By Jerome Freedman, Ph.D.
On Superbowl Sunday in 1997, I was admitted to the hospital with what turned out to be bladder cancer. On the day of the vernal equinox, I felt a remarkable healing take place during a session of guided imagery. Every year, the equinox reminds me of the famous Zenrin:
Sitting quietly, doing nothing
Spring comes, and the grass grows all by itself.
During the guided imagery session, I had a tremendous insight, which allowed me to transform this Zenrin to reflect my situation:
Lying still, breathing in, breathing out,
Healthy cells grow all by themselves, and I am free of cancer.
This insight was followed by a practice that I still maintain today. Every time I place my left foot—at least, when I am mindful—I think: Healthy. Whenever I place my right foot, I think: Free. I also use these words to trigger mindfulness when doing meditation. These mindfulness practices were naturally a result of my understanding and love of Thay and his simple method of teaching the Dharma.
Seven months later, I was able to attend one of Thay’s retreats at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I walked on the beach with Thay, practicing “healthy/free” while holding his hand. I feel that his willingness to allow this to happen was inspirational in my recovery. In addition, I had a conversation with Sister Chan Khong about cancer and my use of mindfulness in dealing with the pain and suffering I was experiencing. Her compassion, attentiveness, and loving kindness helped me cope with the rough road ahead of me.
In February 2000, I visited Plum Village for a few days. During the period after my visit to Plum Village in 2000 until my visit in 2006, I was a founding member of the Mountain Sangha in Marin County, California and participated in Lyn Fine’s aspirant group. I also had no recurrence of cancer and wanted to teach a class on mindfulness in healing as part of my aspiration to be ordained in the Order of Interbeing.
When the possibility of visiting Plum Village came up in March 2006, I wrote to Plum Village to see if I could participate in the Spring Retreat. It took several phone calls and an email to Sister Chan Khong to get the answer I was hoping for. She responded, in part: “Please come, I guarantee that you can see me, but for Thay it depends on his health.”
Thursday, March 23 was a day of mindfulness with Thay. His talk was in Vietnamese, with Sister Chan Khong translating into English. After the Dharma talk, I approached Sister Chan Khong and reminded her who I was. She asked me to get my shoes and follow her to get my breakfast. Then she took me to Thay’s room! She told me not to eat until Thay came down for breakfast. I was literally beside myself, so I merely drank my cup of tea until he came down. Sister Chan Khong asked me how I would work with someone who had metastatic cancer, and as I fumbled with my answer, Thay came down the stairs.
I jumped up to hug him and sat down when he did. His first words were for me to share his sticky buns with him and the two attendant nuns by my side. I told Thay that I thought the Dharma was in good hands with the likes of Brothers Phap Dung and Phap An teaching as well as they did. He said to me, “I think you are doing very well yourself!” A little while later, I reviewed my practices with Thay and began to answer Sister Chan Khong’s question about cancer, starting with the famous Zenrin mentioned above.
Most of the time, I noticed Thay sitting quite calmly in a posture of complete equanimity. He was really enjoying his break- fast. At other times, other subjects were discussed, but when Thay finished his breakfast, he needed to rest before walking meditation. I left feeling the joy of being with such remarkable beings. Thay is a man of peace and he inspires me every day. His loving kind- ness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity, and generosity have penetrated my being.