“I’m not Tibetan. Still, my Tibetan heritage is a deep part of who I am. I feel like an archeologist, excavating what it means to be a Tibetan American,” says writer Ann Tashi Slater of her journey to uncover her Tibetan roots. Slater’s Tibetan mother was born in Darjeeling, and her father was born in New Jersey. On a recent episode of Life As It Is, she explains to editor-in-chief James Shaheen and co-host Sharon Salzberg that she’s been able to process and integrate her identity through writing, and specifically through connecting with The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Composed by Guru Rinpoche, the book presents guidelines for navigating the bardo, or the transitional path between death and rebirth. Slater initially began studying this guide while working on a novel based on her Tibetan family history, but she had trouble grasping its deeper wisdom. As Slater shares in the podcast episode, only through personal encounters with illness and loss did the teachings of this eighth-century guide become real to her—and help her unearth her connection to her ancestors.
The first moment that Slater “really understood the book is as much for the living as it is for the dead” was at her grandmother’s funeral. When Slater arrived at her grandmother’s house in Darjeeling, she found five lamas surrounding her grandmother’s body, reading from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. As she recounts in the podcast episode:
It’s human nature to cling. We don’t want to let go of our way of life. One of the things the lamas urge the deceased to do is to face reality, and the reality is that they have died. The relatives who are listening are also encouraged to let go. Of course, they’re not dead, but they’re letting go of the person they loved, and they’re letting go of the life they knew that included that person. They’re also encouraged to consider how attachment and denial might be hindering their own waking birth-to-death life.
The lamas, who remained by her grandmother’s side for five days before her cremation, were her spiritual friends, Slater realized. They were also spiritual friends for her living relatives.
Understanding The Tibetan Book of the Dead in this way helped her through a life-threatening illness, a period in her life that she also recounts in the podcast episode. Read about this journey in the excerpt below, and listen to the full episode here.
Ann Tashi Slater on accepting reality and not giving up
Some years after my grandmother died, I got very, very sick. I woke up with something called endocarditis, a bacterial infection of one of my heart valves. The doctors never figured out why it happened. When I was in the hospital, I made the mistake of doing what writers and professors do: I did a little research. There was a computer terminal at the hospital, and I looked up endocarditis. The search results were terrifying: I learned I could have a heart attack, stroke, catastrophic organ damage, intracranial hemorrhage, or massive organ failure, and the mortality rate was high. I could see myself going into denial—I still thought that I would have spontaneous remission.
I was in the hospital for six weeks. It took them nine days to figure out what was wrong with me. They gave me some treatments, and it looked like the bacteria was decreasing in my heart valve. My husband and I were ecstatic. The only person who wasn’t ecstatic was the doctor. He told me that part of the bacteria might be traveling through my bloodstream and could lodge in my kidneys or my brain.
The next morning, I woke up and my finger was numb. It turned out the bacteria had indeed gone to my brain and lodged in my occipital lobe. The doctor said that it was very likely that I would be paralyzed, end up in a vegetative state, or die.
As I was lying there, a story about my great-grandfather came to me. In 1912, as he was traveling down from Lhasa to Darjeeling, returning from a diplomatic mission, he got caught in an avalanche. The avalanche thundered down on his party and buried most of the men and pack animals. Somehow, he managed to stick his arm up through the snow, as he held his prayer beads and prayed to Guru Rinpoche. The search party saw him and pulled him out, and he was the only one who survived.
Looking up at the white ceiling of the hospital room, I remembered this story and the central lesson of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is to accept reality but not give up. My great-grandfather faced the reality of his situation, and then he took action. That’s how he saved himself. This gave me hope because that avalanche felt so analogous to my situation. I had just been carried out of nowhere and now was near death in my 40s, thrown out of my life as a writer, a professor, a mother, and a wife. That was all cast aside.
It’s said that when Guru Rinpoche composed The Tibetan Book of the Dead, he buried the teachings to be discovered by later generations when they were most needed. He buried them in the ground; he buried them in the sky; he buried them in dreams, which I love; and he buried them in the mindstream. I feel like this lesson from my great-grandfather had been buried in our family mindstream, and now, when I needed it the most, it came to me, and it gave me hope. I might not survive, but I could decide how to move through my journey, whatever it might be. Maybe I would live, maybe I wouldn’t, but I could go through that journey in a conscious and awake way.