I’m a believer!

By now many of you know that Colin Chase died on Saturday. Because it turns out that this man is extraordinary, this past week has been a surreal, heart-breaking, yet also curiously peaceful journey for many hundreds of people. I can’t begin to capture this collective experience, but I can share what I thought about it at the time it was happening.

Wednesday August 11th: A devoted disciple of Venerable Geshe Kelsang had a motorcycle accident last night, on August 10th, leaving him with catastrophic brain damage.

I can’t believe I am writing those words. Not least because Colin Chase is also one of my closest friends.

I am going to write stuff down now because I have been making non-stop prayers and I will be praying again soon, and in the meantime I don’t know where else to put myself. I am so very sorry for all of you close family and friends, I think I can guess at some of how you feel.

I just spoke to him via phone. I knew what to say. But it’s not enough time. There’s so much more that was supposed to happen. There were still so many more conversations to be had, so many more adventures in the mandala, so many more mountains to climb. I even want to tell him about the strangeness that is going on now.

Colin made me laugh and was kind enough to find me humorous too. He has been a very reassuring, loving presence in my life, and not just mine, of course. He was a great listener. He genuinely loved helping people. You could learn a lot from watching him interact with others even in difficult negotiations or tense situations – smart, worldly-wise, diplomatic, always thoughtful. His effortless kindness is the first thing I noticed about him many years ago, watching him in some interaction I’ve now forgotten at Manjushri KMC, before we’d even exchanged a word. There is nothing he would not do to help bring about Geshe-la’s wishes to establish a Pure Land for all living beings. “I’m a believer!” he joked with me recently, and this combination of devotion and love made his life amazing. He was kinda epic, to be honest.

Endless lives

All appearances in my dream teach me that all my appearances while awake do not exist. Thus for me all my dream appearances are the supreme instructions of my Guru. ~ Lord of all Lineages

Last week Colin reminded me of the vivid dream I had when he was visiting in June. He said he had been thinking about it all the time since then. This was the dream as I recorded it at the time:

I was standing on the edge of the virtual reality show of this life, but a vast abyss of empty space had opened up that I knew plunged to all my previous rebirths. I was tipping over – I could scramble back on to this life or I could let go. For some reason I decided to let go and fall to see what was there.

I fell fast and was seeing all my human rebirths, thousands of appearances and versions of me as a different human being in different places doing different things, sometimes male, sometimes female, etc.

I wanted to stop before I got to all my previous lower realm rebirths, starting with animal rebirths — that felt too scary, as if I may not be able to get out again. So I went for refuge to ask to return to the albeit even more obviously temporary appearances of this current life.

A special aircraft appeared and the pilot told me to buckle up while he flew me back up past all those lives. We stopped at one life where he introduced me to someone who I recognized, though he didn’t recognize me yet – I could tell he was a previous different-looking version of a someone I know in this life. In that life I was a woman with yellow hair and a round face.

I asked the pilot why I hadn’t gone all the way to the lower realms and why he was able to appear so I could get back up to my human life; and he said it was because I had purified a lot of the karma of killing, which was protecting me from lower rebirth. However, he also cautioned that I didn’t necessarily have enough good karma next time to come straight back up if I fell again. I had used some up and needed to create more.

Past and future lives exist, I have believed in them for as long as I can remember. I felt the need for all of us to go for very strong refuge because this life is entirely dreamlike, fragile, and impermanent. And where we go/what appears to us depends entirely on our karma.

Colin asked how if I, with all my merit, might not be able to get easily back into the human realm if I fell, what chance did he have? I replied that he had created astonishing merit, far more than me. He replied by generously listing all the things he thinks I’ve done. I replied by listing his good qualities and accomplishments. Anyway, you get the drift. He was always rejoicing in other people, never pulling them down.

Death on our minds

And in the last few months, death was on his mind. We had several conversations about it, and the fleeting nature of this life and our fragile silly bodies. Including his knees – he was due for double knee replacements next week (August 17), repayment for a lifetime of daredevil bodily risks. Talking of which, I said he’d be needing a wheelchair if he insisted on having both knees done at the same time. “No, I won’t. I’ll have crutches.” “You do know how crutches work, right?!”

And now he lies in Newark hospital, the need for knee surgery gone.

In an astonishing coincidence, the main spiritual director of Newark Hospital happens to be a New York Sangha member, Helen, charged now with taking care of Colin and the family. Her assistant is called Tara.

Testament to his outsized role in our tradition, at very short notice hundreds of people attended Tara puja live at KMC New York City and at the upstate NY and Grand Canyon World Peace Temples or tuning in online. We could see KMC NYC’s beautiful city temple on one side of the screen and Colin on the other. All the way through puja his chest was exaggeratedly inflating and deflating with the life support machine. Seared into many minds now is the image of his beloved mother Marsha, same cheekbones and red hair, sitting by his bed and stealing glances at his poor damaged head. What a gift she gave us in Colin.

Colin’s vital signs improved during puja. That has to mean something, right?

Conversations on life and death

Like I said, over the last few months we were having conversations about the brevity of life, how quickly each decade had flown by, and how little time we had left. We are moreorless the same age and have both been caring for our mothers lately, in the front row seats to great old age. I hoped we’d grow old together, hanging out, building centers (the architects’ drawings just landed for KMC CO’s new building, and I would love nothing more right now than to hear what Colin has to say about them). At the same time I kinda figured that Colin might not stick around for the ravages of extreme old age.

I am still taken aback by how early he checked out and, if I’m honest, a trifle annoyed. When I sent a photo of him in Colorado in June to a mutual friend, he replied: “Should Colin really be climbing trees?!” Of course not, nor ignoring my protests to climb onto the roof of KMC Colorado’s new building (the views, though, turned out to be worth it.) Nor should he have been riding motorbikes between hip and knee surgeries, but I have to acknowledge that this was typical Colin. He was probably always set to go out in a blaze of glory (from his perspective, not so much ours). Sitting it out in an armchair for years wearing slippers was probably never going to happen.

Maybe his mother knew this too. I hope she did. I guess we all have to accept now that he was made to live fast and die too soon.

I just re-read the last text I had from Colin yesterday afternoon (August 10) on my way up this mountain for a week to look after four dogs and cats while attending the remainder of the Summer Festival:

“I am very happy that you’re getting away!! When you get settled, please let me know when we might connect again. Enjoy the mountains, and please say Hello for me. I miss them, and look forward to returning soon!”

He didn’t reply to the text I sent back at 7.39pm MST. Turns out he was climbing onto his motorbike. And it also turns out that I am not the one who is getting away.

“Be joyful”

A friend of mine is part of a healing energy group and they just spent time tuning into him. I don’t know if you believe in these things or not, but I am going to share this anyway because it honestly does sound just like Colin.

Curiously to their minds, because they are not Buddhists and don’t know Colin, they kept getting a strong message from him, “Be joyful!”  After helping to clear out his chakras they normally infuse the person with a lot of energy, but they said that he was already completely full of positive energy and there was nothing to add. (They had no idea about the Tara pujas being held for him worldwide.) They also said that he was very determined. And the word “Rinpoche” kept coming to them, even though they didn’t know what it meant. (“Rinpoche” is the Tibetan word for “precious” and is applied to reincarnate Lamas.)

Today, Thursday Aug 12, I woke up today feeling hopeful that maybe Colin can be healed after all. I understand that quite a number of people dare share this optimism, quoting Colin’s lack of boundaries, how many crazy accidents he has pulled through before, and the power of the prayers. A lot of people are praying for his full recovery in today’s Tara prayers. Helen said today: “In general you do not come back from this and, if you do, you wish you hadn’t. But I’ve seen miracles. He is in the right hospital.”

Later on Thursday: But now, later this same day, we have heard the deeply sad news that the doctors could not stop the bleeding. Colin is brain dead. Again, I cannot believe I am writing these words, but Colin will be taken off life support tomorrow. Powa is planned for just after he dies.

Right-hand man

The last time we spoke on the phone, Colin told me he had just spent a 14-hour day at KMC NYC making sure everyone could tune in online to the Vajrayogini empowerment and teachings. He was very happy and we talked for over an hour. Thousands of people received these empowerments, and to begin with he was doing all the tech himself. Then he handed it off to 3 people he’d trained — rejoicing in them when he saw them on CCTV (he loved his CCTV, lol) – and headed off to see his family.

It is no wonder that there is an outpouring of people now, saying “he helped me”; he was always there to help. Within minutes of arriving at a Festival he knew everyone and everyone knew him. He has been instrumental in the success of KMC New York City, from the day he turned up and went off roller blading on the hunt for a new building. For Colin, nothing was a problem. No vision was too big. He found that beautiful space in a huge cooperative skyrise, and not only managed to acquire it for the Center but also became the most important board member in the whole building. Later Greg showed up and took on all the day to day volunteer projects, allowing him to be full-on visionary along with KMC NYC’s wonderful EPC Simone.

I’m also going to go right ahead here and call out the quiet heroine Laurie, assistant AD, who worked tirelessly by Colin’s side the whole time he was there — never one to steal any limelight, she was nonetheless the right-hand woman to the right-hand man.

The barefoot Bodhisattva

In his occasional day job, Colin was a fixer for the one-percenters, so he often had plenty of resources. (Sometimes he was broke, too). However, that wasn’t his lifestyle and he was usually just trying to give money away.  Colin’s leased apartment wasn’t really his – and indeed it never looked very lived in to me. Instead it hosted everyone and anyone who came through town, if they needed a place to stay. Colin was always barefoot, unless the occasion demanded shoes, such as the opera, when he might wear flip flops. He only drank sparkly water, no tea, coffee, or any other beverages. He would often camp at Festivals despite being easily able to afford something more comfortable. He loved sailing on the open seas. He loved the freedom of his motorbike. A few years ago he wanted to go riding in the Rockies:

Colin: Maybe you will consider taking a ride with me, through the mountains, if I reschedule my visit. xx
Me:  haha, i may consider it — but not sure about my precious human life 😃
Colin:  You don’t trust me?!?!
Me: aha, i do.

Colin told me, and I witnessed several times, that he didn’t really mind physical pain. During a painful lung infection a few years back, for example, he replied to my text: “In truth, I am fine now. My body just has a few challenges. There are so many people out there, who are truly suffering.”

He was astonishingly successful and made everything fun at the same time. A friend told me that he reminded her of what Heruka would be like if you met him:

“He managed to make everyone feel happy and strong. When you were around him, that was the quality he had. He was heroic and gave you what you needed, whether that was a hug if you were cold or helping to negotiate a million-dollar building. And it wasn’t like there was anything in it for him.”

Within seven lifetimes

Last week Colin called me with a question about Vajrayogini practitioners definitely going to Keajra within seven lifetimes, asking if that was a rumor or was it true. I replied that it is in The New Guide to Dakini Land:

It is said that even those with the least fortune who do not attain Dakini Land in the intermediate state will be led by Vajrayogini to her Pure Land within seven lives.

He was very excited for some reason, and wanted to know which lifetime I thought he might be in. I said not the first, because it is unlikely that he could have all these unusually good conditions coming together in his life on a first encounter with Guru Vajrayogini, given that each of them needs a lot of good karma to create. “So, who knows, maybe your 4th or 5th, or perhaps even your 7th!” Turns out that might have been right.

Helen

When this picture was taken of Colin and Helen in front of Compassion Buddha Avalokiteshvara, no one had a clue that she would be able to orchestrate at his bedside not only all the Tara pujas but the transference of consciousness puja, when Avalokiteshvara could lead him to the Pure Land.

Helen is a force of nature herself. She trained hard for years to be a Buddhist Chaplain, the very first person in the Kadampa tradition to do so. She landed this job very quickly afterwards because she excelled in her training. I asked her yesterday how many people and families she had helped die, and she said hundreds. She tries to make the right situation for people to die peacefully, and I asked her how. One woman wanted so badly to go home to die in Puerto Rico, but could not be moved. Helen asked her what exactly about home she missed and, upon hearing that it was the scents and the plants and the food, she recreated that for her in the ICU.

She didn’t have time for attention to detail last year, however, when she had to help six or seven different people and their families every day during COVID. “That was a different world.”

What a meaningful job! Venerable Geshe-la has said that helping people die well is the kindest thing we can do. And helping their families find some measure of peace at one of the very worst times of their life is also no small feat. If any of you are looking for a career path … but I do believe this is not for the faint-hearted.

Helen said that she hopes that Colin’s death will also spark conversations about the end of our own lives and whether or not we want DNR and so on. (I did my Living Will a couple of months ago, it only took about 15 minutes, FYI.)

“Nothing gets in the way of that!”

It is thanks to Helen that I was able to talk to Colin in his last two days. I asked if I could say a few words into his ear and she did one better, organizing a WebEx between the end of visiting hours at 6 p.m. and the nighttime shift at 7 p.m. Talking to him for what turned out to be well over an hour was surprisingly not difficult. Here is the jist of some of what I said.

“Hello my beloved friend, and farewell for now, just for a short while though, I will see you on the other side. I know you’re going to enjoy being in Keajra so much sending emanations to help us all and everyone else — it’s what you’ve been practicing for the whole time I’ve known you, you were made for the Pure Land! You will so enjoy helping Geshe-la help everyone now on a grand scale. I do believe this was your seventh and final lifetime in samsara, just like we were speculating the other day.

Thousands of people have been praying for you because it turns out that you helped too many people to count. People are wondering when you had the time?!

Your family were very happy to discover about your life, and the powa we are doing tomorrow will bring your birth family and your Sangha family together in a way that you would love. The mother of all sendoffs awaits you, you created the cause for hundreds of people to send you the Pure Land. We insist you go. You are going anyway, but we’re going to make sure of it.”

I did make him promise us two things because he always liked to keep his promises: (1) he needed to visit us all with his emanations, including KMC NYC and KMC CO to finish those projects he started; (2) if he insisted on leaving early, he needed to set things up for me and everyone else to join him in the Pure Land. After all, that’s what he did. As he texted himself the other day:

This is Geshe la’s work, and NOTHING gets in the way of that!!!

Before I left, I asked the nurse to touch his heart to indicate we are all going with him, and then to touch his crown.

I thought that was it, but the following morning one of Helen’s assistants called again unsolicited to see if I’d like to talk to him. Of course I wanted to. Then again in the afternoon, I got this rather wonderful call:

Hello L, this is Tara. I have Colin here. Will you talk to him?

So that was lucky for me.

I also talked to him a lot about what the Pure Land is like from things I’ve read, “without even the name of mistaken impure appearance”, where even stepping on the ground gives rise to bliss. How it is full of all the things he loves, but all completely pure and known to be illusory, like dream oceans and dream mountains. How he will send emanations. It was me doing all the talking, of course, but a conversation nonetheless, because, along with Helen, I believe that people in this situation can hear “beyond words and sounds” as she put it. This is not least because I had this experience with Bob — his brain was also gone when Cheryl and I talked him into the Pure Land, yet “it worked”. That story is here.

I also shared with him several beautiful messages, such as from Sara Wendt, his “little red-headed childhood friend”, who did us all the big favor of introducing him to our tradition. And this one from Gen Samten:

“Please tell him that a life lived with kindness is a life lived without regrets. Please tell him that he has brought happiness to so many people in so many places. And please tell him that it is time for him to leave now, to let go of this life and to move on to a pure world where he can work with Geshe-la to bring happiness to many people.”

August 14th: I dreamt vividly of Colin last night, he was very youthful and joyful, it was blissful to see him, and it felt like he was on his way to the Pure Land.

In a dream, a girl meets a boy and sees that he is dying. She is happy to meet him but unhappy to see him dying. We should understand that all phenomena are like this. ~ Buddha

I have been contemplating how Colin is mere name not other than emptiness and therefore can be Heruka. It is worth pointing out that all this has been going on during the retreat section of the Summer Festival, (good timing Colin!), where Gen Rabten has been giving profound instructions, including on what Buddhas experience. The suffering hallucinations of Colin’s gross mind are about to be all over for him, and indeed could be for us too, if we really want them to be.

Accepting the sorrow

Talking to myself … There are a million ways to transform this sadness, but I have to accept that it is there first, not paper over the cracks. Use the heartbreak to allow my heart to grow. Practice the yoga of equalizing samsara and nirvana. Not be attached to my sorrow, nor the ordinary narrative of our friendship.

Accepting the suffering means not repressing it, but at some point we know it is empty and we let it go, to be replaced by compassion and joy. I did this this morning, which is the day of his powa.

It is our joy, compassion, love, wisdom, and pure view that will help Colin get to the Pure Land, not dragging him with our sadness. But this is a process for everyone, it has to be natural, not forced nor pretended. We can’t tell people who are grieving: “Think like this and you’ll stop being sad”, and assume that’ll work. We cannot be disconnected from our sadness; it is the sadness which gives us the realization that suffering is unbearable. From there we can develop authentic renunciation and compassion, hence “Suffering had good qualities.” Then we can also view it as mere name. It is mere mistaken appearance blocking us from seeing the truth of bliss and emptiness.

The powa, 2.25pm EST, August 14th

Nearly 1,000 people attended Colin’s powa, joining in from all over the world. And it was very powerful. This has got to be a first. Who were you, Colin Chase?! As a friend said:

“Colin really did get a Powa Express, not too many have 500+ people on stand-by for your last moment in this life to send you off to the Pure Land. His kindness & bodhisattvaness touched countless beings ”

I think many people now feel deeply supported to know that we are united not only in our grief but also now in the knowledge that we can do this for each other – we can send our friends, Sangha, and family to the Pure Land. It is inspiring to see how our Sangha is open-ended because everyone is welcome, and that none of us has a monopoly over anyone else’s affection or memory, we are all learning to love one another.

At my deathtime may the Protectors, Heroes, Heroines and so forth,
Bearing flowers, parasols, and victory banners,
And offering the sweet music of cymbals and so forth,
Lead me to the Land of the Dakinis. ~ The New Guide to Dakini Land

During his death and for about an hour after I had an unexpected and good experience that I won’t share here, but that was in keeping with everything else that has been happening these last few months and days. It convinced me that Colin is now in the Pure Land of the Dakinis.

For such practitioners, death is just mere name – they are simply moved from the prison of samsara to the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka. ~ Heruka Root Tantra

I will just say that we are usually so dualistic about samsara vs nirvana, for the Pure Land is mere name away at all times. We go where our mind goes. How many different ways has Guru Heruka explained this to us?!? He couldn’t have made it clearer.

Enlightenment is reality, it is right here. So of course the Pure Land is right here.

Living meaningfully, dying joyfully

I feel that Colin’s life and death have had a large impact on our Kadampa tradition, that something has shifted for a lot of people. It was a meditation on death par excellence, our own life of approx 4,000 weeks not to be taken for granted, not even a day of it. Of course we all die – we don’t all die on a stage, though, in a five-day drama watched by hundreds of practitioners. It revealed what happens if you do spend your whole life being kind — living meaningfully does mean you’re going to die joyfully. We have seen the power of the Guru and the power of the Sangha. We can do this for each other.

Honoring him

When someone I love and respect dies, I try to honor them by adopting some of their good qualities; and that may merit another article. Colin would read this blog from time to time and generously told me: “Your writing draws people into their heart, and leaves them yearning for more. That, my dear lady, is an unparalleled talent.” So perhaps he will be reading this along with all the comments I hope you will leave below. Please leave comments! Tell your stories. Let us be encouraged by this man’s life and works.

(Since I posted this, a lot of you have kindly sent inspiring comments below, thank you! This includes people (and good writers!) who knew Colin well such as Greg and Michelle — very well worth reading if you get the chance.)

Colin, if you are reading this … you may not fully appreciate how much you are loved and by how many. That, and riding a motorbike, might be the worst faults you had. But it doesn’t matter now because the Guru and Dakinis have you. I know we’re going to be hanging out again in the mountains of Keajra one way or another. We’re all going to be having endless fun with the Heroes and Heroines of Geshe-la’s mandala, a mandala that you’ve already been a huge part of creating. It is your home, where you belong, where we and our families all belong. Indeed, where else could you be now but there already, inseparable from your beloved Spiritual Father — paving the way, as ever, for us all to see through the illusion and join you.

 

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

 

 

 

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 deeply upset, 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.

 

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

I want to explore over a couple of articles what Buddhists think about suicide. A friend of mine has kindly shared her story.

My brother was 19 when he killed himself.

When someone commits suicide, it feels like an angry act; and those left behind feel this anger. This can be very confusing because often the person who kills themselves was not that way in their life, and frequently they were quite the opposite. We also feel guilty because we get angry at them for leaving us, and it is easy to feel like they somehow did it to hurt us.suicide-of-brother

These feelings are so overwhelming for the survivors and yet, even today, people rarely deal with the anger parts of suicide. Many times there is no indication that someone is thinking of suicide except for a chronic subtle sadness or a lack of much happiness despite having good conditions. It ends up to be such a confusing time. Even nowadays people move away from the uncomfortable arena of suicide, meaning that those left behind can begin to feel that the event is somehow a reflection of them. No one wants to visit the bereaved for fear they will have to talk about “it” and they won’t know what to say. The survivors end up alone, confused, and, often, subconsciously blaming each other because they don’t know what else to blame.

My own parents ultimately divorced after years of this — they lost their faith in the church that they had both served their entire lives because suicide was seen as a horrible act, a sin. The neighborhood in which I was raised also experienced a lot of emotional trauma after this event, which happened in 1971 when suicide was very rare, especially in young people. Plus, as they say, my brother had “everything going for him”. Recently I heard, suicide is now the 3rd leading cause of death in young males aged 15 to 25. A recent New York Times editorial stated that 60% of gun related deaths (30,000/year) in this country are suicides.

healingNo one has an answer that really helps except Buddha, in my experience.

In hindsight, I was only able to cope with my own loss by caring for others as a nurse. Unknowingly, nursing became my own healing practice; and now I understand through Dharma that not focusing on my own loss and, instead, helping others was a powerful step in my own recovery from grief. I believe my Spiritual Guide, Geshe Kelsang, emanated all of it for me until I could meet him again.

After 15 years of therapy and searching for an answer, I met Kadam Dharma through a powerful Kadampa teacher and Buddhist nun. In my first meeting with her, which was very soon after I started attending a General Program class, naturally one of my first questions was: “What does Buddha say about suicide?” This was a major test, and her answer would determine whether I would stay or go.

She was honest and loving, and so comfortable talking about this topic, which was very different from any of my previous experiences. I wanted to know if my brother was being punished for his action, because I did not believe that someone who despairingly took their own life could be punished by a loving Deity … if there was one. He was my “everything” and I just buddhaavalokiteshvaracouldn’t believe that, if he was sad enough to take his own life, he would then be punished after death as well. I left my early religion because of this contradiction. I also wanted to know why I felt so much anger from his action because he was not like that … and why I felt afraid at times of the intense anger surrounding the event. Suicide is never a gentle death.

Basically, what I remember her saying was that Buddha doesn’t punish anybody! That was a winner. Secondly, she said people take their lives due to delusions (negative uncontrolled thoughts and feelings) in their heart, which make them believe that they will never be happy. This is so hard to bear that they naturally experience anger, and that anger turns inward and they kill themselves to stop the pain and sadness. They do this believing that death will end their suffering, just as when you go to sleep and all your problems disappear.

So then I asked her, is he in hell then? She replied that killing is a negative action in Buddhism as well, and it does have karmic consequences. However, my brother obviously had so much inner pain and struggle that he was unable to see any other solution, and Buddhas understand that pain and always have compassion for us when our delusions are stronger than we are.

And then she told me that even though he had passed away many years before, I could do a special practice for him, called “powa” or “transference of consciousness”, which would ensure that he would take a Pure Land rebirth either now or in the future.

It was an amazing day for me, and as my understanding of Dharma has grown, so too has my understanding of my brother’s death. The horrible nightmares left shortly after I met Dharma and talked with my kind teacher.

Now when I talk with others who have lost loved ones to suicide, what I always like to share is that their delusions at that moment were just stronger than the person they really were, and so the delusions won. There is nothing to be afraid of other than our delusions. Now, whenever I remember my brother, instead of pain I just feel love.

Thank you, Geshe-la.

A storm on Belleair Beach

When I first met Phyllis Kalinowski, she was already dead.

She had a hole above her left eye, where she had just been struck by lightning.

And, lightning notwithstanding, I had just been intending to stroll along that beach and swim in that ocean. Instead, I crouched by her and did transference of consciousness (powa) until the first responders arrived. Phyllis Kalinowski struck by lightning

This is a beach I have never been on before. It was several miles from where I normally swim. We only chanced upon it because there was a big storm. When we were walking onto our normal beach, everyone else was walking off it, even though it wasn’t raining yet; and two women warned us rather sternly: “Don’t go out there.” So we didn’t, as they seemed to us like Tara. But still we felt strangely impelled to drive around looking for another beach, and it looked a bit less dark and thunderous further south.

You can probably tell from my wandering around in a storm that I always assumed the whole “you can get struck by lightning” thing was grossly exaggerated. But, as one of the first responders told me:

“It happens all the time around here.”

The most dangerous time is before the rain starts – once you’re wet, the lightning apparently glances off you.

Nowhere is safe. Phyllis was feet away from the idyllic Gulf of Mexico where, like us, she clearly thought she could get away with a stroll. She wasn’t yet headed toward shelter – and she unfortunately happened to be the highest lightning conductor on the beach. She had fallen flat on her face. Her friend, finding her like that, turned her over onto her back. Then, I imagine, her friend screamed – and when we first saw her she was hurrying away as fast as she could, wailing. She was being comforted by an older stranger, and I was wondering at the incongruity of someone dressed in a swimsuit on a beautiful beach being this stricken. Why did she go to the beach in the first place if she was this distraught? And, if something had upset her since she got to the beach, what could it possibly have been? Seeing us approach, she said in an odd echo, “You don’t want to go down there!”, but then said not another word as the woman led her away.

We expected to see something as we walked over the sand bank, but we were not expecting Phyllis. Another stranger, a man, had offered to guard the body while waiting for the first responders. He looked very uncomfortable and stood at some distance away. Other than that, no one else was on the beach. I felt very sorry for Phyllis – her friend was hysterical and this man clearly didn’t want to be there. She needed some peace around her, so we went close to her to meditate and pray.

Her arms and hands were flung out, relaxed. Despite the big hole in it, her face did not look scared. It must have been instant death. Mysteriously, her sunglasses had not fallen off. This did not look like someone asleep though. Her consciousness had clearly departed, hopefully through her upper chakras, leaving just her flesh. There is literally all the difference in the world between a dead body and a live one. I could tell from her face that she was not much older than me. According to the news reports the following day, she was 51. Her body had strong tan lines so I assumed she was a Florida native – it turned out she came from Brandon and had gone to the beach that day with her old friend to shell and swim.

Phyllis 2
These guys came after the first responders to take the body away.

The flashing lights and sirens heralded the approach of the first responders. They felt her pulse, nothing. She was already cool to the touch. They opened her eyelids, and her eyes “looking” at me were hazel brown and quite, quite unseeing. They cut her swimsuit off, with a view to restarting her heart. This is nothing she was expecting when she woke up that morning. It was nothing she was expecting even twenty minutes earlier. The indignity of her flesh, cherished and guarded throughout her life, now laid bare; I looked away then. Their efforts did no good anyway, she was still dead. They covered her with a yellow plastic sheet. Professional, swift — they were used to dead bodies, this much was clear, though a couple of the younger paramedics couldn’t disguise a look of surprise when they first saw her wound. 

Karma strikes again

Phyllis and us had the karma to be on that beach at (almost) the same time. How did we come to this moment? We clearly had some connection with her—strange, fleeting, but hopefully helpful as it led to a transference of consciousness and many prayers being made. When and how did we meet in the past? How did she create the causes to have so many Buddhists praying for her?

According to all the papers and news shows, Phyllis was a great person. “She was just wonderful, she was so giving to everybody’. “Those who knew the wife and mother of two described her as an energetic, outgoing and compassionate woman.”

Do you ever wonder why we have chance meetings, and what is their meaning? How many people are there in our karmic circle, whom we share life with every day – 5, 10, 20, 100? How many family members, friends, and colleagues? Then how many millions of people do we meet for one minute or two minutes during the course of our lives, nodding at each other on the street, or having a momentary conversation about something that may or may not be meaningful to both of us? Yet at the same time we have entwined karma and a deep connection with each one of them, dating back lifetimes.

Our meetings, however brief, need never be superficial or insignificant. There is always something positive we can do with our mind when others cross our path. As P said on Tuesday, as we watched the people walk by in Liverpool One, “People-watching is so meaningful if you use Dharma!” There is a beautiful verse in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

Therefore, in whatever I do,
I will never cause harm to others;
And whenever anyone encounters me,
May it never be meaningless for them.

I am so sad for Phyllis and her family and friends, but I am glad we were there that surreal day. She helped me deepen my experience of the truth of Dharma and I hope, thanks to the Buddhas and other friends, that I was of some use to her.

Brief encounters

A lot of people saw my Facebook posting about Phyllis and were praying for her even before her strange death hit the news the following morning.

Oscar the kitten in Kadampa LifeThat same evening, my first foster kitten Oscar died of FIP, just over a year old. I coincidentally had the chance to say goodbye to him when I arrived at Orlando airport a week earlier, as his mum and dad live nearby. Oscar was a beautiful little fellow inside and out and no cat could ever want a more perfect, loving home, so it was very sad. Oscar however created the causes for many Facebook friends to care and pray for him too. 

A few days later, Dianne Elliott also died, of a heart attack that was not unexpected given years of poor health, but sudden nonetheless. Dianne was a long-term Buddhist practitioner and a beloved woman, and her funeral (in Barrow last Wednesday) was by far the best one I have ever been to. Although she will be very missed, I think we all felt she had gone to the Pure Land, in keeping with her foremost and most constant wish:

At my deathtime may the Protectors, Heroes, Heroines, and so forth,
Bearing flowers, parasols, and victory banners,
And offering the sweet music of cymbals and so forth,
Lead me to the Land of the Dakinis. ~ Quick Path to Great Bliss

DianneI first met Dianne in Florida too, but we go back many years and share many experiences and good friends, and so the connection is clear. The day before her death, oddly enough, I had ridden her old bicycle and driven past her old apartment, and was thinking of her. I heard the news by text message, but most people heard about her death within hours of it being posted on Facebook, and powas and prayers were made for her worldwide.

A week later, little Losang Tenpa died. Although he had spent his whole short life in Nepal and India, there were hundreds of Westerners who loved him, rooted for him, and prayed for him. All this also through the collective karma of Facebook, where big Losang Tenpa posted moving accounts of the last few hopeful, heroic months and then his sudden, tragic passing. Good article about it here, on the Heart of Compassion blog. 

Collective karma

Facebook seems to have increased the number of daily encounters we can make — friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends, or the people (including animals) whom we are asked to help and pray for every day… (It seems everyone can have their fifteen minutes of fame thanks to Facebook…)

All in all I find that Facebook can be pretty meaningful–or as meaningful as I want it to be–if I log on to increase my love, Losang Tenpacompassion, and sense of connectedness with a wide world web of living beings. Though it can of course be a huge exercise in distraction, it seems in some ways to be the result of good collective speech karma. Dianne’s husband said he felt a bit strange about announcing his wife’s death on Facebook, but the fact is he knew it would do the trick. When I die, I hope to have the good karma to be posted on Facebook too. It is through Facebook, after all, that thousands of people were able to tune in and make strong prayers for Dianne, Phyllis, little Tenpa, and Oscar, within short days or even just hours of their unscheduled departures from this life.

Related articles

What do you see when you look at a stranger?

A temple for this place and time

Preparing for the Pure Land

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?

Transforming a great sadness: a Buddhist nun’s tale

Here is an article from a guest writer, Kelsang Chogma.

I will explain how Dharma transformed a very difficult situation for me. This may seem like an extreme situation, but hey, this is samsara and you have to work with whatever it throws at you.

A few years ago my brother was killed in Afghanistan, along with thirteen other soldiers. It was a horrendous death in which their bodies were apparently ‘fragmented’; which meant that they had to be repatriated to the UK before all their parts could be identified using DNA sampling. What this meant for my family, and the other thirteen families, was of course a lot of pain, but through it all I also learned an incredible amount about the truth of Dharma, Buddha’s teachings.

The first thing I learned is that we need to have a knee-jerk, reflex action of going for refuge to the Three Jewels. It needs to be the most familiar reaction to any situation, so that it’s instantaneous, spontaneous. For in the first few minutes when I saw my mum almost hysterical with the pain from hearing the news of her son’s death, I forgot to go for refuge. Those few minutes taught me a lot. They taught me how it feels to experience samsara completely exposed without it’s deceptive veneer; how people without any refuge experience such unbearable pain that you feel like your heart has been ripped out and you’ll just die on the spot; and how the moment we go for refuge and pray for others with all our heart, that pain subsides and we become a source of refuge for the people we pray for.

The coffins of the authors brother and his thirteen friends

Within a few days each family got to spend time with all fourteen coffins in a make-shift chapel on an RAF base in Scotland. I remember they looked quite beautiful all lined up together in two neat rows of seven, with Union Jack flags draped perfectly in line with each other; and the smell of the wooden coffins filling the room. As I sat there in silence with the rest of my family, we just gazed at the coffins. At first all the coffins were equal to me as I had no idea which one contained my brother’s remains, for all I knew it might be all of them. Each coffin was just as important as all the rest, and in turn my feelings toward the men who’d died felt equal and my mind felt surprisingly peaceful. I started wondering which coffin my brother was in, and I focused on the one nearest to me, wondering if it contained his body. Immediately my mind became unpeaceful and I started getting really upset. What upset me most wasn’t that here might be my brother’s body but that suddenly that one coffin was the only one that mattered and the other thirteen coffins were irrelevant to me, like they didn’t even exist. It came as quite a shock and it just felt so wrong – these were my brother’s friends, his colleagues, who’d died in just the same way; and yet suddenly they didn’t matter. I will never forget that moment when I realised how immediate the painful effect of delusion is in our mind and how horrible it feels to disregard people who really do matter. I reminded myself that I didn’t know which coffin my brother was in and how all these guys were equally important – and my mind became peaceful again. I realised that what I was experiencing was the beautiful peace of equanimity.

Another thing that struck me as I sat there is that the parts of the body are definitely not the body, just as Geshe Kelsang explains in his books. If someone had come along right then and shown me all the fragmented parts of my brother’s body all put back in the right places, it could never have satisfied my wish to see my brother’s body as a whole, solid, unitary thing. I wished to simply see my brother’s body, not it’s parts assembled together. Nothing anyone could ever show me would match up with the image in my mind, but isn’t it the same now with all phenomena?

Another thing I learned was that even simple meditations done for just a few seconds can have an amazing immediate effect. At my brother’s funeral I was asked to read out fond memories of him that family members had written. I remember sitting in the chapel with his coffin in front of me and a picture of him on the wall above. He was given full military honours and many of his RAF colleagues and other officers were present; with the flag draped over his coffin and his RAF hat laid on top. As the service progressed I could feel myself getting more and more anxious as it came closer to the time for me to get up. I could feel my legs shaking and I didn’t know if I’d be able to even stand, let alone speak. I tried to imagine that my brother’s photo was a picture of Geshe-la, like the one I have above my shrine at home, gazing at me, smiling and encouraging me. I suddenly remembered a meditation Geshe-la had taught at the festival that year, from Mahamudra Tantra, the meditation on turning your mind to wood – absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thoughts – so I did just that. I stopped listening to the service, I stopped feeling anything, thinking anything, held my mind still, and imagined I was an inanimate object, completely without thought. Just for a few moments it felt like slipping the gearbox out of gear, like things were going on around me but I wasn’t engaged at all. Then I started listening again and found that it had worked! I was ok, I had my Spiritual Guide with me and in a very distressing, adverse condition I had remembered some of his instructions and I’d put them into practise and felt their benefit. I knew that I’d be ok, and I was. I got through it with a picture of Geshe-la and one of Tara on the lecturn with me, and with my mala in my hand and my Guru at my heart.

We did a Powa, transference of consciousness, for my brother and I’m certain he went to the Pure Land – he sure has helped me get a little bit closer.