The Opportunity to Practice Phowa

Varjasattva

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo offered during a Phowa retreat:

The signs that you must see in order to know that you are prepared for death have to happen now. They don’t happen before you die; they will not happen before you die. You will not have time at the moment of death to prepare for your death. That isn’t going to happen. So the signs that have to happen now must be received at this time. We want them now. This book, this preparation, this Ngöndro, which helps us to gather merit and helps us to purify karma, and helps us to make it possible for our minds to have the kind of quality to be able to hold, like a good bowl without a crack, such a practice, this is for now.  Now is when you have to do this. The winds have to be purified now. The channels have to be unkinked now. Your mind has to be stabilized now. You have to learn not to be such whiners now. You have to learn to renounce cyclic existence now. You won’t have time at the time of death. You’ll have time for maybe a quick thought. If you’ve already practiced renouncing cyclic existence, at the moment of death you will have time to simply give all of that to the Three Precious Jewels. That you will have time for. That kind of inclination, that kind of giving, you will still, even after the elements dissolve, have the wherewithall to practice. But of course you will not have time to practice every aspect of the visualization and the prayers.

Forgive my language, but I have to scold you a little bit. Do you think that the Dharma was written by enlightened beings that were so anal, excuse me, that they said, “Well, if you do every one of these prayers, especially the ones that I’ve written, then we’ll let you in! But if not,…” What are you thinking! You know it’s not like that. It can’t be like that. That would not be logical or realistic or sensible. What superficial view of reality do we have if we hold such bizarre and crazy ideas? What we are doing now is to prepare ourselves—through gathering merit, through accumulating virtue; through purifying our inner winds, channels and fluids; through understanding what bardo is, through studying and contemplating the nature of cyclic existence including the bardo, through having preparation as to how the bardo experience will actually take place; through developing devotion. All of these things have to happen now. If you’re waiting ’til, oh, a week before you drop dead, what is that? First of all, you don’t know when that will be, and second of all, what’s a week? Even if you have that much time, you don’t have enough time during the course of a week, or month, or even a year. Preparation starts now, and you do what you can as quickly as you can with as much devotion as you have now. With as much devotion as you can now. So that’s what has to happen.

At the time of one’s death, if you are fortunate enough to have spent a long time dying, and you have been in the bardo of the condition of your death, which means that the cause of your death is already within your body and is active in your body, so you’ve known for a long time that you’re going to die… And let’s say you have the good fortune that a physician—this would have to be a heck of a physician, wouldn’t it—would come into your room and say, “Well, looks like four o’clock today. That’s what I say. Four o’clock you’re on your way out. Toes up kid, four o’clock.” And let’s say everything is perfect, and somewhere around two thirty you still have your mental faculties complete so you pick up your book and think, “I’m just going to open my practice.” This could happen. I mean, it could happen; but really, what is the likelihood? There’s no likelihood that that’s going to happen. The rarity of such a situation is ridiculous. Plus the fact that when people are getting ready to die they’re not at their best condition, you know. They’re not necessarily right with the program. There are some people that remain alert right until they cross that threshold. Lucky them, but it is not [usually] the case. So don’t you think that, since this Phowa was authored and given to us by those who have achieved enlightenment, who have practiced Phowa successfully, that they would have taken into consideration that this Phowa is written for you, for sentient beings? It is written for sentient beings that have not solved their problems yet, haven’t got renunciation down, haven’t got anything down yet. In fact, this kind of Phowa is kind of Last Hopeville. It’s really designed for those who could not practice generation and completion stage practices excellently. Those kinds of practitioners who can practice those practices excellently probably will not [need] the Phowa. So you must understand that this is not only possible, it is not only accomplishable, do-able, but is also necessary; and it is necessary for you to step back and have a proper view about it. Lighten up. Give yourself a break. Give me a break. It will come to you; We’ll get it done, don’t worry.

So, now that I’ve finished spanking you I’ll teach you some more. That’s not a bad spank, is it? Nah.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

The Necessity of Training in Phowa

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The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo offered during a Phowa retreat:

Last time I saw you guys you were dead; and the Buddhas appeared to you, and you were still dead. We spoke last about the section of the bardo where the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas appear, and we spoke of the forty-two peaceful deities and the fifty-eight wrathful deities. I explained yesterday that on the appearance of the peaceful deities, one should understand, first of all, that one is unfamiliar with that. Remember, to understand in terms of Vajrayana why we act the way we do and how we should practice, we have to understand what an important part habitual tendency takes. Remember, when the Buddhas appear to us, the peaceful Buddhas that is, in the bardo state, they appear to us with extraordinarily brilliant lights. I have explained to you that in that state of the bardo those lights may even be so impactful that they will also impact the other senses—like a light so bright that you can almost hear it, if you can imagine such a thing. I actually had an experience like that. I once had a pulse of light flash to me from one of those newfangled flashlights that have big halogen bulbs in them. You’re not supposed to look at them. If you look at them, they will damage your eyes. You can’t look at them. I had a pulse of that sent at me and it actually registered in my ears. I don’t know whether, scientifically, it meant there was like a pulse of blood in my ears, as a strong reaction, or whatever. But your senses do shift like that, particularly in the bardo. There are no clean cut lines for your senses in the way there are now. Clearly, smell goes through your nose now; clearly hearing goes through your ears now. Well, of course, in the bardo, although you have those same habitual tendencies, you do not have the same definite places for this information to come into, and so there is something of a bleed through.

When the Buddhas come to you, again, that will be very unfamiliar if you have not practiced. The brilliance of the light of the Buddhas will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen; and it will be somewhat terrifying if there is no preparation. It will be much more comfortable to look at the corresponding other lights that come at the same time. We talked about Buddha Vairochana. He appears on the first day and his light is the blue light, and it will be so brilliant it will almost hurt—so brilliant—because it is not our habitual tendency to have awakened to that element of our mind, of our nature, that is in fact identical to and inseparable from that blue light nature that is Vairochana, you see. We will not have had time to do that so we are not familiar. It will be exactly the same phenomena that causes us not to see the black, or clear, path in the first part of the bardo experience. Unfamiliarity. We will, however, as I said yesterday, be familiar with the other light that shows at the same time, and that is the light of the god realm. In a sense, the light of the god realm, which at that point will be a very soft, welcoming, and very sweet kind of white, will be much more familiar because we will have exhibited some of the qualities that it takes to get into the god realm—that is, some accumulation of merit—and we will also have accumulated some of the unfortunate problems, or the obstacles, that cause us to be born into the god realm. So we have much more familiarity with them than we do with our own primordial wisdom nature. Interestingly, as the different Buddhas appear, and then as the different realms appear, you’re also looking in a sense at the flip side of the same cointwo different sides of the same coin. One is our pure nature, and the other is a display of our nature in defilement, in confusion. Of course, we will have the strong habitual tendency to go toward our nature in defilement, stronger than we will to go toward the purity of our own buddha nature because, simply, we have more familiarity and more habitual tendency with our samsaric nature than we do with our awakened nature.

So, of course, this is something that you are being prepared for right now. When you hear something like that you think, “Oh, that scares me. Of course I’m going to want to go towards a soft, glowing white light more than I’m going to want to go towards something that’s almost painful it’s so bright. So I want to be really prepared for that. How can I prepare for that?” Those of us that have no spaciousness in our mind and have not practiced very much, and have a tendency or habitual pattern for our minds to act in a very neurotic way will think things like, “Oh, I have to practice liking bright lights, . I have to practice not looking at soft lights and not liking them anymore.” really, that [kind of thinking] is completely unnecessary. Again, have faith in your spiritual mentor. You must know that you are already, right now, applying the antidote for whatever fear you might have had about going into the bardosimply training in the knowledge that there is a bardoand to the degree that when you hear this information, you hear it as a respectful student would hear it, hearing it from someone who has crossed the ocean of suffering, hearing it from the Buddha who has given us this information based on his many experiences of crossing the ocean of suffering himself, and also helping others to cross the ocean of suffering. So as a student our posture would be to listen and go, “Yes, yes, yes. Thank you, yes.” That really would be the perfect posture.

Of course our training tells us, “Well, we have to think things through. We have to be individuals.” But that very thought will prevent you from absorbing these teachings that you have to remember on a very deep level—a memory that is really deeper than the mind that you use to call yourself ‘I’ with. It will have to go much deeper than that. And the only way it’s going to go deeper than that is if the student practices devotion while hearing. Devotion is the bridge; devotion is the method. That is why it is a useful practice that connects the student and the teacher and makes the information, in a sense, go in even more. The student who does not take advantage of their teacher’s teaching simply has no devotion. It doesn’t have anything to do with how good a practitioner they are or how lazy or slothful they are. Of course, those are elements, but really, it has to do with the lack of devotion. The student does not have the karmic scenario to make a bridge by which the lama can reach them and touch them. We assume that the lama you have chosen is qualified. Once you have chosen a lama, you should have chosen them on the basis of their qualifications, on the basis of their ability to speak to you. Once that happens there is no room for any doubt. You should have spent your time considering and thinking and wondering and asking yourself, and looking and checking. But once you have chosen, there is no more time for the head games that you play as a student. Now you have to apply yourself, and that’s the only reasonable thing to do at that point. The time for doubt is finished. The time for practice and preparation has now begun. Now that responsibility becomes yours. The teacher can lead you; the teacher cannot force you. It is up to you to follow. So that is what has to be done.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

 

The Time to Practice Phowa is Now

AS-x-21 Charlie Grant-M

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo offered during a Phowa retreat:

I would like to explain one question that I think is necessary to clear up at this point, because if it isn’t cleared up, you will assume you know more than your spiritual mentor. You will assume that you know how things will go at the time of your death, and you will not follow through with your practice. Many people look at their books and they think, “Well, here’s a pretty thick book and here’s a kind of thin book. I have no idea whether, at the time of my death, I will have time to open my practice.” Well, you’re right, you don’t have any idea whether at the time of your death you will have time to open your practice. Now do you really think that wasn’t thought of? I mean, c’mon guys, lighten up. Remedial Dharma 101. This has been thought of. Really. Lots of people have died. We pretty much got it down. So worry not. Now here’s what actually has to happen. This book [thick] and this book [thin] are not for the time of your death; they are for now. They must be practiced now. There’s a really good chance that at the time of your death you will not be able to pick the books up in time. And you may drop them. And you may not have enough breath to finish. Really. This has all been thought of. Don’t worry. These books are for now.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

The Peaceful Deities

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The following is an excerpt from a teaching offered by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo during a Phowa retreat:

On the third day Ratnasambhava Buddha appears with yellow light. Again, same scenario: too brilliant, scary. At the same time, the blue light of the world of humankind is also manifested, and you will feel very familiar with the blue light of the world of humankind. Although being reborn as a human is considered a very auspicious rebirth, if you have a chance to either go to Ratnasambhava’s pureland or experience that nature that is Ratnasambhava, or be reborn as a human, take Ratnasambhava.

Amitabha Buddha appears on the fourth day with red light. The red is so brilliant and so luminous and so pulsatingly brilliant that we can hardly bear it. And at the same time the yellow light of the world of hungry ghosts will appear. We’re used to yellow light because we’re used to desire. It is vibrationally familiar to us, and it will seem, therefore, like a softer and more welcoming light. Do not follow the yellow light of the hungry ghost realm.

Amogasiddhi Buddha appears on the fifth day with green light. At the same time, the red light of the worlds of animals and demigods are manifested. Again, do not follow the red light. In this case, it is softer, easier to live with, and yet it is Amogasiddha that you want to follow, with the brilliant green light. Always choose that brilliant light.

On the next day, the sixth day, all five Buddhas appear at the same time, with the lights of the six classes of beings. All of the forty-two manifestations of the Buddha that are considered the peaceful deities will then appear. They will be manifested because they are all representative and they are displays of the very elements that are intrinsically within our own nature, so therefore they must appear. It is the nature of the bardo that what appears subjective then becomes objective. What appears to be our own intrinsic nature is seen in an external form. So all of the forty-two peaceful deities will be manifested in our mind, and then they are followed by the fifty-eight wrathful ones. These manifestation scenarios last for about three weeks, unless you take one of the doors. One of the doors would either be, again, recognizing and going toward the Buddha nature in whatever form it appears, or it will be taking one of the doors of the six realms that constantly appear as a more seductive and more familiar light. This goes on for about three weeks.

Now you say to yourself, “When the peaceful deities show up, sounds to me like a good day at the park. I can live with that, being surrounded by all the deities.” But again, it will be unfamiliar; remember that—for a non-practitioner, and even for a practitioner who has not really accomplished their practice very well, or not yet. How are you going to deal when the wrathful deities come in, and what is their nature? What are they? Are the peaceful deities the pleasant and friendly ones and the wrathful deities the punishing ones? Who are the wrathful deities and how should they be understood? How can we avoid being frightened of them? Because they are terrifying. This is what we are going to learn in our next session.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

Vajrasattva in the Bardo

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The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo offered during a Phowa retreat:

On the second day, here they’re saying Vajrasattva Buddha appears. This is Vajrasattva, the very same one that you are practicing in your Ngöndro. Think how ready you will be for him! The minute he shows up you’re going to go, “Yes! I know who you are!” In this case, Vajrasattva Buddha is also associated with Akshobya Buddha, but he will appear as Vajrasattva Buddha on the second day with white light. And again, the white light will be unnaturally brilliant, according to what we have understood, dazzling, frightening in its dazzling light; and at the same time a softer, easier on the eyes (even though there are no eyes, we have that kind of perception in the bardo at that point), black light, the softer black light of the hell world, will manifest. Now listen to how tricky this is. We are faced with an unnaturally white, unnaturally bright, scary light, or a softer, black light that, because we have felt hatred more than we have felt Vajrasattva, we are more familiar with. It will not be so frightening to us. It will be softer, and it will seem to be seductive, more so than the white light. So what we have to do is to be sure and avoid that black light, because that black light results in rebirth in one of the hell realms.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

The Bardo of Dharmata

five-buddhas-2

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo offered during a Phowa retreat:

After the three and a half days of unconsciousness occur, another period begins which is called the bardo of dharmata. It’s also called the bardo of becoming. It looks or feels as though a person is emerging from a deep sleep. It is at that time that a person actually fully realizes that they are dead. If they have no training, then they have no capacity to realize beforehand. This is, again, three days after, and in some cases the body has been handled, or the body has been cremated. The person, although they are unconscious at that time, still has enough of a connection that when they wake up they are aware (and they are even residually aware in their sleep) of what the body is experiencing. Do not cremate the body before three days. Do not do that. Giving body organs? It depends on how you feel about it. There’s a lot of virtue in that. The timing? Well, you have to do that immediately; there’s no choice. But in that case you would be doing something compassionate, and even though it wouldn’t be the best for your own death situation, you would wait until the inner death ceased. The wise thing to do would be to have a lama come and practice Phowa with you. The inner wind would have ceased. If the lama is worth their salt and you have any devotion, you should be all right by that time, and you can then donate the organ within a reasonable amount of time. But for myself, my decision is that even though I would love to just keep manufacturing organs for lots of people to have, I would love to just keep giving them out, my decision is that I feel I can help people better during the course of my life; and I also want to achieve for myself, again and again, the most auspicious birth so that I can return again and again in a form to benefit sentient beings. I feel that that is ultimate benefit for sentient beings, rather than what my eyes could give, or something like that. So it’s a question of how you want to benefit sentient beings.

It is during this period, in the bardo of dharmata, that the Buddhas of the five families begin to manifest themselves. Now when you think of the Buddhas of the five families manifesting themselves, what do you think happens? Do you think that they have some sort of warning bell that tells them when you die, and they sort of know,“Oh, she’s dead. Better hurry up,” so they run from the five different directions and they come over and visit you, and they just sort of hang out, wave at you? No, it’s not like that. Actually, the Buddhas of the five families are seen as separate displays and separate emanations, but they are intrinsically present in our minds as our own nature, our own five wisdoms. So you can say that the Buddha families each represent our own subtle intrinsic wisdoms. Whether we have them developed or not, that’s another story. For instance, we think about Amitabha Buddha. That family, the Lotus family, is associated with discriminating wisdom. Ratnasambhava Buddha, associated with the Ratna family, is the wisdom of equanimity. Amoghasiddhi Buddha, associated with the Karma family, is accomplishing plain wisdom, and Vairochana Buddha accomplishes the wisdom of the dharmadhatu. That’s the awareness of what is and what is not, as one. Akshobya Buddha is considered the Buddha of mirror-like wisdom. So each one of these is our own intrinsic awareness, our own intrinsic wisdom. As to whether or not we have them developed, that is another thing.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

 

The Faint

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The following is an excerpt from a teaching offered by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo during a Phowa retreat:

Now I want to refer back to this book [Death and the Art of Dying by Bokar Rinpoche] to give you a couple of statements that I think may be helpful. When we last were together we spoke about the white path or the white bindu that dropped from the top of the head to the heart, and we spoke about the white light that is shown. The white method would be to move toward and expect and recognize that white light; that would be the white method. According to this book, the white method or the white path results in the body of emanation or the nirmanakaya form. It is considered that when a tulku appears in the world that a tulku is a nirmanakaya form of the Buddha. So recognition of the white path results in the body of emanation and the nirmanakaya form. Recognition of the red path results in the body of perfect experience or the sambogakaya, also called the bliss form. And recognition of the black path, which is also the clear light that we spoke about, results in the absolute body or the dharmakaya. Now it is considered, actually, that of these, the black path or the clear path, the one that we spoke of last, the recognition of the dharmata, the recognition of the clear light is the most difficult of all of the recognitions. It’s considered that the black path or the clear path is usually available only to those who have practiced mahamudra, which you are learning to practice even as we speak.

I wanted to read to you exactly how this lama put it, but I’m not seeing it. Well, then I’ll explain it to you in my own words, which may not be quite as dramatic but the meaning will be there. It is considered that the great vast majority—that is to say, 99.999 percent—of sentient beings who experience death, and remember, they all do, will not be able to recognize either the white, or the red, or the clear, or black, method. They will not be able to recognize any of those three stages. This is really, really interesting. During each of the times that the lights appear—first the white light, the red light, and the clear light—after those events are finished and you have not recognized any of those lights (and it is very likely that that will happen), it is at that time that you continue on into the bardo. It is then that you actually slip into the bardo of becoming.

If you do not recognize the white light, if you do not recognize the red light, and then if at the end the fundamental clear light is not recognized, then the lama says here, “The mind slips into a deep state of unconsciousness of variable duration, which is generally said to last three and a half days.” Now I have had the experience and the good fortune to have the opportunity to do phowa for a number of other beings. The clear or dark light is, in fact, the appearance of one’s true buddha nature, appearing just so. Just as it is. It is the true face of the primordial Buddha, but those of us who have no training to be able to witness the face of the primordial Buddha literally will not see it. It will be much like going to some sort of desert tribe that has never seen a picture of a boat or large body of water. If you show them a picture of a boat and a large body of water, they won’t be able to recognize it. They do not have the brain pathways or something that will help them to recognize that. And in our case, even though the very face of our true nature, which to a practitioner would be as recognizable as the mother is to the infant or to the child, for a non-practitioner it would be, again, like the child who was adopted out right at birth and never saw the face of their mother. They would not be able to recognize their mother; they would not be able to connect. They would not be able to have the force of surety in conviction to be able to move toward and direct themselves with their own inner force to be able to move toward that reality. They will not be able to slip into meditation on that nature. They will not be able to slip into that non-dual state, even though all of their distracting elements will be dissolved at that point. Literally, if you were a meditator and had that experience, that would be the time, ironically, during the course of your whole life and death experience, where you would be able to meditate the best. If you had experience. But 99.999 percent of the people go to sleep at that time. They have a faint, or sleep, because it looks like darkness to them, rather than light clarity. Their mind is not awake in their meditation. Not awake. When that happens there is no choice and nothing for it, but that we have to go on into the bardo of becoming.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

Generation Stage Practice and the Bardo

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The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo offered during a Phowa retreat:

There is one way that you can help yourself to prepare for the bardo state. As I begin to explain the bardo of becoming now, which is the next stage in the bardo, and a very important one, you will see how important it will be to you if you can successfully practice generating yourself as the deity. That’s called generation stage practice. That is a practice that is available for you to learn right now, even before practicing your Ngöndro. It is permissible, acceptable and desirable for each of you to practice, first of all, the Shower of Blessings, which is the generation of Guru Rinpoche—not oneself as Guru Rinpoche, but a generation of Guru Rinpoche in front of oneself giving blessings. That brings about a definite firming and developing of one’s relationship with Guru Rinpoche—one’s relationship with the appearance—the nirmanakaya form of all the Buddhas, in fact, because it gives us a relationship with the appearance form of that which is actually enlightenment itself. So there is that. There is also, even before Ngöndro, the opportunity to practice generating oneself as Chenrezig. Chenrezig is considered to be one of the main bodhisattvas who can block rebirth in the lower realms.

Phenomena is not solid and concrete the way we think it is. So we find that in generation stage practice we have the wonderful opportunity to be able to meditate on our true nature, allowing ourselves to dissolve into emptiness. Subtly we dissolve into emptiness and remain meditating on emptiness just momentarily, meditating on the emptiness or illusory quality of our own nature. Then we give rise to our self as the deity, and that takes different forms. Generally, it starts with a seed syllable which is symbolic of the qualities and mind state of the deity. Then after that, we begin to actually give rise to our self as the deity. But the deity is understood to be only as solid as, say, a bubble, or as gossamer thin, if you will, as a whisper. It has all of the solidity of dew, just before the sun dries it up. We generate ourselves as that deity and we are subtly meditating on a dis-attachment to the heaviness of our own consideration of what we are.  We’re also seeing ourselves in a completely different way.

Now why does generation stage practice prepare us for the bardo? First of all, it gives us enough spaciousness in our mind to have another idea besides ‘I am, and I want,’ which is probably the only idea we ever have, if you boil it all down—‘I am, I want, I think.’ So here we are in the bardo able to take a step back from that, and perhaps that will give us the spaciousness, the moment of space, that we need. Somewhere inside that knee jerk reaction tendency, we need to have a moment of space where we can consider where we are and what to do about it. And the lightening up that we have in generation stage practice will help with that. Furthermore, and most importantly, we will begin to recognize these displays, these many displays of the Buddha nature that appear as the meditational deities. These are forms, these are display forms which are actually pictures of, or movements that express, or dances that show, or colors that display or indicate, the qualities of enlightenment. That’s actually what the meditational deities are, if you think about it. They are enlightenment in display or emanation form. What they are holding in their hands, what they’re doing, indicates to us those particular qualities that are being isolated and demonstrated at that time. So we become familiar with the many different ways in which our Buddha nature is demonstrated, is displayed, and that prepares us for the bardo of becoming, because it is in the bardo of becoming that the BBuddhas actually come to meet us.  We will see them, and we can have liberation through recognition. It is actually the easiest form of liberation in the bardo. That is liberation through recognition. For most of us, that will be the easiest form.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

The Importance of Preparing for Death

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The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo offered during a Phowa retreat:

So where were we the last time we met? We were dead, weren’t we? We were, weren’t we? Let’s see, how dead were we? I think we were pretty much all the way dead. We had finished with the red and with the white, and we were talking about the black path or the dark path, but I have more to give you on that. Anyway, we definitely are dead here.

There are some interesting passages in this book that I would like to use as well. There’s one point that the lama in this book makes that I think is worth making. Even though it isn’t what you’d call an essential point, still, it is definitely a worthwhile point, and it’s because of the way we think. When we think about practicing for death, or when we think about, even talk about the different kinds of sufferings that people may undergo, even talk about the kinds of death experiences that we will all definitely share in common, and some of the unique experiences that some of us may share, there are many people who give Buddhism a bum rap. What I would call a bum rap. And the idea, of course, that they confer when they have that thought is kind of a bum idea, if you think about it. It isn’t thought through; it is an idea born of ignorance. What people say about Buddhism often is that it makes them think in a depressive way, or it makes them think in a melancholy way. Since one of the main points in Buddhism is to prepare for what happens after this life, there are many people who accuse Buddhism of being a sad religion or depressive or having a bad effect on one’s mood. Well, these very people are the people who are in denial about the fact that they too will actually go through this experience.

You may not want to learn what to do in an emergency…Here’s a good example: When I was in junior high school, believe it or not, I learned how to deliver a baby, in case of emergency. Can you believe that? This Red Cross representative came to our school and gave us lessons on different things one could do in case of an emergency. And in this case I learned what to do if someone is having a baby and there’s no way to get to a hospital and one is shut off and it’s an emergency. Now you might think to yourself, “So what? What are the chances that I’m going to deliver a baby in this lifetime?” I’m mostly called on when people die; I’m not necessarily called on when they’re born. I’ve had the great, wonderful pleasure of naming babies. I’ve been there right after the baby’s born, but so far, not ever having taken that job as a taxicab driver that I once thought about, I’ve never had to deliver a baby, ever in my life. So you think to yourself, “How useful was that?” Well, the only reason why you would think that is because so far I haven’t had to deliver a baby. But let’s say, any of you who are women capable of having babies, you and I were stranded in a snowstorm some time, and I was the very one that saved you from trouble by delivering your baby. Would you say that that course was useful to me? I would say it’s useful to me, because I would have been climbing the walls if I hadn’t known what to do when you were having a baby! You can count on that. That just would have been the scariest moment of my life! I’d rather usher people out than usher them in! Less messy.

So what does all of this have to do with the Buddha Dharma? Well, I’ll tell you. If the day ever comes that I do get caught in a snowstorm with somebody and have to deliver a baby, and I remember those skills and have to use them, suddenly those skills will be considered by me to be completely different than they were before. Now I think of it as a kind of interesting and unusual thing that happened. Not many people learn how to do this. This is not something that is commonly taught in junior high school. So I can look back and think, “What an interesting episode for the New York school system to bring in these people. It’s just a very interesting thing that the New York school system did.” But the idea that I would have if I were to actually help someone give birth, and I were to actually possibly save a life that way, or at least make a life more comfortable in its beginning, if I were able to do that, suddenly that teaching, that course that I took would take on new dimensions and new meaning. Wouldn’t that be true? Suddenly I would really see the benefit of that in a way that I could not have seen if it were only a theoretical event that I might have to deliver a baby some day. So I would have seen the definite result of that.

Now some people think that it is unfortunate that Buddhism teaches, first of all, about the faults of cyclic existence, and then secondarily about the situation of dying and how our lamas constantly remind us that we in fact will definitely go through this event. This is something that we will all experience. We will not experience it together, so each one of us is responsible for our individual practice. But we will all experience it; there’s no doubt about that. None whatsoever.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

 

 

The Bardo of the Moment of Death

process of dying

The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo offered during a Phowa retreat:

Now, let’s look at the bardo of the moment of death. Our body is made up of four elements: They are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element. At the moment of death, and what death actually is from a metaphysical point of view, these elements begin to disengage. Here they are knit, you see, into a fabric. They are knit into what you think of as yourself.

I will explain. Flesh, the bones, and the solid constituents belong to the earth element. They are considered the manifestations of the earth element, and you can see that these are part of your body system. Blood, phlegm—which we have more of in the wintertime, isn’t that true—blood, phlegm and bodily fluids belong to the water element, and you know you have those, especially in the morning. Body temperature, metabolism, the raising of your body temperature to be warm, belongs to the fire element,. And you know that that is within your body, you can tell that you are warm. And respiration belongs to the air element.

What happens at the time of the death is that these elements begin to dissolve in their interconnectedness. They dissolve into their natural state, and their natural state, of course, separate and apart from our deluded perceptions, is the same as one’s own nature. It is the Buddha. In their natural state they are none other than the Buddha. Yet we experience them as fire, earth, air, water. We are taught in our practice to recognize them, because they will appear, even in the bardo state, disguised as the goddesses of fire, earth, air and water. And we still won’t recognize them. We still won’t recognize them. We won’t recognize anything in the bardo state unless we prepare for it and think ahead. But in fact, in their very nature, although we are afraid of them and afraid of the very feelings that we are feeling, when these elements begin to dissolve, still in all, these are also the Buddha. And even recognizing these elements in their nature is one step toward the path of liberation. So do not be afraid.

At the moment of death, the elements are absorbed into each other giving rise to a twin series of phenomena, both internal and external. I love the way this lama [Bokar Rinpoche] has put this, and so I’m going to utilize this and then I will elaborate. These are the conditions that indicate the actual moment of death, the passing into the bardo of death. First, the earth element is absorbed into the water element. How that is experienced externally is that the limbs can no longer be moved. And how that is experienced internally is that the mind begins to see things like mirages. That is the earth element absorbing into the water element. Then, the next stage is that the water element is absorbed into the fire element. Externally, that experience will be of the mouth and the tongue becoming quite dry. (I must be dying because I’m dry all year; it’s one of the signs. My limbs are moving, though! I’m really glad about that!) So externally, the mouth and tongue become dry, and internally we perceive smoke that passes us or rises up before us. You should take note of this. These are the experiences that you must rehearse seeing, because you will see them. Know them, rehearse them, prepare for them, expect them, and recognize them in their nature when you do. Do not be afraid, there’s nothing to fear. So we perceive smoke that passes us or rises up.

Next, the fire element is absorbed into the air element. Externally, heat leaves the limbs, moving from the extremities toward the center of the body. This is seen in a hospital environment when people die. They do actually have that progressive coolness that comes from the extremities into the center of the body. Internally, we will be seeing an array of sparks. An array of sparks. And then finally, the air element is absorbed into the individual consciousness. There’s a footnote here, and I’ll sum it up. Here, when he says ‘consciousness,’ he wants us to know that he’s referring to the consciousness that operated in a dual mode—grasping an object that is separated from a subject. That kind of mind of duality. So he’s talking about consciousness in the familiar way that we use it now. So finally the air element is absorbed into the individual consciousness. The external breath actually ceases. Internally, what we will see is something like the flames of flickering butter lamps. Flickers. Flickers. That will be the air element actually absorbing into our own consciousness.

Now here are some additional bits of information that I would like to add as a way of recognition. Here are some other signs that actually occur. This sign is associated with the earth element. The first dissolution is the earth element absorbing into the water element. a During this wave of dissolution of the elements, one of the experiences that we will feel— and we will all feel this—is the feeling of falling. A lack of safety. There is a feeling of falling. It depends on how the person is. If a person is semiconscious or unconscious they may actually feel themselves falling down a tube, or even falling across a tube. But there is a feeling of falling. For many people, and I would say the majority of people would feel this way, there is actually a feeling of the body falling and not being safe. You can help a person who is dying by placing pillows around them to make them feel as safe as possible and creating a nest, womb-like nest, even under the knees, even under the armpits, even under the arms, around the body, so that until the very last moment of their perceptual capacity they will still be able to feel nested, as though they are safe. Then when the other feelings are obviously beginning to occur you can begin to explain to the person. You can say things soothingly like, “Pay no attention to the feeling of falling. You are safe. You are not falling. You are with me.” That kind of thing. You can talk and it will help them.

The person who has had time to prepare will recognize the feel of falling and will be able to interpret it differently as perhaps a feeling of going, which does not have to have the fear of falling associated with it. You wonder if that feeling is actually going to come to you. Okay, have you ever fallen asleep and jumped? It’s the very same thing. There is the subtle dissolution of the elements as one enters into the dream bardo. That is similar to the death, but not as gross and heavy and final. So there’s the feeling of falling, and sometimes the person who is dying will do that a little bit. That is how you can tell that that is actually occurring.

When they talk about the mouth and tongue becoming dry, I’ve also heard that sometimes the person, right before death, will actually void what is in their body, or right at the time of death will actually void what’s in their body.  That is also an indication that this has begun to take place—that the water element is now absorbing into the fire element. And so you will see signs like that. Here, even in enlightened death—we’re talking about Kalu Rinpoche’s death—he needed to, he wished, he had the intention, the feeling, to get up and void himself, and prepare himself in that way. But that is an indication that the elements are already beginning to dissolve.

And of course, the feeling of cold, the feeling of the heat leaving the limbs. It is absolutely beneficial to the person as they are dying that you keep them as warm as possible, because their comfort during that transition time is very important. It will influence the way their mind accepts the experience. So keep them warm to the best of your ability. If before the death cycle actually occurs you could do something like what they would do in the old days, put a warm brick at their feet, put something warm at their hands, comforting, this is the time when you want to help the person keep their mind as comforted and relaxed as possible. So you do everything you can to help those feelings not to be so scary. And these are things that you can tell the ones around you to help you prepare for death, should you be the one experiencing this transition.

Finally, the air element is absorbed into the individual consciousness, as we spoke of, and that’s when the breathing stops. Now when the external breathing stops that does not mean that death has actually occurred, even though medically that’s what they look for. They look for the cessation of the breath. There’s actually a period of time during which, again, depending on the practice or the understanding or the inclination or the habitual tendency of each individual person, experience continues. When the outer breath stops, already visions have begun to arise, already images have begun to happen.  There are lights, there are colors. There are things occurring that are unusual.  There are visual things coming up. But the time in which we are actually considered dead, really dead, is after the external breath has stopped. And the other period of time, that is a very essential and crucial period of time, also passes. And that is the time between the stopping of the outer breath and the stopping of the inner winds. We have within us the air element. Its most gross display is our breath. Yet there’s more to it than that, because within us are psychic winds and channels that are not see-able by fleshy eyes.  Yet they still exist.

These psychic winds and channels have much to do with the condition of our minds. That is to say, if our minds are disturbed and neurotic and needy and always upset, that kind of mind, the winds that move within the psychic channels of that mind will be erratic. Like ‘puh, puh, puh, puh, puh,’ rather than ‘whoooooooooooo,’ kind of like that. They will be erratic.  The wind channels, the channels within, will be soiled and dirty, and sometimes misshapen and kinked. And so the inner experience then will be different for that kind of person than it is for a person who, say, has practiced and has kept their mind very kind and happy. The calmer and happy mind will have the inner winds moving through the psychic channels more calmly and serenely. Then when they stop, it will be a more calm and serene kind of experience. Also, that small moment of experience when only the inner winds are still operational and the outer breath has already ceased will be much different as well. That inner experience will be much different. So by all means, do not think that it’s goofy to try to keep yourself up and happy and peaceful and in a good mood. That’s not goofy, that’s great. That’s what you should do. It really is beneficial to you.  It really produces health, and you will live longer. You will definitely live longer if you can keep yourself up and happy and in good humor, peaceful in your mind. You will live longer.

At the end, there is a period of time between when the outer breath stops and the inner winds also cease. That, for the practitioner, is the most important period of time. The practitioner who has practiced Phowa will be very busy right then. The person who is helping the dying one through that particular period must know this: Once the outer breath has ceased, do not touch the body except at the very top of the head, right here  [the crown]. This is so important. Please, try to understand how important this is. I cannot emphasize it enough. Make arrangements for yourself; make arrangements for your loved ones. Write it down so that nobody screws it up. This is important, and here’s the reason why: Just as it is possible for each of us to go to any of those six realms of cyclic existence during the bardo of becoming, there is also an apparent method or exit point by which we go into those six realms. For the lowest hell realms, it is through the anus. That is literally how we go into those lowest realms. For  the secondary low realms, it is through the genital channels. The consciousness will actually leave the body through those channels, and that will absolutely write in stone and dictate the next experience. One can leave through the nostrils; one can leave through the mouth; one can leave through the ears. One can leave in many different ways. But the way to leave in order to achieve rebirth in the pureland is to leave correctly through the central channel out the top of the head. And we will get into how to do that. We will teach you how to do that. And we will prepare you for that, so that the channel is nice and clean and it’s easy to get out.

If you’re with somebody who’s dying, and if you touch them… A lot of times loved ones will make the mistake of holding a hand or patting a person on the thigh. What happens is that—the outer breath is already stopped, you see—inside, their cognition is very loose and fluid, very loose and fluid, and influenced by everything. That’s why you want to have their pillows nice. If you are a practitioner, if it’s possible, it’s best to be sitting up in the meditative posture, propped up with pillows if you can’t quite manage it. It’s best to be in that position because it is the best position for a peaceful mind. It is absolutely the best position for a peaceful mind. If a person around you makes the mistake of touching the wrong part of your body when you’re in that highly suggestive and fluid state, the person dying may leave through the wrong exit, literally. Just that little condition can be very troublesome. And so, do not draw the person’s attention to any place else other than the very top of their head right there. In fact, if you can, as the person’s outer breath ceases and their inner breath is still going, you may take a little bit of the hair right there [top of head] and tug. Internally, the person’s attention will go up that way and their consciousness will follow. Even if they’ve done no practice, it will help. Or you can rub, or you can tap. Again, set it up so that someone will help you with this when the time comes. Or so that you can help others when the time comes. That point is a very important point.

The things that are happening to us we’ll have to learn a little bit later. I’m sorry about that. I really need to get all of this out. We have too much to do this week, but this is fascinating stuff. You’ll be interested in this.

After the outer breath has ceased and the inner winds are beginning to die down and are now in the process of cessation, these are the inner images that will be experienced by all of us. How we experience them may vary, but if you learn to recognize them in this form you will recognize them in any form that is particular to your characteristic form of perception. So there will be variations in your own individual experience, but again, practicing and hearing this teaching, you will understand. You will get the lay of the land, and you will be ready.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

 

 

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