A Death In The Sangha
“Karen” died Monday. She had been struggling with congenital brain tumors for some years now. Many at my Dharma Center don’t remember her when she was healthy. I do. We will assemble as many of the Sangha as are able to come tonight for the weekly puja practice of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion; Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light; and Padmasambavha, the Precious Root Guru of all Tibet, who firmly established the Dharma there 1200 years ago.
We will dedicate the merit accumulated to ease Karen’s journey in the Bardo of Death and help her attain favorable rebirth, preferably in a Buddhist family where she can renew her contact with the Dharma and the links of her prior practice.
And, perhaps, even a better rebirth than that.
Chenrezig was the practice to which she gravitated most strongly. When her medical problems first appeared, and she was blinded by the initial onslaught of the tumors, she coped with her illness, and possible death, by many repetitions of the mantra of Chenrezig: Om Mani Padme Hung. In her crisis, she developed a very strong and vivid sense of the presence of Chenrezig, calming her fears and giving her confidence of protection, no matter what the outcome. She was treated, regained her sight, and regained some of her capacity to practice Dharma and participate in the Sangha.
She was no longer strong enough to teach Meditation Instruction or Beginning Buddhism, but Karen showed up regularly for the lama visits and teachings, and, occasionally, for practices such as we will be doing tonight. She had to be transported and shepherded, of course. She was too ill to get to the Dharma Center on her own. But “Rebecca”, especially, was a fine Sangha friend, brought her regularly, and helped her get around. She also began extensive practice of Sangye Menla, the Medicine Buddha.
The lamas have given that practice to us to help manage the inevitably accumulating illnesses among the founding members of the Columbus Sangha, including our resident lama, since it has now been almost thirty years since we first sought the Dharma. An abbreviated version of the practice will be done at Karen’s formal memorial.
The “short” mantra of Sangye Menla is far longer than that of Chenrezig—about four times longer, in fact. Karen was very diligent about chanting it, however, and managed to repeat it over 75,000 times before she left us. In that interval of her remission and stabilization, she was able to watch and participate in the growth of her children to nearly full maturity.
I remember very vividly a chat I had with Karen at a lama teaching, on one of her better days, when a casual observer probably would not have noticed that she was chronically ill. We were alone together on the lawn surrounding the green clapboard ex-Church of Christ building which houses our Center. It was a cold fall day of high, bright overcast in our down-at-heel neighborhood. The poverty stricken pensioners, the workman’s comp disabled, the souses in the dangerous bars, the small-time crack peddlers who occasionally appear in the parking lots, and the roaming homeless had all vanished somewhere warmer in the raw Saturday afternoon.
The rest of the Sangha had gone to lunch with the visiting lama and Karen and I were alone. We talked of nothing very consequential; my health, her health, the teaching, her children. But both of us standing there felt the great cleared space, both resonant and clean, that always accompanies profound Dharma teaching given to diligent practicioners by accomplished lamas. It is as if some great wind had swept away all that was loose and problematic, leaving a space of huge calm in its wake. If you work at many repetitions of profound mantras you commonly experience this sort of thing when the lamas come.
The Chenrezig practice went well. There were about forty Sangha members present. All the text tables were occupied, we had to share the texts, and we even had a few of the guests we get regularly from the Comparative Religion classes in the area colleges. They got a real treat.
With a greater density of the older Sangha members, people who have been umdzes, or chant leaders, off and on for twenty years or more, as well as the large number of people, the melodic chanting of the liturgies was spot on. Each of the three parts has a different tune, to a different beat, part of the traditions of the linage of the practice and the variations among the monasteries in which it was preserved. Some of the old umdzes, such as myself, have not only the tune, but most of the words of the text, by heart.
There was very little overt mourning. Since our view is that the more powerful the practice, the more its binds the Sangha members who do it to its samaya, or commitments, throughout their many lives, until they reach full Buddhahood, we know Karen is merely on a temporary journey, which we all take until we renew the karma that binds us together again in another life of Dharma practice. Some people go on longer journeys than others, but all return in the end.
We collected money for butter lamps to be burned for her at the three-year lama training retreat center of our monastery. Since all retreatants take temporary monastic vows, even when they return later to lay life, the purity of their moral conduct in retreat makes the prayers they say very powerful.
There is also the possibility that either at death, or in the Bardo for the next forty-nine days, Karen may actually achieve rebirth in the Pure Land of Dewachen, the paradise realm of the Buddha Amitabha. One of the functions of the Amitabha practice that we do in this set of liturgies is to link beings in the Bardo closely enough to Amitabha that they can pass into this pure land if they simply cooperate fully. This can be accomplished even if the being achieved no actual realization in its immediately past life. Upon rebirth in that Pure Land, the first degree of Bodhisattvic realization is achieved.
Writers outside of Buddhism often misunderstand the degree to which the differences in the various Buddhist traditions are those of technique rather than doctrine. Amitabha and his Pure Land are well known to Western scholars as the primary focus of the Pure Land School of Japan, where he is known as Amida-butsu in Japanese instead of Opag-me in Tibetan or Amitabha in Sanskrit. Most non-Buddhist writers treat Japanese Pure Land practice as if it were a totally different practice, with no real relations to other traditions of Buddhism, and miss the fact that practices which focus on rebirth in Dewachen are far more general.
You are reborn spontaneously out of a freshly opening lotus in the Pure Land and you either appear in the form of a being in traditional Dharma robes worn by monks and nuns, or in the clothing of a Bodhisattva, royal dress of silks and many jewels. In the middle of the Amitabha part of this evenings practice, I happened to think of how personally sweet, gentle, and unassuming Karen was, and had a vivid mental image of her in the Pure Land, sitting on a freshly opened lotus and saying to herself, “Now what do I do with this crown?”
My various ills prevent me from sitting cross-legged on the floor tonight, so I sit in one of the old Deacon’s chairs, which came with the building, and is a solid throne made out of carved white oak. My cane is lying on the pile of meditation mats to the right of the chair. Beside me on my left sits one of the Comparative Religion guests, reading the English translation in my text silently and reflectively while I turn the long and narrow unbound pages (derived originally from palm leaves) and chant in my base-baritone umdze voice.
Our lama, a fine lady about my age who came out of retreat almost ten years ago, kindly drives me home. I think of Karen, my ills, her ills, and the past thirty years, and make the remark to the lama, “This death is the first.” She is not taken by surprise. She has already thought the same thing herself.
Another day has passed. This evening, the five of us who regularly practice the guru-yoga of Karma Pakshi, the Second Karmapa, including our resident lama, did the monthly tsok, or ritual offering feast, where food is shared and the samaya, or vows, we have made to the various practices are repaired (they are extremely strict and complicated and keeping them pure in ordinary life is quite difficult).
The practice is done with more music--personal hand bells and a large drum--and in both a chant of profound sadness (said to be the specific tune revealed to the visionary lama who first developed the practice out of his meditative visions), as well one done to a militant and marching drumbeat. I still am too stiff in the knees and hips to sit on the floor.
The traditional oatmeal-and-dried-fruit torma, or offering cake, painted red and decorated with little dots of fresh butter, is shared among us, along with the rest of the offered food and drink, and the leftovers are placed outside both for animals and obstructive spirits. As the ritual meal is shared, our sense of the karmic links within our Sangha deepen, and the bond we still share with Karen is renewed.
Karen was cremated earlier today. We share the stories of Karen’s passing as we eat our tsok and look forward to the “civilian” family memorial service this weekend, where the Sangha will do the abbreviated version of the practice she loved and sustained up to her death, the practice of the Medicine Buddha.
Om Mani Padme Hung. Om Ami Dewa Hri. Karmapa Khyen-No. May all beings benefit. Mangalam.