By LK and two guest writers.
Is it just me, or does whomever you talk to these days tell you about big problems in the area where they live? Someone was just telling me that LA was now a dry wasteland, for example (“perhaps we Californians have run out of good karma?”), and that the Bay Area is unrecognizable from when I lived there, “losing its soul” with the obscene gap between the haves and have nots. New Yorkers were telling me that apartment rent is going through the roof – you could finance an entire village for the same amount. Someone else was describing how the UK economy has tanked in the last few weeks and how their poor elderly father had to wait 5 hours for an NHS ambulance last week, lying painfully on the floor with a broken hip. Meanwhile the recent floods in Nigeria that displaced 1.3 million people and killed thousands barely made it onto the average newsfeed.
Carrying on from this article on becoming more resilient, How to be there for people.
How are we to deal with these harbingers of the apocalypse?! The sheer scale and speed of difficulties appearing in our worlds and our lives? It is not hard to see why so many people are seeking escape online, including in the growing Metaverse of Zuckerberg’s imagination. But it seems to me that cartoon escapism gets us nowhere but back here, just worse off. And it doesn’t help us to help anyone.
Thank Buddha there is an excellent alternative to all of this, which is to dive right into the heart of reality.
Worrier or warrior?
In How to Solve our Human Problems, Venerable Geshe Kelsang gives the analogy of two warriors who see their own blood – one freaks out and collapses and the other grows stronger, depending on their familiarity. In a similar way, when things go wrong, some people freak out and lose their courage, whereas others are encouraged. What is the difference? Familiarity. Courage grows from gaining familiarity with both our limitless potential to transcend and the methods for transforming adversity.
We can learn to apply any and all of Buddha’s teachings on compassion and wisdom to our own situations – initially in small ways, getting some minor successes under our belt, and then on that basis branching out with more and more tricky situations. Eventually we will be able to take full advantage of whatever is happening in our lives to get closer to our goal.
“Identifying people that you can admire for their perseverance in overcoming challenges, even traumatic ones, was another key trait in people who are resilient. It can be a family member, friend, teacher, pastor, community leader — the list is endless. You don’t even have to have met these people to learn from their example.”
For me, my Spiritual Guide Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has been a constant and unerring source of inspiration for my entire adult life. Even now that he has passed, I have memories of his literal laughter upon hearing of things going wrong, and his indefatigable resilience in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles. Bringing the entire Buddhadharma to an entirely new and oftentimes skeptical audience in a way that they can accept it and embrace it takes some nerves. It struck me yesterday that he hung in there happily with us for just as long as it took to pass on absolutely everything we needed to attain liberation and enlightenment, and not a moment longer. He observed us from the background for 5 or 10 years, presumably and hopefully saw that we weren’t going to completely mess everything up, and only then slipped away.
Even his death, although a loss, has been inspiring me. A few details have been shared around of his passing: Ven Geshe-la said he thought it was time to die. He then sat in meditation, withdrawing into the clear light for 4 days. As he passed away, he had a “very joyful delighted expression”. People around him reported feeling very blissful.
We can aim for that too, why not? He has, after all, explained exactly how.
Part of me has already gone with him.
Geshe-la caught the slipstream of the Queen of England’s death just as a lot of people were faced the other way – the perfect way to not draw attention to himself while he effortlessly left his own old and, to us, unbearably precious body. Unlike the Queen’s extraordinary funeral, perhaps the biggest of all of time, Geshe-la didn’t want any fuss to be made so he opted for a private cremation and for his ashes to be scattered into the ocean. I rather love this. His name means “ocean of good fortune” and unlike, say, a stupa, which is a more traditional Tibetan reliquary, the ocean can be reached everywhere.
We can be very very happy
All these things inside us and around us that we normally see do not exist at all. We prove this to ourselves when we look for anything with wisdom and cannot find even an atom existing from its own side.
Emptiness is naturally beautiful, as Venerable Geshe-la has taught us so many times. Even before we generate great bliss, contemplating the true nature of things can make us really happy. Whenever we manage to stop grasping, even for a minute, realizing that there is nothing there to grasp at, the natural and breathtaking peace and bliss of our own mind is allowed to emerge.
Emptiness means that everything appears/exists as mere name or mere imputation. This means that nothing at all can exist without a mind imputing or appearing it. Nothing can exist anywhere or anyhow outside of our mind. Our mind is not in the world; the world is in our mind. Everything is the nature of mind, just a dream. It always has been. (And even our mind is empty, ungraspable). As Venerable Geshe-la quotes Milarepa in Modern Buddhism:
You should know that all appearances are the nature of mind, and mind is the nature of emptiness.
When we mix our mind with our Spiritual Guide’s mind, we enter his pure dreamlike world. While abiding there peacefully, we can appear like an avatar in this land of hallucination — where there is so much unnecessary ordinariness and pain — and continue his deeds to liberate others. As avatars, too, we have no need to buy into the world of appearances – we are in the world, not of it.
Sorry, that was a quick flight of fancy brought on by envisioning how delighted Venerable Geshe-la felt as he passed away into the almost unimaginable bliss of the Truth Body, knowing all the while that he was not really leaving any of his beloved disciples behind. And how we can join him permanently in that reality if we keep playing our cards right by increasing our wisdom and compassion per his foolproof instructions. It could even be that due to our increased efforts at communicating with him on that unseen deep level, he may be able to help us now more than ever. One of his disciples texted me yesterday, “It is as if he is more alive now!”
And talking about role models, I am also constantly encouraged and motivated by friends. I think we need to go out of our way to seek out inspiring people — there are actually enough of them around. I am just flying back from the International Fall Festival in New York, for example, and this was an uplifting week in large part thanks to an abundance of Bodhisattva Sangha to hang out with.
Talking of whom, I thought I would take this opportunity now to share two of their experiences of Venerable Geshe-la’s passing, both for me deeply touching.
By a Kadampa Buddhist nun in Mexico
(English translation below).
¿Qué sigue? Me preguntó una amiga cuando leyó sobre el paso al paranirvana de nuestro precioso Guía Espiritual. Los kadampas sabemos y podemos entender de corazón que un Buda nunca muere, que siempre está frente a nosotros, en nuestro corazón, en nuestra coronilla.
¿Qué sigue? Lo primero que pensé al escuchar la pregunta fue: Sigue seguir.
Cuando leí la noticia que sacudió a los Kadampas, alguien muy cercano estaba frente a mí y me dijo:
“Todo va a cambiar y nada va a cambiar. Sigue ser como él, trabajar para él, cumplir su visión, sin protagonismos, buscando el bien de los demás y regalando bondad.”
Estas palabras me han acompañado estas semanas, porque muchos podemos estar de acuerdo en que el legado del Venerable Gueshe trasciende fronteras, trasciende creencias, trasciende culturas, trasciende modos de vida, trasciende enfados, resentimientos, y también ha trascendido las formas que los seres humanos tenemos de interpretar, vivir y expresar el amor. Y en que tenemos de entender y desarrollar la propia sabiduría.
Venerable Gueshela es un ser cuya bondad impregnó a todo aquél que de manera directa o indirecta tuvo contacto él. Ya sea escuchándolo, viéndolo, leyendo sus textos o teniendo cierta cercanía con algún discípulo suyo.
Los seres humanos tenemos muchas maneras de vivir, muchas veces padecer y otras mejores transformar la muerte. Ser mexicana, en un país donde tenemos la costumbre de comer cráneos de azúcar o chocolate muchas veces con nuestro propio nombre en el “día de muertos”, pareciera que tenemos bastante elaborada la idea de morir y vivir. Pero no es así, tanto comemos nuestra propia calavera como lloramos desconsolados la muerte de un ser querido. Es como si viviéramos la muerte teóricamente con gozo pero en la práctica con intenso dolor.
Como budistas nos preparamos por toda la vida para vivir significativamente y morir con gozo, entendiendo que el surgimiento y la disolución son parte del mismo continuo. La última enseñanza de Buda Shakyamuni fue su propio paso al paranirvana, donde dijo:
Todo fenómeno producido es impermanente.
Es decir, todo lo que ha surgido de causas y condiciones va a terminar, todo a su momento. El dolor que experimentamos por ello no viene de este hecho natural, sino de nuestro deseo incontrolado porque las cosas duren para siempre.
Incluso las emanaciones de los Budas han de cesar, pero ellos nunca cesan y lo podemos ver, lo vemos en los libros de nuestro maestro, en los festivales kadampas, en sus discípulos, en sus centros de Dharma, en la comunidad de la Sangha. Y así como cuando Buda Heruka explicó su Tantra no reabsorbió sus mandalas sino que los dejó por todo el mundo; nuestro Guru, al explicar todo el camino a la iluminación y darnos todo lo que necesitamos, tampoco reabsorbió ni sus mandalas ni sus emanaciones.
¿Qué sigue? Sigue seguir y ser parte de su excelente intención suprema.
What’s next? I was asked by a friend when she read about our precious Spiritual Guide’s transition to paranirvana. We Kadampas know and can understand by heart that a Buddha never dies, he is always in front of us, in our heart, at our crown.
What’s next? My first thought when I heard the question was: “Keep going.”
When I read the news that shook Kadampas, someone very close was standing in front of me and said:
“Everything will change and nothing will change. Continue to be like him, working for him, fulfilling his vision, without a starring role, looking for the good in others and giving away kindness.”
These words have been with me these past weeks because many of us can agree that the legacy of Venerable Geshe-la transcends borders, transcends beliefs, transcends cultures, transcends lifestyles, transcends anger and resentment. And it has also transcended the ways in which humans have to interpret, live, and express love, as well as develop our own wisdom.
Venerable Geshe-la is a being whose goodness permeated everyone who directly or indirectly came into contact with him — whether listening to him, watching him, reading his books, or having some close contact with a disciple of his.
Human beings have many ways to live, suffer, and transform death. Being Mexican, in a country where we have the habit of eating sugar or chocolate skulls (many times with our own name written on them) in the “Day of the Dead,” it would seem that we have quite elaborate ideas of dying and living. But it’s not like that — we both eat our own skull and mourn the death of a loved one. It’s like we live death with joy in theory, but intense pain in practice.
As Buddhists we prepare for a lifetime to live meaningfully and die joyfully, understanding that emergence and dissolution are part of the same continuum. Buddha Shakyamuni’s last teaching was his own step into paranirvana, when he said:
All produced phenomena are impermanent.
That is, everything that has arisen from causes and conditions will come to an end, all in its own time. The pain we experience because of this does not come from this natural fact, but from our uncontrollable desire for things to last forever.
Even the emanations of Buddhas have to cease — but they never cease and we can see it, we see it in our master’s books, in the Kadampa festivals, in his disciples, in his Dharma centers, in the Sangha community. And just as when Buddha Heruka taught the Tantras he did not reabsorb his mandalas but left them all over the world, so too our Guru, explaining the entire path to enlightenment and giving us everything we need, also reabsorbed neither his mandalas nor his emanations.
So, what’s next? Keep going, and be part of his excellent supreme intention.
Not an ordinary death
By Gen Wangden, a Kadampa Buddhist monk in Indianapolis
I did the thing you’re not supposed to do in the middle of the night: I woke up, walked to the bathroom, and checked my email on my phone. “Our precious Spiritual Guide showed the manner of peacefully entering into the clear light …”.
I knew this day was coming. Like a final exam or a due date, some part of my mind knew it was inevitable. And another part avoided connecting with the reality of it. What would it really be like to know he was gone? I never truly thought that through in my heart. With my head? Yeah, I had thought about it plenty, but it was always theory. Now it was reality.
So of course I was shocked at first. When you get news like this your mind doesn’t accept it right away. At least mine doesn’t. It was 5:30 am, and my plan for the day was to sleep to a more civilized hour, do my usual morning meditation, have breakfast, and go get a Covid booster. All my previous Covid shots have knocked me out for a day, so I had cleared my schedule.
But here it was 5:30 am, I was stunned, and I couldn’t get back to sleep.
Later I thought, I have never experienced anything like this before. It’s not like the time in college when my cat disappeared, and eventually one day I gave up looking for him. That day I didn’t know what to do with the empty feeling inside, and with the anger that he was gone from my life. I sat, drank a beer, listened to loud music, and read short stories about fictional warriors. I dove into the dark cloud of my anger and sadness and just stayed there for an afternoon.
And it wasn’t even like the time my uncle died. I was a monk by then, living in a holy place. I didn’t know him well because all through my childhood he was out at sea. He was a voice on the phone, a twenty-dollar bill at Christmastime, and an occasional visitor. But there was that one time a few months before he died that I went and sat with him in the hospital for a couple of days. He told me story after story and he offered me portions of his food. Two months later when he died, it was another one of those things that you know is coming, but you’re not sure when. And I was surprised—the loss of this near stranger opened up a fountain of grief inside me. I would be walking from one place to another, and suddenly it would just well up. Tears would pour from my eyes and I would be overwhelmed.
By then I knew how to recognize desirous attachment, uncontrolled desire. I’m not saying I didn’t love him—I did—but it was clear that my tears were for myself. The overwhelming sense of loss had a lot of I in it. My uncle was gone. I was experiencing an empty hole where that relationship had been.
I don’t want to think how much stronger it will be with my parents, my sisters, or my close friends. Maybe by then my Dharma practice will have eroded away a lot more of my desirous attachment, but I don’t think I can count on that.
With my uncle I learned about the power of love and compassion to heal that self-centered grief. We did Powa for him and spent a whole hour focused on his welfare, his future. Not wasting mental energy on our own loss but pouring our hearts into sending him to the Pure Land. Halfway through the Powa, a dark, foreboding day transformed into a sunny one, and afterwards I was sure my uncle was in the Pure Land. I told my mother I felt cleansed and healed; she said she felt the same. Days later, when I saw his body in the casket, it was so clearly not him. I could almost see him up above in the Pure Land, saying “thanks, kid!”
But a spiritual guide is not a pet or an uncle. We use the analogy of a parent; we called Geshe Kelsang our spiritual father, but he was not like an ordinary father.
A few hours after that ill-advised 5:30 email check, I realized the closest thing this felt like: when he retired in 2009. I had known that day was coming, too. I even knew the date. He would teach the two weeks of Summer Festival and then retire. But even knowing the date, I wasn’t prepared. In that last teaching something very unusual happened; later another teacher said it felt like Geshe-la gave us another empowerment. He told us it was time for us to do his job, he asked us to keep the Festivals going year after year, and he said goodbye.
I was stunned, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wandered around aimlessly and found myself in a friend’s apartment. He asked how I was feeling and I said “like someone whose guru just said goodbye.” My friend did the best thing anyone could have done in that situation: he shared his lunch with me. Simple rice cakes, hummus, green leaves. Something about that basic act of sharing food brought me back to earth.
And over the years I learned that even though my spiritual guide had retired, he would never leave me. It was never an ordinary relationship to begin with. It didn’t have an ordinary purpose. His job was to lead me on the spiritual path, to guide me from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. The purpose was for my spiritual development to benefit the whole world. This was not about my own happiness or comfort in isolation.
So I didn’t need to spend time with him one on one. I did once, briefly, and it was an experience that deeply transformed my life, being that close to a truly holy being. Most people never even imagine a person like that could exist. But for him to lead me in the right direction, we didn’t need to spend time in the same room. By then we had at least 20 books and so many qualified teachers who could pass on his teachings.
He wrote a few more books and taught at two more Festivals. Each time he did a little less. At the last one he told us we could all become his emanation, the same way he became his own spiritual guide’s emanation. He told us “I will always be with you.” And he was. I never saw him again except in pictures, but he was with us.
At the end of December 2021 when he moved back to Manjushri Centre, I thought “he’s going home to die.” I didn’t say it to more than a couple of people, but it just seemed natural. He was almost 91. But then he kept going, month after month. We heard about his dogs and the parrot, and eventually in the Summer Festival we saw how his return brought people together. But he stayed hidden, doing retreat while we did our jobs. He didn’t interfere, he just blessed us.
So when this news came it was like, what’s really changed? New photos will stop coming out, but he’ll still be with us and we’ll still do our jobs. He prepared us for this by stepping back, little by little, so gracefully. I wrote on social media this is not an ordinary death and I meant it, because when my cat disappeared or my uncle died, they were gone from my life. When my guru peacefully entered into the clear light, he didn’t leave me. He just left that body.
That made the day confusing. It really wasn’t like an ordinary death. He wasn’t gone. But in a small way, he was. I cried doing my prayers and mantras when I finally gave up on getting back to sleep, but I also felt stronger and more peaceful. Going through the day I often felt bewildered. And there were so many people to talk to, and a retreat to plan. But the feeling remained, this is not an ordinary death. He is not gone.
This is not denial. I think my Kadampa friends understand. One of them texted me that she felt “blessed but weird”. I did a mala of mantras in the mid-afternoon and felt his presence so strongly. He is not gone.
I heard through the grapevine that he wasn’t sick, that nothing was wrong. He was 91, but he wasn’t sick. He just decided it was time, lay down, and entered into the clear light. The word was that it was inspiring. His last request was that we do special prayers for a couple of days.
It took me a few hours to realize how unusual his death was as a death. He decided it was time, he lay down, and he entered into the clear light. These days, people all over the world decide they can’t live any longer and they have to turn to pills or other things to force their body to stop living, because they have no control. He chose. Until now I never quite understood what “uncontrolled death” was. How no ordinary being in samsara has any control over their death. He did. This was not an ordinary death.
Another friend told me that he had once said he would be with us even more strongly after his death. My mind went to that iconic scene in Star Wars when Obi-Wan Kenobi said “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” And in that story, Obi-Wan was not gone either. In this modern world we have to turn to fiction to find anything like this extraordinary death: he chose, and he is not gone.
What an extraordinary person to have known. What an extraordinary gift he gave us. And what an extraordinary opportunity we have to use this gift to help others. Yes, there are tears, but this is not an ordinary death.
Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.