THE LOTUS OF LIGHT
Ozmo Piedmont, PhD
In October of 2009 I was diagnosed with heart disease, a 90% blockage of a main artery in the center of my heart. Overnight I went from working full time as a high school philosophy professor to lying in a hospital bed, afraid to move, worrying that any strenuous effort might cause a heart attack. I had been complaining of pains in my chest months before, revealing a high cholesterol count. As follow-up, I went into the hospital for a (heart probe). Lying on the table, I watched a screen while a wire catheter was passed up through my leg and into my heart. The discomfort was not so much physical, as was the fear of knowing I was looking inside my own heart. This was symbolic of what my practice would be for the future: looking into the physical, emotional, and spiritual heart of my being.
Fear is an overwhelming obstacle to our wellbeing. Bhikkhu Bodhi, in his book The Noble Eightfold Path, points out that fear is an aspect of worry, one of the 5 main obstacles to our liberation from suffering, the other four being sensual desire, ill will, mental and physical torpor, and doubt. These obstacles appear due to our mis-identification with little self. One is urged to apply right effort to overcome these obstacles through meditation, practice and the understanding of the Truth of who we are: the Oneness of the Eternal manifesting itself as the infinity of apparent forms we perceive ourselves to be. Through diligent practice, we begin to disengage from our mistaken beliefs that cause lifetimes of suffering, and instead begin to understand our connectedness to the Infinite though our nourishment of the seven factors of enlightenment, which are both the goal to our practice as well as the process. These factors include mindfulness, investigation, energy, ecstasy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. Of course, this is easier said than done. Lying in that hospital bed, I feared the death of this body, and doubted whether anything would survive.
In the following weeks, this became my koan: “What, if anything, will survive death?” I questioned my teacher, Rev. Master Meiten, asking, “If we are not the ego, nor the skandas (aggregates) of material/form, nor the sensations, perceptions, and samskaras of mental formations, nor this ego consciousness, then what are we? Are we pure universal consciousness itself, as referred to by the term Alayavijñana, beyond duality, form, and appearances? Rather than give me a definitive answer, she addressed the underlying problem. “Where is this coming from?” she asked. “You have been practicing for some time now, so what is the problem?” I had to admit, choking back the tears, “I am afraid of death”. “Well of course,” she replied. “You have been through so much in the last few weeks, it is natural you would feel this way.” “Bring it to your meditation,” she urged me. “Sit with it and you will find the answer.” Somehow, just her acknowledging my fear, without judgment, was a comfort.
I began to work with and through my fear. When it arose, I began to use mindfulness to see the fear as any other strong emotion, observing the sensations and thoughts that arose as a result in the body, while resisting the tendency to attach to them as reality. Remembering the Dharma and practice, I would remind myself, “Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps this fear is not based on reality. Perhaps I am fearful because I am attached and identified to this limited body.” This had a calming effect that allowed me to begin opening myself to guidance from another level, from the Source itself.
What first emerged was a need to find a new approach to healing, one that would be more holistic and which would address my being on more than just the physical level. Perhaps this healing was on multiple levels, emotional and spiritual as well. So I opened myself, trusting in the Unknown, asking “What is the next step?” There emerged in me a strong feeling that I should seek a holistic healing center. I went into the internet, put in the key words of holistic healing, and the first entry was a center not more than 10 blocks from where I live. I saw that the center incorporated both Western and Eastern healing practices, including both homeopathy and Chinese medicine. Since the Western doctors had told me there was basically nothing we could do to reverse the clogged artery, just maintain me on medications to ease the symptoms, I knew I needed something to empower me, to give me hope, to cure the roots of the disease itself.
I contacted the holistic center inquiring whether they could help me regain my energy, which had been waning more and more over the past several months. They put me on a regimen of homeopathic drops of various herbs and flowers, as well as a special diet that eliminated all refined foods, chemicals, preservatives, and dairy products. It was a drastic shift in my normal lifestyle, but I found that with a few weeks, I felt completely different. My energy returned. In fact, it more than double, and I was beginning to feel more at ease with myself and others. At about the second month of treatment, the doctor, a former surgeon who had left his practice to study Chinese medicine and healing, commented to me that often the body manifests symptoms that have arisen on an emotional level. I asked him what in his opinion did heart disease mean. He commented that in the Chinese system, heart disease could be related to a deep sense of betrayal. Something clicked inside of me when he said this. Of course, I thought, I have experienced many times in my life a broken heart through failed relationships, which felt like profound betrayal, creating a desire to wall off a part of myself for protection and safety. However, though it may have been necessary in the past for my survival, now I had an opportunity to remove the walls, to find a trust in the Divine, manifesting as trust of others, which could perhaps support my physical healing.
One of the gifts of practice is seeing the blessing in all that arises. While I had been in the hospital, many friends and relatives prayed for me. Some came to visit me. Others brought me treats and books. One went so far as to sneak in a delicious omelet, since I had been living on little more than salad for several days. Another friend, knowing I was confined to my bed, came to give me a sponge bath. Lying there, I felt so cherished, like a child cared for by his mother. Here was the embodiment of Kanzeon, the bodhisattva of compassion, sitting beside my bed, quietly bathing my body, showing her love in action. This was such a loving act, one of many that opened my heart to the deeper meaning of surrender and acceptance that is there for us all. I began a process of deep surrender in the weeks that followed.
Nevertheless, many worrisome questions continued to plague me. Would the doctors have to operate? Should I be treated by Western medications only? Could I return to work in the future? Would there even be work to return to, since one semester had ended and the next begun. There were so many questions, and the possibility of so many doubts. However, it became obvious to me, if I identified with the never ending stream of fears and doubts, I would be paralyzed, incapable of acting on my own behalf and unable to be of any assistance to anyone else either. But what choice did I have? The answer became clear as I quieted my mind through meditation. I remembered the words of Rev. Master Meiten many times urging me to let go, to trust in the Divine, and focus on the present, asking in our hearts, “What is it good to do now?” What seemed good to do was to take the extra time for deeper meditation, along with reading and study of the Dharma. I soon found myself designing a whole course on the Eightfold Path for a meditation study group of which I am a participant. In so doing, I was reminded that through right understanding, including why we suffer, how we get confused about who we are, and how this ignorance plays itself out in a cosmic play of karma, we can all free ourselves from conditioned living based on small self concerns. Slowly, along with my physical healing, I began to heal the spiritual heart. I began trusting the deeper wisdom as well as the process itself. I started thinking, if it is my time to die, I choose to go in peace. If it is my time to live, then I choose to live in peace. Either way, I choose peace. Somehow, in the acknowledgement of my limitations to solve the koan of death, I began to free myself from the bonds of this body-mind and the karma it carries. This body contains the result of all the limited choices we have made in the past, our karma based on ignorance, which brings us to a misidentification with a limited ego consciousness based on selfish desires and a belief of separateness. The irony is, in choosing peace, in choosing trust and love, the aspects of our Buddha Nature, we learn to forget ourselves as small identities based on fear, doubt, and separation. We learn to get on with the work at hand. We become expressions of that which is eternal, love, compassion and acceptance of all that is, including both life and death. In choosing to trust, I experience my wellbeing, a sense that it is all good, that there is value to all we do, that all has meaning. We can choose to align and connect ourselves to this wellbeing through participation with the Sangha, through acts of kindness, and through teaching by example, not giving into despair, continuing to love and share. It becomes more and more a trust in joy within the present moment. This joy is what I am. This joy is eternal.
We are but petals on the lotus of life, green stalks of tendencies profane.
Roots set down in dark and deep, find sweetness now proclaim.
Illumination blooming, passions perfuming, was, is, and will always be,
The light of consciousness Infinity finds, the liberating will to be free.