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This week (Sept 9-15) is suicide prevention awareness week. I would submit a week is not enough. We need more awareness every week, as suicide is on the rise and it is destroying lives – not just those who kill themselves but those who are left behind.
Back to my thoughts on Denis at the time …
Denis believed in transference of consciousness (Powa in Tibetan, pronounced Poe Wa). In a letter written a few months ago to a mutual friend, he said:
“My dear friend my dog Jake died last weekend. I think I told you he had heart problems. His heart stopped early Sunday morning while he slept so he was in peace. He had sat with me through many meditations and listened to many prayers. I completed Powa for him the day after he died so I know he exists in a pure land now, but I experienced many feelings of loss and sadness.”
In his suicide note, Denis also asked for me to guide Powa as his funeral. So of course I did. I mention some of the things I said below.
If someone you love has committed suicide, please feel that you can pray for them, whenever it happened – it is never too late. And you can also ask for this Powa practice to be done for them at Kadampa Buddhist Centers. Here too is a beautiful Facebook prayer request group.
What is Powa?
In Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe Kelsang explains:
Transference of consciousness was taught by Buddha in both the Sutras and the Tantras. According to the Sutras, transference is accomplished primarily through the power of aspiration, while according to the Tantras it is accomplished primarily through the power of controlling the winds. Tantric practitioners who can dissolve their winds into the central channel through meditation can eject their consciousness and take rebirth in a Pure Land through their own power.
A Pure Land is a place or an experience beyond suffering. We have the potential or seeds for both heaven and hell, as it were. Which comes to fruition depends on which seeds we cultivate and 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 mastering our own thoughts. Faith (mixing with the pure minds of holy beings) and positive karmic potentials also play a part in helping us reach the Pure Land.
As does doing Powa for people who have died, which is a very powerful spiritual practice. I share some of my first-hand experience with it in this article. You can read all the details of how to do it in Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully. Many Kadampa Centers around the world also offer it once a month.
The room was packed with 120 people — Sangha friends, his daughter, his brothers, his ex-wife, other family, clients, and a lot of Veterans. Most people in the room had never set foot in a Buddhist Center, some had no clue that Denis was a Buddhist. His family and friends packed the sitting room before Powa started, watching videos of him and crying. After the Powa, the atmosphere was very different. Many family members thanked us and said they felt real peace, a peace they were not expecting. His daughter said she felt huge relief and could start to move forward. People said they deeply appreciated being part of the ceremony, doing something so active to send him off.
These are some of the things I said at Denis’s Powa:
“We are all here because we love Denis. We also know his good qualities. We want to help give him what he so yearned for, which is freedom, finally, from his pain.
Buddhism and other religions explain how the person is not their body. There is a lot more to Denis than his body. His formless mind, or awareness, continues now, past death; and so now through our connection we will help him, act as a bridge between him and the holy enlightened beings, however you envisage them, and especially the Buddha of Compassion.
Denis asked for this Powa and he had faith in it. He did it for many people himself, including his dog.
Denis had a lot of faith in the Three Jewels and a lot of love for his family and friends. From a Buddhist perspective we would say that he was not in his right mind last Friday and his uncontrolled, unpeaceful thoughts, or delusions, got the upper hand over his pure and kind nature. But the actual Denis is not these inner demons who tormented him — he was their victim. We are all very sad about this, but we can channel this sadness into compassion, sending him to a Pure Land where his body no longer hurts and these inner demons can harm him no longer.
Denis led a very caring life, creating huge good karma and many connections with us and with enlightened beings, so there is no doubt we can help him. Venerable Geshe Kelsang, Denis’s spiritual teacher, wrote to say he had done Powa for Denis and was praying. We all have love and compassion for him, and so now all we need is some openness or faith, and some concentration on the words and meditations. I will guide it a bit.”
What else can we do?
“What do we do with the information that those whose lives we admire cannot bear to live … What hope is there for the rest of us?” ~ Time magazine, reporting on the celebrity suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade
Perhaps we can develop more compassion for each other, both the people we know personally and the ones we don’t.
There’s also a case to be made for having more compassion. If people’s lives aren’t as amazingly blissful as they appear, perhaps people are not as evil or stupid as they appear, either.
I need to pay more attention to the people close to me who may be silently suffering. Not assume they are okay. Not neglect people for years on end. It doesn’t take much to reach out in genuine interest.
Correspondence with a friend
I would like to conclude these articles on suicide with emails I had with a friend whose husband of nearly 40 years killed himself in 2010. At the time she told me this correspondence helped her a great deal, so I repeat some of it here in case it might help other people too.
After she first told me M had committed suicide, I replied:
“You are strong, but I can only imagine how hard this is. It surely is one of the largest challenges we can face in a life full of challenges — having to let go so completely and utterly of our person whom we love very deeply, knowing there is nothing we can do to control or change his own path and karma, however much we want(ed) to. All we can do is to love him unconditionally forever, wherever he is, staying connected. And it helps to love and connect more closely with those who are still here, your beloved children, your friends. We can always ask holy beings for help, and prayer works very well when we are so close to someone.
If there is anything I can do, I will do it, please let me know. Meanwhile, I am going to continue to make many prayers for M so that he is protected and pain-free and takes rebirth in a Pure Land. I am also praying for you and your children to find all the support and inner resources you need to get through this time.”
A few weeks later she sent this:
In Geshe-la’s books, where do you think I could find some words to help me with my attachment to M … wanting him back on earth …. Can you give me guidance to passages that could ease my pain?
I think that mourning is the process of letting go of our attachment and loneliness and being left with the love and feeling of being alive again. Everyone has to move through this when they suffer a great loss, but you can help this process along and even get something valuable out of it.
Almost any teaching would help as it will give you a bigger perspective and so diminish the pain. Sometimes when I am in pain I just pick up any of Geshe Kelsang’s books to a random page and see what happens, and the medicine always seems to help.
However, the Lojong or mind-training teachings are often the most helpful of all in combating severe pain because that is what they are designed for, to enable us to transform any adverse conditions, however desperate – Eight Steps to Happiness and Universal Compassion. Suffering doesn’t have to end up being bad. Understanding that in itself can lead to a certain mental freedom. My favorite Geshe-la quote for dealing with suffering is in Universal Compassion:
Moreover, suffering has many good qualities.
Through experiencing it, we can dispel pride,
Develop compassion for those trapped in samsara,
Abandon non-virtue, and delight in virtue.
Don’t underestimate the power of prayer, “wish paths”. Through prayer you’ll get blessings and your mind will be lifted. There are many stories documenting how radical blessings can be in helping us. As you know, a Buddha is someone who has overcome all distorted perceptions (mistaken appearances) permanently and has the power to help each and every living being find mental peace every day by blessing their minds.
Please ask the holy beings for help, they want to help you, they are waiting to. Tara for example. From the depths of your heart ask Tara to help you by taking refuge and reciting her mantra OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA. When we are feeling sad and vulnerable, we understand our existential situation and can go for deeper refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and our spiritual friends; and as a result we experience more blessings than usual.
Personally as well I like to do the equanimity meditation (eg, taught in Joyful Path of Good Fortune and The New Meditation Handbook) when I find myself finally parted from someone I love. I find it broadens my mind and scope of interest so that, in the words of that song, “if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one(s) you’re with.” Everyone is a suitable object of our love and you have been as close to everyone as you are to M. You can use your great love for him as an example to help you increase your love for others, and that love then becomes truly transformative. Imagine if you loved and wanted to protect everyone as much as you love and want to protect M. You have a lot of love in you already.
Over to you. I have been really appreciating your comments, stories, and other feedback on previous suicide articles, so please feel invited to contribute anything that might be helpful to yourself or other readers. Thank you.