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In Light of Death


27 Aug 2003
Tricycle Magazine interview with Rick Fields on his life with cancer:

In Light of Death

Rick Fields, poet, writer, student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and other
teachers in the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, was
diagnosed with lung cancer in 1995. At the time of this interview he was
editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal and a contributing editor to Tricycle. He is the author
of several books including How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of
Buddhism in America (Shambhala) and Code of the Warrior (Tarcher). This
interview was conducted by Helen Tworkov in California,in May 1997. Rick Fields
died in June of 1999.

Tricycle: When you were first told that you had cancer, what did you do?

Fields: Just by chance, that night a Tibetan lama was giving a medicine Buddha
teaching and I went. Part of it is that when you have a sickness, you view it as a
chance to take on the karma of the sickness of other people in a bodhisattva
fashion. That?s very different from a Western notion of getting sick. The bodhisattvic
viewpoint turns everything around. This is Vajrayana practice, to take any situation
that occurs and make it part of the path. Not just good situations, but any situation
becomes part of the path. Illness becomes part of the path. You can say, "May this
sickness I have help me to take on the sickness of all other people who are
suffering in the same way so that they are free from their suffering." By doing this,
you attack your self-pity and your egotism and that basic question that arises when
we get sick: "Why me?"

Tricycle: How have your teachers responded?

Fields: Usually the first thing they have said is "Everybody has to die. Death is real."
Rather than, "We can cure this and you?ll be all right." There was a very bare
recognition that "Well, what do you expect? You were born, so you?re going to die."
Almost like "Yes, what?s the big deal?" Then a little deeper along comes the idea
that "You?re lucky because it?s good for your practice."

Tricycle: Lucky because you are a practitioner?

Fields: Lucky because there is time to prepare, whether you are a practitioner or
not. The usual notion in the West is "Oh, so-and-so is very lucky that they died in
their sleep or had a heart attack or sudden death." But cancer is particularly good
because you usually have time to contemplate the whole thing and work with it. Part
of the Kagyu Ngundro practice [of Tibetan Buddhism] involves repeating the Four
Reminders. The second, in the translation that Trungpa Rinpoche used, is

Death is real,
Comes without warning
This body will be a corpse.

Death is the only certainty in our lives. Yet much of our culture is organized to help
us ignore death. So from that point of view, a terminal illness can be very helpful to
your spiritual practice. But that leaves you with the questions of what to do and how
to handle it. There are healing teachings that address staying alive but at the same
time, there isn?t this denial of death. Still, this idea that dying is a wonderful
experience is a sort of double-edged sword: it is, or can be, but most of us want to
stay alive as long as possible. Certainly I do.

Tricycle: How did going into and then out of remission affect you?

Fields: When I went into remission people talked about my miraculous recovery.
But when the cancer came back, I had to approach it in a different way now. It
became something I had to be able to live with. It came back in a lesser extent and
in a more limited area, and wasn?t immediately threatening to my life, and so rather
than use aggression, some kind of accommodation was called for. I was faced
with a situation of coexistence. I added practices to my daily routine which
emphasized the purification and strengthening of my own body and my own cells
and so on, almost imagining the transformation of the cancer cells rather than the
obliteration of them. Transformation into healthy cells, into healing cells. Maybe a
cure will appear, but it hasn?t yet, so the strategy is to figure out how to coexist, how
to keep it down to a level where it?s not life threatening. The other day I had a
thought that I don?t have a life-threatening disease. My life is threatening my
disease, in that it is keeping the disease from taking over. I live a
disease-threatening life.

Tricycle: What is your prognosis?

Fields: That question again! The odds are not good. One hundred to one, I?m going
to die. As to when, I?m not interested in fortune telling by either spiritual or medical
seers. As I said earlier I?ll live?and here I?ll add, as well, as deeply, as madly as I
can?until I die. One thing, though, is certain, which this whole encounter has
made very clear: the dharma is good in the beginning, good in the middle and?I?ll
bet my last dollar?good in the end
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