I sometimes wonder if losing my parents has contributed to my interest in Buddhism.
I was raised with Christianity, like many people are, but my upbringing wasn’t particularly religious or spiritual.
I was fourteen when the cancer was discovered in my father’s esophagus. The doctors put together a plan to do surgery and remove his stomach. I didn’t know we could live without a stomach, but we can. When they cut him open, they found the cancer was too widespread, so they just sewed him up and started chemotherapy.
He lived for 11 months.
I watched my mother take care of him. I saw him at what was probably the lowest point in his life. First he lost his hair, then he lost a lot of weight. Before his death he looked like he had been a victim of famine or something. I saw my father die from cancer and I got to know all about suffering and impermanence, firsthand.
Four years later, during my first year of college, it was like lightning struck our family again.
My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Just like dad, the doctors decided surgery wasn’t an option and they put her on chemotherapy. Just like dad, I watched her body slowly fall apart until she died. This time, I was taking care of her.
It was hard. I had to drop out of college that year and put off my education for a little while, but my mother needed me so I was there. I had to become an adult when I lost my parents. Some people don’t become adults until a few years into their twenties, or even later. I didn’t have that option.
The realities of suffering and impermanence are important concepts in Buddhism. I experienced those realities firsthand as a teenager. I watched each of my parents die slow and painful deaths. I think that’s why I started asking questions about suffering and the causes of suffering. The religion I was raised with didn’t seem to be helpful in reducing my own suffering. I imagine it does for some people, but it didn’t for me.
I didn’t deal with their deaths very well and I ended up suffering from terrible anxiety and depression.
I withdrew into myself and started avoiding social situations. I just wanted to be alone and feel sorry for myself. I pushed away everyone that cared about me. I think I was afraid but I didn’t understand my feelings at the time.
I lost my parents.
If I let someone else be close to me, I could lose them too. It’s not a healthy attitude, but I think it is something a lot of people suffer with when they have to deal with a loss.
I was drifting through college life, taking random classes. I didn’t choose a major and didn’t have any direction in my life. I wasn’t so much sad as, just, numb. My heart was blank and I felt emptiness within. I still went through the motions of a normal college life, but I was just letting things happen to me. I was just being carried along by life.
I took a World Religions class and it was there that things changed for me.
I had no interest in religion before that class. I just took it because I thought it would be easy. Something in the story of the Buddha resonated, deeply, with me. I started reading all of the books about Buddhism and meditation that I could. A daily meditation practice brought me out of my depression after a few weeks.
I started learning to accept loss.
The Buddha didn’t experience anything like I did, of course. If anything, his experience was the opposite. He was shielded from all kinds of suffering by his protective father. His mother died when he was a baby, but he never knew her, so that loss didn’t affect him. He had every possible joy available to him for his entire life. That’s not something most of us can relate to very well.
The 13th century Japanese Zen master, Dogen, on the other hand, had an entirely different experience from the Buddha. He was inspired by personal tragedy. I find his story to be something I can relate to and understand. Losing his father at the age of 2 and his mother at the age of 7, he became a young orphan and that is how he learned the realities of suffering and impermanence, just as I did as a teenager. I lost my father when I was 15 and my mother when I was 19, not nearly as young as Dogen, but certainly before I was ready to become a full grown adult. I think any child suffers a great deal when their parents pass before their time.
On her deathbed, Dogen’s mother recognized the purity of her son’s heart. She told him to devote his life to benefiting others.
My mother told me something similar on her deathbed. She said, “Always be a good person. Be kind to others.”
Dogen’s experience of great suffering inspired him to become a Buddhist monk. He devoted his life to understanding suffering, just as the Buddha had 1800 years earlier. He developed great compassion and an inquiring mind. I developed these as well. Was it the result of personal tragedy? I suppose there’s no way to tell, but his story really speaks to me on a personal level.
Dogen went on to become a very important figure in Zen Buddhism, even founding his own sect. I truly don’t want to compare myself to him. I only wanted to say that I find parallels between his story and my own.
Did the deaths of my parents cause me to search for spiritual truths and ultimately find Buddhism? I think so. So many people in the world don’t ask the deep questions: Why are we here? What causes suffering? What is reality?
The suffering caused by my loss led me to these questions.
“To study Buddhism is to study ourselves. To study ourselves is to forget ourselves.”
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Assistant Ed: Steph Richard/Ed: Bryonie Wise