Be the Refuge

Turns out, I have cancer.

Back when I mistakenly thought I was healthy, I had paid repeated visits to various doctors with a basket of unexplainable symptoms. Joint aches. Headaches. Fevers. Night sweats. I was otherwise incredibly healthy, eating a mostly plant-based diet and getting a good night’s sleep.

Always bewildered, the doctors ordered me dozens of blood tests, scans and pain medications. By the time enough data had accumulated to warrant a hospital stay, the diagnosis had become grimly clear.

My cancer is a metastatic non-Hodgkin lymphoma that has spread to my bone marrow, liver, kidneys, bones, central nervous system—not to mention dozens of lymph nodes throughout my body. It has been more painful than anything else I have endured in my short human life.

Worse yet, no matter how well I should respond to the six grueling rounds of chemotherapy my oncologists have scheduled for me, my hyperaggressive cancer is bound to relapse within a year. My only hope for a cure will come from a stem cell donor.

But there’s a catch. Due to my diverse ancestry, my chances of finding a matching donor are unusually low. I often hear that my odds are about one in a million, which I’ve learned is the technical term for, “There’s a chance. Just don’t count on it.”

So in the meantime, as I sit through my rounds of chemo and wait for that needle-in-a-haystack life-saving stem cell donor to be found, I’ve decided that this is the time to get serious about my Buddhist practice.

Bundled up in excruciating pain on my hospital bed, the inevitability of my death brought an unexpected comfort. We all die, cancer or otherwise. Buddhism never fails to remind us that we are all subject to birth, aging, illness and death—and also gives us something to do about it.

I started by trying to recall various Buddhist teachings I’d imbibed in my short life, starting with the Four Noble Truths: life sucks, there’s a reason why life sucks, life doesn’t have to suck, and there’s a path you can follow so your life doesn’t suck. I figured it was time to start making some headway down that path, while I’m still able to do so.

I decided early on that now was not the time to struggle for enlightenment and a release from all suffering in this life. It seemed more prudent to focus on my unsurprisingly mundane priorities. I wanted to manage my pain. I wanted peace of mind. I wanted to ease the burden of my condition on my family and friends who had been with me through this whole ordeal. Anything was game, from meditation to chanting to readings.

During my first two weeks in the hospital, I tried playing around with different Buddhist practices to try to tease out which would work best for me. Unfortunately, I was hopelessly disorganized and found focus and consistency nearly impossible. I tried making a spreadsheet on my laptop, but never updated it. I brought a notebook, but would fall asleep before taking down notes.

One night, restless from a large dose of Prednisone, I picked up my notebook and scribbled down the thoughts running around in my mind. What was I trying to achieve, if not ultimate liberation? Why was it important for me to delve into Buddhist practice? What would make it all worthwhile? And then I scribbled out one last line, closed my notebook and went to sleep.

Be the refuge you wish to see in this world.

“Be the refuge” has become my strategy for engaging Buddhist practice in my battle with cancer. I’m okay with not reaching the fully liberating refuge of enlightenment in this lifetime. It would be enough if I could have somewhat of a refuge for myself from pain and anxiety, and then to try be a refuge for those around me.

When I was in my most intense pain, meditation became a refuge for my mind. Mettā meditation was so effective at focusing my mind that, somehow, my intense pains would vanish for a time. I found myself taking refuge in my breath during my bone marrow biopsy and MRI scans, allowing my mind to dwell in a comfortable space during some rather uncomfortable procedures.

In the hospital, I found my speech and actions could become refuges for my family and caregivers — providing them with a space where they could feel calm, positive and helpful. I try to be honest and let people help me when they can. I try to use the spirit of irony to take the edge off my complaints. Simple courtesies of thanks and asking nurses and aides how their days are going have gone a long way to making sure my care team knows that they can breathe easy around me.

As it became clear that my cure would depend on a stem cell or bone marrow donor, organizing marrow donor drives proved to be a refuge for my friends from the powerlessness of being able to “do nothing”—a space where they feel empowered to provide meaningful assistance toward finding my cure. It’s amazing to see the faces of friends and family light up when they can see that they have the means to actually help save my life. In a world full of suffering, even complete strangers have shared with me how meaningful it is to learn they can do something so simple to help save someone’s life.

Even now after the election upset, I feel that the challenge is for us to create refuges of our own communities, to create spaces where people can find true comfort and wellbeing. Is our meditation center a place where newcomers can feel safe and secure? Do we feel supported by our communities? Are our spaces attentive to the needs of those of us marginalized by society?

There is a temptation to strive to change what’s outside, rather than focus on ourselves and our own communities. While we still need to articulate our principles, relay our stories, protest injustice and cast our votes, we are most compelling when we are the very refuges we wish to see in this world. When we can exist calmly in moments of suffering and confusion, others notice and are drawn to us. When our communities provide true and considered support, others notice and will attempt to recreate the same benefits for their own communities. The power of our refuges means others may even pay special attention to our work in community in ways they would never do otherwise. When our communities are welcoming to those in need of support and attentiveness, our communities will grow.

“Be the refuge” is a challenge. It is a challenge for me to recast my efforts and rethink the questions I use to focus my energies. For years I’ve wondered about how to create an Op-Ed Project for Buddhists of Color in order to encourage a greater diversity of writers. But when I now refocus the question—“How do I create a refuge for Buddhists of Color?” — I find myself with a broader set of options to explore, not to mention more insightful ways to articulate my goals for increasing the diversity of Buddhist writers.

As I fling my body through successively brutal cycles of chemotherapy, my real challenge remains for me to be the refuge I wish to see in this world. My life has already been extended by months, and yet the end still seems so precariously near. I’m reminded every day to be thankful to be alive. May I strive for every day to be a refuge for myself and for all beings.