I heard a discussion the other night about the difference between grieving and mourning. After acknowledgement that both terms get defined in many different ways, a basic consensus developed that grieving is the emotions felt due to a loss while mourning is the rituals undertaken to give form to that grieving. Based on that understanding, I’m about halfway through a period of mourning for a recently deceased relative, the period being defined as 49 days since the date of death, which, per Buddhist tradition, is the maximum duration of the journey from one life to the next.
This is not my first experience with mourning. When my beloved cat Fenris died a few years ago, I grieved intensely and found healing through mourning. In that instance, every evening for 49 days I read passages from the Thurman translation of the Bardo Thodol (The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between or Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State, commonly referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead) that are intended to guide the departed consciousness through the bardo (intermediate state) of death. Sitting there, exhorting Fenris to resist the allurements that lead to a lower rebirth and to instead focus on achieving enlightenment, rebirth in a pure land, or a precious human rebirth, I really felt like I was continuing to be helpful to him even though he was no longer nearby to feed or stroke or clean up after. I deeply felt the loss of this being who had loved me so utterly, completely, and selflessly. However, I didn’t want to hold him back with my grief. I was grateful to be able to lend my voice and my love to helping him complete his transitional journey.
As the most actively religious member of our household, I undertake the conduct of mourning rituals on behalf of our family. When a close relative recently was diagnosed with a rapidly progressing terminal illness, I contacted spiritual leaders in both traditions I currently practice in, to get advice about the appropriate mourning prayers to say after death. For the Plum Village tradition, I was referred to Chanting from the Heart: Buddhist Ceremonies and Daily Practices by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Monks and Nuns of Plum Village, which contains many prayers and practices, including ceremonies relating to death and dying. I decided that every seventh day after death I would recite the prayers contained in the ceremony for the the seventh and forty-ninth days after death.
In my email to my Tibetan teacher, I mentioned that I’d acquired a new translation of the Bardo Thodol; I expected that he would recommend which was the best to use. Instead, the answer came back that depending on which empowerment I had received I should do Buddha Amitabha or Bodhisattva Chenrezig practice, chanting the sadhana if I had time or the appropriate mantra if not. I have received both empowerments, but feel a stronger personal connection to Chenrezig given the Nyungne retreats I have done (which are practices of the Thousand-Armed Chenrezig). It was particularly helpful that I had recently found a very short yet lovely version of the Chenrezig practice on Lama Kathy Wesley’s downloads website (see Chenrezik for beginners down near the bottom), which seemed perfect for the situation. So every evening since death, I have been chanting this short practice of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, known in Sanskrit as Avalokitasvara, in China as Kuan Yin, and in Japan as Kannon.
My experience with the Chenrezig practice has been heightened since reading Bokar Rinpoche’s book Chenrezig Lord of Love: Principles and Methods of Deity Meditation, which is very unfortunately out of print (but apparently available in Kindle edition here). It is a slender volume chock full of insight, inspiration, and wonderful illustrations that really help with the visualizations that accompany the practice. Bokar Rinpoche beautifully explains that Chenrezig is both the complete expression of the union of emptiness and compassion (at the ultimate level) and yet also a manifested deity transmitting the love of all enlightened beings (at the relative level). As he says “We need the relative Chenrezig to realize the ultimate Chenrezig. The meditation on the form and attributes of the deity and the recitation of his mantra brings us to the realization of the compassion present in our mind that is also emptiness. The power of grace transmitted by the relative Chenrezig leads us to the absolute nature of our own mind whose dynamic is love and compassion.”
When I first began the 49 days of prayers, I felt a little strange to “only” be doing the Chenrezig sadhana, rather than what felt as the more personalized readings from the Bardo Thodol. However since our close relative died, another person I know has suffered a devastating loss, our second remaining cat is showing clear signs of impending death, and I have become aware of so many other deaths and losses, one upon another, never ending throughout time and space. No wonder the bodhisattva Chenrezig once got discouraged, shattered apart into a thousand pieces, and had to be reformed by Amitabha!
Now every evening when I call Chenrezig to mind and visualize my mind becoming as his mind, I try to see the light of that ultimate compassion radiating out not only to the one consciousness wandering the bardo that we knew and loved, but to all sentient beings in all the six realms, transforming suffering wherever it shines. While my mind sees the light, my mouth sounds the mantra OM MANI PADME HUNG, which Bokar Rinpoche describes as “the vector of [Chenrezig's] compassion, grace, and the strength of the wishes he makes for the benefit of beings”, which is “endowed with the capacity to purify our mind from the veils that obscure it”. I may currently have limited ability to help sentient beings, but I have Chenrezig-nature within me and that is the ultimate expression of love and compassion. As Bokar Rinpoche says “Given the infallible interdependence of all phenomena, it is certain that our relative and actual apprenticeship will bring the realization of these potential qualities.”
May all sentient beings, everywhere, be at peace.
Aspiration from Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara (Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life)
May I become at all times, both now and forever
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a servant to all in need.
- from the translation by Stephen Batchelor