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Graphic courtesy New Mobility

by Richard Louis Bruno

...the Wanderling

Please note latest link updates within the text and the newly added Addendum related to Buddhism and individuals with disabilities at the bottom of the page.

India, 563 B.C. Prince Siddhartha is born in the Himalayas' foothills. Viewing the newborn, a soothsayer predicts, "If he remains inside the palace he will become a universal monarch." To insure that prediction came true, the king shielded his son from anything remotely unpleasant. Despite these protections, a palace outing accidentally allowed Siddhartha to see the three "ugliest" facts of life: an "old man staggering on crutches," a diseased person with "crooked limbs," and a shroud-covered corpse."

Siddhartha was profoundly despondent seeing the suffering that is part and parcel of human life: sickness, aging and death. He left the lavish palace and set out to find an end to human suffering. For six years Siddhartha tried every religion India had to offer, each failing to end suffering. Realizing there was no one left to whom he could turn but himself, he sat under a tree to meditate, vowing, "I will not stir until Enlightenment is mine." During six days in deepest meditation, experiencing every human fear and desire, Siddhartha found the cause of human suffering, called Samudaya in the sutras, and became the "Buddha," meaning "The Enlightened One." He immediately proclaimed The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path, the first "12 Step" program to eliminate humanity's greatest torment. For more on the Buddha, his life and teachings go to:


IMAGINE: A religion created to deal with crooked limbs and crutches, sickness, aging . . . and even death. Could there be a more perfect religion for those of us who have disabilities? Well, Buddhism isn't what Westerners think of as a religion. Buddhism has no promise of heaven, no God to hear prayers and cure your disability. But the lack of heaven and God doesn't bother Jesse McKinney, who uses a power wheelchair and has very limited speech due to C.P. A Zen Buddhist and author of A Mind On Wheels: The Inner Journey, he says, "I have little use for blind faith. I need practical solutions to cope with the suffering in my life. When the reality of not being able to go to the toilet by yourself is a constant concern, you may hope for God's saving grace; but in the meantime you must figure out how to get on the toilet."

Working in rehabilitation for twenty years, I have been confronted daily with the suffering, anger and fear that prompt the "ultimate questions" associated with disability, chronic illness and impending death: "Why is life so unfair!" "Why should this happen to me?" I have found Buddhism to be the answer to, if not the answer for, these ultimate questions.

Although Buddhism won't help you get on the toilet, it does provide practical, do-it-yourself solutions for the profound suffering that goes hand-in-hand with disability. So here is an introduction to the Buddha's "12 Step Program." See if you can apply the steps to the special circumstances of your disability, eliminate your own suffering and answer -- or decide not to answer -- disability's "ultimate questions."

THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH: Life is suffering. Why? Because we start to die the moment we start to live. This is the basic dissatisfaction with human life the Buddha meant when he said "life is suffering." Even if our lives were one joyous moment after another and we were pain-free, always surrounded by loving family and friends, perfectly healthy, accomplished and wealthy, we lose it all when we die.

But no life is one happy moment after another. While everyone experiences pain and sickness and loss during a lifetime, those with disabilities experience pain, sickness and loss daily, which are constant causes of suffering. Or are they? The fundamental notion underlying all of Buddhism is that pain and suffering are two very different things.

"Pain is a direct signal from the body or the mind that something is wrong," says Rev. Dr. Harvey Sodaiho Hilbert, Zen Buddhist, psychotherapist and hemiplegic for 35 years. "Suffering is our mental response to pain, when we think 'I don't want pain!'" So pain is when you hurt; suffering is when you add insult to injury by thinking "I shouldn't hurt!"

"Thinking too much about our pain produces questions like 'Why me?' and judgments like 'Life is unfair'," says McKinney. The Buddha taught that life is neither fair not unfair and that there are absolutely no "shoulds." Why should you have become disabled? Well, why not? Thinking that life should be fair, judging that certain things should or shouldn't happen to you, are the causes of suffering. "Just noticing pain without making judgments about it reduces suffering," says McKinney. The first step to ending suffering is separating the pain you feel from the notion that you "shouldn't" have to feel pain.

Craving and Clinging

THE SECOND NOBLE TRUTH: Suffering is caused by craving and clinging. Craving is when we think the pain in our lives "should" disappear immediately; clinging is when we think that the "good" should last forever. But where did all these "shoulds" come from in the first place?

The "shoulds" come from society, which creates rules to control our behavior so we can potentially live in harmony. Before we are able to speak, think or know our own minds, we have learned the "shoulds" that protect society. We adjust our thinking and actions to become what society considers "normal." However the "shoulds" that are a blessing for society are a curse for its members who become disabled because they are no longer "normal."

"Much of the suffering that comes with disability stems from the constant attempt to measure up to purported social norms," says Winfield Clark, student of Tibetan Buddhism, composer and paraplegic for 40 years. "Disability causes invidious comparisons with 'normal' people and reveals our 'inadequacy' as members of society."

Unfortunately for us as individuals, the small, solid, sensible voice inside of us -- the voice of our own inner wisdom -- has been drowned out by society's "shoulds" and we become robots, living our lives on autopilot. When we become disabled, we can no longer fly the "normal" course that society dictates and we crash.

But you can't blame society for conditioning us, because "society" is just a bunch of individuals. There must be some "should" deep inside every member of society hat has made necessary all of the other "shoulds."

Say goodbye to "I." The deepest "should" in each one of us is that we should never become sick or disabled, age or die. But, alas, this "should of all shoulds" is not reality; it is merely a wish that can never be. We do not want to think of a world in which we don't exist, or accept a life in which we are not always young and as "normal" -- healthy and physically capable -- as we have been or "should" be. The essence of the Buddha's enlightenment was that protecting the illusion of the "normal," immortal "I" makes necessary all of society's other "shoulds" and is the root cause of suffering.

"Your success in handling disability depends on letting go of the illusion of the "normal," immortal "I," says Barry Corbet (1935-2004), student of Tibetan Buddhism and T10 paraplegic. "If you have no 'I,' you have nothing to lose; if you have nothing to lose, there is no reason for suffering."

Interdependence Day. The second half to the illusion of the"normal," immortal "I" is that our "I" is totally separate and independent from, and can exist alone in the world without, anyone or anything else. This notion of the totally independent "I" is also an illusion. First, humans have never been independent. Back when our ancestors lived in caves and hunted, some were more skilled at tracking animals and others better at throwing the spear. Today, no one hunts their own food, makes their own clothes, or manufactures their own wheelchairs.

Of course folk with physical limitations require more help with hunting, spearing and activities of daily living than do others. But, many of my patients say that unless they are completely independent of help from everyone, they consider themselves totally dependent and therefore totally without value to anyone. Some patients will do anything, including damage their bodies and actually become more disabled, to maintain their illusion of independence. A very powerful and pervasive cause of suffering is clinging to this illusion of "independence." The end to suffering lies in accepting that we are all interdependent, that interdependence is in fact a natural law.

Cause and affect. A second reason we cannot consider ourselves independent is something we learned in high school: For every action there is a reaction. The Buddha proposed this law, applying it not to physical actions but to human actions. He called the law of human actions and reactions Karma, saying that "every object and occurrence in the universe is interconnected," explains composer Clark. "No one can be said to exist independently." Karma means that because no event, no person, no thing is independent, everything we do can affect everything else in the universe. A heady notion indeed! What's more, these effects will someday circle back to affect us!

The Buddha called the circling of karmic actions and reactions "conditioned" or "dependent co-arising," meaning that all of our thoughts, feelings and actions arise from the conditioning we have experienced in our lives, conditioning dependent on all of our experiences with everyone we have ever met, whose actions toward us are dependent eventually on our actions toward them. And it is our decades of conditioned thinking, patterns of behavior and societal "shoulding" that Buddhism would help us erase. When the "conditioning we all had undergone" as children falls away, says Zen teacher Nanrei Kobori, former Head Buddhist Priest, Daitokuji Temple, Kyoto, Japan, something wonderful and free remains: our "vibrant central core . . . our unconditioned self."

The innate concepts as set forth in the following two sections (V and VI) of Nagarjuna's Eight Negations are two of the most important KEYS to the explanation of "dependent origination" and "dependent co-arising," mentioned above that one can grasp:

V. NOT ONE THING Anekaartham:

Dependent origination, properly understood, denies that anything is absolutely singular. A thing is nothing more than the coming together of all its causes, and no thing has a single cause. So even though a thing may be perceived a single thing, reflection will always reveal that it is in fact a multiplicity of factors complexly arranged. What we take to be an individual (literally undivided whole) is never in fact indivisible. For Nagarjuna this means that no physical thing is simple; every thing is composed of parts, and therefore is liable to decompose. But it also means that no concept is primitive and basic. Every concept is built up of related concepts. Every concept has meaning only within a specific context of other concepts. And so the very attempt to arrive at primitive ideas, or axioms, from which other ideas can be derived, is doomed to failure.

VI. NOT MANY THINGS Anaanaartham:

Nagarjuna was very fond at applying recursive logic. Recursion is the name given to using the output of an operation as input to the same operation. Now we saw above that nothing is simple, because everything is made of a multiplicity of factors. So, for example, we could say that an apparent whole W is in fact a set of parts {a,b,c,d....}. But we can now substitute any one of those parts for W, with the result that we realize that none of the apparent parts of the whole is itself a simple thing. Indeed, if we continue the process of analysis to its logical conclusion, the result is that there are no things at all, even to serve as parts of larger wholes. But if there are no parts at all, then it is really NOT true after all to say of a whole that it is in fact made of many parts(nanaartha). (source)

Disability: A karmic punishment? Some Buddhists believe in reincarnation and say that what happens to you in this life results from the circling back of your own actions from previous lives. Does this mean that being born with C.P., spina bifida or getting polio as an infant is punishment for "bad karma" in past lives?

Abbie Freedman, student of Theravada Buddhism, A.D.A. consultant and T5 paraplegic, says, "I believe my accident (and it's consequences) is a result of something I'd done (or didn't do), or because of something I didn't handle properly, in a past life. I now get another chance to 'do it right.' I don't think of it as a punishment."

And neither did the Buddha. But Clark warns, "Buddhist teachers always caution against thinking about other lives." Even on his death bed, the Buddha refused to tell his disciples where he was "going" after this life. As for karma from past lives affecting the present, the Buddha said it "does not lead to profit" to contemplate what we can not know when there is so much we must learn -- and unlearn -- here and now! "It is really unproductive to think about past lives," says Clark. "We have more than enough to handle dealing with this one."

Billie Henry, a practitioner of Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism, would agree with having "enough to handle" now. She has a long list of illnesses: arthritis, asthma, a slow thyroid and diabetes causing extensive nerve damage in her feet and fingers. Oh, and Billie's had two different types of cancer. She also agrees that contemplating past lives is unproductive: "Some think we have chosen our illnesses before we were born as a means of showing our dedication to Buddhism. If I chose my illnesses before my birth I must have been out of my mind at the time!"

"Already broken." A final, frightening fact is that it is not just our cherished "I" that changes and dies. Everything and everyone on earth, the earth itself and the universe that contains it, will change and pass away. You will lose your mother and father, maybe your spouse, sister and closest friend. You may lose your job, your house, your savings. The Buddha said that clinging to anything causes suffering.

Being aware of and accepting that everything changes -- even the things and people we love most -- can actually be a source of joy, helping us to appreciate in every moment the fragile beauty and value of all things. Buddhist psychotherapist Mark Epstein, author of Thoughts without a Thinker, recalls Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah (also spelled Achaan Chaa, Achaan Chuan) describing the joys of accepting change:

You see glass? For me, this it is already broken. I enjoy it. I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. But when the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it shatters, I say 'Of course.' When I understand that this glass was already broken, every moment with it is precious.

When we accept that everything animate and inanimate is "already broken," a physical disability -- even a terminal illness -- looses its abnormality. Actually, anything that is not broken, not "disabled," is really abnormal.

The Fire Extinguisher of Suffering

THE THIRD NOBLE TRUTH: The end of craving and clinging ends suffering. This is Nirvana. No, Nirvana is not the place Buddhists go when they die. Nirvana means "extinguished," just as you would talk about extinguishing a fire. Nirvana happens when you extinguish the fires of clinging and craving and become "unconditioned," when the "shoulds" and the "I" drop away and only your peaceful "vibrant central core" remains, fine just as it is, even with it's vessel already broken.

Nirvana and "The Cure." Now, ending craving doesn't mean you can never want things: a better job, a loving companion, a nice home, a big screen TV. You can even want to be cured of your disability. What isn't helpful is turning wanting into craving.

One apparent example of craving was Christopher Reeve. Reeve's response to his S.C.I, saying unequivocally that he would walk in a few years. Some in the disability community joined Reeve in craving "The Cure." Abbie Freedman describes a Buddhist perspective: "Wanting a cure is not unhealthy. But craving a cure can make life miserable, keeping one from being in the moment and appreciating what is presently "right" in one's life. I neither cling to staying paralyzed nor crave a cure."

One Zen Buddhist had a crash course in craving, clinging and curing. At age 42, Jim Bedard was diagnosed with leukemia and given two weeks to live. The diagnosis was right but the prognosis was wrong. Bedard's book, Lotus in the Fire, describes how Buddhism helped him deal with staring death in the face daily during a year filled with nothing but intense pain caused by repeated chemotherapy, double pneumonia, infections, allergic reactions, gall bladder removal and a bone-marrow transplant. "Of course we should seek treatment and even a cure," says Bedard. "But it is important to be realistic. At some point we must regain our balance and see that there is more to life than struggling to 'get better,' which can keep us stuck in the past with only an illusion for a future."

The Path to Nirvana.

THE FOURTH NOBLE TRUTH: The Eightfold Path describes the way to extinguish clinging and craving and to achieve Nirvana:

RIGHT LIVELIHOOD is the simplest to achieve and means that you don't earn your living by killing, hurting or taking advantage of other living things, be they people or puppies or poplars.

RIGHT SPEECH and RIGHT CONDUCT are not acting in ways that are hurtful toward others and therefore karmically hurtful to yourself. Anger is the most common example of speech and conduct that is not "right." In Buddhism "Anger equals fear," says Insight Meditation teacher Susan Salzberg. So anger when it's recognized, but not expressed, is a helpful hint that you're clinging hard to something you're very afraid of losing.

RIGHT EFFORT is when we do something good without expecting some karmic benefit to circle back to us. Unfortunately, Americans' effort is often not "right." Greed is too frequently businesses' only motivation. And some people are suffering so much that they must constantly do something to hide their suffering: work, eat, or drink too much, take drugs, have sex, and, of course,buy things! Americans don't see that trying to bury suffering under a pile of "things" just adds to the number of things we fear losing and to which we must cling.

RIGHT CONCENTRATION is the means to counter "wrong" effort. The most widely known Buddhist tool to develop right concentration is meditation. "There is nothing very mysterious about meditation," says Clark. "It consists of 'just sitting,' in the most refined form known as Shikantaza, and watching the mind, being centered in the present moment. When thoughts, memories, images or feelings carry you off, you just re-focus on the 'now.' Even when craving, anger, fear and pain arise, you don't cling to them or push them away; you just notice them and let them go." Through meditation our conditioned patterns of thought and feeling, our judgmental "shoulds," can be recognized and allowed to fall away. We can then finally hear that small, solid, sensible voice of our own inner wisdom and allow it to direct our thoughts, feelings and actions.

RIGHT MINDFULNESS is "the awareness of speech, thoughts, feelings and actions as they happen," says McKinney. "True Buddhist practice is not meditation but life itself, being able to deal with whatever life dumps on us." The goal of Buddhism is for each moment and every movement to be a meditation, without judging or "shoulding," being completely and fully present in the here and now. Imagine turning all the things you hate doing, that are hard and take so long to do because of physical limitations, into meditations: unloading the dishwasher, the laundry, cleaning the litter box, bathing, dressing, even your bowel program! Life could be one peaceful, unconditioned, "shoudless," fully-present now!

RIGHT ACTION is the resolve to do the very difficult things that the other seven parts of the path suggest, and may be the most difficult step. It takes tremendous effort, constant attention and sheer guts to stare your most profound fears in the face, do the exact opposite of what you "should," and let go of your "I." "I have extinguished various physical cravings, like tobacco, alcohol, to help my body suffer less," says Vicki McKenna, student of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism and author of A Balanced Way of Living: Practical and Holistic Strategies for Coping with Post Polio Syndrome. " The difficult stuff -- the mental and emotional cravings -- takes tremendous effort to extinguish!"

But there is no other way to live, says Hilbert: "Buddhism is the ultimate in dealing with your disability! And I do differentiate between dealing and coping. Coping is 'getting through,' like putting Ora-gel on a toothache. Dealing is facing your fear, your pain, your heartache, and addressing them head-on."

RIGHT WISDOM is the fruit of applying The Four Noble Truths. If you're going to have a disability and expend all the effort to follow The Eight Fold Path, why not get something for all the pain and exertion? This may sound like the kid digging through a pile of manure to find the pony, but "disability is a source of teaching," says Barry Corbet. Buddhism helps you live without fear, knowing that whatever happens -- disability, illness, pain -- may be the lesson that causes you to let go of your "shoulds," release your "I" and enter Nirvana.

For more clarification on the word "right" and what it means in the tenets of Buddhism please see: THE WORD "RIGHT." What Does It Mean?

Mind Over Matter

Buddhism provides the ideal method for living with a disability, the ultimate in mind over matter: if you don't mind, your disability doesn't matter! But Buddhism is neither an anesthetic nor a panacea; it's very hard work, just like life. But this is as it must be, concludes Corbet: "Life can be hard but also good. Buddhism helped me see that. Life is hard. Life is good."

Remember, however, underscoring in essence What The Buddha Said, as written in the book "What the Buddha Taught" (pp. 2-3) by Dr. Walpola Rahula, extrapolating from the Kalama Sutra how far the Buddha went:

"He told the bhikkhus that a disciple should examine even the Tathagata (Buddha) himself, so that he (the disciple) might be fully convinced of the true value of the teacher whom he followed." (source)

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration that 'The monk is your teacher.' (source)



Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.



(please click)




In a July 20, 1998 discussion with internationally known Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh at a location in Plum Village, France, questions were asked about individuals with disabilities. Some said that in Buddhism a handicapped person does not have the capacity to arrive at full realization. To arrive at full realization you have to have a sound body and spirit. He found that to be a difficult concept to accept. The following, citing both Buddhist history and the Buddha, is his response:

In the time of the Buddha, in order to be ordained as a monk or a nun, you would have to be at least twenty years old, and you should be able to walk and do things in the usual way, meaning you had to have two hands and two feet. That is not because the Buddha discriminated against handicapped people, but because the life of a bhikkhu at that time required those conditions. We did not cook in the community at that time. Every morning all the monks and nuns had to go to the village or to the city to beg for food. If you could not go begging for alms, how could you live the life of a monk or a nun? We did not have the facilities that handicapped people have today. They have means to transport themselves, they can get into elevators, they can drive cars, so the situation now is completely different. So I think that today we can accept handicapped people into the Sangha of monks and nuns. It is not expressed as an ideal--as it has already been encouraged. In Switzerland there is a novice nun who is a handicapped person, and she learned from the tradition that she would never be a fully ordained nun. So we wrote a letter to her to tell her that we were ready to ordain her as a nun: "Please do not to have any complex, just come, because we know that you are capable of operating as a nun, because you have been helped by people here and you have all the facilities in order to function on your own. So that is what we have done, not just talking about it. Please know that there is no discrimination on the part of the Buddha. If we can function, we can live the life of a monk or nun, if we can do the things that a monk or nun does in order to practice, then we will be accepted into the Sangha.

There is a sutra, KUCCHIVIKARA-VATTHU Mahavagga VIII.26.1-8, with a story of the Buddha visiting a monk who was very sick, suffering from dysentery. The Buddha came to that small monastery for a visit, and all the monks were out on the begging round. He met only one monk, who was very sick, and the Buddha saw that he was not well taken care of, and he asked why not. The monk said, "My Lord, itís not because my brothers do not take care of me; but because they have taken care of me for a long time, I am very reluctant to let them continue like that." Then the Buddha asked his attendant to go and fetch water and a towel, and he himself cleaned the room for the monk, he himself changed the monk into clean clothes. When the other monks came home, the Buddha said, "When you have become a monk, the Sangha is your family. If we monks donít take care of each other, who will take care of us? So please, from now on, remember that anyone taking care of his brother monk or sister nun is taking care of me, of the Buddha, myself." That was recorded in the sutra. So I think that we live in a time when handicapped people can enjoy the practice as monks and nuns, and the Sangha can organize so that in our community handicapped people can have the opportunity to practice like everyone else.(source)

© Thich Nhat Hanh






ENLIGHTENMENT AND KARMA: Their Role in the Awakening Experience

THE FOUR SUBLIME STATES: Caring, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, Equanimity

This page offered through the graceful services of Richard Louis Bruno and the Dharma. Richard has been a student of Buddhism for 25 years, a rehabilitation practitioner and psychotherapist for 20 years and a wheelchair user for 13 years. For bio see Richard Louis Bruno