Chairs' Letter – October 2020On Sat, 31 October, 2020 - 18:52
Dear Order members and friends,
The theme I’m currently aware of is death / rebecoming. Partly due to it being Autumn in this hemisphere; partly due to the pandemic and being in lockdown again; and today, 30 October, is the second anniversary of Bhante’s death.
I expect we all remember where we were when we heard that Bhante had died. I was in Sweden, and it was such a relief to get to the Centre where Prasadacarin had just opened up and started meditation. Back in the UK, I arrived at Adhisthana for a College meeting and the atmosphere was so positive around the preparations for the funeral ceremony. We were able to take turns to sit with Bhante’s body in the Amitabha shrineroom, and to keep the cycle of mantra chanting going in the main shrineroom. Bhante’s body was lying at the foot of the Refuge Tree, and there was a sense of two kayas being present as he also figured in the image of the Tree.
It had seemed impossible to imagine what Triratna would be like without Bhante’s living presence, and it was slightly shocking, as well as reassuring, to discover that life – and meetings – continued pretty much as before; testimony to Bhante’s foresight in terms of ‘succession planning’. However I suspect we are still navigating the transition and it will be a while before we can look back and make complete sense of this period.
I’ve been reflecting on the Six Elements and Six Bardos. I’ve just finished reading Mingyur Rimpoche’s ‘In Love with the World’ which is the account of the 36-year-old tulku abbot dramatically going forth from life as he knows it. He soon finds himself in challenging circumstances and describes how he draws on his years of training as he faces death, as well as the experience of letting go / breakthrough and of returning to this life with a sense of his teaching mission incomplete. I found it inspiring, affirming and challenging.
There were echoes of the first book I ever read that opened up the possibility of a spiritual life, which was Raymond Moody’s ‘Life after Life’, and which I came across when travelling in South American in the 1970s. My memory of that book was that Moody, who was a doctor, began to realise that he was hearing similar accounts from people who had gone some way along the dying process – and then come ‘back to life’. He began to take their experiences seriously, and they in turn were relieved that someone was finally doing so. They struggled to find words to describe their experience and often used whatever terminology came to hand, but many of them told of ‘out of body’ experiences and being drawn towards a bright light etc. I was especially struck by one woman’s description of seeing her life ‘flash before her eyes’ with non-judgemental focus on the times she had made the most of an opportunity and times she hadn’t. Many described being pulled back into their life by altruistic impulse, although they were now not afraid of death. One woman pretty much said she had learned that our lives are about developing wisdom and compassion. I suspect the reason ‘Life after Life’ struck me so strongly at the time was because, having rejected Christianity, it was the first ‘reasonable’ account that challenged my determinedly materialistic / nihilistic views.
In his seminar on Trungpa’s commentary on the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’, Bhante makes the point that the teachings refer to the bardos of death and rebirth, as well as being applicable to the various bardos we may encounter within this lifetime, and that we should not gloss over this. Sitting with my father when he died 11 years ago, I was unable to avoid slipping into what I guess was horrified anxiety. I regretted not having been able to be present for him in a more truly supportive way, and came away with a sense of wanting to do better when it comes to my own death – as well as that of others. I have been impressed and inspired by the example of other Order members facing death. Next month is the annual International College meeting, during which Subhuti will be leading study on the root verses from the Bardo Thodol. I hope to take this to heart, along with the seven and eight Mind Training verses.
In the Dhammapada we have: ‘Others do not realise that we are all heading for death. Those who do realise it will compose their quarrels.’ This is a call for a greater perspective, with the suggestion that understanding the truth of impermanence will dramatically reframe our relationship with others. Reflecting on the difference that recognition of death makes, I’ve been finding both a sense of a deep connection with all others committed to the same path, and also the seed of the wish that all beings find happiness and the causes of happiness, and avoid suffering and the causes of suffering.
+ View October’s features from the College here