Meditation as cancer therapy
Bhante P. Kassapais the founder of the Rockhill
Hermitage (RH), an international forest meditation
centre in Kandy. He is a senior disciple of the late Ven.
Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, one of Sri Lankans renowned
meditation teachers who passed away at the age of 102
years in 1998. RH has facilities for monks, nuns and lay
people and is situated in a cosy, cooling and beautiful
mountainside spread over 15 acres with many rock caves
and a large meditation hall.
Under his guidance, about 15 Westerners and 15 Sri
Lankan monks have been ordained including 10 Buddhist
nuns (dasa sil mathas). Bhante Kassapa was in Malaysia
in June 2007 for two months at the invitation of the
Buddhist Maha Vihara, Brickfields, to give Dhamma talks
and conduct retreats as part of the K. Sri Dhammananda
Memorial Lecture series. The following interview with
Venerable Kassapa was conducted by Sumananada Premasiri
for Eastern Horizon.
Eastern Horizon: Could you tell us how you became a monk
and your focus on the practice of meditation?
Masfer trainer in Tai
chi Rani Hughes
Kassapa: I became a monk in 1963 and was ordained in a
temple known as Rassagala Maha Vihara, close to the town
of Balangoda. I received my higher ordination in 1968.
My teacher was the late Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya,
one of Sri Lanka’s foremost meditation teachers.
My first education was at the Balangoda Vidyaloka
Pirivena. I then decided to seek various Sri Lankan and
Burmese meditation masters in Sri Lanka to learn the
different techniques of meditation from them. I also
studied for some time under the late Ven: Sumathipala
Mahanayaka Thera at the Kadugoda International
Meditation Center (KIMC).
EH: You have done much research on the effects of
meditation palliative care in Australia. Could you
elaborate on it?
Kassapa: Yes, I have taught meditation since 1995 to
cancer patients at Austin Hospital in Melbourne and
involved in research on its impact with the Ludwig
Institute of Cancer Research in Melbourne. They would
conduct medical test on the cancer patients before and
after each meditation session. They tested both the
quantitative as well as qualitative aspects of the
patients who went through meditation. For instance, they
checked their pulse rate and blood pressure, lethargy
levels, and sleeping order. On a scale of 1-10 they
would ask the patients to state their pain levels before
and after each meditation session. They study showed
that blood pressure levels improved after meditation.
Usually, the patients were tensed before the meditation,
but after the session, they felt relaxed.
Encouraged by the positive result the doctors expanded
this pilot project as part of their clinical research.
The results subsequently proved satisfactory.
Thereafter, I was appointed as honourary meditation
consultant for the hospital. Besides cancer patients, I
have also introduced meditation to their family members
and friends, and hospital staff. In 2005 as many 316
people benefited from learning how to meditate. Today
meditation sessions are introduced to complement
existing cancer therapies and related health services
available in Australian hospitals.
EH: So you are much encouraged by the efforts in
Kassapa: Yes, I am happy that meditation is able to help
the cancer patients. Many patients experience not just
the pain of the physical illness but emotional distress
such as anxiety and depression. By developing a sense of
calmness and awareness, meditation has helped many of
these patients. Those who practise meditation often
describe improvement in their pain, sleeping patterns,
and a general sense of well-being.
When I am not in Australia, my lay students would
continue the weekly sessions. I also run stress
management for the doctors, nurses, and other staff of
the hospital. Having taught
meditation successfully to various types of cancer
patients in Melbourne, I have started to introduce a
similar program to hospitals in Sri Lanka including the
cancer hospital in Maharagama.
EH: Why do you include family members of cancer patients
in your meditation session?
Kassapa: When the patient has cancer,the family and
friends share in the sadness and anxiety. It is
difficult for them too but we need to help them release
their tensions and fear of cancer, many people are
traumatized by cancer. Their immediate reaction is, “Is
he going to die?”, ‘WHen”, “Why must he die so young?”
etc. I always explain to the family members that cancer
is just another illness.
People not only die of cancer but also of many other
illnesses. I also tell them that death could come
anytime anywhere. For instance a very healthy person
could meet with an accident and die instantly.
I share with the family members and friends of the
patients that the Buddha taught that when we are born,
we are already heading towards death. Depending on their
Karma, some die at the age of five and the some live to
a hundred years. Sickness is just a part of life that we
have to face at anytime. Eventually death takes place
when our lifespan comes to an end.
EH: What do you usually deal with cancer patients?
Kassapa: I tell my patients they are more fortunate than
those who die from heart attacks. Those who die from
heart attacks do not have time to prepare for their
death. When one dies of cancer, one has time to prepare
for a future life. It is actually a good opportunity for
them to know they have cancer. They can do meritorious
deeds to ensure a future life free from pain. They have
a clear and focused opportunity to be the master of
their next destiny.
Many cancer patients discover that mental development is
the best friend they have. Through meditation and
spiritual teaching they become more relaxed and kinder
and more generous. They know how to let go of petty
issues that caused them unhappiness. I advise against
developing negative thought as this will only cause them
more frustration. I encourage them to be mindful and to
observe any negative thoughts that may arise. In this
way, they can be calm and relaxed. They will then feel a
sense of well-being within. In the west, many medical
centres conduct mindfulness clinics. Even at Schipon
Airport in Amsterdam, they have a meditation room for
air passengers to calm their minds.
EH: Which is a more conducive environment to practise
meditation a forest or a meditation centre?
Kassapa: There is no hard and fast rule. It depends on
many factors. For example, you cannot expect a cancer
patient to travel to a forest meditation centre far
away. His home or the hospital becomes his environment
to practise meditation. But a good teacher is more
important than a particular place.
EH: But a peaceful environment is crucial for
Kassapa: A peaceful environment is always helpful. Much
positive energy comes from the natural environment. For
instance, a meditation centre or a hermitage would be
more conducive than one’s home because of the spiritual
atmosphere and the simplicity of the place. But it is
also good to spend time in a hermitage as one will be
able to meditate even better after returning to one’s
home after a long and quiet retreat.
EH: As there are many types of meditation, which method
do you use for your patients?
Kassapa: In Buddhism, there are two main types of
meditation Samatha and Vipassana. Samatha is the
development of the mind in concentration, Vipassana is
the development of wisdom that realises the true nature
of existence. There are two popular methods - rising and
falling of the abdomen, and mindfulness of breathing.
I teach both methods as they help us to see the true
nature of existence. The mindfulness of breathing method
is also beneficial.
If we wish to practise Vipassana we must start with
tranquillity meditation because wisdom does not arise in
an upset or disturbed mind but in a calm mind. When one
practises Anapana, it provides an avenue to Vipassana.
Breathing meditation helps us to attain deeper
absorptive stages such as jhanas. The rising and falling
of the abdomen only provides enough concentration for
Vipassana realization but cannot lead to meditative
absorptions. Meditation on elements will only lead to
Vippassana, but not jhanas. If one wishes to experience
Vipassana through Jhanas, one has to practise breathing
EH: A meditating monk is always regarded as a serious
person. But you seem to portray a jovial nature. How is
Kassapa: This is the rapture of happiness (piti
sambhojaga). You must feel it. You can see this in the
smiling Buddha image. We need to create it in our
hearts, so that when we think, speak or act, this inner
happiness will emanate from within us. If we are happy,
it will overcome all the tensions within us. That simple
smile brings relaxation to the mind and body, a sense of
calm that I totally enjoy. I encourage people to have a
smiling nature and to practise it.