Today is Easter Sunday, and I am sitting on my cushion looking at my altar and thinking of the great Master Jesus and his Teachings which have helped so many people in the past, as well as the present and in the future. As I look out my window at the city of Philadelphia I see the weather is so beautiful, the sky is so blue, and the Delaware River looks so calm. Along the banks of the river, people are walking, biking, and jogging. The flowers are blooming and the leaves have come out on the trees, which are such a lovely green. Looking out my window, everything appears very pleasant and peaceful. Yet, inside of myself there is an awareness that everyone is going through their own challenges and dealing with any number of problems. I am sure that although people appear to be peaceful as they walk around, they may be dealing with their own grief and loss. So although we may appear happy on the surface, we can be dealing with various issues on the inside. As I walked down the street to my class today, no one may have known that I am dealing with my own process of grieving.
Many of you know that my sister and her family live in Philadelphia. My sister, Sangmo, and her husband, Dorje, have four children: two boys and two girls. I am lucky to be an uncle who has such beautiful nieces and nephews. We have gone through so much in our lives both individually and as a family including fleeing our home country Tibet, settling in India, and relocating to the United States. Because I was living in Philadelphia at the time my sister's family arrived in the United States, they settled in Philadelphia as well. We are lucky to be together, as we are a very close family.
Among my sister's four children, the third oldest child, Tenzin Tsothen, seemed to be experiencing the most difficulties. So although our whole family is very close, among my four nieces and nephews I always worried more about Tenzin and spent more time with him. We had a lot of good times when he and I had a chance to be together; we would eat and do projects. As I reflect on our relationship, I see that he and I shared many experiences. I am so grateful that we had that time, because my dear nephew passed away suddenly and unexpectedly of natural causes on March 24th 2012, early in the morning at the age of 31.
During the week before his death, I had been creating a mandala of compassion as part of the Philadelphia Folklore Project. The location where I was creating the mandala was close to my sister's house, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to visit him and my sister every day that week. On the night of Friday, March 23rd, I completed the mandala of compassion and we performed the dismantling ceremony. After I finished the dismantling I went to my sister's house for supper, as I often do, and we all had a lovely evening together, including my dear nephew Tenzin.
Then I came home and at about 3:00 am on the morning of the 24th, I had a powerful, vivid dream of Tenzin. In my dream, he was washing his clothes and hanging them to dry on a clothesline (as we do in India). Most of his clothes were yellow and maroon coloured, which reminded me of the colour of monks and nun's robes. The weather was so beautiful, the grass was so green, and he was so happy! As I watched him wash his clothes, I asked him "What are you doing?" He replied very happily, "Uncle, I am washing my clothes." Then I awoke suddenly. When I thought about the dream, it seemed that it was a very positive dream. He had been having personal difficulties lately, so I interpreted the dream as meaning that things were going to go better for him.
Then my phone rang around 7:00 am. It was my sister. She was crying on the phone and cried for me to come over to her house right away. She said "my son, Tenzin, has passed away." I was completely shocked to hear the news, especially after my dream. It was impossible to believe this phone call was really happening; I went to her house right away. The whole time I was telling myself to be calm. My mantra that morning was "remain calm."
When I arrived at my sister's house there were many police cars in front of her house. I found a place to park my car. As I walked toward their home, I realized the importance of carrying the message of the Buddha Dharma and how important it is to put the Teachings into practice. So, I repeated again and again "remain calm." As I walked by the police officers, I introduced myself and they let me pass. When I entered the home, I saw it was in chaos. When I was visiting the home the night before for dinner everything was peaceful, and this morning it was a completely different situation. Last night the family was together, eating a lovely supper, but now the house was full of police officers, forensics, and a medical examiner. Usually you can hear Tibetan or Indian music their home, as well as prayers and laughter, but that morning the only sound throughout the house was the sound of crying. My sister was crying and scurrying around in her grief. My sister's husband, Dorje, was saying prayers, but crying like a child. Tenzin's sister, Jampa, had fainted twice before I arrived. I could hear her crying upstairs.
I tried to bring peace and calm to my sister and her family, and I kept repeating the mantra in my mind "remain calm." Because I was able to remain calm, I was able to help deal with the police and medical examiners. I believe I was able to communicate and make decisions more easily, because I was calm. Then I called my older niece's husband, who is also named Tenzin and I asked him to come by to help.
The police then took the body of my nephew away for an autopsy. I am so grateful to all of them, because they were so helpful. We had not experienced a death in the United States before and did not understand the processes or requirements. They explained the whole process to me, sharing how they would take the body for the autopsy and then the body would be ready for a funeral on Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday. They provided such helpful advice, I am so grateful to each of them (though I don't know all of their names). They were so wonderful and skillful in that kind of situation to be able to do their job, while also providing comfort and information.
I had the responsibility to pull the family together and I asked them all to come to the living room. I explained the concept of impermanence to them, and emphasized the importance of being calm and peaceful (as much as possible). At the time when someone passes away or when tragedy happens, remaining peaceful and calm is very beneficial. So, I guided them through a short meditation and it was very difficult for them, but I tried the best I could to bring us all together in prayer. Later on they told me that was very helpful, because it helped them to do what needed to be done in a good way, but also helped them see death in a different way. They said they really appreciated my being there to support and guide them.
As is our tradition, we each laid a white scarf on Tenzin's body before he was carried away, to wish him a better rebirth. At the time when they took the body, I lit a candle at the family altar and prayed very sincerely for him and for any living being that died that day. I wished them all a better rebirth and prayed that the rest of the family could recover easily.
Then I needed to do two things: first, to arrange the funeral services and second, to call India to set up the prayers and to have the astrology chart read to reveal information regarding the time of his death. In the Tibetan community, when someone dies we read the astrology chart with the school of medicine, which helps to guide the arrangements. It tells us the best day to complete the cremation (in the past in Tibet, the majority of funerals would involve a sky burial, but now it is primarily cremation). The astrology chart helps us to know the day and time for the cremation and what should be burned with the body, as well as what practices to undertake and the prayers to do to realize a better rebirth for the deceased. In addition, the chart shows which images (manifestation of the Buddha) should be created during the seven weeks after a death to help support a better rebirth. It also describes what the family can do to heal and remain healthy. Tibetan astrology provides fascinating information with a great deal of detail, including the direction the body should be carried when it is first moved. If it is not possible to move the body in this direction, then there are rituals identified to mitigate any negative effects. I phoned my adoptive father in India, Namgyal-la, and he obtained the information for me. He told me that the funeral should be on a Monday, and which prayers and practices to do. We were told that if we completed these instructions my nephew Tenzin would be reborn in the west as a beautiful female.
Luckily we received my nephew's precious body on Sunday, and did the cremation as indicated on Monday. For forty-nine days after his death we will do prayers, with special prayers done every Friday. In the Buddhist tradition, there is the belief that the person will be reborn within forty-nine days and each week a transition occurs within the Bardo (intermediate state). Because my nephew passed away on a Saturday, we do special prayers on each Friday. These special prayers are done on the day before the weekly anniversary of his death because there is the idea that each week, he passes through a transformation in Bardo and the prayers assist with peaceful transitions in the Bardo state. We will do these special prayers each Friday until 49 days have passed.
If a person has accumulated incredible positive karma, a person does not pass through the Bardo stage, but is reborn immediately in a better rebirth. If a person has incredible negative karma, a person will be immediately reborn in the lower realms without entering the Bardo state. Within Bardo, the form that is taken is very subtle; it is like having a form, while being formless. Depending on what the next rebirth will be, the form will appear in that shape. If the person will be reborn as a human, the Bardo form will appear human. If the person will be reborn as an animal, such as a dog, that is the image that will appear. It is very subtle, however, like a dream.
So, I have lost such a beautiful member of my family on Saturday, March 24, 2012. For this reason, I am writing this message to share with you the process I went through, and to help you understand how to deal with loss. For me, the teachings of the Buddha Dharma have been so important. The most beneficial is the message of remaining calm and peaceful, especially when dealing with situations of incredible loss. These teachings and the practice I have done helped me to deal with this situation. We all deal with forms of loss in our lives, losing members of our family or our friends. Therefore I hope that sharing this message with you will help you to go through any difficulties you may be experiencing. And it is also to remind us to all be kind and loving with those who are close to us. I realize how important it is to appreciate the time we have with those who we love, and to show compassion to all those we meet, because we never know when our life or theirs may be over. When we do our best in the time we have together, we have more peace and fewer regrets when they are no longer with us.
This Friday, April 13th, at 7:00 pm (Philadelphia time) the members of the centre and friends will join me at my sister's home for a prayer service. Please come and join in prayer if you can (either in person at my sister's home or in your own home). Please pray for all sentient beings we have lost (people and any living being who has died), as well as for my nephew. The prayer that we will be doing, which is powerful for the death and dying process, is the Chenrezig Guru Yoga (Buddha of Compassion). You can find this prayer on my website www.losangsamten.com, and click on Sadhana and scroll down to find the Chenrezig practice booklet. The prayers at my sister's house will be webcast on the Tibetan Buddhist Center Website, at www.tibetanbuddhist.org.
I have received a great number of emails, postcards, and phone calls from many friends and students. I am sending this message to express my gratitude to everyone for your kind words and your prayers.
I love you all and I hope one day we will all overcome our pain,
Message from Losang / March 2012
A number of friends and students ask me to write messages and stories, because they say they find them helpful. Therefore I thought I would take some time to write some stories to share with you, and I will begin by sharing some of my experiences on my recent trip to Reno, as well as a couple of anecdotes. I hope you find them helpful. I would also like to express my deep thanks to Lori for helping me to write my stories so that I can share them with my friends.
As many of you know I fly around to many places to offer teachings and make mandalas. I do my best to collect airmiles, but sometimes I forget about them and lose the miles I have collected. On my last trip I was traveling to Reno, Lake Tahoe, and Chico, and so a few months before heading out I was looking for a flight. I called American Airlines and asked if I have enough miles to buy a trip to Reno. The woman said I have enough to buy a round-trip to Reno, but she said if I used 5000 more miles, I could travel one-way in first class. So I thought I may as well use the miles so that they don't just disappear, and I said "Okay, why not?"
As you know we are traveling physically or mentally all the time. Our minds are constantly busy thinking about this or that. Even when our heads are on the pillow at night, we can still be traveling. Sometimes these experiences are lovely, but sometimes we do not get what we expect whether we are traveling in our minds or in our bodies. Nowadays traveling by airplane can be something we need to think about, especially after 9-11. There are so many changes and we often second guess whether we really want to travel or not. Before 9-11, our family would sit and have tea or coffee until we have to go to the gate and we would hug and kiss and say goodbye, but those days are gone. The younger generation who have no experience of traveling before security was increased dramatically will have no idea of how it used to be. To them, it is like when a young person sees a phone booth, they wonder what it is for, because of the increase in cell phone use; hardly anyone uses phone booths anymore. So many changes are happening so rapidly. Everything is truly impermanent.
We see many changes in the world all the time, whether economically, politically, or technologically. So getting back to the story of my flight, changing my seat from economy class to first class was another change for me. On the way back from Reno to Philadelphia I was standing in line to check-in with my luggage. The line for economy class was so long, and I thought 'that is where I would usually stand'. However, because I have a first class ticket I entered the first class line, standing on the red carpet. Even though some people had been waiting a long time in the economy line, the agent called me first because I was first class. I felt a little uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed, thinking of the people who had been waiting longer. I know this happens all the time, but it felt different when it was me receiving this special treatment.
At the gate, they usually call passengers to board according to the boarding number: one, two or three. I don't know how they decide on the boarding numbers, but I just go on the plane when they call my number. So, that day I was in first class and standing once again on a red carpet getting ready to board. When I looked at the carpet, however, although it was red, it looked like it needed a good cleaning. To me, this was very symbolic. Even though people are treated special walking on the red carpet, some day everyone and everything needs to be cleaned, even red carpets. And, no matter what carpet we are walking on, we all have wonderful qualities and we all have things we need to purify or clean ... in that we are all equal.
Then I sat in my seat, and slowly the economy class passengers began to board the plane in search of their own seats. When I ride in economy class, as I go through first class section I usually think these must be very important people, like CEOs. They seem to always be sitting there working on their computers, working on their smartphones, or reading business magazines with a drink in their hand. As I was sitting in my first class seat, I was wondering what people might think of me. Are they asking themselves "Is he a CEO, a businessman, or what?" The people may really wonder what I am doing in first class, because if you know how I dress, it does not fit the style we usually see in first class.
Luckily the person sitting next to me on this part of the flight was a person very similar to me. He also was sitting in first class for the first time using extra airmiles to travel from Reno to Pittsburg. I thought, ?Yahoo! We are both getting a special experience today, learning about how it is to sit in first class.' Normally I pack a sandwich to eat on the flight, but because I knew they were serving food, I did not pack anything to eat that day. On the flight they served us breakfast and before breakfast they offered us a small warm towel to wash our hands and face, which reminded me of my first flight to the USA in 1981, when they gave these warm wet towels to everyone on the flights.
The man sitting beside me had lived all of his life in Pittsburg, and he is a retired carpenter. He had traveled to Tahoe to visit his brother. We talked during the whole flight from Reno to Dallas airport and we had such a good time sharing stories. Because I have always enjoyed working with wood, it was very interesting for me as he explained many things about working with different types of wood and building things. I have such a deep connection with woodworking, I must have been a builder or carpenter in a past life. Then we came to talk about politics in the United States. He was a strong supporter for President Obama and he felt that Obama is a great leader who has really helped the country. Then we said good-bye to each other in Dallas, as he was catching his next flight to Pittsburg and I was continuing on to Philadelphia. We had different gates, but he followed me to my gate to say how wonderful it was that we met, and he wanted to give me a hug. Looking at the man, with his muscular build and bald head, a person may not think that he is the hugging type, but he is evidence that we can not make assumptions about people, and everyone has a warm heart even if they look tough on the outside. I said how wonderful it was to meet him too, even though it was for only a short time. I realize that although meeting him was beautiful, that may be the last time I see him in this lifetime. We meet so many different people, everywhere we go. It is always hard to say goodbye to each other, but we need to remember life is impermanent.
From Dallas to Philadelphia I sat next to a woman from Tucson. She was the mother of three children, two girls and one boy. We had a wonderful conversation as well. Her political views are very different from the man I sat beside on the first part of my flight. She is a republican, and sees President Obama like a dictator who is destroying the country. I realized then that we all have such different viewpoints, different needs, and different ideas. This helped me to understand the Buddha Dharma at an even deeper level. Then we landed in Philadelphia and on that evening she was going to dinner with her brother at a restaurant downtown, and she invited me to join them. I really wanted to join her for dinner, but I had made previous plans, so I had to decline.
I enjoy meeting people and to me, it does not matter what seat I am sitting in; we are all truly equal. Even though we may have different viewpoints, needs and ideas, we are all equal and we are all beautiful.
So now I would like to share another story with you. Since 1994, I have worn more pants than robes. I have been wearing the same size for many years, and my dear sister and two nieces often comment on my pants. They say my pants look too tight and try to adjust them to make them look better, especially in the back. When I buy my pants, I just pick up my usual size and if it feels comfortable, I don't worry too much about how they look in the front or the back. However, one day, my sister Sangmo and my niece Yangchen insisted that I buy new pants. Even though I did not need new pants, I wanted to make them happy, so we went shopping. We went to many different shops, including LL Bean, the Gap, Eddie Bauer, Banana Republic, and Old Navy. Because they thought I needed a larger size, they picked out pants in different sizes and different styles at each store. I tried on all the pants they brought to me and came out to model the pants for them, but each pair of pants looked the same. We realized then, it has nothing to do with the pants, but it is due to my body structure. So after that, my sister and niece gave up and we had lunch. Now they accept that the problem is not with the size of the pants, but the problem is with my natural body shape. I guess my body was built to wear monk's robes, not pants. So now my brown pants are sitting comfortably in my closet, knowing they are safe with me for a while longer; I think they may have been a little worried that I was going to take them to the thrift store.
This makes me think of how sometimes we think our problems are caused by external factors, but many problems are caused internally. The causes for our problems sometimes arise from how we see things, how we are, and what we think. So when we have a problem, we need to consider where the problem is truly originating. It is therefore important to enjoy our lives as best we can and live in the moment. And even though we may think that there are great differences between ourselves and others, flying first class or economy, we are all the same. And when we spend time with other people, regardless of how we see each other - as similar or different - we need to treat each other as equals, like brothers and sisters, with understanding, kindness, and compassion.