Transforming a great sadness: a Buddhist nun’s tale

Here is an article from a guest writer, Kelsang Chogma.

I will explain how Dharma transformed a very difficult situation for me. This may seem like an extreme situation, but hey, this is samsara and you have to work with whatever it throws at you.

A few years ago my brother was killed in Afghanistan, along with thirteen other soldiers. It was a horrendous death in which their bodies were apparently ‘fragmented’; which meant that they had to be repatriated to the UK before all their parts could be identified using DNA sampling. What this meant for my family, and the other thirteen families, was of course a lot of pain, but through it all I also learned an incredible amount about the truth of Dharma, Buddha’s teachings.

The first thing I learned is that we need to have a knee-jerk, reflex action of going for refuge to the Three Jewels. It needs to be the most familiar reaction to any situation, so that it’s instantaneous, spontaneous. For in the first few minutes when I saw my mum almost hysterical with the pain from hearing the news of her son’s death, I forgot to go for refuge. Those few minutes taught me a lot. They taught me how it feels to experience samsara completely exposed without it’s deceptive veneer; how people without any refuge experience such unbearable pain that you feel like your heart has been ripped out and you’ll just die on the spot; and how the moment we go for refuge and pray for others with all our heart, that pain subsides and we become a source of refuge for the people we pray for.

The coffins of the authors brother and his thirteen friends

Within a few days each family got to spend time with all fourteen coffins in a make-shift chapel on an RAF base in Scotland. I remember they looked quite beautiful all lined up together in two neat rows of seven, with Union Jack flags draped perfectly in line with each other; and the smell of the wooden coffins filling the room. As I sat there in silence with the rest of my family, we just gazed at the coffins. At first all the coffins were equal to me as I had no idea which one contained my brother’s remains, for all I knew it might be all of them. Each coffin was just as important as all the rest, and in turn my feelings toward the men who’d died felt equal and my mind felt surprisingly peaceful. I started wondering which coffin my brother was in, and I focused on the one nearest to me, wondering if it contained his body. Immediately my mind became unpeaceful and I started getting really upset. What upset me most wasn’t that here might be my brother’s body but that suddenly that one coffin was the only one that mattered and the other thirteen coffins were irrelevant to me, like they didn’t even exist. It came as quite a shock and it just felt so wrong – these were my brother’s friends, his colleagues, who’d died in just the same way; and yet suddenly they didn’t matter. I will never forget that moment when I realised how immediate the painful effect of delusion is in our mind and how horrible it feels to disregard people who really do matter. I reminded myself that I didn’t know which coffin my brother was in and how all these guys were equally important – and my mind became peaceful again. I realised that what I was experiencing was the beautiful peace of equanimity.

Another thing that struck me as I sat there is that the parts of the body are definitely not the body, just as Geshe Kelsang explains in his books. If someone had come along right then and shown me all the fragmented parts of my brother’s body all put back in the right places, it could never have satisfied my wish to see my brother’s body as a whole, solid, unitary thing. I wished to simply see my brother’s body, not it’s parts assembled together. Nothing anyone could ever show me would match up with the image in my mind, but isn’t it the same now with all phenomena?

Another thing I learned was that even simple meditations done for just a few seconds can have an amazing immediate effect. At my brother’s funeral I was asked to read out fond memories of him that family members had written. I remember sitting in the chapel with his coffin in front of me and a picture of him on the wall above. He was given full military honours and many of his RAF colleagues and other officers were present; with the flag draped over his coffin and his RAF hat laid on top. As the service progressed I could feel myself getting more and more anxious as it came closer to the time for me to get up. I could feel my legs shaking and I didn’t know if I’d be able to even stand, let alone speak. I tried to imagine that my brother’s photo was a picture of Geshe-la, like the one I have above my shrine at home, gazing at me, smiling and encouraging me. I suddenly remembered a meditation Geshe-la had taught at the festival that year, from Mahamudra Tantra, the meditation on turning your mind to wood – absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thoughts – so I did just that. I stopped listening to the service, I stopped feeling anything, thinking anything, held my mind still, and imagined I was an inanimate object, completely without thought. Just for a few moments it felt like slipping the gearbox out of gear, like things were going on around me but I wasn’t engaged at all. Then I started listening again and found that it had worked! I was ok, I had my Spiritual Guide with me and in a very distressing, adverse condition I had remembered some of his instructions and I’d put them into practise and felt their benefit. I knew that I’d be ok, and I was. I got through it with a picture of Geshe-la and one of Tara on the lecturn with me, and with my mala in my hand and my Guru at my heart.

We did a Powa, transference of consciousness, for my brother and I’m certain he went to the Pure Land – he sure has helped me get a little bit closer.