Visionary Encounters with Cancer and Buddhism
Bob Manrodt's Story
Onset of Illness
In May of 1998 I was diagnosed with throat cancer, stage IV-B, meaning the cancer was advanced and if I was to survive, I was in need of healing.
The two major events of my life in the past few years have been cancer and Buddhism. Both of these situations have brought tremendous gifts. The cancer, of course was a difficult passage.
Though the cancer diagnosis was dramatic, I also experienced dreamlike, dissociated feelings. I've often had these sorts of feelings about all sorts of life experiences. What others call reality has been for me often at question. The cancer seemed like nothing new, another drama on the stage of life. My life has consisted of many dramatic, even dangerous situations. Dealing with these dramas has seemed like riding a wild horse - either I get thrown off with attendant bumps and bruises or the horse takes me to where I want to go.
Having cancer was a surprise but not too big a surprise. I had thought of myself as healthy, but have actually had a tenuous sort of relationship with my body. I've never really felt comfortable in a body. This is a common theme amongst near-death survivors, of which I am one.
At this point I must confess I've had some basic distrust of doctors and medicine, yet I've also had a lot of respect. In certain medical contexts in my life I've experienced and witnessed forms of dysfunctional patient/doctor relationships. Yet I have had to respect the science and the scholarship, and realize that many doctors are committed at heart to doing good. Without medicine, I would have been seriously damaged in my life. With cancer I realized that I had to take charge of my own healing, respecting the findings and opinions of doctors, but centering in my own perspectives, knowledge and intuition, and making my own choices.
Thus I resolved to find answers as to how I might best heal. I sought to understand my illness as thoroughly as possible. I got copies of all my medical records, I communicated with others, researched information through books, articles and the internet. I checked out alternatives and got involved in a local cancer support group.
Primary features of standard medical treatment for cancer include chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. These treatments are powerful and often the body in significant adverse ways. I understood that going through radiation my neck would probably yield permanent side effects such as loss of saliva glands, taste alteration and other effects. I wasn't sure of the extent of these other effects. The doctors never really laid it out well. I had to understand the questions then formulate them, then ask.
I sought to avoid radiation and surgery. If there was a way to heal without permanent disfigurement and/or physical debilitation, I wanted that way. I was unsure of the extent of the effects of treatment, but I knew that at least some bodily damage was probable.
Admittedly in some important ways I'm very different than most folks in the ways I perceive my life, the world and the meaning of it all. Thirty years ago I fell three stories and landed on my head, breaking every bone in my skull. I experienced a profound sense of entering another dimension and encountered with a Powerful Presence who was the embodiment of exalted enlightenment, wisdom and love. This was a classic near-death experience.
Subsequently I continued to experience extreme states of awareness. I returned to earth through many levels of vision. These images I experienced were intense and shamanic. I could not hold nor ground these energies and was unable to function in the world. Thus I was hospitalized as a psychiatric patient for almost six months.
The visions I experienced are extensive, much more than can be described in this short essay. Many of my visions are my own personal story and have relevance only for me. But I also know that some of the images are relevant for all of us. Also I believe there is great benefit in sharing one's story. Perhaps some of what is said here might touch upon the personal experiences of some readers.
A representative vision - The Dakinis
A major experience for me has been that of what I call my experience with the Dakinis. Dakinis are Buddhist deities, some say Buddhas themselves, who awaken the bliss energy in tantric practitioners. They assume different forms and give specific teachings and blessings. During my visions of thirty years ago I had powerful and direct experiences of female entities which over the years I have come to regard as direct experiences of the Dakinis.
My initial Dakini EHE took place while I was at a hospital facility in October of 1969. I was wheeled in on a stretcher for a series of head x-rays. I was amidst powerful energies and altered states of awareness.
In this vision, the images of women of my life with whom I have been in various relationships, appear for me. They are in beautiful, erotic form and are cosmically alluring. They have assembled for a higher purpose even concerning a great drama of world transformation. These women represent teachings in my life. Indeed, they have graciously manifested personally to me to teach me specific lessons.
These women are all present in collusion and know that I am asking for ultimate initiation. They further know that I am not ready, do not know what I am asking for and could not possibly handle the responsibility. These women were called up as a result of my desperate quest for wisdom. They were carrying out their role in this great drama and they were at my side now as visions of what could be.
I had asked for it all. My sincere and passionate requests had called up this powerful energy and the energy needed to be reckoned with. These Dakinis took on the energy themselves, for me and in my place. I could not handle it.
Over the years I've continued to get powerful teachings from women. These teachings have deepened and increased. I've come to see women in my life as great blessings and have even identified certain women as actual Dakinis. I've felt a lot closer to women than to men and have had much deeper communication with women. For more than 30 years, the Dakinis have been a powerful imaginal construct that I have worked with extensively.
My visions of thirty years ago were intense and shamanic. Amongst these visions were powerful themes of life and death and deep meaning. I vividly experienced themes like moving down through the worlds descending into the earth, taking on the suffering of humanity, and vowing to enact in my body all the experiences of humans to know first hand the nature of these experiences. Many of these images are the stuff of myth and legend. Versions of these same stories are found in the stories of religions and spiritual culture from virtually all the cultures of our planet.
Some specific images I experienced might seem very strange. However, these images are entirely appropriate in certain contexts . For example, on a few occasions I experienced looking down at my dinner plate and seeing whole landscapes of earth. I saw the the potatoes, broccoli, the gravy as the earth, the forest, the oceans. The feeling associated with this was of the nature of so many of these experiences - wholly charged with a special strongly compelling energy. This was a profound altered state. It seems to me that this sort of energy is the experience that mystics strive for in rituals. It was given to me all at once but at the time I had no context.
The appropriate context of this image would come to me many years later, only recently through experiences I've been having associated with Buddhist prayer offerings. I directly connect these images experienced thirty years ago with my practices of today.
Quest for Meaning and Completion
Over the years I've sought to understand, answer and integrate the powerful experiences of near-death and my subsequent visions. I've come to understand these experiences as visions of deep personal relevance and meaning. My visions have offered for me a wholly other world view. Actually my visions might well address issues of social relevance as well.
I've been obsessed with my quest. My visions are very real and present for me. The visions have to do with changing myself profoundly, and changing the world profoundly. Of course I've found that I can only act in the world, doing the best I can; as a human I can only do things in small ways, one step at a time. But I hold the vast vision of total transformation of myself and the world. This vision has always been in the background for me, a real presence in my psyche.
I see things differently than most, particularly amidst this culture. I've had limited interest in "making it" in the world per se. Most of my life I've been strongly, even intensely interested in development of awareness. Like many other near-death survivors, death holds no fear for me. As will be noted later in this paper, there has been a shift with how I view my life in a body.
I've sought completion for my visions. I was told by the Presence, the "Wisdom/Heart Presence" of my near-death experience, to return to earth. As such I've had a strong sense of personal mission, a quest that has taken me more than 30 years.
My quest for completion, for ways to answer and fulfill the meanings of my visions, has been a personal "calling", a lifelong vocation that has been compelling and vitally important. I've read and researched quite a bit. I've been extensively involved with various spiritual groups and therapies. I've sought answers in other people and outside situations, but in the end have realized that I am who I am and must find completions for answers inside myself.
The following vignette from my visions of 30 years ago typifies my sense of completion. While in the midst of very powerful experiences, in a sort of "break" from strong and heady waves of experience, I look up at the sky and see an infinity symbol. One half is red and the other is blue. I am aware that I have experienced one half of the infinity symbol in my visions, now I am to work through the other half.
In the mid-eighties I worked in therapy. Using me as a model, an article entitled Mental Illness and Spiritual Crisis: Implications for Psychiatric Rehabilitation was published in The Journal for Psychosocial Rehabilitation. The following quotes by me from this article are representative of how I've felt about my visions:
"For me the lid was blown off during that time. It opened all these worlds and, it has never quite gone totally back on. There's always that knowing that something else is going on, and that's made it difficult for me to get into anything in the world again."
"....It's very distressing - my visionary experience is still a dilemma in many different ways. It's a kind of mythology that's deep in my system. It's very present, and it's something very meaningful for me."
Actually Rhea White's EHE (Exceptional Human Experience) model has been a wonderful model for thinking about extraordinary experiences, but I've also very much needed a direct and engaging practice that would enable me to connect to deep meaning on an ongoing basis. For the most part I've lived my life in the context of EHE's. The bottom line meaning for me has been my visions. Yet even with the powerful energies associated with these non-ordinary experiences I've felt incomplete.
Really my basic life over the years has been the working out of my visions. I was sent back to earth from the glorious realms of my near-death experience. It's been hard to come to terms with "ordinary life". I've felt very different.
Dancing my Visions
Native American shamanic tradition states that once a warrior has been given a vision, he must return to dance it for his people. I have come to realize that the visions I had are only a part of my experience. I've needed to own my visions, to realize them in my flesh and bones, and to dance them out for the people. This has proven to me to be the task of my life.
Shamanism indeed has been a strong model for me applicable to many areas. Certainly my visions were replete with shamanic context. I've found direct correlations and even specific instances of my experiences stated explicitly in the shamanic literature. How I came to spontaneously tap into these specific shamanic images with no prior inkling, let alone experience, is awesome and baffling.
Probably the strongest manifestation of my dance and most concrete has been addressing the idea of spiritual crisis. My visions involved traveling down from the heavens into the center of the earth. Along the way I would liberate beings from jails and mental hospitals. In the center of the earth I would take on all the suffering of humans.
For ten years I worked in state hospitals. Over time I've done many public presentations and seminars on the theme of spiritual crisis. I've served as a board member for a few years for an organization dedicated to help psychiatric survivors. I've worked for two years with that same facility. I've posted and communicated much material on the web dealing with spiritual crisis.
I've also needed to work personally and directly with the imagery of my visions. I've wrestled with these images too, in the sense of attempting to reconcile my extraordinary images with the day-to-day activities of earthly life. I've attempted to be a living bridge between the content of my visions and ordinary life on planet earth and have sought to work out the bridge in my own body. This is hard work. I've not been fully part of one world or the other.
Precursors to Cancer
With a powerful condition such as cancer it was natural that I would seek meaning and indeed meaning came. Some curious experiences and synchronicities happened prior to having cancer that in retrospect seem connected.
During my visions of thirty years ago I had what seem to be some direct references related to future life development. One was of having cancer and being relegated to a cancer ward, as in the book Cancer Ward by Soltzenitzen. It seemed to me that physical disability was the price of high awareness and that this was part of a sort of sacrifice for others, carrying the burdens of others through personal suffering.
In 1996, I went to a Spiritual Emergence Network regional gathering. In identifying strongly with some of the themes presented and passionately wanting to express myself, I became very emotional. I was bursting to express what I had to say.
At this gathering I met a Buddhist who worked as a social worker in a hospice affiliated with Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Lama and author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I spoke with this person a bit and questioned him about Buddhism. The following day he shared with me a dream he had.
This man said that the night before he had been thinking of me quite a bit. He said he saw my throat in a dream. He saw that I had some powerful energy, and that I was understanding much of the teachings. The man hesitated in sharing what he did, saying that really he didn't know me, but he suggested that I needed to work with my throat chakra. Interesting that I should later get throat cancer.
All along I have believed that the major part of healing with this cancer would be through spiritual and emotional processing. In this way, the cancer has been a gift. My experiences in life have been dramatic and so I'm in a way used to working with intense forms such as cancer.
Shortly after my diagnosis I had a special, significant dream. In this dream I have a small blue square bundle, a little bundle of sacred Tibetan text. I take it on a journey through mountains. My feeling is that I'm traveling through regions associated with both Tibet and Colorado. My journey is a long, involved journey, through mountain forest passes and caves. At the end of my journey I arrive in Colorado where a stage is setup in a mountain meadow surrounded by woods. Several lamas are on the stage, and notable among these is Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Rinpoche is dressed in Tibetan garb and his chest is bare. He offers me a seat directly behind him and I embrace him as he sits ready to address a small audience seated in the meadow. In this embrace I received blessings that possess a strong sense of spiritual transmission and empowerment.
My experience with this EHE is very special and numinous. This dream experience feels in a sense real and decidedly authentic. As I wake I hear the word Abhisheka, the Sanscrit word for initiation.
Vajrayana, also referred to as Tantra, is unique to Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrayana is regarded as a dangerous path, kind of like the danger that would be a part of climbing the upper reaches of almost insurmountable mountains. Vajrayana practice requires secret initiation.
From this point I knew that I wanted Buddhist Vajrayana initiation but had no idea of how this would come about for me. At the time I was preoccupied with dealing with the cancer. I didn't know if I would even live but I prayed that I would get initiation before death.
I realized the strong relevance of Buddhism for me. All my life I've experienced strong connections to two seemingly antithetical life modalities - the very far out, extreme and sometimes ferocious life experiences and deep love. The cancer certainly was ferocious. I came to understand that in its vastness, Tibetan Buddhism includes these powerful experiences completely. These experiences are integral to the Vajrayana path.
During this time I read numerous accounts of shamanic illness published by Holger Kalweit in his book Shamanism, Healers and Medicine Men . I studied these accounts and related strongly. I resolved to benefit in any way I could through adoption of shamanic perspective. For better or worse, I felt I was given this illness, and wanted to use the experience to the highest benefit.
Also at this time I came to a strong realization that I wanted to live. This was a big step for me and a strong statement. It seems as I had a kind of choice in this. All my life I had an uneasy relationship with my body. I sought to take care of it but never really felt at home. As a child I experienced revulsion for my body. So limited, so ungainly. Why I had these particular perspectives is not clear.
With my Near-death experience I was in a sense "spoiled for the world". I could never forget my experiences of profound, love and beauty. How could I possibly reconnect with that while in a physical body? After the near-death I've felt that I'm "supposed to be here", but I've long been set with a kind of anomie and a baseline sense of unease and discomfort.
Initial Cancer Treatment
For treatment of my cancer the doctors suggested a combination of low-dose chemo and low-dose radiation. I agreed to low-dose chemo but not to the radiation. Concurrently I took Chinese medicines prescribed by a Chinese doctor and friends who were acupuncturists. The chemotherapy treatments took six-weeks. I responded remarkably well. My oncologist kept suggesting radiation or surgery but I declined. I had a strong sense of wanting to decide for myself what treatment I would take. I decided to go at my own pace and to stick up for myself.
There were additional stressors happening in my life at the time. My son who lived with me needed support and supervision. Owing to critical illness situation, and my upcoming treatments, I was unable to be there for him in the way he deserved. I was able to arrange for him to live with his mother in a good situation. That was a big relief for me. The other stressor was the end of an 11 year relationship with a woman I lived with for more than 10 years. I had to leave our house, a place where we had lived together for 6 years.
For some months later the tumor on my neck seemed to have gone but there was still some swelling. There was no trace of cancer at the site of the primary tumor in my throat. My oncologist advised more sessions of chemo. He continued his suggestions to do radiation or surgery. I continued to decline these options.
In October of 1998 I received an empowerment of Tara, the Buddhist deity of compassion, longevity and healing. This was particularly appropriate. I began to relate strongly with Tara as an embodiment of female healing energy.
During this period I continued to search for alternative modes of healing. A friend called me and told me of clinical trials for p53 genetic replacement. This treatment would not involve body-damaging components like radiation and chemo. I put a lot of energy into getting into the program and was very hopeful. But on meeting with the doctors I learned that they would have to fully anesthetize me each day of the treatment to reach the primary tumor in my throat, a procedure that was surely outside the protocols of the clinical trial.
I saw several doctors for second opinions. By early 1999 it became clear that my best hope for life was radiation.
Coming to terms with full-dose treatment
Upon deciding that I would do full radiation I looked for a radiologist located close by. I wondered if it mattered who the radiologist was. My experience with this doctor was bizarre and dream-like. After cursory inspection of my medical chart, the doctor asked why I hadn't done radiation a year ago. I told him that I wanted to avoid the significant side-effects. The doctor replied to me "The side effects are nothing". He went on to elaborate. "You wrote your own death certificate. The tumor is fixed. You have a 10% chance of living. You could have been cured if you had done the radiation. Now there is no cure." With valid reasons I saw things differently. I subsequently fired this man as my radiologist.
During my cancer experience I was in close communication with a dear friend I met just before getting the disease. I had met this person by clicking on a picture of herself she had posted to a guestbook on an internet site. Clicking on her picture took me to her internet site. This lady, known as "Ladybear", sent me her personal story and it floored me. She had survived cancer years ago and had very powerful spiritual experiences associated with a remarkable healing. I always remember her statement "cancer was the best thing that happened for me."
Though she lived on the other side of the country, Ladybear and I were strongly connected. It turned out that her father was part of the family of a large company that my great-grandfather invented machinery for. Relatives of ours would have known one another.
This dear friend sent me a Guatemalan poster of Jesus in the garden. Above Him hovered an angel bearing a cup. I connected strongly with the words of Jesus in the Garden, Oh my father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Ladybear also sent me much else, including a picture of Medicine Buddha and a semi-precious stone she had been given during the time of her cancer battle some twenty years before.
I contemplated images of Jesus - His presence and His words. My childhood feelings of faith came present for me. Contemplation of the biblical words: Only say the word and I am healed brought me to tears.
Dealing with the cancer brought on a kind of "life review" feeling for me. Thirty years ago during my near-death experience, I had had a complete life review. I had experienced all the events of my full 19 years of being alive in this body. So faced with death and impermanence implicit in cancer, I contemplated images of spirituality from my life. Some that had particular charge were from childhood.
The image of Jesus on the cross healing the two women in the movie of Ben Hur that had affected me decades before in early adolescence was very relevant. Contemplation of this image further validated my spiritual connection with Jesus. I might spontaneously heal and I might not. I felt that what mattered most was a deeper connection with Christ.
The Buddhist deities Tara and Vajrasattva were also very present for me. I studied and performed the spiritual practices associated with them. Vajrasattva is the Buddha of purification. I had a significant dream immediately before the start of treatment concerning images of my past. I felt I purified and reconciled these in my dream. I felt that going through cancer was a kind of opportunity for coming to terms with past impurities, past karma really.
In the fall of 1998 I had met John, an old friend of Ginger, herself an old and dear friend of mine. Among other artifacts, John had a unique Buddhist prayer necklace in his possession. The necklace consisted of 108 miniature skulls carved from human bone. While visiting John I sat and held this necklace. I was so attracted.
Tibetan art and Buddhist tantra practice is thoroughly imbued with these sorts of "strong" images of life and death. Very shamanistic. Tibetans have a very different, in my opinion, more realistic attitude towards death. From what I gather, Tibetan Buddhists have come to terms with death and don't see it as much a threat as we do in the West. The Buddhist view is that human life is very precious but when we die, we leave the body.
I didn't talk to John for several months until I began treatment. Then I learned he was becoming really sick from AIDS. He died shortly after my treatments ended. I was too sick to attend the funeral. Ginger told me that John had left the skull prayer bead necklace to me. I was floored. I began doing my Tara mantra (prayer recitation) on this necklace and felt in touch with a deeper sense of life and death. A direct connection to old Tibet. I contemplated the impermanence of life.
Extremely significant for me was the support of friends. A few were very close and were there for me in times of crisis. I felt truly blessed and touched by love.
I came to terms with the severe treatment I was offered to heal my cancer. I wanted to live, even though my body would be damaged, to what extent I didn't know. My doctor said the experience would be hellish and it was. I prepared myself as best I could to confront ordeal, even death. I had the strong sense that this was an experience that was given to me and so I accepted it. The cancer stopped with me, better me than another I thought. I readied myself to go through and would complete the experience myself.
I received an initial dose of chemo and became really nauseous with frequent vomiting. The following day I started radiation. After a couple of weeks the real effects started. I lost my appetite and was in pain. A feeding tube was inserted in my stomach and a venous access port implanted in my chest for medication.
For radiation a form-fitting mask of plastic mesh was made from an impression of my head. During treatment this mask covered my head and fixed me to a large slab. As I lay on the table, beams of radiation were directed to my head and neck. I had to travel 25 miles each way twice a day for these sessions.
During radiation I initially felt like a trapped wolf. I lay steady on the table beneath my mesh mask looking up at the ceiling. Above me was a cross shaped opening with red light behind it. This seemed to be a shamanic ordeal that I had to consciously endure. For my visions of thirty years ago I was not so conscious. I had gone through my ordeals protected in a way.
As radiation treatment progressed I began to have a lot of bleeding from my nose. I vomited blood and mucous. I got really sick. I lost my ability to eat and was in pain. One night I couldn't stop bleeding and called an emergency service. I was taken by ambulance to the emergency room and my nose was packed.
Five weeks into radiation treatment I was admitted into the hospital for a week. There was a three day period that was particularly gruesome and I felt close to death. Radiation was suspended for a time. During this hellish time I was given intravenous morphine along with other drugs.
The morning of hospital admission I felt barely in touch with my environment. I was nauseous and in pain. I could hardly talk. Still, I felt it important to keep my wits about me the best I was able. I was concerned that I was getting too much drugs and expressed this to the nurse. She said not to worry. That evening I went deeply under and had to be revived with a morphine antagonist drug.
I managed to get through these difficult days. On Monday morning I met with my radiologist. It was a beautiful spring day. I felt I had been reborn. I was through the worst of it.
My radiologist examined me. The large tumor on my neck was undetectable. He seemed amazed. "You are doing excellent," he told me, "beyond expectations. There is definitely somebody watching over you." This was wonderful to hear and touched me deeply.
My treatments ended in May of 1999. Over the months I continued to heal, to recover from the treatments and the cancer. This has been a long process that, as of this writing, the end of March 2000, I've still not fully recovered from. A few physical functions like saliva and some taste I probably won't ever get back. However, I am very grateful to be alive, as never before.
In January of 2000 I was extremely fortunate to receive a Tantric Buddhist initiation. This was a major event and represented a powerful completion for me. This includes the fulfillment of my desire for initiation associated with the dream described above . The initiation represents a kind of permit to work with extremely powerful energies.
Now, after Buddhist initiation, I directly connect with powerful Buddhist imagery. In recent meditations I've had the experience of accepting into myself energies and responsibilities I could not handle 30 years ago. I feel this process will deepen and continue. This for me is a powerful completion of my visions of the Dakinis of 30 years ago.
The way I got this initiation was synchronistic and wonderful. The initiations I received are traditionally given only after much Buddhist practice and preparation. Having cancer and perhaps my near-death, visions and spiritual training were the ticket for me.
These initiations are traditionally held on specific days of the year and the first part was to be held in a distant place on New Year's Day. However, owing to the potential difficulties with travel because of Y2K, the lama decided to combine the initiations into one time and place. I would not have been able to attend otherwise.
Vajrayana Buddhism is a vast ocean into which the rivers of my visions are flowing. My path has become a way to completion of my visions. Both the initiation and my subsequent spiritual practice have been awesome. I've finally found the way that feels whole and complete. Sitting with the root images of my visions, I've felt essentially isolated for all these years. Now I feel part of a lineage going back 2500 years to the time of Buddha. Now I have a way to move and complete the energies of my visions.
Some fifteen years ago I stated, "One of the images that is always with me...is my going all the way to the edge of the universe, all the way to the edge and then having to turn away. I'm wondering if that feeling has stayed with me over all these years and has kept me from completing tasks and projects in my life....If I could have seen the whole picture then, I feel I'd be different today."
I felt stuck. Incomplete. With Buddhism I've reconnected with that which is going on. I feel that strongly. And I feel I'm moving. This is the completion. Not a final completion, but a sense of having entered an authentic stream.
In Vajrayana I've discovered an ontologically sound means to develop awareness. The way involves commitments to relieve suffering of all beings. True love and true wisdom. Suffering is part of existence but can be overcome through realization of Buddha nature. Our essential nature is not suffering but bliss.
I have been given the gift of the body. I've never felt so alive. I have in a very real sense a new body. I lost 100 pounds (much of which I could afford to lose) I have actual experiences of joy in my hands, my feet, my body. An incredible vehicle. Very precious.
I've been in tears a lot, often being struck by the precious beauty of it all.
Awareness of death is very present for me - don't know how long I'll live. My life is very impermanent. Statistically speaking, my chances for survival are relatively low.
My doctors say that I am doing remarkably. My radiologist continues to be impressed with my progress. He calls me an enigma, someone who is off the data charts, in a very positive sense. When I recently met for the first time with my new oncologist he stated that in many instances he disagrees with my radiologist. However, in this case he said he definitely agrees I am an enigma.
I have received great benefits and physical healing through my doctors and their medicine. However, It is my belief that some far larger sense of healing has happened through channels of physical crisis and Buddhism. I have been gifted with the opportunity to work through significant emotional and spiritual themes of my life. I am very grateful for it all.
web edition 1.1