Sunday, May 12, 2024

Story of Wangdu La


In this blog, I would like to briefly recount the story of a close friend of mine, Wangdu La, a Tibetan living in New York, who is terminally ill and very close to death. Even in this situation, he remains happy, peaceful, grateful, and ready to die. I believe that his attitude towards death is a great example not only for me but also for others, demonstrating the importance of Dharma and the consideration of impermanence which leads to a peaceful death and a fortunate rebirth. As I said in my blog, ‘Impermanence, the Essence of Meditation’:

“There are very many benefits of impermanence meditation, [yet meditation on impermanence] is the real preparation for death, a death that is blissful, peaceful, and fearless. There is no way to postpone death, regardless of our status. Everyone has to take the path of death. Buddhist scriptures explain that death is naturally with us as soon as we are born from the womb of our mother. For example, like a body and its shadow. The time of our death is uncertain. There is no certainty what may create the conditions for our death. At the time of death, nothing except the sacred Dharma will be of benefit. If we contemplate death from now on, when death suddenly and forcefully arrives we will have less fear and anxiety about it.”

1 The first day: talking with Wangdu.

This morning I received a call from a mother of a student in New York who said her husband was in the hospital and needed prayers. Her husband, who is in the hospital, was diagnosed with severe and incurable cancer. When I asked him, “Wangdu, how are you?”, he said with a smile on his face and with folded hands, from his hospital bed, “Khen Rinpoche, I’m fine, I’m happy. ” I had heard that his illness was a serious cancer that could not be cured and that the doctor had said he would live only one week more. Then, with openness and without any fear, he said, “Khen Rinpoche, I’ve had cancer for a long time and I have only one week left to live. Anyway, I’m happy and I’ll die any day now. ” I was surprised to hear him say that. Very few people who have only one week to live say, “I’m very happy and I am ready to die any day. ”

Hearing this, I was surprised. Then, I asked him about his daily Dharma practice; he said that daily he has read the ‘Words of my Perfect Teacher’ written by Patrul Rinpoche many times throughout the past three years when he was at home. I can see by his face that he was clearly not afraid to die. Then, I jokingly asked him, “You only have one week of life left. What do you think about now? ” He said with a smile, “I feel good. I am very happy to see you. I have many spiritual friends, Geshes, Khenpos, Lamas, and so on. They are in touch with me. I take refuge in them. Khen Rinpoche, I am not afraid of dying, ” He then repeated,

“Frightened by death, I fled to the mountains.
Continuously meditating on uncertainty of the time of death,
I reached the safety of primordial immortality;
Now I’ve lost my fear of death.”

Wangdu recited these words of Jetsun Milarepa without missing a syllable. From the corner, his wife’s eyes filled with tears as she listened to these words. Wangdu, the patient, turned to her and began to comfort her. At that moment I thought, “I wonder if there is anyone happier than him who has to die. ” As I mentioned in my previous blog, ‘Impermanence, the Essence of Meditation’:

“[Later in life or when death becomes evident people] become interested in Buddhism and look for a teacher. If you really think about it, that’s too late. Like if you wait too long about a physical ailment and finally go to the hospital, but it’s too late. Similarly, our mind has been seriously sick with delusion for so long that it is very late for meditation. Even if we do meditate, our mind in that state can’t develop perfect meditation. For instance, a sick, exhausted person can’t climb a high mountain! The best time to meditate is when we are young, our awareness is clear, and we have all of our faculties intact. If we do, many of the sufferings of old age: of loneliness, mental problems, and so on, won’t occur. This doesn’t mean that when we are old we have no ability at all to study and meditate. It is never too late for study and meditation. You can do it at any age. If you compare the two, however, awareness is more bright and clear in our youth than in old age.

Many people often say, “I don’t need Dharma because I don’t believe in rebirth, karma, and so on. ” But this Buddhadharma, especially Mahayana Buddhism, can save us not only from the problems of future lives but also from the problems of this life. It can definitely save us from the suffering of loneliness in old age. There are many problems in our human continuum, but the main one is the suffering of fear of death. If we meditate on the reality of impermanence and change our way of thinking, we can die without fear or attachment. As I also said in my previous blog, ‘Impermanence, the Essence of Meditation’:

“If a person is someone who always meditates on impermanence and the twelve links of interdependence, etc., even if they don’t accept Dharma in this lifetime, when they encounter suffering and difficulties, they are more able to willingly face them. They are more lighthearted and courageous. They have more internal fortitude and can have a vaster outlook. It brings great benefit during this life. The three principal meditations of His Holiness the Dalai Lama are impermanence, selflessness, and the twelve links of interdependence. He said that he contemplates selflessness and impermanence at least sixteen times a day. It would be highly beneficial for both this life and our future lives, as well, if we frequently meditate on impermanence.”

I didn’t need to pray for him at all because he is ready and without fear, but at his wife’s request I recited the name mantra of Buddha Amitabha and so on, whatever I knew. He was a monk in his early life and was highly trained in Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism.

2 the second day: talking with Wangdu La.

This morning I called his wife, who told me that Wangdu La was still in the hospital, but that he was getting worse and could not eat. He would be going into hospice at home the next day. Anyway, the doctor said that no matter what treatment Wangdu was given, it was not going to help. Then his wife handed the phone to Wangdu, and I asked him how he was. “ How is Wangdu now? ” I asked. “ Khen Rinpoche,” he said in a soft voice, “I am doing the recitation of Amitabha. I am happy. ”

I told him, “That’s very good. Meditate on Buddha Amitabha and the Dalai Lama as one inseparable entity and visualize and pray to them above the crown of your head. When you die, Buddha Amitabha will certainly take you to the Pure Land of Sukhavati. You should also recite the mantra of Buddha Amitabha and make strong prayers, thinking, ‘I will go to the Pure Land of Sukhavati.’ I will always make prayers for you.” Wangdu told me, “I am very grateful to you, Khen Rinpoche. I am very fortunate because I have met many great Tibetan Lamas, His Holiness the Dalai Lama foremost among them. In the early part of my life I studied a little bit of Buddhist texts and got a good understanding of them. Now, my wife and children are taking good care of me. They are very kind to me. Khen Rinpoche and you, my Dharma friends, Lamas and Geshes, have been very kind to me and have been giving me advice every day. I am truly very fortunate. We all must die. Now the time has come for me to die. I am not afraid of death. Khen Rinpoche, please always give some comfort and advice to my wife. Please don’t worry about me.”

3 Talking with Wangdu La on the third day,

In the morning, I got a call from Wangdu’s wife in New York. She said Wangdu was getting better today. When I heard this, I thought of the Tibetan saying which goes ‘getting better is the rest of the dying’. Then she handed the phone to Wangdu and I talked with him. “ How is Wangdu today? I think you’re feeling a little better than you did yesterday ”, I said. He responded with a smile, “Yes, Khen Rinpoche, I’m feeling better today.” Wangdu said he ate tsampa soup with vegetables for breakfast this morning, and he was able to finish it all. ” From the sidelines, she said, “He’s right; he ate all the tsampa soup. Wangdu has always been very fond of eating tsampa.”
As he was feeling a bit better and his mind was clear, Wangdu requested instructions of performing phowa, or transference of consciousness, which he wanted to practice because, as he said, he may lose his ability to hear and possibly die very soon and wanted to practice beforehand. At Wangdu’s request, I gave him the instructions on phowa and explained how to practice the visualization sequence and benefits of phowa. His wife then inquired whether it was the right time for me to perform phowa for him. I then told her that it was too early since he was feeling a bit better and generally phowa by the Lama is performed either just before or right after death, but it was a good time for him to receive the instructions for himself. Both of them were very happy. Finally, I told Wangdu that no matter what fears and illnesses he might have at the time of death, I enjoined him to solely concentrate on and take refuge in Buddha Amitabha and His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the process of death. I told him to not be attached to his possessions, wife, children, and so on. I enjoyed him to continue to recite the prayers and practice of Buddha Amitabha. As I said in my previous blog, ‘Impermanence, the Essence of Meditation’:
“Our mind at the time of death is hundreds of times clearer than our present awareness. Any positive or negative mind we develop at that time is extremely powerful. It is important not to be attached to anything at all at the time of death. We must not be attached to anything: family, property, wealth, our house. Attachment can cause lengthy suffering in the intermediate state and bad rebirth in the body of a preta or spirit. If we are someone who accepts reincarnation, we must think about what will benefit future lives. If you think about it, nothing surpasses holy Dharma for this.”
I told Wangdu La the story of my deceased father and how he had passed away. He said, “Khen Rinpoche, you are very kind to us. I often listen to your teachings and it is very helpful to me. I pray that you live long. ” Tsering was in tears from the sidelines. Then, unfortunately, my cell phone battery ran out and our conversation ended.
As I concluded in previous blog, ‘Impermanence, the Essence of Meditation’:

This body is impermanent, like a water bubble,

This speech is impermanent, like the sound of an echo,

This mind is impermanent, like waves in water,

Family is impermanent, like guests at a meeting.

Controlled by their predisposition to the bad habit

Of grasping impermanent things as permanent,

Please bless my aged mothers who are endlessly wandering in་samsara

To realize impermanence in their minds.

Though death gets closer and closer, proud of our youthfulness,

We can’t be sure we’ll even be alive tomorrow!

Still we prepare to live hundreds of years, poor sentient beings like myself,

Wandering on such a mistaken, dangerous path, alas!

We don’t know when death will come, there’s no certainty what will cause it,

Yet we will definitely die; by contemplating such points,

May we be freed from the ruinous darkness of clinging to permanence,

And be nurtured by the light of the sun of holy Dharma!

This blog was written in the month of May, 2024, on the occasion of speaking with a dear friend, Wangdu La, who is terminally ill and close to death. I wrote the blog in Tibetan, which was subsequently translated into English through the help of AI and further modified by my student, Karma Choeying.

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