My friend Ken Arnold died just a few days ago.  He was a poet, playwright, publisher, shakuhachi player, student of Zen Buddhism and former Episcopal priest.  He was a part of the Portland, Oregon Buddhist community. He lived with cancer on and off for many years.  He had gotten used to the notion that cancer was his companion.  He first developed prostate cancer many years ago when he was employed by a major university press, which promptly fired him as soon as they learned of his diagnosis.  He sued them and won.  He later started up his own press.  For years the cancer came and went.  But he knew that even during the times when he appeared to be well, the cancer was still there, somewhere in the background, waiting for him.

I met Ken on May 18th, 2013 in Tokyo.  We were both members of a small tour group traveling around Japan.  For my wife and I this trip was our honeymoon.  Ken was in great spirits, full of enthusiasm and humor.  My wife and I liked him immediately and we quickly became friends.  Over the course of the trip we heard from Ken some of the story of his life, including his long sparring with cancer.  From these talks it soon became disturbingly clear to me how very precarious Ken’s health situation was, despite his robust appearance.  He was quite aware of how contingent his existence was.  He expected the cancer to come back, but it was impossible to tell when.  So he realized that he had no way of knowing how much time he had left, but that there was the real possibility that it might not be much.  Despite this he seemed quite ebullient and full of good spirits, enjoying every minute of his life.  He obviously had a great time on the trip.

A few months after the Japan trip ended I heard from Ken that his cancer had come back.  He was taking chemotherapy and was writing poems about the chemotherapy experience.  The cancer was not responding well to the chemo.  His long sparring with cancer had turned into a battle.  The cancer spread and was taking over his body.  Despite his weakness from the illness he remained in good spirits and even participated in a 10-day sesshin (an intensive retreat for Zen meditation training).  His messages from this period showed him to be remarkably brave and clear-headed about his condition.  He cultivated as much awareness of his life and his condition as he could.  He looked at everything that happened to him with a spirit of inquiry and a calm, clear acceptance.  There was no truth about his own body or his own life or mortality that he flinched from.  I mentioned to Ken that I admired the steadfastness of his spirit in the face of such overwhelming difficulties, and that he reminded me of a teaching by Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, who said that eventually everything that happens to you becomes a part of your practice.  Ken replied, “Yes, exactly!  Whatever happens to you, you must turn toward it, not away from it.”

In the end I think everything of the old life that you have carried around with you for so long is gradually burned away to nothingness, and all that you are left with is your awareness.  When we are born our awareness is the first thing we have, and when we die it is the last thing we have.