The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
By Sogyal Rinpoche, edited by Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey
Publisher: San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2002.
In this book Tibetan Buddhist Lama Sogyal Rinpoche addresses squarely a topic that most people avoid, the topic of death. He says that when one faces death, one’s frame of mind is of critical importance. To approach death with equanimity and a spiritual orientation, rather than going through the anguish of clinging to a life that is being ripped away, takes a lifetime of spiritual practice. Accordingly, the first major section of the book is entitled “Living.” In this section, the reader is treated to a remarkably succinct and clear presentation of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and spiritual practice.
The next major section, entitled “Dying,” focuses on the actual process of dying. Sogyal Rinpoche offers insights from Tibetan Buddhism on how an individual can adopt the best attitude and approach to death. He also gives advice for those who are with a dying person on how best to help that person. His descriptions of both the process of dying and the meditative techniques that help the dying person are quite detailed, but the most essential point is summed up when he says:
In all religious traditions it is held that to die in a state of prayer is enormously powerful.… To create the most positive possible imprint on the mind-stream before death is essential. The most effective practice of all to achieve this is a simple practice of Guru Yoga, where the dying person merges his or her mind with the wisdom mind of the master, or the Buddha, or any enlightened being. Even if you cannot visualize your master at this moment, try at least to remember him, think of him in your heart, and die in a state of devotion. When your consciousness awakens again after death, this imprint of the master’s presence will awaken with you, and you will be liberated. If you die remembering the master, then the possibilities of his or her grace are limitless.
The third section of the book is entitled “Death and Rebirth.” Here Sogyal Rinpoche describes the various stages that a person passes through between death and rebirth. As he describes each experience a person faces during this transition, a recurring theme is the need to maintain a calm, disinterested poise. One can only too easily be caught up in fascination with or fear of the sights and sounds encountered.
Whether or not this description of death intrigues you, it is easy to see the connection between the state of mind he is recommending and the lifelong practice of meditation. Sogyal Rinpoche recounts an incident when, as a young disciple, he was meditating in the company of his lama:
Then one day, when I was receiving the teaching and practicing with him, I had the most astounding experience. Everything I had ever heard about in the teachings seemed to be happening to me – all the material phenomena around us were dissolving – I became so excited and stammered: “Rinpoche … Rinpoche … it’s happening!” I will never forget the look of compassion on his face as he leaned down toward me and comforted me: “It’s all right … it’s all right. Don’t get too excited. In the end, it’s neither good nor bad …”
His lama taught him that inner experiences can be traps, if one gets attached to them. “You have to go beyond them into a deeper and more stable grounding: It was to that grounding that his wise words brought me.”
Throughout this discussion of living and dying, Sogyal Rinpoche weaves in the story of his childhood in Tibet and his years of discipleship. This story greatly enriches the book. We get a taste of the love between master and disciple and of the warm, human dimension of this spiritual path. He says of his lama, “Jamyang Khentse is the ground of my life.” Expressing the profound effect of this relationship, he says, “Had I not met my master Jamyang Khyentse, I know I would have been an entirely different person. With his warmth and wisdom and compassion, he personified the sacred truth of the teachings and so made them practical and vibrant with life.” Speaking of his master’s kindness, his many small acts of tenderness and generosity, he writes:
In my tradition we revere the master as being even kinder than the buddhas themselves. Although the compassion and power of the buddhas are always present, our obscurations prevent us from meeting the buddhas face to face. But we can meet the master; he or she is here, living, breathing, speaking, acting, before us to show us, in all the ways possible, the path of the buddhas: the way to liberation.
The author stresses that devotion is the key to making the heart receptive to the transmission of blessings from the master. A Tibetan saint expressed this point with vivid imagery: “When the sun of fierce devotion shines on the snow mountain of the master, the stream of his blessings will pour down.” This is illustrated by the experience of Jikme Gyalwe Nyugu:
For many years he had been doing a solitary retreat in a cave in the mountains. One day when he came outside, the sun was pouring down; he gazed out into the sky and saw a cloud moving in the direction of where his master, Jikme Lingpa, lived. The thought arose in his mind, “Over there is where my master is,” and with that thought a tremendous feeling of longing and devotion surged up in him. It was so strong, so shattering, that he fainted. When Jikme Gyalwe Nyugu came to, the entire blessing of his master’s wisdom mind had been transmitted to him, and he had reached the highest stage of realization, what we call “the exhaustion of phenomenal reality.”
Sogyal Rinpoche points out that it is ultimately the “inner teacher” that the disciple must focus on. He recounts the way his teacher Jamyang Khyentse explained this point, saying that from beginningless time our true nature has always been Buddha-consciousness, but aeons ago we became obscured.
This true nature, however, our Buddha nature, has never completely surrendered to the tyranny of ignorance; somewhere it is always rebelling against its domination. Our Buddha nature, then, has an active aspect, which is our “inner teacher.” From the very moment we became obscured, this inner teacher has been working tirelessly for us, trying to bring us back to the radiance and spaciousness of our true being. Not for one second, Jamyang Khyentse said, has the inner teacher given up on us.
He went on to explain that for many lifetimes we have hungered and longed and prayed, until our karmas became purified enough for the miracle of meeting the outer teacher to take place:
The inner teacher, who has been with us always, manifests in the form of the “outer teacher,” whom, almost as if by magic, we actually encounter. This encounter is the most important of any lifetime. Who is this outer teacher? None other than the embodiment and voice and representative of our inner teacher. What else could explain why we feel so strongly connected to him or her?
Sogyal Rinpoche elaborates on the relationship between the inner and the outer teacher, saying that:
… the master’s task is to teach us to receive, without any obscuration of any kind, the message of our own inner teacher, and to bring us to realize the continual presence of this ultimate teacher within us.… Not only is the master the direct spokesman of your own inner teacher, he or she is also the bearer, channel, and transmitter of all the blessings of all the enlightened beings. That is what gives your master the extraordinary power to illuminate your mind and heart. He or she is nothing less than the human face of the absolute.
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