The Importance of Preparing for Death


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



My Three Rules

An excerpt from a teaching called Dharma and the Western Mind by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo

As Westerners practicing the Dharma, we have a hard job ahead of us.  If we want to accomplish Dharma, and make Dharma stable, if we want to be fully instated in our practice, and if we want to be successful, we are doing so in a culture that is not really sympathetic to it. It is hard.  It is really hard.  We are doing so under circumstances in which we have to work, we have to eat and where nobody is going to pay us to pray. It is not going to be easy.  We have to stabilize ourselves with that pure intention to love and to do that we have to do three things.

These are my three rules of etiquette for newly starting practitioners and also for old ones.  First of all, give yourself a break, there are things on this path that you will not understand and you should not fall into the trap of saying, “This can’t be right, or this isn’t right.”  Give yourself a break, take time to let it fall into the slot that your Western mind is, just give it time to settle in. These concepts are very logical, they all make sense, they all work, and they are given to us by a fully enlightened mind which makes me think that they are worth more than a lot of other things that I have heard.  And they work.  It is a workable path.  If there is something that confuses you just say, “Okay I will just give myself some time about this. If I am not comfortable with the idea about being empty of self-nature let me first find out what that means before I decide that this is not good and once I find out I can make a better decision.”  So give yourself a break.

The next thing is to do the best that you can.  Don’t try to slide into Dharma, and don’t think that you can slide by.  Do the best that you can.  Cultivate that loving every day.  Don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking that you are too old, or too experienced, or too educated to learn the simple lessons that Buddha gives us that are associated with loving.  Do not think that you are too far advanced that you can no longer be taught compassion.  Don’t ever think that and please don’t think that you have come too far to learn and re-learn renunciation of ordinary things, because no one ever comes that far until we have reached supreme enlightenment. So do the best that you can.

The third thing is to take it slow and take it easy.  Try not to burn like paper – hot and fast.  Try not to burn like pinewood.  Try to burn like good aged oak or maybe even coal – slow and hot and stable.  The way that you build the stability on this path, as a Westerner, is by cultivating that slow, hot fire of loving.  Keep it going.  You don’t have to do anything crazy but you have to do something steady and stable.

Remember you have to practice this path till the end of your life so that you can fully accomplish it and so that you can truly be of benefit to sentient beings.  It is going to take some juice so please try to burn like good oak or coal, slow and hot.  Just think of yourself as a vehicle.  Think of yourself as a bowl, turned up, clean, pure, with no cracks, not turned over, and no poison of judgment or delusion at the bottom of it. Your mind is like a bowl.  Let yourself receive teachings in a very pure and uncontrived way.  In this way you will understand Dharma better.

Look for a good teacher and when you find that teacher you should take time to examine that teacher.  What is the teacher’s motivation? Can this teacher really offer me the path? Is this teacher really teaching the path that leads me to supreme enlightenment? You should examine these things and in a stable way, slow and easy, begin to accomplish Dharma.

In this way there is no doubt that you will achieve supreme realization.  There is no doubt that you will in this life and in all future lives be of some benefit to sentient beings.  Ultimately you will be of ultimate benefit to sentient beings, there is no doubt.

Keeping these things in your heart I hope that you will be cultivating that stability.  Do that and remember what a glorious and wonderful opportunity you have.  Please don’t waste this life.  It is so precious.

©  Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo

The Habit of Self Concern


The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “The Habit of Bodhicitta”

Now if we really understood that and meditated on the suffering of beings, we wouldn’t have some of the same ideas that we have now. For instance, sometimes we think that because we’re following a spiritual path, we should be just a little self-righteous.  Don’t you think?  We look around at other people who are very materialistic, who are spending their whole lives doing things that we consider to be lower activities. And we look around at people that even society labels as being lower. We look around at prostitutes; we look at people who rob banks. Both are doing things that they’re doing for similar reasons to why  we’re doing what we’re doing. The prostitute wants money; she wants to make a better life, she or he. The bank robber wants money; they want to make a better life. They’re looking for power. Same reasons as we do, just the activity is different. Of course, we feel ever so much better, for whatever reason. But if we really understood and really meditated on the fact that all of us are in exactly the same condition, there would be no room for judgment. We would really realize the plight of humankind, and, in a greater sense, the plight of all sentient beings.

Now the Buddha’s teaching  gives us the foundation, or fundamental necessities, by which we can give rise to the bodhichitta, or the great compassion. But that’s only the foundation. And here is why: The problem with our trying very hard to awaken to compassion is our own habitual tendency. Our own habitual tendency is such that we only concentrate on our own plight. Sometimes we do empathize with others. We think, ‘Oh, gosh, that must be awful. That’s too bad. Gee, that would be awful for me.’ It’s almost like you take a rubber band and you stretch it out just far enough to see what the plight of the other person is, but then the habitual tendency comes back in and BINGO! Rubber band lets go and now we are thinking about ourselves again. And that is how it is, isn’t it? That is how it is. That is really the only way that we understand others, because we can understand how we would feel about that and we’re sure glad that it’s not happening to us. It’s kind of like that.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

Cultivating Awareness


The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “The Habit of Bodhicitta”

Another method that we are given is to think about the plight of sentient beings. We should think, for instance, that in the animal realm, some animals are whipped and beaten as beasts of burden. I saw some of that when I went to India: the bow ox that pull huge carts, literally four times their size. These are huge animals. They have a great deal of muscle and yet they were carrying so much that they could only barely move. And they were constantly whipped; and actually painted up and decorated in this terribly hot climate under terrible conditions. Think about oysters that are harvested for their meat and their pearl, that they live only for that. Some of them were born in cultivated areas, you know, cultivated oyster farms, just to be eaten for their meat and pearl. And we think about all the different animals that are completely victimized.  Think about the animals that are food for predators and are constantly being hunted and killed, that live in fear. Their main instinct is this highly inflamed and developed fear instinct, simply in order to preserve their lives. So we develop a kinship with other forms of life by understanding what their suffering is.

And then we look at the plight of human beings: How human beings are basically taught by their authority figures and parental figures and by their culture. It is dictated to them what they should do. Here in America, for instance, we are told that material values are of the utmost importance. And we spend a great deal of time in school, and then we spend a great deal of time in different kinds of preparation in order to become materially successful. And if you don’t become materialistically successful and comfortable in a certain way, you’re not considered to be an adequate human being, quite frankly. There is a problem there. You never quite feel good about yourself, and there’s an innate dissatisfaction.

For those of us who do succeed and do well in our lives, towards the end of our lives, we have a great suffering.  We realize that we’ve gone to school and we’ve practiced, and we’ve worked, and been work-a-holics and done what we thought was the right thing—supporting our families, and caring for our families and just doing the very best that we can,. Then we realize at the end of our lives we have nothing. Nothing!  All that we worked so hard for we cannot take with us. We look around us and the people to whom we gave whatever we worked for, too, also have suffering. How come it didn’t heal them?  Why didn’t the money and the cooking and the housework and everything that we gave them, why didn’t it do them any good?  They’re still crying.

We look around at our lives and we go, what was that? And we realize that the only thing that we can take with us into the bardo, the intermediate state that prepares us for our next life, is the habit patterns of our mind. And the habit pattern of our mind under those conditions is only intense grasping.

And that’s a great suffering that we human beings experience together.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

The Extraordinary Opportunity at the Time of Death


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

The next thing that happens, if we are continuing through the bardo, is that the female bindu, or tigle, disengages from the base of the spine, and that is the mother seed. The mother seed then rises up to the heart. When that happens, we will see red luminosity. Now literally, we have never seen red luminosity before. We don’t know what it is, complicated by the fact that it’s like no red we’ve ever seen before, and no luminosity we’ve ever seen before. It’s extraordinarily brilliant. Extraordinarily profound. It is the kind of experience where we don’t just see the light ‘out there,’ it effects one totally; and so there may be a fear of that. Generally speaking, practitioners run from the red light.

The red light is actually the appearance of the female buddhas or the dakinis. It is the true, essential nature that was your mother’s nature, without the level of delusion that your mother carried, her true nature, her buddha nature. That is the truth of that. You will see this red light and, in most cases, sentient beings will run away from that red light. They will not know what it is. It will confuse them. And at that time there is also an impact of sound and feeling as well. You can’t explain that, but try to imagine light that registers so strongly that it registers on every sense you’ve ever experienced. So there is a feeling and a hearing and every kind of component to it as well. It’s just too much for the unprepared.

Then the white and the red light come together in the heart. They meet. And at that time an extraordinary thing happens. All the elements have dissolved, the male and female buddha principles have united within your mind, and , temporarily, you have none of any of the attachments and hangups and clinging associated with physical life. All the elements have dissolved. There is a moment of spaciousness at that time such as you have never experienced before, and cannot experience at any other moment.

This moment is so precious. So precious. Because at that moment when the male and female principle unite within the heart, one sees clearly the Dharmata, the true face of one’s own nature. All phenomena is seen at that time to have the same taste. One cannot make a distinction.  One cannot literally make a distinction between subjective and objective. All of the components of deluded mind are temporarily disengaged at that period of time; and there is, at that moment, the most extraordinary potential for liberation. But the Dharmata, our true nature, has no visible light, because, what would be that that is lit? Our nature is not that which can be described, let alone colored or lit. What would be that thing that is lit? So our perception, when these two elements come together, is an experience of black luminosity for the non-practitioner, and this black luminosity affects the non-practitioner as a fainting or a sleep. This is the time during the death process when the sentient being actually goes under, goes dead—goes dead in their minds. They actually experience death.

For the practitioner, that dark luminosity, if we are prepared and if we have experienced meditation successfully even for a moment, can be perceived as clear luminosity. Now remember, the condition of our mind affects us. If we are fearful, if we are running in the bardo state, it will be dark luminosity and it will frighten us; and it will be tremendously impactful. But if we are prepared and our minds have been changed through meditation, then it will be a clear luminosity and a recognition of one’s own mind, of one’s own supreme buddha nature. It will be very much like a mother and a child who have been separated:  Suddenly the child sees her mother and she runs to her mother, and there’s no denying her mother. The smell, the touch, the view of her mother is like… There is no one else. I could not deny that this is my mother; this is my long lost mother. And the child, literally who—this is the practitioner, of course—jumps into the mother’s lap and drinks the milk from the mother’s breast. And that is what happens if one is prepared for death. When that moment occurs, we jump through pure view into the arms of the Dharmata and we drink the nectar of our buddhahood. And that is a happy and profound and joyful moment for that one who is prepared for death.

Unfortunately, however, and this is where we are going to close, so that you have something to think about tonight, for those who are unprepared for death, this is the moment they miss utterly. It is never known. This precious moment where we come face to face, freely with our own nature—and we sleep through it, we literally sleep through it—and it’s because we cannot recognize. It is like a person who is suddenly without eyes. They see blackness, and not knowing that this is their life, without eyes, they think it is time to sleep. They instinctively go towards sleep. If the person recognizes this nature, the liberation that occurs at the moment of the union of the mother principle and the father principle, that occurs when these two principles have united, is supreme realization. Very difficult to do, but the result is supreme, in that one can return in a form to benefit sentient beings having accomplished the pure view of recognizing one’s own buddha nature. One literally abides spontaneously in the mind of the buddhas. One literally is awake. Having remained awake in that time, one has created the potential and the connection with the awakeness of one’s own nature. And so this extraordinary moment, this extraordinary benefit, for most of us, is completely unrecognized. Because we have no experience with meditation we cannot recognize our mother, our nature. We cannot recognize the Dharmata. We have no experience with it. It is like a child who is taken out from the mother’s womb, never having seen the mother’s face, and is raised separately from the mother. That child would not recognize its mother and would not drink from its mother’s breast.

So this is the experience that we are fighting for in our practice of Phowa. We are fighting to recognize those moments and to prepare ourselves for something that, while frightening to ordinary sentient beings, for the practitioner can be an extremely joyful, happy, and productive moment.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved


Sentient “Beingness”


The following is an excerpt from a teaching by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo called “The Habit of Bodhicitta”

In traditional Buddhist doctrine, we are given certain methods that will be helpful in alleviating our condition of suffering. These methods are pretty cut and dry, pretty simple. For instance, if we begin to practice preliminary practice, or Ngöndro, and we examine the thoughts that turn the mind ,in those thoughts are not only the four main thoughts, but there are also many different sort of auxiliary thoughts. Some of the ideas that we are lead to examine are first of all, the idea that all sentient beings are equal,  and we are led to examine that in this way. First of all, we all contain within us the Buddha seed, our inherent Buddha nature, and the reality that, at some point, each one of us will attain to that nature and will become awake, even as the Buddha has become awake. Each of us will attain that reality. For some of us it will be relatively soon, only ten thousand lifetimes from now. Piece of cake. For some of us, it will be a lot longer. Sometimes we have to think that for some people it almost seems like it will never happen, because you’re talking about aeons of cyclic existence. But the Buddha teaches us that each one of us has that inherent reality, and therefore we are, in our nature, the Buddha.

So, in that sense, we are exactly the same. We are also the same in our sentient beingness, if you can coin a phrase with me for a little while. And in our sentient beingness, we have certain things in common: We do have the ego cherishing. We do have self absorption. We do have confusion. We do have an inability to abide spontaneously in the primordial wisdom nature. We do experience death and rebirth in some form. All sentient beings do, even if they are not in the human realm. We all experience these certain conditions; we all experience suffering. We all experience hope and fear in some way.

So the Buddha teaches us to understand that we are all very much alike. And in that situation of alikeness, we can find a certain companionship with one another, a certain understanding or empathy toward one another, so that we don’t judge as severely. If we do understand that we all are revolving in cyclic existence, and that we all have hatred, greed, and ignorance and all those things running around, self-absorption and such, then when we look at someone else with hatred, greed and ignorance, we might think, ‘Oh, that’s kind of like me. I can understand that. I can see where that happens.’ So we develop a kind of patience, a tolerance, a kindness, and it’s the fundamental step that must be taken before true compassion arises.

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



The Experience of Death

Chikhai Bardo The Primordial (Clear Light)

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

In the bardo of living, as we enter into life, we receive two seeds. We receive our father’s seed and our mother’s seed; and those seeds go to make us up. They join together and they make us up.—The father principle or the masculine principle in our physical body actually resides in the top of our heads. That’s where the mystical element of your father’s seed, that was given to you, the masculine component of your nature, resides as a white tigle, or luminescent circle (if you have to think of it in a physical way, although it’s not physical), but a white tigle on top of the head. That is firmly brought to you by the union of the seed between your father and your mother. The mother’s seed resides at the base of the spine as a red tigle, and that is the feminine principle within you. No matter what sex you are or what your inclinations are, anything, you all have that. It is universal. We all have these principles, these feminine and masculine principles within us.

At the moment of death, after the outer breath has stopped, when the inner winds are still somewhat moving, (it hasn’t totally stopped yet), first the white tigle or the father principle, the masculine principle, will disengage. It will no longer be held, bound, as it was during life by the physical proximity or the physical area, right here. It will not be bound by that. It will disengage. It will simply disengage and fall. And it falls through the central channel to the heart, and there it remains. During the experience of death, what you will experience when that happens is extraordinary white luminosity. White light. If you have been trained to perceive that light through generation stage practice or even through Phowa, you will perceive that light in a welcoming way. You will see that light and know that that light is the very display of all the dakas, or the male buddhas and bodhisattvas. So you’ll recognize that light and you will be very devoted, moving toward that light. If there has been no preparation for death, if you are not prepared for death, that light will be terrifying. It is extraordinarily bright and it seems to be unbearable, because we are so closely connected to physical reality still that that light, by comparison, is brighter than thousands of suns. It’s, oh, too much! It seems too much and it terrifies us if we are untrained. But if we have prepared in meditation, through either Phowa or through generation stage practice, we may be able to recognize that white light as being the very display of the male buddhas and bodhisattvas, or the male principle of the buddhas and the bodhisattvas.

If you don’t recognize the white light and go toward it in your practice and become one with it, you will continue in the bardo experience. If you do recognize that white light and recognize it as the nature of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and with devotion go forth toward the light, then you may actually exit the bardo experience without having to go through the rest of the bardo, and either be reborn in a pureland in order to receive instruction, or be reborn as a nirmanakaya form. There are many different ways that one can be reborn, but there is actually a traditional way to view how that birth will take place.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

The Bardos


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

In the general sense, it is said that there are six bardos. There is the bardo of living, which is the bardo of birth to death. Bokar Rinpoche says, “…the bardo of birth to death, which ceases as soon as the first signs of the agony of death start.” And I have also heard that once one knows that one is dying, once one catches the disease that will ultimately cause the death, then you are in a different bardo, actually, than the bardo of living—although technically it still is part of the bardo of living. It is called the bardo of preparation, or the bardo before death. There is a passage of time that precedes the time of death once you have caught or have experienced the problem that will end your life. But this lama says, “…when the first signs of the agony of death start.”

There is the bardo of the dream state, which is delineated by the moment we fall asleep and the moment we wake up. So each time we sleep and dream, that is a bardo, and there is a beginning and an end. There is a passage within that; and there are cause and effect relationships that are begun and also ripen within that bardo.

There is the bardo of meditative concentration. I’ve also heard it called the bardo of meditation, and the bardo of concentration. And that lasts from the beginning to the  end of a meditation or concentration. Meditation in Dharma, or concentration such as vipassana practice, or shamata practice, simply silent meditation is so profoundly different from our normal waking consciousness that it deserves its own name. It is a different passage. It has a beginning time and an end time. It has its own causes and results that occur within the context of that passage according to how one conducts oneself during that passage. How do you meditate? Do you meditate really putting yourself into it? Do you meditate in a haphazard way? These kinds of things. So that is a bardo.

There is the bardo of the moment of death, and here he says, “…which commences when the death process begins and which lasts until actual death.” And there it’s more clear, because in truth, if you have already caught the disease that will ultimately cause your death, then in that case you have already literally begun the process of death. Another way to look at it is the moment you stop growing, once you start aging, you have also begun the process of death, you see. That’s true. Once the body stops growing and begins to go on the downside of that (which mine has definitely started to do, I can tell), there is another bardo involved in that. While technically still part of the bardo of living, it is the bardo of the moment of death as well. It is a contributing factor to that. More succinctly and more clearly, it is generally said that the bardo of the moment of death begins when the death process has actually begun.

There is the bardo of Dharmata, which starts when death occurs and lasts until the deities appear in the postmortem state. That will be explained in detail later on. We will talk about the moment of the perception of the white luminosity, the moment of the perception of the red luminosity, the moment of the perception of the clear or black luminosity. The bardo of Dharmata that we are talking about here actually begins during the moment of the recognition or the perception or the appearance of the black or clear luminosity. That is when the external breath has ceased and the internal wind has just begun to cease, is just now ceasing. At that moment, that is the bardo of Dharmata. The elements have already begun to dissolve. In some cases they are dissolved, and in other cases they are continuing to dissolve, but they are at that critical point where there is a final dissolution. At that point one will see the nature of the Dharmata. However, an inexperienced practitioner will not recognize it, and they will go through what in death is thought of as a fainting or dark period. Everyone who is not experienced in meditation will experience that, because they do not recognize the face of the Dharmata, or that light which is clear but may appear as black. So this particular passage, the bardo of Dharmata, then starts when the outer breath has ceased. The inner wind still continues to some degree, from that point on, until the moment when the deities appear. And we will talk about when the deities appear.

After the bardo of Dharmata, and this is considering that one has not yet liberated one’s self from the bardo, the next bardo is the bardo of becoming, which starts when the previous bardo ceases..That’s the bardo that ceases when the deities appear and ends when we are born. Now the bardo of becoming absolutely indicates that once you have reached it, you will be reborn in cyclic existence. There is no help for it. You will be reborn in cyclic existence. But even during that time you can create the causes of liberation that will cause you to be reborn in a different way than what you are now—a more realized, more enlightened way. it is particularly possible during the bardo of becoming to absolutely ensure that your next life will be associated with Dharma, will lead directly toward liberation, will be correct in bringing you to the Path, and will be without flaw in that regard.

So these are generally the six bardos. But remember that there’s not only six. There can be, depending on how you view things, uncountable bardos, because bardos are passages. And it is the delusion that we are passing through something that makes the bardo seem like a limited space and a limited time. But in fact, it is simply movement and display. The lama here puts it in this way, “The essence of the mind of all beings is called the essence of awakening. From this point of view, which is that of ultimate truth, there is no bardo. We know nothing of the ultimate nature of the mind, and that is why all sorts of illusory manifestations occur in the relative mode. Among these there are the six bardos that cause much suffering. Buddhist teachings intend to dispel such erroneous experiences and their resultant sufferings.” So what we are looking at here is that from the relative point of view and in the deluded state, this is what appears and this is what we must deal with. In the same way that you’re here, you’re alive, and you have to cope with that. In the same way, these are the experiences. These are what we have to deal with. Yet, from the point of view of realization, there is no such thing because there is no subjective and objective. It is only our delusion that causes us to see in this way. And so, characteristic of having that delusion and being trapped in that delusion, we actually have to study the delusion and learn about the delusion so that we can negotiate through the delusion into awakening. And that is how we have to view these time periods, these bardo movements.

He says also, and I think this is an important point to bring out: “The six bardos are not six domains existing independently within ourselves.” And, of course, that is how we think, isn’t it? ‘When will I get to that bardo over there?’ That’s how we think because of our delusion. “They are related to our mind, which lives in a state of delusion” at this point. He doesn’t say ‘at this point.’ I’m adding that. “The six bardos manifest out of our mind. It is our mind that has the experience, and it is our mind that recognizes their false nature. And eventually it will be our mind that liberates us from the very products of the mind.”

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

What is a Bardo?


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

Having given rise to these ideas and begun to think about the other realms in the six realms of cyclic existence, let’s talk about death.

Now, first of all, there are a couple of points that I want to bring out, and these points could not be brought out better than the way they are brought out in a particular book. For any of you who are interested, this is an excellent book to read. It’s called Death and the Art of Dying in Tibetan Buddhism, by Bokar Rinpoche. The reason why I especially like this is that it is actually not taken from any one text. It is taken from a grouping of teachings that this lama gives in a very conversational way; and like I’ve told you, I think that Westerners really understand conversational teachings better. That’s my perception anyway. I do feel that that happens. He gives these teachings in a very conversational way, and he gives them often in question and answer form; and that seems to be very useful for students The way that he gives these teachings  is very approachable and very clear,. So I would like to use a little bit of the way that he approaches some ideas, so that you can get them a little bit better.

We have talked about the six realms of cyclic existence. Now we are going to be talking about the six bardos. You should understand, first of all, what  bardo isWe start with the bardo of living. The bardo of living starts at the time of birth and ends with the time of death, or just before the time of death. We think of that as the bardo of living. So the way that our minds think, we think, “Let’s see, October twelfth, nineteen forty-nine, that’s when my bardo of living started. And when is it going to end? We don’t know that yet. So I have a date here, and someday we’ll have a date here.” You see? And that’s what we think. We think bardo goes from October twelfth, nineteen forty-nine, to whenever that is.

Now another lama would laugh with me as to how silly it is to think that way. Since we as sentient beings don’t have that kind of teaching, we don’t know how funny that is; but that’s pretty funny because it’s a very confused and superficial and erroneous way to think of the bardo. The bardo is not actually a period of time that starts with this and ends with that. The bardo is passage. It is passage and the way that passage appears to us. Bardo is a way of describing movement or passage. It is a way of displaying display, in a sense, or a way of seeing the display of display. Generally it is said that there are many different kinds of bardos, because there are as many bardos as there are individual experiences. If you think about it, you could, literally, sit down to a meal and call that the bardo of dining. Absolutely. There would be nothing wrong with doing that; that is the bardo of dining. It does have a beginning moment, and there are causes and results within the bardo of dining. What you eat will affect your body. What is that? “An instant on the lips, forever on the hips,” that kind of thing. So there is a cause and result even within that small bardo. But that’s a bardo. The bardo of sitting in class. The bardo of entering into class. You incur causes and results while in class due to the force of your listening—how you listen, what you think when you listen, what your intentions are. You are creating cause and effect relationships that begin and end within a certain passage. That is a bardo.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

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