Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

By Karen Hilsberg BRUCE L. HILSBERG, Strong Commitment of the Heart and True Courageous Inspiration, passed away on March 29, 2005. He was forty-five years old. Bruce and his wife Karen met in graduate school, where they both received doctorates in clinical psychology. Bruce’s most recent employment was as Chief of Psychology at Metropolitan State Hospital, a locked psychiatric facility where he brought mindfulness training to the staff and individuals served.

Partners for eighteen years, Bruce and Karen have two children, Emily and Ben. The Hilsbergs began the thriving Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City in 2003.

Numerous beings have provided invaluable friendships and spiritual support along the path, sharing the gifts of love and non-fear. In lieu of flowers, please offer support to the Touching and Helping Program, c/o Deer Park Monastery, 2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026.

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Many people use the word “lemon” to refer to something that is no good. For example, a car that frequently breaks down is called “a lemon.” But a lemon is a beautiful fruit. The blossoms of our lemon tree fill our garden this very morning with an indescribably sweet fragrance. People have said many things to us during this past year and half of our experience with illness: “This is a trag­edy;” “What is happening to your family is terrible;” and “I hate cancer.” Our response has been to see this time as a wonderful opportunity to develop spiritually, to practice mindfulness, and to learn about true love and non-fear. The depth of closeness and trust that we have nurtured and developed in our marriage and our family this past year has been priceless.

It is one thing to study the teachings in the abstract, philosoph­ically, but quite another to live them day in and day out. For Bruce, that meant facing his own inescapable death; for me, it meant facing the inescapable death of my partner of eighteen years; and for our children, it meant facing the illness and loss of their daddy.

We have been taking refuge in the three jewels, practicing weekly with our Sangha, frequently visiting our teachers and broth­ers and sisters at Deer Park, and practicing with each other, with our family, and with friends. In the process, we have experienced letting go—letting go of our careers and professional personas, of our attachment to Bruce’s physical health, of our possessions, of our so-called independence, even of eating and drinking, and most important, of many long-held notions and beliefs.

In the letting go, remarkable things have been happening. We have touched deeply experiences we had only dreamed of—giving freely of ourselves to our loved ones, receiving the generosity of others, openly communicating with one another. For us, the real­ization that our spirit truly continues on, healthy and vital, even after our body has de-manifested “like a worn out, old shoe,” has been liberating.

Together, as a family, we have been able to transcend feelings of fear and despair and to touch the ultimate dimension when we enjoy simple pleasures like the garden, the flowers, the wind, the birds, the full moon, the laughter and tears of each other and our children, hugging, touching, breathing, moving our bodies sleeping peacefully. Simple pleasures mean everything when we realize that we are all “on death row.”

Just as we enjoy picking lemons from our lemon tree, squeezing them, adding sugar, then water, and tasting the fresh and delicious lemonade, we have taken this experience of cancer that has manifest­ed in our family and added our practice of mindfulness in order to touch the beautiful and refreshing truths taught by the Buddha 2,600 years ago. In doing this, we transcend our suffering and touch peace, solidity, freedom, love, and non-fear in our everyday lives.

Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, lives with her children in southern California, near Deer Park Monastery

 

Letter to Bruce and Karen Hilsberg

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hilsberg,

Whether Easterners or Westerners, young or old, we are always very fearful when we are facing death. Even when we are so ill that our breath is irregular, we still don’t believe that we are facing death. We don’t accept that this physical body is disintegrating because of beliefs that lie deep in our consciousness.

But there is an ultimate truth, which you can understand with deep awareness. Life is a cycle of manifestation, and death is a cycle of de-manifestation. We are the awareness that is no birth, no death.

In the winter, the leaves fall from the trees and the branches are bare. But during that time the trees are not dead, because the living energy still exists. We know that in springtime the young shoots and new leaves will return and develop very fast. Our human life is a thousand times more miraculous than the cycle of the trees. As the trees use the cycle of rest to grow, human beings should look at the life and death of this physical body as a cycle, in which they can mature spiritually. When you look deeply into your own mind you won’t have any worry, fear, or despair.

I am not a good practitioner, and I have much suffering when I see that my loved ones are very sick and I cannot help them; when I have to face many of my friends leaving, and I do not have the power to hold them back. But because of the practice, eventually I can transform the fear and suffering in my heart. I have a strong faith that the life and death of this physical body is only a cycle of the manifestation and de-manifestation, while the nature of our true self, is no birth, no death.

Bodhisattvas and Zen masters come to this world and leave this world very peacefully and freely. They can say goodbye to this life with joy because they know that they are not truly gone. We are no different than these bodhisattvas and Zen masters, if we have a strong belief that our true self is never gone.

I sincerely hope that you have strong faith in your Buddha nature that is no birth no death, so you can overcome despair, worry, sadness, and suffering. And I pray that the Three Jewels in the Ten Direcitons will always protect you so that you will have strong faith in yourself.

Venerable Phouc Tinh

The Venerable Phouc Tinh of Deer Park, wrote this letter shortly before Bruce Hilsberg’s death. Translated by Van Khanh Ha.

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