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.

ZEN 24/7:

All Zen,
All the Time

In Zen 24/7 you write, “Zen says, don’t 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?
Not really. Ever since I got married and started having kids, my wife and children have been the focus of my life. That hasn’t changed. It’s true that my number one priority now is getting healthy, but it’s 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 you’ve got your health, you’ve 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 didn’t 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. That’s why I say in Zen 24/7, don’t wait until it’s 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.


I’ve 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?
I certainly don’t feel like a martyr. If there’s a universal aspect to my experience, it’s in seeing that everyone has some kind of pain in their life they’re trying to work through — and while it may not be life-threatening, it still consumes them. I’ve got friends who’d really like to get married and haven’t been able to; some who’ve gone through painful divorces; some who’ve 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 I’ve 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 I’ve known.

Someone said to me recently, “You must have a lot of anger over your illness.” And the truth is, I don’t. From the beginning, I never asked, “Why me?” Instead I’ve thought, Why not me? Or, why anyone? The first time I went to the cancer center for treatment, I couldn’t 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 couldn’t get in as early as I had hoped. My first impulse was to say, “You don’t 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?
I didn’t freak out. On the way home, I did shed some tears. When the doctor told me I had cancer, I didn’t 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 didn’t feel far from zen. There’s a zen story I read somewhere about the funeral of a young monk. During the funeral, the monk’s master begins to weep. Afterwards, another monk approaches the master and says something like, “You’ve always taught that we shouldn’t 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 it’s entirely appropriate to cry — even as we’re cognizant of the need to accept death.


The Way of
Making Love

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?
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 I’m still mulling over.

The approach I’ve taken to writing about zen is somewhat indirect, but I feel it’s 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 you’re interested in music, computers, or sex (anyone not on that list?), you can gain new insights into your passion. And if you’re 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 I’m trying to show is that there are myriad points of entry to zen understanding. That’s 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 haven’t felt the urge. My main creative focus during this process has been on making music, charting my own course of music therapy. I’ve been bringing my laptop computer with me to chemo and recording musical compositions while the chemo’s being administered. I’m calling it “The Chemo Sessions.” Some of it sounds really strange. But it’s the probably the best document of what’s going on with me right now.

Are there any books that have helped you through this process?
I’ve been returning to my favorite works in Eastern philosophy. I haven’t 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 Handler’s 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. It’s a gentle way of helping kids understand what a parent goes through during cancer. They’ve asked me to read it to them many times.

The book I’ve 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. It’s good book for building mental strength. The book I carry in my bag is The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s most legendary samurai. It’s a classic treatise on strategy and swordsmanship, but of course, everything in the book has broader life meaning.

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The noted writer and counselor Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of a woman who came to her and confessed that she “wasn’t getting the message” of her cancer. Remen replied, “That’s 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?
I don’t look at my cancer as the enemy; it’s 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. It’s 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 I’m resigned to my fate or I don’t want to live. In yin-yang thinking there are always circles within and without. I’ll engage the yin of cancer in a dance with the yang of chemotherapy. I’ll cut the cancer out because less of me is more of me. And I’ll do my damnedest to transcend the situation, whatever it may be, rather than succumb to it.

To be honest, I don’t feel like I’m dying. I’ve heard with terminal illnesses that, at a certain point, the body begins a trajectory of death that’s unstoppable and leads inexorably to the end. At this point, I don’t feel like I’m on that trajectory. I know my condition is deadly serious; I don’t 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, I’ve spoken to Death and said, “Be patient. I know you’re waiting, but there’s no hurry. When it’s absolutely the time, I’ll go with you. But for now, just be patient.” We’ll see if Death listens.

Live today.
Live tomorrow.
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.


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