Kyema! When my life force is spent,
The vital glow slips from my body, and breath comes in gasps,
one upon the other,
When the inner supporting air
withdraws, and my weak and groaning corpse severs
The links between me and loved ones in their grief,
Let me not suffer the fiercest agony, at the final moment of death,
But instead behold the dakinis come to bid me welcome.
Excerpt from “An Aspiration and Prayer” in Training in the Pure Realms of the Three Kayas, by Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa, trans. Rigpa Translations.
The first time someone died on my watch was back in the 1980s, in France. Norbu was my dear friend Rozenn’s partner and the father of her two young sons. A handsome, wiry fellow with mischievous green eyes and curly black hair, he had once worked in a circus, then did a little of this and a little of that. In his mid-thirties, he left his family life, given name (Philippe), and worldly pursuits behind and took monk’s vows. He shaved his head, donned burgundy robes, gave away most of his possessions, and moved into a monastic cell at the Tibetan Buddhist center nearby. With the blessing of his lama and loved ones, Norbu began preparing for a traditional three-year retreat.
Then he began having health issues. When he was finally diagnosed with prostate cancer, everyone was stunned. Norbu and Rozenn had been back-to-the-earth hippie types with an outdoorsy lifestyle that seemed very wholesome. Besides, prostate cancer only befell older men, right?
In the face of impermanence, sickness, and death, it’s tempting to seek comfort in the idea that others’ maladies and misfortunes result from predictable factors. Well, he smokes, she’s old, she works in a polluted environment, he binges on junk food, and so on. Some factors, like exposure to toxins, genetic predispositions, bad habits, epidemics, and high-risk environments, really do tip the balance. We imagine we’ll be pretty safe if we give these a wide berth. But then a neighbor gathers and eats the wrong mushrooms, a distracted cousin steps into the street and is mowed down by a school bus, and vibrant, sweet, loving people with praiseworthy plans—people like Norbu—get sick, and we are forced to acknowledge that it can happen to anyone; it can happen to us.
Norbu eschewed conventional medicine. He tried every alternative therapy he could find. There were plants and healing rituals and fasts. He’d rally, then get sicker and try something else. Meanwhile, the cancer thrived and spread. Finally, it became clear even to Norbu that he wasn’t going to get better. Rozenn took him home to care for him, the boys were sent to stay with grandparents, and our friend’s decline gained velocity. Soon his skin became drawn and gray, there was no more fat or muscle to him, and his speech was often nonsensical. I was too proud to show it, but it gave me the willies to be anywhere near him. Was this really my buddy Norbu? How could he have changed so much and still be him? I was repulsed by the smell of his room and by the soiled things that lurked in the garbage. My fear was a deep, muted thrum that followed me in and out of Rozenn’s home.
One day Rozenn, stoic as ever, let us know that Norbu was actively dying. She asked close friends to come sit vigil and practice around him. I set my dread aside so that I could be there. And while I may not have been able to admit or even recognize it at the time, I must have been curious about the moment of passage. Awareness of impermanence is central to the Buddha’s teachings. But even if the dying process is described in the canon in surreal detail, and many practices aim to prepare us for this determinative transition, death has always been the most formidable of mysteries.
Early that evening, my boyfriend and I joined Rozenn and a few other friends in Norbu’s room. We chanted the appropriate rituals and recited the appropriate mantras. We assured him that we were there, that it was okay for him to leave, and that his teachers knew that his life was coming to an end and would help with his transmigration. Norbu would struggle to breathe, then relax and exhale, and we’d think it was over. But then he’d inhale again, sharply. And go on. Finally, in the middle of the night, after hours of this, we decided it was time to slip out and have a quick snack together. And, of course, during the 20 minutes we were gone, Norbu died.
We were sad and relieved. I remember glimpsing his drawn, tense face and thinking: he looks defeated, as though he’s lost the battle. He still felt present somehow; a bleak sense of conflict lingered. Rozenn called his lama. We’d been instructed not to touch Norbu’s body, to refrain from expressing grief (so as to avoid preventing the deceased’s mind from transitioning on), and to continue our practice.
Lama Tenpa arrived an hour or so later that night with his translator and a bag. He greeted us with his usual unflappable good humor and went right into the dead man’s room as if nothing could be more normal. Soon, the pungent smell of incense escaped from under the door. We heard the bell and little drum and chants with puff-like syllables that told us that Lama Tenpa was doing phowa, the practice whereby a master connects with the deceased’s consciousness and guides it from the life that has just ended to a place of positive spiritual connection and rebirth.
The sun had risen by the time Lama Tenpa emerged; he looked pleased. He said that all was well, declined breakfast, and left. With some trepidation I joined the others and reentered the room: the menacing clouds of scariness had utterly vanished. Norbu’s relaxed body lay there in grace. He now appeared to be smiling, as if he had beheld the dakinis—those ethereal manifestations of enlightened female energy—and they had led his spirit skyward. There was nothing more to fight, nothing more to fear. He was free.
Some experiences and encounters sow seeds that sprout and develop years later. At the time of Norbu’s death, I couldn’t have foreseen that I’d work as a hospice chaplain one day. But it was then that I first discovered the blessings of presence, fellowship, practice, and release that can accompany dying. And the formidable mystery of it endures.
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