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.


My Father and the Beauty of Birth and Death

My father died last Thursday. He was 93. He lived a good, full life and although mentally he was as sharp as he ever was, his body was failing and it was time for him to go. I sensed this a few days beforehand. I had an opportunity to talk to him Wednesday on the phone and tell him that I loved him. I think we both knew we were saying goodbye.

For most of us, the word ‘death’ is ugly. We fear death and when death comes to those we love, it causes us to suffer. But the person who has passed away is not suffering. When death is peaceful, like my father’s, then death has mercy. Death can have beauty. To fear death and to experience great sadness when a loved one dies is natural, but it is also a bit irrational.

Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “When you use the word ‘death’, dying, it means that you have also lived. The two cannot be separated.”

To understand the inseparability of life and death is one way to conquer our fear of it. It is also a way in which we can see the beauty of death.

Some people focus on what happens after death, a thing no one knows. They believe in an afterlife because they think they will find immortality. They believe they will go to a heaven or a pure Buddha land, or they will achieve nirvana – their reward for the sufferings they experienced in this life.

I don’t know if the theory of rebirth was originally a part of the Buddha’s teachings or whether it was something added later. But I do know that Mahayana Buddhism teaches that suffering is nirvana. This saha (mundane) world is itself heaven. Or, as Dogen said, our life right now is the life of the Buddha.

My father was a Christian man. An honest, moral, upright man, respected by all who knew him. I feel that his integrity transcended religion. It was a quality he possessed naturally. It was just the way he was.

While my grief is immense, I can see the beauty of my father’s death. More importantly, I can see the beauty of his life.

This present birth and death itself is the life of the Buddha. If you attempt to reject it with distaste, you are losing thereby the life of the Buddha.”

– Dogen


The Interconnectedness of Death

Last February neurologist and Awakenings author Oliver Sacks learned he had terminal liver cancer. He shared this news with the world in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. I was moved by his thoughts about dying and I wrote a blog entry about it. As you may already be aware, Sacks died Sunday. He was 82.

oliver-sacks3His cancer was metastatic, and I’ve read that liver metastases is considered an absolute contraindication for liver transplantation.  However, it was treated. Sacks stated in a July 24 Times piece that in February, the cancer was treated with embolization, a procedure where substances are injected to try to block or reduce the blood flow to cancer cells, and the metastasis was “wiped out.” But a July 7 CT scan showed the metastases had regrown and spread beyond the liver.

He’d started immunotherapy treatment, but it was only to buy him time, and obviously it did not buy much of it.

In an appraisal written for yesterday’s edition of the Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that in his work, Sacks cast light on the interconnectedness of life. The interdependence of life is a well-known Buddhist doctrine.  There is, too, an interconnectedness of death,  as stated so well by John Donne:

any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Life and death are interconnected. What Buddhism calls “the cycle of birth and death” is a continuum. Life is the active phase and death is the passive phase. It is said that the continuum of a human being, or more precisely consciousness, is beginningless. As to whether it is endless or not, there are divergent opinions.

From my perspective, finding myself in a situation very similar to that of Sacks,  beginningless and endlessness are not so important. What matters most is the indivisibility of life and death. Fear is one of the greatest sources of anxiety, particularly fear of one’s own death. When we realize the oneness of life and death, its interconnectedness, and the emptiness of all things, there is, as the Heart Sutra says, no fear and no illusion. This is wisdom and with this wisdom we enter into nirvana, which is nothing more than this mundane world of life and death.

That is from the ultimate truth. The relative truth was stated by Sacks himself: “I cannot pretend I am without fear.”

To my mind, “no fear” does not refer to the absence of fear, but rather to how we handle fear.  It means the absence of anxiety, or better, winning out over the anxiety that fear brings. It means facing even death with hope and confidence.



“What is born is of the nature of death”

My cousin was 57 years old and lived with her husband in Northern California where they had raised three children, all adults now. Several years ago, she had breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. At that time, she appeared to be cancer free. Just a couple of months ago she had some tests done and again, it looked as though she was in the clear.

Over the Fourth of July weekend she emailed, writing that she was worried about how her stomach was swollen. She’d had a blood test and was going for a CT scan early the next week. It didn’t sound good to me. It sounded like ascites, where the abdomen becomes very swollen and distended. I’d seen that a lot at the liver clinic. People with ascites look like they are pregnant, and it is painful.

On Sunday, July 7, we talked on the phone. She was afraid the cancer had spread throughout her entire body. She cried. I didn’t say much. I just listened. Even though there was nearly 400 miles of distance between us, I tried to there for her, present in body and mind. I did remind her that fear was her worse enemy . . .

Cancer had spread through her body and ravaged it with a vengeance. Her kidney was more tumor than organ, I am told. She died this past Monday, July 21.

With cancer, you can never say never.

We corresponded via email frequently, sometimes as often as two or three times a week. Besides the bond of family, we had that special bond formed by our experience with the Big C. We both battled cancer and we also battled fear, and we would encourage one another to stay strong and fight the fight. In one of our last email exchanges, later the same day we talked on the phone, she wrote, “Fear sucks our life away.” I believe she understood that the greatest tragedy is not physical death but rather when a negative emotion like fear destroys what lives within us. I hope the realization helped her touch some peace in that final skirmish.

Sufferings and peace are both of the nature of the mind.
It is fortunate to have made the resolution to liberate oneself from sufferings
While understanding that all sufferings in the world and the peace called Nirvana are mingled into one,
Without having imperfect views and without taking the phenomenal world to be real.
It is fortunate to remember from one’s heart
Meditations on the transcendence of birth and death,
Knowing that what is born is of the nature of death
And not unchangeable as we imagine.

from Gyu-thog’s Hymn of Wisdom



Is There An End to Suffering?

Yesterday, a friend said to me, “I was thinking about all life being suffering and wondering whether if that’s so, then does death end the suffering? No one knows what happens after death, but is there anything you’ve read about that?”

The traditional Buddhist view is that we go through a cycle of birth and death. Death, then, in one life is just opening a door to another life, and since we carry karma with us, we carry sufferings along, too. Our karma being a means through which we experience suffering. Theoretically, if one were to practice Buddhism lifetime after lifetime, eventually one would reach a stage where nirvana is attained and then there are no more rebirths and that’s the end of suffering.

But, rebirth is just a theory. Many people find it hard to accept. Personally, I suspect that when you die, that’s it. It’s over. Finis. Then, your sufferings do come to an end. The bad news is you’re dead. And that’s not much fun. Not only that, you leave behind people who suffer over your loss. As another friend of mine once remarked, “Sufferings, man, are a bitch.”

Mahayana Buddhism, having a different view on sufferings and nirvana, is rather pessimistic about the possibility of stopping the cycle of rebirth. In Mahayana, nirvana is not a place or some exalted realm of being, rather it’s a state of mind. And nirvana is available to us right here, right now. That’s why the Lotus Sutra says, “Suffering are nirvana, only when one realizes that the entity of human life is neither created nor destroyed throughout its cycle of birth and death.”

The important part of that statement is not about transmigration in the cycle of birth and death, although it does point out the understanding that I mentioned above about one life flowing into another. Nothing is really born in the sense that we arise from a beginningless beginning, and nothing dies, because what we call death is merely a passive stage of existence. But that is speculation. For us, the crucial part is “sufferings are nirvana.”

We can’t put an end to suffering but we can put a stop to the power that suffering has to control our lives. This is what I mean by transcending them. We have to be stronger than suffering. Say you are diagnosed with cancer. That can be devastating. Cancer is serious suffering. So the question is whether or not you let the suffering of cancer destroy your spirit. It may destroy you in the end, but if your spirit stays strong, then as long as you are breathing, there is still life to be lived and enjoyed.

In Buddhism, how we die is important. It is considered advantageous for one’s rebirth to die peacefully. That aspect aside, it just makes compassionate sense. No one should have their last moments tainted by anxiety, stress or fear.

A great book on this subject is Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (not to be confused with the famous “TibetanBook of the Dead”). In one section, Sogyal Rinpoche offers some inspiring words about facing death. First, he quotes the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”:

O son/daughter . . . what is called ‘death’ has now arrived, so adopt this attitude: ‘I have arrived at the time of death, so now, by means of this death, I will adopt only the attitude of the enlightened state of mind, loving-kindness and compassion, and attain perfect enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings who are as limitless as space . . .”

Sogyal Rinpoche then relates how one of his students came to him and said that one of her friends was in pain, dying from leukemia and he kept asking her “What can I do with all this useless, horrible suffering?”

I told her to tell him: ‘I know how much pain you’re in. Imagine now all the others in the world who are in pain like yours, or even greater. Fill your heart with compassion for them. And pray to whomever you believe in and ask that your suffering should help alleviate theirs. Again and again dedicate your pain to the alleviation of their pain. And you will quickly discover in yourself a new source of strength, a compassion you’ll hardly be able to imagine, and a certainty, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that your suffering is not only not being wasted, but has now a marvelous meaning.”

I think this is the sort of attitude to have in any situation in which suffering arises. No one wants suffering but it’s unavoidable. We know that positive thoughts cause positive changes in the brain, so having positive thoughts toward others can only benefit us in both mind and body.

If we can summon up this sort of attitude in life then no suffering is meaningless and, in fact, suffering is our helper, for without it we could not have empathy with the suffering of others.

And, of course, when you are thinking of others, your own sufferings don’t seem as large or even that important. Sufferings are defeated when you no longer have enough room in your mind or time on your hands to dwell on them.

I wrote in the last post of how the Buddha thought compassion has a redemptive, liberating quality. There is no end to suffering, but there is liberation.