Everything is fleeting. Life is surprisingly short. Things can and do continually disappear because they are only appearance to begin with. These thoughts are often on my mind, and not least at the moment because I’ve had to engage in yet another large powa since I published the last article about death – this time a 24-year old who very sadly killed himself. The stiff ashy body at his wake was definitely not him, not even close. He wasn’t there. Completely visible and alive one day, he was weirdly gone and nowhere to be seen the next. Witnessing impermanence is one of the most impactful ways into contemplating the true nature of reality, that nothing exists from its own side.
For starters, if we understand how our body and mind are different entities, we can understand that people don’t completely disappear. Their body and superficial levels of awareness do end, but their clear light or very subtle mind continues through the dream-like bardo to wake up in their next life; whereupon they experience a new body and new surroundings. I met my friend Debra, Sandra’s sister, today in NYC; and she asked me, not for the first time, where I thought Sandra was. I replied, also not for the first time, “I don’t know.” But what I will say is that although we cannot see her with our eyes anymore, nor hear her voice, she is still somewhere.
The appearances of this life are like a flash of lightning
The whole of yesterday has gone. Today is a completely new day. All our various pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences that make up today will dissolve away, forever, when we fall asleep tonight; and all the experiences of this life will dissolve away forever when we die. Soon, as in the case of Sandra and the others, the whole of this life will have gone; and we will be having our first day in a new life.
In The New Guide to Dakini Land, talking about the yoga of inconceivability, Venerable Geshe Kelsang says:
All the appearances of this life – our environment, enjoyments, body and mind – arose from the clear light of death of our previous life … Later, when we die, all our gross minds that perceive the things of this world will dissolve back into the clear light of death, and at the same time everything that appears to us now will vanish.
This happens over and over again, in life after life, and indicates that nothing ever actually happens out there. Everything is mere appearance to our mind or projection of our mind; and there is no more solidity behind those appearances than there is behind a dream, or an illusion, or a virtual reality landscape. Wherever we think we live, whoever we think we live with, whatever our job is, whatever our surroundings, whatever car we drive, whatever work we go to, whatever laundry we put out on the line — all this is completely empty and cannot be found outside the mind. It doesn’t exist from its own side in the slightest.
Believing the metaverse at our peril
Here’s what happens if we believe we are real and that all this is actually happening out there, including ourselves: naturally self-cherishing arises because we want to protect and serve this real self that is living in a real world surrounded by real friends and real strangers and real enemies. In response to the illusion we develop delusions and engage in contaminated actions that simply perpetuate the illusion. Thus the wheel of samsara keeps turning like some hideous merry go round – we’re not going anywhere, but we can’t get off either.
In this shifting virtual reality landscape of samsara our friends and relatives may have faded out from the scene they were sharing with us, but we are not inherently separated – they are behind another door somewhere.
Perhaps the continuum of their consciousness will produce a new avatar in the same metaverse as us again – since beginningless time we have all been everything to each other after all — mothers, lovers, food, pets.
What I love most about Dharma is that it gives us profound mental freedom – every insight and realization we have is a step toward it. When I met Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and his Buddhist teachings, I realized we have a choice. We can stay stuck in our thinking that everything is inherently real, when in fact it is illusory. Or inherently impure, when in fact there are no inherently existent suffering beings. Or even inherently ordinary, when in fact reality is enlightenment. Alternatively we can melt away the prison walls of samsara by learning to shift our consciousness into the boundless wisdom of liberation and bliss.
“All phenomena their own emptiness appears as themselves”, as Venerable Geshe-la said, not long ago. Everything we see, we are just seeing emptiness appearing. This is actually extremely good news and something we can be happy about every single day. Even if we don’t fully understand it to begin with, we can be confident that we will understand it if we keep trying to. We have to keep focusing on it. We don’t need to worry that we’re losing anything — we’re not losing anything other than our hallucinations.
Buddha’s point is that we need to dismantle this entire metaverse of mistaken appearance we have imprisoned ourselves with, and we can start doing it right away — there is no need to wait. Tuning every day into the true nature of things, emptiness, does this dismantling, including all those false doors between samsaric scenes that are not really there, that are mere name. When we become a Buddha, all living beings will be mere appearance of our minds of omniscient wisdom and blissful compassion. We will never be separated from them, not even for a second; and we’ll be able to help them with our blessings, emanations, and guidance every single day.
When someone close to us dies, therefore, I think it’s a helpful time for us to contemplate that everyone is leaving and what that means. It will be our own turn soon enough and, before we pass through yet another illusory door to yet another illusory rebirth – starting to grasp all over again at a new body, mind, environment, and enjoyments — it would be infinitely better to realize that this whole scenario is just created by our mind. If we use the methods in Dharma to get rid of our self-grasping, self-cherishing, and other delusions, the whole fake edifice will have no choice but to crumble. It’ll be like pulling out a plug, whereupon the samsaric metaverse ends once and for all.
Alternative to the hallucination
By the way, a point I made here as well … sometimes in these sci fi movies, the alternative to the hallucination is something pretty grim – like the ugly hostile underground “reality” people have to inhabit once they’re unplugged from the Matrix (who wouldn’t prefer the blue pill?!) That is still stone cold samsara. But the truth is, reality is not more samsara. When we break through the hallucination, we don’t end up back in some dingy suffering situation — we end up enlightened. Bliss and emptiness appear as a Pure Land, in which everything gives rise to bliss and happiness and joy. So we don’t need to worry about realizing emptiness. We can really greatly look forward to it.
Death is an entirely different experience for those who have trained their minds. In the Root Tantra of Heruka and Vajrayogini, it says:
For such practitioners, death is just mere name —
They are simply moved from the prison of samsara
To the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka.
This could be our experience too. You can find the rest of this Root Tantra in the beautiful book, Mahamudra Tantra. Talking of these books, if I was able to take just one thing with me from this life to the next, it would be all of Venerable Geshe-la’s books — the entire path out of this suffering mess to the lasting bliss of enlightenment — because how could there be anything more precious? Which shows me that I need to be reading these books all the time now.
Had more to say, but ran out of time for now (a microcosm of running out of life!) Your comments are very welcome, thank you.
A few further reading ideas
How to Transform Your Life free ebook by Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso!
Quick fix meditation on emptiness
These front row seats to Powa ceremonies feel like reminders from Buddha of impermanence & how everything is mere appearance. We recently went to an emptiness course at Manjushri where Gen-la Dekyong shared with us how Geshe-la once told her: this environment is not my environment. Meaning his environment is the dharmakaya of Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka. We must learn how to completely cease mistaken appearance & appear Keajra pure land. Geshe-la also said during different festivals that his main job was to come to teach us emptiness. Like you, I’m really looking forward to realising emptiness…through relying on our Guru, we can gently train every day to change our future so we can finally stop taking uncontrolled rebirth. How wonderful 🙏🏻🥰
Thank you for this encouraging comment and for sharing that quote from Venerable Geshe-la!!! Just brilliant.
Thank you for these two beautiful posts on death. I have also experienced a lot of death lately. Your first post was right on that it’s this time of life for our generation, taking a front-row seat, so to speak. To the point you make on this piece about sci-fi and The Matrix, I wonder if you’ve seen the film so celebrated at last night’s Oscars, Everything, Everywhere, All At Once? While it’s not a perfect Dharma film, the way out of sugferr suffering there accords much more closely with Buddha’s teachings: it’s kindness ❤️
Thank you Katy. I did have a chance to see this movie. I find it interesting that it swept up so many awards — was wondering just what nerve it has touched in our modern world. How do we make sense of so many appearances — what is “real” any more? And i loved their solution that the only way out was kindness.
OK I have just – re-read the article and the person you did Powa for was male so I am guessing it wasn’t Sandra. Question answered! x x
Did powa for her too — see the other reply to you. Been a lot of powas lately. And there’ll be a lot more!
Thanks for this awesome article. I have a question about the Powa practice. I was assuming from your article (and please correct me if I am wrong that it was Sandra you did the powa for?
If so, why didn’t you tell Debra that she was in the pure land? My understanding is that if we have faith and we rely on Geshe-la, plugging into the enlightened mind, then this is the outcome of a powa practice?
Thanks Luna! x
Yes, it is the outcome. I have also told Debra that I believe Sandra is in the Pure Land and to envisage her there — we did a wonderful powa for her. However, I would not go so far as to say I know exactly where Sandra is, if you see what I mean, because I am not clairvoyant. x
Thank you, I feel your teaching is definitely bringing me closer to realizing emptiness. Have you realized emptiness?
I am glad this article helps. I love emptiness a lot.
Thank you for sharing this. Just wake up and read this perfect for a new day to begin💜
Good to hear that! The whole of today is like a dream …
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have had much fun reading this wonderful post. Like an important class assignment to be returned on time to the teacher, I would have read it but with the feeling of not really understanding what I am reading and the idea that this is a subject that can wait for later to really be studied. For some time now, my understanding of these explanations has improved and I have noted with joy that I have enjoyed reading this skilful article, the subject of which has recently become the heart of my practice and therefore of my life. Thank you so much.
Isn’t that great?! Looking back and seeing that Dharma really does work. And it just gets better. Thank you for sharing this lovely comment ☺️