Grit in the Lotus, or when Zen is not so pretty

I am currently reading Peter Matthiessen’s collection of his Zen Journals ‘Nine-Headed Dragon River’ and was struck by the description of his wife dying of cancer:

“Under the covers, Ho Ko was already an old woman, her hips and beautiful legs collapsed, black and blue from needles, but she was still lovely when propped up in bed, and she wore her rakusu like a proud child. I watch our friends’ faces admiring the brave, calm, smiling woman in bed. I admired her, too, putting out of my mind those other days when her dying was neither calm nor lovely, those days that no one knew about but the nurses and me.” 1

dying-4I have a chronic illness and know of those days that are neither calm nor lovely as well. Like Ho Ko I am used to putting on a brave face and smiles when I see people but without being witness to what happens when they leave, their impression of what it is like to be ill may be somewhat of an illusion. I guess I am partly to blame for sustaining that but the urge to pass for something like normal is a strong one.

We have probably all read stories of old Buddhist masters who die stoically sitting upright in full lotus with a smile on their face and tales of how practice transforms pain into compassion. While it is certainly true that practice can ameliorate pain or at least soften our heart to it, this is not a given and there are many nights of waking alone in fear at 2am with the mind struggling to come to terms with what is happening rather than silently reciting mantras or breathing out compassion. Those anecdotes tend not to make it into articles on mindfulness at Huffington Post.

Kodo Sawaki is famous for saying that Zen is useless but I wonder how many of us hold the notion that our death will be easier as the result of our sitting practice? Will it? To be honest I don’t know. One of the most real Zen stories I have heard is of Shunryu Suzuki when he was dying of cancer. When his old friend Katagiri Roshi came to visit him, his words were completely human: “I don’t want to die.”  To me, this speaks far more of the reality of Zen practice than any image of a serene monk on a mountain top.

motion-sicknessAre the times of struggle and open pain any less part of life than sitting peacefully with illness and dying? Of course not and in Zen we seek to open to the whole catastrophe and accept it as it is, even the days of non-accepting and shouting at the world and the moments of rage, guilt, sadness and regret.

Being with suffering is hard and my former teacher Ken McLeod once pointed out that it is much harder to sit with suffering than to try and change it. It is human to want to help and to resolve things so that everything is okay again but this is not always possible, and not always what the suffering person wants. In Zen practice we need to be aware of this. Telling a person in pain that it is “good practice” may be well meant but is not always helpful. Is my illness good practice? Probably. Would I rather not have it? Definitely.

There is a human desire to turn basic experience into stories and the Zen notion of ‘nothing extra’ represents both an acknowledgement of that fact and a caution to view our usual patterns of thought with scepticism. Those who are suffering seem especially prone to the stories of others as we do not like to see suffering as something that happens in its own right, but something that can precipitate change and bring a different view of the world. I am sure this does happen but how often do we hear reports of those with terminal illness who begin to see each sunrise and snippet of birdsong as a blessing rather than those same people who struggle to change the dressing on a weeping sore sometime in the early hours?  There are so many tales of the transformative power of suffering but it is important to remember that these accounts are mostly written in retrospect rather than in the middle of the struggle itself, and the depth of the remembered suffering is much easier to recount in a more comfortable present moment that is seen to have blossomed from it.  Less is written about those who are worn down by pain that continues far longer than can be endured and does not give way to the proverbial happy ending.

Susan Sontag, in her excellent book ‘Illness as a Metaphor’ talks about two diseases that have been particularly prone to mythologizing – cancer and TB. No one seems to have cancer without being in a battle and either bravely winning or bravely losing that fight. There is nothing wrong with this, especially for those who have friends or relatives with cancer, but adding an extra layer of mental commentary can hide what is actually happening. As Matthiessen says, the day-to-day reality is something often only experienced by the closest family members and health care professionals. I imagine that nurses are highly unlikely to be susceptible to the mythologizing of any illness or the idea of ‘a good death’ as they have too much experience with the variety and complexity of both life and death.

I must admit that when I turn on the tv to provide escapism from pain and the barrage of mental flotsam that often accompanies it, I feel like a bad Zen student when I read about how others have breathed through their pain or used it as a way to enhance their compassion. That is, I guess, my own story but I suppose I do feel judged as if my illness is some kind of Zen examination.

Some of those who write about dealing with illness from a Buddhist perspective do acknowledge the reality of practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn talks of dipping your toe in the waters of pain rather than throwing yourself into its flow and Darlene Cohen’s ‘Turning Suffering Inside Out’ is a wonderfully down-to-earth account of meeting suffering from someone who did exactly that for many years. She is practical on balancing the need for practice with using modern media as a respite from a world of pain and struggle.


Other kinds of suffering are also ripe repositories for our own worldview and the present refugee crisis resulting from the Syrian civil war is a notable example here in the UK. People were surprised at how much one picture of a dead boy on a beach changed the narrative but I believe that the image cut through all of the stories with the bare truth – people (including many children) are dying. It didn’t take long before the media wove its commentary on top of this but the power of words was mute against the starkness of what everyone had seen.

If there is a point to this post (and there probably should be) it is to be aware of our natural tendency to tell stories, even in a Zen context, and instead open to what is actually happening. If you are faced with a sangha member or friend with illness, rather than immediately waxing lyrical about the power of practice to transform a situation, perhaps instead listen to how things are. Hopefully many do this already. By making a story of the brave ill person practicing with their pain we are closing off the true experience and negating their reality, replacing it with a far more comfortable narrative.  It is perhaps telling that  searching for online images of pain and illness for this piece brought up many pictures of attractive young women serenely lying in bed.  Like death, the reality of sickness is not something that modern society seems comfortable with.

It would be great if Zen practice could make the world free from pain and struggle but I don’t believe this was ever the point of it, rather to be intimate with all that is, just as it is. In Genjokoan, Dogen writes “When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing” and I think it is the not so pretty side of Zen that he is pointing to. However, much we practice, we cannot gloss over the hard parts of life and however much we shake the lotus the grit is still there. Not to acknowledge this would be a failure both of practice and humanity.


1 Nine-Headed Dragon River p23.


Published by Kokuu

Novice Zen priest and haiku poet. I am a tea drinking father to three teenagers living in Kent, UK. I have a chronic illness and far too many books. Sometimes I grow plants.

2 thoughts on “Grit in the Lotus, or when Zen is not so pretty

  1. Well said.Very honest. i think in some ways I fall into the same trap of using zen or zazen to re-write my own narrative, my own sense of self instead of honestly confronting things as they are.


    1. Thanks, Gavin. I really appreciate your comment. I think many of us are guilty of doing that. It is human nature to want to tell stories and our own story is probably the most compelling of all.


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