(Apologies in advance for the relatively esoteric nature of this article! I’ll attempt to give some background at the end for those of you who are interested.)
While I was staying with Sue Hulley in November, it was becoming apparent that the chemotherapy was not working to reduce the tumor – she could feel a lump growing daily in her side, and later tests confirmed this. When I first asked her how long she thought she had left to live, she speculated two years, but within a week she had revised that down to a matter of months. Not long after, it was only weeks. She accepted her rapidly shrinking lifespan with her characteristic calm and good humor.
Sue was all about cherishing others, and in very practical ways. Something I wrote at the time gives a glimpse: “On Sunday morning I woke at 7am to find Sue attempting to bake for the Tuesday night meditation class. She couldn’t stand up, much less reach things, so this was going to take all day… instead I offered to be her hands and we made a rather nice cake. If anyone has an excuse to beg off baking duties and be unhelpful, it is Sue. But cherishing others is what she does – she is going to die as she lives and live as she dies.”
Sue was not sentimental about her death. Her last email to her fellow Teacher Training students, people she had been close to for 15 years, was factual, let everyone know that she could no longer receive visits or phone calls, and ended simply with: “I look forward to studying with you in Keajra. Love Sue.” She also wrote some Christmas cards not long before she died, on which she wrote messages like: “Merry Christmas. Have a great rest of your life! Love, Sue.”
The most important thing we talked about during my ten-day visit was preparing for her death and next life. Our conversations started in the car, like this:
Me: Where are you planning on going when you die?
Sue: Hmmm, well, I was talking about this with someone the other day, and we concluded that we would like to go wherever Geshe-la wants us.
Me: Where do you think that is?
Sue: I suppose Keajra? (the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini).
Me: Are you feeling a bit vague about this?
Sue: I suppose I am.
Me: I think if we want to go to Keajra, we have to start believing that we are in Keajra now. I don’t think it works to assume that we’ll just suddenly go there if we haven’t gotten used to being there ahead of our death.
Sue: (goes very thoughtful). Yes, I have been thinking of it more along the lines of “I’ll keep my nose clean and then with any luck go to a Pure Land. It is a bit dualistic. I’m putting it off.”
Me: That dualistic view is quite natural for us, and perhaps it is like some people’s idea of a Christian heaven. But in Buddhism we have to put our mind where we want it to be – it is not a question of being rewarded sometime in the future.
We have to have no reservation either. We have to really want to be there, more than anything else. (This point is at least implicit in the first of the so-called “five forces”, aspiration – we do have to know clearly what we want and actually want it!) If Buddha was to appear right now and say to you: “Sue, I am going to give you a choice. You can stay in Marin for another twenty years and then die and go to Keajra, or you can be in Keajra right now without delay”, which would you choose?!
Sue: (laughing) Good point. I would want to hang out here with my friends for another 20 years and then go! But I have to want it MORE than this.
Me: Yes, and the only way that’ll happen is if we’re thinking about it all the time, and what it actually means to be in the Pure Land. As you know, it is not a real physical place with lovely fountains and whispering trees (looking a bit like Marin!) that we are going to magically turn up in sometime in the future if we create some vague aspirations and causes for it now. It is, of course, primarily a state of mind. We have to practice being there until we are.
Then, there will be no contradiction between being in Marin and being in the Pure Land For example, when the great Tibetan Yogi Milarepa was asked in which Pure Land he attained enlightenment, he pointed to his empty cave.
We can describe the Pure Land as like heaven, but it is not really the same as many Christians’ or Muslims’ notion of heaven (depending, I suppose, on what they mean when they say “heaven on earth” ?!) We are not buying into this human life and using it to garner a reward, or a “promotion”. We want the Pure Land now. It seems to me that if we don’t want it now, it means we still have attachment to a more ordinary life, and these are stones around our feet that will prevent us from leaving samsara. Do you agree? To go there, we have to want it more than this. And we have to want it now. There is only now.
Sue and I then had several discussions about what state of mind Keajra or the Pure Land was, and Sue spent a lot of time focusing on this. As a result, she said that death no longer felt like such a “big deal” to her, more of a seamless transition, and she found a deep peace with it. There is a description of sincere Tantric practitioners in the Root Tantra of Heruka:
For such practitioners, death is just mere name –
They are simply moved from the prison of samsara
To the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka.
Death is smoother if we are already living as if we are in our next life. Less “bells and whistles”, less of a “razzmatazz and production”, as Sue put it, with accompanying wand gestures. Our friend Marsha Remas had been telling us about the title of a book she was reading, “This IS your next life!” Sue loved that.
There need be no contradiction between living this life and preparing for the future if we are now putting our mind where we want it to be in our next life.
I think that a Pure Land has basically three ingredients: faith, motivation, and view. This will mean different things to different people, including those in other spiritual traditions. For me, in brief, and for Sue, faith means a profound feeling of closeness to my Spiritual Guide, the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Sangha, holding them all in my heart. Motivation means renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom) and bodhichitta (the wish for enlightenment for the sake of all living beings), which keeps me very close to others, free from attachment, also holding them all in my heart, even when the fleeting appearances of this world and body dissolve away. View means the wisdom realizing the empty dream-like nature of all phenomena, inseparably mixed with the clear light mind of bliss. (Tantric practitioners can combine these three with self-generation, you can find out more about that in Modern Buddhism).
It seems to me that this is the best way not to be separated from those we hold dear. With faith, motivation, and view, we lose nothing when we die. There is nothing to fear. We are where we want to be, for our own and others’ sake.
When Sue and Bill dropped me at the airport, in what turned out to be Sue’s last “outing”, she said: “This was not a dead flower visit. This was very ‘real’.”
When Sue died, her family stayed with her for an hour and a half, and then left her alone for another hour and a half. When they returned, her left hand, which had been by her side, was over her heart, and her mouth, which had been open, was now closed in a peaceful half-smile.
Your turn: Where are you planning on going when you die, and what are you doing now to get there?
Some background information
We have the potential or seeds for both heaven and hell. Which comes to fruition depends on which seeds we water.
According to Buddhism, the “Pure Land” is the experience of a purified mind, whereas “samsara” is the experience of an impure mind that is still contaminated by the inner poison of delusions. Here is a short description taken from Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully:
In a Buddha’s Pure Land everything is pure; there are no sufferings, no contaminated environments, and no impure enjoyments. Beings born there are free from sickness, ageing, poverty, war, harm from fire, water, earth, and wind, and so forth. They have the ability to control their death and rebirth, and they experience physical and mental suppleness throughout their life. Just being there naturally gives rise to a deep experience of bliss.
The Pure Land could be considered similar to the Christian idea of heaven (or other religions’ idea of paradise), but in Buddhism a Pure Land is the experience of a pure mind — there is no external creator who rewards us with it (or who, alternatively, can send us to hell.) The mind is the creator of all. To attain a Pure Land primarily involves purifying and controlling our own mind. Faith (mixing with the pure minds of holy beings) and positive karmic potentials also play a part in helping us reach the Pure Land.