How to live free of fear of death;

Tibetan Lama speaks of Mortality

The Boston Globe; September  21, 1993, Tuesday, City Edition

By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff

    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 programs.

   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.

   "I'm 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.

   The 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 enlightenment.

  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."
   Now 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."

   For 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.

"I 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."

   "People 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."

   Beneath this fear of death lies "the ultimate fear . . . the fear of looking into ourselves," he said.

   But death 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.

   "Remembering . . . 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.

   Rinpoche 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.

   "This dying forces you to look into yourself. And in this, compassion is the only way. Love is the only way."