Scholar Daniel Cozort studied and taught Buddhism for years, but he really learned what the dharma meant when he needed it most. He shares how Buddhist teachings saved him, and how they can help us too when life gets difficult.
This summer, I observed the tenth anniversary of a life-changing event. In July 2011 I was struck head-on by a car as I was riding my bicycle on a country road in Pennsylvania. A helicopter took me to Hershey, where surgeons repaired and reinforced my spine. But the accident made me a paraplegic, unable to feel or use my legs.
After three and a half months in hospitals and nursing homes, I began a new life from a wheelchair. My pain, now chronic, was barely tamped down by an anti-seizure medication that also works on neuropathy. An apartment adapted for a handicapped person, a modified minivan that I could drive with hand controls, and changes to my office and the building that housed it enabled me to return to work as a professor of religious studies specializing in Buddhism.
Many people remarked on my resiliency and lack of self-pity during those difficult months, as though it was something unusual. I don’t know whether that was true, but I think I know the source of my strength: the holy buddhadharma, which for forty-five years has been my touchstone.
I call the buddhadharma “holy” because I know from my own experience that it saved me, and continues to save me. Almost a half-century of absorbing dharma teachings from Tibetans and others, and many years of teaching undergraduate students and sometimes older adults, ingrained in me ways of thinking and acting that emerged when I needed them most.
While still hospitalized I was visited by a psychiatrist (at the instigation of a friend who felt I was not reacting normally to my situation). He asked me whether I was angry or sad.
Was I angry? I thought about the woman who had struck me. I thought she made an error of inattentiveness or poor judgment. But how many times had I driven with lapses of attention, or speeding, or worse? She too was in the accident, and I had no doubt it was hard on her. I reflected on the Buddha’s most fundamental teaching—that all things are impermanent and that the changes we experience are the result of the coalescence of causes and conditions. Stuff happens when you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, I wasn’t angry.
Was I sad? I thought about how lucky I was to have survived at all. I felt fortunate to have been able to live with my full physical capacity for fifty-seven years, longer than many human beings have in a complete lifespan. I was especially grateful not to have brain damage. Every day I saw guys in the “gym”—the therapy room—who were in motorcycle accidents without helmets. Although they could walk, and I couldn’t, it was clear from the way they stared and drooled that their lives were effectively over. I reflected on the dharma teaching about the fragility of life, its inevitable end, and the marvel of a human life blessed with good fortune and opportunities. No, I wasn’t sad.
But I admitted to the psychiatrist that my hospitalization was deeply humbling. I was helpless to control my bowels or urination. I had to be rolled to turn over. I had to be lifted into bed. In the nursing home, I was just another hunched figure in a wheelchair, waiting to be taken to therapy or to be bathed or have his bed changed. The pain, and medication to control it, were exhausting.
I told the psychiatrist that my pride had taken a hit, but that I felt that I needed it. As a tenured college professor, I was too much in an ivory tower, too much my own boss, living and working in a privileged environment. I had been brought to earth with a rich diet of humble.
The psychiatrist left, and I didn’t see him again. But I continued to think about the questions he’d posed. At the time, I was in a kind of existential trough: I was separated from my wife, my children were having problems, and I was unsure of my future professional direction. The accident shook me like a rag doll and asked me hard questions: What do you really believe? What do you value? What kind of life do you want to live?
I became deeply skeptical of religion as a teenager. In college I became interested in Buddhism, but I took an academic approach so that I could continue to hold it at arm’s length, without full commitment. As a critical student of the Buddhist teachings, I tried my best to find fault with them. But when I began graduate study at the University of Virginia, my mentor was Jeffrey Hopkins, who taught me the sophisticated Gelukpa take on emptiness and dependent arising. It hooked me, because I felt it told the truth. It was like the Western existentialism I’d come to embrace, but without its angst. Still, my understanding was intellectual, not existential.
Then I began to meet the lamas. At UVA there was almost always a great Tibetan scholar in residence. I was deeply moved by the intelligence and kindness of these men, who despite having lost their country and being destitute were always laughing and talking about compassion for others. I went to India for my dissertation research and was fortunate enough to have sessions in Dharamsala with His Holiness the Dalai Lama to ask questions about it. I was touched by his down-to-earth humanity and his warmth, but most of all by his honesty. He exemplified the Buddhist tradition of eschewing dogma in pursuit of the truth, even if means abandoning myths and rituals of long standing. My skepticism began to recede.
Nevertheless, I’d never been in the kind of deep trouble I was in now, where the lama’s teachings would be put to the test. I knew “everything is impermanent” in a general way and had thought I was accepting my own changes as I aged. But my radical transformation into a paraplegic showed me that I could no longer hang on to my self-image of “Walking Dan,” who liked to climb mountains and swim in the sea. One of my favorite sayings of the Buddha is, “Contentment is the greatest wealth.” I knew that I would only cause myself more anguish if I were to deny impermanence. My only path to serenity was to accept and adjust to my new reality.
My greatest obstacle was pain, my near-constant companion. It degraded the quality of my life far more than the loss of mobility. I recalled something the Dalai Lama has often said: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” As I understand this, pain—physical or mental—is sensation. How it is interpreted and handled is a matter of perception, which is at least partly under our control. Hence, pain does not necessarily become suffering.
In saying this, His Holiness was drawing on the wisdom of the eighth-century Mahayana poet and teacher Shantideva. In The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara) he advised three strategies for preventing the sensation of pain from becoming the perception of suffering.
The first strategy is simply to be careful about how we label our experience. If something is not very painful and of limited duration, we’re better off paying it no heed. Or, as His Holiness says: if you can fix it, there is no need to worry; if you can’t fix it, it doesn’t help to worry. Worrying about pain serves only to intensify it.
The second strategy is to accept the benefits of experiencing pain. Shantideva thought that pain would push us to seek enlightenment, which I think of as the maturity to accept what happens to us without bitterness or anxiety. He also thought that pain enables us to become more compassionate. We really can’t comprehend and enter the pain of others until we have experienced it ourselves. And it counteracts pride, showing us that we are in the same boat as everyone else.
The third strategy is to gradually accommodate to pain. Once we learn that pain or deprivation is not as bad as we feared, or that we have greater resources to bear it than we anticipated, we are girded for additional challenges.
These techniques were all helpful. I recognized in the first strategy something emphasized in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, the training program devised by Jon Kabat-Zinn for people suffering from chronic pain. Kabat-Zinn advises us to “put out the welcome mat” for the sensations we feel, viewing them nonjudgmentally (i.e., not rushing to label them as “pain”).
We observe our sensations and notice just how intense they are and whether, in reality, they are increasing. When we realize that they are bearable and that we needn’t fear them, we begin to change our baseline tolerance for pain. I have learned that although from time to time I may be seized by a wave of pain that stops me from talking or acting, it will pass within twenty seconds. I think of it as my “commercial break.”
In line with the second strategy, recognizing that there might be benefits to experiencing suffering, I try to cultivate gratitude. Gratitude is a powerful counter to self-pity, principally because it reminds us of the interdependent web of existence. I concentrate on how blessed my life has been by the circumstances of my birth and by all the love and compassion others have shown me.
This was easy in the weeks following the accident, when I was lifted by a virtual ocean of visits, calls, cards, letters, and acts of kindness from people who had known me in all the far-flung places I had ever lived. My back had been broken, but my heart was broken open too, and their constant infusion of love kept me buoyant. It gave me an experience like the one George Bailey had in It’s a Wonderful Life—a chance to know, while you are still alive, that you have meant something to others. I contrasted these blessings with the terrible situations of many other humans and animals. Like Bailey, when I reflected on these gifts, I felt like “the richest man in town.”
I also understand better the universality of suffering. The fact that I am in a wheelchair has encouraged many people I’ve just met to share their own physical and mental challenges, often known only to a handful of intimates. A friend once quipped, “Everyone gets whacked. That’s a fact,” and I have begun to see how true that is.
From the third strategy, that of gradually accommodating to pain, I’ve tried to embrace my new reality and use it to become a better person. I have accepted that my stamina is lower and that I must get more sleep, including naps. I know that I cannot enter the houses of many friends and relatives, may not be able to use a bathroom in a restaurant, and cannot do many other things I used to. I often have physical distress.
But I know that indulging in emotions like self-pity, anger, or frustration is “not helpful,” and I try to make that my mantra. I think about the way the Buddha described nonvirtues as “unskillful” rather than “wrong.” Most people would not regard it as “wrong” to be angry or morose, but I can see that these attitudes are as counterproductive on the emotional level as fearing pain is counterproductive on the physical level.
Finally, I have gained a greater appreciation for the simple but powerful Tibetan teaching about death: that it is certain; it is not certain when it will happen; and when it comes, only spiritual practice will help. And as one of my Tibetan teachers said, “The causes of death are countless; the causes of life, few.”
Coming close to my own death has changed my perspective. I no longer expect to live a long time, although I hope that I can continue to be a husband, father, grandfather, and friend for as long as it would be helpful. And I feel differently about life itself. I don’t think that life is sacred. Life is just life, the response of chemicals on the cooled-off surface of a ball of molten rock to a fireball in the sky, one of a hundred billion or more. Life is a fleeting combination of ancient elements, crackling with electricity until it flames out.
But can’t it be sweet? Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Buddhism is a clever way to live a happier life.” In my experience, that’s true. In a way they hadn’t previously, the Buddha’s basic teachings have become my refuge.