Dealing with Cancer

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave this advice to a Spanish couple at Vajra Yogini Institute, France, in May 2009. When we experience the cancer for the sake of all sentient beings we collect skies of merit and it brings us closer to enlightenment. Edited from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive by Nicholas Ribush, May 2010.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching in Hong Kong, 2010. Photo by Ven. Thubten Kunsang (Henri Lopez).

The first thing to understand when you’re diagnosed with cancer is that you can use it to attain enlightenment quickly. If you use your cancer in this way it becomes useful for that. This is my heart advice. It’s like transforming ka-ka into gold.

This is a very big way of thinking. It’s cancer, but wow! It’s for achieving enlightenment, for achieving the Buddha’s holy body, speech and mind, which have infinite qualities. Through your cancer you can acquire the infinite qualities of the enlightened holy body, speech and mind—that’s amazing! Think like that and don’t worry. Think how amazing it is.

With respect to more formal practices, you can do tong-len—taking and giving—meditation a few times each day; for example, early morning, before lunch, in the afternoon and at night. Then, during the rest of the day, you should think, “I am experiencing this cancer on behalf of all sentient beings.” The best thing to do when the thought “I have cancer” arises is to think, “I am experiencing it for all sentient beings.”

It’s like when you do deity practice you think that whatever arises is the deity, here, whenever you think, “I have cancer,” you think, “I’m experiencing it on behalf of all sentient beings.” Think like that every time. That’s the best thing to do. Each time you think like this you collect limitless skies of merit and get closer and closer to enlightenment. Wow! That’s amazing! In this way your cancer really benefits you. Every time you think that you’re experiencing your cancer for the sake of all sentient beings you collect skies of merit and each time you have this thought you get closer to enlightenment. That’s how your cancer brings you to enlightenment.

First, of course, you need to be clear that your goal is to not be in samsara and to attain enlightenment. Once you have made enlightenment your goal, your cancer becomes like a wish-granting jewel. When you meditate as above, your cancer allows you to collect merit and brings you closer to enlightenment every day. Every time you think like this, in just one day you get much closer to enlightenment—it’s amazing, amazing, amazing. In just one day!

Thus your cancer becomes even more precious than a wish-granting jewel. I first compared it to a wish-granting jewel because such jewels are said to bring you whatever material comfort you want the moment you think about it. But here we’re not talking about material comfort; we’re talking about enlightenment. Your cancer makes you actualize bodhicitta, the five Mahayana paths, the ten bhumis and finally the tantric paths. It makes you achieve all that. That means you can liberate numberless hell beings—wow! Numberless hungry ghosts—wow! Numberless animals—wow! Numberless human beings—wow! Numberless asuras—wow! Numberless suras—wow! And numberless intermediate state beings—wow! Can you imagine that? Wow! Think how much you can do to help.

But not only that: it makes you bring numberless hell beings to enlightenment, numberless hungry ghosts to enlightenment, numberless animals to enlightenment, numberless human beings to enlightenment, numberless asuras to enlightenment, numberless suras to enlightenment and numberless intermediate state beings to enlightenment—wow! Your cancer enables you to do all this, so it really becomes an unbelievable wish-granting jewel.

Normal wish-granting jewels can bring only material things but here you can fulfill all the wishes of every hell being, every hungry ghost, every animal, every human, every asura, every sura, every intermediate state being—all their wishes up to enlightenment. In this way your cancer becomes most amazingly precious, really something to have rather than not to have! It’s so precious; it’s like you’ve found a wish-granting jewel, something extremely precious and rare. Like that, it’s most amazing and unbelievable.

Every time you think, “I am experiencing cancer on behalf of all sentient beings,” it purifies many eons of past negative karma—wow! It’s like an atomic bomb, the heaviest and most powerful weapon in the world, exploding your negative karma—many eons of negative karma get purified; many eons! Think, “I am experiencing this for all sentient beings to free them from all samsaric suffering and its cause.”

“I am experiencing this cancer for all sentient beings” means that you are wishing numberless sentient beings to be free from cancer, but because you have taken on all the suffering of all sentient beings, not just cancer, thinking, “I am taking all their suffering,” you experience all your suffering on behalf of all sentient beings, for all sentient beings.

Or you can think, “I am experiencing the cancer and suffering of all sentient beings.” When you do tong-len meditation, taking all sentient beings’ suffering onto yourself, you think, “I am experiencing all suffering of all sentient beings.” And not just cancer; cancer is just like one atom. Like this house is just one house among so many others. Like that, there are so many other sufferings. So it’s fantastic that you take on all sentient beings’ suffering, including cancer.

And when you think like this, you purify many past lives’ negative karma and get further from samsara and closer to enlightenment. Every time you think, “I have cancer on behalf of all sentient beings” or “I am experiencing this cancer, this suffering, for all sentient beings,” you collect limitless skies of merits. You can practice either way, according to which you find more effective; sometimes one way, sometimes the other.

When you generate compassion for all sentient beings and practice tong-len, you take on all their suffering. Suffering is exactly what sentient beings don’t want but since they don’t know what causes it they constantly keep busy creating its cause and even feel happy to be doing so. The problem is that because they are blind in their wisdom eye, they don’t know that their motivation for everything they do—attachment to this life—is the principal cause of suffering. So thinking that they are creating the cause of happiness, they enthusiastically create the cause of suffering all day every day, not knowing that in fact, great suffering will result. They also act out of ignorance and anger, creating the cause of even more suffering.

As a result of all this, sentient beings experience constant suffering. They’re reborn in the six realms of samsara, undergo the all the sufferings they contain, then die, get reborn, and suffer and die all over again. Sentient beings have been doing this from beginningless rebirths up to now, and if they don’t meet the Dharma, don’t get the help that Dharma offers, don’t practice Dharma, they will continue to suffer endlessly. Thus you can see that sentient beings are totally under the control of delusion and karma. They have no freedom at all and are constantly tormented by the suffering of pain.

Human beings have eight types of suffering, the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, death, separation from desirable objects, meeting with undesirable objects, not finding desirable objects and inhabiting aggregates created by delusion and karma.

Another suffering is that which comes from finding a desirable object but then not getting any satisfaction from it and another suffering starting as a result. Also, we create much negative karma in trying to gain desirable objects such as money and wealth by cheating others and so forth. And even if we achieve what we want, the pleasure doesn’t last; it’s essenceless—the object perishes or enemies take it away.

One problem is that we believe certain desirable objects to be permanent, that we’ll have them forever and that they’ll last a long time. But it doesn’t work that way and we get completely cheated. This belief in permanence also causes much suffering.

Devas—suras and asuras—are totally distracted by attachment to sense pleasure. Of course, their pleasures are hundreds, thousands, millions of times greater than those found in the human realm, even in the most developed countries. Since they are totally absorbed by those pleasures they have no space for Dharma and because of their attachment create only the causes of suffering. And at the end of their lives they experience the five signs of impending death, which brings them tremendous mental suffering. This is far greater than the suffering hell beings experience. Karmically they can see which lower realm—hell, hungry ghost or animal—they are going to be reborn into and because of where they are now, this causes unbelievable suffering.

You can read the details of the five signs and the devas’ suffering in various lam-rim books, where you will also find details of the suffering in the eight hot hells, the eight cold hells and the four neighboring hells.

Hungry ghosts (pretas) experience incredible sufferings of hunger and thirst because they’re unable to find food or even a drop of water for thousands of years. Furthermore, their abdomens are as large as a mountain and their leg are extremely thin, so it’s very difficult for them to walk—millions of times more difficult than it is for even very old people. And when they see food, ponds, waterfalls and so forth from afar, they encounter guardians on the road who prevent them from getting there. All this makes them extremely exhausted. Then even if, despite these obstacles, they eventually reach their goal, they find that what they thought was water has turned into blood, pus and garbage, which even they can’t consume. Thus they never find anything they can eat or drink and fall into terrible despair. And then, even should they finally manage to discover something to eat, they find it difficult to ingest because their mouths are so tiny, like the eye of a needle, and their necks are knotted. And again, despite all this, should a tiny bit of food manage to get past all these obstructions, when it reaches their stomach it bursts into flame and causes agonizing burns. Thus pretas have the outer suffering of hunger, obscurations of food, and inner suffering as just described…all different kinds of suffering of pain.

Animals, too, have many different kinds of suffering, such as eating one another and being tortured by humans.

Finally, there are intermediate state beings, who have many karmic fears, such as getting caught in waves the size of mountains or mountain-sized fires, crushed by mountains and so forth. All these experiences are varieties of the suffering of pain.

On top of the suffering of pain is the suffering of samsaric pleasure. Take eating food, for example. If you are hungry and don’t eat, you experience increasing compounded hunger. When you start to eat, the action of not eating stops and the compounded hunger decreases and goes away. But at the same time, the next suffering, the discomfort of being too full, begins. At first it’s very small and you don’t recognize it, but if you keep on eating the discomfort gradually increases. Therefore, as one suffering stops, another starts—we call that feeling “pleasure”; that is the suffering of pleasure and we call it that because such pleasure does not increase. Why does it not increase hour by hour and day by day? Because the feeling we have labeled pleasure is actually suffering. As one heavy suffering stops, another begins, but it’s very small and we take it as a base to be labeled as pleasure. That’s why the pleasure does not increase—it’s not really happiness. This is the same with everything we normally label happiness and pleasure; it’s actually suffering.

Since our body is in the nature of pervasive compounding suffering, our worldly happiness and pleasures, such as eating or sexual pleasure, do not increase hour by hour or day by day; they don’t even continue. This pervasive compounding suffering is the foundation of the other two sufferings, the suffering of pain and the suffering of samsaric pleasure.

Suffering pervades our aggregates because they are totally under the control of delusion and karma and are produced through the twelve links of dependent arising. Each rebirth, including our present one, has twelve links, where most of the links have already finished and all that’s left is death. Our twelve links arose through two actions—karmic formation and becoming—motivated initially by ignorance, which is the root of samsara, and then, just before the death of our previous life, craving for and grasping at this human rebirth, which made its karmic seed stronger and ready to throw to this life. That was the action of becoming.

The very root of all this is ignorance, not knowing the ultimate nature of the self or the ultimate nature of the aggregates; not knowing that nothing exists from its own side but is totally empty. What we label “I” and “aggregates” are hallucinated projections that came from the mind, from negative imprints left on the mind by past ignorance, and when we see those appearances we believe them to be completely true, that they really exist as they appear. This is the ignorance in which we live; this is how we see hell, enlightenment, samsara, nirvana—everything—as real, which is a total hallucination. Therefore we need to meditate and look at these things and all other phenomena as empty—I, action and object are all empty, the exact opposite of what we believe. We have to think the opposite, totally contradicting what ignorance believes; this is meditation. This is how we can realize emptiness, how we can cut the root of samsara and gain liberation. And not only that: with bodhicitta and wisdom we can eradicate even our subtle defilements and achieve enlightenment.

So pervasive compounding suffering exists because our aggregates are totally under the control of delusion and karma, and that is why our body and mind are in the nature of suffering. Furthermore, these aggregates are the contaminated seed of delusion, so they compound the suffering of this life’s body and mind and create the karma that throws us into our future rebirths, thus compounding our future lives’ samsara, our future lives’ suffering, as well. So that’s why this suffering is called pervasive compounding, and meditation on pervasive compounding suffering is the special and most important Buddhist technique for developing renunciation of samsara.

The term pervasive compounding suffering has two meanings. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that because our aggregates are always under the control of delusion and karma, they’re in the nature of suffering. The second meaning is that the contaminated seed, or imprint, of delusion carries within it past imprints and thus compounds our physical and mental suffering and problems. Thus it is related to not only past karmic imprints but it also creates the karma that throws us into our future lives and produces, or compounds, their suffering. It compounds both this life’s suffering and that of our future lives.

The form and formless realms also have pervasive compounding suffering but the formless realm does not have the suffering of pain or the suffering of change; neither does it have sense pleasure in relation to external objects and attachment to those. Even though formless realm beings have only mind, even that is in the nature of pervasive compounding suffering. So it’s very important to understand that they are not free of suffering. When their long life spans come to an end they are again reborn in the desire realm as a heel being, hungry ghost, animal, human or deva.

Therefore it’s very, very important to meditate on suffering and to develop compassion by meditating on the how sentient beings suffer. It’s also very, very, very important not to think that it’s just poor, ill or homeless people who suffer. We have to see how beings in all three realms—desire, form and formless—are suffering. Then our bodhicitta prayers will become very elaborate and extend to the beings in the form and formless realms. Otherwise our prayers will just be for certain animals and people who are hungry or sick.

So practice taking on all sentient beings’ suffering, not just one but all three types: suffering of pain, suffering of change and pervasive compounding suffering, according to that experienced in each realm as explained in the lam-rim teachings. You must also always include the cause of suffering—delusion and karma and the negative imprints. As you breathe in all this suffering and its cause and your breath enters your heart, it completely smashes your ego and self-cherishing, like an atom bomb. It’s just like in the first Iraq war, when missiles fired from a long way away still hit right on their target. Like that, each time you take on the suffering, numberless beings in all realms benefit and you get numberless merits and immeasurable purification. Each time you practice this you purify numberless eons of negative karma. It’s really amazing! And because there are numberless beings in each realm you collect limitless skies of merit. Each time you take on the suffering of each realm you get closer to enlightenment—wow! Then, when you give, generate loving-kindness and give happiness and its cause.

Sentient beings are strange. When it comes to actually creating the cause of happiness they get scared. When you teach them what it is, they don’t understand and feel afraid. But at the same time, happiness is all they want, all the time. So it’s difficult. Then they generate anger and destroy the few merits, the actual cause of happiness, that they possess; they destroy even the few small merits that they’ve managed to collect through generating a little compassion, helping a few animals and so forth. Even Buddhists who have taken refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha generate anger and heresy and blow it all away!

So, generating loving-kindness, you give numberless sentient beings all your beginningless merits and their result, happiness. Give them every single merit of the past, present and future up to enlightenment, every single comfort of this and future lives, liberation and enlightenment, everything; give everything to numberless sentient beings in each realm. It’s amazing.

Not only that. Also give your body to numberless hell beings, numberless hungry ghosts, numberless animals, numberless human beings, numberless asuras, numberless suras and numberless intermediate state beings. This brings you much closer to enlightenment; it’s truly amazing.

Furthermore, you have so much money and so many possessions. When you give to the numberless sentient beings in each realm, you give each of your material possessions. You have so many clothes, for example; so many hats, so many shoes, clothes for inside, clothes for outside and so forth, so imagine you are giving all these things away. To whom? To numberless sentient beings. Make charity of each and every material possession to each of the numberless sentient beings. Doing so you collect numberless merits. Wow, can you imagine? You have so many material possessions and so much money; with each euro, each dollar, you give to numberless sentient beings you collect numberless merits. Even if you have only one dollar and give it to numberless hell beings, numberless hungry ghosts, numberless animals, numberless human beings, numberless asuras, numberless suras, numberless intermediate state beings, wow—what amazing, amazing charity that is! It brings you so much closer to enlightenment.

You should analyze all this carefully; then you can understand what it means and how much merit you create. It’s amazing. If you just think that you’re giving everything to all sentient beings you don’t feel that much but if you think individually, one-by-one, then you can understand how by giving one rupee, one dollar, one euro to numberless hell beings, numberless hungry ghosts, numberless animals, numberless human beings, numberless asuras, numberless suras, numberless intermediate state beings, you collect numberless merits, seven times numberless merits. On top of that, there’s each of your many other material possessions. Can you imagine? You get so much closer to enlightenment—there are so many merits, the result is all happiness up to enlightenment.

First give to numberless hell beings not just your body but yourself. When you do, their hell becomes a pure land that has no suffering whatsoever, only beauty and wish-granting trees where all their wishes get fulfilled. They then receive a perfect human rebirth, meet the Dharma and a guru and gain everything they need to practice. You can also make charity of your family members, friends, helpers and others around you as well as your body, wealth and merit and its resulting happiness. Through making charity of your family and so forth you collect much merit and attain enlightenment. I also try to make charity of those who help and take care of me. It’s a very powerful practice. You can do this with each of your family members.

The sentient beings who receive this charity then gain a perfect human rebirth, meet the Buddhadharma and a guru and achieve all realizations. This includes you. Everything you give becomes realizations liberating all beings from suffering and bringing them to enlightenment. Whatever practice you do, they achieve it. If you practice Tara, they all become Tara; if you practice Chenrezig they all become Chenrezig. So that happens to all hell beings, then all hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, suras and asuras. You can do it one-by-one or make charity all together and then think that all realms become pure lands. I find it most effective to think that I myself become a pure land for them. You can think that all realms became pure lands but also that you yourself become a pure land, a place for them to live. This is very good; it has a lot of power. Not only do your merits transform all realms into pure lands but also you yourself become a pure land, the means of living for them; this is very powerful. It’s the same thing with realizations.

So then all beings get to be in a pure land; that is the first thing. Then they all receive a perfect human rebirth, meet the holy Dharma, have perfect surrounding people, perfect enjoyments, actualize the path and get liberated from suffering.

When you give your body in this way you collect seven times numberless merits. When you give your material things, it’s the same. You then get happiness in this life and happiness in future lives up to enlightenment. So you get numberless merits so many times in such a short time, in the short time, the few seconds, it takes to do this meditation. Wow!

Maitreya Buddha generated bodhicitta much before Shakyamuni Buddha but Shakyamuni Buddha became enlightened much sooner. Why, even though Maitreya Buddha generated bodhicitta before Shakyamuni Buddha, did Shakyamuni get enlightened before Maitreya? It was because his bodhicitta, his compassion, was much stronger. The more you practice tong-len, the quicker you reach enlightenment.

In this way you totally transform your cancer. Before knowing about this meditation it was something that you didn’t want, something to get rid of, but now it’s something that you want, that you must have. Your cancer is the most important, most precious thing you have, more precious than a wish-fulfilling jewel, the cause of your enlightenment.

You should rejoice that your cancer brings you to enlightenment very quickly because you can then liberate sentient beings more quickly; they don’t have to suffer for a long time. You can bring them to enlightenment much more quickly—this is fantastic! It makes your life like gold, most meaningful.

You can apply this approach to not only cancer but also to any life problem. In this way you can do big puja for all sentient beings—big puja for numberless hell beings, big puja for numberless hungry ghosts, big puja for numberless animals, big puja for numberless human beings, every human being, big puja for the world, big puja for the family. This is how you transform problems into happiness.