Wakeful Dying


My husband Toby and I traveled in Northern India for a month in the beginning of 2017.  While in Himachal Pradesh, we stopped by Dongyu Gatsal Ling, the nunnery of Tenzin Palmo. Tenzin Palmo is a Buddhist Nun who teaches all over the world and is well known for her clear and  direct style as well as the fact that she spent 12 years in retreat in remote caves throughout  the Himalayas. She is a grounded, fearless and realized teacher. 

She generously makes regular time for one on one interviews, which I scheduled in advance. It was a sunny and quiet day and we met in her office at the nunnery, which was filled with books and light. I had long wished to sit down and talk with her but had only encountered her as a student among many when she taught in the US. Being able to converse one on one is a different dynamic and at the time we met, I had a lot in my heart that longed for some clear mirroring and guidance. 

She cuts right into the heart in conversation and our exchange moved fluidly and in several, natural directions. She welcomed what I brought with me. I shared some of the more personal challenges I was working with and we spent ample time talking about the work I do spiritually/religiously and with the dying. I asked what she felt were some of the most essential things to mind and tend to in light of the awareness of one’s dying and in turn I asked about the best ways to continue to bear witness, serve and in certain circumstances, guide.

Later that day, after meeting with her I wrote down what she had said. I have paraphrased the 4 points she shared.

The first was forgiveness. She talked about learning to forgive as being wed to the insight that carrying grudges or the righteousness of refusing to forgive doesn’t work, but we really don’t want to do it in the long run. In the Buddhist teachings, it is taught that we unfortunately can take our negative thought patterns with us to some degree. And that is what she means by us “not wanting to”. The teachings always emphasize the importance of our state of mind as we transition out of this life. The more we let ourselves really forgive, the more we step into the unknown with greater freedom and space and even curiosity. 

The second was a general extension of the first. That is to let go. Particularly, she said, we need to let go of our resentments. This pertains to relationships and grudges but also some of the quieter resentments we might carry about our life and how things unfolded, what we perceive as “having” and “not having” and the stuck thought patterns that might have arisen and fortified in response to these perceptions and beliefs. Letting go is both complex and so simple. On the simpler end, it is letting ourselves change and realizing that holding tight to the past is a fruitless endeavor because our past is already a dream. As Brother David Steindl-Rast said so beautifully, “whenever we give ourselves to whatever presents itself instead of grasping and holding it, we flow with it. We do not arrest the flow of reality, we do not try to posses, we do not try to hold back, but we let go, and everything is alive as long as we let it go.”

The third thing was very practical and as I have seen in my work over the years, can be quite hard, especially if people do not take ample time before dying to think over smaller, potent details of how and what they leave behind for others to work through. She said one needs to make a will that is clear and equal and will generate happiness for loved ones. “Clear and equal.” She emphasized looking through the lens of what would generate the most harmony. She really stressed how important this is. 

The fourth thing, and this pertains to the role of the loved one, caregiver or spiritual friend, pertains to what a companion can offer. She said one can naturally and genuinely remind the person of their awake nature, their fundamental goodness and help them surrender to their source of love, which could be a particular deity or guru or Jesus, God, or for the non-religious: nature or light.

Over the years, I have trained people looking to serve and companion the dying. I deeply feel that we are best able to remind one another of our awake nature when we remind ourselves continually as our practice of living. On one hand, these reminders are simple, but we too often forget. We get caught in our fleeting certainties and reactive emotions and this can distract us from what matters.

I remember when I worked at a meditation center in NYC in my early 20s, there were many different teachers that came in and out to offer evening talks or weekend programs. One evening a very learned teacher was asked to have an audience with advanced students. They had asked him to talk about more esoteric teachings regarding the intermediate states, known as Bardos (birth and life, dreaming, meditation, death, the moment when “inner breath” ceases and becoming) and practices we can do to work with them. He ended up teaching about, I think, the 4 thoughts that bring the mind to understand and work with what is true. The 4 thoughts are more of a foundational or “preliminary” teaching. The 4 thoughts are, remembering this human birth is precious and an opportunity;  that things constantly change; that cause and effect is a subtle and pervasive force in life that is beyond us in many ways, but that can prompt us to conduct ourselves more virtuously; and that suffering is a reality that we cannot wish away, but is at the core of our being human. Some people actually walked out of his teaching because they “had heard it all before.” They were upset, mad and annoyed. They thought he failed to give them the profundity they sought, which is an interesting notion.

It highlighted something that lives in my heart still. We often look for the shiny, profound things, the special roles and work and teachings, the credentials that make us seem to have accomplished something extraordinary. But, if we aren’t letting life genuinely humble us, if we aren’t working on forgiveness now and letting go now, the real profundities, the one’s that tend to be less ostentatious or ego-gratifying, more subtle, vast and true, will remain illusive. As long as they remain illusive, we will walk out on a talk or a moment we really needed to hear and take in but couldn’t because our anger, pride and resentments stole us away from showing up, listening and changing with our life.

I take what Tenzin Palmo offered as a teaching on working with dying and also with life. These two are inseparable and in really understanding and working with both, we have no time to lose.