When I first met Phyllis Kalinowski, she was already dead.
She had a hole above her left eye, where she had just been struck by lightning.
And, lightning notwithstanding, I had just been intending to stroll along that beach and swim in that ocean. Instead, I crouched by her and did transference of consciousness (powa) until the first responders arrived.
This is a beach I have never been on before. It was several miles from where I normally swim. We only chanced upon it because there was a big storm. When we were walking onto our normal beach, everyone else was walking off it, even though it wasn’t raining yet; and two women warned us rather sternly: “Don’t go out there.” So we didn’t, as they seemed to us like Tara. But still we felt strangely impelled to drive around looking for another beach, and it looked a bit less dark and thunderous further south.
You can probably tell from my wandering around in a storm that I always assumed the whole “you can get struck by lightning” thing was grossly exaggerated. But, as one of the first responders told me:
“It happens all the time around here.”
The most dangerous time is before the rain starts – once you’re wet, the lightning apparently glances off you.
Nowhere is safe. Phyllis was feet away from the idyllic Gulf of Mexico where, like us, she clearly thought she could get away with a stroll. She wasn’t yet headed toward shelter – and she unfortunately happened to be the highest lightning conductor on the beach. She had fallen flat on her face. Her friend, finding her like that, turned her over onto her back. Then, I imagine, her friend screamed – and when we first saw her she was hurrying away as fast as she could, wailing. She was being comforted by an older stranger, and I was wondering at the incongruity of someone dressed in a swimsuit on a beautiful beach being this stricken. Why did she go to the beach in the first place if she was this distraught? And, if something had upset her since she got to the beach, what could it possibly have been? Seeing us approach, she said in an odd echo, “You don’t want to go down there!”, but then said not another word as the woman led her away.
We expected to see something as we walked over the sand bank, but we were not expecting Phyllis. Another stranger, a man, had offered to guard the body while waiting for the first responders. He looked very uncomfortable and stood at some distance away. Other than that, no one else was on the beach. I felt very sorry for Phyllis – her friend was hysterical and this man clearly didn’t want to be there. She needed some peace around her, so we went close to her to meditate and pray.
Her arms and hands were flung out, relaxed. Despite the big hole in it, her face did not look scared. It must have been instant death. Mysteriously, her sunglasses had not fallen off. This did not look like someone asleep though. Her consciousness had clearly departed, hopefully through her upper chakras, leaving just her flesh. There is literally all the difference in the world between a dead body and a live one. I could tell from her face that she was not much older than me. According to the news reports the following day, she was 51. Her body had strong tan lines so I assumed she was a Florida native – it turned out she came from Brandon and had gone to the beach that day with her old friend to shell and swim.
The flashing lights and sirens heralded the approach of the first responders. They felt her pulse, nothing. She was already cool to the touch. They opened her eyelids, and her eyes “looking” at me were hazel brown and quite, quite unseeing. They cut her swimsuit off, with a view to restarting her heart. This is nothing she was expecting when she woke up that morning. It was nothing she was expecting even twenty minutes earlier. The indignity of her flesh, cherished and guarded throughout her life, now laid bare; I looked away then. Their efforts did no good anyway, she was still dead. They covered her with a yellow plastic sheet. Professional, swift — they were used to dead bodies, this much was clear, though a couple of the younger paramedics couldn’t disguise a look of surprise when they first saw her wound.
Karma strikes again
Phyllis and us had the karma to be on that beach at (almost) the same time. How did we come to this moment? We clearly had some connection with her—strange, fleeting, but hopefully helpful as it led to a transference of consciousness and many prayers being made. When and how did we meet in the past? How did she create the causes to have so many Buddhists praying for her?
According to all the papers and news shows, Phyllis was a great person. “She was just wonderful, she was so giving to everybody’. “Those who knew the wife and mother of two described her as an energetic, outgoing and compassionate woman.”
Do you ever wonder why we have chance meetings, and what is their meaning? How many people are there in our karmic circle, whom we share life with every day – 5, 10, 20, 100? How many family members, friends, and colleagues? Then how many millions of people do we meet for one minute or two minutes during the course of our lives, nodding at each other on the street, or having a momentary conversation about something that may or may not be meaningful to both of us? Yet at the same time we have entwined karma and a deep connection with each one of them, dating back lifetimes.
Our meetings, however brief, need never be superficial or insignificant. There is always something positive we can do with our mind when others cross our path. As P said on Tuesday, as we watched the people walk by in Liverpool One, “People-watching is so meaningful if you use Dharma!” There is a beautiful verse in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
Therefore, in whatever I do,
I will never cause harm to others;
And whenever anyone encounters me,
May it never be meaningless for them.
I am so sad for Phyllis and her family and friends, but I am glad we were there that surreal day. She helped me deepen my experience of the truth of Dharma and I hope, thanks to the Buddhas and other friends, that I was of some use to her.
A lot of people saw my Facebook posting about Phyllis and were praying for her even before her strange death hit the news the following morning.
That same evening, my first foster kitten Oscar died of FIP, just over a year old. I coincidentally had the chance to say goodbye to him when I arrived at Orlando airport a week earlier, as his mum and dad live nearby. Oscar was a beautiful little fellow inside and out and no cat could ever want a more perfect, loving home, so it was very sad. Oscar however created the causes for many Facebook friends to care and pray for him too.
A few days later, Dianne Elliott also died, of a heart attack that was not unexpected given years of poor health, but sudden nonetheless. Dianne was a long-term Buddhist practitioner and a beloved woman, and her funeral (in Barrow last Wednesday) was by far the best one I have ever been to. Although she will be very missed, I think we all felt she had gone to the Pure Land, in keeping with her foremost and most constant wish:
At my deathtime may the Protectors, Heroes, Heroines, and so forth,
Bearing flowers, parasols, and victory banners,
And offering the sweet music of cymbals and so forth,
Lead me to the Land of the Dakinis. ~ Quick Path to Great Bliss
I first met Dianne in Florida too, but we go back many years and share many experiences and good friends, and so the connection is clear. The day before her death, oddly enough, I had ridden her old bicycle and driven past her old apartment, and was thinking of her. I heard the news by text message, but most people heard about her death within hours of it being posted on Facebook, and powas and prayers were made for her worldwide.
A week later, little Losang Tenpa died. Although he had spent his whole short life in Nepal and India, there were hundreds of Westerners who loved him, rooted for him, and prayed for him. All this also through the collective karma of Facebook, where big Losang Tenpa posted moving accounts of the last few hopeful, heroic months and then his sudden, tragic passing. Good article about it here, on the Heart of Compassion blog.
Facebook seems to have increased the number of daily encounters we can make — friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends, or the people (including animals) whom we are asked to help and pray for every day… (It seems everyone can have their fifteen minutes of fame thanks to Facebook…)
All in all I find that Facebook can be pretty meaningful–or as meaningful as I want it to be–if I log on to increase my love, compassion, and sense of connectedness with a wide world web of living beings. Though it can of course be a huge exercise in distraction, it seems in some ways to be the result of good collective speech karma. Dianne’s husband said he felt a bit strange about announcing his wife’s death on Facebook, but the fact is he knew it would do the trick. When I die, I hope to have the good karma to be posted on Facebook too. It is through Facebook, after all, that thousands of people were able to tune in and make strong prayers for Dianne, Phyllis, little Tenpa, and Oscar, within short days or even just hours of their unscheduled departures from this life.
What do you see when you look at a stranger?
A temple for this place and time
Luna this is so powerfully crafted. It reminded me of an an Ian McEwan novel especially the opening sentences. You paint in words a truly vivid picture of humanity, our connectedness and the beauty of this earth. It is a powerful reminder of Powa.
I came across an injured motor cyclist two years ago who I thought was dead as he lay motionless with eyes closed on the ground. I dissolved Geshe La into my heart and asked him to ‘resolve’ this. Instantly (not even a second later) that motorcyclist opened his eyes. The paramedics, when they arrived said, he had minor injuries as he walked into their vehicle to be checked over.
How fortunate we are to have our spiritual practice.
I’ve been struggling for about a year to find a new way of interacting with FB. It has definitely functioned as a distraction and time trap in the past. I like what you said about using it to created a “sense of connectedness with a wide world web of living beings.” Yes, exactly that. I need to flip the way I think about it is all!
As the daughter of Phyllis, I find the spring to be my hardest time. Her birthday is in a week. Shortly followed by Mother’s Day and the anniversary of her departure. The thing that keeps me grounded is knowing how quick and painless everything was and that she was at her favorite beach spot! I love reading this beautiful article every year when I feel that heaviness hit me 💜 I can not tell you how important it is for me to know an amazing energy surrounded her as she left this world. My mom was rarely seen without her sunglasses on her head so reading your description puts a smile on my face when tears should be falling. Thank you for writing this! Almost 6 years later, it still brings me comfort!
Dearest Erin, I had no idea you had seen this article. This is very meaningful to me. I remember that day so vividly. It is an honor to have been there at that extraordinary moment of transition for your lovely mom. And it is an honor to hear from you, thank you very much, and love to you 💚
Last night Gen Gomchen taught on impermanence and how helpful it is for us to contemplate the transitory nature of our lives because this helps us to focus on its meaning . He said, ‘“Death is certain. Time of death is uncertain. At the time of death and after death only our spiritual life will be of any value.” Now is the time to make our life really meaningful.’
Your description of Phyllis’ death and your taking Cate of her with prayers has a distinctly dream like quality to it. Which of course is what Venerable Geshe La tells us, what appears to us is illusory, like a dream. Perhaps you know that better than I do because I don’t know if I could have been so brave. Normally we hide death away in our society don’t we and I am sure many would have chosen to avoid the situation. I hope I would be as kind as you and simply go to help her when she was there on her own.
By approaching her with compassion youwere able to receive this gift she gave you, the gift everyone who dies gives us, that life is temporary and we must make effort now to make our life and our death meaningful.
Gen Gomchen taught on the subject of impermanence last night. ‘“Death is certain. Time of death is uncertain. At the time of death and after death only our spiritual life will be of any value.” Now is the time to make our life really meaningful.’
I have always been deeply troubled by the thought of death because I have children but, thanks to understanding life and death better through Dharma, I am coming to terms with the inevitable. Which is good because it could happen at any time, we just don’t know.
A very moving article. Phyllis was very fortunate to have met you, you were very brave, many people would have walked away quickly, very few would have stayed to look after her and learned her name. In her kindness she gave you the greatest gift, understanding the nature of our impermanent lives. You shared that gift with us, thank you.
I will use this article as the starting point for a day meditating on death so I will make my life meaningful and not waste it. ❤️
Thank you for a beautiful comment, Jan. I am quite sure you would have gone to Phyllis, knowing you.
As you can see, this comment you wrote was not lost!! Just queued up … so now i have two comments from you, bonus 😄
As usual a beautiful and touching article. Always look forward to your articles. they always give me thoughts and prayers to meditate on. xoxoo Cathy
Thank you for a moving article ♡
Luna, I loved this post (but then, I always find some positive meaning in all of your posts!) but I was wondering if you could either explain what transference of consciousness is or point me in the right direction to find out what it is? Thank you for continually creating well-written, meaningful and moving posts! Cindy
Hi Cindy, thanks for your comment. You can read all about transference of consciousness in the book Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully. Basically, through faith, compassion, and the power of the Buddhas we help people’s consciousness go to the Pure Land at the time of their death, or within 49 days of their death.
Hi Luna, I have a similar question. Do you know POWA by heart, and is that what you did? Or is there a shortcut version we could do if confronted with that situation? Just wondering exactly what you did…I unfortunately do not know POWA by heart. Thank you!
Yes, I do a shortcut version, not using all the prayers, but doing the visualizations/believings based on the powa practice.
Sorry, i did press by accident unfollow, I wish to follow! Thank you!
Hi Demo, I think you just need to press the follow button again?
Thanks Luna for sharing this beautiful and profound article… we are so connected, we are so near one each other, is true, we were together sharing all those friends loss, Dianne, Phyllis, little Tenpa, and Oscar, and so many animals and friends who die day by day, how precious is to be connected in such a special way, and be able to give a pray, an intention, a tear, a word, any kind of demonstration to tell, i feel sorry, i do care, your pain is mine ….
Thank you Maria for all the love you show so many people every day, online and no doubt off it as well 🙂
This had such a powerful impact on my mind and opened my heart Luna. I’ve been giving much advice for many patients over the past weeks who have been experience loss of health and imminent loss of life. Although I knew Diane Elliott very well, your heartfelt article gave rise in my heart that I knew of these three people equally and was deeply touched by each of their stories. This article strengthens my wish to continue to connect meaningfully in every way, with everybody, everyday. Thank you…
Very grateful with your sharing. I feel like you gave us an impactful teaching through writing on the Internet.
Though I have been knowing the interdependence relationship of all beings and death and impermanence intellectually for awhile, it is always important to have the feeling of them and integrate them into our lives.
I love the quote of shantideva. It really gives us the perspective of how we can make good use of each breathe of our life.
Hi Luna, I just caught onto your blog the other day and I found today’s blog so touching. I lost both my parents last year, darn near died myself in a freak accident, and I’m feeling quite in touch with ephemerality these days. So I wanted to introduce myself. I’m down south in Los Angeles, have been pretty much of a card carrying Kadampa for, good heavens, is it almost 8 years? I recently had the opportunity to hear Gen Choma teach at our post festival retreat and was just enchanted…
Hi Martin, thank you very much for your comment — sorry I cut it a little short but do you mind if I answer your questions via the more private Facebook messaging? You can find me under Luna Kadampa.
Once again, thank you.
Thank you for reading it.
This is really lovely. Thanks for making the death of a stranger so significant to all of us. I think that perhaps the defining characteristic of grief is the profound sense of isolation that comes with it, and I’m quite sure this post has the power to relieve a little of that for the friends and family impacted most directly by these losses, even if they never read it. As for the rest of us, by simply illuminating the myriad strands of connection that make us all significant to one another you’ve shown community where our ordinary mind sees only space and distance. And though this reality is ever present, it sometimes takes a death to soften our mind enough to let it in. It’s doubtless one of the many reasons death is such a great teacher, and I’m reminded I should do more to nurture some of the soft spots it exposes.
This is really a beautifully written response to the article, thank you so much for posting it.
A very beautiful and moving article, thank you. As I read it I am actually on a beach in Mexico. One overwhelming thought I have is how fragile we each are with our various bodies, struggling for comfort and beauty, and how temporary and difficult to find is our happiness. I see couples old and young and can’t help but think how things are not always easy, even here for some I’m sure. Whilst some of us lounge in our paradise others work so hard in this sweltering heat to maintain it, there are even people whose job is to constantly rake the sand so it is clean and soft. And from here in the midst of cool breezes singing waves and hazy sunshine death also waits, and will not charge a fee or need a passport… Much to think about. Thanks again for taking the time to write and share your insight.
Did you read this on a beach the other side of the gulf of Mexico from where it happened?! How physically far flung yet mentally connected we all seem to be these days due to the global village of the internet …
That’s so true! I hadn’t thought of that!
Thanks for the full story. The common place of unexpected, sudden death happening everywhere everyday. Chilling wake-up call for us all. I rejoice you could help in a very meaningful way and give us this great Teaching xxx
Death is so commonplace and yet so unexpected and sudden, you are right. It is as commonplace as being born, of course, but it still retains its power to shock us.
Dear all, my catgirl Subira has died, please wish her to the Pure Lands, thank you!!!