The Necessity of Training in Phowa


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


Cycle of Existence of Birth and Death States


The following is respectfully quoted from “Naked Awareness: Practical Instructions on the Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen” by Karma Chagmé with commentary by Gyaltrul Rinpoche

The Chapter on the Cycle of Existence of Birth and Death States [583]

Wherever one is born in the three realms,
That birth is dominated by karma.
Death as well is dominated by karma.
When the time comes for birth and death,
The gods gradually fall from the heavens.
Despite their great miraculous powers, they are powerless to remain.


Preparing for the Journey


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

When they are unreachable during this three and a half [days] period time, according to traditional teachings, it says, “Care should be exercised not to touch the body for at least three days. That is the optimum. But certainly not while the event of death is occurring.” Remember what I told you about that yesterday. Certainly you must not do that. The best case scenario—and this is what the lamas all ask for—is that the body should not be touched at all, other than perhaps up here [crown] while they are dying, for three days. Many lamas arrange for that to happen. You have the right to arrange for that to happen as well, but you have to write it down legally. You have to have it notarized; it has to be legal. You have to register that with someone. You have to give that to someone who is interested in protecting you and who will fight for you at that time, because the relatives that do not understand, the friends that do not understand, will want things differently, you see. They will not accept. So you have to make your wishes known; and your wishes will be respected if they are legally written down. You should prepare for your death in that way.

It is considered that actual death starts when the external breathing ceases, but it’s only final at the moment of the black path. It is during the event of the black path that the internal wind ceases. That’s when the white tigle and the red tigle have joined and the black path ensues. At the moment when the mind falls into unconsciousness, the cessation of the internal winds then occurs. And in the case of accidental death, all of these things that happen very gradually must happen very much more quickly. So although some people pray to be hit by a truck and have it over and done with quickly, do not pray for that, do not ask for that. If you want to pray for anything, pray for a slow and knowledgeable death—one that you know and understand, and can track and relate to, and be the captain of. That’s what you should ask for. It’s so different from the way we think ordinarily. We think, ‘get out of here quick,’ you know, make it easy. But again, that’s like trying to go through your life with all the lights off, trying to go through your death with all the lights off. It isn’t wise. It will not bring a good result, and you will be afraid.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved


The Faint


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

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



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


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

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

The Human Realm


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

The next realm is actually the human realm. Now it’s funny, because in the ascendency of the different realms, although the human realm is not considered a lower realm, it comes after the three lower realms, and we tend to think ‘staircase.’ We’re just like that. That’s just how we’re set up. It’s one of our big problems. So when we hear the human realm we think, “Oh, well I guess humans are not that much better than animals. Maybe we should try to go higher.” And then we sort of think in a worshipful way of the higher realms. But in fact, I will tell you right now, as I begin to talk about the human realm, that the human realm, of all the realms—even though there are other realms that are more pleasurable—the human realm is the superior realm. And it is the superior realm because only in the human realm does one have enough spaciousness, or the potential to accomplish spaciousness, within the mind. This is also called the leisure to practice, and has nothing to do with how much work you do. It has to do with the spaciousness in your mind. So only in the human realm is there the kind of mind that can compute the factors necessary in order to create the spaciousness necessary to contemplate and practice Dharma. Only in the human realm is that possible.

Now, once again, by way of explanation, this has nothing to do with how busy you are. People will say to me, “Well, this sounds great and I’m really excited and I’m a real excited kind of person and I wish you well, but I don’t have time to practice Dharma because I’m very busy.” And this really is what people say, “I wish you well. It’s wonderful. Thank you for doing this, but I don’t have time to practice Dharma.” And they think that because of that they don’t have the leisure to practice; and they make a decision based on that idea. And pretty soon, before you know it, our entire lives have gotten away from us. We’ve been busy, but we have not practiced any Dharma, or prepared for our deaths. And now we’re coming to the part of our lives where suddenly we’re getting ready to face our death. And we realize that everything that we’ve accomplished has added to our lives, but now we can’t take our lives with us. Not one piece of them. And we’re unprepared for our death. And that is one of the terrible things that can happen during the course of our lives as a human being.

When people tell me that they have no leisure to practice, that in fact I was wrong about that, that they are very, very busy and cannot practice Dharma, then I have to go back and explain to them again about the lower realms. Now think about this. If you want to know if you have the leisure to practice, even if you feel like you’re up against the wall and you’re elderly and you don’t have much time, or you’re sick and you don’t have much time, let’s talk about this. Compared to the other realms, you still, even now, perhaps one day before your death, have the leisure to practice, have the leisure to prepare, where the other realms do not. And the reason for that is if you think about the hell realm, you want to think about how the hell realm works. Think about the last time you went through all-pervasive, intense suffering. When is the last time you went through all-pervasive, intense suffering? Really think about it for a minute.

For some of us it will be the untimely death, let’s say, of a loved one. Unbearable to lose someone that you care about so deeply. Or for others it will be the, to us, untimely end of a relationship on which we were completely dependent and about which we had a great deal of hope. We lost, let’s say, a loved one. We were abandoned, or something like that. Many people say that there is no greater suffering than to be abandoned by someone on whom you depend utterly, and whom you love utterly. Many women have experienced husbands going through their second childhood in their forties and suddenly they’re out the door. The women feel helpless, and many sufferings occur. So that might be an indication of that.

Another instance might be discovering that one is in fact sick and preparing for death. That is also an intense and all-pervasive suffering. And there are unfortunately in this day and age many more people who have that suffering than ever before. It is an all-pervasive suffering and it feels as though it takes you over. You feel like you cannot pull yourself together. It could be the suffering of losing the family, losing the job. There are so many different sufferings that occur in that way. And do you remember, when you were in the midst of a suffering like that, how all-pervasive the suffering was? And how little space there was to do anything but experience the suffering of suffering? Do you remember? During the suffering like that, if someone were to say, “Now come on, pull yourself together. Let’s do what’s best. What’s best is to pull yourself together. Think positively. Let’s lighten up a little bit. Come on now, pull back from this,” you literally cannot do it. And you feel like making obscene gestures at the people who suggest that you do. You feel like,”I’m suffering. I have the right to suffer. I deserve this suffering, and I need to go through it. Get lost.” We really actually protect ourselves in that way.

Now if we, who are human, have that condition, then think about how those beings in the lower realms must have that condition. The hell beings are suffering from intense heat that literally burns their bodies repeatedly again and again. The beings in the cold realm, intense cold that repeated breaks their bodies again and again. The beings in the varied and individual hell realms. The beings in the hungry ghost realms who experience need and hunger to the point where all you can feel is the panic and longing of not having. You know what that feels like. When was the last time you experienced in a really acute form the need and longing to be connected to another human being in love so that you can feel appreciated and approved of? Most of us spend our lives going crazy trying to act that one out. How much worse must it be in the hungry ghost realm? Because in the hungry ghost realm, then we are constantly, uniquely, singularly, and exclusively involved in our own needs and our own longing and what we can and cannot have. There’s literally no space to practice Dharma, in the same way that you cannot teach Dharma to a hungry person. You simply can’t. You cannot teach Dharma to a hungry person because they don’t have the subtlety of mind to be able to appreciate and practice Dharma. Their mind is centered on the grossness and heaviness of the physical need for food. You cannot teach Dharma to a hungry person. You have to feed them first.

So, in these lower realms there is absolutely no space to practice Dharma. One cannot engineer the mind. Think about what it would be like to be cut with a knife right now. Somebody sawing your arm off. What’s that feel like? Oh, this is unbelievable. While someone was sawing your arm off, unless you’re some kind of great yogi or yogini, it’s likely that you would not have the time to practice. What do you think? You know, we’re sawing your arm off! Think about this for a minute. You’re not going to have time to practice. And the reason why you’re not going to have time to practice is because the suffering is unbearable. There’s no space in your mind to practice. I mean, literally, you do have time, if you think about it. You have the time, from the time the saw gets to the skin, to a major artery, and all the blood leaks out. You have a little time. But you don’t have time in your mind. Time in your mind is what we’re talking about. So the lower realms do not have that. The reason why the human realm, therefore, is so auspicious and why sentient beings wish to attain human rebirth is because we uniquely have time to practice here in this realm. If only a moment; if only a day. That does not indicate how well we will practice. Yet still we have the capacity for practice, and that is unique to this realm.

The main suffering of the human realm, believe it or not, even after we look at the traditional sufferings of old age, sickness and death—and these are sufferings, you’ll know it when you get there—the biggest and most horrible suffering actually of the human realm is, believe it or not, the very cause of the human realm. That while we have the merit to be human there is also a non-virtuous cause and that cause is the suffering of the human realm. It is doubt. Doubt is the main suffering of the human realm. It’s what you’re fighting right now. It’s the demon that has arisen in your mind, the one that says, “She’s not talking about me.” Or the one that says, “Death? Me? Nah. I will think about that later. I don’t have to think about that. I’m probably not going to die. I’ll just think positive. I’ll never die, I’ll think positive.” Ha ha ha. Yeah, you’ll be the only one that worked for, too. So we’ll think, “Okay, I’ll just think positive and I’ll just get through it. And besides, I don’t believe her. I think what I’ll do is just get all the different religious beliefs in the whole world and I’ll lay them out in front of me and I’ll select the prettiest, the one I like the best.”

For example, Kalu Rinpoche left while he was sitting up practicing Phowa. He simply practiced Phowa the way the tulkus practice Phowa. The tulkus don’t have to memorize this book.They just go. They go. They actually transfer the consciousness, literally. And this is the true way to practice Phowa—from ignorance into bliss. They go. And they go because their minds are such that there is nothing holding them back. They’ve practiced so their minds are smooth and not filled with the pitfalls that other sentient beings have. Sohe emptied his bladder and his bowels, because he knew that would be a good idea, and went over to his bed, smiled at everybody, and was kind of like leaving on a train, y’know. Kind of like, “Goin’ to the beach for a while. Be back. See ya.” Kind of like that. Rinpoche just sat down, smiled at everybody, looked real pleased with himself, got into his posture and meditated, and left. What a nice way to go. And he left consciously, the way tulkus do, preparing for, again, a conscious rebirth. How wonderful! How wonderful to be able to practice to leave in that way! And so that is the most extreme, wonderful example of what a human being can attain.

In the human realm we can study and practice and prepare for that going, and at that time death is no big deal. It’s not an event. There is no difference, literally, between the death and the life. It is only different in the way that one room in a house is different from another. Yes, different. But for that level of practice it is the same experience, and the same experience has the same taste. And the taste is always simply the emanation, the display, the coming forth, and the giving rise to the great bodhicitta. So death is simply another day in the life of giving the bodhicitta, of expressing the bodhicitta. Not frightening to him. Frightening to us when we watched him, frightening to us when we lost him, frightening to us when people heard that he was dead. One more great lama who could guide us through the sea of suffering dead, gone. That’s how we think. But he just left for the beach for a week. He’ll be back. He’s back. They come back! So for a lama like that who practices, that’s what it is. But for us, we’re so scared. because we’re not ready. So in the human realm,  we can prepare ourselves and we can be ready.

Copyright © Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo All rights reserved

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