Zen and Male Breast Cancer: Where the 'C' Word Meets the 'Z' Word


Khevin Barnes was diagnosed with breast cancer while living in a Zen Buddhist temple in Hawaii.

Not too many years ago, the word "cancer" frightened a lot of people. A cancer diagnosis continues to do so, but the word itself has backed its way out of our discomfited vocabulary for the most part. I remember as a youngster being reluctant to reveal that my astrological sign was "Cancer." I decided that I would just be a Sagittarius instead.

Thus is the power of words. And thoughts.

Breast cancer found me while I was a full time resident at the Palolo Zen Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. My wife and I had been practicing Zen meditation for a number of years and continuing our practice while living in Hawaii for twelve months was a dream come true for both of us.

My cancer diagnosis came about in a rather typical fashion. Cancer is often a quiet visitor after all, circling as a black cat in the shadows of a moonless night, waiting to pounce when the opportunity strikes. Many of us, I've come to learn, are ill-prepared for the sudden news that our lives are about to take on a new directive. I certainly wasn't ready to hear the message that had been left on my cell phone one Sunday in May 2014.

It was Mother's Day, and as fate would have it, I had left Hawaii and flown back on short notice to Newport Beach, California, to spend some final hours with my mom. She was in hospice, waiting to die at the age of 93.

My few days there were spent holding her hand, talking with my brother and two sisters, and waiting for the moment when my mom could take her final, sweet breath and be carried away. The day before I flew to the mainland, my doctor had taken a needle biopsy of the suspicious tiny lump in my left breast, promising to call me with any news.

After sitting with mom for awhile on the Mother's Day, I left my post so that my older sister could take over. I saw a message on my cell phone, dialed it up and heard my doctor's voice that began:

“Hi, Khevin. I have a bit of bad news ..."

Her message was brief and to the point and I can still replay it my mind, so many months later. There were a few quiet words, an apology with a hint of disappointment, and suddenly my life was changed forever.

At least, that's the way it felt. But as a student of Zen meditation, I had come to know that our lives change moment by moment in an endless series of experiences stacked one upon the other, percolating in constant renewal, each one a bit richer than the one preceding it. So the truth is, my life did change with those words, "You have cancer," but not because of the disease.

It changed because that's what lives do.

My existence for the preceding year had unfolded in that wonderful refuge on the island of Oahu and that place, it seemed to me, was a perfect location to discover, recover and heal. We had a supportive community of dynamic and caring people, all of whom had added to my growth in the practice of Zen meditation. We had geckos running wild — they were in the garden, on the walls, in my room and in my shoes. They always made me smile, which I believe is very good medicine.

I used to wake up each morning there in our residence hall and be consciously grateful for a long list of gifts I was about to receive that day. After my cancer diagnosis, but before the depth and severity of the disease was established, I found myself beginning each day saying "goodbye with gratitude" for all that I had received in the past, not knowing how much longer I had to live. What I discovered was that one of those thoughts was about the future and the other was about the past, yet the origin of both was exactly the same.

And then I noticed a very thin slice of vast truth that sat between those thoughts, like a sandwich — and I could see rather clearly where Zen was alive and flourishing.

We talk often in Zen about living in the present moment. It's not just a bumper sticker phrase, but a really simple and vastly profound way of living. It's also not easy to do, I've come to discover. I’ve noticed that much of what there is to learn about life sneaks up on me when I'm not looking.

Not so much like the black cat, but like the gecko. Quiet. Observant. Smile-inducing.

Ours was a barefoot community. Perhaps this is not so surprising for a Zen Buddhist temple. In my case though, growing up and living at the beach for much of my life, I think I spent more time without shoes in those twelve months than in all of my years body surfing and strolling along the ocean. I like the way walking barefoot feels. It reminds me that all of the comforts of home, all of the traditions and patterns and familiarity that we create and call our own, are really just inventions after all.

Like our shoes.

That’s the first message in Zen that I learned in Hawaii. Zen isn’t about the shoes on my feet. It’s about walking.

And waking.

We were situated on thirteen acres of Hawaiian jungle, located at the top of a winding road on the side of a lush volcanic lava flow. My wife and I arrived there with the intention to stay for six months, but it easily turned into twelve. We didn't have an end in mind for the experience. Zen, after all, is not a self-help program or a panacea for our dilemmas and disillusions. And it certainly isn't a cure for cancer.

Zen is a way of life. It has no beginning or end. It has no reward. No promises. Nothing to achieve (not even enlightenment).

And absolutely nothing to gain except awareness.

It’s simple really. Nothing about Zen is complicated. Zen is difficult to explain because it’s not about words. You can read every book on the subject, visit teachers and think long and hard about it. But it can only be discovered experientially. And it’s hard work. Rather than ask the question, “What is Zen?” I suggest that we ask, “When is Zen?”

The answer is, “Right now.” Right here, with this cancer I carry.

Here's something else I've learned: As far as “enlightenment” goes, I’m afraid it has been a bit overproduced in the Hollywood sense. Becoming a Buddha is not a reachable goal. You will never “attain” it. You’re already there. It’s a done deal. You are a Buddha.

The real work is waking up to our true nature and living in accord with it. It consists of continually turning away from all the stories and thoughts we acquire and maintain over time and just paying attention to the matter at hand. Today, I have cancer.

Or not.

There’s no need to tediously strip away the stories and thoughts. They fall away by themselves when we stop investing the effort in gluing them all together in our impression of reality. What a remarkable gift my diagnosis of breast cancer has been in guiding me to this simple way of seeing my life and death.

Despite my studies, I am an infant in Zen. But it doesn’t matter — I’m not being graded by anybody. Though Zen is centuries old, it fits perfectly with the modern world. In Hawaii, we had some ancient traditions and symbolism and some charming rituals to employ that have been handed down throughout history and are integral parts of Zen from long ago. We used a lot of Japanese words and bowed often to express our gratitude and reverence for life. All of these things are useful tools and meaningful reminders of the past and the evolution of our practice. But we also had a sizzling internet connection and smartphones. I had my musical keyboards, computers and my iPad — all there with me. These are the tools of our times.

And we had Zen. This is a tool for right now, this very instant.

Not long ago, I was in a hospital that looked like the set of "Star Trek." I received a high-tech surgery that removed my entire left breast and lymph nodes and returned me home to my own bed before the day was half over. I was hooked up to machines that did things I can only imagine, surrounded by people dressed in blue, with masks, gloves and busy schedules. When I returned to our quiet temple, I sipped on healing turmeric tea that I had harvested and juiced myself from plants grown in our garden.

These are the worlds where Zen operates. There are no fences between them. They are the very same place.

Each day in Hawaii at 5:00 a.m., the morning gong would ring and I would make my way to a cushion in the big hall and I would sit. Breathing. Watching. Thoughts of people and places and situations and scenes with hundreds of stories would arise endlessly — including thoughts of my cancer and my life.

Thinking is one of the things we do, after all. It’s not a bad thing. Thinking takes us to the future and to the past with the speed of light, and it drives us all day, every day. My hope, of course, is to be cancer-free. I will do everything that seems helpful in order to make that happen.

Today is for living, though.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, once said something that I have thought of often. For a long time, I kept his words on my bathroom mirror to read as I started my day. As I continue to experience my cancer connection, I am reminded once again of his words and I think they are a fitting way to end.

And to begin.

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”

Khevin Barnes is a breast cancer survivor, song writer and stage magician. He was diagnosed with stage 1, grade 3 invasive breast cancer in May 2014. He lives in Vail, Arizona, and travels to speak to women and men about cancer.




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