The 42 year old, who was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, could not accept his condition or the knowledge that he could die.
After Doctor Masahisa Tabata walked into his hospital room and talked to him, he opened up for the first time. Tabata helped him make sense of his disease and reflect on his life.
“He cried and talked about living again,” Tabata said. “He needed someone to go through this pain with him. I assured him that he was not going to die today. He later accepted the reality of his situation and came to appreciate his life.”
The doctor, with his commanding presence and lively smile, listens to his patients at the Saito Daini Hospital in Oita prefecture where he is a director, and lets them know he cares and is there for them. He tries to bring them hope.
“They know that I care and I hope that, through the power of Buddhism, I can bring them energy and a smile,” he says. “But I don’t push it on them.”
Priests known as harbingers of death
Tabata decided to bring Buddhism to his patients after he realized he could not do enough for his patients as a doctor, and Buddhist priests were rarely allowed in hospitals.
In Japan, Buddhist priests are seen as unlucky or messengers of death. People have a preconception that Buddhism is only for the dead and hospitals do not want to let them in, according to Tabata.
“I want to change that way of thinking and help patients who are suffering dispel their misunderstandings of Buddhism in Japan,” he says.Tabata’s mission to help the lives of his patients through Buddhism came after living in Chicago a few years ago while conducting medical research.
“They had a chaplain system in place,” he says. “The Christian ministers could go in and out of the hospital.” “In Japan, there are chaplains at the Christian hospital, but there is not such a system in Buddhism because many hospitals refuse to allow Buddhist priest in.”
Since then, he has been devoting his life to helping patients lose their fear of suffering and death.
Tapping into faith
He found his own faith at Kyushu University, where he met Iwao Hosokawa, a Buddhist priest.
“He changed my life, which was running toward materialism and self-satisfaction,” he says. “During my first year at university, I lost my parents in a tragic traffic accident. Hosokawa told me to accept my sorrow and fear, which led me to the realization that my life was precious. I learned the importance of faith and living in reality — facing my fear.”
In other words, he says, he looked reality in the face and only then could he move on.
Other physicians also believe that Buddhism and spirituality can influence a patient’s life and provide a positive outlook.
“Faced with suffering and the threat of impending death, people want to try to make sense of their experiences,” Tabata says.
Additionally, there are limitations to treatment and many suffer because of their fear of death, he noted. But sometimes death is also a form of healing.
He says, one can empower someone’s life and show them the light.