I have often said that in many ways, my mother is more than just my earthly mother. She is so much more. Indeed, she is my spiritual mother. She has been there for me all my life, but her spiritual counsel and presence has often been felt the most at the lowest points when my roads were the most difficult to navigate. At the time of this writing, my mother, who is 75, finds herself in the battle of her life. She was hospitalized after a bad fall and was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis in her right leg due to a bone break in her hip that never healed properly. This turned out to be the least of her concerns. She was diagnosed with cancer, which will require major surgeries and a long, difficult road to recovery in the weeks and months ahead. This has been a trying time for me as well, seeing this strong and even stubborn lady suddenly laid low and in so much pain she can barely stand. Nevertheless, in the midst of this struggle, we continue to search for and cling to places of hope. We feel that God’s providence may be at work and that she fell so that she could get the help she needs before the cancer would have become untreatable. We end every visit holding hands and saying a prayer together.
Perhaps surprisingly, those closest to me have marveled at how well I’ve been coping with the situation. They say I’ve been strong and steady throughout, and most attribute this to my Christian faith. And while that is largely the case, thinking theologically about the situation, as I necessarily do about virtually every situation, I find myself relying in no small amount on Buddhist teachings as well. From Buddhism I have learned that suffering arises from the conditions created by five aggregates or factors, which are as follows: the physical body, sensations and feelings, cognition, character traits and dispositions, and consciousness or sentiency. Thus, life is suffering because we are made up of these five components; components that are ever changing and shifting, meaning that we will break down “just as an automobile will eventually wear out and break down.”
A part of me, then, has always known that this was inevitable; the state my mother is in now is a state that we will all find ourselves in at some point. It is the reality of suffering. The Buddha himself said, “What, O Monks, is the Noble Truth of Suffering? Birth is suffering, sickness is suffering, old age is suffering, death is suffering. Pain, grief, sorrow, lamentation, and despair are suffering.” Thus, the source of my strength in this struggle is that I’m drawing from two religious traditions in a time of crisis, both being equally essential to me.
If Buddhism has taught me one thing, it is to be alike in moments of suffering and in moments of joy, knowing that each are subject to change. The Therevada Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula writes, “Although there is suffering in life, a Buddhist should not be gloomy over it, should not be angry or impatient at it. Being impatient or angry at suffering does not remove it. On the contrary, it adds a little more to one’s troubles, and aggravates and exacerbates a situation already disagreeable.” Patience in all states of being is a theological virtue. Yes, we can say that life is suffering and all things are subject to change; but it is my opinion that one can find comfort, peace, and solace in that knowledge, for we do not have to be caught up in and carried down the emotional currents of our ever changing circumstances. And although it would seem paradoxical to some, and perhaps heretical to others; I have found myself praying that God would help me to be both a better Christian and a better Buddhist in this situation. This is not the first time that I have said such prayers, and I am sure it will not be the last.
During this time of trial, I also turn to my own tradition to seek a deeper understanding of why such suffering exists. From my Christian faith, I believe that life is suffering because God gave humanity the freedom of will to differ from God’s own will and that because of a deviation in the will, creation exists presently in a manner that is both different from the way it originally was and is also different than the way God intended it to be. I find hope in this realization because for me, it means that suffering is not perpetual, ongoing, or infinite; it has a definite beginning and a definite ending; therefore suffering will never have the last word. Indeed, I believe in a God that is not detached or removed from suffering, but rather a God that through Jesus Christ, has suffered for us and suffers with us. When my mother and I pray together, it is with our trust in God who promises to one day put an end to suffering and to “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
In the Tibetan tradition there is a ritual practice for the sick and the dying called Phowa, which means the transference of consciousness. A Buddhist friend of mine suggested that I use it because it has tremendous healing power. To begin the ritual, one imagines “whichever divine being or saint you feel close to” in the form of a radiant light, and as you pray, you imagine that this loving, healing light grows and expands to ultimately surround and envelop the person you are praying for. Since my friend suggested it, I have silently performed this ritual every time I visit my mother in the hospital. Perhaps he would be pleased to know that I envision two figures standing next to her, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the great Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, Avalokiteshvara. I take great comfort in the fact that throughout this difficult time, my family and I are all surrounded by the radiant light of the Cross and the Dharma Wheel.
- Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 51.
- Keown, Buddhism, 52.
- Ibid., 50.
- Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 28.
- Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 214.
- Rinpoche, Tibetan, 215.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.