Transference of consciousness for those who have committed suicide

10 mins read

This week (Sept 9-15) is suicide prevention awareness week. I would submit a week is not enough. We need more awareness every week, as suicide is on the rise and it is destroying lives – not just those who kill themselves but those who are left behind.

BuddhaAvalokiteshvaraIn this final article on suicide, I want to say something about a powerful practice we can do for those who have died in general, and suicide victims in particular.

Back to my thoughts on Denis at the time

Denis believed in transference of consciousness (Powa in Tibetan, pronounced Poe Wa). In a letter written a few months ago to a mutual friend, he said:

“My dear friend my dog Jake died last weekend. I think I told you he had heart problems. His heart stopped early Sunday morning while he slept so he was in peace. He had sat with me through many meditations and listened to many prayers. I completed Powa for him the day after he died so I know he exists in a pure land now, but I experienced many feelings of loss and sadness.” 

In his suicide note, Denis also asked for me to guide Powa as his funeral. So of course I did. I mention some of the things I said below.

If someone you love has committed suicide, please feel that you can pray for them, whenever it happened – it is never too late. And you can also ask for this Powa practice to be done for them at Kadampa Buddhist Centers. Here too is a beautiful Facebook prayer request group.

What is Powa?

In Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe Kelsang explains:

Transference of consciousness was taught by Buddha in both the Sutras and the Tantras. According to the Sutras, transference is accomplished primarily through the power of aspiration, while according to the Tantras it is accomplished primarily through the power of controlling the winds. Tantric practitioners who can dissolve their winds into the central channel through meditation can eject their consciousness and take rebirth in a Pure Land through their own power. 

A Pure Land is a place or an experience beyond suffering. We have the potential or seeds for both heaven and hell, as it were. Which comes to fruition depends on which seeds we cultivate and 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.

LMDJThe 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 mastering our own thoughts. Faith (mixing with the pure minds of holy beings) and positive karmic potentials also play a part in helping us reach the Pure Land.

As does doing Powa for people who have died, which is a very powerful spiritual practice. I share some of my first-hand experience with it in this article. You can read all the details of how to do it in Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully. Many Kadampa Centers around the world also offer it once a month.

Denis’s Powa

The room was packed with 120 people — Sangha friends, his daughter, his brothers, his ex-wife, other family, clients, and a lot of Veterans. Most people in the room had never set foot in a Buddhist Center, some had no clue that Denis was a Buddhist. His family and friends packed the sitting room before Powa started, watching videos of him and crying. After the Powa, the atmosphere was very different. Many family members thanked us and said they felt real peace, a peace they were not expecting. His daughter said she felt huge relief and could start to move forward. People said they deeply appreciated being part of the ceremony, doing something so active to send him off.

chink of light

These are some of the things I said at Denis’s Powa:

“We are all here because we love Denis. We also know his good qualities. We want to help give him what he so yearned for, which is freedom, finally, from his pain.

Buddhism and other religions explain how the person is not their body. There is a lot more to Denis than his body. His formless mind, or awareness, continues now, past death; and so now through our connection we will help him, act as a bridge between him and the holy enlightened beings, however you envisage them, and especially the Buddha of Compassion.

Denis asked for this Powa and he had faith in it. He did it for many people himself, including his dog.

Denis had a lot of faith in the Three Jewels and a lot of love for his family and friends. From a Buddhist perspective we would say that he was not in his right mind last Friday and his uncontrolled, unpeaceful thoughts, or delusions, got the upper hand over his pure and kind nature. But the actual Denis is not these inner demons who tormented him — he was their victim. We are all very sad about this, but we can channel this sadness into compassion, sending him to a Pure Land where his body no longer hurts and these inner demons can harm him no longer.

Denis led a very caring life, creating huge good karma and many connections with us and with enlightened beings, so there is no doubt we can help him. Venerable Geshe Kelsang, Denis’s spiritual teacher, wrote to say he had done Powa for Denis and was praying. We all have love and compassion for him, and so now all we need is some openness or faith, and some concentration on the words and meditations. I will guide it a bit.”

What else can we do?

 “What do we do with the information that those whose lives we admire cannot bear to live … What hope is there for the rest of us?” ~ Time magazine, reporting on the celebrity suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade 

Perhaps we can develop more compassion for each other, both the people we know personally and the ones we don’t.

be kindRather than feeling envious, competitive, or annoyed when we see the lives of people more rich, famous, or powerful, here is an insight from Time magazine:

There’s also a case to be made for having more compassion. If people’s lives aren’t as amazingly blissful as they appear, perhaps people are not as evil or stupid as they appear, either.

I need to pay more attention to the people close to me who may be silently suffering. Not assume they are okay. Not neglect people for years on end. It doesn’t take much to reach out in genuine interest.

Correspondence with a friend

I would like to conclude these articles on suicide with emails I had with a friend whose husband of nearly 40 years killed himself in 2010. At the time she told me this correspondence helped her a great deal, so I repeat some of it here in case it might help other people too.

After she first told me M had committed suicide, I replied:

“You are strong, but I can only imagine how hard this is. It surely is one of the largest challenges we can face in a life full of challenges — having to let go so completely and utterly of our person whom we love very deeply, knowing there is nothing we can do to control or change his own path and karma, however much we want(ed) to. All we can do is to love him unconditionally forever, wherever he is, staying connected. And it helps to love and connect more closely with those who are still here, your beloved children, your friends. We can always ask holy beings for help, and prayer works very well when we are so close to someone.

If there is anything I can do, I will do it, please let me know. Meanwhile, I am going to continue to make many prayers for M so that he is protected and pain-free and takes rebirth in a Pure Land. I am also praying for you and your children to find all the support and inner resources you need to get through this time.”

A few weeks later she sent this:

birds flying image.png

In Geshe-la’s books, where do you think I could find some words to help me with my attachment to M … wanting him back on earth …. Can you give me guidance to passages that could ease my pain?

I replied:

I think that mourning is the process of letting go of our attachment and loneliness and being left with the love and feeling of being alive again. Everyone has to move through this when they suffer a great loss, but you can help this process along and even get something valuable out of it.

Almost any teaching would help as it will give you a bigger perspective and so diminish the pain. Sometimes when I am in pain I just pick up any of Geshe Kelsang’s books to a random page and see what happens, and the medicine always seems to help.

However, the Lojong or mind-training teachings are often the most helpful of all in combating severe pain because that is what they are designed for, to enable us to transform any adverse conditions, however desperate – Eight Steps to Happiness and Universal Compassion. Suffering doesn’t have to end up being bad. Understanding that in itself can lead to a certain mental freedom. My favorite Geshe-la quote for dealing with suffering is in Universal Compassion:

Moreover, suffering has many good qualities.
Through experiencing it, we can dispel pride,
Develop compassion for those trapped in samsara,
Abandon non-virtue, and delight in virtue.

Tara prayerDon’t underestimate the power of prayer, “wish paths”. Through prayer you’ll get blessings and your mind will be lifted. There are many stories documenting how radical blessings can be in helping us. As you know, a Buddha is someone who has overcome all distorted perceptions (mistaken appearances) permanently and has the power to help each and every living being find mental peace every day by blessing their minds.

Please ask the holy beings for help, they want to help you, they are waiting to. Tara for example. From the depths of your heart ask Tara to help you by taking refuge and reciting her mantra OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA. When we are feeling sad and vulnerable, we understand our existential situation and can go for deeper refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and our spiritual friends; and as a result we experience more blessings than usual.

Personally as well I like to do the equanimity meditation (eg, taught in Joyful Path of Good Fortune and The New Meditation Handbook) when I find myself finally parted from someone I love. I find it broadens my mind and scope of interest so that, in the words of that song, “if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one(s) you’re with.” Everyone is a suitable object of our love and you have been as close to everyone as you are to M. You can use your great love for him as an example to help you increase your love for others, and that love then becomes truly transformative. Imagine if you loved and wanted to protect everyone as much as you love and want to protect M. You have a lot of love in you already.

Over to you. I have been really appreciating your comments, stories, and other feedback on previous suicide articles, so please feel invited to contribute anything that might be helpful to yourself or other readers. Thank you.

Further reading

A Buddhist perspective on suicide

Reaching out

A first-hand experience of transference of consciousness

What is a Pure Land? 

A brother’s suicide

This too shall pass

 

 

 

The Great Escape

4 mins read and a video

Did you hear about the rescue of the 12 Thai boys and their coach? Probably, unless you were stuck down a cave yourself, because it was headline news all over the world. A feel-good story of heroism and selflessness that was a rare light in the increasingly surreal 24/7 news cycle, an international effort to extricate children that was a welcome break from the head-spinning politics of fear, resentment, and retrenchment.

Thai boys rescue

This was something we all seemed to pretty much agree on for a change. Common ground. Something we could understand, that brought us closer. Something “real”. A story that felt good to identify with and celebrate, and that gave people everywhere an opportunity to appreciate and exercise the common values of compassion and love innate to all of us, regardless of their religion or politics. Where I was, in London, there mission accomplishedwas a genuine eruption of rejoicing and high fives as the last boy was brought out.

And for me this story is deeply motivating in another way too …

Imagine this. You were looking forward to exploring a cave with your friends after routine soccer practice, but when you try to leave you find your exit flooded by an unexpected downpour.

You are all totally trapped. It is pitch dark, with a tiny bit of light from the flashlights. You have only the clothes you came in and a ledge to perch on. There is nothing to eat, for you were only planning on being there an hour; and for water you have to lick dripping stalactites. You are running out of strength. You feel sick. There are no toilets, and nothing comfortable to sit or lie on. You take turns trying to dig yourself out, but soon realize it’s hopeless. Perhaps worst of all, you have no idea if anyone is coming for you and, even if they do come for you, how on earth they are going to get you out of there.

Plus you are still just a boy.

This is going on for days, nine days so far, an eternity … Would you feel anguished? Agitated? Scared? Lonely? If anyone has a right to feel that way, it would be children trapped almost 1km underground.

Yet the first reports coming out revealed a very different picture. As one of their mothers said:  

Thai coach“Look at how calm they were sitting there waiting. No one was crying or anything. It was astonishing,” the mother of one of the boys told the AP, referring to a widely shared video of the moment the boys were found.

As it says in this article:

Instead of agitated and anguished, they were in a state of calm.

How could this be?!!

How Buddhist meditation kept the Thai boys calm in the cave

Later it transpired that the boys’ soccer coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, had lived in a Buddhist monastery for a decade and taught the boys to meditate!

I don’t know what meditations he taught them – perhaps breathing meditation and mindfulness of their body, feelings, and thoughts, given that this is the Thai tradition (but Thai boys meditatingI stand to be corrected). However, whatever it was, through meditation they clearly discovered the peace and calm we all have within us. They found sanctuary. Which makes me think:

If meditation works when you’re trapped underground, it probably works everywhere …

As it says in the same article:

That meditation would be a useful practice in an extremely stressful situation like being trapped in a cave is really no surprise. Buddhist meditation has been around for 2,600 years, since the Buddha began teaching it as tool for achieving clarity and peace of mind, and ultimately, liberation from suffering.

So I find this story enormously revealing and inspiring in that it shows us our indestructible mental potential, our so-called Buddha nature, as well as the accessibility and power of meditation in enabling us to access that natural peace and let go of all our worries and anxiety. Even in a situation where all our usual props have fallen away, such as in an empty cave deep underground, we can still learn to enjoy the refuge of inner happiness and freedom.

coach with boysThis is the real great escape we all have to look forward to. With practice, this can become freedom from all uncertainty and suffering, despite the diminishing props of all our lives. After all, when it comes right down to it, no one can give us actual freedom – we have to claim it.

Check out this news clip of a live national interview with a Kadampa teacher in Toronto, answering questions such as:

  • How would meditation be helpful in a stressful situation like this?
  • Can people learn meditation that quickly?
  • What is the capacity of someone that young to understand what they are doing when they meditate?
  • Meditation helped them mentally and spiritually, how about physically?

Hope you have a chance to watch this. And then get cracking with your meditation 😄 If you haven’t gotten started yet, maybe check out one of these articles and/or find a class near you.

Interesting update:

Thai boy monksThe 11 boys and their coach have been ordained as Buddhist monks for nine days! (The coach for longer, I believe.) Check out this article.

The boys, whose ages range from 11 to 16, will live in a Buddhist temple for nine days, the same length of time they were trapped in Tham Luang Cave in Chiang Rai before they were discovered by a team of divers.

Postscript: The power of prayer

Someone left this comment and I think it is worth repeating here:

The other thing I took away from this is the power of prayer. The whole world wished for the boys and their coach to be brought out safely alive. Prayer can also be called a wish path so the whole world, no matter what faith each person practiced, even those who claim no faith, was praying for their safe recovery. The potential for death was huge yet they are all alive. What brought together all the people with the knowledge needed to perform the successful rescue? The wishes/prayers of the whole world.

That leads me to the question, what would happen if the whole world spent as many days wishing deep in their hearts for an end to war?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why pray?

By the way, during that meditation I described on the meditation on the nature of the mind, the moment we notice we are distracted we can ask the same question, “What is it that is aware?” so that we return to the clarity of the mind, allowing the distracting concern to dissolve back into the clarity like a wave settling into a still ocean.

Pebbles-in-water501There are other legitimate things to do as well if we find ourselves too tempted to get involved with our thoughts — we can recall subtle impermanence, that these things are already gone, and in that way let them dissolve spontaneously away. Or we can recall the suffering nature of contaminated phenomena, that the end of collection is dispersion and so on, motivating us to deepen our meditation. These ways into the clarity of the mind were taught by Venerable Geshe Kelsang in his fantastic 2000 AD teachings combining Mahamudra and the four seals, and I’d love to get around to talking about them some day as they have helped me immeasurably. The main object of meditation is clarity, so once we have found that we stick with it; but we can use various contemplations to help us get there.

This article is part of a series of Mahamudra articles. Those of you who know about Lamrim, or the stages of the path to enlightenment, may wonder where meditating on the nature of the mind appears in the 21 meditations? It doesn’t explicitly, but it is our favored object of tranquil abiding (#19), and it does appear in many other places in the Kadampa books, such as How to Understand the Mind and Mahamudra Tantra, and in detail in two chapters of Clear Light of Bliss. It also features in Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s new book, The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, in which the first of the five stages of the actual practice of Mahamudra is identifying our own mind and meditating on tranquil abiding.

Prayers and blessings

You may have noticed that in this tradition we like to practice in conjunction with prayers (whether we say them out loud or not). When some of you first encounter the prayers, you think, “How wonderful, I love them!” … but there are not many of you. A lot of people’s initial response is “What? I thought they didn’t have this in Buddhism! I came to relax and now you want me to sing?!” And then we reconcile ourselves to the idea: “Ah well, I’ll settle my mind with the breathing meditation, let my mind rest and ramble during the prayers, and then focus again when I am back on the meditation.” That, of course, is not the idea. As Geshe Kelsang has warned us many times, we don’t want to get into the bad habit of parroting the prayers. Instead we can start off really well by communing with enlightened beings.

The main purpose of prayers is to change our mind in a good direction and to receive blessings. With blessings we are essentially connecting our mind to an enlightened being’s mind and, in doing so, adding a lot of power and fluidity to our meditations. This exponentially facilitates and deepens our experience.

This meditation on the nature of the mind is part of the Mahamudra practice, which is the heart essence of our lineage, the Ganden Oral Lineage, and lies at the very heart of our Spiritual Guide’s experience. So this particular Mahamudra lineage that we are receiving comes directly from Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the new Kadampa tradition; and it is exceedingly blessed. As Venerable Geshe-la says in Great Treasury of Merit, thousands of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples gained deep experience through putting these methods into practice, attaining the illusory body, clear light, and full enlightenment.

It is very important for us to recognize and think about blessings, for otherwise, when we meditate, WE try to meditate. Meaning that while identifying ourselves in an ordinary limited way, we try to coerce our mind into having very profound experiences of the subtle dimensions of reality. Basically, we are TRYING in the wrong way. We are putting the onus on our SELF, and in particular our ordinary sense of self.

I think often when we sit down to meditate we immediately bring up an association with our self, the one that is not that good at meditating. We only think about this sense of self when it is time to meditate, when we feel we need to cajole it, “This time, you are going to do it!”, and then basically push to have an experience of the clarity of the mind. And of course what can happen is that we end up not having this experience, which in a rather subconscious gratifying way affirms what we knew all along, ie, that we are not very good at meditating. It reinforces our underlying sense of discouragement, a common type of laziness.

This is a great shame with this great gift of Mahamudra. Hence, blessings.

Buddha is not outside our mind

Everything we experience is not outside our mind, nothing is outside the mind. For example, is the sound of the bird inside or outside? You cannot separate it from your perception, you cannot draw a line between the perception and the sound; so it is inside. Your experience of your friend is your experience of your friend, inside, not out.

Homs Syria
Aleppo, Syria, February 2016. We need enlightenment.

So when we bring to mind Buddha, he or she is not outside my mind. There is no need to buy into the dualistic appearance of a gap or separation – my isolated meditation over here and the Awakened Ones having a great time over there. When we pray, we are not petitioning external forces but awakening our own potential by recognizing it is not separate from the minds of all enlightened beings. And we are doing this for everyone.

Venerable Geshe Kelsang says every single peaceful mind and happiness arises through Buddha’s blessings. (There is a great explanation of that in this guest article.) According to Geshe-la:

Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and whose function is to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day. Only human beings can attain this through practicing meditation. How fortunate we are! ~ The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, p. 3.

We can understand that whenever we develop a positive mind, in that moment, when we allow ourselves to be happy, we have disengaged from delusions to some extent. We have allowed our mind to come into alignment with a Buddha’s non-deluded reality, which is pervaded by peace, joy, love, etc; tapping into a profound enlightenment.

Settling

So we need to allow that to happen rather than the clutching “Yikes, grab my peace, it’s disappearing!” rodeo experience of meditating. Our meditation should not be a rodeo; it should feel instead like a settling. The word we use, in Clear Light of Bliss for example, is “Settling like a still ocean.” We use our own experience of peace to help settle into a vast transcendent experience of peace, joy, etc.finding happiness

My peace is already connected to Buddha’s peace, great! So we start not from disconnection but from connection, from refuge, and allow the prayers to deepen that experience naturally. Geshe Kelsang has likened prayers to an old man’s stick, a reminder to their meaning. So we let the words suggest the minds, as opposed to forcing the minds and getting tired and distracted. We enjoy what we’re saying, saying it from the heart, while abiding in that communion.

Then when it is time to meditate, we do so while continuing to bathe in that experience – we don’t LEAVE the blessings. It’s not like filling our car up with gas and then driving off, here I am all on my own again. We meditate WITH blessings, we can even let the Spiritual Guide do the meditation for us for he really wants to help and he is very good at this. Instead of combat with obstacles, nay-saying, and distractions, we can really relax. From the point of view of the Spiritual Guide, there are no obstacles, and we are already fantastic. We could do a lot worse than to get into the habit of seeing ourself through his eyes.

Look in the mirror

Do you want to know what else I do?! I look at a picture of my favorite enlightened being and think I am looking in the mirror. We don’t have to feel that we are unworthy or light years pebble in wateraway from our Spiritual Guide or the Buddhas. That is ordinary appearance, and they don’t ever see us as ordinary or limited.

So feel free at any time during the meditation to reconnect with the Spiritual Guide and simply ask, “Please help me with clarity.” If we throw a pebble in the pond and wait, ripples will gradually arise. We ask for some guidance or inspiration, and then we wait.

Do leave a comment to add anything else that is helpful or ask questions.