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Inspirational reaction to cancer diagnosis

Finding refuge in the wonder of the continuous, ever-changing dependent arising and dying of the myriad aspects of our lives and every aspect of the universe is perhaps a novel way to greet a cancer diagnosis. But it makes such good sense. This seems to be the refuge taken and reflected on by my spiritual teacher, Tarchin Hearn, in reaction to his diagnosis. So here is how he simultaneously applies and shares his insight on True Refuge. What an example to follow!


The Dharma of Illness and The Medicine of Wonderment

by Tarchin Hearn

with thanks to David French for asking me to write something on this topic

Oct 25/15, 5:52 am. I am sitting in my hut at Orgyen Hermitage, our 2 acre block situated in the

Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. The sky appears crystalline, washed with the colours of dawn and

framed with silhouettes of trees and bushes. All around are the sounds of thousands of birds,

chirping and squawking, a fluxing aural tapestry celebrating the rising energies of another day.

There is a sense of timeless goodness, an unhurried rightness in this moment of simple daily

blessing. An immeasurable expanse of experience and experiences surrounds and suffuses me, a

weaving together of uncountable situations and circumstances – a seamless whole in the act of

constant transformation – this dancing of my current knowing/experience/beingness.

Beneath my skin, vast realms of micro-activity are doing their part in bringing forth a glorious

morning display: muscles, tendons, flowing blood, metabolizing cells, neural dance and

hormonal releasings. In this very moment, uncountable cells are being born and uncountable

cells are dying. What yesterday were carrots and wheat and beans and animal flesh are now

flowing streams of metabolic activity; substances being broken down, new substances being

built up and all of this molecular action powered by sunlight and mass/energy transformational


My situation is no different from everything else. If you look into anything you will see that it

has an ‘interior’ and that that ‘interior’ is a dancing of multi-leveled process that, when

considered all together, is indistinguishable from the particular thing itself. A rock is composed

of molecules relating to each other in a crystal lattice way. Each molecule is composed of atoms

that were once born in stars, which themselves are fields of subatomic activity,

‘moving/transforming’ with the speed and energy of light. A living blade of grass is similarly

composed as too, a human being, a bird, and an evolving world. This inner dynamic is interresponding

with outer dynamics. The rock is surrounded by situations and circumstances that

affect it’s beingness and so it is compacted, or eroded or carved by wind and sand or by the

hand held tools of a focused sculptor. The grass is also is similarly shaped and so are you.

Everything and anything you can identify is a dancing flux of inner process and outer process

and the mingling together of both in simultaneous, mutual, co-creating response.

A few years ago, I was writing about the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Instead of

speaking in a negative way – not permanent – I tried to enquire into what it positively is. If

something is not permanent, then what is it? The very concept ‘impermanent’ seems to imply

that there should be, or could be, something durable or at least, independently stable. Yet when

we look deeply and pervasively into the interbeingness of anything we find both ourselves and

the object we are involved with, and our mutual ongoing interactions, to be interpenetrating

fields of dynamic multi-leveled process. Out of this mutually probing and responding flux of

inner and outer in the act of relating, arises our experience of perception. Each moment of

inner and outer in the act of relating, arises our experience of perception. Each moment of

perception is an abstracting of seemingly durable, temporarily unchanging features, from an

incomprehensibly ephemeral ‘holomovement’1 – this universe in action. We are constantly

shaping and re-conforming to the shaping and conforming of ‘others’. This is the ungraspable

mystery of our lives and living. It’s what we are. It’s where we are, and how we are and what we

are knowing. In Mahayana Buddhism this dancing of impermanence is sometimes referred to as


Life is a boundless matrix of dynamic relationships.

Ultimately, every action reverberates throughout the universe.

I responding to you.

You responding to me.

This responding to that.

That responding to this.

Responsiveness is the living heart of being and becoming.

Atoms, molecules, organs and organisms, families and societies;

entire ecosystems, biospheres, planets and galaxies;

all shifting, responding, constantly changing.

Each birthing of this is a dying of that.

Each dying of that is a birthing of this.

Responsive change is the very nature and fabric of what is.

Permanence is a mental abstraction; a hope, a need,

a convenient but potentially deadening freezing

of the actual creative dynamic of all our lives in action.

Suffering arises through trying to fix or make permanent

what is essentially a seamless fluid process.

May we cease grasping at permanence and

with heartful confidence, love, enthusiasm and wide awake sensitivity,

enter fully the great birthing/dying matrix of responsive relating;

this ineffable, un-pin-down-able, present blessing of now.

Pause for a moment, and open all your doors of sensitivity and discernment – seeing, hearing,

smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, feeling and empathizing. Sense the world within you and

around you. You are a constantly changing ocean of relationships: these words and your brain,

your posture and the physical objects around you, your chemical and metabolic well-being and

the thoughts and understandings that that are shaping the way you are using your senses. There

is much more to life than what we usually assume is going on.

Over the last ten years I have been alternately bothered by, and have been trying to make

friends with, the results of a steadily enlarging prostate gland. Benign enlarged prostate

happens in many men of my age. It is a common expression or unfoldment of the dancing

biology that we have become. Getting up five to ten times per night to pee, I was often suffering

from sleep deprivation. Two weeks ago, I had a biopsy and the results came through a couple of

days back. Cancer.

It is both strange and wondrous to contemplate my situation. Over the years, I have supported

many people as they lived in worlds dominated by cancer or assumed potentially terminal

conditions. Now, I find myself going along in what feels like a familiar manner and then

something subtly shifts. Suddenly everything is convoluting and I realized that this time, the

cancer/diagnosis is about me!

The response from friends and acquaintances has been very revealing. After the biopsy, we

received a phone call from the hospital and I was told that the doctor had found “something he

was concerned about” and that he’d like to see me in his office. I called my GP and he e-mailed

me a copy of the lab report. The Gleason scores and PSA readings along with other parameters

were listed in an orderly clinical column. I ‘googled’ the unfamiliar terms and began to make

sense of what they were saying. I phoned friends who had had similar procedures and read

extensively and had a deepening sense of being part of a vast network of lives, disciplines,

studies and technological developments – a wondrous glimpse of a living world, the fruits of 3.5

billion years of intelligence unfolding, growing itself into a capacity for curiosity and caring,

now inseparably merged with and arising as my living.

Mary and I went to the appointment in the outpatient clinic at Tauranga hospital. A nurse took

us to a small room and said the doctor would be with us in a few moments. We could hear

snippets of conversation going on in the hallway and some kind of consultation happening in

the room directly opposite ours. Then both of us thought we heard the word ‘Tarchin’ at which

point someone in the adjacent room got up and closed the door and we could only hear muffled

voices. I thought to myself that perhaps they were discussing how to break the ‘bad’ news to us.

The door opened. The urologist came in. He saw me holding the lab report and I opened the

conversation with “well, I guess we have to get to work. What does it mean by . . .?” His eyes and

facial expression expressed great relief as he said, “I see your GP must have told you the

results”. I realized then that this moment, of telling a patient that they have cancer or some

other potentially terminal condition, must be one of the least liked tasks of any doctor. He

mentioned that often people found the news to be such a shock that they would have to reschedule

the consultation to give them time for their emotions to settle. We humans, able to

send individuals to the moon, inventors and users of internet and cell phones, capable of

landing a space craft on an asteroid, mapping genomes, photographing Pluto, peering into a

beating human heart, or into the smallest organelles of a cell, are so often traumatized by

opening ourselves to the basic biological reality of our lives.

In the midst of the 21st century, many people, in spite of all their worldly wisdom, are still laden

with medieval attitudes to illness. It is not uncommon to talk about the big ‘C’ or about being

sick or unwell, as if sickness was some kind of failing. (It is revealing that we use the word sick

to indicate something warped or immoral, “God, that’s sick!”) Physical dysfunction, frailty or

weakness is often experienced as if it were something to be ashamed of, or guilty about – as if

we had failed to meet some target or some kind of socially accepted ideal of good health. We

often feel a need to make excuses for our suffering. As if we needed to make excuses for being

the vulnerably co-dependent dancings that we are! It’s my genes, or a virus, or a bacterial

infection, or something that is going around. We try to identify a concrete cause for our

condition, not only to help us find a resolution to it but because the only alternative to

identifying a clear ‘outer’ cause seems to be that we ourselves, our behavior or our lifestyles, are

the cause. It’s our bad ‘karma’ or perhaps our bad diet or lack of exercise or excessive stress, and

the illness is punishment or retribution for our dissolute living! But are these really the only two

choices; either something outside my control – or me? We could do with a new word for

illness/sickness, one that honored the magnificence of this profoundly inter-dependent

holoverse in the act of knowing and experiencing itself in this particular manner. I guess it

probably wouldn’t catch on to say, ‘I’m having a deepening of suchness’! Or, ‘I’ve been invited

into a period of intensified enquiry, contemplation and spiritual ripening’.

Observing the many different responses of people to my diagnosis, I sense something very deep

going on here. In a culture that so values and celebrates autonomy and the imagined freedom of

independence; my own car, my own house, a secure job (self employed), private property, and

so forth not to mention ‘my’ body or ‘my’ mind, the terror of dependence that illness can bring,

so forth not to mention ‘my’ body or ‘my’ mind, the terror of dependence that illness can bring,

is more than many can bear. We feel sorry for this unfortunate victim of stroke or heart disease,

or cancer. We can easily feel sorry for ourselves. Its unfair. I haven’t achieved my ‘four score

and ten’. Some people avoid this depressing inner groan by treating their experience as a

military campaign. So and so is heroically fighting the disease. So and so lost their long drawn

out battle with cancer. We’re targeting the infection. We’re part of a war on cancer, HIV, and so

on. With this metaphor, chemotherapy can be seen as a form of carpet bombing.

All complex, inter-dependent life dancings, in other words, all living beings, have come about

through the collaboration and balancing of uncountable factors. As the relationship between

these factors change, the system functions differently. If the relationships change sufficiently,

the functioning will change into something else all together and the original functioning will no

longer be there. An apple ceases to function as an apple when it is digested into molecules of

carbohydrate that have become part of a metabolic process. These constantly changing

relationships are a basic nature of all interdependent arisings. There is no shame in this. We call

the apparent emergence or beginning of something ‘birth’ and the apparent final disappearing

of a thing ‘death’. When a child is growing, the birthing of cells outnumbers the dying of cells. In

middle age the birth rates and death rates are approximately equal. Later, the death of cells

overtakes the birth rate. Birth without death would not be a life. This continuous streaming of

birthing/dying is life in action – all of me present with and for all of you. As Mary Oliver wrote

in her beautiful poem “When Death Comes”: When it’s over, I want to say: all my life. I was a

bride married to amazement. I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

A week has passed since I began to write this short piece. During that time I have been

scheduled for surgery. It is a new morning, in my hut. The bird choirs are announcing and

celebrating, probing their newly dawned situations in the world. The echoes of mooing cows

adds to this moment of appreciating you and us and the immeasurable intricacy of everything

and everyone. I am taking my medicine. It is not expensive, as it has proved impossible to

patent. It has been around since the dawn of human kind. I dearly hope you can find this

medicine when you need it. It’s called wonderment!

In the vast expanse of nature unfolding,

In faith and trust and wonderment,

We give ourselves to this suchness,

This seamless mystery of birthing and dying.

Giving, flexing, bending, softening, responding

– this fluid, continuous letting go is my sadhana, my work.

Spacious, loving, with feet solid in the earth,

We nurture the hints at blessedness,

The myriad faces and masks of God.

Nurturing, supporting, feeding the presence of blessedness;

the experiential knowledge of being deeply supported

– embedded –

in a miraculous weaving of lives and living

with no absolute beginning or end.

Moving in this flow of compassion and deepening enquiry,

we engage with all beings in ways that support the integrity,

the stability and the beauty of the entire living world.

Engaging with this pilgrimage/journey/adventure of birthing/dying living.

Engaging with this pilgrimage/journey/adventure of birthing/dying living.

Embracing it. Surrendering into it. The mystery is tremendously integrated.

It is extraordinarily stable. It has been in action for billions of years.

It is breath-stoppingly beautiful in all its vulnerability and creative possibility.

I’d like to finish this essay by thanking all the people who have sent generous offers of support

to Mary and I at this stage of the journey. Smiling, breathing, present appreciating, offering

May all beings be blessed with wonderment. May all beings realize their true nature.

How to respond to all these disasters?

This most recent devastating earthquake in Nepal and surrounding areas urges one to think, yet again, what can I do that will help relieve the suffering of the wounded, homeless, hungry and frightened beings effected by such destructive events? Clearly, material aid is the first consideration but can I also harness the power of mind to relieve this suffering? And how do I stay hopeful and positive in the face of what sometimes seems like increasingly troubled and violent times?

Remains of the temples in Patan Durbar Square reduced to rubble by the earthquakePhotograph: Omar Havana/Getty Images

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