Sunday, September 13, 2009

Death and "Small Mind" Doubt

I've been reading Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan Book of Living and Dying before my bedtime meditation. I'm aware that Rinpoche was the subject of multiple scandals during the 1990's, so his reputation isn't so good I suppose. But regardless of reputation, and issues with his "in the flesh" teaching, this book is filled with practice gems, and it's illumination of the Bardo teachings for modern practitioners is extremely important. I'm now guessing that this book was one of the first introductions to Buddhism I had because tucked in it's pages, I discovered a pay stub from a job I had in high school, long before I began formal practice. I honestly don't remember reading it during that time, but something must have stuck because here I am.

Bardo, for those of you who don't know, is a Tibetan Buddhist term for "transition." It refers to any transition in life, tiny or huge, but the Bardo teachings are especially concerned with the great transitions of death and rebirth. Even if you do not at all believe in rebirth, these teachings are a path to awakening to this life in a very structured, detailed way. They describe in great detail how the process of death occurs and emphasize that how you die will be a reflection of how you lived. this doesn't mean that those who awaken during this life, and are full of wisdom and compassion, will experience a perfect, painless death. But it does mean that these people will be much more able to remain awake and alert during the process of death. Now, maybe you don't want to be awake for your death. And I suppose if you believe death is the end, that there's nothing else down the road, then it doesn't matter too much. However, it seems to me that regardless of whether or not there is rebirth, our path calls us to awaken and fully embrace our lives, and to give ourselves to the entire world in an effort to liberate all of life.

Ah, big talk, isn't it? But how we die effects those who live as well. Think of the stories you have heard, or even deaths you have experienced, that caused you to re-examine your life. Some might have been miserable, excruciating experiences brought on by drug use or some other bad habit. Others might have been filled with grace and wisdom, even joy. No matter what, there is an impact somewhere, on someone, at some time. You might want to ask yourself how you'd like to die, starting today, because the more you prepare for what will come, the more you will probably be able to embrace it fully when it happens.

Of course, I can hear you saying "Oh, hell, that's a long way off" or "I'm not ready to do that" or "Isn't that just morbid?" Well, here's a quote from Rinpoche's book that struck me.

Our minds ... are riddled with confusion and doubt. I sometimes think that doubt is an even greater block to human evolution than desire and attachment. Our society promotes cleverness instead of wisdom, and celebrates the most superficial, harsh, and least useful aspects of our intelligence.

Cleverness - that's exactly what's happening when the mind says don't think about death right now, you can do that later.

Doubt and confusion - that's exactly the kind of muck we're swimming in when we have given ourselves over to the story lines that often fill our head.

I know the last two very well. The past year and a half has been a time of pushing my head out of the swamp and seeing, only to be pulled back in again by some weight I've re-hitched to my ankles. Maybe you know this game that I'm speaking of. It's something many of us end up playing our entire lives, and for those of you who believe in rebirth, for lifetime after lifetime. Which is why, as a student of the path, attempting to awaken fully for the entire world, I find contemplating death so compelling. It seems to drive everything right home, and doesn't leave room for excuses. Even if I come back as a wise sage in the next life, this unique person only has so long, so it's best not to exclude anything - it's all your teacher, all of it, especially the last breath of this life.


Arun said...

Thanks for this post, good thoughts. With regard to a minor presupposition: Even if I come back as a wise sage in the next life… There is an expression Lord Buddha used, roughly translated: No one is born a brahmin. Taking that into account, I believe it further reinforces the message you intend to send in the rest of that sentence: …this unique person only has so long, so it's best not to exclude anything - it's all your teacher, all of it, especially the last breath of this life.

pema said...

Sogyal is still mired in scandal and has not changed his ways since he was sued for sexual assault and battery in 1994. Recently a young woman extricated herself from his harem and has spoken at length about the debuachery that happens in private. In contrast to his smiley face when enthroned in a temple, Sogyal is an extremely nasty piece of work who gets his rocks off by beating his female entourage. And perhaps you are not aware that he did not write the TBOLD? Sogyal is barely literate and was never trained as a lama. The book was compiled by a team of researchers led by Patrick Gaffney. it was written by Andrew Harvey.

Nathan said...


I don't feel clear enough about the specifics of Rinpoche's case to offer an expose on him as a teacher. I felt it important to acknowledge that he has a tainted reputation, hopefully as a warning to readers who don't know anything about him. But getting into the specifics of his case felt like a distraction to the post I was writing.

I've read some very nasty things about Rinpoche, and if they are true, he shouldn't be teaching anymore. But I have nothing to go on but those accounts, and the people like you who have commented on the writings I've seen about him.

I actually hesitated to use anything from the book in question, knowing the potential for it to sidetrack what I was writing about. But I also feel that we must be open to learn from everything, even if the source is greatly tainted.