224 THE TIBETAN BOOK OF LIVING AND DYING Then imagine that their illness and tumors leave their body in the form of smoke, and dissolve into your illness and tumors. When you breathe in, you breathe in all their suffering, and when you breathe out, you breathe out total healing and well-being. Each time you do this practice, believe, with complete conviction, that they are now healed. As you approach death, think continually to yourself: "May I take on the suffering, the fear, and loneliness of all others all over the world who are dying or will die. May they be all freed from pain and confusion; may they all find comfort and peace of mind. May whatever suffering I am enduring now and will endure in the future help them toward a good rebirth and ultimate enlightenment." I knew an artist in New York who was dying from AIDS. He was a sardonic character and hated institutional religion, although secretly some of us suspected he had more spiritual curiosity than he admitted. Friends persuaded him to see a Tibetan master, who immediately understood that the greatest source of his frustration and suffering was that he felt his pain was of no use to himself or to anyone else. So he taught him one thing, and one thing only: the Tonglen practice. Despite some initial skepticism, he did practice it; and all his friends saw he went through an extraordinary change. He told many of them that, through Tonglen, the pain that before had been pointless and horrific was now infused with an almost glorious purpose. Everyone who knew him experienced firsthand how this new sense of meaning transformed his dying. He died in peace, reconciled to himself and his suffering. If the practice of taking on the suffering of others can transform someone who has little experience of practice before, then imagine what power it has in the hands of a great master. When Gyalwang Karmapa died in Chicago in 1981, one of his Tibetan disciples wrote: By the time that I saw him, His Holiness had already had many operations, some parts of his body removed, things put inside him, his blood transfused, and so on. Every day the doctors discovered the symptoms of some new disease, only to find them gone the next day and replaced by another illness, as if all the diseases in the world were finding room in his flesh. For two months he had taken no solid food, and finally his doctors gave up hope. It was impossible for him to live, and the doctors thought the life-supporting systems should be disconnected. But the Karmapa said, "No, I'm going to live. Leave them in
SPIRITUAL HELP FOR THE DYING 225 place." And he did live, astonishing the doctors, and remaining seemingly at ease in his situation—humorous, playful, smiling, as if he were rejoicing at everything his body suffered. Then I thought, with the clearest possible conviction, that the Karmapa had submitted himself to all this cutting, to the manifestation of all those diseases in his body, to the lack of food, in a quite intentional and voluntary way. He was deliberately suffering all of these diseases to help minimize the coming pains of war, disease, and famine, and in this way he was deliberately working to avert the terrible suffering of this dark age. For those of us present, his death was an unforgettable inspiration. It profoundly revealed the efficacy of the Dharma, 6 and the fact that enlightenment for the sake of others can actually be achieved. 7 I know and I firmly believe that there is no need for anyone on earth to die in resentment and bitterness. No suffering, however dreadful, is or can be meaningless if it is dedicated to the alleviation of the suffering of others. We have before us the noble and exalting examples of the supreme masters of compassion, who, it is said, live and die in the practice of Tonglen, taking on the pain of all sentient beings while they breathe in, and pouring out healing to the whole world when they breathe out, all their lives long, and right up until their very last breath. So boundless and powerful is their compassion, the teachings say, that at the moment of their death, it carries them immediately to rebirth in a buddha realm. How transformed the world and our experience of it would be if each of us, while we live and as we die, could say this prayer, along with Shantideva and all the masters of compassion: May I be a protector to those without protection, A leader for those who journey, And a boat, a bridge, a passage For those desiring the further shore. May the pain of every living creature Be completely cleared away. May I be the doctor and the medicine And may I be the nurse For all sick beings in the world Until everyone is healed.