I’ve been struggling with focus the last few weeks as a number of unexpected events have brought suffering and impermanence directly to the forefront of my experience. The regular sitting meditation practice I had been carefully cultivating crumbled in the face of uncertainty and stress. Most days I had no formal practice at all, though I continued to practice mindfulness as much as I could manage.
I also did tonglen meditation, a Tibetan Buddhist breath meditation where you breathe in the pain and suffering of sentient beings and breathe out peace and happiness. Tonglen is a practice to develop bodhicitta, the mind intent on attaining enlightenment for the benefit of others. It’s also a wonderful, simple meditation when in the presence of suffering or when personally experiencing pain. If you’re interested in more direction, Lama Kathy Wesley has 2 excellent, concise PDFs about tonglen on her website here.
My Dharma reading the last few weeks has concentrated on being with, preparing for, and helping others cope with death and loss. I’ve recently acquired a great many excellent Buddhist books on the topic and so far have particularly enjoyed the two that I will profile in this blog.
Making Friends with Death: a Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality by Judith Lief, a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, guides readers first to develop a personal awareness of death (including through guided contemplations to help us understand our own beliefs and fears about death), then to accept our own vulnerability (including instructions in tonglen practice), and finally to be better able to help those who are dying (including very valuable specific advice about how to be with those dying as well as a discussion of pitfalls and negative behaviors to avoid). This is a book that needs time to digest, as it leads the reader along a gentle yet focused progression of developing understanding, compassion, and empathy in the face of death and loss.
Dying with Confidence: A Tibetan Buddhist Guide to Preparing for Death by Anyen Rinpoche, as the name suggests, takes a specifically Vajrayana approach to the subject matter. I enjoyed the very direct, no-nonsense attitude of the author as he lays out the practical considerations that Tibetan Buddhists need to think about in relation to their own deaths, including specifically how to prepare a “Dharma Will” and “Dharma Box” to ensure that our spiritual practices are respected at the end of our lives. He also gives a thorough overview of the experience of death from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective.
As a master teacher of the phowa (transference of consciousness at the moment of death) practice (he even has his own foundation dedicated to instructing phowa), Anyen Rinpoche definitely emphasizes that particular practice. He also urges readers to create a “Dharma Vision” after taking a hard, honest look at our current spiritual practice so as to assess where we are on the path now and where we want to be at the time of death. As he explains, death is the one certainty that we all will face, but we don’t know when it will come. Unless our practice is stable and deep now, we will have little chance of maintaining it in the face of the pain and uncertainty that often surrounds death, which is, as he says, the most potent opportunity for a Buddhist to practice. The quality of our consciousness at that time will play a huge role in determining our rebirth or even allowing us to attain enlightenment in the bardo. Thus, we should design our Dharma vision with the intent of deepening our commitment to practice.
Anyen Rinpoche says we must be honest about our own spiritual attainments and potential. He recommends that we focus on the repetition and memorization of particular practices that we are most connected to, rather than constantly acquiring new empowerments and practices. We are much more likely to be able to connect with our regular practice at the moment of death.
One paragraph that particularly resonated with me was “Western students like to take a lot of notes at teachings, but I am not sure what happens to those notes after the student goes home. Condense your notes and make them truly your own; compose your own version of the teaching for personal use. Don’t make something up, but write what your teacher taught you, in a way that is meaningful especially to you. Read it again and again over time. Then if a friend reads it for you as you are dying it will be easy for you to remember and actualize the essence of these teachings.” As a result of reading this, I’ve recently been transcribing the notes that I’ve taken over the years at Dharma teachings so that I can better remember and hopefully internalize what I’ve heard.
I have a lot more books to read, a lot more practice to do, and a lot more mental stability to hopefully attain. My recent experiences have invigorated my motivation to strengthen and focus my practice.
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
~ Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Volume I