Universalist, even though I attended a Unitarian church for a while. Emerson’s appreciation of nature speaks to my nature-loving wife more than it does to my head full of abstractions – and even Emersonian Unitarian churches are unusual these days. Most of the Unitarian tradition takes a much more pragmatic and political focus on issues of social justice, and I would not want to risk getting a chaplain who would try to talk about social justice or activism on this sort of occasion. Social justice is about ensuring everyone has access to the kind of privileges my wife or I have had in life – but death, like misery, strikes the privileged as surely as the marginalized. Social justice can help postpone the death of the poor, but it does nothing for comfort once that death inevitably comes.
The Buddha, on the other hand, saw in the traditional story that his riches would do nothing to stop him from dying – or from growing old or getting sick. Now with our modern technologies – and at Dana-Farber one sees just how many strides have been made with these even in just the past couple decades – one can do a brilliant job of postponing all these things, and that postponement matters a great deal. Without them my wife might have suffered the fate of Treya Killam Wilber and died in her thirties; we owe it a great debt. But Dana-Farber’s medical miracles notwithstanding, one day she will die nevertheless, and so will I.
And the Buddha, so they say, got that. As he died he is reported to have said vayadhammā saṅkhārā: all conditioned things have the nature of decay. And what do we do about that? We strive with vigilance, appamādena sampādetha: strive to be better people, less attached to worldly things, with concentrated minds, insightful. Traditionally, this would have meant we accrue good karma toward a better rebirth. I suspect that a Buddhist chaplain in metropolitan Boston would be Yavanayāna enough to minimize that part. But even if she did not – well, I don’t believe in an afterlife, but if I did, I’d rather it be the Buddhist one, where bad people are not instantly forgiven but are allowed to work off their bad karma over the years.
It all hit me in that moment: what tradition would I trust to give me the counsel I needed? It had to be Buddhism. And so suddenly, for quite possibly the first time in my life, I realized I could now do something most people do without a second thought: answer the question “What’s your religion?” with a single word. I could say something I’d never before said as a simple straightforward declarative sentence, with no buts: I am a Buddhist.
That’s not to say everything became simple in that moment. It never does. The buts are still there. I don’t meditate (much, yet), I don’t give to monks, I don’t make offerings at temples. And I find most Buddhist metaphysics difficult to accept. But then you’d find plenty of people who call themselves Catholic or Jewish and are still less of a fit than this.