Everybody is worried
about dying, the Tibetan teacher Sogyal
Rinpoche said. "But to die is extremely simple. You breathe out,
and you don't breathe in."
A ripple of laughter passed through the 400 people crowded
into a conference room recently at Interface in Cambridge, a
center for alternative religious, health and psychological
They'd come to see a lama, a Tibetan monk, who is noted for
his ability to speak to Westerners and who, in a little less
than a year, has sold nearly 100,000 copies of a book of Buddhist
teachings, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying."
Rinpoche - a religious
title meaning "precious one" - left his
homeland as a child in 1959, studied in Catholic schools in India
and in Britain at Trinity College, Cambridge, and set out to
bring the ancient tradition of Tibet to bear on the anxieties
of men and women in Europe and North America.
not a very good lama," he insisted to an interviewer. He
speaks often of his own teachers, his "masters," some of whom he
served as translator when they came to the West.
book is the result of doing what his teachers told him, to
pass on the ancient teaching to a new world, as "a service to
humanity." That includes, he says, teaching Westerners
"discernment": which Buddhist teachings to use and which to
ignore, how to find a teacher and persevere on the path to
And he is
succeeding in drawing new students to Buddhism, said
Steve Zimmerman of Watertown, who leads classes at Rinpoche's
local Rigpa center there. "Because he was raised largely in the
West, he has much greater understanding of Westerners."
David F. Gibbs, 45, a social worker at the Merrimack Valley
Hospice in Lowell, said he once found Tibetan Buddhism "too
ritualistic and elaborate, beyond my cultural experience."
he finds Rinpoche's teaching has helped him "develop more
compassion and understanding," in seeing how the people who come
to the hospice "are distinct from their behavior, how they are
more than what they are thinking or feeling or doing."
part of the 10 years he spent preparing the book, Rinpoche
worked in the hospice movement in Britain, helping those who face
imminent death as a result of cancer, AIDS or other serious
illnesses. He came to believe that much of what is wrong in
Western society arises from the denial of death.
feel this denial of death actually complicates problems
that exist in Western society," Rinpoche said in the interview.
"It is why there is no long-term vision, not very much thought for
the consequences of actions, little or no compassion."
see death as terrible, as tragic. Because they want to
live, they see death as the enemy of life and therefore deny
death, which then becomes even more fearful and monstrous."
this fear of death lies "the ultimate fear . . . the
fear of looking into ourselves," he said.
can be a friend, he told the crowd at Interface.
"Death holds the key to the meaning of life," which is why
Trappist brothers regularly greet each other with the Latin
phrase memento mori, "remember you are dying," Rinpoche said.
. . . brings life into focus . . . It sorts out
your priorities, so you do not live a trivial life . . . It helps
you take care of the most important things in life first. Don't
worry about dying; that will happen successfully whether you
worry about it or not."
He warns his students not to think about death "when you are
depressed," but rather "when you are on holiday or impressed by
music or natural beauty."
But he knows that "when I am not practicing," or meditating in
a disciplined way, "I am afraid of death." He has worried, too,
about the death of the lamas with whom he left Tibet. "A whole
generation of legendary masters is passing away - sometimes I
wonder what the future is going to hold," he said.
is hopeful when he remembers living teachers, such as
the Dalai Lama, who wrote the foreword to his book. But he knows
that the possible loss of Tibet is another experience of
impermanence, of death, like that all human beings must face.
His goal is to help the dying, those who care for them, and
all who listen, to "face our own mortality and realize how much
love, how much compassion is in you," he told an interviewer.
dying forces you to look into yourself. And in this,
compassion is the only way. Love is the only way."
Send your comments or questions to Sonam Dargyay
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