Oct. 24, 2021 Zoom Sermon
Very recently, a groundbreaking experiment was conducted by American doctors at
NYU Langone Health. They attached a pig’s kidney to a human. The experiment was a
successful, far exceeding the expectations of its researchers. As we all know, transplants
have become a common procedure, so much so that its demand outweighs its supply. What
poses the biggest hurdle is that there is a long waiting list of recipients who require
transplants at any given time. Yet, the reality of the situation is that the number of donors
willing to offer their organs for transplants have not increased. Hence, the number of
available organs for transplants have remained sparse. Then, there is always the complex
issue of finding organs from donors who match the physical requirements of the recipient. Therefore, the use of organs from pigs offers some hope to these problems.

Nonetheless, the recent transplant was not completely free of hurdles of its own.
Scientists were aware of a sugar called alpha-gal in pig cells that is foreign to the human
body. A transplant without addressing this issue would cause immediate organ rejection.

Scientists needed to find a way to bypass this problem. They did this by raising a gene-
edited pig. This pig used in the experiment lacked the troublesome sugar. Doctors extracted a kidney from this pig and attached it to a pair of large blood vessels outside the body of a brain-dead human recipient. Dr. Robert Montgomery who led the surgical team observed that the kidney functioned normally. He further witnessed that the kidney “turned a beautiful pink color,” and urine began passing from the kidney to the bladder
immediately. This had stunned all the researchers in the room as the kidney functioned
almost immediately. The university produced a statement that the body had produced urine that was, “normal and equivalent to what is seen from a human kidney transplant.” Dr. Montgomery also added that the pig’s kidney, “didn’t have this immediate rejection that we have worried about.”

Transplanting the organs of animals into humans is not new. In October of 1984, a baby,
Stephanie Fae Beauclair, was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. This is a rare
congenital heart defect where the left side of the heart is severely underdeveloped. Without life-prolonging interventions, hypoplastic heart syndrome is fatal. Stephanie Beauclair, better known as Baby Fae, was given the heart of a baboon. Baby Fae expired within a month of the procedure. Nevertheless, Baby Fae survived for 21 days, much longer than previous recipients of a non-human heart. The transplanting of animal to human organs is called xenotransplantation.

Scientists have since turned from primates to pigs. Apparently, this has produced
encouraging results. Pigs seem to have organs that are comparable to those of humans. Pig heart valves have been successfully used in humans for decades now. Pig skin grafts are used extensively on burns. Chinese surgeons have experimented with the use of pig corneas to restore eyesight. The blood thinner heparin is produced from the intestines of pigs. In other words, there is much that humans can gain medically from animals.
The deceased person on whom the experiment was conducted had wished to donate her
organs, but they were not suitable for donation. Her family believed that something good would come if they kept her on a ventilator. But, thanks to their persistence, the experiment of transplanting a pig kidney to a human proved successful. Revivicor, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics and the company that engineered the special pig, have raised a herd of a hundred pigs in controlled conditions in a facility in Iowa. In December, the Food and Drug Administration approved the gene alteration in the Revivicor pigs as safe for human food consumption and medicine. Revivicor would still need to submit more experimental evidence before pig organs can be transplanted into living humans. However, experts believe that transplants could begin in the next several years.

Obviously, the success of this xenotransplantation is a very captivating story. However,
there is a back story behind the successful experiment which I thought was equally
compelling. Little do most people know that the lead surgeon, Dr. Robert Montgomery,
himself is a recipient of an organ. Three years ago, he received a human heart from a donor with hepatitis C because he was desperate to accept any organ. He explained, “I was one of those people lying in an ICU waiting and not knowing whether an organ was going to come in time.” The head surgeon who performed the groundbreaking transplant was someone who was sympathetic to transplants in general. I am sure that Dr. Montgomery was motivated in this research because of its intimacy with his own challenges. My assumption is that he fully understands the feelings of a patient whose survival rests in receiving organs from another. Undoubtedly, he is well aware of the scarcity of available organs for transplants as well.

At any moment, nearly a 100,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for a kidney transplant.
And, each day, at least twelve people die while waiting for a kidney. As harsh as it is, this
is a fact put out by the National Kidney Foundation based in New York City. We who have
functioning kidneys never think about this. But, for someone who has a failing kidney and
are on dialysis, the question of “Where and when can I get a kidney transplant?” consumes their thoughts every day until a donor is found.

In Chapter Two of the Lotus Sutra, there is a phrase yui butsu yo butsu nai no kujin (唯
仏与仏 乃能究盡). It means, “The Buddhas, and only the Buddhas, can completely
comprehend the wisdom of the various dimensions of reality” (「唯、仏と仏と、乃し能
く(諸法の実相を)究尽したまえり」). This is arguably one of the most difficult, yet
important teachings of the Buddha. In order for one to completely understand another, one must rise to match the same level as the other. My assumption is that the recent
xenotransplantation became a success in part because of the passion that Dr. Robert
Montgomery had brought with him to the research. Only a person such as Dr. Montgomery who had undergone a transplant himself could have fully understood the significance of this research and seen this xenotransplantation project to fruition.

Many times, we throw around words such as empathy. But, do we really have a
thorough understanding of how another feels? This is especially applicable in trying to
understand another’s pain. To empathize means to have fully experienced the same pain.
yui butsu yo butsu nai no kujin suggests that we must delve deeply, and experience
whatever it is to actually understand all its dimensions. So, if we are talking about the
teachings of the Buddha, we must rise to the level of the Buddha, to thoroughly appreciate its teachings. Before achieving this, we are but mimicking the Buddha. In other words, to completely understand the teachings of the Buddha, one must live Buddhism and become a Buddha as well. (Eisei Ikenaga)