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Surgery with bodhicitta

Surgery with bodhicitta

Venerable Thubten Chodron goes on a walk with a cane after recovering from hip surgery.
Venerable Thubten Chodron goes on a walk with a cane after recovering from hip surgery.

One of Venerable Chodron’s friends wrote to say she is going to have a complex spinal surgery. Venerable Chodron shared with her how she used the Dharma to prepare for her own surgery and then continued to write to her as she navigated the post-surgery phase.

Though the surgery can be scary, it’s good that they found the problem before the wind of karma propelled you over the cliff. I want to share with you my experience with my recent hip replacement surgery and how I used the Dharma to help me during that time. Although my surgery wasn’t as complex as yours, the Dharma prep is similar.

I got up early the morning of the surgery and did my morning practices and thought, “I’m so fortunate to be able to have this surgery. People in impoverished countries and impoverished people in this country would never have the opportunity to have this problem corrected.” Then I contemplated bodhicitta.

In the hospital, while waiting before the surgery, I read bodhicitta verses (Shantideva is great for this) and again thought “I’m doing this so that when I recover I will be able to benefit others more.” I also thought “The medical staff is helping me so much. To repay their kindness, I will be a good patient and will not complain. I’ll cooperate with their instructions.” This stopped all fear.

I visualized Tara and felt her compassionate presence and imagined light streaming from her into me. I did this again while I was going under.

When I woke up from surgery, I again thought of Tara and generated bodhicitta. I was so groggy that I slept the rest of that day.

The day after I went home, during my morning practice, there was this amazing, spontaneous feeling of the kindness of others. I thought about the dependent arising that was needed for me to have the surgery, how many living people are involved in the surgery and all the people who are and will help me with the upcoming recovery. It was so easy to contemplate the kindness of sentient beings then, and really feel that I was the recipient of so much kindness.

During the weeks of physical therapy, I again felt the kindness of the people who helped—the physical therapist, the friend who took care of me the first two weeks after surgery, everyone in the Abbey community who rooted for me as I became like a child learning to walk again. Automatically I wanted to cooperate with their instructions, even though there was pain. The surgeon had told me I’d have pain afterwards, and he was right, but it was a different kind of pain than before the surgery, because now I knew I was going to get better. And I have, thanks to so many sentient beings.

You’ll be in our prayers.

After her surgery, Venerable Chodron’s friend wrote a full account of her time in the hospital. Venerable Chodron answered:

What a story! But things will clearly get better day by day, and by having the operation, you avoided an even worse problem with your spine. Amazing how modern medicine can fix things like this and that doctors can do it! Despite all their training, I wonder if a surgeon is nervous each time he or she operates on someone. During the preparations for my cataract surgery, the surgeon asked if I wanted to pray together. I was surprised but grateful that she said this, so I led us in a short bodhicitta motivation. The surgeon wasn’t Buddhist, but it was a chance to spread bodhicitta and plant seeds in her mind, and generating bodhicitta certainly helped me. It was a very sweet moment.

So glad to hear that you woke up from surgery with full awareness. I did too, but for about ten days afterwards I had very strange, weird dreams due to the anesthesia. But instead of getting freaked out by them, I laughed at what my mind was creating. As for the pain, as Shantideva reminds us, it comes with having a body. So let’s stop attachment to saṃsāric bodies and create the causes for a buddha’s body!

When I experience pain, I find it very helpful to think that it’s the ripening of some karma that could have ripened in a lower rebirth instead. Then, it’s easy to think, “Ok, this hurts, but I can manage it. It’s nothing like the hell realm or even being a donkey in Dharamsala. Plus I’m purifying the causes for those kinds of rebirths.” Thinking like that really helps my mind. I don’t get so stuck in, “Poor me. This hurts so much. Can’t someone just make it go away right now?” Although I’m an expert in feeling sorry for myself, I know it’s a totally useless pursuit and practicing transforming adversity into the path helps me not go there.

Nevertheless, it’s still a relief when you have pain medicine. Before the hip replacement, they told me I would have pain for weeks afterward, and they were right. The warning was helpful, my mind was prepared, whereas when something hurts when you don’t expect it, somehow the mind rebels against the pain more.

It sounds like you’re getting good care and are on the road to recovery. Hurrah! Enjoy that nectar-like applesauce!

After one more note from her friend, Venerable Chodron wrote more about how she used the Dharma to help herself post-surgery.

Are you home now? How is it being back? When you wrote me two days ago and said you were going home, I was so happy! Yesterday at class, we talked about how amazing your recovery is.

Of course, now comes the time when you need lots of patience. My experience was that recovery is up and down, but the slope is always upwards. The physical therapist was great, and it dawned on me that if he is putting his time and energy into helping me, then I’ve got to do my share and practice the exercises at home. And since the surgeon and nurses put their time and energy into me while I was in the hospital, I’ve got to follow their instructions, too. For me that meant not being lazy and to do what they taught me so I would get better. But then sometimes I overdid it and my muscles were really sore. Soooo, it’s the proverbial middle way. Strange how that keeps coming up!! Balance, don’t overdo it, don’t underdo it, listen to your body, but nudge the mind when it gets lazy.

And relax. I told myself I just had to accept wherever I was in the healing process at any given moment. It is what it is, so might as well be satisfied and enjoy it. It sure beats being discontent and wanting things to be different when they are what they are. Just like in Dharma practice, I told myself to be content to create the causes and not to anxiously await the results.

So, happy recovery!

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.

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