All that glitters is not gold

 With panic in her eyes, Aubree said:

“I feel like I’m losing control of my life! I have to go! Let me go! I need to go to my house!”

And Jim gently replied:

“I’m so sorry. That is what it feels like when we are dying. But please don’t worry, you are here with us now. You are too confused to leave; it is not safe to let you go. We are going to take care of you.”

With that, he turned on the prayer playlist Aubree always wanted by her side – nowadays it was on pretty loud all night at her request to remind her of her Spiritual Guide when she fell unconscious, because her greatest fear was forgetting him when she died.

1. deception heartJim and his wife Karin have been taking extraordinarily good care of Aubree for well over a year now, day and night – it used to be just weekends but towards the end they kindly took her into their house full-time because hospice was not a possibility. (The reason it was not a possibility is because her disturbed sister would not release the name of her oncologist and, despite calling every hospital in town, Jim was not able to locate him. It was maddening.)

Jim offered her the anti-seizure medicine she has been taking for two years, but she gagged and choked and said she couldn’t swallow any pills. “Don’t worry”, he said again, as he crushed her Ativan and put it in her food, which for the past year has amounted to approximately a tiny bit of mush per day. She had to eat something, and the meds were to help her with the seizures. But this time she was really freaking out. She was very confused, it seemed, and she snapped at them uncharacteristically, “Let me go! You have kidnapped me!!!”

A modern-day Upala

Aubree’s story is incredible. Here are some of the salient details she wrote herself when requesting prayers:

“I was diagnosed with cancer almost a year ago, am an epileptic, and will likely die very soon. My seizures have been so bad that I have been resuscitated 3 times recently, my breathing is very labored, I am usually unable to eat more than a tablespoon a day, and I have a lot of physical pain. I have had nightmares and fearful flashbacks most of my adult life, ever since a violent attack in College, but these lessened considerably when I met dharma 2 years ago. However, with my illness, it is hard for me to have a formal meditation practice and I struggle to keep a peaceful mind, but I am trying to keep you at my heart at all times. Please be with me when I die and guide me through death and rebirth.   

I want everyone to be happy and not to suffer. I feel so lucky and know there are many other living beings with more suffering. I especially want my family to be happy, but they are having a difficult time letting go. Please pray for my mother who is struggling with losing me. She is unhappy and responding to the situation poorly and recently tried to kill me 3 times out of delusion, once by kicking me in the stomach while I was unconscious, once by pushing me down stairs, and once by stabbing me in my side. My sister also is struggling with me dying and needed to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. My brothers are very sad and are unable to accept the situation and let me go. I want them all to be happy and to find peace. Please keep them all in your prayers.”

And it is not just her mother, sister, and brothers. A little while ago Aubree went missing for a week, at the end of which time she texted to say that her father had been keeping her locked up at his house and wouldn’t let her have her phone nor read any Dharma books. She said she was now terrified of him as well.

2. sadnessA few months ago her best childhood friend was on her way to visiting her when she went missing for 4 days. It was a scary 4 days, at the end of which time her friend’s body was tragically discovered by a state trooper in Texas – she had gone off her meds and committed suicide. So sad. She was supposed to be getting married next month.

Something dramatic happened pretty much every week – including too many brinks of death to count. Aubree was a modern-day Upala (see Joyful Path of Good Fortune). We all hoped that this was Aubree’s incredible purification too, and that she was swiftly earning her place in the Pure Land.

It was painful for all of us to watch Aubree dying like this, experiencing so many epileptic or PNES seizures lying clenched and shaking on the floor, so many night terrors, so much head-banging pain, some of which Jim successfully treated with acupuncture –needles stuck in an inch and a half, up to 50 at a time, because she said she couldn’t feel them. This treatment would take hours, and she would look like a pin cushion. When we first met her, she would have hellish-sounding night terrors every single night, reliving the trauma of her abduction and rape, and she’d wake up very frightened. It felt as if she was living in both the human world and an occasional hell at the same time – but at least these terrors largely subsided a few months after meeting Dharma.

And so many trips to the ER, where we watched them pump her full with Ativan or resuscitate her and then send her home with another big bill. Her grueling chemo treatments causing her to vomit and lose her hair, her arm in a sling for weeks after her mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, the bruises from falling into walls, the mini-strokes and increasing confusion, the stab wounds inflicted by her alcoholic mother (now thankfully in jail). She could not walk without support, she needed constant attention. She could hardly talk by the end, barely a whisper, and she weighed 90 lbs; but still through all of this she smiled radiantly and inspired us all with her courage and good humor. She bought out a good deal of compassion in her spiritual community, and no one felt like complaining when she was around because, frankly, compared to her what did any of us have to complain about?! And she never complained – in her quavering voice she would call herself “the luckiest person in the world” and all she ever said she wanted was for us to pray for her poor, deluded, suffering family.

4. hurricane reflection

It was also amazing how many Festivals, teachings, and retreats she managed to get to, and how many NKT luminaries she managed to meet. Plus her story captured the heart, and she had hundreds of people praying for her.

It was not just us caring for her. Her brother in law, Tom, was a deaf mute and busy traveling, but for months he was able to arrange her visiting schedule all the way from Houston and the road. I texted and emailed back and forth with him several times, and Karin and Jim had hundreds of communications with him and Aubree’s sister. I also was in communication with her full time caregiver Matt, and a couple of other friends. They would keep us informed with messages like:

“Aubree has had severe seizures and breathing issues. She is confused and upset. Please pray.

Aubree’s sister here!   Let’s plan on a visit Friday at 11.  We will confirm with you.  Aubree has been unwell and I am hoping we do not have any issues that cause us to be at hospital again.  She is looking forward to seeing you.

Aubree thinks she is actively dying. Her experience of her body has changed significantly, she wasn’t able to get out bed at all today (was at our house), and has been having very long and difficult seizures and intense pain. She was with her brothers this last week and was admitted into the hospital (against her wishes) and was resuscitated (her brothers ignored her DNR because they were scared). That would have been it, but the CPR brought her back, however she doesn’t want CPR again, and says she is ready to die. 

Aubree is with her friend Kayla, who thinks she is dying. Aubree has stopped breathing and is changing color.

By yesterday evening she didn’t even know who she was. I would call her name and she would look at me and say “Aubree?” while touching her chest then say “am I Aubree?”

Her pain increased alarmingly last night. She has had intense liver area pain. At midnight we woke up to her screaming (I didn’t think she had such a strong voice left) “HELP ME, HELP ME!” while crying and curled up in a ball. She is not on pain meds now because they interfered with her seizure meds.”

I was surprised and frankly a little relieved that Aubree never had a seizure on my watch, and, even though she did choke and go blue a couple of times, she rallied before I had to call an ambulance. And I am even more relieved that I never had to obey her end of life care document. This slightly spooky manifesto was drawn up recently by her medical power of attorney, Jim, after she pleaded for no more medical interventions; and it called for her visitors to just hold her, turn up the playlist, and let her die right there and then.

Interesting

3. all that glitters is not goldWe wrote to tell Venerable Geshe-la she was dying, perhaps would die that very day, and could he give her a message. A couple of leisurely days later he wrote back and told her to read and contemplate Modern Buddhism.

That was a surprise. She was lying on her deathbed and couldn’t read at all! And Modern Buddhism is a long book!

Clearly she was not as close to death as we had thought. But her visitors duly took turns reading her Modern Buddhism for the next several weeks. Which she loved, though her health continued to decline.

The unravelling

The kidnapping accusation was a dilemma because last Friday Karin and Jim felt obliged to let Aubree go back to her empty house and wait for her brother-in-law to fly in and take her back to Houston. We did see her on Saturday, after Tom had dropped her off at her house to pick up some things, and she seemed a bit better, though still weak and confused. We then spent the weekend texting Tom back and forth, trying to meet up with him to figure out what was best to do, but we never managed to meet. Then her disturbed sister Jude flew into town and all hell broke loose. It seemed that Tom was the only sane member of the family left, and the only hope for Aubree, and it was frustrating that we couldn’t talk to him on the phone because of his deafness.

Some extracts of messages from Tom sent last Monday:

“Hi! Tom here. I need to reschedule the time. I can’t leave Aubree and Jude to meet you. Aubree is not doing well…. Do either of you sign? Jude is falling apart. … Things with Aubree are spiraling quickly… Jude is struggling. Feeling like I can’t leave them right now…. Family is being weird. I want to shoot for 4 but Aubree is really not doing well and Jude has fallen apart.”

Then something strange happened.

One of Aubree’s work colleagues happened to get in touch, and Jim sent her one of Tom’s health updates. This was what she replied:

“Tom has not emailed so thank you. It is very strange. I see her and talk to her occasionally at work and she is 100% Aubree. Lucid and clear and intelligent and focused. If I hadn’t seen her in the late afternoon/evening those couple days, I wouldn’t believe that report on how she is doing. It is really hard to believe. She is still working during the day and that is a bit strange but probably good for her.  I am trying to arrange to meet her for lunch one day so I can check in with her. She absolutely will not acknowledge that anything is wrong while she is in work mode so I can’t talk to her or see how she is feeling or even offer her support. That is hard but I’m trying to respect her need for compartmentalizing.” 

When, Jim asked, was she last at work?!!!?!!!@!

5. self-deception“On Monday” was the reply. She drove there, apparently. And on Friday evening she had two drinks at the bar, to which she had walked completely unaided as usual, and then she wolfed down a huge Mexican meal. (Yes, she must have been pretty hungry after a whole week of mush at Karin and Jim’s.)

The web of deception

With a sinking feeling, Jim started to contact other people whom Aubree had mentioned in passing. Her ex-roommate Lindsay, whom we’d never happened to overlap with at Aubree’s house, surprise, surprise, said: “I lived with Aubree for 2 years, and not once did I see her have a seizure.” Matt the caretaker doesn’t exist — Lindsay had never heard of him, his number was listed as 000-0000.

What about all those emails and texts, I asked Karin in confusion as all this was slowly coming to light — how could Aubree go to work while Tom was with her, he would have noticed?!

“That’s the point. I don’t think there is a Tom.”

That was one of the spookiest moments of my life.

The gig was up, but we still didn’t know the extent of it. We got online and managed to find real emails for Tom and Jude, as opposed to the ones created by Aubree, and even a phone number. Late as it was, Jim called them straightaway.

They were fast asleep in bed in Houston.

And they knew nothing about any of this.

6. tangled webThey called the parents to go pick up Aubree and take her to their house, worried that she would try to kill herself now that it was all over. Turns out her mother is not a murderer nor her father an abuser. Her colluding brothers turn out to be rather innocent as well.

Since then we have all been putting together the pieces, or rather unravelling the web of deception. It has been by turns spooky, surreal, and desperately sad, but also at times absurdly, darkly humorous. Aubree is brilliantly intelligent; we always knew that, even with all her stroke activity. And this was the performance of a lifetime. Did she have spreadsheets; how did she keep all these lies together?! Aubree had every single person she met duped. Everyone, that is, except Geshe-la.

For sure, all of us probably wondered once or twice, “Could this really all be happening to her at this pace? Is she really that ill, how come she hasn’t died yet?” Someone gave her a pain-relieving massage, for example, and was surprised her tumors were not more noticeable. But we pushed these thoughts aside as uncharitable – she only weighs 90lbs for goodness sake, and those seizures are ghastly! And yes, she had some good days where she rallied remarkably to get to things and talk weakly to people – but that must have been all our prayers! Poor brave girl.

Meeting the family

At dinner we sat in a booth at Racines with her murdering mother (supposedly in jail), her psychotic sister (supposedly in a psych ward), and her abusive father. (The only person missing was her deaf-mute long-suffering brother-in-law, who was on a lecture tour.) And these were three of the sweetest people you could imagine. I’d hang out happily with any of them.

7. gold does not glitterWith a family like this, and with several loyal old friends, Aubree has no need to crave attention. Clearly her self-hatred is not rational. I suppose which of our delusions is?

We wondered how the seizures had been so convincing, and her dad explained the time he took her to Yale epilepsy clinic when she was 22 (the last time he saw her have a fit) and they stressed to her that she must never take Ativan as it brought on the seizures. She had been eating it like candy, at least with us, though clearly not at work.

We wondered how she managed to choke and turn blue from not being able to breathe. Her mom, a nurse (somewhat the opposite to a killer), said that Aubree must have been holding her breath.

Impressive willfulness, we all agreed.

But her dad said, “This is so confusing for me. I hate to say this but I think I’d prefer it if she had cancer. At least we could understand that.” And “She is my daughter but I cannot protect her; this is the hardest thing in my life.”

It was her own dad who suggested grimly that this would make a very good 10-part miniseries. I have included only the salient details in this already long article – there is enough material for it. And the weekly suspense has certainly kept a lot of people on the edges of their seats for two years.

Her sister said: “What you showed her, that love, that part was all true, pure. We are so grateful to you.”

We had a good evening – it was helpful for all of us. We even laughed quite a bit. They were so relieved with our reaction, said we were cool. I think Dharma is cool. Knowing about Buddha nature is cool.

And, hey, our prayers worked!!! Aubree is cancer-free! She is no longer dying! What a miracle. And her family have all magically recovered and become loving, reasonable people!!

(There are no inherently existent suffering beings, after all. Wake us up from the nightmare of mistaken appearances, and we are all just fine.)

Also, btw, remember that friend who committed suicide? Happily oblivious to the fact that she is dead, she is getting married next month, and Aubree has been invited to the wedding.

Our road of caring for Aubree has come to an end, and her family are taking it from here. She has confessed to lying. They have hopefully found a good place for her to receive help. I wish them all the best.

Echoes of “Misery”

MiserySee, go back to the first paragraph of this article and read it again, and perhaps you will understand why Aubree was panicking 😉 She was out in the middle of nowhere, far from her house. Two days of pretense was one thing, but this was a week already and she had to get to work, she was ravenous, she was being force-fed pills, and she couldn’t sleep at night because of her medicine-induced seizures and full-volume playlist.

Some lessons learned on this crazy train
Lesson #1 ~ What can we rely on?

At dinner, her sister commented that we must be angry, and we replied truthfully that we were not because we haven’t lost anything, not really, and we gained a great deal from Aubree. And inside there is definitely a dear, lovely person with potential, one that did shine through, despite her desperate need for attention, despite her mental illness.

Jim put it this way yesterday when he spoke to the Sangha:

“Although everything we knew about Aubree was wrong, the love and compassion she brought out of me was true. I had no idea I had these reserves of patience in me and could, for example, survive happily on so little sleep! And therefore I don’t regret it. For me, Aubree was an emanation of all the stages of the path from precious human life, death, and the fears of lower rebirth all the way through to love, compassion, and patience. And now I am learning the greatest lesson of all, the hallucinatory, deceptive nature of samsara. Dharma now is also what is healing any hurt I have.”

Both Jim and Karin have emerged as Bodhisattvas in my book. Their Sangha is impressed with them.

For us

Buddhas emanate whatever we need, and Aubree did bring out the best in us so who knows who she is. Jim quoted the verse from the mind-training teachings:

Even if someone I have helped
And of whom I had great hopes
Nevertheless harms me intentionally
May I see him as my holy Spiritual Guide.

We have lost nothing, even if Aubree has. She has taught us much. As one friend puts it, Aubree was “for us”.

truthSo, other than the wisdom that sees right through it all, including the “polluted memories” as someone sadly put it, what can we rely upon in this crazy mixed up world of illusion? (I address that a bit in this article.) We can rely upon love and compassion. And honesty (see below). We can rely upon the Dharma Jewel of Lamrim.

As Aubree earnestly texted me herself a few months back:

“If negative actions occur in this life despite trying to go for refuge and show compassion, can a precious human life be maintained?”

Even if this is the weirdest route to finding a Spiritual Guide and Dharma that I have ever seen, I am praying that some of the Dharma Aubree professed and seemed to love really did go in, and that it will help her now.

How could you be so stupid? …

… someone at his work asked Jim. Were we duped? Yes, most heartily. Are we embarrassed? Yes, maybe a little. But that was an Oscar-winning performance. She had actual seizures for hours on end. She went blue in the face. She was skin and bone. She held her body differently for days on end, faltered on her legs, talked in a strained way, and so on. Fifteen years ago she pulled another stunt and managed to dupe a whole team of care-workers including a psychologist. And embarrassment doesn’t hurt us. But being mistaken is okay if our hearts are true and we come to realize our mistake. Now we can all work on our wisdom.

In Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang talks about someone driving in the wrong direction to London and suddenly realizing he has been wrong all along. Finding out about Aubree was one of those heart-stopping moments, WHAT??! Have we really been on this crazy train for two years?

But in fact we have been on a crazy train since beginningless time. As Geshe-la says, when this man realizes he has made a serious mistake, he turns back, and:

… hopefully follows the correct road to London. In a similar way, before realizing emptiness we are following incorrect paths… At present we believe that whatever appears to our mind is truly existent and then we follow the paths of cyclic existence.

It is past time we all got off this crazy train. As Geshe-la says:

We shall know that hitherto we have been completely misled and mistaken. We shall realize that what appeared to us, what we apprehended, and the attitudes we developed were all completely wrong. Then, hopefully, we will begin to follow the path to liberation, the path that really does lead to peace and happiness.

Lesson # 2 ~ Hold space

This drama has increased my will to get into my heart every day and let all the elaborations fall away. Ideally we can learn over time to abide in our very subtle mind mixed with the nature of ultimate truth — bliss and emptiness, Mahamudra. There’s a beautiful line about this in Vajrayogini Tantra:

Then the youth of my mind, exhausted by its elaborations,
Came to rest in the forest hut beyond expression.

Do we not live these days in an overstimulated world of so many false appearances bombarding us daily? Special effects, political echo chambers, virtual reality, video games, all those iSomethings, AI robots, Pokémon Go, self-seeking lies, idle gossip, FOMO, etc, etc, etc. These days, we apparently spend 10+ hours on our screens, much of that precious time sucked into a made-up world one way or another.

But we need peace. We can’t be happy without it. Excited, maybe…  but happy? No. We need to hang out at least some of our time in that forest hut. At the very least we need to allow our otherwise endless distractions to subside through breathing meditation to access the natural peace, clarity, and stillness of our own minds. We need to identify with and enjoy our vast and profound true nature, our Buddha nature. For this to happen, at least a little meditation regularly is crucial.

And this is not just for ourselves. As one friend puts it, we need to “hold space” for everyone. Become a refuge, a Sangha Jewel.

Why instead use the few remaining months we have left to seek out more confusion and trickery? What’s the point?

Lesson # 3 ~ Be honest, always

It is not worth adding extra elaborations to samsara. Better to be scrupulously honest, not deliberately deceiving others by lying. We are all already in a web of deception, so please let’s not make it worse.6. in a time of universal deceit

Our self-protective minds of self-grasping and self-cherishing already have a tendency to weave little lies just to sustain the illusion of a non-existent self, both for ourselves and for others. Sometimes we know we are doing it, sometimes we don’t. Aubree just took this fake identity to a whole new level.

Gotta stop stirring. Some slander is true to utter, and some is false (see Joyful Path). Either way, if our words turn people against each other they are to be avoided. We need to talk about others’ good qualities rather than their faults, see the best in them, bring out the best.

So much of our conversation is gossip and hyperbole! We don’t need to keep talking nonsense with no wish to help others (namely, idle chatter.) We are already wrapped in nonsense.

I find it interesting that these 3 of the 4 non-virtuous actions of speech explained by Buddha (see Joyful Path) — lying, slander, and idle gossip – all have something to do with deceiving or at best distracting each other. Harmony is key to happiness, and distrust kills it. Avoiding these negative verbal actions is especially important in our spiritual communities.

Postscript

Thank you for getting this far. As Aubree once requested: “If you guys want to post photos some place, please do not tag me and if you use names, please be careful.  As you know, my family is crazy and I can’t have things on my webpage.” For different reasons, to really protect the innocent, I have changed all names and withheld all photographic evidence. And, not for the first time, I request your prayers for poor Aubree and her confused and reeling family. But these are different prayers.

 

 

“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?!”

af1qippowwd73fe2ltchtew15zmgfnuf1crw5xq6f7fei
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.

Where can I find you?

patti-and-schoolchildrenPatti Joshua has “brought hope, freedom, and inner peace to minds that didn’t believe that hope and freedom were possible,” according to a Buddhist monk in South Africa. She helped supply clean water to many rural communities over many years, and in the last year alone created 280 meditation classes at 27 rural schools all around Zululand, holding 2,100 sessions with 225 educators and no fewer than 11,039 learners. I hope you have a few minutes to watch this powerful video.

 

This video has been shown to principals at other schools in South Africa and opened the door for the healing power of meditation to be also introduced at those schools. ~ Kadampa teacher in South Africa

Patti has inspired me since I first learned about her work. I want to become a Bodhisattva like her, I really want to be like her. A devoted disciple of Geshe Kelsang, she said of the book Transform Your Life, especially the chapter on Accepting Defeat and Offering the Victory:

I tried to practice it and it worked. Incredible patience, love and compassion came out of it.

She then “used these amazing teachings from Geshe-la on Transform Your Life” in schools, rural communities, prisons — discovering that even with those “very ill with HIV, they realized they can still be happy, happiness from within.”trumpet.JPG

According to the same Buddhist monk: “The results of the school project have been swift and encouraging, with teachers, students, headmasters, and district officials all deeply inspired by what they have learned from the precious Dharma appearing in their lives in the form of Mam Patti and the beautiful Kadam Dharma from Venerable Geshe Kelsang in Transform Your Life.”

After a teaching on the Life of Buddha miles from anywhere, one little boy put his hand up … and, wanting to know more, he asked urgently,

Where can I find you?

Can you imagine having a life of such meaning, where you bring so much hope to others that they want to know how they can find you again? Spectacles held together with a paper clip, Patti’s life has been yet infinitely rich.

And the thing is, I have the same Spiritual Guide and exactly the same teachings, and there is no reason why I cannot do what Patti has done. I believe the same is true for you.

In Meaningful to Behold, Geshe-la says:

Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in the West as well as in the East.


“My heart will grow and grow until it fills the whole world.” ~ Ntuthuko

On September 28th, Patti was killed in a tragic road accident on her way to Richards Bay.

Here is another powerful video showing just what we have lost. Like Tessa, however, another of Venerable Geshe-la’s incredible disciples taken from our world too soon, I believe that Patti will now always be a light for the path.

Pay it forward

At her transference of consciousness puja on Friday, a teacher in South Africa told beautiful stories of her life, and said:

patti-black-and-whitePatti is greatly admired, respected, and loved by so many people in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, and around the world. She was a kind mother, daughter, wife, grandmother, mentor, teacher and Sangha friend to thousands of people. Her passing away is a poignant reminder that we all have to die and have no idea about when our death will come. The best way to honour Patti’s life is to embody the principles of joyful and loving kindness that she lived by, and to keep in mind “I may die today.”

And, as her family put it:

Yesterday we lost our mom…. Our hope is that you take the love she shared with you and pay it forward.

I realized earlier that I have no idea how old Patti is, and I couldn’t care less. She is timeless. Age can neither defy nor define a Bodhisattva, any more than can the sufferings of sickness, death, or rebirth. For she or he is a hero at any age, always a son or daughter of the Buddhas in line for the throne of enlightenment.

A true Bodhisattva

Here is what one good friend of Patti told me:

Mama Patti Joshua, a true Bodhisattva Heroine, a beautiful example of the practice of Dharma, an unwavering dedicated friend to everyone, especially the communities in rural Zululand and beyond, her inspiration lives on in all the thousands of hearts she touched, nurtured and guided. 

Patti translating into Zulu.jpgAnyone who had the good fortune to meet Patti would understand from just a little time spent with this very special lady that she was there for others. Her kind, wise and compassionate ways had a depth that could pacify, heal, encourage; and in a just a few words, or a gentle look from her, there would be hope and strength in the hearts of those she was touching. Whenever we spoke of Patti in our Centres here in South Africa, our minds would turn to Mother Tara — swift, kind, selfless, a liberator from sorrow, Patti is all the above and we are all deeply inspired and our hearts touched by the actions of our own venerable lady. 

Patti worked tirelessly under the most uncertain of conditions with very little external resources, rural Africa is no playground for us spoilt urbanites, we would snap, turn to jelly. With her tremendous faith in Geshe-la and her teachers, and the power of Kadam Dharma, nothing was an obstacle for her. Her patient acceptance could absorb any situation, transforming it into a beautiful smile on her face, her eyes shining brightly through her glasses held together by a paper clip, she always had a plan. She had to, with hardly any money to pay for things, she depended on the kindness of others, such faith, and through her ocean of inner wealth she accomplished so much in her community and beyond. Quiet, yet everyone knew about her, gentle yet everyone appreciated her out-of-the-ordinarypower, loving and determined. When you were with Patti, you could feel she was focusing on your potential, drawing that out of you, gently, peacefully creating a vision together – you were always encouraged by her graceful presence.

She always had space in her heart for one more — one more community, one more person, one more class, one more child to hold, one more person to try to feed, one more person to encourage — her heart could take them all, almost naturally, without a huff or a puff, or a what about me, it wasn’t about her. Everyone was a part of her family.

We pray that this work may continue in some form, for Patti’s presence here is deeply missed. 

Always space in her heart for one more

If we exchange our self with others, we will always have space in our heart for one more. patti-tribute-to-ven-geshe-laAnd we will get good things done. Compare this to self-cherishing, where we are consumed with one person, ourselves, and which has got us precisely nowhere since beginningless time. There is a beautiful verse in Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, which Patti seemed to exemplify:

Since throughout beginningless time until now, the root of all my suffering has been           my self-cherishing mind,
I must expel it from my heart, cast it afar, and cherish only other living beings.

As another friend put it:

She always seemed to be doing everything for others all at once, and all of it effortlessly, without any drama or fuss.

The object of both our self-grasping ignorance and our self-cherishing is the same – the patti-with-small-groupself that I normally perceive. Self-grasping grasps it as existing, and self-cherishing thinks that it is most important. But that self does not exist! Which explains why self-grasping and self-cherishing are doomed to failure, every time. Far better, and far more sane, to follow Patti’s example instead.

So I made myself a promise today. Whenever I notice that I am starting to feel sorry for myself, for whatever reason, I am going to try to remember Patti and the thousands of people who loved her with good reason. That is one way to pay it forward. And then one day all of our epitaphs might also say:

Where can I find you?!

Funeral

Patti’s funeral was held on Saturday in Eshowe, and the obituary is now in the comments below. A website is going to be set up for tributes and I will link to it. Please feel free to write in the comments of this article too.

Acknowledgments

Thank you to the 2 close friends of Mam Patti in South Africa who co-wrote this article with me.

 

A disciple passes

Tessa now.jpgTessa Logan died today at 5am GMT. She has left a lot of friends (I am just one of them) and a very kind, decent family, including a ninety-year-old mum who has nursed her for a long time. Her tiny “bird-like” mom, with the same mop of hair as Tessa, stroked her daughter’s now bald head so gently three times to allow her consciousness to leave through the crown because she knew that this is what she would have wanted.

It is not possible to do Tessa justice in one article so I’m not going to try. (Though I think it’d be lovely if you wanted to contribute in the comments.) Truncated “facts”: She was tessa-young-1one of Geshe Kelsang’s earliest disciples, meeting him at Manjushri Centre in 1979, and a reassuring, steady presence in our tradition. Bold and smart, she helped organize Manjushri Centre in the early days, she helped organize Festivals, she helped in Tharpa Publications, and over the years she taught a lot in the UK and in America, including Saraha Center in San Francisco where I once spent the best three weeks with her. People loved her. Tributes have been flowing in all day to describe with gratitude how much she meant to people with her discerning kindness, clear teachings, and reassuring constancy.

In the last five years she inspired a lot of us with her no worries attitude and growing strength in the face of the relentless ups and downs of her cancer. She seemed to be practicing everything she had spent the decades learning at the feet of her Spiritual Guide, turning what could have been a disastrous five years into something else entirely. She may not have been perfect all the time, she had stuff like the rest of us; but through her reliance and patience she was getting closer, and it was actually a joy to watch. Patience seems to be an essential practice for all of us since we all get fed up from time to time; and for me Tessa’s example has been an illustration of its power.

And I am by no means alone in this experience, but even in the midst of grueling treatments (and she had many), she would always ask about me with genuine interest, find out how I was in detail if she could, always have time for that, for others. She would praise me for whatever she could praise me for, for transforming even the slightest adversity, even though she was the one who was always being the heroine. I tessa-lynn-margaretwould laugh with her about her deflections, she was pretty much always up for a laugh.

I sort of think that if Tessa does not now end up in the Pure Land, there is no hope for the rest of us. I am kind of hoping she might send us a sign. Please help wend her on her way there with a prayer.

I knew Tessa for 35 years. And now Tessa has gone. Lekma said that the body lying there this morning was unrecognizable and certainly not her. Not even hers, it never was. Like a hair pulled from butter, her very subtle mind has left this body and this world to experience the dream-like appearances of the next life. It happens to all of us. It is as Shantideva says, we become nothing. Tess is like a rainbow that has passed. When we die, our now seemingly solid lives will be marked by Facebook likes, comments, and emojis too, before people quickly move on. However, me and Lekma agreed that her life will not easily be forgotten. Senior students of the Spiritual Guide are very precious, an object of refuge, for are they not real Sangha from whom we can continue to receive help? Just like the disciples of other great Masters in the past, tessa-meditatingpart of the ongoing lineage of blessings, Tessa will still encourage me on my own journey out of suffering and into the Guru’s heart.

So, if you feel like sharing how Tessa touched your life, write as much as you like below, it could be inspiring for the rest of us.

Transference of consciousness puja (powa) will be held for Tessa at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre this Saturday at 7.30pm, everyone is welcome.

 

Good night, sweet Prince

U turn on the telly and every other story
Is tellin’ U somebody died ~ Sign o the Times

PrinceI wonder if celebrities everywhere are getting nervous?! But of course it was forever thus. None of us gets out of here alive, famous or otherwise. As a friend put it, rather well I thought: “We all have a shelf life. When our expiration date is up, that’s it. … We are all at the big funeral everyday.”

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life.

I liked Prince but wasn’t intending to write anything about his death – that is, until I saw this arresting Facebook post by the same person who wrote this last article:

What I Learned from Prince’s Death

* Death can come suddenly at any time – no one is immune.

* Fame means nothing at the time of death.

* Everybody loves you when you’re dead, but it’s too late then.

* It’s only when you’re dead that you would realise from everyone’s reactions what your life meant to them, but you’ll never see it.

Prince 1* Obviously, you don’t exist in a post-you world; everything and everyone has to go on without you, and they do, no matter how indispensable you think you are.

* When you’re dead, from your point of view, what you did means nothing. It’s like a dream that has passed.

* Whether you have lots of talent and are famous, or not, death treats everyone the same: extinction of ‘you’.

* Death shows there is no real meaning in this ordinary human life: everything you were ends instantly, unexpectedly and finally.

* Your wealth means nothing as it becomes someone else’s – even your clothes aren’t yours.

* Life is an unfinished story because it ends for you but not for everyone you know.

This got me thinking. And wanting to add something to these points in particular: “Everybody loves you when you’re dead but it’s too late then” and “When you’re dead, from your point of view, what you did means nothing. It’s like a dream that has passed.”

How is it that we keep affecting people after we’re dead? And I mean not just emotionally, but karmically? Prince is dead, yes, but he has not inherently ceased and still has a connection with the beings of this world, whose love and well wishes are having some effect on his mental continuum – that’s how transference of consciousness and other prayers for the deceased work too. His music will still give pleasure – so, providing he had the intention to give people happiness, he will still create some merit, or good karma, from it.

I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain.

According to Van Jones, his friend and a CNN commentator, Prince was a humanitarian but wasn’t allowed to talk about his numerous good deeds as he was a Jehovah’s witness. So news of these is just emerging now.

It’s not all over

Prince 3The dream that was Prince’s life is ended, for sure, but it is not inherently over, any more than yesterday or even the moment before this one has inherently ceased. Our life is a cause leading to an effect, not to non-existence. Of course there is no more access to his body or gross personality or the identity “Prince”, but Prince was only ever mere imputation anyway. We are still all connected to that living being, just as we are always interdependent with all living beings. We cannot separate ourselves out from others and they in turn are affected by everything we do. As Geshe Kelsang puts it:

It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

And this truth spans life and death. We are each waves made up entirely of one another and all arising from the ocean of clear light, the very subtle mind. (More on this later.)

This is why love is the answer, as it is the natural response to reality; and why what Prince did does mean something, not nothing, though he most likely won’t remember. (As for the fame part, I agree that fame is meaningless after we die, which makes it meaningless now too, unless we are using it for good.)

Creativity

We need to make our lives count with our mental actions, for sure, because they are the most creative actions – with our thoughts we create our world. But we also make our lives count with physical and verbal actions, leaving something intentionally helpful and uplifting behind us too if we can, such as a temple or other tangible improvement in others’ lives. Geshe Kelsang says, for example, when talking about helping at Kadampa centers, “We are working for future generations.”

Compassion is an action word with no boundaries.

How we use our creativity as modern Buddhists is still new territory over here in the West – in Tibet, there was no art outside of painting Buddhas, no music outside of spiritual chanting, and so on; the culture was entirely different. But over here, to “remain natural while changing our aspiration” may mean that between us we need to hijack today’s culture to our own and others’ spiritual ends as much as we can. That’s why I am hijacking some of Prince’s lyrics and quotes for this article 🙂

The Forgetting Time.jpgMy take on it so far — and I am totally open to ideas in the comments — is this. The ultimate spiritual goal of human life is attaining enlightenment for the sake of all living beings because that is the way to fulfill all our own and others’ purposes. That is our main job, our main creativity. And making Buddha’s teachings accessible to as many people as possible by helping meditation centers and so on also seems important because if we don’t do it, who will, plus it is powerful karma. Within that, with an increasingly good motivation and skill, we can embrace and enjoy our creativity however it manifests — eg, film-making, painting, music, song-writing — and channel it into helping others. A lot of people are doing this already, it is I think inevitable; and I also think it will make Buddhist meditation relevant to more and more people — bring it into the global mainstream as an idea whose time has come. For example, this readable new novel, The Forgetting Time, is bringing the idea of past and future lives to a huge audience that possibly would never have considered it otherwise.

New world needs spirituality that will last. 

Good night and thank you

Wishing Prince a swift rebirth in the Pure Land surrounded by the celestial music of offering gods and goddesses. Or, to hijack the Bard:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Ashes to ashes, dust to stardust

Hunky Dory
Click on image for soundtrack to accompany this article.

I should not have been surprised, I suppose, but when David Bowie died I quickly realized that it wasn’t just me who felt so connected to him.

People reported being “devastated”. One old school friend of mine cried all day. Another whom I’d called on urgent business on Skype just stared at me blankly and said he was in shock. This kind of thing has been happening all over the world these past few days!

I had a dream about him a long time ago that’s remained with me my whole life – he was a fellow Buddhist in my dream, and a deep friend, and I felt I had always known him. But I can see now that this is not remotely a unique experience! Are any of our experiences ever unique?

So, possibly unparalleled by any other musician or artist of my lifetime, David Bowie got to people. A lot of people. Just a cursory glance at the internet can show you that. For everyone wants a part of him, everyone seems to have a part of him. And with all the love directed his way, it looks like we are part of him, too. We are all parts of one totality that includes David Bowie! And, therefore, it would seem, each other.

subtle impermanenceWe are all made of stardust.

None of us really belong to just one person. How can we, when we belong to everyone? And in the unbounded cosmos of time, each of us has spent lifetimes with each other. So,

Fill your heart with love today … Love will clean your mind and make it freeeee.

And at the same time:

The things that happened in the past only happened in your mind. Only in your mind.

Starman influenced my teenage years, as I described here; but clearly not only mine if you saw the Brixton mass sing-along of Starman in an impromptu celebration of their local hero.

Here is a small smattering of what people have been thinking aloud on the internet:

Soundtrack of my life

Thank you so for all the beauty, creativity and inspiration you brought into the world. You definitely provided the soundtrack to most of my teenage years and your passing is like the loss of an old friend.

It is strange to mourn for someone you never knew, but the sense of loss feels the same as if it were someone close. Somehow he weaved his way into so many people’s lives in so many ways.

So very unique. I can’t put my finger on it-but man something about him just shined.

Something is missing, something I can’t explain, as if a part of my life was ripped from me.

“His music was immortal, so we thought he was too.” That pretty much sums up my feelings for the great David Bowie…my past 40+ years of music, my hero!

Visionary

This video shows that Bowie was pretty prescient, 15 years ago, on how the internet would affect the world (and how it’s a life form from outer space ;-)) Bowie was indeed a visionary. He saw the impact of the internet, especially in music and art; and he reveled in the interdependence between the artist and the audience. Perhaps this joy in connecting contributed to his alien mystique combined with his everyman approachability – you felt you could hang out with this rock god in your local pub, and indeed many people did.

As he said at the end of at least one concert:

God you are a great bunch of people, you really are. It’s been a pleasure playing for you.

He inspired and still inspires creativity. A friend of mine wrote and played music in a band for years largely because of him. Someone else just said: “Bowie’s parting album has got right into my skin. So much that it’s re-inspired me to start composing again after a long and empty void.” Stories like this are everywhere. As my talented filmmaker friend Julie said earlier today, we all have our own forms of creativity and means to connect meaningfully with others, and Bowie made it safe and possible for untold numbers of people to express themselves as they wanted to.

And I have got way too much on at the moment to find the time to write this article, but I find I have written it anyway.

Here is a lovely story, told properly and in length here, and now paraphrased probably poorly by me:

In 1989 a young student was sitting in his room feeling sorry for himself when a mummy walked into his room and asked if he knew where he might find a hotel? The answer was No.

“Oh, that’s OK,” the mummy said. “But could you at least tell me where I could get a decent cup of tea?”

I began to sob.

“No,” I cried. “We only have Bigelow!”

He placed his elegant hand on my shoulder and said, kindly:

“Hey, sad kid, it’s OK, don’t feel this way, you are a beautiful comet in the infinite universe.”

The mummy then peeled the bandages off his face, and stayed for a cup of tea. The rest, as they say, and for this author, was history. As he said:

… the little nuggets of weirdness inside us just needed a divine spark so we could become the celestial children we were always meant to be.

“I didn’t know David Bowie could die …”
David Bowie and skull
To be or not to be?

… as someone said on Facebook. And as someone else added:

I think that’s part of why his death hurts so much. Because for my generation, it is the loss of our youth. It’s a harsh reminder that for all of us time is truly short and that no matter how hard you try to hang on to it, you cannot stop its cold march forward. Someone like Bowie, who has been there through most of our lives, who seemingly goes on and on, we find is mortal after all. It gives us a reality check, it brings our lives into perspective as its shows us, with a hammer blow, that we are all mortal too.

“Look up here, I’m in heaven.”

I don't know where i'm going from hereAt the same time, I find his death to be strangely hopeful – if we transform our minds, who knows what adventures we can look forward to upon passing from this impure, often painful life. Death doesn’t have to be bad providing we go toward it with wide-open eyes, having been aware of its reality our whole life.

In a touching tribute on Facebook, Annie Lennox says:

The bejewelled remains of Major Tom lie dormant in a dust coated space suit…
It leaves me breathless.
You must see it to believe it…
He knew…
He could see through it all.

The jeweled skull in Blackstar is reminiscent of Tantric bone implements, where it symbolizes impermanence, of course, but also the transcendence of an impure body and mind (Major Tom’s?!) through the exalted wisdom of bliss and emptiness. The clear light of death, if transformed into the clear light of bliss, has the power to destroy the hallucinations of samsara once and for all.Tibetan jewelled skullcup

In the Lazarus video, the artist seems to retire back into a CS Lewisian wardrobe, while Bowie is transported to another realm:

This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me.

The man who fell to earth is hopefully returning to the Pure Land from whence he came. “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” Maybe he is. For he did die on Vajrayogini Day, and one of the principal Vajrayogini practices is being transported to Keajra Heaven, the “higher sky” above us; she has that power. Just as our ordinary mind can go to the moon just by thinking about it, so our un-ordinary mind Vajrayogini can go to the Pure Land just by thinking about it. We can go to the Pure Land out of an intense renunciation for the impure world of suffering, yet also remain here to help others. We can sort of be in two places at once. Be in the world, but not of it. Be practicing our spiritual path and helping others as if we have already arrived at our destination. And that feels wonderful, quite inexpressibly wonderful.

Just how that works is explained in the special powa (transference of consciousness) practice called The Uncommon Yoga of Inconceivability – a practice I love because it is mind-blowing in all the right ways. If you have a chance to attend Kadam Morten’s guided Highest Yoga Tantra retreat on this at Manjushri KMC starting next week, I really hope you take it, and discover your superhuman powers. (If you don’t have Highest Yoga Tantra empowerments yet, they are coming up in October in Canada.) From the Bowie song I listened to a thousand times aged around 14 to 16, identifying with every line (which explains a lot):

I’m not a prophet or a stone age man, just a mortal with the potential of a superman. I’m living on. ~ Quicksand

Bowie seemed quintessentially in this world but not of it, both from outer space with those eyes, and an impeccable gentleman. Whom he was or whom he was not, we may not know for some time. For, when all is said and done, who are any of us?

The unbearable lightness of being

double rainbowIn New York City, there were double rainbows photographed all over on the morning of January 10. And it turned out they coincided with Bowie’s passing. As well as with Vajrayogini self-initiation practice at KMC NYC

Bowie was interested in Tibetan Buddhism around 1965-1967, the very early days. He said of that time: “I was within a month of having my head shaved, taking my vows, and becoming a monk.” He was, he said, looking for salvation. As we know, he found another way to inspire the world instead; but you can still sense many liberation themes running through his work.

According to The New York Times, the song people are listening to most after his death is “Heroes”.

skullcup for a king
Skullcup for a king

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing, will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day.

One day at a time, maybe. King Heruka and Queen Vajrayogini can beat delusions, ordinary conceptions, and all suffering; and is this not what it really means to be a hero?

We can be heroes, forever and ever,
What d’you say?

Blackstar

David Bowie left Blackstar as a parting gift, just short days before he died. And everyone seems to be listening. Someone said:

Blackstar is playing on repeat in every country on the planet .. isn’t that incredible? It’s stirring, it’s sad, it’s joyous, it’s soulful, it’s haunting, it’s timeless, it’s true genius …

Bowie lazarusApparently, a black star is a transitional phase that is created when a collapsing star is close to reaching singularity, where the star’s influence becomes infinite and spacetime itself ceases to exist within it. Although the star at this point has died, it has been transformed into something else altogether and its energy will continue to be released indefinitely…

We are all the same, we are all constantly transforming into something else; and we all have infinite potential. And meanwhile almost every physical element on Earth was formed at the heart of a star.

Shape-shifting

We are pretty darned attached to our bodies, thinking “Mine!!!” and even “Me!!!” When, although we have this illusion of separateness, all that’s happening is that a little bit of stardust comes together for a while and then it all disperses, and our consciousness is once again released. Hopefully to the omniscient wisdom of the Dharmakaya, if we focus properly.

man who sold the worldBowie was always hard to pin down, never feeling quite as solid or real as other great artists. His shape-shifting and androgyny helped people let go of grasping at these fragments — these bodies, minds, and selves — as absolutes, which is the ignorance that keeps us trapped in one dimension. Omniscient wisdom sees the totality of all things existing interdependently, which allows us to fly anywhere and everywhere. And I am reminded of Buddha Tara’s excellent quote when, in a previous life, accosted by a sexist monk who condescendingly says she should pray for a male rebirth next time, she stamps her foot and says:

In this world there is no man, there is no woman.
There is no person, self, or consciousness.
Man and woman are merely imputed and have no essence.
Thus, the minds of worldly beings are mistaken.

We can all be Heruka and Vajrayogini, they are the same nature. Once Venerable Geshe-la was talking to me about the importance of female practitioners when, all of a sudden, he got up from his chair and “pretended” to be a woman. Right in front of me he transformed himself into a Dakini.

Rising from the dead

Tomorrow, 4 days after his death, I half-wonder if Bowie will arise like Lazarus and say his death was a fake, an elaborate publicity stunt?! His death may be mere appearance to mind, a fake in that respect, like all our deaths; but I don’t think Bowie was ever into stunts for their own sake – his impressive dying enterprise shows he was a genuine artist. Blackstar is what he wanted to do when he was dying, it means something.

Knowledge comes with death’s release. ~ Quicksand

I have of course no idea what his motivations in life were, but it seems he didn’t care about fame for its own sake, he even refused a CBE and a knighthood (easy to say, “Ah yes, I would refuse them too, I didn’t do all this for that!”; but would I refuse, when the invitations actually plopped through the letterbox?!)

I just read this a day after I wrote this article:

“David Bowie’s body has reportedly been privately cremated in New York following his death at the age of 69. In line with his wishes, no family or friends were present at the ceremony in the city where he had lived for much of his life.”

So, he even died in the manner of the old Yogis. All alone.

Frank Hatch, a local legend

David Bowie was not the only one to pass on January 10th. An old friend Frank Hatch taken Nov 13 2015of mine, Frank Hatch, died at the same time, which, knowing Frank, may be no accident, particularly as it was Vajrayogini Day too, and he liked her and Heruka a lot.

Like Bowie, you’d be forgiven for thinking Frank was supposed to be immortal. When I first met him, at Manjushri Centre about 20 years ago, he weighed about 120 pounds. He was fading away physically (never mentally!), but new drugs then surprisingly saved him. He lived with HIV for more than 20 years, only to be diagnosed with late-stage prostate cancer in 2010.

Frank jumping off a rope swing with a caption
“Mol, let’s hang back from the pod so we can eddy out real quick and jump off the rope swing before anyone realizes we’re gone.”

But he kept going. Frank lived every single day to its fullest – one of the last things he did was guide a 16-day rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. I wrote this article on rebirth with Frank in mind a few years ago, when he was ambivalent about dying; but it seems he died very well when it came to it.

So to both David Bowie and Frank Hatch, I would like to say, “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too.”

Goodbye, Starmen, thank you for falling to earth, don’t go too far.

“I am the master of my fate” ~ a tribute to Nelson Mandela

SOUTH AFRICA MANDELAA light has gone out in the world.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 − 5 December 2013)

I like millions of others around the world am very sad that such a great being departed today. He is leaving a hole in too many hearts to count. President Obama said it the other day:

He is personal hero. But I don’t think I am unique in that regard. He is a hero for the world.

For decades, Mandela has been one of my greatest heroes – a shining example of how it really is possible to be a very good person, full of patience and love, and yet because of this, not in spite of it, able to effect enormous changes. He showed a different paradigm for dealing with conflict that resonated around the world.

I was trying to think today of anyone else in my lifetime who has been so universally well regarded and appreciated for their good qualities. I can’t think of anyone. My friend’s face dropped when I told her, and I knew it’d be the same if I told anyone else in the Denver coffee house where I heard the news. Around the world, I believe, the news, “Have you heard that Nelson Mandela has just died?”, is being met only with dismay.

President Zuma called him “the father of democracy” in South Africa. I believe he was a bona fide Bodhisattva in our midst, an obvious guiding light on the world stage, who managed to pull off the seeming impossible in South Africa and inspire people everywhere to behave just that little bit better.

I could talk about his good qualities all day. I hope and believe that others will be rejoicing in him today in the global media, in a thousand more qualified tributes–but I would like to join in. I sometimes think that the best way not to miss someone so important to you is to try and adopt his or her good qualities as your own. If everyone who loves him took on even a fraction of Madiba’s qualities, the world would transform overnight. For me, amongst many good qualities, it was Mandela’s genuine patient acceptance and strength that inspires me the most and that I would most like to possess myself.

A tribute from a South African friend

nelson mandela fear quoteI had quite a number of close South African relatives and friends. A good friend teaches Buddhism in Cape Town. My key ring is the South African flag in the shape of a miniature sandal that I bought in Langa. I visited a few years ago, finding Cape Town to be the most beautiful and yet most incongruous place – the stunning natural beauty sitting side by side with the appalling aids-abetted poverty of Langa and other townships. I shared a birthday with Nelson Mandela. I named a beloved cat for him. I have some connection with South Africa, but an old friend of mine has even closer karma with it as he was born and adopted there. I want him to do the honors, therefore, and include here something he said about Mandela in the context of patience some years back.

The patience of non-retaliation

To travel to South Africa for my gap year before university I had to earn money, so I took a job in a hospital’s geriatric ward as a “Domestic” with the uniquely British combined responsibilities of scrubbing toilets and making tea.

The ward felt like the asylum of lost hopes, where thrown-away people who had often led stellar lives were living out their end days lonely, lost and incapacitated. Several had amputated limbs, thus condemned to hospital life despite their active minds. And then there was the cheerful teenage me, about to go on a dazzling African adventure with my whole life still ahead, jovially offering them cups of tea. More than once they threw the tea on the floor, saying it was awful, deliberately trying to make my life difficult. Yet I was curious to note at the time that I never became annoyed with them. Why did their actions not upset me when the far less ornery behavior of people elsewhere irritated me all the time? It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.

I see difficult people and the suffering they cause as apparently unpleasant, yet actually useful, because without them I could not practice patience. I want to become more patient because it brings me great peace of mind and helps me make spiritual progress. Who will help me to increase my patience? The people causing my difficulties! Actually, they exist for my benefit. They behave appallingly because I require and want them to for my spiritual well-being. I owe them.

mandela in prisonThe people who inspire me most are those who transcend seemingly unforgiveable grievances and end up helping millions of people – heroes like Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and my own Teacher Geshe Kelsang (who had to flee from his homeland). I was born in South Africa about the time Mandela was sent to break rocks in Robben Island, and I was 27 by the time he was released. Those first 27 years of my life felt like a really long time, and I would often wonder how “Madiba” was doing?

If anyone had a right and provocation to be angry, it was he. Yet he famously left the prison with a huge heart of forgiveness and love that saved an entire nation from a bloodbath. How did he do it? He said it was by patiently understanding that he was working for a task greater than himself.

He also had a huge sense of personal responsibility, as can be seen in the words of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus that helped him through the long years of captivity:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

To practice non-retaliation involves compassion, the wish for others to be free from their suffering and also its causes, delusions and negative karma. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. Negative karma refers specifically to the negative mental intentions that motivate each negative action we perform, and it is these intentions that sow the actual seeds for the experience of suffering. Think about how much negative karma angry minds and angry people create, thus sowing the seeds for intensely unpleasant experiences to manifest in their future. I don’t have to make it worse. young Nelson Mandela

Instead of thinking “This is an angry person,” we can think, “This is an unfortunate person who is being controlled by their enemy of anger.” By never seeing faults in people, Buddhas are able to maintain their love and compassion for them at all times. Anger is the enemy; the person is not. Compassion for them, not more anger, is the best response.

Perspective
Mandela quote about love
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

As a Buddhist, I too am trying to work for a task greater than myself – enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings. Suffering is all relative. As it says in Meaningful to Behold, we have experienced aeons of great suffering but it has not bought us any benefit. Now is different because we have a different perspective on what we are trying to get out of life:

We have the unique opportunity, by enduring comparatively insignificant suffering, to work for the benefit of others and thereby attain the supreme state of enlightenment.

We can therefore joyfully accept the hardships we face – which doesn’t mean gritting our teeth and putting up with it, but actually accepting fully and happily, without judgment or disapproval, whatever arises. We can do this if we are confident that we can learn to use absolutely any situation to train our minds in wisdom and compassion, thus bringing an end to suffering.

In Mandela’s broad smiles as he left the prison in friendship with his captors, I find that he discovered this truth.

Mandela quote about freedom of othersAs a Buddhist, I too am striving for a superior intention that takes personal responsibility for freeing all my kind mothers from their suffering and its causes. I have therefore learned from Nelson Mandela and seen in his actions, with my own eyes, how patience is possible if I keep this big perspective. And it was because of this patience, not in spite of it, that he also got everything done, as he could work toward getting everything done all the time without being derailed by anger. Patience is not a passive, doormat state of mind that leaves us standing there doing nothing. It is an active, dynamic, and immensely creative state of mind that enables us to accomplish all our tasks.

The greatest tribute

reacting to Nelson Mandela's death

My endless gratitude to you, Nelson Mandela.

Wherever you are now, I believe you will still be helping people. I am not worried about you, only the rest of us.

I don’t want to say goodbye. I have been dreading this day. Everyone is so sad. Zuma said “We need him with us.” I agree. But as we cannot have him with us, we can at least let his inspiring qualities live on.

The greatest tribute I believe we can pay Nelson Mandela is to become more like him.

The sooner, the better.

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(Please feel welcome to leave your own tributes in the comments.)