—Magic Dance: The Display of the Self-Nature of the Five Wisdom Dakinis by Thinley Norbu Rinpoche (1931–2011)
—The Tibetan Book of the Dead, translated by Gyurme Dorje, Penguin Books, 2005
The black turbo-charged Buick Riviera was always ready when the call came. It was sometime back in the 1990s that I drove Bhaka Tulku Rinpoche to the deathbed of one of my old Dharma friends. Bill’s girlfriend had discovered among his effects a note saying to contact “a Lama” when he was in the last stages of his terminal disease.
Bhaka Rinpoche approached the bed where Bill had lain unresponsive for almost a week and began the prayers for his bardo journey. At the point in the ritual when the Lama is to speak aloud the name of the one about to cross over, Rinpoche leaned over to me and asked: “Name?” I discreetly whispered his name. Rinpoche then distinctly repeated the name in the right ear of my old friend. Bill’s body suddenly twitched, then settled back into unresponsiveness.
After another hour of prayers it was time to go. We drove back to Berkeley in silence broken only by a simple comment of Rinpoche’s: “Three more days.” Three days later I received the news that my friend died. This was not my first experience with the Tibetan Buddhist practices of aiding the dying across the horizon of this life.
These practices are contained in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, commonly known amongst Tibetans as the Bardo Thodrol (“Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State”). The Tibetan text is a ritual manual used by qualified teachers to guide the dying through the perilous journey between this life and what comes after. This liminal space is known in Tibetan as a bardo.
I grew up with death and dying. My father was the kind of doctor who made house calls in the middle of the night. He took me, the oldest of five, on his rounds to hospitals, facilities for the elderly and funerals. When one of my father’s patients died, our family always knew. It went like this: My father would come home from his office, and my mom would ask if he was ready for dinner. Every now and then he’d say, “No, I’m just going up to my room.” We’d eat without him that night. He’d mourn in silence, and in our way we too would mourn, while eating. This was my earliest initiation into the mysteries of death.
It was in the early years of the new millennium, 2001 perhaps, that we gathered in the parking lot of Walgreens on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, California. We were there to commemorate and memorialize the murder of a young woman. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown said to those gathered: “I learned a simple truth while on retreat at a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan. Death is real; make your life count.” The Bardo Thodrol also reminds us, the living, “Now, having obtained a precious human body, this one time, I do not have the luxury of remaining on a distracted path.”
The call came at night, in the fall of 1971. My best friend was told to come over and gently tell me of the death of my dear love M. She was the very first death in the community of practitioners for whom the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was the root teacher. Forty-nine days later, I flew out to Boulder, Colorado, at the request of Trungpa Rinpoche, and spent that first night at his home. As I lay awake, I noticed a sealed vase with M’s driver’s license and picture affixed on the top. Only then did I know that she was there. The next day when Rinpoche and a small group of students drove up into the mountains, I held the vase on my lap. As we arrived at the special spot, Rinpoche instructed me to open the vase and separate out the bone dust and ash from the bone fragments. As I did so, a tsunami of feelings flooded through me, overwhelmed me. Shaking, I sobbed these enigmatic words: “Death is excess.”
Rinpoche gently received what I had prepared of M’s ashes, dust and rainbow-tinged bone fragments. With great care he integrated them into a poignant ceremony. It was late November, and as the sun sank into the mountains, the evening suddenly turned icy cold. We left those mountains in silence. That was my first experience with the actual ceremony of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of caring for the journey from living to dying and beyond.
One month later, in December of 1971, Trungpa Rinpoche came out to be with the small group of us who had gathered at the memorial for Zen Master Suzuki Roshi. I had never before seen Rinpoche cry. He told us that a very great master had passed away and we should celebrate the fact that we had been very fortunate to meet him in this life.
It was a 3 a.m. phone call in January of 2010. The message was heartbreaking. A rogue wave had swallowed up and washed away my friend K as she frolicked in the sand by the ocean. In her Irish way she was celebrating the watery Full Moon and Her tides that night. Now it was my turn to lead. At the request of K’s parents, I performed the Tibetan Buddhist ritual ceremony of zhitro (“gentle-fierce”), invoking the gentle and fierce forces that had gathered into the temporary tangible form of her life and then, in subtle forms, continued as the processes of dying, death and beyond. I did not cry then. But during the third memorial for this remarkable woman, I found myself weeping and weeping as a shaman invoked her with these words: “To K, our most recent Ancestor.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead reminds us that those who Go Beyond can be called upon, in times of distress, to be a source of comfort. They have become Wisdom Ancestors Gone Beyond.
Early one morning in April 2009, I heard a loud knocking at my door. Half asleep I walked toward it and saw my niece standing there. She told me Mom had died several hours earlier.
As if in slow motion, I found myself on a plane, then a taxi, and I arrived at the home of my parents in time to greet Bhaka Rinpoche as he emerged from the room where my mother lay. He had just performed the Tibetan ritual for her smooth passing from this life into the beyond. As I looked at him, he answered my silent question. He said, “She’s fine.” I gathered my siblings and we went into the room and did prayers together. This was our last gathering as a family. My mother once said to me she did not fear death, she only wanted to know what happens to the bones when they break down. What happens when the bones return to the earth, to feed new life? That was a mystery to her. Death is a mystery. It remains so.
I write these words, now, in a gentle flurry of snow, near the Hudson River in upstate New York. I am at the home of dear friends. We are together to honor the passing away of our dear teacher, H.H. Dungtse Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, the Grand Master of thousands in Asia and the West. On this occasion, his son Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche has reminded us:
“Awareness” is the quintessential teaching of the Buddha—from the awareness of cool air as you breathe in and then out, to the profound awareness of natural perfection. And with boundless compassion and courage, the sole purpose and activity of all the buddhas is to ring the alarm bell that brings us to this awareness. With enough merit, the passing of this great being can be interpreted as the ringing of that alarm bell and a timely reminder of all the teachings, from the simple truth of impermanence, all the way up to the realization of unobstructed compassion.
I was moved to write about this Dharma Jewel in intimate and personal terms. Perhaps because of my own recent adventures that flirted at the edge of the life-death border. May we, the living, find ways to celebrate the miracle and gift of being here. May we find ways to ease the burdens of our fellow fragile friends. May we find ways to make our lives count.
The history of the West’s love affair with death rituals from Tibet began in earnest with Walter Evans-Wentz. It was he who first translated this remarkable ritual manual and coined the phrase “The Tibetan Book of the Dead.” C.G. Jung tried to make psychological sense of it, in his introduction to that translation. Francisca Freemantle worked closely with Trungpa Rinpoche to fashion a more accurate translation. Robert Thurman gave us a more modern and readable version. Gyurme Dorje provided the most comprehensive compendium of materials in English translation. Bhaka Tulku Rinpoche produced a CD of “Bardo Prayers” for those who desire to hear the actual melodies of the key prayers.
By far the most influential book based on this text, however, is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. Millions of copies of the English version have been sold.
There must be something about these rituals celebrating the living and honoring the dying and the dead, which continues to command attention.