A brother’s suicide ~ guest article by a Buddhist nun

buddhaavalokiteshvara

I want to explore over a couple of articles what Buddhists think about suicide. A friend of mine has kindly shared her story.

My brother was 19 when he killed himself.

When someone commits suicide, it feels like an angry act; and those left behind feel this anger. This can be very confusing because often the person who kills themselves was not that way in their life, and frequently they were quite the opposite. We also feel guilty because we get angry at them for leaving us, and it is easy to feel like they somehow did it to hurt us.suicide-of-brother

These feelings are so overwhelming for the survivors and yet, even today, people rarely deal with the anger parts of suicide. Many times there is no indication that someone is thinking of suicide except for a chronic subtle sadness or a lack of much happiness despite having good conditions. It ends up to be such a confusing time. Even nowadays people move away from the uncomfortable arena of suicide, meaning that those left behind can begin to feel that the event is somehow a reflection of them. No one wants to visit the bereaved for fear they will have to talk about “it” and they won’t know what to say. The survivors end up alone, confused, and, often, subconsciously blaming each other because they don’t know what else to blame.

My own parents ultimately divorced after years of this — they lost their faith in the church that they had both served their entire lives because suicide was seen as a horrible act, a sin. The neighborhood in which I was raised also experienced a lot of emotional trauma after this event, which happened in 1971 when suicide was very rare, especially in young people. Plus, as they say, my brother had “everything going for him”. Recently I heard, suicide is now the 3rd leading cause of death in young males aged 15 to 25. A recent New York Times editorial stated that 60% of gun related deaths (30,000/year) in this country are suicides.

healingNo one has an answer that really helps except Buddha, in my experience.

In hindsight, I was only able to cope with my own loss by caring for others as a nurse. Unknowingly, nursing became my own healing practice; and now I understand through Dharma that not focusing on my own loss and, instead, helping others was a powerful step in my own recovery from grief. I believe my Spiritual Guide, Geshe Kelsang, emanated all of it for me until I could meet him again.

After 15 years of therapy and searching for an answer, I met Kadam Dharma through a powerful Kadampa teacher and Buddhist nun. In my first meeting with her, which was very soon after I started attending a General Program class, naturally one of my first questions was: “What does Buddha say about suicide?” This was a major test, and her answer would determine whether I would stay or go.

She was honest and loving, and so comfortable talking about this topic, which was very different from any of my previous experiences. I wanted to know if my brother was being punished for his action, because I did not believe that someone who despairingly took their own life could be punished by a loving Deity … if there was one. He was my “everything” and I just buddhaavalokiteshvaracouldn’t believe that, if he was sad enough to take his own life, he would then be punished after death as well. I left my early religion because of this contradiction. I also wanted to know why I felt so much anger from his action because he was not like that … and why I felt afraid at times of the intense anger surrounding the event. Suicide is never a gentle death.

Basically, what I remember her saying was that Buddha doesn’t punish anybody! That was a winner. Secondly, she said people take their lives due to delusions (negative uncontrolled thoughts and feelings) in their heart, which make them believe that they will never be happy. This is so hard to bear that they naturally experience anger, and that anger turns inward and they kill themselves to stop the pain and sadness. They do this believing that death will end their suffering, just as when you go to sleep and all your problems disappear.

So then I asked her, is he in hell then? She replied that killing is a negative action in Buddhism as well, and it does have karmic consequences. However, my brother obviously had so much inner pain and struggle that he was unable to see any other solution, and Buddhas understand that pain and always have compassion for us when our delusions are stronger than we are.

And then she told me that even though he had passed away many years before, I could do a special practice for him, called “powa” or “transference of consciousness”, which would ensure that he would take a Pure Land rebirth either now or in the future.

It was an amazing day for me, and as my understanding of Dharma has grown, so too has my understanding of my brother’s death. The horrible nightmares left shortly after I met Dharma and talked with my kind teacher.

Now when I talk with others who have lost loved ones to suicide, what I always like to share is that their delusions at that moment were just stronger than the person they really were, and so the delusions won. There is nothing to be afraid of other than our delusions. Now, whenever I remember my brother, instead of pain I just feel love.

Thank you, Geshe-la.

“Welcome, Adversity”

mimi-young

Mimi young.jpg I recently said good bye to Mimi Waring. On this occasion she was lying half in and half out of her bed, after a brush with extreme nausea lovingly cleared up by her husband Richard, and she was out of it. But I knew she could hear me ok, so I held her hand and brushed her cheek and said, “Bye bye Mimi. I know we’ll see each other again, one way or another. Send us blessings from the other side.” To which she half-opened her eyes, smiled, and nodded her head. And I added, “You know what to do.” To which she responded by nodding her head even harder.

I had spent longer with her a few days ago. I visited her at her house for, in a stroke of good timing, I happened to be in Seattle. She had saved her energy up for this visit, not seeing anyone all week, heroically making it out of the bed she had been bound in for days and, leaning on her special rolling chair, walking out to the deck where we had lunch in the sunshine. Delicious lunch, actually, vegetarian BLT sandwiches made by the aforementioned Richard. Did I mention too that that man is a saint? (He even made me more BLT sandwiches today for my flight because he knew I loved them, as if he had nothing better to do while his wife is dying.)

mimi-and-richardWe three had a very meaningful conversation, I thought; this was not a dead flowers’ visit as Sue Hulley would have said. I asked Mimi where she thought she was going, where she wanted to go; and, in response to some of her concerns, suggested that she spend these next few weeks or so not feeling the need to say goodbye to everyone, for she has done that already and everyone knows she is off, but instead getting ready for her trip. Mimi is a very faithful disciple of Geshe Kelsang and has deep refuge in her Sangha and Dharma too. She has also been very generous to her Kadampa Meditation Center in Seattle, and helped them buy their beautiful buildings. So, she has already started packing well for this next trip, where a new assignment awaits her.

Time for your next adventure

I think of Mimi’s departure as a bit like when Geshe Kelsang calls one of his disciples and asks them to go teach or administrate in some far-flung part of the world where they have never been before and where they don’t even speak the language. “Oh, and can you go next week?!”

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All leaves must leave.

If you get that phone call, you don’t spend the whole last week saying goodbye to everyone. Pretty immediately you start trying to figure out what you are going to need, you start to get ready and pack, you start to imagine where you will be and what you will be doing and who you will be relying upon. I think death is a bit like that. And if you are a Dharma practitioner, as Mimi said herself, you want to end up in a place where you can meet the same Spiritual Guide and the same teachings and help lots of people; that is what she wants most. It’s a good thing there are so many of her fellow Sangha building centers and temples all over this world — we are ready for her. Watch out for a baby coming somewhere soon in the Kadampa mandala, a baby with a glint in her eyes.

We’ve done death countless times before, of course. Amazing, as Richard said to me today as I was leaving, how we forget that, how it is so normal and yet still so challenging. As I shuffle through the Fall leaves, I am reminded that none of us stays in one place for long — wherever we are and whoever is next to us, it is only a matter of months or days before we are blown by the winds of karma to somewhere completely different.

Before I left our lunch date, Mimi wanted to show me the sign that is prominent on the shrine in her room, currently next to the commode: “Welcome, adversity!” Adversity, she told me, has been invaluable to her.

It’s the heart that counts
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Some of Mimi’s friends at Manjushri KMC in early August.

I wrote the above in late August. Today it is October 31, and Mimi passed away this morning at 3am. I heard last night that she was dying, so she has been in my thoughts and prayers constantly ~ and I feel good about where she is now, that her Spiritual Guide really does have her safe. Tributes and prayers are flowing in.

Mimi had brain cancer and, despite her formidable intelligence, was not always able to use her gross mind very well toward the end, as might be expected — though she did incredibly well with that.

And someone asked me the other day about what happens when we lose our ability to “think,” is that disastrous for a mindful death? A lot of people ask this question, is it possible to die peacefully if you have “lost your mind”, as it were? So I thought I might address that question here, Mimi won’t mind. In fact, Mimi asked me umpteen curious questions 😍  — it was one of the things I loved about her. Feel free too, please, to jump in the comments if you have any input on this.

mimis-seattle

Sunset Hill, Seattle

The point is, I think, that you haven’t really lost your mind, just some conceptual thoughts. The mind which counts is the mind at our heart. One case in point is an elderly Buddhist monk called Trinlay who died a few years ago in Southampton. Trinlay lost his memory and was bedbound with lots of physical complications. But in the last year of his life, even when he had pus oozing from his painful legs, he managed to stay positive. He would say, “I get happier and happier every day. I am a monk living in a Buddhist Center.” He also would say “I am a millionaire; I have said millions of mantras.” The day before he died, he removed the mask over his mouth in response to the question “How are you feeling” and smiled, “I am tired but inspired.” He was a love bomb, complimenting anyone who came near him, even if he didn’t remember who they were, making everyone around him feel happy. He died very peacefully.

So, is it possible to have a good death and lead-up to death if you have lost your brain functions? I think so, yes. If you are in your heart. If you have given up malice. If you have faith and/or love. If you have peace. All these things are in the heart, not the head. The important thing for all of us is to practice now, to learn how to enter the refuge zone. And Mimi, who died peacefully surrounded by her husband and close Sangha friends, is a beautiful demonstration of that.

Suffering has good qualitiesmimi

Mimi has been a force of nature these last 7 years, defying all doctors’ expectations, showing that suffering can indeed have good qualities, insisting on flying to festivals and celebrations and retreats even in the midst of treatments for brain cancer, never regretting any of her foolhardy but totally virtuous exertions. Always wanting to learn, and devoid of self-pity.

I will let her tell you about this journey herself, posthumously, in her wonderful blog This Mountain, That Mountain. If you want to know how to cope well with your own adversity, illness, and death, her blog will give you many inspiring ideas.

Please pray that Mimi comes back safely and soon to our world, in a brand new healthy comfortable human body, so that she can keep on inspiring us all with her faith, quirkiness, and sheer joyful (yep, bloody-minded) perseverance.

Comments are most welcome.

I could not stay another day

birth and death

I can’t believe it’s happening.

So said the beautiful Ruth to me, in tears, at the wake of her fiancé John, last night in Jersey City.

I mentioned that he and I had spoken the morning that he died. She acknowledged this and added:

He was so excited about his new snowblower, he couldn’t wait to try it out. I can’t compute. This doesn’t seem real.

Between the blowing and the shoveling, John had a heart attack. Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive. And at times like this, when things go disastrously wrong and we simply can’t compute, I think we are shocked out of our permanent grasping and get glimpses of how nothing is as it seems, glimpses of the illusory, dream-like nature of things. We don’t always know what to make of that understanding — but we do know at those times that we want to wake up.

Kadampa Buddha 1

Awakened One

I said to Ruth, “It feels dream-like, yes?” And she stared at me and shook her head, “Yes, yes, that’s it. Like a nightmare.”

During this wake, we were greeted by John’s almost identical and equally charming brother James, who was gracious enough to introduce us to the whole family, even though France and Julian were just neighbors and I had known John for approximately ten minutes. The atmosphere was far from gloomy, despite the tears. Even as John lay there with his spectacles on (I wondered why, seeing as he wasn’t even wearing them when his eyes worked), this large African American assembly were all greeting each other warmly, laughing in the midst of tears. Earlier in the day, when Julian and I delivered food to John’s circle of friends in his home, encountering this rich-hearted community struck me with the realization that each living home in this road was not separated out as it appears from the outside, but connected in a million ways. People just like me live in all these houses, drive all these cars. We are all in this together.

Now, at the wake, it was not hard to see what Shantideva meant when he talked about us all being “walking corpses”. John’s body was so waxy. Bodies are so obviously just lumps of meat – it so clearly was not John laying there. So where did he go?! Where are people really headed as they walk their bodies up and down the streets of Manhattan or drive their cars along the road? Where are we all really headed, given that our bodies will all be laying there like this before we know it?

madame tussauds

Look the same, could not be more different.

You know how you see pictures of celebrities with their doubles at Madame Tussaud’s? These bodies are made of wax, but it doesn’t seem so different to the lifelessness of our actual bodies when they are no longer animated by consciousness.

So what is the relationship between the mind and the body?

I started musing on this subject in this article, Buddha & the Brain, which has garnered some good comments from people who have pondered this subject. Plus, I intend to write more about the mind-matter connection soon, so in the meantime please leave your comments so I can incorporate them.

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Appearances are deceptive.

I once took some people to visit a morgue with the idea that it would help our death awareness, and it did, it certainly did. The mortician was delighted at having young people voluntarily visit him and ask about what he did all day, he said his friends never asked about it, in fact he didn’t have any friends. For days after seeing those waxy bodies, I could not help but see cities of animated corpses, including the squirrels. We are not our bodies, that much is clear. And it may seem morbid but I also find it utterly realistic and therefore helpful to envisage myself lying there, like John, and to envisage people I am attached to lying there, like John. For that is what is going to happen. Better to prepare for that now, get things in perspective now, live each remaining day fully now. Seriously, folks, we are all going to be dead very soon.

Ruth had chosen a beautiful poem, adaptable to whichever holy being we have faith in,
given to us all on the back of this card. Hopefully “that place” is the Pure Land, where John now John at wakefinds himself thanks to his positive mind and the thousands of prayers he has created the causes to receive.

I’m Free

Don’t grieve for me, for now I’m free,
I’m following the path God laid for me.
I took his hand when I heard Him call.
I turned my back and left it all.

I could not stay another day
To laugh, to love, to work, or play,
Tasks left undone must stay that way.
I found that place at the close of the day.

Perhaps my time seemed all too brief.
Don’t lengthen it now with undue grief.

Let’s just be kind

storm sky
storm sky

Storm Jonas Sky

Geshe Kelsang was in a car being shown around New York City some years ago – people were trying to point out the sights, he wasn’t unduly excited. At one point he shook his head, and said:

So many people, so much suffering.

Suffering can be seen on many faces in this towering concrete jungle. The overly entitled have affluenza in their penthouses, for example, while down below over 20,000 kids are homeless, including the frozen girl outside the Path subway stop with her cardboard sign. (Unbearable, she is still only a teenager but has been there for years. What future?) But there was a change in pace and noise over the weekend with the landing of Storm Jonas, when many were given temporary shelter, no cars were allowed on the roads, the snow muted all other sounds, and the usually high-octane New Yorkers were obliged to take it down a notch or two and cozy up inside.

I had my snow days over the water in Jersey City – we dug the car out but clearly weren’t going far on those roads, and the train was closed, so we stayed mainly on the sofa instead, along with millions of other East Coasters. Except I did go for some magical walks around the neighborhood with the dog – kids were making snowmen and tobogganing down their front stoops, everything felt far more peaceful than usual, graveyardthe cars were neatly buried, the blue sky and whiteness showed the colorful Journal Square houses off to good effect, even the cemetery looked good. It was like the olden days, like the 1950s or something, everyone convivial, the narrow or unpassable sidewalks forcing us to stand courteously aside for each other and smile. And everywhere, just everywhere, people were shoveling snow.

I had Winston with me, in his warm winter overcoat but his belly soaked. (Some people were dismayed by a photo I posted of him on Facebook because he was submerged to his nose, but what you might not know is that he is a Tibetan spaniel with snow in his DNA who chose to jump into the deepest mounds.) On shoveling snowMonday, as I was about to go inside, a friendly voice called me, “Hey! I didn’t recognize you!” I turned around. “Oh, it’s not you! But it is Winston! Where is Julian?” I told him that I was staying with Julian and France again, and that he and I had bumped into each other last year, which is true, his name is John. We got to chatting, he’s a very genial man, and he asked, “Have you come to live over here?” I said no, I still lived in Denver, to which he replied, “You should come and live with us! And meanwhile look at all this snow you brought! But it is a beautiful day.” We chatted a little longer and had some laughs. This was a good encounter and, though brief, left both of us feeling a warm connection. Life did not seem so rough in this neighborhood for a change.

John's home

Home?

Later as I was getting ready to go to Manhattan, the whole street for some reason filled up with emergency vehicles – a fire truck, 2 ambulances, a police car, all lights flashing. A queue of adventurous cars behind, no way they could pass on the snow-narrowed street. One ambulance left, one stayed. Emergency crew were coming and going with bits of equipment, and pushing snow fast to make a pathway for the stretcher. Clearly someone was in distress. “Perhaps it is the old Chinese man who lives next door?” said Julian. “I hope not, but maybe it is. Often people have heart attacks when shoveling snow.” I’d never heard that. I waited quite a while until someone was finally brought out on a stretcher, the ambulance crew still trying to pump his heart. To me, he looked dead, he had gone, only a body was left. And I said, “Julian, is that John?”

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Home?

We never know. Then we saw his distressed wife and 12-year-old daughter getting into the police car. I have heard since that he died in the house, that the first responders were never able to resuscitate him.

This has made me think, not for the first or for the last time, that life is way too short to waste in anger, frustration, disappointment, or intolerance. We have a few hundred months left at most. Life can end anytime so do we want to waste any of these valuable years, months, weeks, days, or even moments being angry or unkind? John was holding his shovel while we were talking. He was around my age, he looked perfectly fit and hJohn Caldwellealthy, he was having a beautiful day — but he still had a heart attack while shoveling snow. I was possibly the last person he talked to, an hour or so earlier, and if I had known then what I know now I would have asked him to go inside and sit on the sofa instead.

But that is not even all. On the Kadampa Buddhist Prayer Request FB page, someone has asked for prayers for her brother Thomas, aged 53 with a clean bill of health, who also died in New Jersey on Monday night while shoveling snow. He has left behind a “devastated” wife and teenage son. Please remember John, Thomas, and their families in your prayers.

IMG_6647Bodhisattvas, those intent on attaining full enlightenment to free every living being from their suffering and its causes forever, have a prayer, beautifully articulated by Shantideva:

Therefore, in whatever I do, may I never bring harm to others;
And when anyone encounters me, may it always be meaningful for them.

Walking down the street this evening with Winston, I saw the tree John planted for France and Julian outside their house, his black landscaping truck that has stood still for 3 days even though the road is now clear, and his blue home with all the curtains closed, perhaps his beloved poodle waiting by the door. And I thought how the remaining piles of once innocent snow, now grubbying and yellow, might be reminding his wife and daughter of their unfathomable loss, and how they might always find snow sinister after this.

John's truck

The snow is shoveled but this truck is going nowhere.

It makes me want to remember at all times that we are all on our way to dying and our next lives, so whoever we think we are and wherever we think we come from, we are all in this together. So let’s just be kind to each other on our way.

Living in the moment

Bodhisattva

Do you like the idea of living in the moment?

BodhisattvaHow can we do that — live in the moment, in the present, in the here and the now? Buddha had a lot to say on the subject, and in this age of distraction, depression, and worry there seems to be both great interest in and need for his advice. Personally, I have found Buddha’s teachings on impermanence really practical in solving a lot of otherwise seemingly intractable problems or unpleasant feelings; so I want to share some thoughts here.

How much energy do you put into the present?

First, a question to ask ourselves:

How much energy do I spend dwelling in the past or thinking about the future?

50%? 80%? 90%?!

Instead of being present and discovering the beauty and fullness of the moment, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time dwelling in the past (living in its shadow) or worrying about the future. Perhaps most of our energy? When we are on our commute, are we in our hearts focusing on the people around us in the here and now, developing love for example — or are we in our heads contemplating what a mess we made at work yesterday and/or worrying about all the things we have to get done this week? Even when we are out supposedly enjoying ourselves in a beautiful place, are we nostalgically missing the last time we came to this place with someone now gone and/or longing for a chance to show someone this place later?

We are constantly distracting ourselves from what is going on right under our noses! We don’t need the advertising industry to take us away from our enjoyment of life as it happens (“you’ll only be truly happy once you get this new car/perfume/iPad” ie, in the future) — we do it to ourselves all the time.

RoseanneI remember when I first came to America and was watching a Roseanne episode in a motel room. I had what seemed like about 4  minutes to get into it before the show broke for loud ads – that interruption was unwelcome enough (in England the ads were not quite as frequent or long-lasting), but then I noticed that the ads were for, guess what, the NEXT episode of Roseanne!! So, rather than just absorbing into the Roseanne in the here and now, I was distracted by the anticipation of the real enjoyment coming in tomorrow night’s no doubt more fulfilling episode.

To me, that postponement of joy to the endlessly receding horizons of future Roseanne episodes, even while I already had a show running right in front of me, illustrated the disconnection caused by our own distracted mind as we sleepwalk through the day wondering what is coming next.

Next question…

What would happen if all that 50%? 80%? 90% of energy was freed to focus on enjoying the present moment?! How alive could we become?

Living in the past or future is not really being alive because — bottom line  — there is no past or future to live in. When we learn to let go of the past and stop procrastinating into the future we connect to the depth and meaning of the present moment, the only moment there is.

Recreating the past in the present

Before we can live a life more centered in the present, we first have to learn to let go of the past. This doesn’t mean forgetting what has happened – it means letting go of the emotional baggage that we have accumulated in our many experiences. In a way our mind has been conditioned to think and act in a certain way, and we bring all of this into our life today. It is as if we allow our past to recreate itself in the present moment.back to the past

Let’s say for example that many years ago we had a relationship that came to a sad end (has anyone not been in this position?!) Maybe we still feel that pain today whenever that person appears to our mind, and — judging by how many sad songs, websites, and so on there are about broken hearts — maybe great pain. And the question comes, “Why, when that relationship ended so long ago and is past — it doesn’t exist anymore — do I still feel pain or anger or hurt or loss when I think of it?”

The reason is that we are recreating the past in the present. The problem isn’t what happened in the past but what is happening right now. Dragging the past into the present, reliving it as it were, is a bad habit we have, which will flavor our mind with sadness and condition other friendships. Holding on like this makes it very hard for us to do anything really new or fresh in our life, and it casts a shadow over our joy. baggage

Some years ago I remember asking an older friend about how long she thought it would take me to get over a break-up. She shrugged, “You never do completely.” As she had gotten divorced over 20 years previously, I was somewhat horrified to hear this; and it had the salutary effect of making me more determined than ever. This is because, as I said to her:

You never do completely?!!! Hmmmm. I intend to get over this completely. Otherwise grief will pile upon grief as life goes on, won’t it? Everyone will end up sadder at the end of their lives.

And this is when I got very interested in Buddha’s teachings on subtle impermanence as a powerful method to counteract these stale habits, replacing them with a day by day happiness to be alive.

Continued here 

A storm on Belleair Beach

struck by lightning

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. Phyllis Kalinowski struck by lightning

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.

Phyllis 2

These guys came after the first responders to take the body away.

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.

Brief encounters

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.

Oscar the kitten in Kadampa LifeThat 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

DianneI 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. 

Collective karma

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, Losang Tenpacompassion, 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.

Related articles

What do you see when you look at a stranger?

A temple for this place and time

Preparing for the Pure Land

Losing Andromeda

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Here is a timely story from Eileen, aged 91, which illustrates the last article on Kadampa Life…                

Buddha said that our current uncontrolled lives, which he called “samsara”, are in the nature of suffering. He described seven types of suffering: birth, ageing, sickness, death, having to put up with things we don’t like, failing to find satisfaction, and losing or being separated from the things we love.

This is the story of a child who experienced this last kind of suffering, losing the thing she loved the most.

Leeds Market is a very famous place, for did not Mr. Marks and Mr. Spencer, two good local boys, start their first commercial venture on a market stall in Leeds?

But, more than that, it was a magical world of sights, sounds and smells, relished by an eight-year-old girl who used to go every Saturday morning with her parents into town on the bus. Happily, the Bus Station in Leeds was just below the Market, and one could savour its delights on the walk up to the City Center. The vast piles of fruit and vegetables, so fresh and colourful, and the smelly fish, straight from Grimsby that morning. Rows of poor pink hams hanging on fearsome looking hooks, and always a red faced man selling pots and pans, “Everything a bargain!”, as he clashed two frying pans together.

Eileen Stead as a young girlBut I, the child, had just one desire — to go to the Pet Shop. This was a magnet to me, and I cunningly guided my Parents in that direction. At last — baskets of the cutest puppies, rabbits with long ears and twitching noses, and, best of all, the mice. Black mice, white mice with pink eyes, golden brown mice with dark beady eyes and long whiskers. They lived in a “Mouse House” with little wheels to play on, and wooden staircases, having a grand old time.

On this visit, one of the golden brown mice, more adventurous than the rest, climbed up the wire cage and poked her little pink nose through a hole. I held out my finger, and she sniffed at it in an inquisitive way. It was love at first sight.

“Oh please can we buy her, she’s only sixpence, and I’ve saved my pocket money. Can I buy her?” “Well” said my mother, “You’ll have to look after it yourself” “Oh I will, I will, and can we make her a house like this one?” “Alfred”, said my Mother, turning to my Father, who, deep in revery, was thinking about some organ piece he was going to play in church the next day, “You’ll make it a house, won’t you?” “Yes, of course” he replied abstractedly. He always said “Yes, of course” to my Mother.

So, sixpence and a handshake later, and the deal was done – we returned home on the bus, me in 7th heaven and Andromeda in her paper bag. (I was into Greek Mythology at the time.) My Father, true to his promise, made her a wonderful house, with a wheel and a staircase, and even an upstairs room for her to sleep in. She was a very happy mouse, and often we would romp on the bed together and play hide and seek under the pillows. She was my very best friend.

The trouble was, I missed her dreadfully during the day when I had to go to school — so I persuaded my father to make a little box, with some air holes, just small enough to fit in my tunic pocket. I think she became quite a scholar, in her own Mousey way. I know she loved the singing lesson on Friday afternoons, I could feel her positively vibrating in her box.

It was quite a long walk to school, and one Friday, after the singing lesson, a girl in my class who lived near to me asked if we could walk together. She said “You’ve got a mouse, haven’t you?”  “Yes” I replied, “I have her in my pocket. Her name’s Andromeda.” “Can I see her?” “Well alright”, I said, “But I don’t want her to escape”. I took her out, and held her gently in my hand. She looked at me and twitched her whiskers in the trusting way that she had. “Can I hold her?” “Well, be very careful, be very gentle.”

I placed Andromeda into her hands, but something happened and my mouse tried to escape. Julia Shepherd (I remember her name to this day) clutched her tightly in her big strong hands. “Don’t squeeze her, don’t squeeze her” I cried, but my little mouse gave up the struggle, and, when Julia Shepherd opened her fingers, there lay my beautiful golden playmate, lifeless–dead!!

I was overwhelmed with rage and grief, and ran home in floods of tears, carrying the small, sad body. It was my first experience of death, of losing someone I loved, and even though easily 80 years have passed I can still recall the anguish of that moment. The end of a child’s relationship with a beloved pet. The seventh suffering of samsara. Another very good reason to attain liberation.

Relaxing in your heart

bird freed color

This is the third and last part of Is Heaven real?

Celebrating Je Tsongkhapa Day Je Tsongkhapa and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

First of all, Happy Je Tsongkhapa Day! Today, October 25th, Kadampa Buddhist centers worldwide celebrate this great Buddhist master and Yogi, and what he has done for us. Geshe Kelsang’s Kadampa Buddhist books are commentaries to Je Tsongkhapa’s texts, and I find the two authors share an uncanny economy and lucidity of words, combined with profundity and transcendence. So I can’t resist pointing out some of Geshe Kelsang’s books in this article to celebrate, sort of like an extended ad!, and maybe you’ll get to sit down with one of them this cool October evening.

How to switch off

Our bodies come and go, but our mind is a beginningless and endless continuum of awareness. We can learn to switch off different thoughts, including anger, attachment, selfishness, and ignorance; but it will never be possible to switch off this continuum. From waking to sleep, and from life to life, it continuously cycles — from gross, to subtle, to very subtle, back to subtle, back to gross. I sometimes think of it as a bit like H2O cycling from ice, to water, to water vapor, and back again.

Introduction to Buddhism

All this explained here.

When I die, my very subtle mind (associated with my very subtle wind that is currently located in my heart chakra) is all that will go with me to my next life. Buddha taught that it is the very subtle mind, or “root mind”, that I’ve had in all my lives which will transform into omniscient wisdom, not my grosser levels of consciousness that come and go like clouds in the sky.

water as example of mental continuum A problem most of us have at the moment is that we cannot use our subtler levels of mind whenever we feel like it … Even though you dream most nights, can you even remember, let alone use, your own subtle dreaming awareness for example? Our very subtle mind only awakens when our grosser minds have disappeared, in deep sleep or death when, unless we are deeply trained in meditation, we can’t use our mindfulness or memory at all.

Even the scientific equipment in the lab seemed to pick up that Dr. Eben Alexander’s sense consciousness and other grosser levels of consciousness were not functioning during the shut-down of his brain (brought on by a potentially life-threatening encounter with meningitis.) Advanced meditators can cause their gross minds to dissolve away without having to wait for sleep or death or comas or NDEs. One way they train in this is through imagining going through the death process and transforming the very subtle mind or so-called “clear light” of death into the clear light of bliss. Then later they are able to manipulate their subtle inner winds and minds to replicate the death process but without actually dying, experiencing an authentic clear light. We can also get to the clear light through the six-stage Mahamudra meditation, which we can fortunately study in Mahamudra Tantra.

The significant problems we face…

Through learning these tried and tested meditation practices, we can access our deepest level of consciousness at our heart chakra, which is unrelated to our brain, and use it to meditate; and, once we have this ability, we have a blissful non-dual mind and can experience blissful Pure Lands at will. This clear light mind itself does not support dualistic conceptions, and it is also mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena, emptiness of inherent existence, like water mixed with water; so self-grasping and mistaken appearances no longer have any leg to stand on. This “inner science” is explained in Buddha’s Tantric teachings and the works of many advanced meditators, including Volume 2 of Modern Buddhism, available for free right now if you want to read it.

So, we cannot destroy our self-grasping, selfishness, and ordinary minds completely with our ordinary, dualistic levels of consciousness — we need to meditate on emptiness with the clear light mind of bliss. This reminds me of Einstein’s dictum:

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

Good examples

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso meditatingI think my own teacher spends a lot of his life in the clear light. If you’ve ever seen him meditate, which he can do for many hours and days at a stretch, you’ll see an extraordinary stillness and absorption. It was the same apparently with his teacher, Trijang Rinpoche, and his teacher’s teacher, Je Phabongkhapa.  Geshe Kelsang also spent 18 years in meditative retreat in the Himalayas and 3 years of retreat in Tharpaland, when it was in Scotland.

A good friend of mine once travelled with Geshe Kelsang to the US to set up his first Center. As they were taking off, he smiled: “We are going to Vajrayogini’s Pure Land!” He then closed his eyes and meditated for the entire 8-hour flight, opening them just once to take a single fork’s worth of food.

You can tell upon reading Geshe Kelsang’s books, including his Tantric teachings, that he has first-hand experience, that he is describing what he sees directly. I think this is why his words have the power to inspire results in the reader or listener.  

Lamrim, the stages of the path

In the last article, I talked about Dr. Alexander’s description of non-duality. And I find that the 21 Buddhist Lamrim meditations seem to draw us closer one way or another to non-duality, to a lessening gulf between subject and object. If you’ve been doing this incredibly helpful cycle of Kadampa Buddhist meditations for a while, as this Kadampa has, (recording his experiences in Daily Lamrim), you may have your own conclusions about this, in which case please share them below.

The New Meditation Handbook

The cycle of 21 Lamrim meditations

For me, with the meditations on the initial scope, starting with precious human life and death, I see how this current situation I’m in is dependent on many causes and conditions, and once any of these is removed and I die all the appearances of this life will dissolve away like last night’s dream. With some mental space from worldly concerns, I stick my head above the parapets and get a vast view of reality, of the different possible appearances to mind of all my future lives. Like new dreams unfolding – the realms where I may be reborn are not outside the mind, they cannot be found in any geographical location. The main object of refuge or protection from future suffering is then emptiness itself, the only non-deceptive object, as taught to me by Buddha and practiced by my fellow Sangha. Also, by observing the law of karma I am focusing on inner cause and effect, the other side of the coin from emptiness, seeing how all my thoughts, actions, and experiences are interconnected, and so taking responsibility for them.

With the meditations on the intermediate scope, the main thing I develop renunciation for is self-grasping ignorance, grasping at inherent existence, as well as attachment to happiness existing outside the mind. With the wish to be completely free, I try to practice the three higher trainings of moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom to cut this root of suffering away. When I have finally stopped grasping at things existing independently of the mind — “that’s got nothing to do with me!” — I will be master of my own reality. I’ll be completely free. Nirvana.

With all the meditations on the great scope or Mahayana, I become closer and closer to other living beings (including animals) by contemplating our interdependence and so on, identifying with them, feeling they are also “me”, closing the chasm ‘twixt self and other. Then with tranquil abiding concentration and the wisdom of superior seeing, I focus on emptiness itself until one very happy day I will have removed all dualistic appearances from my mind permanently and can help everyone all the time.

To do all this, I mix my own mind with the blessings or enlightened mind of my Spiritual Guide, Buddha, which is already free from dualistic appearances and permanently blissful.

Messengers 

When someone has fully purified their mind and perfected all good qualities, they have attained enlightenment. Even enlightened beings are projections of our mind, but they exist. In his experience, Dr. A had some experiences of being guided – I wasn’t there, so I have no idea who his “angels” were, but I am happy to accept that they were significant to him and that they existed. I really enjoyed a couple of his descriptions, his description of the heavenly sounds are redolent to me of mantra, or the nectar of enlightened beings’ speech:

“The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but doesn’t get you wet.”

Dakini in Kadampa Buddhist Temple for World Peace in England

Detail from the Kadampa Buddhist Temple for World Peace in England

I was also moved by his description of the person who guided him – she reminded me of a Dakini, or “Space Goer”, a female Tantric Buddha or a woman who has attained the realization of meaning clear light. Dakinis are also sometimes called “messengers”. I don’t know who his guide was, but I liked to be reminded of mine.

What now?

Dr. Eben Alexander has written his book to inspire others because:

“The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already.”

Hopefully, Kadampa Buddhism will be able to help break the mold as it already has plenty to say on the subject.

Susan Grober said on Facebook in response to Dr. wish to educate others:

“He has a hard task, especially given the new stats on fewer people in US identifying with a particular religion. I hope his experience lets people living too much in their heads, and not enough in their hearts, entertain, even for a minute, that “this” isn’t it. Hopefully the degree and Harvard credentials will help this “good cause”!”

Facebook and meditationThe same Newsweek magazine also carried an article on the insidious influence that Facebook could have on children under 13 if FB allows them to join, with general alarm at what the supersonic rate of sensory stimulation and instant distraction available 24/7 might be doing to all of us, including reducing our empathy (feeling of connection?) Certainly, I think we can tell that it is keeping us in our heads, and Dr. A’s article, to me, in notable contrast, was giving another example of what is available if we allow ourselves to connect with our spiritual hearts.

Part 1 of this article: “Is heaven real?”
Part  2 of this article: “Moving from the head to the heart

That’s it from me on the subject. Over to you!

Is Heaven real?

Heaven is Real Newsweek October 2012

Heaven is Real Newsweek October 2012Scanning the magazine rack at LaGuardia, wondering whether I could be bothered to buy anything to read, I spotted Newsweek’s announcement: “Heaven is Real.” I snapped it up. This out of left field article was too tempting a contrast to the politicking of this election season, and the general Us and Them unrest around the world. Judging by the thousands of comments online, the article is provoking strong reactions, as I daresay Newsweek predicted it would. For some, it is a breakthrough – an eminent man of science, brain science no less, saying that he now has proof of heaven (the name of his book) and the existence of consciousness beyond the brain. For others, it is annoyingly unscientific; the guy was clearly tripping out and has no proof whatsoever of anything, and they are cancelling their subscription forthwith. Here’s an example:

“It’s all a bunch of anecdotal malarkey. The only difference between this article and all the same BS I’ve heard from other people that believe in mythological deities is that this guy used the word “cortex” more frequently.”

For me, I read it on the plane above the clouds, and found it both fascinating and utterly unsurprising. I couldn’t help scribbling in the margins of my magazine, as Buddha had a great deal to say on the subject of the nature and types of consciousness and its relationship to the body, the survival of consciousness after death, the existence of different realms and what and where these are, the existence of divine beings and what and where these are, the ontological status of ourselves and our world, and so on. He taught all these to show that there is a path to freedom and happiness, and, like everything else, it begins and ends in the mind.

By relaying some of my scribbles here, I’m hoping to provoke your thoughts and experiences on the subject in the comments below, as I can be by no means exhaustive on the subject (exhausting, maybe! It has ended up longer than I anticipated! I’m now realizing it was an ambitious topic for one blog post, so I’m breaking it into 2 parts …)

The story

In 2008 the neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander contracted a rare bacterial meningitis and his entire cortex shut down.

“For seven days I lay in a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline…. There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in a coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well.”

He then describes journey full of very peaceful, non-dualistic, and cosmic appearances, the like of which he cannot recall ever experiencing before.

“According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.”

I suppose I want to look at this from two angles – from the point of view of the object, or what is appearing to the mind, and from the point of view of the subject, the mind itself.

So, is heaven real?

the best way to get to heaven is to take it with youThat depends on what we mean by real. (And, I guess, what we mean by heaven!) Perhaps it’s better to ask “Does heaven exist?” It is not real in the sense that it is findable or inherently existent, independent of the mind. We cannot go visit it some place outside the mind. But appearances of peace, goodness, and bliss etc do exist as projections of a peaceful, good, and blissful mind.

Some terminology: in Buddhism we talk about six realms of samsara, and the highest of these are the god realms, sometimes called heavenly realms. We can create the necessary concentration and good or virtuous karma to be reborn as a god (though it is in point of fact more useful from a spiritual point of view to be reborn as a human.) If we are reborn as a god, although we have some lovely heavenly experiences while the rebirth lasts, we are not permanently free from suffering, and will once again take rebirth in painful realms.

Pure Lands exist outside of samsara and are not subject to samsara’s rules. Once we have purified our mind sufficiently, we are permanently free because we no longer have the delusions and negative karma that throw up our suffering. I wrote an article about Pure Lands here.

However, both the god realms and the Pure Lands are equally projections of mind, like illusions, like dreams. So is our current life, for that matter.

I came across this expression once, and have found it very helpful:

I am not in the world; the world is in me.

I add to that the fact that I too do not exist from my own side, any more than the world does.

Heaven and hell worldwide

heaven and hell are projections of our mindA majority of cultures and religions have concepts of heaven and hell. Is this all a bizarre coincidence? Or could there be something to it? Dr. Alexander is by no means the first person to have had this kind of blissful experience–while awake, or dreaming, or having a near-death experience–or the first person to talk about it. He says himself:

“I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history.”

Skeptics may put these experiences and resultant beliefs down to a massive collective hallucination. In a way they are right, because all of us are always hallucinating to a greater or lesser extent for as long as things keep appearing to exist from their own side, independent of our mind, and especially when we grasp at those appearances as reality. But whose hallucination is more “accurate” or non-deceptive – someone experiencing an ordinary, mundane world full of problems and a crunchy sense of duality, or someone experiencing heavenly beings, love, and communion?

My grandfather was a skeptical man of science too until he had some experiences that changed everything for him. I wrote about that here. Someone very close to both me and my grandfather emailed me a fortnight ago about her cataract operation:

“During the op it was v. beautiful as I think I was in heaven – I was in the most beautiful white, silver coloured clouds floating in eternity, quite amazing.  It was either heaven or it might have been Mars as I had heard on the radio on Monday that US scientists have sent some scientific equipment into space to land on Mars for a breakthrough research project.”

After we have had such experiences, we can conceive of them in different ways, depending on our belief systems, backgrounds, and so on. As Mike Hume said on Facebook about Dr. A:

“He is seemingly interpreting his experiences from a Christian perspective, despite the fact that he has stated he has never really believed in God. I guess this isn’t surprising, though. I think if he had investigated other ideas and concepts of mind and consciousness he might have interpreted it differently.”

But if we have these experiences and appearances, it shows they are possible, doesn’t it?! If these three people’s stream of consciousness is capable of experiencing such joy and peace once, who is to say they do not have the potential for experiencing something similar for a very long period of time again in the future, even forever? And would that not be some kind of heaven?

Cautionary tale

We also have the potential or karma for a great deal more suffering, which we need to take steps to purify and remove. A friend messaged me on Facebook:

“I worked in hospice during my graduate studies and there was more than one person who had horrible, horrible appearances at the approach of death. One elderly woman had burning bedsores and hallucinations, and she kept screaming for Grandmother to put out the fire on her body shortly before she went unconscious before death. I prayed hard for her not to die with that mind and take rebirth in a hell realm. So looking at the two sides of people’s experiences I find hope AND a cautionary tale.”

Not testable?

If people ask for physical, scientific proof of heaven (or hell), they may not get it, as science does not use the right tools for measuring the dimension of non-physical mind, and in fact has a self-confessed “problem” over what consciousness even is. Particle physics is now pointing the way to a non-objective universe, however, some modern scientists agreeing that there may be no objectively testable universe.

Jason Mandella says on Facebook:

“Science can assert that consciousness is merely a product of activity in the brain, and it can measure and predict that brain activity accurately with various instruments and practices. But it cannot “explain” lived, conscious experience: what is the nature of it? As Michael, Duane and Pawo are suggesting, Buddhist practice starts from the lived experience of consciousness. Living meditation masters from Buddha to now, present instructions which can be practiced by us. We verify from our own experience if what is being presented is true. That sounds like a science of consciousness to me. Does it need to be validated by conventional science if its working? Not that I have gotten much further than setting up the laboratory; but I have a little faith and some good reasons–like any scientist.”

Clearly, it is hard to do any fact-checking on Newsweek’s article! I don’t think Dr. A’s experience proves that heaven exists objectively. It doesn’t prove any universal truth “out there”. Dr.’s experience was subjective. Kelsang Lekpa says on Facebook, and I agree:

“His spiritual experience doesn’t prove one bit that an actual physical heaven or hell – exactly as he describes it – exists outside of his brain, after death.”

And:

“If I dream of unicorns, does it make them real?”

But what his experience does indicate is that anything can appear to mind.

we project our world with our mindsIt is subjective – would I have those exact experiences in similar circumstances? Probably not. My thoughts might not even be blissful to begin with – if negative karma is ripening, I could experience hell. My appearances will depend on my own thoughts and karma — I will project a different movie, which may or may not share some of the same elements. Appearances are infinite. Due to emptiness, anything can appear. If everything is a projection of mind, and nothing exists objectively or from its own side, it stands to reason that we can project anything, and we do. We have already had infinite projections in life after life since beginningless time (there is no beginning or end to our consciousness.)

When I read this, it reminded me that there are different levels of consciousness and that what we experience depends entirely upon our own mind; in fact experience IS mind. The Mahayana Buddhist goal is to remove all delusions and dualistic appearances from the mind through wisdom and perfect all good qualities through compassion. My wisdom and compassion already exist as part of my Buddha nature, I feel that my main job in life is just to increase these each day until I attain enlightenment. Unlike the random, chance encounter Dr. A had with his own potential for peace and bliss, not easily replicable unless he contracts meningitis again, through spiritual practices we will one day be able to experience bliss continuously at will, and appear or project whatever we want to our minds. If we are prepared to put in the time and training, these results are replicable, and have been replicated by countless meditators including Buddha and many of his followers.

As Robert Thomas said on Facebook:

“For me this account, whilst meaningful for the individual concerned, and others, adds nothing by way of proof. Even the Prof’s conviction that all this occurred whilst his cerebral cortex was inactive is impossible to verify. I prefer to rely on the accounts and insights of accomplished mind trainers who approach the more and more subtle levels of consciousness whilst maintaining mindfulness and clear discrimination.”

And as Mike Hume put it:

“I hope that I can have similarly vivid experiences through meditation, rather than having to nearly die.”

If you asked me to replicate the results of an experiment proving the existence of quarks, say, I would be hard put to do it as I do not have anywhere near the necessary training or experience. Similarly, without the necessary mental training and experience it is hard for each of us individually to replicate the results of generating at will a blissful, non-dual mind mixed inseparably with the ultimate nature of phenomena to prove that it exists. But I trust quantum physicists that quarks exist and have a function in my universe, and I also trust Buddha and his followers that these profound states of mind exist and have a function in my universe.

(In the mind of bliss and emptiness, we can find true commonality (as opposed to objectivity). But that can be left for another discussion on another day.)

Part Two of this article: “Moving from the head to the heart
Part Three of this article: “Relaxing in your heart”

Over to you!

Mummies of the World

mummies story to be told

I found myself doing a rather odd thing yesterday, but there were hundreds of other ordinary tourists and families doing it with me – though, come to think of it, that makes it even odder!! contemplating impermanence

I was looking at loads of dead bodies. Dead human bodies. And not just any old dead human bodies but bodies that had been dead for thousands of years. And me and all the kids, parents, couples, senior citizens, and so on were all trying to be respectful, as we had been requested in the introductory video, and we were surely fascinated with our “Ooohs!” and “Aaahhhs!”, though I overheard a great deal of “Euggh, that’s gross” comments and had no shortage of these sentiments myself.

I will backtrack. My friend Anya had asked me to go to the Mummies exhibition last week  with her and her kids, and I thought no more about it until they and another friend Donna picked me up yesterday morning. We had pancakes and coffee, a perfectly normal Sunday mummies story to be toldmorning activity, drove 50 miles to Tampa, still pretty normal, and then spent an hour or two staring at dead bodies.

Donna is a force of nature. She is undergoing extensive chemo for an aggressive cancer, throughout which she has continued to work nights at a grueling job without being granted so much as ten minutes off. 10am was like 3am for her, yet in the pancake house she was grinning from ear to ear as she told us a funny story about the rap artist 50 cents (I can’t really remember what it was about, I was too mesmerized by her contagious laughter, when I know that physically she feels a wreck.) This was after telling me her life history as I requested, which involved an Oprah-worthy amount of hardship, including abandonment at the age of 11 by her mother, years of living with a dead beat father, and basically bringing herself up with no money. But she seems to have emerged, if not entirely unscathed by her own admission, at least impressively lacking in self-pity and possessing a great sense of humor. She is two months younger than me.

A woman came up to Donna in the pancake house, touched her shoulder, nodded toward her bald head, and said, “God bless you. I’ve been there.” Donna said she gets that a lot. It doesn’t really annoy her, not any more. She feels she has joined a secret club, which actually has a surprisingly large number of people in it, and it feels good to know she is not alone even though she has always prided herself on her independence. I was telling her about Shantideva’s quote “Suffering has good qualities” because, whatever illness or suffering we have, the curious thing is how quickly we find others who have it as well – and these may be the same people we’ve been brushing shoulders with for years without knowing. This helps our empathy and it is not too much of a stretch to spread it out to understand that everyone suffers from something or other. She is not a Buddhist, but she liked that, as she has a direct taste. She told me she did feel that her world had gotten larger, paradoxically, even though she is more physically constrained, her life currently a combination of work and being strapped to chemo machines.

One of my previous bodies?

She was tired when we arrived so we got her a wheelchair. It was kind of useful actually — we found that people got out of our way when I pushed her toward them! Ha ha! So, even though it was a busy labor day Sunday, we had front row seats for a whole bunch of dead bodies…  Lucky us. 

If Donna was having any thoughts about her own mortality, she was keeping quiet about it. As were all the other still animated bodies wandering around in there. For myself, having spent a lifetime contemplating death, I couldn’t help but imagine my own body lying there all shriveled and hideous 3000 years in the future, with bits of skin and hair still hanging off it, while a whole bunch of weird people in a futuristic world I could never have anticipated were all gaping at it, laughing nervously, ignoring it while chattering about other stuff, or moving away in disgust.  (I told Anya et al that on no account do I want them to mummify my body when I’m gone.) There was a video there of the sped-up decomposition of a rabbit, a pumpkin, a rat, and an orange. Anyone under any illusion about the beauty of flesh need look no further…  There were even mummies of cats – nice to know the Egyptians valued their pets so highly, but still… I think when the time comes I will bury Rousseau instead.

mummy of a cat mummies of the world

Or this one?

(One question I have for you, dear readers. Why are they called “Mummies”? I know from a Buddhist point of view everyone has been our Mummy, but I don’t think that’s what the Egyptians meant.)

There is one other vignette from yesterday that also gave me a little insight. Years ago, as a volunteer youth I assisted a man called Wilf, who was completely paralyzed except for his head, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand. We became friends so I also went to visit him and his wife, also disabled, at their very well equipped house. One thing I noticed was the embarrassed or condescending reactions many (not all) people had upon seeing someone in a wheelchair. Wilf was sharp as a tack and amusing as could be, and he took beautiful photos, but many people seemed to overlook these basic facts about him. People would look sympathetic or talk about him literally above his head. While Donna was in the restroom, I sat on her chair in the corridor to wait and use the few minutes to think about what I had seen. A man came out of the gents and the door swung into my chair because I was entirely in the way. He was flustered, said sorry, and made as if to move me out of the way. I said quickly: “Don’t worry, I’m fine, I was in the way, this is not my chair, I’ll just get up and….” But he wasn’t listening to a word I was saying! In fact, he was barely looking at me; I don’t think we made any eye contact at all. He got behind my chair and started to pull it along the corridor. I started to try and get up, and he pushed down on my shoulder, saying “No, don’t do that, I will help get you out of harm’s way.” I decided to relent and let him push me wherever he felt like. And I got a fleeting but useful feeling of what it must have been like to be Wilf.

Later yesterday evening I was invited by my Russian neighbors to Konstantin’s birthday party, and we discussed the body of Lenin, embalmed in alcohol, waiting for… what exactly?

mummies of the world

Bit late for that?

I suppose yesterday for me was mainly a testament to the futility of attempting to preserve and hang onto our human flesh when one thing is inevitable, and one thing alone – we are all going to die and these cossetted bodies, temporary guesthouses, are going to be entirely useless and rather revolting when we do. For most of us, our friends and relatives will be in no hurry to keep them lying around any longer than they have to, and will quickly dispose of them. We might as well get used to this idea sooner rather than later, given that everyone we know is going to die pretty shortly in the grand scheme of things, including us. Better to embrace impermanence than try to grasp onto a permanence that simply does not exist and end up with nothing better to hug than a corpse. Better to ask ourselves, “Once this body of mine is shriveling up and decaying — whether that is in 50 years, 20 years, 5 years, a few weeks, or later today — where will I be and what will I be doing?” It is not the truth we need to avoid; it is the deceptions of our permanent-grasping and attachment.

A friend of mine wrote to me today with an eloquent, moving reply to my condolences on his beloved mother’s death and explaining a little of how he is reacting to it. One of the things he said:

“It is a challenging appearance as you said. I had a thought yesterday as I sat in the chapel next to her open coffin that really she is Buddha Tara and this emanated appearance of death is just to teach me the most important meditation that Venerable Geshe-la is always encouraging us to realise.”

At this point I can only imagine what it must be like to sit beside the body of one of my parents, but we are all going to have to do this over and over again with all our loved ones, so we may as well give at least some thought as to how we’re going to cope with that before it is upon us. Is that morbid or is that common sense?

Over to you. Comments welcome.

 

 

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