Death to the Concept of Death: Lama Zopa Rinpoche on Labels, Disease and Death

Lama Zopa Rinpoche is a scholar and teacher in the Tibetan Gelug tradition and the spiritual director of The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition.  I’ve gotten a lot out his teachings on Medicine Buddha and healing.  However, with this teacher it is sometimes necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff.  By that I mean he might suggest as a way to evoke protection from natural disasters, you should make offerings to the beings who control the weather.  That’s a bit too mystical for me.  But if you can get past that kind of stuff, he has much wisdom to share.

Here is an excerpt from Medicine Buddha Retreat in which Lama Zopa offers a grounded and insightful explanation of one of the biggest obstacles to healing, and awakening.  The prayer he mentions is the standard “Going for Refuge” with an additional verse:  “I will lead all beings into the heart of enlightenment.”

The words you say in the bodhicitta prayer include your parents, your family and your enemy.  It includes the person you call your enemy, the person who has abused you and toward whom you have built up hatred because of your projections.  You put a negative label,” bad,” on that person and “abuse” on that person’s action.  Your mind made up the label, believed in that label… and you then allowed your mind to believe in that label.  That then made you generate hatred in your heart. I will say here… that when you analyze the situation, you find that the abuse actually came from you.  Why?  Because it came from your mind.  If your mind hadn’t labeled and you hadn’t believed in your label, you wouldn’t see yourself as having been abused…

It’s difficult to heal. Because you never change your concept, your problem never changes; your hatred never changes. The hatred is always there, because you never change your mind, your concept.

This explanation is talking about only this life, about how this problem of abuse came from your present life, from your mind making up the label “abuse” and believing in it. Here we’re not talking in terms of reincarnation and past karma.

Labeling is a problem.  According to Lama Zopa, labeling not only gets in the way of healing, it actually helps to cause disease.  Labeling leads to bias, seizing, clinging.  For Nagarjuna, the tendency to label things (prapanca) is one of the major roots of suffering.  Yet, we live by labels.  If we did not label or name things, we could not communicate.

So we label labeling as “bad.”  But it’s not all bad, there is a positive side:

Everything is created by the mind.  Everything is labeled by the mind.  The existence of a label does not mean there is an actual reality for something labeled, because all things and labels are empty (sunya).  In Ultimate Healing: The Power of Compassion, Lama Zopa tells us that disease is a label.  Death is just a label too.

Death is a concept, something that comes from our mind… death itself is not the problem; it is our concept of death that is the problem.  We have a concept of death as something that exists from its own side… that makes us frightened of death and does not allow us to relinquish our attachment to this life…  Death is merely labeled by our mind in dependence upon its base, the consciousness leaving the body.  This is all that death is.  Therefore, there is no death that exists from its own side.  There is no death in the sense of one that exists inherently.  It is a hallucination.

Disease and death are empty.  From the view of ultimate truth, they are only thought constructions, concepts produced by the mind, created by us.  We can learn to control our thoughts.  We can transform them.  Understanding this should by empowering.  As Lama Zopa suggests, “Knowing how much freedom we have should inspire us and give us hope.”

 

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Dedicating My Death to Others

Here is some advice that Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave to someone who was very sick:

“Think that I am the most fortunate one, that I have this sickness, I am the most fortunate one.  Why?  Because by having this sickness now I can practice pure Dharma.  I have been given the opportunity to practice pure Dharma.  So I can experience all sentient beings’ pain, disease, spirit harm, negative karma, and obscurations, and they can all achieve the Dharmakaya.”

Among other things, Dharmakaya represents the true nature of the Buddha, which is not separate from reality.  I look at it as our natural state of mind.  Lama Zopa is talking about attitude.  Some people believe that attitude is everything, the most important thing for business and personal success.  Attitude is important in awakening, too.  In Buddhism, we want to generate a bodhisattva attitude.  In secular terms, we would call it an altruistic attitude.

I can tell you from my own experience that seeing your ailment as an opportunity to deepen your practice is illuminating, while having the thought of using your sickness or injury for the benefit of others is liberating.

In February 2015, I was diagnosed with metastatic cancer.  My oncologist said it would kill me.  Well, dying time is getting closer.  My left leg is riddled with tumors.  Some tumors elsewhere.  The doctors say that my life expectancy is now three months to a year.  A year and a half is possible.  Two years, highly doubtful.  But I have beaten the odds so far, no one expected me to last this long.

In a sense, I have already overcome death.  Because I have changed my thinking about it.  It’s been a long process that didn’t just begin with the cancer diagnoses.  Using thought transformation, I’ve changed my attitude.  It’s nothing special, anyone can do it.

Death is a natural process.  There’s no real need to be troubled by it.  However, Buddhism considers untimely death, like mine, to be unnatural.  Damn right.  It’s also unfair and unreasonable…  but I can give my untimely, unnatural death a purpose.

Dedicating one’s sickness or death to the welfare of others is a bit abstract.  Yet, in the world of mind, for the person who is sick or dying, it has a healing quality.  Bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, has power.  It’s not supernatural power, but the power of attitude that comes from mind-development (bhavana), insight, and having purpose, and it is therapeutic both emotionally and psychologically.  We can start to transcend sickness and death, or any other suffering, by viewing them as empty thought constructions rising from our luminous mind.

There are times when I am depressed, and frustrated, especially in regards to the physical pain I experience, but then I think of the pain of others…

“All that mass of pain and evil karma I take into my own body . . . I take upon myself the burden of sorrow; I resolve to do so; I endure it all. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble . . . I am not afraid . . . nor do I despair. Assuredly, I must bear the burdens of all beings . . . for I have resolved to save them all. I must set them all free, I must save the whole world from the forest of birth, old age, disease, and rebirth, from misfortune and sin, from the round of birth and death, from the toils of illusion.”
– Vajradhvaja Sutra

The word ‘purpose’ comes from purposer, which means “to intend.”  In Tibetan Buddhism, bodhicitta is often called “altruistic intention.”  Some psychologists maintain that people with a sense of purpose tend to live longer.  I don’t think I will get a chance to test that theory.  However, the heightened sense of purpose I’ve felt has enhanced the quality of my life, and sometimes quality is more important than longevity.  Most of us have a sense of purpose already or feel that our life has meaning, but this is a different meaning, this altruistic intention has a nobler sense of purpose.

Bodhicitta is not a new concept for me.  I’ve written about it before.  My first real insight into the thought of awakening came from a Dalai Lama teaching in 1996.  Since death is such a heavy thing, I find my intention, my sense of purpose, charged with new energy.  When we realize that our ultimate purpose for everything we do is to be of benefit to others, we turn the Buddha’s First Noble Truth around and life is no longer suffering, rather it is joy, fulfillment, nirvana.  That was his intention, his purpose, for us to turn it around.

This is not a Pollyanna vision of life.  Joy is not always constant.  Fulfillment is often challenged.  And nirvana is a dynamic state of mind that must be steadily nurtured and protected.

“Our spiritual destination is personal nirvana.”
– Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen

My impending death has become a new path to get there.

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The Rohingya Crisis

It’s just a shot away:

“When they are being killed and forcibly transferred in a widespread or systematic manner, this could constitute ethnic cleansing and could amount to crimes against humanity.”

In fact it can be the precursor to all the egregious crimes — and I mean genocide.”

These are the words of Adama Dieng, the UN special advisor for the prevention of genocide. He is referring to the crisis in Burma (Myanmar), a humanitarian crisis that has recently worsened.

On August 25, the military began “clearance operations” in the Rakhine State.  Since that date it’s been estimated that some 370,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed over the border into Bangladesh. They have carried with them allegations of mass killings and burning of Rohingya villages by Buddhist vigilantes and Burmese soldiers.

Image: Rohingya refugees walk on the muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. (Reuters / Mohammad Ponir Hossain)

The Rohingya people, from Rakhine in Myanmar, are mostly Muslim and they are stateless. Despite the fact that they have been in Burma for centuries, the Buddhist majority refuses to recognize their citizenship. In 2013, the United Nations called the Rohingya “one of the most persecuted communities in the world.”

On Monday, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called the situation in Myanmar “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Many of the accounts of violence are unverifiable because the Myanmar military will not let international journalists in the region where the violence is occurring. According to the BBC, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de-facto leader, claims that fake news is inflaming the outrage over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya. She says it is “simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.”

Up to now, Aung San Suu Kyi has been strangely silent about the Rohingya crisis.  And it is not clear to me who “the terrorists” are to her. To me, the terrorists are the Buddhists. Myanmar’s Buddhism is fueled by anger, hate, and Islamophobia.

Recent reports have surfaced of Rohingya insurgents attacking police posts, killing 12 officers, and 130 people, including women and children, massacred in a single village by soldiers and Buddhist vigilantes, but while there has been violence perpetrated by both sides, the lion’s share of responsibility for the killing and burning lies with the Buddhist majority and the military. The Buddhist side is led by a group known as the “969 Buddhist nationalist campaign.” 969 refers to a Buddhist tradition in which the Three Jewels or Tiratana is composed of 24 attributes (9 for the Buddha, 6 for Dhamma or the teachings, and 9 for the Sangha).  They rationalize persecution of the Rohingya by claiming they are protecting Buddhism from the evils of Islam.

Ms Suu Kyi, one of the most respected women in the world, has come under fire for her silence. Recently, Malala Yousafzai, 20, the women’s education activist who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in 2012 and who survived to become the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, called on her fellow laureate to condemn the “shameful” treatment of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. She said that “the world is waiting” for her to speak out.

We have been waiting.  Suu Kyi’s silence has been troubling. Yet, as the Washington Post noted on Sept. 6, “Defenders of Suu Kyi argue that she has to walk a delicate line with the Burmese military, which not so long ago was her jailer and remains backed by an increasingly vocal constituency of Buddhist nationalists.”

Friday, during an impromptu interview with reporters, the Dalai Lama said, “Those people who are harassing Muslims then they should remember Buddha helping, definitely helping those poor Muslims… Still, I feel that. Very sad. Very sad.”  He was referring to a statement he made in 2014 that if the Buddha was there, he would protect the Muslims from the Buddhists.

Several years ago, the Dalai Lama, during a meeting of Nobel Laureates, urged Ms Suu Kyi to curb the violence, and even more recently he wrote her a letter, again urging her to speak out and to resolve the crisis.

Silence is not always noble.

I’m still wondering where’s the outrage from the international Buddhist community.  We can’t allow anyone to use Buddha-dharma as a weapon of hate.  Speaking out is a responsibility that all Buddhists share.

And I still think a strong and repeated condemnation of the Myanmar Buddhists by international Buddhists would have some impact. It would be difficult for the Myanmar sangha to ignore such a response. Put the pressure on.

So, Buddhists can do more.  Out job is to raise awareness.  Buddhists need to talk more about it, blog more about it.  It is not the only crisis in the world by any means, but it is our crisis.  All Buddhists need to own it.  Not to pat myself on the back, but I’ve mentioned or dedicated an entire post to the crisis in Myanmar about 11 times between 2012 and 2015.  Even though I have been silent on the crisis for a while,  I have not given up disturbing the sounds of silence.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

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Wavelessness

Zhao De wrote, “If water is still enough, everything is reflected clearly.  If mind is calm, then wisdom grows.”

A key goal in the practice of Buddhist meditation is to develop a calm mind.  We call the practice mindfulness but mindfulness is also a state of mind.  And calmness does not mean absolute stillness.  There is movement in calmness.  According to the T’ai Shang Ch’ing-ching Ching (“Cultivating Stillness”), a text attributed to Lao Tzu, “Movement is the foundation of stillness.”

Sometimes we engage in metaphor:  Still water is our mind.  The stillness of the water is disturbed when the wind blows and makes waves.  Waves are our sufferings.  The nature of water is stillness, while the nature of waves is movement.

When we gaze upon a calm sea, we see that the surface is tranquil, smooth, waveless.  Because there is no surface movement to distort the reflection, in still water we see a clear reflection of things as they are.  A calm mind reflects the world without distortion.  In addition, this mind does not try to seize and cling to everything it sees, and when there are waves, it is not smashed by their impact.

You know the theory:  If a person’s mind is profoundly still, he or she becomes aware of their true nature and the real aspect of things.  Like still water, when the mind is calm it sends back a clear image of the non-duality of the world, and we discover that a wave is not separate from water; it is water, in movement.  It’s a rather obvious conclusion but remember water and waves are metaphors.

In meditation practice, to develop this non-dual realization fully, we consider the mind to be water and sufferings as waves, and we meditate to become waveless.

Being present in the moment, mindfulness is wavelessness.

Being aware, of course, that movement is also present.

A certain sage from Texas maintains that “Still is still moving to me.”

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