black t shirt
Hey, noble one! Recognize that you are in the between. Now, since the life cycle is in suspension, all things dawn as lights and deities. All space dawns full of azure lights…pure reality manifest in subtle, dazzling visions, vividly experienced, naturally frightening. Do not fear…you cannot die. It is enough just to recognize such visions as your own perceptions. –Tibetan Book of the Dead (The Great Book of Natural Liberation through Understanding in the Between, Sogyal Rinpoche trans.)
Fearing death, I went to the mountains. Over and over again, I meditated on death’s unpredictable coming, and took the stronghold of the deathless, unchanging nature. Now I am beyond all fear of dying!–Milarepa
On a softly raining gray morning at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, 2006, I heard Thondup Tulku teach about the bardos, the intermediary phases, “the between” death and rebirth. Once in hospice, I knew a Buddhist who wanted The Tibetan Book of the Dead to be read to him in his dying (also a bardo: the “between” dying and final death). He felt it would “help him attain liberation.” This book is said to have been written by Padmasambhava who brought Buddhism to Tibet. Karma Lingpa found this “treasure” in the fourteenth century.
Stories of Padmasambhava’s life give me the confidence that great power can arise with the practice of Buddhist meditation and that power is meant to be used for the good of humanity. Said to be an emanation of Buddha Amitabha, Padmasambhava traveled from India to Tibet to introduce Tantric Buddhism. He was said to be overcoming mighty demons. His companion, the abbot Santarakshita, brought the sutras and moral precepts of the Buddha from India. Padmasambhava was invited to Tibet by King Trisong Dessen around 750 C.E.
There was an art exhibition in 1998 at the Hungtington Art Museum which featured an impressive thanka of Padmasambhava, with a small-scaled Buddha Amitabha above him. Padmasambhava is depicted with His Eight Forms, representing eight obstacles that Padmasambhava overcame in his own spiritual awakening into wisdom, compassion and an all-inclusive consciousness. These Eight forms are teachings for the student to know his or her particular obstacles to full spiritual awakening. Buddhism teaches me that I must experience directly not only good feelings about myself but the afflictive emotions within me of anger, deep loneliness, self-reproach, jealousies, resentments, and vindictiveness. Padmasambhava is a shining example of the true guru teaching direct enlightenment to his students through a practice of moral purification and dedicated meditation.
Padmasambhava, the great Buddhist yogi of the tantras, or esoteric practices, is colorfully painted on the cotton thanka, with deep opaque mineral pigments in water based collagen, reds, golds, blacks, grays, blues, pearls, greens, oranges. He sits with supreme dignity and sense of spiritual accomplishment, dressed in a red robe. He’s sitting on a lotus which seems to be rising, hands in ritual positions, right hand holding the vajra, symbolizing the eternal nature of absolute truth, indestructible as a diamond of diamonds. He’s surrounded by his other forms, other Buddhas and consorts. His left hand holds a skull cup; death is present. An adept’s staff leans against his left shoulder.
Padmasambhava was a king himself in India, but decided to leave his conventional social ways, as high class as they were, to pursue what would take away his feeling dissatisfied with life. He began to see deeply the transitoriness of life. He meditated in many charnel grounds. By the time Padmasambhava was a teacher in Tibet, he manifested “protective” powers which allowed the Dharma, the teachings about the end of suffering and the meaning of true happiness, to be established as the dominant religion of Tibet. He was said to be able to “overcome” the demonic influences of violence and conflict. Padmasambhava taught disciples; translated Buddhist texts from Sanskirit into Tibetan. He wandered all through Tibet, with his beloved consort, Yeshe Tsogyal who recorded his teachings.
Assessing that the teaching of the Dharma in Tibet was fulfilled, Padmasambhava decided to live his final days on Yak-Tail Island, southwest of India where he pacified the native cannibals. Through his great yogic powers, compassion, and impeccable meditation practice, he taught his students to overcome all fear by living in his “Palace of Lotus Light,” the experience of the Eternal.
The Tibetan Buddhist see the processes of birth and death and rebirth as an opportunity to develop spiritually, even with the possibility that one could recognize the nature of the mind and heart and be free. This purely “mental” process (experiences in consciousness) is said to last for forty-nine days. We don’t necessarily have to take these teachings as literal; we can apply the teachings to any situation of impermanence, transition, gain, loss, dying and resurrection. In meditation, we often note the “interval” between the in and out breaths. So much “arising,” “dwelling,” “ceasing to be.” Every day living.
Thondup speaks to us about the teachings of Padmasambhava; Thondup discourses without notes, looking to the “distance” above our heads; he’s slight, has salt and pepper crew-cut hair, maroon-robed, with a burnt orange shirt. He’s sitting in a brown and white cushioned chair, feet on the floor. A paper and a brocade thanka are hung up behind him. To the sides are small tables with four yellow tulips in a pot and a vase of pink and purple lilies.
We do a preliminary meditation of relaxing and loosening our conceptual minds and anchoring ourselves in a calm state of mind, letting our busy thoughts slowly recede. Then we “extend and expand the energy of our meditation, rejoicing for this life.”
Thondup encourages us to practice improving the quality and habits of our minds; we will then enjoy such “habits” and dispositions after death when the consciousness–if evolved–will experience the luminous state, clear and spacious, “dawn’s sky,” along with both sweet and frightening sounds and forms. Scary, magnificent, consoling, threatening, outlandish experiences occur.
“If your mind grasps-clings-averts– how I want this or how I want to push this away– then you may become unconscious. The “light” and the deities and displays and “traveling” are not some objects, but expressions of your own state of consciousness.”
You may appear before welcoming Buddhas or saints to guide you; you may go through “hells” or “heavens.” Your experiences are culturally influenced. A Christian may meet Jesus. Walking a narrow path, you may find a “companion.” You might encounter the Lord of Death, where you are mirrored the “good” and “bad” deeds of your life. You may enter the Pure Land, human life, become animals, experience worlds of the jealous gods or realms of craving but not satisfied “hungry ghosts.” All this is possible within your own consciousness.
Reginald Ray: “The advantage of the human realm is that in the realms above it, there is so much happiness that beings are not motivated to change their situation, while in the realms below it, there is so much suffering that beings are unable to get sufficient distance from it to learn and change. In the human realm alone there is enough suffering to provide motivation for spiritual development, yet not so much that beings are crushed by it.”
Thondup suggested that we continue to cultivate love, wisdom and the aspiration to help others. We wish for ourselves and all to be happy and to be finally “liberated” from the cycle of birth-life-death-rebirth. Such a realization is finally “unspeakable.”
As I headed home, I flashed Thondup a peace sign. I think of Kabir: “Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive. Jump into experience…what you call ‘salvation’ belongs to the time before death. If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive, do you think ghosts will do it after? If you make love with the divine now, in the next life, you will have the face of satisfied desire.” ThondupTulku smiled back and waved good-bye.
*Tulku Thondup Rinpoche was born in Golok, Eastern Tibet. He entered his training period in a Nyingma monastery until political changes in Tibet forced him to flee to India in 1958.
Thondup taught Tibetan and Tibetan literature at Lucknow University (1967-76) and Visva Bharati University (1976-80). In 1980, Thondup came to Harvard University as a visiting scholar. For the past 23 years, he has been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where teaches Tibetan Buddhism, particularly Nyingma Buddhism. Thondup travels throughout North America and Europe, leading healing meditation workshops.
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write by Ciara