In many ways, I have become a chaplain as a result of the deaths of my first three teachers on the Dharma Path: Ani Zangmo (a Sikkimese nun who was my first teacher), Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, and Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche. There is something very firmly rooted in the Buddhist tradition about how difficulties, even trauma, can be imbued with great wisdom. In fact it was through their deaths that I was afforded the possibility of understanding that while the teacher may die, the essence of mind, that which they help to guide us to experience, never dies. An energy of connection, and interpenetration remains. This has been an important part of my own spiritual formation that provides me with resilience in working with others.
Long before Ani Zangmo died, she told me that she wished that I would have the opportunity to experience a long and painful life. Somewhat surprised and shocked, I asked her why she would say such a thing, and she responded by reminding me that the only way to be able to walk in the footsteps of Bodhisattva is to be witness to suffering, to understand it as best one can, rest in it, feel how it arises and is experienced, and from that place, allow the deep wisdom that accompanies true compassion to unfold.
All too often our reactions to pain and suffering are accompanied by a desire to disengage, to hide, or to fail to acknowledge the truth that is arising in this very moment. We tend to fall out of relationship to the true essence of what we are experiencing when we react to the fear and sadness and the need to protect or defend ourselves from what might be going on around us. It is the practice of entering into the path of the bodhisattva when we learn to remain with these difficulties, experience them, and then look at their origin, consider their footprint and the effect that they engender, and simply witness them. To be gently with them; to just be ourselves within our experience, naturally, with no need to change things. In moments like this there is nothing to do other than be present and allow oneself the ability to develop a sense of focused curiosity, a watchful knowing mixed with relaxed honesty.
This has been the long lasting legacy of Ani Zangmo, and her wisdom allows me to understand how the nexus of Buddhist spiritual practice when blended with the experience of daily life can turn every moment, no matter how painful, into profound blessings. Undoubtedly this is a difficult path to tread, but it also happens to be the path that we are all walking together, sometimes we know this and at other times we feel as if this is just happening to us individually and that we are alone. In a way, this is a profound aspect of spiritual practice: falling down and getting back up, over and over again, in different ways, and hopefully, over time learning true soft patience with what it takes to remain present, in this very moment, no matter what arises.
The retreat that Lama Kathy and Jan and I have developed is very much rooted in learning how to develop the skills needed to be able to expand one’s own sense of what impermanence, illness, and death are and how we might prepare either ourselves or others so that the richness of our own paths can be included into the experience of illness and death. We have also tried to create the causes and conditions to allow room so that a sense of great possibility might be woven into the experience of illness and death- moments that typically our culture teaches us to disengage from or even fight. It is a comprehensive retreat that has been a joy to teach and that has been very meaningful for its participants over the past two years. For me, on a very personal level this retreat is about maintaining a living samaya with Ani Zangmo, Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche, and especially with my living guru, His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche. In this way, this retreat is about keeping the flame of authenticity and spiritual agency alive, both in myself and in others.
I encourage as many people as is possible to use this retreat to begin the journey of exploring what learning to cultivate compassion at the time of illness and death means for you as an individual dharma practitioner, and collectively as a member of whatever sangha you connect to. It is a wonderful way to come back to why we practice, to the fundamental preciousness of this life we have, as well as to refresh our intention to attain realization, and to realign ourselves to the power towards awakening that is present in every moment.
— Lama Repa Dorje, Justin von Bujdoss