D. Patrick Miller
Philip Tushio Sudo
October 20th,1959 - June 9th, 2002
Philip Toshio Sudo was a Japanese-American musician and writer who studied Zen extensively and wrote four books on the subject for popular audiences: Zen Guitar, Zen Computer, Zen Sex, and Zen 24/7. On April 2, 2001, he visited his doctor to find out whether he had a stomach ulcer, as he had been suspecting. Following is what he wrote in his personal journal after that visit:
Today I was diagnosed with stomach cancer. I am 41 years old. I have a wife and three children, ages 6,4, and 1. I don't want to leave them to a life without me. But if fate should have it that way, God watch over them and give them strength.
We all must die. We cannot choose our time. The way of zen is the resolute acceptance of death, and, having talked the talk through four books, we shall see how I walk the walk, how I fight the fight. The test is here.
Every day is a beautiful day even this day of cancer.
Love will endure through those whom we have loved.
Life is sorrowful, but to be lived in joy.
In the following interview, Phil Sudo generously answered questions about his experience of living with cancer as a student of Zen. At this writing, four months had passed since his diagnosis.
All the Time
In Zen 24/7 you write, Zen says, dont wait until the car accident, the cancer diagnosis, or the death of a loved one to get your priorities straight. Has your own diagnosis of cancer changed your priorities, apart from the obvious new priority of treatment?
SUDO: Not really. Ever since I got married and started having kids, my wife and children have been the focus of my life. That hasnt changed. Its true that my number one priority now is getting healthy, but its as much for them as for myself. I certainly appreciated my good health when I had it. In my first real job out of college, I worked as a journalist and sat next to this crusty old veteran who was nearing retirement. He used to tell me every day, If youve got your health, youve got your wealth. Repeated it like a mantra. As someone whose father died too early at age 54, I took that message to heart. I never wanted to take good health for granted.
The other aspect to that quote is the idea of acting now rather than later. One of the best lessons I ever got was from a college economics professor. He came into class one day all teary-eyed and said his father had just died. He reminisced for a few minutes before getting too choked up, and then dismissed the class saying, When something like this happens, all those graphs about supply and demand dont mean shit. And then he said, When you get a chance, you tell your dad that you love him. You never know. Such a simple message, and yet given the emotion of the moment, it really stayed with me. I was raised in a household with traditional Japanese reserve. In our family, we never verbalized our love for each other; it was felt, but always unstated. Growing up, I dont think I ever said the words I love you to anyone. So, over Christmas break I went home and tried hard to find an occasion to say that to my dad. Having never done it before, I didnt realize how hard it would be, to actually say I love you with a sincere and open heart. Finally, at the end of the break, as I was leaving for the airport, I turned to him and said I loved him. And his eyes welled up with tears.
That was the last time I saw my dad alive, and those words I love you were the last words I ever spoke to him. Before the school year was over, he had died from a stroke. To this day, I thank God for that lesson from my economics teacher. Thats why I say in Zen 24/7, dont wait until its too late to say what needs to be said, to do what needs to be done. Every day counts even plain old today. You never know.
Ive heard the Zen story of an enlightened master who was chronically ill. When a student asked him how he could be enlightened yet stay sick, he answered, I am sick as long as all men are sick. Is there an impersonal or universal aspect to your experience of cancer?
SUDO: I certainly dont feel like a martyr. If theres a universal aspect to my experience, its in seeing that everyone has some kind of pain in their life theyre trying to work through and while it may not be life-threatening, it still consumes them. Ive got friends whod really like to get married and havent been able to; some whove gone through painful divorces; some whove been trying for years to conceive a baby and suffered numerous miscarriages; some who are just struggling to make ends meet. Who am I to complain when Ive got a wonderful wife, three beautiful children, and a measure of financial security? I feel incredibly lucky. There are people who could live a thousand years and never know the joys Ive known.
Someone said to me recently, You must have a lot of anger over your illness. And the truth is, I dont. From the beginning, I never asked, Why me? Instead Ive thought, Why not me? Or, why anyone? The first time I went to the cancer center for treatment, I couldnt believe how many people were in the waiting room. The room was full of patients in various stages of illness, from elderly people in wheelchairs down to a young woman half my age. I remember trying to make appointments for various doctors and tests and being told I couldnt get in as early as I had hoped. My first impulse was to say, You dont understand, this is a matter of life and death! But how could I say that when that was true for everyone in the room?
Are there certain challenges, like cancer, to which the Zen response is to forget all about Zen? In other words, is one allowed to freak out about such a diagnosis? Many people may regard Zen as a detached or controlled response to life; how would you describe your response to learning about your cancer?
SUDO: I didnt freak out. On the way home, I did shed some tears. When the doctor told me I had cancer, I didnt forget about zen; on the contrary, my thoughts were filled with zen teachings about accepting the inevitability of death and regarding each moment as precious. Those resonated with me more than ever.
After calling my wife, I did get teary-eyed, however, because I thought about the anguish she and my children would have to go through. (One thing about those zen masters up in the mountains: you never read about them having a wife and children to care for.) But even through the tears, I didnt feel far from zen. Theres a zen story I read somewhere about the funeral of a young monk. During the funeral, the monks master begins to weep. Afterwards, another monk approaches the master and says something like, Youve always taught that we shouldnt become attached to our bodies or this life. So why were you crying?
The master says, If not now, when? In other words, there are times where its entirely appropriate to cry even as were cognizant of the need to accept death.
The Way of
How did each of the topics you took on in your series of books teach you something new about Zen? How is Zen Guitar different from Zen Sex, and how are they the same? Have you thought about writing a book on zen illness?
SUDO: With each of my books, I learned something new simply by returning to the same subject and doing more thinking or meditating about it. The depth of zen is never ending. For example, there were certain zen koans whose meaning eluded me in the early books that, with subsequent books, I felt like I understood better and could write about. There are plenty more Im still mulling over.
The approach Ive taken to writing about zen is somewhat indirect, but I feel its the best way to make zen understandable and applicable to modern readers. I use the principles of zen to teach about, for example, guitar playing, but at the same time I use the principles of guitar playing to teach about zen. So I give the reader two points of entry. If youre interested in music, computers, or sex (anyone not on that list?), you can gain new insights into your passion. And if youre interested in zen philosophy, you can learn how to apply it in your musical, work, or love life. All of my books are the same in that dual approach. On a zen level, they contain similar teachings. Where they differ is in how I choose to illustrate the zen principles. I like to say that I wrote Zen Guitar from my heart, Zen Computer from my head, and Zen Sex from my body. What Im trying to show is that there are myriad points of entry to zen understanding. Thats the gist of Zen 24/7: That anything, be it an alarm clock, a window shade, a handshake, or a cup of coffee, can offer a zen lesson.
A lot of people have suggested that I take notes for a book about zen and cancer, but so far I havent felt the urge. My main creative focus during this process has been on making music, charting my own course of music therapy. Ive been bringing my laptop computer with me to chemo and recording musical compositions while the chemos being administered. Im calling it The Chemo Sessions. Some of it sounds really strange. But its the probably the best document of whats going on with me right now.
Are there any books that have helped you through this process?
SUDO: Ive been returning to my favorite works in Eastern philosophy. I havent read any books related to cancer specifically, other than the wonderful volume of poetry Fuck You, Cancer by Rick Fields, who wrote from an Eastern philosophy perspective. My wife loved the cancer memoir by Evan Handler, Time On Fire (Owl Books), because she said it was both funny and angry. She identified more with Handlers blunt approach than with the feel-good, uplifting stories about cancer out there. My kids seem to like The Paper Chain (Health Press, Santa Fe, N.M.), by Claire Blake, Eliza Blanchard, and Kathy Parkinson. Its a gentle way of helping kids understand what a parent goes through during cancer. Theyve asked me to read it to them many times.
The book Ive got by my bedside right now is Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai (Kodansha), by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. It formed the basis for the recent Jim Jaramusch movie Ghost Dog and basically speaks to the need for a resolute acceptance of death. Its good book for building mental strength. The book I carry in my bag is The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, Japans most legendary samurai. Its a classic treatise on strategy and swordsmanship, but of course, everything in the book has broader life meaning.
The noted writer and counselor Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of a woman who came to her and confessed that she wasnt getting the message of her cancer. Remen replied, Thats easy. The message of your cancer is that it wants to kill you. Does your cancer have a message? Do you see it as an enemy, a teacher, an accident of fate, or something else?
SUDO: I dont look at my cancer as the enemy; its of me, a part of me. In zen, all is one. I see the cancer more in yin-yang terms as a spot of black within the white. Its part of the duality of life. There is health and there is illness; one would not exist without the other. All things yin and yang are in constant flux. Right now, that spot of black is threatening to grow and overtake the white. Should that happen, it will be part of the natural ebb and flow of yin and yang.
Which is not to say that Im resigned to my fate or I dont want to live. In yin-yang thinking there are always circles within and without. Ill engage the yin of cancer in a dance with the yang of chemotherapy. Ill cut the cancer out because less of me is more of me. And Ill do my damnedest to transcend the situation, whatever it may be, rather than succumb to it.
To be honest, I dont feel like Im dying. Ive heard with terminal illnesses that, at a certain point, the body begins a trajectory of death thats unstoppable and leads inexorably to the end. At this point, I dont feel like Im on that trajectory. I know my condition is deadly serious; I dont for a moment underestimate what cancer is, what it does, and how relentless it can be. But I have to live in hope and faith. In my mind, Ive spoken to Death and said, Be patient. I know youre waiting, but theres no hurry. When its absolutely the time, Ill go with you. But for now, just be patient. Well see if Death listens.
That is all.
Editorís Note: Phil Sudo passed away in June 2002. Originally published in 2001, this interview remains one of the most-read feature articles on this website.
THE FEARLESS HOUR: A Time for Saving Graces
HOME • BOOKS • FEATURES • STAY IN TOUCH