Transference of consciousness at the time of death

I want to tell you a story. Not one that I’ve told very often.

AvalokiteshvaraI moved to Florida in November 1999, into an apartment with N, my then partner. The same month a couple moved into the apartment next door, Cheryl and Bob, who hailed from the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. We didn’t seem to have anything in common, but for whatever reason we all liked each other. Bob called us “the beautiful people.” And one day as I was watching him drink at some kind of social event, a strong sense washed over me, “I am supposed to be protecting him.”

I assumed this meant that at some point he’d get into Buddhism or meditation. Seemed to me that this was going to take a very long time as he was not remotely interested. But, hey, I could be patient. And I started to keep him in my prayers.

One evening the four of us went to a movie, the Green Mile. Bob became very agitated at the (admittedly disturbing) execution scenes, and several times fled the auditorium to smoke in the foyer. He said afterwards he didn’t know why he found it all so terrifying, he was used enough to violent movies.

Two days later, around 7am, we found a note pushed under our door. It said, simply:

“It is 5am. Bob has had a brain hemorrhage. Please come to Sarasota Memorial Hospital. I don’t know where to turn.”

Our friend Losang was staying with us at the time, so all three of us rushed over there.

We arrived at intensive care to a surreal encounter – Cheryl was hastening towards us with a face blotchy and red from tears, but right behind her walked Bob, who seemed completely fine …

We must have looked startled, for she quickly said, “This isn’t Bob. This is his twin brother Rick.”

Rick, a long-distance truck driver, could not bear to be in the same room as his brother. So Losang sat and talked with him in the waiting room. He helped him a lot that day.

When N and I entered Bob’s room, he was lying in bed with a huge blown-out bandaged head. As I greeted him, to everyone’s surprise he raised up from the pillow in my direction, as if trying to hear me.

So I guessed that he must still be able to hear things, even though he was supposedly in a deep coma.

WhatWillYouExperienceN sat quietly by his bed meditating and praying, and I sat the other side talking to Bob about going to the Pure Land. I asked Cheryl if he believed in Jesus and, hearing that he did, I guided him through a visualization of Jesus sitting above him and how he was going to Jesus’s heart through the crown of his head. I talked about heaven and what it was going to be like for him there. I basically guided him in the Buddhist transference of consciousness to a Pure Land (Tibetan: powa) practice, but using Jesus instead of Compassion Buddha Avalokiteshvara.

Cheryl was listening but still deeply distraught. So, leaving N by Bob’s bedside, I accompanied her outside for her cigarette break to encourage her that this was Bob’s time and it was important he didn’t see her upset. She could help him enormously, but she had to be strong and peaceful. Her own time for grief could come later. I explained about transference of consciousness, even though we’d never had a spiritual conversation before in our life, and described how she could help him do it. I suggested she tell him how much love there was all around him from holy beings and from her, and that she describe heaven for him, including all the things he loved seeing and doing. He need have no fear because he was going straight to Jesus’s heart, and from now on would always be happy and safe.

Bless Cheryl, for she listened attentively, and then did exactly this, talking to Bob tirelessly and with deep love for all the remaining hours of his life. The three of us had to leave for work, but we left her there at Bob’s bedside, and eight hours later he peacefully passed away. By all accounts, the room felt utterly blessed.

Rick was distraught, but Cheryl felt strangely okay, as if Bob had not really left. One day she saw white light at the end of her bed. She often felt as though he was communicating with her and trying to let her know that he was alright. This presence went on for a few weeks until, one day, her curiosity drove her to consult a medium. She said this was a first for her, doing something like this, for she had not previously given a lot of thought to life after death. Though I suspect she was always a deep thinker.

The medium was told nothing about Bob’s death nor about me. But this is what happened.

“I am hearing from someone called Bob, do you know him?” Cheryl nodded yes. “He is telling me something that I don’t understand, something about a sister. Shall I just repeat what he’s saying?” Cheryl nodded yes again.

“When Bob was dying, you were with him in the hospital. And there was a woman there you were close to, was it a sister? You both were helping him, telling him what to do. And he wants you to know something …

It worked.”

Cheryl is not given to drama and hyperbole. When she told me this afterwards, it was plain as day that Bob had made it to the Pure Land. Bob also went onto say that we had done everything right, that he was in a pure beautiful place, happy, with no more suffering. He said Cheryl need never worry about him again, and he thanked us both.

Present day

book-Living-Meaningfully-Dying-Joyfully-frntCheryl has gotten even kinder and more spiritual over the years. And this month, February 2018, she has just helped another fiancé, Mike, through the death process. (Perhaps this is why I’m finally sharing Bob’s story.) She wrote to me today of her own memories of those last hours with Bob, which she says she understands better now:

“In hindsight, I came into acceptance of his pending death, which helped his soul complete his transition journey in a peaceful, loving way. I was happy for him to release his body to rebirth to pure spirit … I think we have to put our own grief or situation aside and remember that this can be a wondrous and beautiful time for them. You can choose to be a part of that journey in a loving and peaceful manner.”

As for Mike’s death, she says:

“I am much more present today than I was all those years ago with Bob. I will share what happened with you soon. When I am very low and grieving, I go back to that experience because there was no sadness during that time … only peace and pure unconditional love.”

Please pray for Mike. And for everyone else who is dying (all of us). When the time comes, may we all have someone who can leave their own grief aside and help us die peacefully. May everyone have powa done for them.

It makes all the difference.

Helping each other to die well

Ever since that day in 1999, not surprisingly, I have had a lot of faith both in the importance of helping someone die well if possible, and, regardless of how people die, in the astonishing power of powa practice. I hope this has increased your confidence in all this too, because, as my teacher Geshe Kelsang has said, there is nothing kinder we can do for humans or for animals than to help them reach the Pure Land when they die.

You can find out more about transference of consciousness — as well as other ways to understand and transform your own and others’ death — in the book Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully.

 

Prostrating to the Buddha of Compassion

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is coming up on April 15, and I, along with a lot of Kadampa Buddhists in places around the world, tend to celebrate it with two days of Drop of Essential Nectar, sometimes known as Nyung Nä. This is a purification, prostration, and fasting retreat in conjunction with Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion.

It’s the only time of the year that we seem to engage in some physical asceticism — for two days, starting at dawn, we observe the eight Mahayana precepts, which include not eating after lunch and, for those who do the full fast, not eating or drinking at all on the second day. The hunger pangs are helpful for reminding us about the gazillions of people who don’t get enough to eat or drink on any day, ever.

1000-armed Avalokiteshvara
1000-armed Avalokiteshvara

I do like Nyung Nä, with its emphasis on keeping compassion and bodhichitta in our heart all day long, and the transcendent power of Avalokiteshvara, his thousand arms reaching out to everyone without exception. Also, I find prostrations fun. I do, I’m not making that up! So I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve been doing today in case you are under the impression that prostrations are just hard work. (If you haven’t read pages 116 onward in the book Great Treasury of Merit, by the way, there is a beautiful explanation of prostrations in there.)

Compassion and the lower realms

Whenever I am developing compassion and/or doing prostrations, I get myself out of the way first by remembering that the self I cherish doesn’t even exist. I am not my body, and I am not my mind — but take these away and I disappear (thankfully). That means I am free to lay down my boring burden of self-fixation and move into the vast expanse of everyone else.

Today during precepts I was meditating on the lower realms. I personally cannot tolerate even the slightest headache without popping two Advil, and am currently preoccupied with trying to navigate the bureaucracy of Obamacare before the looming deadline of April 15th as I fear any manner of human illnesses and accidents might empty out my bank account if I do not. However, human sufferings like these are a walk in the park compared with the unbearable sufferings of people in the hell realms. I read in some Lojong (mind-training) text recently that being stabbed 30 times in the hand with a spear does not even compare with a minute of suffering experienced by those in the black-line hell.

I know I don’t spend enough time thinking about people who have ended up in the hell realms, which is a shame because, when I do, it instantly gets everything into perspective. All rebirths are impermanent, and the realms of hell are nightmarish appearances to mind that have no more existence from their own side than this current life. But, and it is a big but, once someone lands up in hell, it takes an unfathomably long time to get out. The countless karmic appearances from lifetimes of negative actions don’t disappear overnight, and there is no refuge or chance to purify them; so it is like an interminable nightmare from which we cannot wake up.Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha

Meantime, people in the hungry ghost realm are perpetually hungry, thirsty, sad, and exhausted. Moreover, we know close up and personal what a bad time animals have from the struggles and powerlessness of the thousands we can see around us, and there are tragically far more animals in their own realm.

What “prostration” means

The Tibetan word for prostrations is “chag tsel” – ‘chag’ means sweeping away delusions, negative karma, and obstructions, and ‘tsel” means requesting all good qualities. I don’t think prostrations work if we are holding ourselves as unworthy or at a distance from enlightened beings – they work best when our faith recognizes our own Buddha nature clear light, and connects to the holy beings’ clear light Dharmakaya, knowing we will become just like them.

The sky is the limit

When prostrating, we don’t need to be small-minded, thinking that it is just me in one meaty body making one feeble little distracted prostration onto the carpet (oooh, look at that dust! … at least I’m getting some exercise …) in front of some image of Buddha. No, there is a great deal more going on than that! The sky is the limit! The higher sky of the Dharmakaya, that is.

First thing we are encouraged to do, along with our mind of faith and respect, is to think that from every pore of our body we manifest another body, which in turn manifests countless more, until the whole universe is filled with our bodies all making prostrations. Already some mind-expansion is going on and you’re going to have more fun. It is inspiring to think that you are already in a very pure space, as you are in the company of all enlightened beings, and you are prostrating to all of them.

Avalokiteshvara by Graham Dyer
Buddha Avalokiteshvara painted by Graham Dyer

I like to think that I am also in the company of everyone in all six realms, and that they are all prostrating along with me – and it can be helpful to start by focusing on specific people in my life who are currently experiencing suffering, believing they are next to me prostrating. For example, today I thought a lot about an old university friend and Buddhist artist Graham Dyer, who was just saying, “Those treacle tarts look nice” to his best friend in Grange bakery last Thursday when he dropped to the floor and died. (Please pray for him and his wife and two sons).

I also thought about the kittens I am fostering, who are going to have to go back into the smelly crowded shelter, which they will not like at all, to wait for a home. They are trapped in their bodies and environments — they cannot even open the door — and are always at the mercy of humans being nice to them. So I imagine them prostrating along with me, in human form or even in the aspect of a Buddha, purifying all their negativity and accumulating vast good karma and blessings, also emanating bodies from every pore of their bodies for maximum effect.

These human beings and animals are in turn are surrounded by all the other human beings and animals in the universe, also prostrating. And so on. This takes the same amount of time as making one corporeal prostration on the carpet, but the outcome in terms of good karma and purification is altogether more extraordinary.

Some ideas to try out

Couple of other things I like to do … I have my mother of this life to my left, my father to my right, those for whom I have attachment behind me, and those whom I may be having trouble with in front of me. They are surrounded by all other living beings. I prostrate with different requests, eg, may I and all these living beings be free from attachment, or anger, or ignorance. I find this a very powerful way to get rid of whatever my own current stubborn delusions may be, getting unstuck.

Or may we all be free from sickness and famine. Or from the lower realms. Or from war. Etc. Sometimes I focus on specific individuals who are suffering, sometimes groups, sometimes everyone. We can request whatever we want because Guru Avalokiteshvara pervades all worlds and beings and can fulfill these wishes.

If I want to emphasize completion stage, I recognize that me and all living beings are mere imputations—the selves we normally see do not exist. And we are all prostrating with the wish to overcome all hallucinations, all ordinary conceptions and mistaken appearances, and attain meaning clear light and enlightenment. The prostration mudra, putting our fingers and thumbs together, holding a jewel, symbolizes the gathering of the 10 winds into the central channel so that we manifest the clear light, symbolized by the jewel.

Do you have any other things you like to do? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Prostrating all the way home

I find it blissful to feel as though I am prostrating directly into my Spiritual Guide’s actual heart, which is his clear light Truth Body or Dharmakaya. This feels like going home, finally going home – a profound relief. Everything is completely purified and transformed, and when I arise from the prostration I can do so as an emanation of my Spiritual Guide, inseparable from the Dharmakaya, to help others. I also imagine that everyone is doing the same as they prostrate with me, gathering into the clear light and arising completely purified and blissful.Buddha and lake

The great Indian Buddhist Master Padampa Sangye said (and I’m sure it could apply to O People of Denver, Ulverston, Cape Town, etc too):

O People of Tingri, the Spiritual Guide will lead you wherever you wish to go. To repay his kindness, offer your faith. ~ Great Treasury of Merit p. 116

Geshe Kelsang comments on this:

If we wish for a human rebirth our Spiritual Guide will lead us there, if we wish for liberation he will lead us there, if we wish to be reborn in a Pure Land he will lead us there, and if we wish to attain enlightenment he will lead us there.

To my mind, this means my Spiritual Guide is here to take me home, where I belong, as I don’t feel I really belong in samsara, and nor does anyone else. And with this faith, I can prostrate my way home.Mount Kailash

I have always been inspired for some reason by people who prostrate all the way up Mount Kailash and/or around Lake Manasarova, believing these mountains and lakes to be completely pure, part of the mandala, the home of enlightened beings. I’m quite sure that if I actually had to do it, my enthusiasm would wane, as it is not exactly carpeted and there are no hotels en route; but, still, I like the idea, and can emulate it in the comfort of my room. It is a pilgrimage — prostrating all the way to your actual home, the heart of the Buddhas, the heart of the mandala.

Here is an article for Buddha’s Enlightenment Day.

Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day! May you all swiftly realize your full potential and become enlightened too.

 

 

Compassion v. attachment to the status quo

This article is part of the series: Is Compassion Happy or Sad?

We are not aiming impossibly high even when we aim for great or universal compassion — the wish to protect all living beings without exception from their suffering — because we already have all the ingredients within us. Compassion is our so-called Buddha seed or Buddha nature, the birthright of every living being. Have you ever felt overwhelming love for someone who is very sick, and the strong wish to scoop them up from suffering? For example a sick child, parent or pet? If you have, this is your Buddha seed at work. Even animals have it — there are umpteen inspiring stories on the Internet about animals unselfishly caring for human beings and each other.

With some understanding of samsara, we can deepen that compassion so that we wish to scoop them our dear friend up not just from this particular sickness, but from samsara in general. Then we can imagine feeling that for everyone, and this gives a wonderful glimpse of what a Buddha feels like, such as the Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, with his 1000 arms reaching out to everyone.

However, there is some stuff in the way of our universal compassion at the moment, obstructing its growth. Geshe Kelsang says in Ocean of Nectar (p. 20):

“We all have some compassion, but the compassion we have for our friends and relatives is often mixed with attachment and so is not pure. The scriptures warn us not to mistake attachment for compassion. Pure compassion is unmixed with attachment.”

Compassion is necessarily a virtuous or positive mind, a peaceful, happy mind, and, when we gain Tantric realizations our compassion actually becomes bliss! If our compassion for others doesn’t feel very pleasant at the moment, let alone blissful, the chances are that some sort of attachment is at work. We need to see how the attachment is functioning so that we can root it out.

Attachment is an ignorant, self-centered mind that does not understand where happiness actually comes from and thinks that it is to be found outside the mind, in people or in objects, and so it desires or needs these things to make us happy.

Why do we worry so much more about our own cat or child than other people’s? Yes, love and a sense of responsibility are in the mix, but the worry is not coming from the love (or the compassion) but from the attachment. I think this is worth thinking about.

Attached to the status quo

In her youth, my friend and animal-lover Mal had a Hindu Guru and spent some time in India. The plight of the stray dogs broke her heart and she couldn’t stop worrying about them. One day her Guru told her: “You have too much attachment to those dogs; if you’re not careful you will come back as one.” He was a loving person, and she didn’t fully understand what he meant at the time. However, the meaning dawned on her over time, especially, she said, when she met Geshe Kelsang and his teachings.

This comment got me thinking too – what does it mean to be too attached to the animals or human beings we love and care about? How does that obstruct our ability to really help them, let alone cause us to worry unduly and uselessly?

I think part of it is that we are attached to that person in their current form. For example, today I went to the vet with Rousseau, who has inflamed third eyelids, and Dr Smith said: “He may be getting these infections due to having leukemia, caught from your other cat.” I waited ten agonizing minutes for the results, during which time I realized that I still want Rousseau to be beautiful Rousseau, just without inflamed third eyelids and leukemia. And when it comes to beloved children?!….  Parents sometimes say things like “I wish they could stay small forever!” — of course they don’t really mean it, but it perhaps indicates that we do have a wish for the things we like to stay the same.

Are we just wishing people more samsara?!

This attachment to permanence and to impure, or samsaric, bodies results in our being attached to far too small and inferior results for our loved ones at the expense of seeing the larger picture. Spending all our mental energy in preoccupation with each individual suffering as it arises is a distraction if we are not seeing these in the grander scheme of things — as part of a pattern of samsaric suffering that they have been experiencing since begininngless time and will continue to experience if they don’t get out of their samsaric bodies. As I have often heard Geshe Kelsang Gyatso say:

“Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough”.

It seems to me that we have to want far more for them than just the alleviation of the individual sufferings of this samsaric life as they arise – these sufferings are just some of the never-ending waves on the ocean of samsara. We want the whole ocean of suffering to dry up. We have to desire so strongly for our loved ones to have lasting liberation from all sufferings that each individual suffering motivates us to become a better person, even an enlightened being, so that we can bring this about. We have to keep an eye on their potential for lasting freedom and happiness at all times, even if they are just a small feral cat or a stray Indian dog.

Buddhist compassion works very well as it has within it the solution – even if this solution is big and radical. In fact it has huge implications as we basically want NONE OF IT. All solutions in samsara have to be seen as temporary.

Also, with attachment to samsara we try to patch it up, make it work. Samsara can never be made to work – we’ve been trying to improve it for countless lifetimes and still the waves of the seven sufferings roll in upon us without cease.

Bandaids are useful but they are also just temporary solutions for someone with a constantly erupting skin disease. We need to go deeper and uncover the causes of our loved ones’ suffering – delusions and karma – so we can really help them destroy these causes to bring an end to their suffering. As Kelsang Tsondru said on Facebook, “Hopeless compassion (i.e., which does not see an end to suffering) is a sad mind, whereas hopeful compassion (i.e., which understands the end of suffering) is a happy mind.”

(The same reasoning also goes for dwelling upon our own individual problems one by one, as opposed to using these as a motivator to escape entirely from this prison of samsara while we have the chance.)

Compassion and love are not the same as worry and relief
Click here for Daily Lamrim article on changing suffering

I know I feel relieved when I see, for example, that my cat’s eyelids have slightly improved. But relief comes from tension in the mind, and that is also what has got me thinking — actual compassion is free from tension etc, and love is therefore not that feeling of relief that comes from tension being released. There is nothing wrong at all, of course, with being happy to see others’ free from suffering, quite the opposite, but we can check to see what that happiness consists of and so improve on it. The happy feeling that Rousseau’s eyelids are slowly going back to normal may be partly due to my love wishing him happiness, but also due to changing suffering (arising from attachment) – that brief respite between anxiety about the swollen eyelids and relief about the non-swollen eyelids. This brief respite is only brief – to be replaced with some other worry sooner or later.

Next time, we’ll analyze how self-cherishing fits into all this.

Your turn: do you agree? Do you have any examples?

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Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead … more from our social worker

This is the sixth article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist and student social worker. The others can be found here.

At this time of year, Mexicans specifically remember the dead with the Day of the Dead.  Traditionally, on the 1st or 2nd November for Mexicans, the souls of dead loved ones are invited back to visit the living.  Communities across Mexico and elsewhere gather together to remember dead relatives and friends, toast their memory and reaffirm their feelings for loved ones who have died.

Health agencies around the world now celebrate the Day of The Dead to raise awareness of death issues to get people talking more about death for, as I try to point out in the following articles, it is important individually and collectively that we do so.  In the UK, the Day of the Dead is the 4th November.  Watch out for news and events relating to this, or why not do something yourself?

In my next couple of articles, I’ll be explaining how I used Buddhism and meditation to help me in my care of the elderly and the dying.

How to help the dying

In my third and final year as a student social worker I decided that my Buddhist values were best suited to the care of older people and the dying as there is less theorising about different types of care and more practical and dynamic compassion.  I feel the elderly, frail and dying are the best service user group where Buddhism could have a lot to offer. There is a lot of good information in this website and in Geshe Kelsang’s book Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully.

In Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully (2009) Geshe Kelsang says you can benefit those who are about to die. He encourages those benefiting the dying to help keep the dying person’s mind calm and peaceful, trying to prevent them from becoming upset or unhappy.  He stresses the importance of dying peacefully without any disturbance.

Geshe Kelsang (2010) also talks about the power of prayer. He says:

Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara

The power of our prayers depends upon the strength and purity of our intention and that having a mind of compassion for the dying or deceased is very important – if we have a genuinely compassionate motivation our prayers will definitely be effective.

Several times a day I dedicate my good fortune/merit to the vulnerable people I meet in my work as a student social worker; and when a service user I know dies, I do “powa” puja for them (transference of consciousness).

And how not to

During my final year of training I worked in an acute hospital trust within a discharge liaison team and I also focussed my dissertation on the care of older people and the dying. At work I played a part in helping service users leave hospital swiftly, but safely and legally.  It’s been my toughest job so far because it can be a very busy environment in which to remain calm (I had to interrupt busy doctors and nurses in their wards – asking them to improve their paperwork and inform me about discharges).  I was not Mr Popular with them but I managed the conflict well and made sure I got all the necessary information.

In my work it was challenging to see health and social care professionals disagree at times over the care and funding of care of a dying person. One memory that stands out is of a team colleague liaising in the battle between health and social care over who was going to pay for the service user’s care – whilst the actual service user was in the process of dying.  What affect must this have had on the service user?

Most discharges are not deaths; they are often issues around finding an appropriate care home for the service user, perhaps issues around mental capacity and their medical fitness.  Whenever there was a death there was often confusion about what was the appropriate action to take, whether to rush them off to home to die or to allow them to die in hospital.  This was the topic of my dissertation – how to have a good death.

Where would you like to die?

In the UK, 56 to 74 per cent of us would like to die at home but 60 per cent of us actually die in hospital.  Numbers of home deaths have been declining (to below 20 percent).  Roughly 500,000 people die each year with fewer than 8,000 specialist doctors and nurses, so there is not sufficient capacity. This combined with an ever increasing ageing population and more people living with multiple and degenerate conditions means there are increasing pressures on the health and social care system. Many people are not getting their wishes fulfilled of having a good death – at home.

Talking openly about death

There is an increasing awareness campaign in the UK to address these problems and in the future there may be more of a role for social care and social work to pre-empt matters.  The campaign is a continuous one that encourages everyone in our society to talk openly about death e.g. making wills well in advance, and planning and caring well for those who we know are very ill and perhaps dying. They even discuss issues around advance directives involving not using resuscitations and switching off life support machines, in certain circumstances.

I found similarities with this campaign and Buddhism in that they both recognise that we don’t like to talk about death too much.  In Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully, Geshe-la says:

Although intellectually we all know that one day we shall die, generally we are so reluctant to think about our death that this knowledge does not touch our hearts, and we live our life as if we were going to be in this world forever.

Through my dissertation research I found sociologists who agreed with this view, saying that, historically, institutions in our society have protected us from thinking about death, helping us suppress or suspend our thoughts about death.

At Kadampa Buddhist Centres we don’t have to wait for the Day of the Dead to discuss death and dying and how an awareness of death can enrich our spiritual practice 🙂 These kinds of discussion take place regularly!

Your turn
What do you think? Is it too morbid or depressing to think or talk about death? Or has it helped you live a happier, fuller life, and/or to help others who are dying or bereaved?