Sitting in my new PJs this bitterly cold December morning, about to start my meditation, I was wondering how can I imagine being all blissed out in the Pure Land of Heruka and Vajrayogini (Keajra) when my unhoused neighbors are freezing half to death outside on the streets and piglets are having their tails cut off while conscious?
The Pure Land cannot just be an extension of my privilege – that is, “I have a relatively comfy life and I’d like it to continue and improve in Keajra when I die, please!” We can’t get to Keajra out of attachment to the status quo. The Pure Land only arises from our utter distaste (as Geshe Kelsang puts it) for samsara’s evil dealings, and a heart broken into 1,000 pieces (like Avalokiteshvara 1,000 arms) from witnessing others’ suffering. `
The bliss of the Pure Land doesn’t actually come from all those endless cool objects of enjoyment, but from being in the position to effortlessly free everyone from samsara because our mind just is bliss and emptiness. The enjoyments are simply a means to an end. Hence this verse from the Heruka sadhana:
I offer to you, synthesis of all Buddhas of the ten directions, all my daily enjoyments – eating, drinking and enjoying any other objects of desire. May I quickly attain enlightenment and become like you so that I will effortlessly benefit all living beings.
I have a friend here in Denver called Shala, who is still in the middle of (hands down, no competition) the toughest year of her life working as an ICU nurse with COVID patients. What is as terrible in some ways as the lonely choking deaths she has witnessed is her frustration at the administrators at all levels who cannot or will not do a decent job of supporting the frontline healthcare workers, leading not just to their exhaustion and lack of protection but to unnecessary sentinel patient events.
How does she get past this to carry on, month after month, I asked her. The answer is by remembering renunciation, focusing directly on the patients (trying to make them as peaceful and comfortable as she personally can), and constantly asking the Buddhas to bless the situation.
Shala has given me a lot to think about. In our day to day work lives (if we’re lucky enough to still have one of those), including running a meditation center or another non-profit (which some of you do), it’s easy for us to get annoyed with our co-workers or managers if we feel that we are dependent on them for success. To avoid this at work (or indeed wherever things are not working out), we need the fearlessness to look at our own actual painful situation — including our own frustrations and griefs and shame and trauma and rage — and sit with these long enough to develop renunciation.
Samsara’s job is to make us suffer. We are not “wholeheartedly accepting” suffering (as in the necessary practice of patient acceptance) if we are at the same time brushing it off as quickly as we can. It doesn’t work to bypass samsara’s nature, saying “Oh yes, I know! Samsara is bad!” while being prepared to keep living with it and making it work — we have to detest it very deeply, have a lifelong grudge, if we are to muster sufficient activity to abolish it.
All this of course done within the framework of identifying ourselves with the vast sky of our limitless potential, not the dark clouds of our delusions and mistaken appearances. We’re the sky looking at the thunder, who knows full well that the sky is still alright, that no thunder can ever harm it.
We are not inherently impure or ordinary or even suffering! Holding to that is identifying ourself incorrectly, as Geshe Kelsang explains so clearly in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra(which would be a wonderful book to dust off and read this month). Which is just as well because it means that we can change.
We also need always to keep our eye on the ball by staying directly and personally focused on the living beings we’re trying to help in our area, not on the faults of our team and/or others who are seemingly sabotaging our best efforts. This compassion and love will go a long way to protecting us from daily anger (not to mention self-pity).
And we are not talking just, “Oh that’s a shame!”, but about a compassion that finds the suffering of others unbearable and so will keep us going day after day for their sake, without becoming mentally side-tracked or full of inertia by taking everything personally.
Thirdly, we need to channel the frustration at things not going as well as we would like (eg, due to inefficiency, bad management, selfishness, prejudice, disharmony etc) into the determination to attain enlightenment as quickly as we possibly can. Because that way we can DIRECTLY help each and every living being every day through our blessings and emanations (bypassing all management, lol). Developing pure view and practicing being in the Pure Land — where there is “not even the name of mistaken impure appearance” — is a must if we are to do this skillfully.
Transforming our families
I am currently part of a family of six cats. Over two months ago, a mom arrived with five tiny new cats, and they’ve grown up mainly knowing the world of me and my apartment/jungle-playground. For a brief moment in their endless samsaric lives, and unlike the vast majority of other animals, they have the karma to be wanted. They have a devoted cat mom and sympathetic human relatives wanting to take care of them, offering them food, warmth, companionship, and love. They are even lined up for great homes in other families.
But as I was watching them this morning while they slumbered next to me, it struck me quite deeply that, even if they get to spend the next 16 or so years in relative comfort and security, these innocent trusting little folk are at some point going to become sick, old, and dead. And then what? Then where?
These few months are a snapshot in time, a vanishing moment given the endless suffering they’ve already been through and the endless suffering that awaits them. My heart was breaking when I looked not just at today’s challenges (for example, Kendrick feeling sad and hungry because he simply can’t abide cat food, and who can blame him), but the fact that this discomfort is NOTHING compared with the rest of it. And the fact that he doesn’t even know that, nor can do anything about it. Looking at me with that tilted kitten head, he doesn’t even know how to plead with me not to forget him, not to let him suffer — not now, not ever.*
It is bad enough just contemplating what lies in store for these six individuals, but that of course gets me thinking about all my family, blood related or otherwise, furry or fur-less. And everyone else in the six realms of samsara’s wasteland.
Turning the pain into power
I have seen the promised land!
So said Martin Luther King Jr – and did he keep going, I was wondering, despite endless odds, through the power of his faith and imagination? Was he already in some sense in the Pure Land, with the courage and power to lead others to that state? Do we have to be seeing the world that we want to create? I would say, Yes, we do.
Great compassion will be the new normal.
So said Gen Losang in the Summer. The ONLY solution we really have to this year and to every other terrible year is to become a Buddha as quickly as possible for the sake of others. And the only way to do that is to practice being a Buddha in the Pure Land now, making sure that Kendrick and everyone else is a mere aspect of our mind of bliss and emptiness, never separated from us, never again forgotten. For once we are in the outer or inner Pure Land of Heruka, this can happen fast for all our friends:
Through the wheel of sharp weapons of the exalted wisdom of bliss and emptiness, Circling throughout the space of the minds of sentient beings until the end of the aeon, Cutting away the demon of self-grasping, the root of samsara, May definitive Heruka be victorious. ~ The New Essence of Vajrayana
Over to you. What does the Pure Land mean to you? How are you going to spend Heruka and Vajrayogini month?
*Postscript: Kendrick died at 3am on Christmas day after a rapid decline.💔
He provides another compelling reason why not to feel a moment’s survivor’s guilt about hanging out in the Pure Land, given that I can do almost nothing for him while identified as an ordinary being. However, prayers work, so please let’s pray for this small cat and all other animals, whether beloved companions or hitherto completely unwanted.
… our pilot just welcomed us. And this reminded me of Geshe Kelang’s first flight to America in July 1990. As they set off from Heathrow, he said to the 2 students traveling with him, one of them my closest friend at the time:
We are flying to Vajrayogini’s’s Pure Land…
… and then he absorbed into meditation for the next 6 hours, only arising when prompted to eat lunch, of which he partook of a mere forkful. (As both these students were sitting either side of him, that kind of scuppered any chance of conversation… But it was still apparently a darned good flight.)
And I always think of these words when I fly. Besides, we need to go to the very friendly higher sky of Vajrayogini and Heruka’s Pure Land – Keajra – even when stationary, and we can leave through our crown chakra.
Why? Because samsara’s pleasures are deceptive. I can hear the video game violence emanating from the ear buds of the youth next to me – so how loud is it blaring into HIS ears?! Not that he cares of course, he is never going to get middle aged and old and die. That only happens to other people, like the woman next to him (me). A friend in his 50s recently developed tinnitus. Of course he didn’t see that coming despite years of headphone abuse. And who amongst us hasn’t blissed out to loud music – but even music is deceptive, my friend was telling me. All sense pleasures are. All appearances mislead us while we remain overpowered by them, not realizing they are empty, not realizing they are not really there.
As Geshe Kelsang explains in Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition, the Buddhist master Vasubandhu used various examples to show how attachment to sense pleasures creates suffering. Moths are ensnared by attachment to visual forms when they fly into the flame; deer to sounds when they are enticed by the hunter’s flute; flies to smells when they land on food and are swatted; fish to food when they are impaled on the hook; and elephants to tactile sensations when they sink helplessly into mud. Meanwhile, humans are ensnared by attachment to all five!
But everything we encounter can also teach us everything about Dharma if we let it. As Milarepa said:
I have no need of books because all the objects around me are my books. From these I learn about death and impermanence, the disadvantages of samsara, and the emptiness of all phenomena. Great Treasury of Merit p. 212.
Sooooo, so far today … It started with a teaching on my early morning coffee – Life is short. Stay awake for it. (Don’t know what to suggest for those of you who don’t drink coffee.)
The snack cart just came down the aisle, and my attention was captured by Buddha Bowl Foods™ (Trademark! Since when did a snack company get the trademark on Buddha’s begging bowl?) – organic popcorn with pink Himalayan salt. What will they think of next? But although it is seasoned by elements from faraway holy lands, this popcorn is still not worth the $4.99 price tag. Though it makes me shudder a bit to see Buddha smiling out from a disposable snack wrapper, I also think it is lucky that Buddha is not fussy – maybe someone will create an indestructible potential for enlightenment as they chow down on their salty morsels.
Everyone is either snoozing or plugged in. Some are multitasking their entertainment — managing to be on their personal devices AND watching the latest movie on the seat-back in front of them. In this worth-reading NYT article about death, Arthur C. Brooks reports a scary illustration of the disconnect between what we want and what we do due to the power of distractions:
The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship and meditation than from watching television. Yet the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching TV as engaging in spiritual activities.
So far I have resisted the itch to swipe my credit card and watch The Martian … but temptation is always all around. I need to think this could be my last flight, and what would I do if I ever did have to follow the second of these helpful instructions (pictured)? (Has anyone ever actually survived by using their cushion for a flotation device?! Ok, I admit, I got distracted and googled it. Apparently, yes, they have, in 1970.) But, should the cushion fail, given that I am unprepared for my activities just over the next week in NYC, where does that leave my next life?
In the security line
So much effort goes into becoming a functioning adult – it needs years. There are students behind me in the security line, all young, hip, fresh-faced, and about to have their moment ruling the world. “Boulder has changed so much! Like, totally,” one says, as if she has been there well over her 17 years. “I major in education,” she carries on saying to her new friends. “So are you gonna become a teacher?” “Yeah.” “Cool.” That will take years of money and resources. A small earnest boy with oversized spectacles and a watchful mother — will he be a teacher one day? How much money and kindness will make that possible? Then it starts unravelling as you see from the deeply lined woman hobbling by with a stick, maybe she was an educator once.
It is so easy to grasp at permanence, at things staying the same. Sometimes I fast forward in these snaky queues — where will we all be in 10, 20, 50 years’ time?
My young co-queuer from Boulder has also wasted no time telling her new friends that she is traveling to see her boyfriend, who inconveniently lives in New York. “Man! That sucks!” “I know. But it’s okay.” (Clearly right now it is way more than okay for she cannot help grinning, albeit in a cool, I can take it or leave it girls, kind of way). It may last for decades, like Alan Rickman and Rima Horton, but the odds are against it, and she may have the first of several broken hearts, perhaps even on this trip. How many have you had?! I have had my fair share. While we remain with attachment, broken hearts are an unavoidable side effect at any age. There is a joke in California – before you get serious with someone, ask yourself:
Is this who I want my kids to spend the weekends with?
Back on the plane, but on this same subject, I am now actually across the aisle from a hot couple meeting and flirting for the first time. We do quite rightly like the bliss of connection — and they are, after all, the only people around here immersed in the present moment as opposed to asleep or on their gadgets — so I think it’d be wonderful if that bliss could last forever. However, fast forward 5 years and they’ll be watching box sets on the couch with the dog like the rest of us. We need to know where our bliss actually comes from. Geshe Kelsang once told me that it is not possible to get between someone and their object of attachment. (But was I applying these wise words to myself?! Umm, no. No more than I got his teaching on eating mindfully when during a tea party I offered him a huge slice of chocolate cake and he said, “This is poison for me,” — so I ate it instead, and he laughed. Geshe-la has been infinitely patient with me. With all of us, really.) Try telling someone as they start licking the honey off the razor’s edge, “That’s going to hurt you know!” And will they listen? Will they heck.
Talking of Alan Rickman, he seemed to be well loved by all who knew him for his loyalty, kindness, and willingness to go the extra mile. And his kindness will guide him to happiness now too, none of it is wasted, it’s a win win — happy in this life, creating the causes for happiness now in his next life, as well as being prayed for and wished well on his way by the many people he helped.
Back in the security line …
You snake past the same people over and over in these lines. It reminds me of being on the same flight from Portugal as someone who loathed me. We both pretended we didn’t notice each other, and got away with it on the plane; but upon arrival found ourselves in one of those long looping queues — having to look at our phones, over to some friends, up at the roof, etc — each time we were about to pass. Five times we managed it — only to bump right into each other as we emerged from the restrooms. It makes me think that we cannot hide forever from our karma, we have to face it over and over again until it is exhausted; so we may as well learn to love everyone in the line. We will have to keep bumping into everyone forever, so why not learn to enjoy it. Reminds me of a quote from Abraham Lincoln:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Love this quote.
And, like I was saying, we need to get out of this long queue as fast as possible – like those people in the Clear Me line who have created enough merit to breeze through. Then we can fly the friendly sky of the Dharmakaya, and help everyone else do the same.
We seek transcendence. People do crazy extreme sports and jump out of airplanes to get the thrill of flying. I saw a poster trying to entice passers-by with, “Learn to stunt drive!” Why would I do that?!! I am just now noticing my neighbor with the noisy headphones watching a man walk on a wire high high above New York City. He is lying down! He is pointing at a magical sun behind a cloud! A white dove is flying toward him! This is all pretty cool, especially as I’m not distracted by the narrative. Still, I would want more than a wire between me and the ground 70 stories below. Like a direct realization of emptiness, for example.
Talking of sports, people ask why I don’t ski. I used to as a child living in Turkey and visiting good friends in Switzerland, but now I prefer to enjoy it in my mind — for some reason, maybe my precious human life and a distinct preference for a body in one uninterrupted piece — I have gone off the idea of standing at the top of a steep mountain with two insanely slippery sticks tied to my feet. Not judging, because I also kind of admire the spectacular fear-defying feats I watch from the comfort of the gondola cafe in Breckenridge or Aspen. And it makes me blissful to watch, except when people fall. Nurse an overpriced cappuccino long enough, and someone is bound to fall. Especially if they are sufficiently high, and/or under some illusion about their skill-set or permanence in this life. People get into all sorts of trouble in the mountains through underestimating their environment or overestimating themselves, according to an English friend in Breckenridge. He goes out whenever called to save people in an utterly heroic fashion, whether on skies, or wheels, or even by air, on a variety of cool snow vehicles. He does this in his plus fours, tweed cap, and a tweed jacket, and honestly looks just like Tintin — but the people who have gotten themselves into any number of of idiotic situations are always very happy to see him.
And my final observations for now: a full cup of coffee + rough air = bad combo. But the flight attendant did just call me “Miss” instead of the dreaded “Ma’am”, which I like, even if he is about 75 years old. And remind me again why I insist on always traveling
with a ripe banana that I have to clean out of my bag upon arrival?You may conclude from these rambling observations that I have way too much time on my hands, spend way too much time in airplanes, and should get a proper job like all the other functioning adults of this world. In my defence I will say that I write most of my stuff while traveling between places, and though I do, naturally, like the feeling of being on perpetual vacation while technically not, a feeling I believe I may have inherited from my parents, I also do have a few other things to do from time to time, I promise. So bye bye for now. Thank you for flying united.
Postscript: This ended up long, and I thought about putting it in 2 installments to make some of my readers happy (you know who you are, France and Philippe.) But then I realized they could just stop reading halfway and come back to the rest later. Don’t know why I never thought of that before.
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.
We 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!
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 …”
… 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.”
At 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 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.
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
In 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”.
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?
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 …
Apparently, 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.
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.
Bowie 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. And he had a private Buddhist funeral.
Frank Hatch, a local legend
David Bowie was not the only one to pass on January 10th. An old friend of 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.
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.
(Apologies in advance for the relatively esoteric nature of this article! I’ll attempt to give some background at the end for those of you who are interested.)
While I was staying with Sue Hulley in November, it was becoming apparent that the chemotherapy was not working to reduce the tumor – she could feel a lump growing daily in her side, and later tests confirmed this. When I first asked her how long she thought she had left to live, she speculated two years, but within a week she had revised that down to a matter of months. Not long after, it was only weeks. She accepted her rapidly shrinking lifespan with her characteristic calm and good humor.
Sue was all about cherishing others, and in very practical ways. Something I wrote at the time gives a glimpse: “On Sunday morning I woke at 7am to find Sue attempting to bake for the Tuesday night meditation class. She couldn’t stand up, much less reach things, so this was going to take all day… instead I offered to be her hands and we made a rather nice cake. If anyone has an excuse to beg off baking duties and be unhelpful, it is Sue. But cherishing others is what she does – she is going to die as she lives and live as she dies.”
Sue was not sentimental about her death. Her last email to her fellow Teacher Training students, people she had been close to for 15 years, was factual, let everyone know that she could no longer receive visits or phone calls, and ended simply with: “I look forward to studying with you in Keajra. Love Sue.” She also wrote some Christmas cards not long before she died, on which she wrote messages like: “Merry Christmas. Have a great rest of your life! Love, Sue.”
The most important thing we talked about during my ten-day visit was preparing for her death and next life. Our conversations started in the car, like this:
Me: Where are you planning on going when you die?
Sue: Hmmm, well, I was talking about this with someone the other day, and we concluded that we would like to go wherever Geshe-la wants us.
Me: Where do you think that is?
Sue: I suppose Keajra? (the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini).
Me: Are you feeling a bit vague about this?
Sue: I suppose I am.
Me: I think if we want to go to Keajra, we have to start believing that we are in Keajra now. I don’t think it works to assume that we’ll just suddenly go there if we haven’t gotten used to being there ahead of our death.
Sue: (goes very thoughtful). Yes, I have been thinking of it more along the lines of “I’ll keep my nose clean and then with any luck go to a Pure Land. It is a bit dualistic. I’m putting it off.”
Me: That dualistic view is quite natural for us, and perhaps it is like some people’s idea of a Christian heaven. But in Buddhism we have to put our mind where we want it to be – it is not a question of being rewarded sometime in the future.
We have to have no reservation either. We have to really want to be there, more than anything else. (This point is at least implicit in the first of the so-called “five forces”, aspiration – we do have to know clearly what we want and actually want it!) If Buddha was to appear right now and say to you: “Sue, I am going to give you a choice. You can stay in Marin for another twenty years and then die and go to Keajra, or you can be in Keajra right now without delay”, which would you choose?!
Sue: (laughing) Good point. I would want to hang out here with my friends for another 20 years and then go! But I have to want it MORE than this.
Me: Yes, and the only way that’ll happen is if we’re thinking about it all the time, and what it actually means to be in the Pure Land. As you know, it is not a real physical place with lovely fountains and whispering trees (looking a bit like Marin!) that we are going to magically turn up in sometime in the future if we create some vague aspirations and causes for it now. It is, of course, primarily a state of mind. We have to practice being there until we are.
Then, there will be no contradiction between being in Marin and being in the Pure Land 🙂 For example, when the great Tibetan Yogi Milarepa was asked in which Pure Land he attained enlightenment, he pointed to his empty cave.
We can describe the Pure Land as like heaven, but it is not really the same as many Christians’ or Muslims’ notion of heaven (depending, I suppose, on what they mean when they say “heaven on earth” ?!) We are not buying into this human life and using it to garner a reward, or a “promotion”. We want the Pure Land now. It seems to me that if we don’t want it now, it means we still have attachment to a more ordinary life, and these are stones around our feet that will prevent us from leaving samsara. Do you agree? To go there, we have to want it more than this. And we have to want it now. There is only now.
Sue and I then had several discussions about what state of mind Keajra or the Pure Land was, and Sue spent a lot of time focusing on this. As a result, she said that death no longer felt like such a “big deal” to her, more of a seamless transition, and she found a deep peace with it. There is a description of sincere Tantric practitioners in the Root Tantra of Heruka:
For such practitioners, death is just mere name –
They are simply moved from the prison of samsara
To the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka.
Death is smoother if we are already living as if we are in our next life. Less “bells and whistles”, less of a “razzmatazz and production”, as Sue put it, with accompanying wand gestures. Our friend Marsha Remas had been telling us about the title of a book she was reading, “This IS your next life!” Sue loved that.
There need be no contradiction between living this life and preparing for the future if we are now putting our mind where we want it to be in our next life.
I think that a Pure Land has basically three ingredients: faith, motivation, and view. This will mean different things to different people, including those in other spiritual traditions. For me, in brief, and for Sue, faith means a profound feeling of closeness to my Spiritual Guide, the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Sangha, holding them all in my heart. Motivation means renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom) and bodhichitta (the wish for enlightenment for the sake of all living beings), which keeps me very close to others, free from attachment, also holding them all in my heart, even when the fleeting appearances of this world and body dissolve away. View means the wisdom realizing the empty dream-like nature of all phenomena, inseparably mixed with the clear light mind of bliss. (Tantric practitioners can combine these three with self-generation, you can find out more about that in Modern Buddhism).
It seems to me that this is the best way not to be separated from those we hold dear. With faith, motivation, and view, we lose nothing when we die. There is nothing to fear. We are where we want to be, for our own and others’ sake.
When Sue and Bill dropped me at the airport, in what turned out to be Sue’s last “outing”, she said: “This was not a dead flower visit. This was very ‘real’.”
When Sue died, her family stayed with her for an hour and a half, and then left her alone for another hour and a half. When they returned, her left hand, which had been by her side, was over her heart, and her mouth, which had been open, was now closed in a peaceful half-smile.
Your turn: Where are you planning on going when you die, and what are you doing now to get there?
Some background information
We have the potential or seeds for both heaven and hell. Which comes to fruition depends on which seeds we water.
According to Buddhism, the “Pure Land” is the experience of a purified mind, whereas “samsara” is the experience of an impure mind that is still contaminated by the inner poison of delusions. Here is a short description taken from Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully:
In a Buddha’s Pure Land everything is pure; there are no sufferings, no contaminated environments, and no impure enjoyments. Beings born there are free from sickness, ageing, poverty, war, harm from fire, water, earth, and wind, and so forth. They have the ability to control their death and rebirth, and they experience physical and mental suppleness throughout their life. Just being there naturally gives rise to a deep experience of bliss.
The Pure Land could be considered similar to the Christian idea of heaven (or other religions’ idea of paradise), but in Buddhism a Pure Land is the experience of a pure mind — there is no external creator who rewards us with it (or who, alternatively, can send us to hell.) The mind is the creator of all. To attain a Pure Land primarily involves purifying and controlling our own mind. Faith (mixing with the pure minds of holy beings) and positive karmic potentials also play a part in helping us reach the Pure Land.
Sue Hulley, who died yesterday, was able to greet her illness and death with grace, compassion, and humor. So about a month ago I asked her if she would kindly write something to help the rest of us get ready for the inevitable. She managed to finish several articles, mainly on the practical side of things, with the help of her partner Bill and her son Tim. Here they are.
It seems very sudden when you hear that voice at the end of the phone, or coming right at you in the office, informing you that you have a life-threatening diagnosis. It’s hard for me to know which one I wanted. I guess having it on the phone would make it seem less real, give me a layer of protection, some time to control my responses.
Instead, it felt like Dr. Sowerby really got through to me. And it felt as if this really was harder for him than for me, although he didn’t say that. After all, he was the man who diagnosed me with pylori without a biopsy hoping, i guess, that i did have what causes 9out of 10 ulcers.
And this was the man who knew what lay ahead, in all of its gory, after the endoscopy. He knew that my life would never be the same. That, in fact, a whole new life – albeit probably of limited duration and often of maximal intensity — was beginning. His empathy told me as much. And I was so grateful. Let’s face it, bearing details of future pleasures is nice, but getting such a definite demarcation between past and future from someone who cares is so meaningful. You can start to take care of yourself and look out after the rest of the people in your life.
Taking care of business
If there’s one most important thing to do before tackling a serious illness, it’s to get your affairs in order. Of course, this advice could feel as if you’ve been told to get good genes, but you DO have control over this. Actually, you usually hear this phrase after you’ve been told about your illness; the irony is that you should have done this years before. But the usual American understanding is that if you get serious bad news, THEN you start planning. Although this attitude is understandable — based on our denial and wishful thinking — it can have serious negative effects on the loved ones around us.
So what affairs are we putting in order? In my life, there seemed to have been two areas, one the more practical, the other the more psychological / spiritual. In the practical realm, having a will, doing some estate planning, and communicating the result to those involved are all critical. That way, you enter any possibly life-threatening situation with everyone around you knowing what it will mean for them in practical terms. Hopefully, they all even agree among themselves about what these are, and their roles after you’re gone. If they can know the professionals involved in these decisions, so much the better; this can transform them from isolated individuals into a powerful team working on your and their own behalf.
Having covered these knotty matters, I should mention the easy, carefree aspect of your job — human relationships. We all have our own set, with its complications and intricacies. And most of us, myself included, know that every relationship that went west was because of the other person. However, it’s a good idea to wash as much of this laundry as you can before you hit the skids. And, since none of us knows when that’s going to be, I would advise you to start ASAP. Of course, you may be reading this having already received your diagnosis, or already involved in your dire situation. But you could help your loved ones, or survive your illness, or possibly you don’t have the bad situation yet; and I hope for your sake, one or more of these is true. That would leave you totally free to follow this advice.
In addition, it’s a really good idea to find some tradition, practice, belief, or activity that fulfills your spiritual needs. It’s more important to have one, than what it is. That way, when the news comes, you’re not just one more deer in the headlights. For example, when someone asked me, “When you got your diagnosis, what did you answer when you asked, ‘Why me?'” All I could say to her was that that thought had never occurred to me. Because Buddhists believe that we cause our own destiny through the millions of thoughts or actions we have over our numerous lifetimes, I don’t view events as happening TO me, but as coming FROM me. This means that I both caused this present situation, in this or another lifetime, and that it is extremely important for my future how I respond to it.
This practice is a resource you can draw from, throughout whatever lies ahead. Of course, it CAN be developed after your diagnosis, but because of its timing, it could be suspect. If this happens for you, be sure to search your mind very carefully about your own motives, and upgrade them as much as you can.
While exercising my arm patting myself on the back for my excellent grasp of taking care of business, it suddenly occurred to me that something had been left out – who’s taking care of you all this time? And it occurred to me that even if you haven’t done any of the things I recommended previously, the fact remains that we all need someone to take care of us. Actually, this is a pretty interesting area, because it involves personal relationships, possibly your loved ones, financial issues, and, depending on the expertise of your caregiver(s), help with solutions to all of the issues we’ve talked about up until now. For example, my primary caregiver is also able to deal with my finances by paying bills and such.
One place where people often start is to consider your practical living situation, and what physical needs you might have. Take a couple of inventories – what support system or resources have you already built up, and your remaining needs if any. Even if you are well equipped to handle your current situation, plan for the future, when your needs could increase. AND do it sooner, don’t wait until it becomes an emergency. For example, you might have a great cleaning lady, and she might know other people who could do related household tasks. Or, where we live, there’s a pool of Fijians, who often move from household to household. (They are especially popular because of their dispositions and the fact that many of them are quite strong. Given how hard it is to find affordable hoists, they have saved many the back of a less robust caregiver.) So get your resources set up for the inevitable ahead of time. Of course, your inventory of needs would depend on your specific situation.
Interacting with people regarding your illness and evolving situation
It would be a good idea at the very beginning, while you still have a lot of energy, to make up email groups of your various communities.
Interacting with doctors
In the past, talking to your doctor has typically meant listening to your doctor. But times are changing. We as patients are being encouraged to be informed consumers, and to take a more active part in our treatment. What this means for you and your doctor is that rather than being a one-down participant, you are in a collaborative partnership.
However, there is no doubt that you are much less knowledgeable than your doctor in the area of your illness. So it’s a good idea to do some general research and learn as much as you can about your disease and its treatment, before you meet. Additionally, it’s critical to take somebody to your appointments with you, to take notes and ask questions. Also this gives you someone to discuss your situation with in an ongoing way, based on the same experience.
It also helps to make a list of questions to ask the doctors. For example, “Given my kind of cancer, what are the expected things that might happen at each phase, and what kinds of things can my caregiver(s) and I do ahead of time, to counter each of these?” Also you can ask your doctor of any item along the way, “Why is this necessary?”
If your doctor can’t tell you anything without using Latin terms, it’s time to get a new one. It’s really important to see how you feel, being with your doctor. As when you meet any other person, it’s important how you feel about your relationship. With one of my doctors, I never felt I could say, “MY oncologist”. You want to feel that this is your doctor in a personal sense, fighting for your personal interests. With this particular doctor, I always felt that he came in and just read my chart. Anyone can read your chart, but you want someone who cares. If this is not happening, you CAN ask to change doctors, or get a second opinion.
Sometimes people get embarrassed about asking questions from doctors, but don’t forget that YOUR health is the goal here. So the doctor is working for you (whether they realize it or not). According to the HIPAA rules, the patient has the right to get all the information relevant to their situation. This means you can ask for copies of any of your test results, the analysis, and any other medical notes. For any tests that are taken, you can ask why it is being done, what the possible outcomes might be, and what those results would mean.
If you go through your treatment not asking, you’re more likely to feel like a deer in the headlights in each meeting. Or even worse, when looking back, like a mushroom (kept in the dark and fed manure).
I am so grateful to Sue for writing these articles for us in the last few weeks. She also had more articles planned, to do specifically with spiritual practice, but she ran out of time to write them down. Later, however, I can try to relay some good conversations we had in November on the subject.
Bill, Sue’s partner and main caregiver, also contributed the following from the caregiving point of view, for which I am also very grateful.
Caregiving might seem like an easy task, but the routine and stress builds slowly and imperceptibly. I was blessed with a friend who had “gone through it”. We could talk openly and frankly about the process, the ugly parts and the end — good and bad. I hope you, the reader, can find such a friend.
Now to the job at hand.
No matter how many ups and downs there are, the path may very well be downward. The word again is imperceptible. Because many processes are imperceptible, you need to build up an intellectual wall against complacency. If you think something should be done, like talking to a lawyer, fixing a stair step, or writing a letter to an old friend, DO IT NOW. We missed a lot of opportunities by thinking we could do it later. Later never came.
When one’s relatives, friends and acquaintances find out about the diagnosis, they will immediately want to see your charge. For some, it will be what we call the “dead flower” visit – one time with flowers and very awkward as no one wants to talk about what might happen. Early on for Sue, she rejected many of these visits but was happy to talk on the phone. As time went on, the “Rules” changed. Make sure that all visitors, by phone or in person, understand her current limits on time, people and time of day. Do not waver from your rules. When in doubt just ask the patient if you can and live with the answer.
Accepting gifts of time and food
Many people will volunteer time and food. One of the most difficult things for me was to find things for others to do and especially to cook since the nature of Sue’s cancer made it very difficult for her to eat.
As you go on, you should make up a list of things others might do. They need not be totally useful and may also be menial. You will be surprised at what you can come up with if you give up the notion that you are the only one who knows what is needed. In fact, even if it doesn’t do you any good or save you any time, it may be good for the giver. And, don’t forget afterwards. There are many people to tell and personal items to gather and distribute, so outside help will be useful for this difficult task.
In our case, Sue’s son and partner were here for most of the difficult times. Therefore respite and physical health care from others (except Hospice) wasn’t needed; and we could spell each other. In most cases, respite help will not be as available as the offerers hope, so burnout due to lack of respite is possible.
You should use the respite care resources volunteered by others. Start early, it will be particularly useful to “train” caregivers so that you can trust them later when the patient is less able to communicate their needs and your respite needs will be greater.
As Sue got worse, the caregiving became 24/7. Few of us can deal with this, so we strongly advise making appropriate arrangements with relatives, friends or hired home health care workers. Remember, it’s easier to cancel help then to implement a strategy under pressure.
More food concerns
I suppose that there are cancers and chemotherapies that do not significantly modify what or how much the patient can eat. Sue’s chemotherapy greatly modified what she was willing to eat. And she suffered from temperature sensitivity called neuropathy during most of her chemotherapy. This was a constant concern as we would occasionally forget and give her (cold) tap water, which was painful to her.
As time went on, we were continually changing the food that she was willing to eat and the volume of her meals went down to essentially nothing. If there are favorite foods, then by all means, ask for culinary help. But be firm about accepting only the first unsolicited dish. From then on – food only by order. We let it be known that Sue liked Pomegranate sorbet. We never finished the deluge that showed up.
Finally, it is time to give up food strictures once you are in Hospice i.e. gluten free, organic etc. Let’s face it; what is the worst thing that can happen? That’s right, cancer a few years down the road.
The patient will be unable to perform functions that earlier on were simple and easy. The patient is even more aware of these limitations than you are. How frustrating it must be when the patient knows that he or she could do things before but now cannot. As you might expect, it was frustrating for me to watch her fumbling away trying to do some, for her, difficult task. But she did not appreciate unsolicited help. She needed to know that her capabilities had not all been taken from her. We eventually had to evoke a rule on ourselves that unsolicited help was only given when needed for safety. Sometimes it took a little patience as she fumbled. However, our relationship improved. When the time came that something was no longer possible, she was grateful to accept the proffered help.
Similarly, the empowerment of asking for what she wanted was well received. Sometimes we overachieved, but mostly it helped her spirits to be able to make decisions. Not all of them were what we wanted, but if you don’t like the answer, you shouldn’t ask the question.
Everybody has heard about a miracle drug or treatment from “Timbucktu”. Of course you will want to fly off there to get it. (One person who was trying to help did not understand the irony of recommending a “healer” who failed to cure his uncle!) Early on, decide which organizations/ therapists you want to go to and stick with that decision. We’re glad that we did that. As it was, before the end we had gathered over thirty drugs, supplements and a few exercise regimens.
If you read the above, there is probably little more to add. By all means send cards and e-mails. If you phone, ask if the patient can talk, even if it is the patient who answers. If you want to visit, ask if you can visit beforehand and how long you can stay. If you plan to bring something, ask if you may. On the other hand, when a visit is contemplated, ask if you can help by bringing or purchasing something on the way.
The Aftermath by Bill Ring
“It’s over!” That’s what I said to Tim and Meg when they answered my call. It was over for Sue, but not for the rest of us. We thought the pain of seeing Sue gradually fail would finally be ended. It was, but it was replaced by the thought that we would never have the ability to say and do the things we wanted to say and do before she died. In her last days, Sue didn’t care about many things we thought were important. She was focused on her next lifetime and the hope that it would be a good and fruitful one.
Grief is a many-faceted emotion. A turning point came when I realized that many of the facets had to do with me feeling sorry for myself. We always look out for number one, don’t we? Another facet was realizing that when issues she cared about when living were resolved after she died, she probably no longer cares about the resolution. That we could not tell her about them is simply another way to feel sorry for ourselves. When I realized that much of the grieving was turning into ways for me to feel sorry for me, I rejected them and things began to look up.
There were far too many times when Sue and I thought we could discuss and plan later, tomorrow. Far too many tomorrows never came. This is my main regret. Lesson for caregiver and patient: Live like tomorrow will be too late, because it might be.
Sue became a very picky eater. She blamed the chemotherapy, but when it ended, the food-fussiness increased. Finally, the light dawned on us. Food was her one remaining pleasure. She could control very little in her life. What little she could control, she wanted to control. When the realization struck, eating became a comfort and pleasure for her and food preparation a labor of love. Lesson for caregivers: Give the patient what she wants, “It’s not going to kill her!” – the disease will.
On the practical side, the Hospice form taped to the refrigerator was valuable in listing the things she did and did not want to happen to her during her last days. The form is blunt and thorough. Lesson: Fill it out.
One thing that chokes me up, (which is a form of grief I have not yet mastered), is being able to complete Sue’s last requests. I believe that I know what she wanted and it is a great comfort to be able to do it all. Lesson for caregivers: Make sure you know what the patient wants and plan to do it. It will be good for both of you.
For reasons that you do not need to know about, her estate was very complex. The ability to defer the tax paperwork is invaluable. Lesson: Use this time. By the time the forms must be submitted and the bills paid, one can deal with them more easily. But, there is another, more important lesson for the patient and caregivers: Read and reread the living trusts and wills. Things change and these directives must change to accommodate them. We also discovered many errors that were hard to rectify once discovered.
The final stage for me is building a new life without Sue. I haven’t mastered this yet, but if you don’t try, I believe you will be mired in your misery and that is surely NOT what she would want. Final lesson: Talk about the survivor’s life afterwards. Should you keep the house? How about a new significant other? Your relationship with the in-laws?
I hope the above will be valuable to patients and caregivers. I wish someone had given me the information in the blog you have just read.