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What is this thing called mind? Print

What is this thing called mind?


“As we meditate, we begin to learn about what the mind is. We gradually uncover the mind’s true nature — that it is essentially clear, knowing and unbiased.”

What is the nature of this thing we experience as the mind? According to the Buddhist understanding, we say that mind is clear, knowing and unbiased.

First, mind is unbiased. The mind is a relatively neutral situation through which we experience things; it takes on the form of whatever we project at it. When the mind is more settled, we find that qualities such as love, compassion and understanding arise. These are generally more in harmony with the basic nature of mind than the negative emotions are.

The mind is not physical, obviously; it does not have a form. Rather, it is translucent, and it can penetrate anything. There is nothing that impedes it. What does it mean that the mind can actually penetrate forms?

This means, for example, that if we get very angry, or if we feel very desirous, or if we feel a lot of arrogance and pride, then we feel as though we are becoming that emotion. If we are sitting in meditation and suddenly we have a thought that makes us very angry, it feels as though the anger is moving toward us, almost like a physical thing. Our mind becomes completely absorbed and heavy with that particular emotion.

So in a sense, the emotion changed the format of the mind. Because the mind has no inherent bias, it takes on the form of that emotion. And what happens over time is that the mind becomes laden and heavy with all these emotions and the other habitual patterns that we take on.

This is why it is so important and helpful to understand the basic nature of mind. We can be hopeful because we know that fundamentally the mind is not stupid and angry, not ignorant and confused. Sometimes we may feel that we are stupid or angry, but that is only because the mind has been conditioned. Traditionally, the mind is compared to a white cloth that has been soiled. But fundamentally it remains pure.

Second, the mind is knowing. It is intelligent. How is it that we are able to recognize the difference between a rock, a book and a pear? How do we know that we are outside, or that we are inside, and so on? It is because of the knowing aspect of mind, the intelligence of mind. It’s like the sunlight: when the sun comes out, its warmth penetrates everywhere. We can say this warmth is like the quality of knowing.

Generally we take the mind’s ability to know for granted. But it is very important in the process of meditation to really understand knowing as a basic quality of the mind.

When we have established a meditation practice, we tend to think about the mind and what it really is. What is the mind made of, fundamentally? Can we describe the mind? I often compare the mind to a wild horse. It is wild and unruly, but it has the potential of being tamed. And when it is trained, our mind can be of service to us, instead of throwing us around unpredictably. So we need to know what it is that we are taming.

As we meditate, we begin to learn about what the mind is. We gradually uncover the mind’s components—that it is essentially clear and knowing and unbiased. As we do, we are able to access these pure aspects of mind; we get more and more to the source. We might feel angry or stupid, but through the process of meditating we begin to see through the layers of the mind, and finally we might reach something that is closer to mind’s true nature.

Finally, the mind is clear. Clarity here means that there is very little distance between us and the objects we perceive. I like to use the analogy of swimming underwater with a mask. The first time I went scuba diving the water was very muddy, so I didn’t see much. But the second time I went it was very clear and I was struck by how everything was so brilliant and close. This is the quality of clarity I’m talking about. It surprises us because everything is much clearer than what we’re used to, and there’s a feeling that we’re not separated from our surroundings. We just feel right there. It’s immediate.

To put this understanding of the mind into practice, there are different techniques that are appropriate at particular times. With each stage of meditation there are obstacles we encounter, and there are also various antidotes, the methods for overcoming these obstacles.

As meditators, we really need to understand the path: we need to know the know the stages, the obstacles and the antidotes. We need to have some guidelines, because the mind is so vast that left to our own devices, our tendency is just to wander in thought. We come up with some idea, and for a while it seems a good idea, and then something else comes along. We go from thought to thought, idea to idea, emotion to emotion. So in order to traverse this landscape of concept and thoughts, we need guidelines.

When we’re meditating we might notice brief thoughts like, “I wonder if I fed the dog?” We can all recognize thoughts like that. But there are some thoughts and concepts that last years, or a lifetime, and that are much harder to notice. Attitudes, beliefs, political affiliations—these are concepts that we may not even know we have. Through our meditation practice, we have the opportunity to uncover these, layer by layer.

Mind you, the journey of meditation is not about overcoming concepts. That’s looking at it in a negative sense, as if we were naturally confused. Our view is that we are trying to develop the natural intelligence of the mind. At first we might think, “I need concepts in order to understand what is going on,” and at this point, that’s okay. As the great yogi Milarepa said, “Mistakes, mistakes, if it weren’t for the mistakes I wouldn’t be here.”

So we have to make mistakes. That’s not a problem. Our journey is just a deeper and deeper understanding of the nature of concept and the natural aspects of mind.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Shambhala and Buddhist lineages of his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1995 he was recognized as the incarnation of the great nineteenth-century Buddhist teacher Mipham Rinpoche

What is this thing called mind?, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, November 2000.

Approaching the Guru Print

Approaching the Guru


A talk on devotion by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, given in 1996 in Boulder, Colorado at the commemoration of the death of His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

            To tell you the truth, I think I am the wrong person to talk about guru devotion, because I don’t have it. This is not because there is any deficiency in my teachers; it is entirely because of something lacking in me. Believe me, I have so much ego, and devotion is bad news for the ego. On the other hand, I have studied devotion, so I may have some theoretical knowledge about it.

Why devotion?

            Why do we need devotion? Generally speaking, we need devotion because we need enlightenment. In one way, enlightenment can be understood very simply as a release from certain obsessions and hang-ups. Until we are free from these obsessions and habits, we will wander endlessly in samsara, going through all sorts of anxiety, suffering, and so on.
            The cause of all these sufferings is our fundamental insecurity. We are always wondering whether we exist or not. Our ego, or rather our attachment to the idea of self, is completely insecure about its own existence. Our ego may seem strong but it is actually quite shaky. Of course, we do not ask such questions consciously, but we always have a subconscious feeling of insecurity about whether we exist.
            We try to use things such as friends, money, position and power, and all the everyday things that we do, like watching television or going shopping, to somehow prove and confirm our existence. Try sitting alone in a house and doing absolutely nothing. Sooner or later your hands will reach for the remote control or the newspaper. We need to be occupied. We need to be busy. If we are not busy, we feel insecure.
            But there is something very strange in all this. The ego searches constantly for distraction, and then the distraction itself becomes a problem. Instead of helping us to feel reassured, it actually increases our insecurity. We get obsessed with the distraction and it develops into another habit. Once it becomes a habit, it is difficult to get rid of. So in order to get rid of this new habit, we have to adopt yet another habit. This is how things go on and on.
            In order to undermine this kind of habitual pattern, Lord Buddha taught us many, many different methods. Some of these are very skillful methods, such as overcoming the emotions by making friends with them. Even a single word of the Sakyamuni Buddha can liberate us from all these obsessions and habitual patterns. Take, for instance, the teaching on impermanence. When many of us, including myself, hear teachings on things like impermanence, the precious human body, and love and compassion, we tend to dismiss them as very simple and preliminary. But this is because we do not  actually understand them.

Training the Mind

            The quintessence of the path is to have the wisdom that realizes egolessness. Until we have this wisdom, we have not understood the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.
            In order to achieve this wisdom, first we have to make our mind malleable, workable—in the sense of being in control of our own mind. As Shantideva said, if you want to walk comfortably, there are two possible solutions. Either you can try to cover the whole ground with leather—but that would be very difficult—or you can achieve the same effect by simply wearing a pair of shoes. In the same way, it would be difficult to train and tame every single emotion that we have, or to change the world according to our desires. In fact the basis of all experience is the mind, and that’s why Buddhists stress the importance of training the mind in order to make it workable and flexible.
            Yet a flexible mind is not enough. We have to understand the nature of the mind. This is very difficult to do, precisely because it involves the wisdom of realizing egolessness. We have been in samsara from beginningless time. Our habitual patterns are very strong. We are completely deluded. For this reason, it is very, very difficult for this wisdom to appear.
            So what is to be done? There is only one way to obtain this wisdom—by accumulating merit. How should we accumulate this merit? According to the general vehicle of Buddhism, the method of accumulating merit is by having renunciation mind, by contemplating impermanence, by refraining from all the causes and conditions that will strengthen the ego, by engaging in all the causes and conditions that will strengthen our wisdom, by refraining from harming other beings, and so on. In the mahayana school, the merit is accumulated by having compassion for sentient beings.
            To cut a long story short, if you want enlightenment you need wisdom. If you want wisdom, you must have merit. And to have merit, according to mahayana, you must have compassion and bodhichitta, the wish to establish beings in the state of freedom.

Blessings of the Guru

            The vajrayana is renowned for its many methods and techniques, some of which are quite easy. The most important one, however, is to have a “sacred outlook.” And guru devotion is the essence of this sacred outlook. It says in the commentary to the Chakrasamvara Tantra that, “Through the blessings and kindness of the guru, great bliss, the realization of emptiness, the union of samsara and nirvana, can be obtained instantly.” This quotation talks about buddhanature.
            Generally speaking, the ultimate message of Buddhism is that you possess buddhanature. In other words, you already and quite naturally have within you the qualities of complete enlightenment. But you need to realize this. The fact that you don’t have this realization is the reason why you are wandering in samsara. According to Nagarjuna, the Buddha didn’t say that you need to abandon samsara in order to gain enlightenment. What he said was that you need to see that samsara is empty, that it has no inherent existence. This is the same as saying that you need to recognize your essential buddhanature.
            There are many different methods for recognizing this Buddha within. Of these, the quickest and easiest is to receive the blessings of the guru. This is why guru devotion is necessary.
            For example, you may be having a nightmare about monsters. But then suddenly, somebody throws a bucket of cold water over you and you wake up. The cold water doesn’t really make the monsters disappear, because there were no monsters in the first place. It was just a dream. But on the other hand, when you are having a nightmare, your sufferings are real, and the person who throws the bucket of water over you is indeed very kind and special. If you have a lot of merit you are able to meet such a person, a person who can throw the water. On the other hand, if you don’t have merit, you may never wake up from the nightmare.
            The guru lineage originates with someone called Vajradhara or Samantabhadra. Our masters tell us that he is our own mind, the nature of our own mind. This means that when we trace back through the lineage, we actually end up with our own minds, the essence of ourselves. The guru is not some kind of almighty sponsor that we have to worship or obey. The most important thing to understand is that the guru is the display of our buddhanature.
            On the ordinary level, one can say that the guru is someone who tells you what to do and what not to do. A small child may not realize that hot iron burns, so his father tells him that it burns and saves him from getting hurt. The guru is doing this for you when he tells you what is right and what is wrong.
            In Vajrayana, though, the guru does something even more important. You must have read many, many times that your body, speech, mind and aggregates have all been pure from beginningless time. But we don’t realize that. As Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche said, it is precisely because the truth is so simple that people don’t understand it. It’s like our eyelashes, which are so close that we can’t see them. The reason why we don’t realize this is our lack of merit. The guru’s role is to grant us empowerment and introduce us to this purity—and finally to point out directly the mind’s nature.

Putting the Guru to the Test

            The great vidyadhara Jigme Lingpa said that it is very important to analyze the guru first. As I said before, we are naturally very insecure people. Because of this we are easy prey. We make all sorts of mistakes that are difficult to clear up later on.
            Before you start to follow a guru, you should have a good understanding of the dharma. I don’t mean that you have to understand it completely, but at least you should have some understanding. You should analyze, and you should be skeptical and critical. Perhaps you should argue, and try to find fault by using logic and reflection.
            But while you are doing this, you should not have the journalist’s approach of looking for faults. The aim here is to find the path, not to find faults. So, when you study Buddhism, you should try to see whether this path suits you or not, whether this path makes sense or not. This is very important.
            Here’s an example. Let’s say that we want to go to New York, and we are hiring a guide. We need to have at least some idea where New York is. To take a guide without knowing whether New York is in the east, south or west is what I call the “inspirational disease.” It’s not enough just to find the guide attractive—to like the way he looks, talks and behaves. You should have at least some knowledge where New York is, so that if in the middle of the trip he begins to act a little funny, you feel okay because you know that you are heading in the right direction. He may lead you through strange or rough roads, but that doesn’t matter if you know you are heading in the right direction.
            On the other hand, if you don’t know the way at all, you are obliged to place all your trust in this one guide who claims that he can do anything. Maybe if you have lots of merit, you might accidentally find an authentic guide and actually reach New York. But if I were you I would not trust this kind of accidental success all the way. It is good to analyze the path first, and then you can have one or a hundred or thousands of gurus if you like.

Approaching the Guru

            What should we do next? One of the great Sakyapa masters, Jamyang Gyaltsen, said, “First you have to think about, contemplate, and manufacture devotion.” You need fabricated devotion, which is to consider that the guru is the Buddha. Make believe, so to speak. After a while, at the second stage, you will really start to see him as the Buddha, without any difficulty. And finally, at the third stage, you will realize that you are the Buddha. This is the unique approach of the vajrayana.
            As I said at the beginning, I personally don’t have real devotion. I don’t see my guru as the Buddha, but I try to contemplate and think that he is the Buddha. This is what we call created or fabricated devotion. In the beginning we consider that all the faults we see in him are nothing but our own projections. But the truth of the matter is that the guru has all the qualities of the Buddha. He is the Buddha, he is the dharma, he is the sangha; he is everything.
            We think like this again and again. This may strike you as nonsense, but actually it’s very logical—after all, everything depends on the mind. It is because of our delusions that it is initially very hard for us to see the guru as the Buddha. We have to practice and get used to it again and again, and then it will definitely work.
            Shantideva has said that if you get accustomed to something, there is nothing in this world that is difficult. Let’s say this is the first time in your life that you are going to a bar. You are introduced to someone and, due to some past karmic connection, this person proceeds to give you all the initiations and oral instructions and teachings on how to mix various drinks. Tequila with lemon, martinis dry and sweet—all sorts of details about drinking.
            Being a very devoted and diligent student, you practice drinking. In the beginning, it burns your throat, it hurts your stomach, and you get drunk. You vomit and you get up the next morning with a headache. With lots of enthusiasm you keep doing this. This is what we call foundation practice. You keep going to this person, and even though he occasionally gives you a hard time, it doesn’t matter. You are a very diligent student. Then one day your mind and his mingle: you know everything about alcohol, you know how to drink. At this point, you are a perfect lineage holder of alcohol drinking. You can then begin to teach others.

The Universality of the Guru

            We think that the guru is only good for giving teachings, that the guru is only good for special things but not good for headaches or other problems. This is not the way to think. For every problem that you have, pray to the guru, receive his blessings and you will be free from it. In one Tantra, it says, “Years and years of doing meditation on the development or completion stages, or years and years of chanting mantras, cannot compare with one instant of remembering the guru.”
            How should you behave with a guru? As an offering you can think of things like dress code, etiquette, politeness, but it doesn’t really matter. However, there are two very important things that you should never forget. The first is that you should never have pride. This is because you are there to learn, to receive teachings, to find enlightenment. As Tibetans say, “A proud person is like a stone.” No matter how much water you put on it, it will never get soaked. If you have pride you will never learn. So it’s very important to adopt an attitude of humility.
            The second important thing is never to waste an opportunity to accumulate merit. Having merit is so important. When you watch a movie, if you don’t know that it’s a movie and think it’s real, you will go through all sorts of emotional trauma. But if the person next to you says, “This is just a movie,” from then on you will be free from this kind of delusion. On the other hand, if you don’t have merit, then just at the moment when the person next to you says, “Look, this is just a movie,” someone behind you might cough very loudly, and you may not hear what the person next to you says. So you miss the opportunity of realization—all because you don’t have merit.
            Also, if you don’t have merit, your ego is always there ready to interpret everything in its own way. Even though the teacher gives you the most important teaching, you will always interpret it according to your own agenda.
            So at this point, instead of trying to outsmart the ego, the most important thing to do is to accumulate merit. How? There are lots of different ways. You can wear a tie and look handsome and think “This is an offering to my teacher.” If you are driving at night, when you see the street lamps, you can immediately visualize them as lamp offerings to the guru. If you can’t do this yourself, and if you see somebody else doing it, at least rejoice in what they are doing. There are so many things we can do. Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche said, “Accumulating merit is so easy, in fact much easier than accumulating non-virtue.”
            We need to have a grand, magnificent attitude. Devotion should be grand. I think if you have true devotion, everything can be taken as a manifestation of your guru.
Approaching the Guru, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, November 2000.


Start with a Flower: Alice Walker & Sharon Salzberg Print

Start with a Flower: Alice Walker & Sharon Salzberg

Moderated by

Sharon Salzberg:
In speaking about metta practice, or loving-kindness practice, one of the hardest things is not to sentimentalize. That’s especially hard in our society, where the whole idea of love can be degraded and considered a weakness. But in your books, the power, the actual life force and potency of loving-kindness, comes through so strongly.

Alice Walker:
I think my feeling of loving-kindness is rooted in a very irrepressible spirit that has always been earth-connected. When I was a child I felt so much a part of the countryside, and everything that was in it, that I couldn’t avoid the feeling that I had to have been loved very much to find myself there.

So when I came to meditation—I actually started doing TM when I was living in New York after a divorce—it was a kind of going back. Just after being initiated into the training, when I finally sort of got it, I started to laugh, because I recognized where I was. I was back in a place where I had lived as a child, in my spirit, in a very open, spacious, loving place, where I felt totally at peace and in myself.

Later, when I was in another period of great struggle and trial, I read a book of yours about metta practice, and it was wonderful. I was so comforted to have again such a place within my reach. It was that incredible thought that we can care about ourselves and not fall into the pit of thinking that just because life is not working now, there’s something terribly wrong with us. That is what metta has given me, this reassurance that of course we go through incredible periods of stress and pain, but if we hold on to our love of ourselves through it, we can come out the other side.

Sharon Salzberg:
There’s a teaching in Buddhism that suffering strengthens our faith. That’s hard to understand, it’s hard to even speak about, because so many people are embittered by suffering and are broken by it, rather than renewed by it. It’s finding the transformative quality in the openness that makes all the difference.

Alice Walker:
For me, it is also not having my love and faith in the earth itself broken. Some years ago I experienced having Lyme Disease, which at the time I didn’t even know existed, so I just thought I was dying of some mysterious thing that nobody had ever heard of. Then when I realized that this disease was caused by a tick bite, I thought that the earth had kind of turned on me. I had always been such a shameless pagan, out there fornicating in the grass and up the trees and everything, and I felt I had to withdraw from that kind of intimate contact with nature, because nature bites back, I thought. So I went for years with this kind of fear, and only after a very long time did my love for the earth and for nature prove so strong that I just decided that I loved it no matter what it did. And so (laughs), it’s been wonderful.

Sharon Salzberg:
In your audiotape, “My Life as Myself,” you say something like, “Love makes me look at what I can’t stand,” which is a tremendous affirmation of the bigness of love.

Alice Walker:
It’s true. I think that feeling had to develop in me because so much of what I’ve had to look at in life is so hard. If I didn’t have the love of the people and of the earth and of the life force itself, I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t know that children are being subjected to all the things that they are being subjected to. I would just turn away, I think, as many people do. People go into drugs, they go into television, and they go into many things. But you can also go into love.

Melvin McLeod (Editor, Shambhala Sun):
Can I ask what your understanding is of the actual practice of loving-kindness. Many people might hope that they could access such love in their lives, love for themselves and for others, but how does one actually do it?

Alice Walker:
Well, for me it has always been through activism. I’ve been a very contemplative person by nature, and was fortunate enough always to live very far out in the wilds of the country. I think this is where all meditation really comes from, that feeling of spaciousness you get in the countryside or in nature. But I was also very lucky to have been placed in a part of the country where one has to struggle politically and socially in order to grow, and actually to exist at all. So I was brought into contact with people and movements and with forces for change in society, and I could not help but grow. It was just inevitable that if I looked out and saw people in all their radiant fighting beauty, then I would just be struck with love for them.

I’m so happy that I lived in Mississippi for seven years, because each day I could see these warriors, who were really the least of everybody. They were poor, they could be thrown off their land, they could be jailed, they were often shot—you know, lynching was not uncommon. And there they were: they would stand up to anyone and hold their ground, insist that they were children of God, and that they had a right to exist. This was incredibly humbling, and I just found myself loving them without reservation.

The thing about love that I’ve discovered in my life is that one love leads to another. It just gets bigger and bigger. You can let it start anywhere; it can be really tiny. You can start with a flower, but if you sincerely see it and if you sincerely love it, then it’s like the key. The flower is like a key to a big, big, big storeroom. Then everything becomes something that is lovable.

Sharon Salzberg:
You describe the naturalness of it all. I guess the problem is that we’ve forgotten, or we’ve got out of touch. It’s not so much a practice to get more loving, but to remember more, and to feel more safe and confident in our ability to love.

Alice Walker:
Yes, and also to see the good even in the midst of the dreadful. That has always been very powerful to me. I’ve known so many people in my life who were almost split in half, good and bad. You could see them doing something that was just horrendous and despicable on Tuesday. And then on Wednesday, you would see them drop all of that and stand up to incredible forces of oppression and despair, and call upon something very deep within themselves that was really precious.

Sharon Salzberg:
It’s like the creation of the other, even within oneself. We don’t incorporate all aspects of our being into this loving space, and so it’s that much easier to dishonor others and to feel so separate.

Alice Walker:
I think you have to really work at it, to see the good, and sometimes you do it in such peculiar and maybe perverse ways. For me, I have had to recognize a real fear of Germans. When I travel through Germany I feel afraid, and all of that. But I made myself get a German car, and I really liked it a lot. It was perfectly smooth and wonderful and it made me think about Germans in a different way. I didn’t think about them killing people in concentration camps. I kind of thought about them on the car level, the Mozart car-making level, something very beautiful and very efficient also, in a positive way. I think we have to own the fears that we have of each other, and then, in some practical way, some daily way, figure out how to see people differently than the way we’ve been brought up to do.

Melvin McLeod:
Is there also a healthy type of anger or outrage that is compatible with, or perhaps even a companion to, loving-kindness? Could this be the sense of the power of loving-kindness that Sharon referred to originally?

Alice Walker:
Creativity—for me, that is where the power is, that is where the healing is. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, to make something that is beautiful and not destructive, or to make something that is useful and not destructive, that is the healing power of the artist. For me, as someone who spends so much time in solitude, it has been about making actual objects—making stories and making quilts. And making friends with somebody, that’s very good. And we all together make political movements; we make change in society.

One of our big problems is that we live in a culture that bombards us with destructive images that are killing us. I think that children are battered so badly by destructive, negative images from television, mainly, and the movies, that they often have no idea that they can create in a way that is not destructive. They actually think that creation itself is destructive. That’s a terrible place for us to find ourselves, where our children believe that.

Sharon Salzberg:
Maybe the power we’re talking about is the clarity of truth telling and clear seeing. I would hate to call it the positive aspect of anger, but maybe it has some of the energy of anger.

Alice Walker:
I love “clear seeing.” It is such a wonderful phrase. It just gets right to it, that you try to see things as clearly as they are. Then you try to express them to yourself, and then to the world, as clearly as you can. This, I think, is really the only hope. Because it’s as if this world is constructed almost entirely of lies, and so we can’t help but be lost. We are floundering about, trying to find the path, and they have deliberately said east where it’s west, north where it’s south, up where it’s down, green where it’s blue. And all the time they are wrong. These signposts have been deliberately put on the path to send us off somewhere else. So clear seeing, clear speaking—that is our responsibility.

Sharon Salzberg:
It’s also feeling the truth of our own experience, because being cut off from our own suffering, it’s that much harder to open to the pain of others.

Alice Walker:
That’s why it’s good to be a writer, or to be a poet, because you can at least offer your own truth. I’ve had the experience of writing about incest, wife beating, child molestation, female genital mutilation, all kinds of things, and having people say, this could not possibly exist, and even if it does, why would you want to tell us? And at some point you stop really caring whether it makes other people uncomfortable, because, as the Buddhists say, this is just basic human stuff (laughs). Essentially, your experience, whatever it is, is human stuff. And for people to pretend they don’t know what it is, or that it’s so shocking somebody said it, this is another signpost that says East instead of West. Because deep in your heart, you recognize what is human when you see it.

Sharon Salzberg:
In your novel, The Temple of My Familiar, Carlotta says to Fanny, well, maybe the problem is too large for anger. The way you phrased it in “My Life as Myself” is that maybe it’s too big not to forgive. That sense of bigness is, I think, a spiritual understanding which is totally inclusive. It’s not separate from what’s happening, or trying to get beyond it, or transcend it in some way.

Alice Walker:
I think that with me, I do realize it’s pretty messy all around. Lots of suffering, lots of pain. And I have just decided that there are places where I feel I am uniquely suited to be, and causes that just fit. Causes where I feel I understand some of what it’s about, where I feel I can actually do this without being insulting or ignorant or unhelpful.

I work on what I am able to work on, more or less joyously. When I tackle something like female genital mutilation, I think about one child at a time, and I try not to think about a hundred million people. I can’t really think about all of them in their collectivity. I have to just try to go after one child who has a possibility of not being harmed, if I speak out now. And I go into that with a real light heart. It’s very heavy, but because I’m off my couch, my heart is fairly light.

And that’s it. I give to the extent that I can, and then I sit back and I eat tomatoes. And I enjoy them, and I look out at the landscape and I love it, and I walk and I go swimming and I love being alive, and I enjoy my life. And then when I get my strength back, I go out again. That’s all I can do, and I do it with such happiness. It’s not in any way a strain, and when it gets to be a strain, I just take a nap. But it’s good for me.

Sharon Salzberg:
That reminds me of something out of the classical Buddhist tradition, that at the time of the Buddha, the Buddha would smile, throw a flower, or say three words, and 50,000 people would get enlightened. And it doesn’t happen that way these days. I asked one of my teachers once, why not? And he said, it’s basically because we can’t open up to the suffering all at once. We have to do it gradually. It’s not the point to suffer; it’s the opening that’s the point. It is that lightheartedness, that bigness, that spacious mind and love that can hold the suffering and accommodate it and integrate it and understand it. It’s not just to suffer and be broken by it.

Alice Walker:
I’ve had this experience where I go somewhere, and even on the way, I’ll be thinking, oh no, it’ll be so rough, how can I stand it? Then I’ll get there, and I’ll be with the people, and sure enough, they’ll be up against some incredible madness, and I’ll just find myself getting happier and happier and happier. And we’ll all look at each other, and we’ll be grinning and grinning and grinning, and by the time it’s over, whatever it is, we will have decided that this was absolutely the high point of life. And so there’s that to be experienced.

Unfortunately, we live in a time when people think that if their activism is not some huge, grand thing, that if they’re not some great hero like the ones who have been assassinated already, then what they have to offer is not good enough. Just by writing a letter, for instance, or teaching somebody how to vote, or picking up litter in a neighborhood where picking up litter is unknown, you can influence people. You may feel that, well, this is so small, I’d like to do it but what is it? But the tiniest thing can be very powerful and very beautiful, and it’s something that one should do for oneself. That’s the whole point of it. It’s not to clean up someone else’s neighborhood, or feed their children, and just do it for them. It is really for you too; that is where your happiness is.

Sharon Salzberg:
It’s so healing to recognize our connection. I’ve received a lot from people who had very little, and that has been an awesome experience. Like going to a country such as Burma to practice meditation, where every single meal is offered to us by people who are sometimes just dressed in rags. They’re so happy for the chance to have fed you, and they have nothing. To receive so much from them is beautiful.

Alice Walker:
Also, Sharon, you know what?

Sharon Salzberg:

Alice Walker:
They are quite aware that they have everything and you have nothing.

Sharon Salzberg:
That’s true too.

Alice Walker:
You’re the one who left home to come to Burma.

Sharon Salzberg:
Yes, that’s very true. And sometimes when we do something small, we have no idea where it’s going to lead anyway.

Alice Walker:
Never. And also there’s just the joy of beginning.

Melvin McLeod:
I’d like to go back, Ms. Walker, to your ability to maintain a light heart. I saw part of a documentary on female genital mutilation, and it included an actual scene of a young girl undergoing some sort of terrible excision of her genitalia. The child was screaming, and I was completely shaken. I couldn’t watch it. So when you’ve seen that sort of thing, as you have, how do you not get your heart broken, on one hand, and on the other hand, not be completely enraged at the people doing it?

Alice Walker:
I think you feel all of that, and you just don’t stay there. Once again, here it is—the most horrible thing in the world is happening, but by some miracle you are there at the beginning of seeing that it stop. So how could you not be lighthearted? I mean, ultimately. But it’s very difficult, I know. When I was in Africa, I was walking along—this was after a whole long line of young girls had been mutilated—and I couldn’t watch it. And out of nowhere there was a little girl, I guess maybe three or four years old, who just came up to me. She’d never seen me before, and she just took my hand, and we walked along holding hands for a little distance. All I could think was, I’m doing this for other children, but we’re not starting in time to save this particular child. And I’m telling you, it almost just drove me under the ground.

At the same time, I think, well, I am here to help. I’m here with all of the skill that I have acquired as a writer, and all the love that I feel for the people here, and all the love that I feel for myself and my connections to the people of Africa. So I felt like it was okay. It’s better to start, even when things are so dire, then to be sitting home not starting.

Melvin McLeod:
This reminds me of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s image of the “Great Eastern Sun,” which refers to the fact that in every situation, no matter how difficult, there is always the possibility of going forward, toward waking up, toward helping others. This situation seems exactly the definition of warriorship, that you can see the possibility of going forward, even while your heart is broken.

Alice Walker:
You know, what are hearts for? Hearts are there to be broken, and I say that because that seems to be just part of what happens with hearts. I mean, mine has been broken so many times that I have lost count. But it just seems to be broken open more and more and more, and it just gets bigger. I remember saying to my therapist, “You know, my heart by now feels open like a suitcase. It feels like it has just sort of dropped open, you know, like how a big suitcase just falls open. It feels like that.”

Instead of that feeling of having a thorn through your heart, that feeling Pema Chödrön talks about in tonglen meditation, you have a sense of openness, as if the wind could blow through it. And that’s the way I’m used to my heart feeling. The feeling of the heart being so open that the wind blows through it. I think that is the way it’s supposed to feel when you’re in balance. And when you get out of balance, you feel like there’s no wind, there’s no breeze, there’s just this rock and it has a big thing sticking through it. I don’t know how you get from one feeling to the other, except through meditation, often, but also activism, just seeing what needs to be done in the world, or in our families, and just start doing it.

Sharon Salzberg:
I think open heart comes from a sense of community, and it can come from a meditation practice, or both ideally. Because when there’s a central connection with others, that’s also the source of joy. Realizing that what’s happening to those little girls is not different from me, not other than me. Inevitably, it’s awful and one’s angry and terrified, but at the same time, that connection itself is the joy, that open suitcase heart.

Alice Walker:
I don’t know where that suitcase image came from (laughs), but now that I think of it, a suitcase is something that you also fill up again and move on off with (laughs). So it doesn’t stay empty. It’s also portable.

Alice Walker is the author of The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart, published by Random House. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for her novel The Color Purple.

Sharon Salzberg is a Buddhist teacher and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society. She is author of Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and A Heart as Wide as the World, and is the editor of Voices of Insight.
Start with a Flower, Alice Walker & Sharon Salzberg, Shambhala Sun, November 2000.

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How to Be a Help Print

How to Be a Help  


We may not be able to stop someone from dying or suffering pain, but we can still help through the honesty, compassion and presence of mind we bring to the situation. The key, says Buddhist teacher Judith L. Lief, is working with our own state of mind and attitudes toward death.

In a stucco room in New Mexico, a group of women are gathered. They are awaiting the arrival of Sandra Jishu Holmes, an American Zen Buddhist priest. Jishu had died a sudden and untimely death at the age of fifty-six from a heart attack, and I had traveled from New York to New Mexico to pay my respects. Upon arriving, I was invited by Jishu’s husband, Roshi Bernie Glassman, to join the women who were preparing to receive Jishu’s body.

In the center of the small bedroom is a double bed draped with handmade quilts, and the small group of women crowds the narrow spaces surrounding it. From the adjoining room, chanting rises and falls, while in the bedroom, women wait quietly. On a night table is a bowl of fragrant water and a pile of clean towels and washcloths. A woman playing a sarod quietly sings in the corner.

When Jishu is brought in, she is in a plastic bag on a cart. Gently she is lifted onto the bed and the long zippers are unzipped. Removed from her wrapping, she lies naked and beautifully feminine on the quilts that she loved. At the head of the bed stands Bernie, who is gently stroking her forehead, and at the window whining to be let in is her dog, Muji. The women begin their task, washing the body, dressing it in robes, and preparing it for the funeral ceremony to come. The periodic wringing out of the washcloths adds the music of dripping water.

Jishu’s body is cold and stiff but not rigid. As a subtle breeze blows through the room, she appears to be breathing still. I know she is not, but my mind is playing tricks. As I remove the name tag from her toe, I wonder, is this you? Are you still here? The scene of women tending the corpse is both current and ancient. Jishu’s stepdaughter is present, as is her mother. Some of the other women here are friends, and some are fellow Buddhist practitioners and admirers.

Once the body has been washed, it is clothed in Jishu’s Zen teaching robes. Pushing the arms though the sleeves evokes memories of dressing young children to go out and play in the snow. Her mother tenderly brushes her daughter’s hair one last time. Mother and daughter touching, a husband by her side, a group of friends, and now Muji by the bed.

It is not easy in such cramped quarters to lift Jishu’s body into the coffin, a cardboard box, draped with more quilts. Women clamber about the bed awkwardly, take their positions, and with a single heave-ho, smoothly transfer her to the box. Once she is in place, flowers and herbs are added, and the preparation is complete. Nothing needs to be said. Nothing can be said. It is too simple for words.

After the funeral, when I return to New York, I schedule a massage. As the woman’s hands knead my body, I think of the women preparing Jishu’s body, and I am struck by the similarity. The simplicity of touch, the simplicity of the body—living or no longer alive—the simplicity and ordinariness of people caring for one another.          

When we encounter death, it is profoundly simple, but as we go about our lives, we lose touch with that simplicity. Simplicity is experience pared down to raw essentials, with nothing added on or removed; therefore, it is without deception. When we have lost touch with ourselves and one another, the simplicity of death can bring us back quite powerfully to what really matters.

Simplicity is what links us with other people. It is the ground of connection. We uncover our simplicity only when we let go of the barriers we create to protect ourselves from pain and separate ourselves from one another. How can we help people who are dying if we do not relate to our own death? How can we deal with crazy people if we do not relate with our own insanity? How can we help people who are afraid if we do not understand our own fears? If we separate ourselves from all that, it is difficult to connect with people with any depth. We come in from afar with our professional advice or our latest theory or our this or that and try to fix things up—but it is as if we were communicating across a great divide. However, if we have a sense of our own death, our own insanity, our own pain, there is no longer any distance between ourselves and others. Instead of coming from afar, we are on common ground. If we are as simple and nonjudgmental as possible, and if we work with our own state of mind, we can make a genuine connection with the dying person and the people around him.

Trungpa Rinpoche used the phrase “one death” as a guide for working with people who are dying. That does not mean jumping into the pyre so we burn up together, like widowed brides in India. Instead, it means that the way we can connect with the person who is dying is through our shared experience of loss and death. Prior to the experience of physical death, our life is filled with many little deaths, disruptions, and losses both large and small. The key is to acknowledge those gaps in our experience. If we are aware of the discontinuity in our own lives, we can connect with people who are facing that same discontinuity in a heightened way at the time of death. The ground where we meet one another is unstructured.

You might think you have nothing to offer. You just enter the dying person’s room and feel helpless. Even if you are a doctor or nurse, you cannot necessarily save a person. It’s true. We may not be able to prevent someone from dying or being in pain. Chances are, we have no magical pill to stop either the pain or the suffering that goes with it, so it can be very frustrating. We may wonder, “What do I have to offer? What do I have to give?”—especially if we are not a medical professional, a healer, a priest, or some high Tibetan lama. But in fact, there are many ways we can be of help. Even if there seems to be very little we can do, we can still help people by our presence of mind and by what we project out. We can affect the environment for the better.

Not Handing Out Advice

We could begin by accepting people as they are rather than trying to change them. It is quite common for people who are sick or dying to be bombarded with all sorts of advice. They are magnets for it. People who would not ordinarily go around telling their friends how to conduct their lives suddenly transform into pundits and experts once their friends fall ill. We are so anxious to help that we don’t wait to be asked; we just launch in. And we have all sorts of opinions and criticisms as to how our friends are doing and how they should be handling their situation. It is easier to hide out in those opinions and become judgmental and demanding than to let go of our expectations and ideas and be left with nothing to hang on to. But that nothing-to-hang-on-to point is where we can actually make a connection.

It is not easy to resist this urge to fix things and make them go our way. However, all those demands place a terrible burden on others. They are based on rejection, not acceptance, and they create barriers that separate us from one another. We could work to reverse that pattern by accepting the sick or dying person as she is without trying to make her please us by how she goes about things. That might not sound like much, but it is rare. Especially when someone is sick or in a weakened state, it is common for people to pile in and lay heavy trips on her. So merely to have someone visit who doesn’t immediately start with “You should do this, and you should do that; you should feel this, and you should feel that” is a gift. It is unusual to encounter someone who doesn’t immediately hand out advice.

Seeing the Ordinariness of Death

Beyond that, we can help by not taking the view that death is a big mistake. Daniel Callahan, the medical ethicist, once said, “Despite the casual talk in our culture of death as ‘a part of life,’ I believe that, in reality, the dominant view is actually that of death as an outsider.” In our culture, unfortunately, death is often seen as a mistake, a failure, a breakdown. Something has gone terribly wrong, and everybody feels it. The person dying feels that she has made some big mistake and is disappointing everybody by dying—and the people around her feel angry, as though she had failed them in some way by forcing them to have to deal with this messy and painful situation. There is no recognition of the ordinariness of death, no acceptance of the fact that it happens to everyone.

Death is natural to life. It is not a mistake, sad though it may be. When we encounter death in our lives, for whatever reason, death just happens to be what is going on. It does not help to make a dying person feel guilty that he is dying or that he is doing something wrong. He should not need to apologize to us for dying or try to hide it from us because it is too embarrassing. It is more helpful to respect death as it is—a powerful and challenging experience that is at the same time quite ordinary and to be expected.

Expressing Friendship in the Face of Death

Expressing our friendship is the most simple and powerful way we can help. This may be difficult because, when we know we are losing someone, there may be a tendency to close off. Expressing friendship in the face of death takes incredible gallantry. It means that we are willing to express our love, even though the person we love will not last, we will not last, and the relationship between the two of us will not last. Whether the person we love is around for a minute or a decade, we are willing to love him nonetheless. If a dying person is lucky enough to encounter friendship like that, he will not be held back by that friendship but supported. Instead of feeling mired in neediness, he will feel freed by our affection.

Of course, we may not feel gallant at all; we may feel needy, because we do not want to lose that person—or anyone we care about, for that matter. In an intense situation such as illness or death, every tiny shift of mind is magnified. In the midst of that kind of intensity, it is not easy to deal with our mind as we bounce from one emotional extreme to another. When we see that happening, we need to take a break, regroup, and make a fresh start. We could acknowledge that confusion, accept it, and then let it go.

Confusion arises out of our own fear and grasping. As we become more familiar with our own mental extremes, such as through the practice of sitting meditation, we are less likely to be thrown by the intensity of our own thoughts. So when we are overwhelmed in the face of death, and the intensity of our emotions and thoughts begins to build, we recognize what is going on. That familiarity is what enables us to let go of those thoughts and resettle ourselves. We can bring ourselves back to earth.

Communicating Honestly

In an environment of fear, honesty is in short supply. Dying people are frequently and routinely lied to. Often this is done with the best of intentions, such as that we want to cheer them up, we want to make them feel better, we want them not to lose hope. But the result is that dying people notice that they are being monitored. They feel compelled to be careful about what they say so as not to upset the people around them or rock the boat. The atmosphere around dying people is permeated with subtle expectations. There may be a group conspiracy to uphold the pretense that everything is going to be okay, in which everybody in the room knows what is going on, but no one will talk about it. There is this Big Unspoken Fact that nobody is willing to deal with. Everybody is busy dancing around the reality of the situation, and each person is trying to protect everyone else all the time to the point of absurdity. But ultimately, no one is protected. Instead, everyone is uptight and afraid he might slip up and say the wrong thing—including, of course, the person who is dying.

It is important to tell dying people the truth. When possible, we should always let a dying person know that she is dying. Often that is not news to her. We are merely confirming what she already knows. Hiding the truth only makes the whole situation more painful. Most people can tell when they are being lied to, even if they don’t let on. When we lie, it undermines the dying person’s trust, and she no longer knows whom or what to believe. Not only that, but we have taken away her opportunity to absorb what is going on and prepare herself to die.

Communicating skillfully about something as basic and profound as life and death is not easy. As with all communication, without sensitivity and proper timing, nothing you say will be heard. People sometimes take the guideline of telling the truth to dying people as if it were graven in stone, so they march in proclaiming, “It’s important that you recognize right now the fact that you are dying. You’re not relating to this! You’re watching television! Snap out of it!” Just blurting out something like that is not in the least helpful, but people do crazy things like that.

Communication doesn’t work when it comes out of the blue; we must first establish some kind of connection. We can communicate more easily if we understand and accept the various states of mind sick and dying people experience. Those states of mind are apt to be intense, rapidly changing, and not at all what we might hope. There tends to be a lot of messiness around pain and illness. Some people withdraw into themselves; some lose their rationality, seeing visions and hallucinating; others drift in and out of consciousness. People’s mental and emotional states may be altered due to their age, the nature of their illnesses, and their medications. It therefore makes sense to learn something about their symptoms and what they are dealing with physically, so that we can figure out a way to reach them.

Talking Simply

It is hard to know how much a sick person is perceiving. According to Tibetan Buddhist teachings, in the transition from life to death, people are a lot more aware than they might appear to be. In that case, our operating assumption should be that they do understand, even though they may not respond in their usual way. People who are very close to death may seem totally unresponsive, but even if someone is just lying there immobile, he may very well be able to hear what we are saying. So we could still say simple things like “I love you” or “I will miss you.” In addition, it is said that a person’s intuitive perception at the point of death is greatly heightened, so nonverbal communication is picked up on extremely easily and quickly. That means that our state of mind and the energy we put out communicate very powerfully at that time—for better or for worse. Given that fact, it is important to try to affect things for the better.

If our communication is too complicated, we will not connect. We need to simplify. If we pay attention to how we speak, and how we express ourselves generally, we can learn to get across what we have to say in a few well-chosen words or gestures. Often people are far too complicated. A person who is dealing with illness and physical pain isn’t usually up for long philosophical discussions on the nature of reality. It might be much more communicative to apply a nice, cool washcloth to his forehead or to say a word or two and then be quiet. Just sitting with someone can be the best thing.

Not Freaking Out

Through our behavior and how we manifest, we can either help a person or add to his pain and confusion. The environment we create around the dying person affects him deeply. If the environment becomes too hectic, chaotic and emotionally charged, it can be a real hindrance; and if it is gentle, open, and accepting, it can be a real support. So although it is good to be able to express our natural feelings of grief and sorrow, it is not helpful to act out all over the place because we happen to be freaked out. If we are really losing it, it is better to leave the room for a while than to stay. Afterward, when we are more settled, we can return to the dying person’s room. It is a delicate choice, when to stay and when to leave, and we can help one another with this decision. By knowing when to step out of the room, we can dig into our feelings and express them—and at the same time promote a sane and accommodating atmosphere around the dying person.

Dealing with Pain and Suffering

One of the most difficult things about tending to the sick and dying is the amount of pain and suffering that is involved. Pain can often be treated or moderated by medication, and there is absolutely no reason not to do that unless the dying person himself prefers otherwise. Yet the management of pain is not a simple matter, and both undertreatment and overtreatment are common. Most difficult of all, there are occasionally people who suffer pain so severe that no treatment seems able to alleviate it.

On top of that, both the people treating the pain and the people being treated have all sorts of ideas about pain. For instance, patients who are terminally ill may nonetheless still fear the stigma of addiction. People can be very puritanical, thinking that when someone is dying, she shouldn’t have any drugs at all, that she should just deal with everything straight. We may worry that painkilling drugs will dull awareness and advise whoever is dying to do without them. It is easy for us to give advice, since we ourselves are not in pain, but in fact, being in excruciating pain itself dulls awareness. Pain makes it hard for a person to clarify her thoughts and know what is going on. Furthermore, even if a dying person does not use any painkilling drugs, she may still be confused. So there’s nothing wrong with relieving pain. But pain is only one part of the picture—the other is suffering.

Pain and suffering are not the same thing. By understanding the difference between the two, you can be more clear about where you can help and where you cannot. You may be able to reduce someone’s pain with medication, but you are unlikely to find a pill for suffering. Suffering can occur for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with physical pain. A person may be suffering because he is afraid to die, or because he is worried about what is going to happen to his family. A person may be suffering because his family is feuding or because of the humiliation of having to be taken care of by other people. Suffering has countless causes.

In working with a person, we will not be able to alleviate her suffering unless we understand its source. Figuring out the cause of someone’s suffering can be a slow and difficult process, but if we do not make the effort to do so, it will be easy to assume one thing when in fact something entirely different is going on. We may have no clue what is causing someone to be upset. As we try this and that to relieve the dying person’s suffering, we find that we are mainly aware of what would bother us. What is really bothering another person could be something totally different from what we expected or what seems most obvious to us.

Allowing Chaos

Developing a sane approach to death and dying depends on being willing to work with a lot of rough edges, both our own and others’. Dying people may be freaked out and unable to deal with their situation at all, raging and fighting and upset. A person who seems to be doing okay one day may the next day suddenly take a turn for the worse—and just when we get used to that, then all at once he takes a turn for the better again. When that happens, we are less and less certain what is really going on, and we begin to lose track of where we stand. We flip-flop continually and find our mind drifting from day to day, or even minute to minute, wondering what is happening. Is he about to die, or is he going to live? Is it a miraculous recovery or a mental trick? Does he have a long time or no time at all? Our mind does somersaults.

In the midst of that confusion, the focus to come back to is just being two simple human beings present together on the shared ground of uncertainty. On that ground, there is room for all sorts of chaos. In our society, we like to manage everything and make it neat and clean and nice. It is tempting to try to micromanage death as well, because we don’t want to deal with our own emotional extremes, nor do we particularly want to deal with the physical messiness of death.

The attempt to smooth death over may be tempting, but it is a trap. The semireligious atmosphere we create becomes a gooey, cloying cocoon. Everything seems peaceful and sweet, but only superficially. If we put pink frosting on a cake full of worms, it may look very pretty, but eventually the worms will start to surface. So creating a peaceful atmosphere artificially by glossing over our fears and suppressing anything unpleasant does not work. That is not truly peaceful; it is avoiding reality. An atmosphere that includes what is raw along with what is beautiful and tender is more disturbing, but it is also more honest. Ultimately, it is more peaceful as well—because there is less that can threaten it, since a certain amount of chaos and disorder is expected and accepted. That kind of peace is palpable and real and not at all artificial.

Dealing with the Politics of Dying

In dealing with death, politics is rampant. It is very rare to be working simply with one other person, one-on-one. Usually there’s a whole collection of people. In addition to medical personnel, there are relatives and friends and people from different backgrounds and understandings who may not agree on anything—whether to stay in the hospital or go home, whether to tell the truth or not, whether to do this ceremony or that. In dealing with all that, it is important to be clearheaded and politically savvy.

The medical establishment has all sorts of rules and regulations, conventions, and group neuroses around the subject of death, and health-care workers may be operating on automatic pilot. So whenever someone is hospitalized, we need to pay attention to what is happening if we want to look out for the dying person’s interests. A dying person may not be able to speak up for herself or have any clout. In that case, practically speaking, she needs a spokesperson who is willing to ask questions: “Wait a minute, why are you doing this procedure? She does not want that done.” In a hospital, even a very good one, it is always advisable to have a friend who is able and willing to deal with the authorities. Otherwise, we will be swept along by the prevailing ethic, whether we agree with it or not. We need to have someone whom we trust to decide when to speak up and when to let things run their course.

Maintaining a Sense of Humor

People don’t usually associate humor with death. Death is supposed to be solemn, just like religion. But humor can be liberating in the face of sickness and death. By humor, I do not mean cracking jokes, although jokes definitely have their place; I mean not taking ourselves too seriously.

We all die: death is a human experience; it is not all that unique. But it is hard to be natural in the presence of death or include it in our lives as we do other experiences. We tend to relegate it to a special category with prescribed roles to play. With that approach, nobody acts like a real human anymore. Instead, those involved are like actors in an imaginary hospital and deathbed scene.

I had a friend who was dying of breast cancer that had spread throughout her body. Over the course of her last year, she had many close calls. People would gather around to pay their final respects, but she would always bounce back. What I noticed is that when I went to see her, I would put on what I assumed to be a proper demeanor for paying final respects. I am not sure how I cooked up the idea of what that demeanor should be; maybe from the movies. Since my friend kept not dying, I was eventually able to see what I was doing. The mask I was putting on was completely phony. I had no humor.

Thanks to the erratic course of my friend’s illness, by the time she did die, I was able to walk into her room with my humor and humanity intact. I had seen through the contrivances of my imagined proper deathbed scene, and at that point, a glimmer of humor broke through. Something lifted. I was able to be more present and also more ordinary, more raw in the presence of death. I have always considered that insight a great gift my dying friend gave me.

When we lose our humor, our whole demeanor changes—our tone of voice, how we move and carry ourselves, our facial expressions. This may sound strange, but it happens. We may be trying to help, but when we approach sick or dying people in that way, they do not feel better; they feel weird. They pick up on the fact that the people around them are acting strangely, walking on eggshells, oddly quiet, trying not to disturb or upset anyone. It is sad, because without humor, there is no room for ordinary interaction. Everything is “heavy.” We can’t have a normal conversation with someone anymore because all we can focus on is his death. “Forget about wanting to know whether Cleveland or New York won; you should be beyond all that now.”  We want no frivolity; we want profound communication only. But that is not all that helpful—in fact, it is insulting.

It does not matter whether a person is gravely sick or the victim of some dreadful trauma or how close to death he is—he is still alive. He doesn’t want to be suddenly cut off from regular life and see everyone around him act like visitors to a funeral home.

Sick and dying people do not exist on a separate plane from the rest of us. I think we try to put them in a special category because it distances us from the experience of sickness and death. It is a way of protecting ourselves by focusing on how different they are from us rather than on how similar we are. In contrast, humor maintains a sense of ordinary life and simple human contact.

Our understanding, behavior, attitudes, and emotions all have an effect on the environment around us. Handing out advice, letting our mind run wild, creating an atmosphere of lies and deception, giving up on communication, being too complicated, chattering nervously, confusing pain and suffering, freaking out, micromanaging, smoothing things over, giving in to politics and bureaucracy, maintaining an atmosphere of heavy-handed solemnity, denying the ordinariness of death—these are just a few of the many ways we affect the environment for the worse.

But it is also possible to affect the environment for the better. We could look into the harmful patterns to which we fall prey and cultivate our ability to be simpler, less judgmental, and more aware of our mental and emotional state moment to moment. Then, as these obstacles arise, we might recognize them and be able to let them go.

©2000 Judith L. Lief. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications.

Acharya Judith L. Lief is a senior teacher in Shambhala International and a former Dean of Naropa University. A student of the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, she has taught widely on death and dying and serves as a pastoral counselor at Maitri Day Health Center in Yonkers, New York. This article is adapted from her book,
Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Mortality, available  from Shambhala Publications.

Resources on Death and Dying

Judith Lief recommends

Transcending Madness, by Chögyam Trungpa (Shambhala) Seminars on the relationship of the bardos and the realms. A powerful presentation of the ongoing reality of impermanence and limitless possibility, and the tendency to solidify that experience.

The Mirror of Mindfulness, by Tsele Natsok Rangdrol (Shambhala) A clear description of the four bardo journey, and traditional instructions on how to face our own death.

The Troubled Dream of Life: In Search of a Peaceful Death, by Daniel Callahan (Simon and Schuster) Examines how the current medical approach to death and calls for respect of the dying process and the individual going through it.

The Good Death, by Marilyn Webb (Bantam) A fine overview of death and dying issues, with suggestions for how to navigate the medical establishment to create an uplifted environment for the dying and their families.

Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, by William Bridges (Addison Wesley) A helpful and accessible book on facing change and coping with difficulties, death and grief.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead for Reading Aloud, adapted by Jean-Claude van Italie (North Atlantic Books) A beautifully poetic rendition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead teachings, based on the script of van Italie’s play.

How to Be a Help, Judith Lief, Shambhala Sun, November 2000.

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The Supreme Meditation Print

The Supreme Meditation


Larry Rosenberg on how contemplating death can transform our lives. 

Aging, illness and death are treasures for those who understand them. They’re Noble Truths, Noble Treasures. If they were people, I’d bow down to their feet every day.  

        —Ajaan Lee

In my early thirties, I met a teacher who was to have a profound influence on my study of aging and death awareness, primarily because of one central experience. I have never identified this teacher, referring to him in talks as Badarayana, because he specifically requested that I not reveal his identity. He had no wish to be known or to teach a great many people. He had just four students when I knew him, but he felt that they were all potential teachers and that he would reach a larger audience through them.
I was still a university professor in those days, but I was trying to bring some of what I had learned from the Eastern tradition to my work. Badarayana attended a public talk I gave and came up afterward and offered himself as a teacher, saying he’d had a great deal of experience in both Hindu and Buddhist disciplines. I was suspicious at first, but he never asked for any payment, and his teaching seemed quite authentic.
We worked together for a number of years. At one point he suggested we go to a small Mexican coastal town where I had spent some time, Zihuatenejo, to do intensive work. We spent four months there, practicing yoga and studying.
One evening I was sitting in our cottage reading and Badarayana came in extremely excited, telling me that a major opportunity had come our way. Ten days earlier a Mexican laborer had gotten drunk and fallen into the bay. His body had not been recovered in all that time, but it had washed up on shore that afternoon. His priest was coming from Mexico City for the body the next day, but for some religious reason that I never understood, the locals didn’t want to sit with the corpse in the meantime. But they wanted someone to stay with it, and they thought of the two outsiders who were staying in town. They approached Badarayana, who was quite excited at the prospect.
I didn’t understand his enthusiasm, and understood it even less when we got to the room. The corpse was in a large box packed with ice. The man seemed to have been big in the first place, but his corpse was also bloated, making him even bigger and distorting his features, and he was turning blue. There was a strong unpleasant odor. It was difficult even to enter the room. And we had agreed to be there all night.
Badarayana sat on one side of the box and I on the other. Soon he began teaching. “Not long ago this man was full of life. Now let’s look at him.” I, of course, felt a great deal of aversion, but Badarayana kept after me, insisting that I face this phenomenon and see what it brought up. There was fear. Nausea. Loathing. A strong wish to get out of the room. There was anger at Badarayana for putting me through all this.
We would be silent for periods of time, then he would check in with me, ask what I was really experiencing. That was the most valuable part of what we did. He also taught more directly. “This man was once alive. Now he is dead flesh. We too are subject to that lawfulness. What happens when you see that fact?”
I said that it was extremely painful. I didn’t want to dwell on it.
“No, no,” he said. “This man has a teaching for us. It’s extremely valuable.”
I wouldn’t say that I entirely understood what Badarayana was getting at, but I gradually grew more comfortable sitting there and gained some sense of composure. I would still have been delighted to leave the room at any time.
Finally Badarayana said, “Why was I so enthusiastic about coming here?” I said that it was to show us how precious life is. “That’s true,” he said, “but you can also go deeper. This is a great incentive to practice. It shows us that we don’t have much time. That we have no idea how much time we do have. This man didn’t know he would die when he did. Life is precious not just because it is life but because it is an opportunity to practice. That is the ultimate gift this man gives us. He offers us a strong motivation for spiritual practice.”
Buddhism goes deeply into the practice of death awareness. Cemetery contemplations, for instance, are included in the Satipatthana Sutra, which I think of as the declaration of independence for vipassana meditators. It boldly declares that deeply establishing awareness of the mind-body process can liberate us from suffering.
Later, as I got involved in Buddhist practice, I began doing some meditations on my own death, with Thai, Sri Lankan, and Burmese monks. Maranasati—or death awareness—is a standard, highly respected, and highly valued practice in these countries, and meditators commonly practice it. It hasn’t caught on much in this country because American teachers haven’t emphasized it, but it clearly has real value.
Sooner or later we all have to face the fact of death. We think of life and death as opposites, life as happening now and death as something that will happen at the end of the road, preferably an extremely long road. There is a certain unconscious arrogance that goes along with this attitude. Other people may be old; others may be ill, dying or dead; but we are alive and well and (comparatively) young, and we’ll deal with those problems when the time comes.
Our culture is particularly culpable in this regard. We put young people on pedestals, sick people in hospitals, elderly people in nursing homes; we sanitize the dead in funeral homes, trying to make them look attractive and alive, and do everything we can to keep death out of our consciousness. We put all of our energy into acquisition—of material possessions, knowledge, titles, land, friends, and lovers. We think we want these things for themselves, but we are using them to create and enhance our sense of self. This life of acquisition seems to shield us from the bedrock realities of aging and death. Our things become who we think we are.
The truth is that we are aging from the moment we are born, that we have no idea when we may grow ill and when we will die. No one is guaranteed even one more breath. Death will take all our acquisitions away, including our sense of who we are, of everything we identify as self. Death is not waiting for us at the end of the road. It is walking with us the whole time. We are fascinated by disaster epics, like the story of the Titanic, but the truth is that we are all on the Titanic, right now. We just imagine it’s a pleasure cruise, just as the people on the Titanic did.
At the same time, we harbor a huge amount of unfelt fear about sickness, aging and death, and that fear robs us of vitality, partly because we expend so much energy avoiding and repressing it. Bringing up this fear and facing it—as I did with Badarayana and other teachers—is a great enhancement to our lives. Really facing death enables us to appreciate and make the best use of our life in a whole new way.
Finally, of course, Buddhist practice is about liberation, awakening, nirvana. It is about coming to the deathless. The attachments we form when we live, and that we will have to let go of when we die, are actually what make us suffer while we are here. The Buddha was quite clear on this subject: clinging to things, especially to a sense of self, is what creates suffering. The knowledge that we have to let go of our attachments in death might enable us to let go of them now and save us a great deal of suffering. If we die to our attachments now, we won’t need to later and won’t feel so much fear of death when it comes. The shining light of death can liberate our life.

In addressing the practice of death awareness, the Buddha left us five contemplations, which he advised us to reflect on frequently.

1.  I am subject to aging. Aging is unavoidable.
2.  I am subject to illness. Illness is unavoidable.
3.  I am subject to death. Death is unavoidable.
4.  I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
5.  I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and live dependent on my actions. Whatever I do, for good or for ill, to that will I fall heir.

This isn’t the cheeriest set of reflections in the world, and most people, when they first hear them, feel some resistance. They don’t mind contemplating the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence in the world around them, but this is getting a little close to home. What is being asked of us as meditators is to come face-to-face with the law of impermanence in an intimate way.
These reflections have not been a major part of Buddhist practice in this country. In the sixties, when Buddhism first got popular here, people were coming to it out of the drug culture, looking for another way to get high. They weren’t looking for anything as heavy as death awareness. They just wanted to feel better.
But in the Asian countries where Buddhism has been established for centuries, the practice of death awareness is an ancient and venerable tradition, and many meditators work with it. In fact, there are some who regard death awareness as the ultimate practice. The Buddha himself left behind such a statement. “Of all the footprints,” he said, “that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”
Though these contemplations may sound morbid and depressing, working with them can have quite the opposite effect. Students often report—and I have experienced myself—a certain lightheartedness that comes from practicing them, a feeling of calm and ease. Many of us are carrying around a great deal of unacknowledged fear on the subject of death, and like any other fear, it weighs us down. Practicing death awareness helps flush out this fear, enabling us to face it and showing us that it too is an impermanent formation that is empty of self. The fear lingers in our consciousness when we don’t acknowledge it and let it live out its life.
Death is a fact of existence, one that we all must face sometime. And death awareness is a real aid to practice. A deep understanding of mortality can often lead to awakening. Seeing that we don’t have forever becomes a real motivating factor.
In Pali this phenomenon is known as samvega: the urgent need to practice that can grow out of a heightened sense of the perishable nature of life. It can include a real feeling of shock and a sense not only that life doesn’t last forever but also that the way we have been living is wrong. It might turn our world upside down, sending us off to a whole new way of life. Even if it doesn’t have so dramatic an effect, it can light a fire under our practice. We get much less caught up in power, prestige, money, lust, the acquisition of goods. Dharma teachings start to make real sense to us, and we begin to live them instead of just assenting intellectually. Samvega leads to a conversion of the heart, from an egocentric existence to a search for that which is timeless, vast and sacred.

Resources on Death and Dying that Larry Rosenberg recommends:

Our Real Home, by Ajaan Chah (Buddhist Publication Society)
What Happens at Death? by S.N. Goenka (Vipassana Research Institute)
The Zen of Living and Dying, by Philip Kapleau (Shambhala Publications)
On Living and Dying, by J. Krishnamurti (HarperSanFrancisco)
The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche (HarperSanFrancisco)
Facing Death and Finding Hope, by Christine Longaker (Doubleday)  ©

Larry Rosenberg is founder and resident teacher of the Cambridge, Massachusetts Insight Meditation Center. He is the author of Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation. This article is adapted from his book, Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive, from Shambhala Publications. ©2000 by Larry Rosenberg.

The Supreme Meditation, Larry Rosenberg, Shambhala Sun, November 2000.

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