Beliefnet

In August 1995, I was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). The illness was sudden and caught my family and me by surprise.

I had visited my doctor because of swelling on my hands and feet that I assumed was an allergic reaction to something I had eaten. When my doctor told me that I had AML and suggested that we begin chemotherapy immediately, I said, "Doc, I would rather wait a few months. I want to spend time with my family and friends while I still feel healthy."

"Jim, you have less than 10 days to live," he replied.

After he left my room, I placed my hands palm to palm and repeated three times a Buddhist prayer for affirming faith:

I take refuge in Buddha.
I take refuge in dharma.
I take refuge in sangha.

I had been practicing Zen Buddhist meditation for 15 years when I was diagnosed, and past experiences had taught me that zazen (sitting meditation) and chanting would be invaluable in helping me deal with my situation.

Over the next three days, my health deteriorated rapidly. The leukemia caused my blood counts to drop to critical levels. My lungs became infected, my major organs began to fail, and I developed a fever. Four days after being admitted, I began to lose consciousness and was rushed to intensive care.

Days later, after my wife and children, siblings, parents, and Zen teacher had said their good-byes standing over my listless swollen body, I awoke and placed my hands palm to palm and again recited the threefold refuge. I repeated this simple Buddhist prayer several times a day when I could, and it helped me find the faith and determination I needed to carry on.

Because the leukemia depleted my immune system, I soon developed a systemic infection and double pneumonia, and was placed on a respirator. My liver was failing, my spleen malfunctioning, my kidneys had shut down, and my lungs were filling with fluids. There were tubes coming into my body administering blood products, chemotherapy, several different types of antibiotics, and other medicines. One tube ran up my nose into my stomach. There was a catheter leading directly into my heart, a catheter for urinating, several intravenous tubes in my arms and wrists, an automatic blood pressure machine hooked up to my left arm, and a blood oxygen monitor fastened to my toe.
Spiritual practice has always been central to my life. But at this point, when I needed it most, it seemed almost impossible. I did not have the energy to meditate or to chant. I was plagued by thirst and intense pain in my side. I was also suffering from terrible headaches and nausea. My body was weak and burdened from the toxic chemotherapy drugs. Still, whenever I had the strength to do so, I would place my hands palm to palm and say a prayer for all beings who were suffering.

One night in particular I will never forget. I was in isolation at St. Michael's Hospital, receiving my second round of chemotherapy, when my wife, Margaret, called to tell me that Raymond, our 11-year-old son, had been rushed to the hospital to have his appendix removed.

The news came after a week that had brought several deaths to the oncology floor. I knew that my odds of surviving were still slim, and hearing of the deaths of fellow patients was demoralizing. Still, I called Raymond at the hospital to give him my love and some encouragement. He was afraid of surgery, and nothing I said seemed to put his mind at ease. Within an hour, Margaret called again. I could hear the shakiness in her voice. "Jim, I don't know how I'm going to tell you this." She hesitated, "Raymond's had an allergic reaction to the anesthetic. He stopped breathing, and they had to put him on a respirator." She then broke down and cried.

When our spirit is depleted, and we are faced with seemingly overwhelming obstacles, taking refuge in the Three Treasures gives us access to a deeper aspect of our being.


The world was a dim place that night. Pain, suffering, sickness, and death were all around me. For a short time, I doubted the wisdom of going ahead with the treatments. I was engulfed in a sea of confusion and anguish. Never before had I felt so alone.

With whatever reserve I had left, I placed my hands palm to palm and recited the three refuges. When our spirit is depleted, and we are faced with seemingly overwhelming obstacles, taking refuge in the three treasures gives us access to a deeper aspect of our being, one that goes beyond the challenges confronting us.

I sat for a time absorbed in a Zen Buddhist practice of introspection. "Who am I really? Who is aware of this pain, suffering, and confusion?" I asked myself. My mind began to clear, and my body felt less burdened.

Soon, a deep peace came over me. My distress vanished. Confusion and doubts dispersed. There was no illness before me, no death, no one to die, no one separate from this ever-changing One Mind. I knew without a doubt that the universe was indeed unfolding as it should. Tears ran down my face. It was truly a moment of grace. Like the wonder one feels seeing a blade of grass growing through concrete, I was awed to find gratitude making its way into such a dark place on that challenging night. Late that night, Margaret called to tell me that Raymond's body was dealing with the anesthetic and that he was going to be fine. I am well now, again sitting in zazen, and attending Zen meditation retreats. I am also working full time. Regardless of how busy I am, I continue to take refuge in Buddha, dharma, and sangha every day. I will be forever grateful for the many lessons I learned through my illness. Knowing in my bones that I cannot rely on this body or my states of mind has left me with a deep faith in the infinite, a faith that no illness can conquer.
Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus