On Death and Dying
Stories of the bardo
By Anna Cox
Buddhist teachers say that the word 'Bardo' means transition. There is the bardo of awakening, the bardo of dying, the bardo of meditation, the bardo of sleep, and the bardo of becoming - or reincarnation. We make this transition between the state of sleep consciousness and the state of our ordinary awake consciousness. We make the transition between the state of our ordinary awake consciousness into the state of consciousness that we enter upon our death. Throughout the process of death, we go through other transitions, also called bardos, and then enter a new birth.
The big confrontation which should spur us all into diligent practice is that to the degree we are aware during our ordinary reality, we are aware during the death journey. To the degree that we stay aware of our true wisdom mind as we sleep, we are aware of our wisdom mind as we die. If we are not already enlightened when we die, there is the possibility of achieving enlightenment at the time of death by recognizing our wisdom mind. During death, we will all have the experience of our enlightened mind, but only to the degree that we can recognize what we see, merging into and staying in that state. If we don’t recognize glimpses of our vast wisdom radiance at any other time, we probably won’t recognize it at the time of death. That moment will be like falling into a deep sleep where we lose all awareness of self. When we have no awareness of our vast self and no awareness of pure wisdom reality, then just as life is a series of karmic unfoldings, death is too. Karma takes over and those seeds planted through all of our past actions blossom into the results that become our death experience. The experience of our next manifestation just arise naturally out of our karma. If however, we use this life as the experimental opportunity to gain awareness of our true self and the true nature of reality, then when we die we have recognition of the vast mind of enlightenment.
I have shared the process of purposefully using the time approaching death for growth and evolution with people who have been grateful for every additional day that they had in their precious human body. I have been with many when they died or else I arrived shortly after their death. A few have been Buddhists, but most were not. I, too, had a number of times I have come close to death. These experiences have been invaluable in my ability to be with others. The dying have been my teachers and have helped me to be a better teacher for others facing death. They have also been my teachers by enabling me to open to the vastness of beginningless and endless expanse of our shared wisdom mind. Through our willingness to stay connected during the process of dying, I know that I traveled further with them beyond an ordinary consciousness of encapsulated ego and shared a part of the journey with them.
Here are a few stories of some remarkable people. Each of them taught me a little piece about the dying process:
Garnette was a poet and one of the members of a meditation group that formed in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1980. Garnette moved to New York to pursue her poetry writing when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her prognosis was poor, and yet she trusted in whatever happened. Poetry was her vehicle for processing her life and preparing for her death. She did a lot of meditation and visualization and her own spirituality was strengthened as she saw life, people, nature, the little things - all as profound. Her last medical resource was a bone marrow transplant; all preliminary interventions were unsuccessful. She knew this was karma, not failure on her part.
The evening prior to going into the hospital, her insurance company called and said, “We want you to know this procedure is not covered by your insurance.” Of course, this sent her spinning and was devastating. She called her lawyers and she spent the next two months in court fighting for the bone marrow transplant. She won, but by that time it was too late. She had the transplant but was beyond repairing the toll the fight and the cancer had taken on her body. She was accepting, positive, and still fought for her precious life. A week before she died, I sat and talked with Garnette. She tried hard to share her positive outlook and clear knowing that all was well. She was laughing and smiling right up to the minutes that she easily left her body.
Both Frankie and Gene were on death row at Tucker Maximum Security Prison and became Buddhist practitioners. They were part of the Little Rock sangha. Frankie Parker practiced alone for eight years doing silent meditation and Tai Chi, making origami, and practicing calligraphy. He read about the Ecumenical Buddhist Society (EBS) of Little Rock in the paper and, little by little, wove his way into our community and into all of our hearts. As his execution date neared, he did not want to die. We did all we could to stop the execution. When it was quite clear that the date - Aug. 6, 1996 - would indeed bring his execution to pass, his family came to say their goodbyes and stay with him. Frankie often said that death was not the end of him, but rather the end of his existence in that particular form.
We sat in a circle while he shared his views on death with his family. He urged them to believe that he would be fine and never lost to them. This was incredibly hard for them, and such comfort did little good at the time. His last day was spent meditating, making goodbye phone calls, and telling the guards jokes while he made origami animals for their children. He walked into the death chamber with serenity, chanting the refuge vows, "I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the dharma. I take refuge in the sangha." His last statement, written on the day of his death, read as follows: For eight years I have worked on kindling a small light of compassion out of the deep pain I have caused. This little light is now extinguished. I pray that others who have committed heinous crimes may find this small light an inspiration and may spread the flames of compassion to illuminate the entire universe so that all beings may realize the fundamental compassionate nature that resides within us all.
EBS held a memorial service for Frankie the weekend following his execution. Frankie’s sister planned to come to Little Rock from another town; however, that morning she was feeling so depressed that she didn’t want to make the trip. She was listening to the radio and a song came on that moved her deeply. She was reminded of her brother, so she grabbed a pen and paper and wrote down as many of the words as she could remember. Bolstered now to make the journey, she came to Little Rock for Frankie's service. As she walked in the room, we were preparing for the service and readying the music. We put on 'You Were There For Me' by Celine Dion. The sister burst into tears.That was the same song she wrote down earlier that morning. In awe, she said it was Frankie's humorous way of walloping her with the truth. His presence had not left.
Gene Perry was Frankie's best friend. He was extraordinarily well-read in all of the world's spiritual traditions - a Theosophist - and a talented artist. After Frankie died, one of the an EBS sangha members and I visited Gene to give him support. Little by little, as he would sort out his life issues, he asked for more and more information about Buddhism. By May 1997, he approached us about taking refuge with Lama Tharchin Rinpoche (by telephone). He and Bobby Fretwell, also a member of our EBS sangha and on death row, took refuge one after the other with Rinpoche, and we did the appropriate prayers. We offered a food offering on a makeshift altar in the chaplain's office. Each man came in, one at a time, shackled and cuffed. They did prostrations and reverently took vows. That was on Wednesday. We did not know that on that same day, the courts had rejected a final appeal. The papers went to the governor's office and an execution date was set. We heard this news two days later on Friday. Gene’s execution date was set for August 7, 1998.
We got special permission to do the Phowa empowerment, which then allowed Gene to do the mediation practice that prepares one for death in the Tibetan tradition. These prayers are said at the time of death and are extremely helpful in attaining enlightenment at that moment. He practiced diligently and continued to do an incredible amount of emotional healing.
On the final day of his life, I was with Gene in the tiny building that houses the execution chamber. He was in a small cell with steel mesh - much tighter security than bars. That morning he slept well and was in a good mood when I arrived. We began meditating. There was a hub-bub of legal activity. Eventually, we had time to talk about what was unfolding. He made his goodbye phone calls. In between, we casually discussed how he was feeling and worked through the tough spots. At one point, he called Lama Tharchin Rinpoche. He cried as the call ended. The tears were tears of bliss. He said he had touched transcendence three times in his life: when he first picked up a paint brush, when he first saw Frankie Parker's Buddhist mala, and just then, talking to Rinpoche who he was sure he’d spent many lifetimes with.
At one point in the afternoon, it hit him with finality that the legal loopholes had closed. He felt angry at that realization and he said despondently, "I guess they won." It took only a little shift, when I reminded him that this was not about winning or losing anymore, it was about enlightenment and a precious moment that was approaching. Now he needed to get ready. With that refocus, he was able to explore as he talked. He shared how he realized that his life had been perfect in preparing him for this moment. Even the execution was perfect. He was able to realize the enormous growth that his life in prison had given him, and yet to stay in prison for the rest of his life would deny him the ability to make the most of the qualities he had realized. He wanted to dedicate his death to the freedom to leave this incarcerated body and ego identity in order to take rebirth with awareness in a lifetime where he could truly benefit others with wisdom and caring. A short time later after his shower, he returned to his cell and asked that I braid his long hair. He wanted it to be like a samurai warrior as a way to express his determined clarity.
When the time of the execution approached, we began the Phowa practice. For me, it was most unusual to sit with a strong, healthy, person - fully and vibrantly alive in every way - and to say the preparatory prayers for Phowa knowing he would complete them on his own. We said the verses and just as we were finishing, five guards wearing riot gear came to collect him. The small area was already crowded; the warden, prison officials, the regular guards and the lawyers filled the 3-foot wide hallway. We had a quiet space where he was preparing himself in meditation. As the guards entered, it was more like they were entering into his sacredness rather than his succumbing to any emergency. He got up, slowly got dressed, and began to chant, OM MANI PADME HUM. The guards were still. When he was ready, he turned to those guards who were there last two days, and thanked them for being kind and helpful. A couple had tears in their eyes and tried to surreptitiously wipe them away. He turned to the warden and said, "Thank you, warden. You are a good warden." The warden's face was frozen and stricken. Then Gene walked out of the cell and down the hall as he chanted softly. We had a quick hug and goodbye, and I tugged gently at the hair on the top of his head to give him a physical reminder about where to focus during meditation. His consciousness would exit from the crown of his head when he died. At that point, he would have completed his meditation prayers and he would say the sound of the seed syllable HIC. Doing these practices, he would exit with awareness. He smiled at me when I gave him the reminder and said that he remembered. He was calm, relaxed, and courageous.
I went into the viewing room and waited for the curtain to open. The room was filled with media and others who had applied to be witnesses. Gene's attorney sat grieving in the back corner. When the curtain opened, Gene was lying on the table, which is shaped like a cross. He was strapped down with a big leather plate across his torso. His hands were relaxed, his fingers flexing. His eyes were closed. He was still chanting softly because his lips were moving a little. In his last statement he proclaimed, yet again, his innocence and then repeated the refuge vows. The injection started and he continued to say mantra softly. After about five minutes, he said audibly but not loudly, HIC.
It took 14 minutes from the time the injection began until he was dead. Frankie Parker died in 4 minutes. Most die in two or three. Gene Perry's trust in the teachings of Vajrayana [Tibetan] Buddhism was remarkable. From the beginning of the Phowa teachings he felt like he recognized something he had long known. He understood the concepts and he knew the highest meditative state of Rigpa. He knew Rigpa from his painting. Every canvas was created while he was in Rigpa. He knew the colors of transcendence. He recognized them from dreams and images where he saw them. He understood non-discrimination of form: no good, no bad, no separation. He knew emptiness. Buddhism gave him words to understand what he knew. He said in essence, that Buddhism was a very helpful tool for him because it put things together in a way that he could have a vehicle to better utilize the opportunity of death to good advantage. Karma brought the dramatic circumstances of his life together. Wisdom brought his Buddha potential to fruition.
Robert was a man in a very dangerous job - stringing high power lines. One day there was a storm. He went to fix some damaged wires and received a massive electric shock. No one had ever received that much voltage and lived. He lost an arm, suffered severe burns, and was in a coma for seven months. He died during the shock and they brought him back to life. When I met him, he was in rehabilitation and very depressed. He was learning to adjust emotionally to losing an arm, to having brain damage, and to dramatic life changes. He eventually shared that most traumatic for him was having had the experience of dying and returning to life. He had not wanted to return. For a year, he worked through his losses and, little by little, he began to live a more normal life. He could appreciate the enormous change in his perspective and what was valuable in life. He awakened spiritually and was a devout Christian. He found courage he never possessed before and his life took on meaning. He would talk to the neighborhood children who were afraid of the man with one arm. It was an opportunity to teach children about handicaps and differentness. He was clumsy and embarrassed, but he learned to be less afraid. Finally, very happily but with very different motivation than ever before, he went back to work as a consultant for an electric company. Two months later, driving to work at 6:30 AM one morning, his truck crossed the centerline. He had probably fallen asleep. He was killed instantly.
When I have been with those who died, there have been perhaps a few minutes or
moments of panic when they knew death was imminent. For almost all, even if they were very close to death, they had a wish to get well and stay alive. Only a few felt themselves fully surrender to death without some resistance. Just like Gene, there is always a bit of waiting to see if there will be a pardon. But, once that moment passes, everyone I have been with relaxes in comfort.
Buddhism teaches about a passage of 'life force' which leaves the body. That life force is not the 'inner Buddha' but is the drop of the gathered winds which have collected in the heart. When the gathered winds leave, the physical body dies. Then there is an exiting. The teachings in different streams of Buddhism have some differences about what happens next. This article is primarily about Vajrayana Buddhism.
In Tibet, monks, lamas, and solitary meditators have spent centuries in experiential meditations and scholarly study to understand consciousness. They deliberately tried to seal their country off from the inventions of the west because they did not want to be diverted by materialism. To understand the process of mind and the realization of enlightenment was their top priority. No culture has ever embraced such a task more fully. Out of this, the process of death was explored through extended meditations in extraordinary ways. People who had death experiences and then came back to tell about them were called Gelugs and were seen as great teachers.
These stories are well documented, even though in our western expectations about life and death they appear quite phenomenal. Some of these events are of people who died for a week and when they returned, they told of visiting the bardos and being taught great teachings by the deities. All people, even those who have never practiced being mindful or meditating, have great clarity at the time of death. The benefit is to notice this clarity and to not shut down out of fear. The longer you stay aware of the radiant clarity and recognize it as your enlightened mind, the greater the opportunity to fully awaken.
I had a few events like this and although now I am grateful for these life-changing experiences, they were barely glimpses of what the saints of Tibet saw. My first close call with death came when I almost drowned in a tidal wave in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico. Although I panicked at first, when I realized I could no longer fight the wave that was pulling me under, drowning was like falling into a comforting sleep. It was good to learn that after the initial panic, there was comfort.
My next experience was in the hospital. I was there because of back problems and the doctor was going to do a myelogram. I am sensitive to medications, and he accidentally overdosed me with a mild tranquilizer that was supposed to relax me during the procedure. Instead, it stopped my heart. I was rapidly losing consciousness and I said to the nurse and doctor, "I'm dying." Again I experienced a moment of panic that passed quickly. Without reason, I felt peaceful. The nurse recognized it was true that I was dying. I could see my body on the table, and the nurse and doctor were panicking. I was confused because I was comfortable, but they were horrified. He gave her orders about how to revive me. The doctor turned to the nurse and said, "I think we've lost her!" Only then did the scene 'before me' make sense. I still felt identical to my normal everyday awareness and I was in a state that felt like my usual self. Yet, before me in a totally comprehensive vision, I realized that I could see my body, the doctor and nurse, because I was no longer in my body. I was aware that I could see everyone in the room, and everyone outside the room. This vision was only a part of a whole that was so vast and radiant that any one experience or expression of form hardly mattered. The whole was beyond all comprehension and profoundly perfect. I felt myself merging and going beyond, compelled to leave. However, the panic of the doctor and nurse kept my awareness in the upper corner of the room, watching and trying to communicate to them that I was fine and that they need not worry. They could not hear me. With a shot of adrenalin and an electric clapper, I was sucked back into my body like a vacuum cleaner sucking up dirt on the floor. It was as though I was being forced into a space much too small and painful. Afterwards, I lay in the hospital for a week, unable to speak and unable to grasp the experience. This was long before books about near-death experiences were on the market. It wasn't until I later found a book on LSD experiences that I was able to put a concept to what happened as I explored subtle states of consciousness.
Shortly after that I began to read about Vajrayana Buddhism. Until then, I had wanted to die. Not to commit suicide, but to return to what I touched and felt had been taken away from me. I learned in Buddhism that what happens after death and in life is vast, radiant, and one never leaves true self.
Twelve years later, after having abdominal surgery and going to Hawaii to recuperate, I was taking my first stroll down the beach on a Monday at noon. Two men were throwing their pit bull dogs into the water and laughing as the dogs scrambled to make it back to shore against the waves. I walked past them and continued down the beach, which became increasingly more deserted. Turning around after about a half a mile, I realized that one of the men was coming towards me. He grabbed me. He was about 6'2" and probably weighed about 250 lbs.
Remember, I had just gotten out of the hospital for major surgery. I started to struggle and fight him. I screamed, but the ocean drowned out any noise and no one was around. It made him nervous for me to fight and I was determined. I kept looking him in the eyes and saying 'Listen to me! I am not going to let you hurt me! If you kill me, you will end up in jail and I don't want that to happen to you! I will talk to you, but I won't let you hurt me!' I said this over and over as we fought. I was not planning anything, it all just happened. He pinned me on the ground and was strangling me with one hand and had his t-shirt over my nose and mouth with the other, suffocating me. I managed to say, “I just had surgery and I am not very strong. I am not going to let you kill me.” After that, I lost consciousness. I knew I was about to die on the beach in Hawaii. With incredible clarity, I could see all that was unfolding and I felt peaceful and deeply connected to this man who was murdering me. His name was Melvin. I experienced that it was all okay. At the same time, I had a revelation what the teaching was, how my karma of previous lives and this life had led to this moment. I watched all of this and understood as though the answers to a question were being revealed very matter-of-factly. I didn’t experience any fear at that point.
Melvin lifted the shirt off my face and relaxed his grip around my neck.
Far away I heard him ask why I had surgery. He was telling me that he had surgery once too, and he was curious. In this way, he identified with me. I showed him the scar where my gallbladder was removed and he told me that he had surgery on his head after he was hit by a car. He had a steel plate and had been in a coma for two months.
After telling me this, he began the fight again as he tried to drag me off to the nearby woods. I knew that I now touched him in a way that connected us personally. I continued to resist with all my strength, repeating that I cared about him. I said that I knew he must be in pain to do such a thing. I did not want anything bad to happen to him, but I would not let him hurt me. I would listen to his story, I said, but he could not kill me. This continued for two hours on the beach and no one else came along. Bit by bit, I coaxed his story out of him and he gradually relaxed and trusted me. Then, only able to go so far, he would begin the aggressive attack again if he thought I was trying to escape. Finally as he softened, I told him that my friends would be missing me and that I should go out to the highway, by the shopping center, to find them. This, I thought, would get me around people. He walked me to the highway with his arm gripped around my shoulders, holding my hands tightly so that I would not escape. Of course, this makes no sense that he would walk me down the highway to the shopping center to my 'friends', while trying to prevent me from escaping. I realized though how severely brain damaged he was, and I was trying to work with his limitations to my advantage. We made it to the highway and as we walked the mile or so, he told me about how lonely he was in his life and that he just wanted me to be his friend. That was why he attacked me, he said. He also said over and over, “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. What is happening?”
When we reached the shopping center, I told him that I was going into the store and would leave him there outside. He must never do anything like that again. Then, he asked if I would go hiking in the mountains with him that afternoon? I told him no and I thanked him for not killing me. Melvin was arrested later that afternoon in a pool hall where he had gotten into a brawl with some other men. I found out that his friend with the dogs had been hiding in the bushes. The plan was that Melvin was to drag me into the woods where they would both rape me. He became frightened when Melvin and I started talking and he ran. Both were sent to prison. Melvin's probation officer called me in the 90s to say that he was being released.
Throughout that attack I felt protected by my teacher and had a sense that there was no danger. Of course, later I went through years of dealing with post-traumatic stress. Melvin was one of my life's greatest teachers.
Preparing for death is like studying the road map, so that when we go on a trip we recognize the signs and know where to tum. If we are just going in whatever direction appears to move us at the moment, it will be pretty chancy whether or not we reach our desired destination. If we study the cities, study the turns, ask those who have been there about the tricky spots, then we see the turn-off and we have enough clues to immediately say, 'There it is. That's my tum.' And, you get to where you are going: Full and complete TRUTH.
May this reading - and all that we’ve thought, said or done today in our awakening - benefit all beings.