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.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

20 thoughts on “Transforming a great sadness: a Buddhist nun’s tale”

  1. Kelsang Chogma,
    Thank you for the clarity of your heart felt teaching on practicing cessation absorption and serene abiding in adverse conditions.

    First, resting is like water rushing down a steep decline. Second, like a gently flowing river. Third, like a still ocean.
    – Extraordinary Definitive Secret of the Kagyu Masters

  2. Thank you for sharing your experince, it is so helpful and encorraging. love Maitri.

  3. well said Eileen about the pain and running into samsara a lot of me me me the I is strong at moments like this .Looking at our intention at moments that happen day to day with equanimity (the good and the bad) and feel love and try to be none judgemental .

  4. I really like your story, and like your realization that our body doesn’t exist inherently, and how when you focused on your brother alone, rather than all the soldiers, it actually made you more unpeaceful. I feel similar experiences.

  5. Dharma helps us most when we can tap into it at the most stressful times. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Hearing how others practice in all types of situations is a such a cause of rejoicing for me.
    The equanimity with all the coffins is a very powerful image. Thank you so much for the post.

  7. From the depth of my heart i rejoice in your ability and practice in being a source of peace for your family and the loved ones of all those at the service. there is definitely much Dharma for us to contemplate and learn from your experience. thank you so much for sharing and much love to all.

  8. Thanks everyone for your supportive comments, it means a lot. Refuge in Sangha is so important, and we’re SO lucky to have Sangha all over the world. With our worldwide Kadampa family there’s someone to turn to at every hour of the day and night – it’s like a 24 hour Sangha helpline 🙂

  9. Thank you so much for sharing. This is pure wisdom and buddha’s blessings to all that read.

  10. Very powerful entry. I felt especially moved when you talked about the importance of refuge. I connected with the feelings and sentiments behind the words. I’m glad you are doing this. I’m going to follow this blog and your twitter. I am just starting a blog on Buddhism. Matthew, the teacher at VMC, told me about your blog and encouraged me to read it to better my own blog. My blog is at Thanks!

  11. From my ownside- Dharma helps peel away the layers that keep us from accepting our karma for exactly what it is. Dharma practice is being able to be present with a strong heart in uncertain times.

    Much love and compassion to you for having the kindness to share such raw honesty.

    May Buddha bless our minds.

  12. You must be so very strong and brave for sharing this. I will keep you in my prayers.

  13. How incisive and inspirational. A lot to contemplate. One of the things that strikes me is that the more you go ‘No no no!’ to bad things that happen ‘in samsara’, the more pain you feel and I think, the more you are effectively running into samsara and not out of it. With recognition, acceptance and real refuge, you can see where you are really at and what you really need to escape from. Easy to say but another thing I personally need to work very hard on.

    Also the lesson within about how our perception of inherent existence, of bodies for example, is faulty and this is shown, I think, by how many of us find death so hard to get our heads round (judging by myself and things family members have said), the fact that a body and person can be there one minute and gone the next. It doesn’t make sense and that surely must be because of our faulty perception.

    Thank you very much to this Nun for telling us this.

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