“It is understandable that those who do not believe there is any reality deeper than this life, and the death that ends it, do not want to dwell on the fact of death. But if you suspect there is a way to awaken to a deeper, timeless reality that lies beyond birth and death, there is nothing more compelling than reflection on death. Inspiration and joy can be found in doing so, since it turns one’s thoughts away from attachment to what is unreal, and leads one in the other direction of what is ultimately real and of lasting value. It is said to have lasting value because the true nature of our being that the Buddha discovered is one of genuine unfailing joy, meaning, freedom, the cessation of suffering, and the endless power to relieve the suffering of others, spontaneously and effortlessly.” ~ Lama Shenpen Hookham
This past week I’ve made two posts dealing with the topics of death, aging, sickness, and dying:
This third post is also about death and dying, and it shares a deeply hopeful, encouraging message from a great Buddhist teacher.
I want to explain that I’m not “obsessing” about death this week! Like all my posts, this topic comes from what I’m having to deal with in my own life and from what friends are having to deal with. Topic posts are also often prompted by events in the world, like my posts on the earthquake in Haiti.
I’ve never been able to just write about spiritual things, about the dharma, from a theoretical or abstract basis. My topics have to come out of my engagement with life and with my spiritual practice.
Probably the last thing most people want to read about is death and dying, even if there are helpful ideas and practices to share. But my hope is that when the pain and suffering of aging, dying, and death arise in people’s lives, as they inevitably do, these posts will find their way to suffering hearts and show them a skillful, compassionate way through the pain and loss.
A Remarkable Teacher’s Insights into Death and Dying
The heart of today’s post is an excerpt from a book by a remarkable Tibetan teacher, Lama Shenpen Hookham. Her book is titled There’s More to Dying to Than Death—A Buddhist Perspective. It sits on my bookshelf, and in my heart, as a companion to Thich Nhat Hanh’s No Death, No Fear.
Lama Shenpen Hookham has practiced in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for over thirty years, both in India and her native Britain. Here root teacher is Khenpo Rinpoche, and her focus is Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachings. Lama Shenpen founded the Awakened Heart Sangha and offers a wonderful free newsletter (which I subscribe to) sharing her teaching with students.
She also offers in-depth online and distance teaching courses, the crown jewel being her Discovering the Heart of Buddhism course.
These short excerpts below should help give a feel for the book and a glimpse of Lama Shenpen’s teaching and it’s emphasis on the Awakened Heart. May these insights comfort and strengthen you and impel you further down the path to awakening!
“We may recognise in our immediate experience that deep down we have the qualities of clarity, awareness, sensitivity, warmth and love, but according to the Buddhist tradition, we have little idea at the outset just how deep and vast those qualities can be…” ~ Lama Shenpen Hookham
There’s More to Dying Than Death—A Buddhist Perspective
by Lama Shenpen Hookham
The Heart Never Dies
Traditionally, Buddhists emphasize impermanence and the illusory nature of this life at the time of death. This encourages us to let go of attachment to this life, and helps us open up to the path to Awakening. However, emphasizing impermanence only works, in the sense of giving people reassurance and confidence at the time of death, if they have a sense of connection to something deep and meaningful in people that is not going to die. Otherwise, emphasizing impermanence and illusion can sound as if one is dismissing any sense that a person has value in themselves. It can seem heartless and not reassuring at all.
But meditation on the Buddhist path is not only about impermanence and illusion. It is also about resting in the heart, the place where all hearts meet. This gives us reassurance that at death we are not alone, and that our loved ones do indeed live on in our hearts, even if we can no longer see them.
This again raises the question of what then, is a person? The fact of death keeps throwing this question into relief. Are we really just a collection of chemicals or fleeting moments of consciousness that disperse at death? Our heart tells us that a person is more than that. But what do we mean when we say that? This is not an easy question, but the Buddhist path is aimed at discovering the answer, in all its fullness. In other words, what is impermanent and illusory about us is not what we are. We are awareness, and awareness is no other than our heart.
This the heart is the key to understanding what we are and the nature of our connection with others. It is through meditation that we can explore what a person is and what heart means. We discover how our heart connects us to other people and to what is truly meaningful within ourselves. This sense of connection and meaning is what we need more than anything else at the time of death, whether it is our own or that of others. Genuine understanding of the true nature of reality comes from being deeply connected with our heart through meditation.
To have a deep, ongoing confidence in our heart is the most important thing at death. You might be relieved to hear this, as the previous chapter might have left you thinking that you had to keep your mind lucid, clear, and focused. But anyone who has tried meditation will know how difficult it is to do that, even in good health, let alone when we are sick or dying. What we find is that our mind tends to get too busy, or too dull to focus properly. This is very likely how we are going to experience our mind when the moment to die arrives.
There is a chicken-and-egg sequence going on here. Until we can create a gap in our busy mind, we hardly notice the heart, but once we start to settle in our heart, the busyness of the mind is no longer disturbing. Once the busyness of the mind is no longer disturbing, it is easy to settle into the heart and simply trust that. So meditation that calms the busy mind is helpful for settling into the heart, and settling into the heart helps calm the busy mind so that we can meditate. It is helpful to remember this at times of crisis, such as the time of death. It is not easy to do, but even to try a little can be a big help. Of course, the question remains, what we actually mean by “heart.”
Intuitions About the Heart
We all have an intuitive sense of heart, and what it means to talk from the heart, even though we cannot really explain it. It is important to really explore all the associations we have with regard to the heart in this sense, because somewhere in there is a profound intuition. We cannot really say what we mean by it, except that it is meaningful and significant. It gives meaning to our whole life. A loss of heart means something like losing a sense of purpose or meaning, doesn’t’ it? The worst suffering is always meaningless suffering, isn’t it? It is worth pondering what we really mean when we say things like that.
From the Buddhist perspective, the reason we say and understand things like this, and what gives life meaning, is that the heart (in the sense that we intuit it) is intrinsic to reality itself. The universe is not cold and meaningless matter. It is more like the heart that we intuit within us. What we sense as meaningful in our heart is really the living presence of the heart of the universe, right there in the heart of our being. That is a bold statement indeed!
From this point of view, heart is a long way from just a nice sentiment or romantic idea. We are often guilty of sentimentality and romanticism, but we know that is not what it means to be true-hearted. When we talk about what we know in our heart, we are talking about what we really know, in the sense of what is of true significance and meaning. This is not just a whim. From the Buddhist perspective, the reason it is not just whim is that it is an intuition that goes directly into the nature of reality. We are connected in the heart to the fundamental nature of reality that the Buddha discovered. We are in direct contact with it, and we know it in our direct experience, even though we easily forget it or miss its true significance.
I suggest you stop and think about this for a minute or two. Would you say it is true that when you say “heart” there are immediate associations and your awareness tends to drop to your breast area? Isn’t it interesting that a word can have that effect? For some people, saying the word “heart” might actually give rise to a kind of resistance and a strong impulse not to go there. Isn’t that also rather interesting? This is the kind of thing that one explores as one trains in the discipline of meditation. One gradually discovers and lets go of layer upon layer of confusion as one recognizes what that resistance is about, and the heart becomes more free to open…
(end of excerpt from There’s More to Dying Than Death)
From here, Lama Shenpen goes on to explain the Awakened Heart at the core of the reality and how it is our true refuge when facing suffering and death. I hope this excerpt whets your appetite to read the book for yourself. I’ll end with a deeply moving prayer that Lama Shenpen wrote for her brother following his death.
May the vast openness of the unknown,
That looms before you,
Greet you as the friend it has always been,
The indestructible essence of your being.
May the truthful mirror of death
That shines before you,
Dispel by its clarity life’s fond deceptions,
Awakening the natural wisdom of your heart.
May the dark shadow of death
That fall upon you,
Unite you in terror with all life’s creatures,
Touching the open wound gaping in the heart of your being.
May you find the courage to welcome
The thundering storm of reality
That is your being,
With the confidence of an ancient warrior,
Resting in the mysterious light of the timeless joy,
That knows no birth or death.