Zen Cancer Wisdom: A Book About More Than Dying

Zen-Cancer-WisdomBy Daju Suzanne Friedman,Wisdom Publications, 2014

By John Price

Daju Suzanne Friedman, a Zen priest, Dharma teacher and teacher of Chinese medicine and qigong Master, died after a prolonged experience with cancer, in March 2014. This book is her testimonial. While any well-written book about dying evokes pathos, this book does so much more than that. The book is a wise testimony to her broad life and teaching. In the midst of a thorough account of her dying, she offers us playfulness and hilarity. Upon reading it, I was moved to ask, “What do I care about?”

If given a chance, this book could take its place among the truly great books about Zen in the English language. This book is in a sense a chronology of the death of a great contemporary Zen teacher and writer. If greatness means “standing above the rest,” this book is truly that. Her dancing chapters of pain with healthy daily fragments of wise advice amid the pain are invitations to breathe and dance with a dying person. How remarkable that is! There is also a vivid, virtually day-by-day account of the process of her dying, lest we should forget the purpose of the book, as its truly fun nature takes our interest.

The forward by her own Zen Master, himself a cancer survivor, calls us to join Daju in her incredible voyage. It beckons us to enter the deepest corners of the experience of waking up, and this in the act of dying! All through into the final memoriam at the end, written by her life partner and closest friend, the book carries us on a journey to be admired. It obviously took complete focus and extreme dedication to see such a project through to beyond the end of her life.

There is a popular notion that Zen is a minimalist and metaphorical point of view. That is borne out by the book’s table of contents. We behold such topics as “A Head Like a Coconut, Empty Your Cup!” “Do Not Fight With Another’s Bow and Arrow,” “Dragging the Cat,” but we also see chapters about traditional Zen topics around meditation, philosophy, physical practices, diet, and exercise. The importance of meditation is clearly a cornerstone of the book.

So often when we read obituaries of people who have died from cancer, we see the cliché, “after a [courageous, long, painful] [battle, bout] with cancer––this book takes no part in such a view. It takes the Rinzai Zen school that formed Daju’s practice, the samurai warrior’s way, about waking up! She gives no ground to cancer in the sense of battle; but rather, she engages with the many aspects of her dying experience in light of good practice that anyone could adapt. Indeed, the book concludes with a joke.

While Daju presents the topics in her book in light of positive treatment and coping regarding her illness, the book can be a perfect “how-to” for anyone getting into Zen. Meditation, the main platform upon which active Zen rests, is woven throughout.

But anyone who’s attended an extended Zen retreat (Sesshin) and experienced all the many aspects of Zen practice will see the comprehensive array of important topics. Much is presented metaphorically, as Zen is a poetic approach to life. But again, proper seating and exercise techniques, work practice, diet and eating protocols, breathing, mind-ego, and the overall making one’s life as careful art, much like a Zen garden, all form the whole of this book. And the book doesn’t do this dogmatically.

Her funny titles concerning losing one’s hair and even the rather gross natures of certain handicaps such cancer imposes are all presented playfully. It’s not to say she diminishes the importance of these topics in the complete picture of a sad death.

But she does it in such a way that we’d be more moved to smiles and happy tears than pity.

In this review, I do not want to give too much away. It’s not like giving away the climax of a novel, but the surprising jumps from behind the corner in the chapter topics are to be experienced first-hand. I found myself thoroughly amazed by her take on very painful and difficult subjects around this dreaded disease. She does the simple mysteries of Zen proud.

Writing about Zen books is never easy. Good writing about Zen is like a hummingbird flicking about the garden. Just as we think we have a bead on the bird, it moves quickly. Likewise, writing a good Zen book is even more challenging, as the writer needs to embody both the ultimate simplicity of Zen while plumbing the great depths it presents. The author of the forward, Daju’s Zen Master Junpo, draws in the age-old metaphors about the illusory nature of the moon (object) and pointing at the moon (the subject, as it were). This book manages to inhabit not only the heavens where the moon resides but also simultaneously the body of the observer bearing witness to the moon. And the metaphor of the moon is instilled throughout the book. We find ourselves inside the person facing the greatest mystery in death, but in doing so, she manages to point the way with jeweled simplicity.

For Daju to see this project through to completion is almost a miraculous feat, but I’ll wager if we were to ask her about that, she’d offer us a proud but demur nod and perhaps a blushing smile. Her courage is daunting, her intelligence mountainous, and her empathy boundless. This book is certainly an exceptionally worthwhile read for those close to death and all of us, no matter how healthy and free of its impending shadow we might currently be.

John Price (Kabhir)
Menasha, WI (USA)

The Zen River Sangha is a Fox Valley Zen Buddhist community affiliated with the international Hollow Bones Order of American Zen. It has had a strong presence in East-Central Wisconsin for well over ten years. One of its founding priests, Reishin Denise Leong, was a close friend of Daju Suzanne Friedman, who practiced her Zen in San Francisco, though she was closely connected in spirit with Hollow Bones and Zen River. People interested in the sangha (Buddhist congregation) can look it up on Facebook or via email at Reishin Denise Leong ( There are plenty of opportunities for virtually anyone to gain access to the loving Zen community that sustained Daju Suzanne Friedman along her path. You would be welcomed.

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