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

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.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
mimi-goodbye-picture
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

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.

madame tussauds 2
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 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?”

IMG_6645
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

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

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

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.