Death

Since I just recently posted a couple of poems about death, you might get the idea that I am dwelling on this topic. I don’t even know what “dwelling” means in this case; one man’s dwelling is another’s obsession.

I don’t know you, but am becoming increasingly conscious of the entropy of my days. Perhaps you’ve had a brush with mortality in the form of disease, declining function or an accident. I have been fortunate in that regard. But otherwise, I doubt I am very far from average. I don’t think much about my death in general, but every time I have an encounter with impermanence, a disappointment, a loss, someone else’s loss, whether it’s a specific or a general loss such as, you know, a gas attack or any of the fanatical US military escapades abroad, famine, disease, I’m likely to contemplate, even if for only briefly, my own demise.

There are other times when one encounters mortality, such as in deciding what to do with one’s stuff or completing an advanced health care directive. In fact, recently I had to decide who to put on a list of people I designate to receive my personal medical information. The only time I could imagine such a list being relevant or such information being useful would be if I was incapacitated or at the end of life.

Just the other day I was looking at my premium notice for long-term care insurance. I don’t know how many people have such policies, but the decision to get one is  accompanied by journeys into end of life scenarios. And those journeys can become complex, even take on a life of their own if you aren’t careful. Although most people prefer to think of their demise as a short period of declining health or even a sudden event such as a heart attack or stroke, the reality is that for the majority, the end of life is a long and slow process. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the segue from denouement to the downhill slide.

That being the case, some years ago I decided to insure myself against the potentially exorbitant expense of personal care out of concern that my family should not be burdened with that responsibility if I could possibly relieve them of it. But here was this premium notice in front of me and I started thinking about my life expectancy and the relative values of the insurance versus other options. It’s a crapshoot, really. And this is only one way of thinking about one’s death.

Another way has taken place intermittently for me over the past few years. From time to time, I have meditated on feeling my way into the precise frame of mind I would choose to generate at the moment of my death. This has been an deeply illuminating practice of construction, not very different from the vajrayana practice of guru yoga. What usually occurs is that for short periods I am fully able to internalize an expansive and infinitely generous state, settling deeply into vast spacious clarity, unlimited and unreserved loving and also…not surrender, but a fearless acceptance. A choice. What is also interesting about this practice is that while I can visualize myself in some undetermined future, I am less adept at generating this state in the present moment. It’s much easier as a hypothetical than as an immediate reality. Hmmm.

I noticed right away that there were obstacles to sustaining this frame of mind. I began to  look more closely at what these obstacles were and engage with them as if they had personalities of their own. Invariably, they involve some form of self-cherishing, some need to concretise my beliefs, hold onto an identity. I was either afraid of feeling my fears or exploring attitudes that limit my ability to open completely to the possibility of unlimited, unconditional, unrestrained loving regard for all. There is something in the way that needs to protect itself, guarding against the prospect of that loving regard not being returned….or a plethora of other reasons. If there was any sense of opening resulting from these internal encounters, it was from realizing that if there’s no one home, there’s nothing to protect.

Which is not to say at all that I don’t exist–or some other self-satisfying emotional dodge. Ultimately, such an exercise is actually about living now rather than living or dying in some imagined future. After all, the idea that at the moment of death I will have the presence of coherent mind to choose my view is a complete projection. It’s a worthy objective, but it’s also a creation of ego. And yet, the contemplation of the finer details of that projection, such as how I really feel about leaving everything or just dropping off into the complete unknown, offers a vehicle to examine the immediate nature of ego operating in a less than fearless and open way.

Engaging directly but with impeccable neutrality with emotional resistance creates a vantage point to approach that resistance with true and unlimited compassionate regard–bodhicitta. It allows me to look more deeply at the resistance I feel to awakening into fearless loving in this moment.  A neutral orientation is supremely important. No effort is required, no judgment is possible, no narrow definitions or any agenda are necessary. No requests made, no time limit allowed, no limit at all to the depth of ones ultimate positive regard for whatever hinders one’s innate capacity for fearless loving.

Another component of the imagined ideal mental state at death is its uncontrived and spontaneous nature, unreactive to anything, welcoming everything, undistracted by either the past or the future. Everything is equal and everything is positive. Being present in one’s actual state as it is. No regrets, no needs, no desires; a supreme letting go. Like a bundle of kindling collapsing when its binding is cut. And again, imagining this state in an undetermined future invariably brings me directly into contemplating the reality of this state in this moment.

Take it into the world-now. How does that feel–everything opening up right now into the vast expanse? Isn’t it amazing? Suddenly death is a million miles away….and also, right here.

The Karmapa Stupa-Crestone, CO.

The plan to be in Crestone in the summer of 2015 was made the previous winter when registration opened for the regular two weeks of retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. I had been attending two one-week back-to-back retreats with him each summer for several years. He has some land and an office there and comes once a year. The rest of the time he is in Nepal, Argentina, Mexico, Germany, England, now also Russia, and various other US locations (including east and west coasts).

In any case, Crestone is a trip. Four hours south of Denver, it’s a small town at 8000 ft in the foothills on the western side of the Sangre de Cristo range. It’s not on the way to anywhere and it’s 50 miles from any commercial center. It has maybe two hundred people (seriously) in the unincorporated town and maybe 1000 more scattered across a few square miles of semi-developed (on and off-grid) residential subdivisions sprawling out on the flat scrub overlooking the expansive San Luis Valley.

There are no less than two dozen operating spiritual and religious retreat centers there, mostly Buddhist (Tibetan and Zen) but also Carmelite nuns, a big Sri Aurobindo center, Episcopal, Baptist, New Age, etc. that provide a constant stream of visitors supporting the local economy–at least when there isn’t any snow.

It turns out numerous very highly respected and well known Buddhist teachers have been to this land over the past 30-some years, blessing and buying land, opening centers, etc. Why? Because it looks like home, I suppose. One of these guys was the XVIth Karmapa, one of the most revered teachers of the 20th century and the head of the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, someone we might consider to be the CEO of Tibetan Buddhism.

Although he died in a Chicago hospital in 1981 (and that’s quite a story in itself), a stupa was erected in his honour in Crestone in 1996 now standing on land supporting 3-year retreats by monks in training. It’s 5 miles out a single lane dirt road that gets progressively  rough way up on a mountainside overlooking the immense valley below under a vast sky. The perpetual nature of that vast sky, regardless of temporary obscuration by clouds, is a major draw of this place.

This unlimited, clear, open and changeless quality is a representation of what Buddhists regard as the true nature of mind, innate to all but accessible to only a very few, and no doubt a major reason for the selection of this site. Though I had been to Crestone before, I visited that stupa for the first time during my visit in 2015.

Buried inside the stupa are relics of some of the superstars of Tibetan Buddhism going back to Buddha himself: Padmasambhava, Marpa, Tilopa, Longchenpa, Milarepa, including also relics of more recent figures of the 20th century, Dilgo Kyentse, Kalu Rinpoche, Tulku Urgyen and Chogyam Trungpa. There are 100,000 hand-made miniature paper replicas of the stupa cached inside. It’s about 50 ft high and 25 ft wide at the base. Every structural detail is symbolic of some aspect of buddhism.

I had never seen one so large in the United States. Upon visiting a stupa, the custom is to circumambulate in a clockwise direction while reciting one particular common (refuge) prayer. I took a few laps and then settled in front of the face, looking upward at the gold Buddha inset displaying the Apan mudra for purification and confidence. At that time, I could not have called myself a religious buddhist. I’m a student and practitioner of Atiyoga, Dzogchen. I am not dedicated to complex outer ritual; I am dedicated to internal transformative practices. I’ve also had a few extraordinary experiences. But there are also some complex and entirely foreign practices that go along with this tradition. When it starts to feel like organized religion, I generally head in the opposite direction.

But as I stood there, all I can tell you is that I received an immediate and direct transmission of the collective devotion and accomplishment of every one of those teachers represented there. It was a massive hit– like 10,000 volts. Overwhelming–and it broke me open. I went to my knees for several minutes, absorbing the message of unwavering commitment, relentless discipline, the collected wisdom and the heart-opening fruition of ageless practice.

The power of that moment will not likely recur, but it is surely embedded. It was one of those priceless boosts, both humbling and inspiring, that kicks up one’s own view and practice to another level and indelibly deepens one’s devotion and appreciation for the opportunity and benefit presented by these teachings.

How one might interpret and hold an experience such as this is not something that reveals itself quickly. I regarded it as a confirmation that the attitudes we hold in pursuing our personal objectives must be fully explored, teased out and articulated if they are to be realized; that we must be impeccable in our behavior, reach beyond parochial interests and every ideology to an expanded vision that includes all.

That’s certainly no easy task, especially in these times, with every district, state and region protecting their narrowly-defined interests; with fear and scarcity embedded and ritualistically evoked by the elected shamans who claim concern for the many as they act in the interests of the few. Nevertheless, it is good to be reminded that merely recapitulating the divided and divisive nature of every other issue will ultimately lead to a hollow victory.

I know this will appear to be a sharp turn from where I started this post, but not really as sharp as it appears. Some of the guidance I have received:

  • Our future actions will be increasingly limited by the consequences of our past actions unless we grasp and integrate better decision-making practices.
  • We may not see the origins of what happens to us, but we can surely decide to be the origin of what happens by us. 
  • We all have an influence on the sustainability of life.
  • We are the expression of a universal order in this moment. If we do not express it ourselves, something else will be imposed upon us.
  • Nothing is nothing. And… everything is everything.
  • Our biases bind and blind us; they are invisible but knowable harnesses that bridle us, becoming our principle references for reality.
  • Loosening the bridle does not extinguish our bias, but it does widen our view.  
  • To listen for and sense the earth is to listen to our own heart. Listening to our own heart is the pathway to listening to another’s heart.
  • All emergencies are the same emergency. How can we respond together to our common emergency?

How will you respond to the call of the collected wisdom, unwavering commitment, sacrifice, risk and devotion of your teachers?

 

As It Is

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From my earliest instruction in Buddhist meditation, this phrase, “As it is,” has been used in numerous contexts to describe a way of interpreting experience. It implies that all overlays, story, judgment, speculation about the future and interpretation of the … Continue reading