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This Precious Life

June 20, 2013

This last couple of weeks has brought home to me very vividly the truth that that we live our lives in the jaws of death. Last weekend, whilst celebrating a birthday and enjoying a barbecue in the brief British sunshine I heard an interview on the radio with Wilko Johnson , a stalwart of the British music scene who was recently diagnosed with Cancer. A gruff no nonsense soul, his voice sonorous with experience, he talked with amazing poignancy and beauty about the impact of being told by doctors that he probably had no more than just 10 months to live.

“The things that used to bring me down, or worry me, or annoy me, they don’t matter anymore – and that’s when you sit thinking ‘Wow, why didn’t I work this out before?”

Buddha Pointing at the moon (which represents Liberation & Enlightentment)

Buddha Pointing at the moon (which represents Liberation & Enlightentment)

At one point in the program he said that knowing that he was going to die had graced him with the first real happiness he had known since childhood. Having spent a life of worry and depression death brought him clarity, as he says,

“Why didn’t I work out before that it’s just the moment you’re in that matters?’”

Buddha taught extensively on the importance of understanding the certainty of death. In Great Beyond Sorrow Sutra he says (and I paraphrase slightly) ,

Just as when many animals have been in a field
It is the Elephant that leaves the deepest impression
So of all the meditations it is the meditation on death
That leaves the deepest impression on the mind

I know that many people fear to meditate on the certainty of their own death believing it to be morbid, or even a cause shortening their own life, but the truth is that this meditation is perhaps the single most important realisation we must gain in order to experience inner peace. As Wilko says,

“Worrying about the future or regretting the past is just a foolish waste of time. Of course we can’t all be threatened with imminent death, but it probably takes that to knock a bit of sense into our heads.”

Listening to him its possible to understand how a correct understanding of the certainty of our own death has the power to free us from the ropes of worry, attachment, anger and so forth which so often bind our mind to one fixed point or another of misery. I say correct in the sense that he has seen death plainly for what it is, an inevitable and natural consequence of living. His recognition that he can neither change the past nor live a future that has not yet happened is I think a key to why the realisation of death has brought him peace, it has left him with the present moment, where any thing is possible, where he can be the person he really wants to be. This opportunity is available to each of us, constantly.

Other topics such as realising the Middle way between the extremes of existence and non-existence are often said to be the most profound, and yet one Kadampa master who actually achieved liberation from ignorance said,

“My real meditation on the middle way is the meditation on death & impermanence”

Why is this? One thought I have is that once the mind becomes more open and less grasping we begin to see how our ideas of fixity, a fixed me, a fixed you, a fixed situation, a fixed future, a fixed feeling etc are not correct. The insight itself will blossom in to the wisdom realising the middle way, for further insight on this I recommend the latest article on Kadampa Life, All the World’s a Stage And with that Shakespearean reference I can’t help but add one of my own favourite quotes from Buddha which echoes the same sentiment:

“These three worlds are as impermanent as autumn clouds.
The birth and death of beings are like the entrance and exit of actors on the stage.”

from Extensive Enjoyment Sutra

The Sadness of Parting

Shortly before hearing this fantastic interview, I received some very sad news on Facebook. A beautiful young monk called Losang Tenpa, who had touched hundreds of peoples lives with his extraordinary balance and calm in his struggle with a congenital heart condition, had died aged just 13. This is the other face of death, the cruelty and unexpetedness of it. Buddha taught we should try to live each day with an appreciation it could be our last. I would like to share a fraction of Losang Tenpa’s story because I feel that despite the dreadful sadness, it is also an inspiring one; not least for me because it brought home forcefully the truth that each breath really could be our last.

Many people had connected with this precious young monk through the efforts of a very special American Monk who is living at Shar Gaden monastery in India as the resident English teacher. When it became clear that his name sake (how amazing they share the same name), needed expensive medical treatment and operations, he began to raise awareness and money on Facebook. Enough money was raised and a few months ago young Losang had his operation (which lasted some 9 or 10 hours). The operation was a success and many whoops and cheers as well as some happy tears I’m sure emanated around the globe.

Thanks to Facebook we followed young Losang Tenpa’s recovery and were overjoyed to see his health return. When he woke one morning with a fever I’m sure most of us assumed it was just a temporary set back, but within a few short days he had passed away.

Since then many people have shared their experience of their brief connection with this dear child, and overwhelmingly it has been a positive one despite the cruel brevity of his life. I was particularly struck by something that his brother monk, “Big” Losang Tenpa said, which was that he had learnt how to face the world without fear. Fearlessness is said to be one of the benefits of practicing Buddha’s teachings, I think that fear is one of the greatest forces which stops us making the most of our lives. My own feeling is that this young monk was no ordinary appearance but a Buddha appearing in special form out of what he (Buddha) called “the magical play of illusion”. But I think that is for another article!

I would very much like to dedicate any benefit, wisdom, happiness that might come from this article to Losang Tenpa’s fortunate rebirth and also that those of his friends and family may find the inner peace they need to transform their loss into a cause of wisdom and great benefit. I would also wish that everyone who is facing death or who has experienced loss may do the same.

The last word must go to Wilko Johnson, I would like to thank him very much for deciding to share his experience with others so publicly. May he always find peace and happiness, and may his wise wishes always be fulfilled.

“Right now it’s just fantastic – it makes you feel alive. Just walking down the street you really feel alive. Every little thing you see, every cold breeze against your face, every brick in the road, you think ‘I’m alive, I’m alive’ – I hope I can hang onto that.”

___________________________________________________________________
Source for Wilko Johnson Quotes: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-21187740
Other articles on Death and Dying: Preparing for the Pure Land ~ conversations with Sue

All quotes in this article are from the Chapter on Death in Joyful Path of Good Fortune by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

From → Fundamental

9 Comments
  1. This is an absolutely fantastic article. One of the best I have read. Thank you very much!

    • Really pleased to hear you enjoyed it Kadampa Ryan, I always find your blog very interesting. Thanks for the feedback.

  2. Wonderful article!

    I was going to write about little Losang Tenpa myself, now i only need to refer readers to this article 😉

    • Dear Luna, please do write about little Losang Tenpa, there is so much to say and I hardly said any of it!

  3. Jan permalink

    Loved reading this teaching.Little Tenpa’s death has touched many people as he did in his life.Big Tenpa’s grief is palpable and very moving.Their brief time together was so full of joy and love.
    May we all take the Dharma Jewels of death and impermanence deeply to heart.

  4. Tracey Van Gundy permalink

    What a lovely article. I believe that little Losang Tenpa will continue to touch even more hearts simply because of this article.

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