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Buddhadharma : Spring 2009
43 SPRING 2 00 9 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly upset her. So I’m afraid she’s going to have a poor destination.” In response, I read a very beautiful story from the Pali Canon, from the Samyutta Nikaya. It’s called the Mahanama Sutta. A Sakyan who’s been practicing for a while suddenly becomes afraid that if he is killed by a stray elephant or horse or chariot, he may end up in a bad destination. The Buddha tells him that his death will not in fact be a bad one, because his mind has been fortified over the years by practice, faith, generosity, wis- dom, and so on. He says, “Just as oil rises to the top of a pot submerged in water, your virtue, your goodness, your faith, or generosity will rise to the top, and that is what will carry you to your next destination.” I find that sutra reassuring for people, because we’re so afraid we’re doing the wrong thing. It’s also helpful to remember that whatever your idea is of a good death, there’s no guarantee you’re going to have that. Yes, preparing is good. If you prepare for a natural childbirth, chances are better that you’ll have a natural childbirth, but there is no guarantee. It’s the same with death. If you prepare in a sane way and do practices around it, chances are higher that you will have a death that is more serene and involves less anguish for people around you. But we must never forget that the next moment is unknown. If we practice stepping into the unknown, moment by moment, hour by hour, year by year, millions of times, then death is just the next step into the unknown. It loses its terror. We must also learn not to run away from the inevitable pain, but rather to move into pain. We need to take apart the sensations of pain and discover that pain is not a solid object. The confidence we get from knowing the imperma- nence of pain, from seeing how interesting it can be, replaces anxiety, which makes for a much better time when you’re sick or dying. PonloP rinPoche: The greatest fear about dying is the unknown. It helps to see that this unknown territory is something we should be interested in exploring, like pioneers exploring a new territory. We need to explore this new, unknown terri- tory of mind. When we open to that, we lessen the fear and preconceptions we have about unknown territory. jan chozen Bays: Absolutely. If we can replace anxiety with curiosity, we’ve done a lot to help ourselves, and others, with the dying process. Buddhadharma: The Vajrayana tradition in particular has emphasized the actual process of what occurs after death, which has not been dealt with quite so explicitly in the other traditions. Are those Vajrayana teachings predominantly about techniques for dealing with the afterlife, or are they about the fact that we are going through birth and death constantly all the time? PonloP rinPoche: The bardo teachings are about both of those. These teachings, however, are frequently misunderstood. Peo- ple take the descriptions of this deity and that deity appearing very literally, but these are all symbolic teachings that come out of a particular framework of symbols. In each manifesta- tion, the deity described is connected with an expression of the enlightened nature of mind, which has many qualities, such as transcendence, compassion, wisdom, and love. One of my teachers, a Dzogchen master, told me that it’s not true that all sentient beings experience these deities. That is not the fundamental meaning of these teachings. The bardo teachings are about relating with the nature of mind. If it so happens that you are a practitioner who is very familiar with deity meditation, these images may pop up as a symbolic reminder for you to connect with what we call purity, the pure nature of mind. In deity meditation, the most important thing is to connect the symbolism with the pure nature of the world. We call this practice “remembering the purity.” It is a practice of recalling the pure nature of the aspects of mind that are represented by the deities. The bardo teachings are indeed about death and dying. According to Vajrayana, at the moment of death and after death, we have tremendous opportunity to experience the enlightened nature of mind. This nature can be experienced in many different forms and in the form of different types of light, as has been described by people who have had near- death experiences. What is described in the Bardo Thotrol, often translated as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is a sym- bolic representation of this process. I’ve tried to clarify that in my book Mind beyond Death. Buddhadharma: So death is not sectarian, so to speak. PonloP rinPoche: Exactly [laughter]. When you’re with someone who’s dying, what really seems to help is a simple, pure, caring presence. We need to let go of all the stuff we think we should be doing. —Ajahn Amaro ©edrusChA,CourtesyoFBArBArAkrAkowgAlleryAndhAmiltonpress