“Cancer is a great gift,” says my friend Ilya, quoting a Buddhist teacher.  “Give me a break,” I think to myself.  People’s fear of death is the illegitimate trump card of all religions.  They use it to scare people into believing in unbelievable things.  Death makes vicars and priests snicker in secret since they know it eventually will make the errant sheep come back to the fold.

“Yes,” Ilya continues, “after a diagnosis of cancer, you’re forced to re-examine your life and to live better.  It’s a great opportunity.”  Of course he’s right.  Nothing, after all, clears your mind like the prospect of an execution in the morning.

The advantage of Buddhism is that it doesn’t force you to believe in the absurd.  There are no virgin births or water transformed into wine.  Buddhism is not peddling any comforting truths, but instead the harsh teaching that most of what you take to be reality is nothing but an illusion.  Most of all you are mistaken about who you think you are.

But forget philosophy.  Buddhism is also a set of hands-on prescriptions: eat vegetables, exercise, sleep well, meditate 20 minutes per day.  It doesn’t really matter what you believe in the end, only what you do.

I don’t think I can become a Buddhist.  I’m too much in love with my illusions (most of all, no doubt, the illusions I have about myself).  But I know I can live, eat, sleep and exercise better.  I will also start meditating 20 minutes per day.  It’s surely a good thing to learn how to calm down.  The road to enlightenment starts with a bowl of brown rice and a moment of silence.

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