30 THE TIBETAN BOOK OF LIVING AND DYING The things that I felt slowly were a very heightened sense of love, the ability to communicate love, the ability to find joy and pleasures in the smallest and most insignificant things about me ... I developed a great compassion for people that were ill and facing death and I wanted so much to let them know, to somehow make them aware that the dying process was nothing more than an extension of one's life. 2 We all know how life-menacing crises such as serious illness can produce transformations of a similar depth. Freda Naylor, a doctor who courageously kept a diary as she died of cancer, wrote: / have had experiences which I never would have had, for which I have to thank the cancer. Humility, coming to terms with my own mortality, knowledge of my inner strength, which continually surprises me, and more things about myself which I have discovered because I have had to stop in my tracks, reassess and proceed. 3. If we can indeed "reassess and proceed" with this newfound humility and openness, and a real acceptance of our death, we will find ourselves much more receptive to spiritual instructions and spiritual practice. This receptivity could well open to us yet another marvelous possibility: that of true healing. I remember a middle-aged American woman who came to see Dudjom Rinpoche in New York in 1976. She had no particular interest in Buddhism, but had heard that there was a great master in town. She was extremely sick, and in her desperation she was willing to try anything, even to see a Tibetan master! At that time I was his translator. She came into the room and sat in front of Dudjom Rinpoche. She was so moved by her own condition and his presence that she broke down into tears. She blurted out, "My doctor has given me only a few months to live. Can you help me? I am dying." To her surprise, in a gentle yet compassionate way, Dudjom Rinpoche began to chuckle. Then he said quietly: "You see, we are all dying. It's only a matter of time. Some of us just die sooner than others." With these few words, he helped her to see the universality of death and that her impending death was not unique. This eased her anxiety. Then he talked about dying, and the acceptance of death. And he spoke about the hope there is in death. At the end he gave her a healing practice, which she followed enthusiastically.
REFLECTION AND CHANGE 31 Not only did she come to accept death; but by following the practice with complete dedication, she was healed. I have heard of many other cases of people who were diagnosed as terminally ill and given only a few months to live. When they went into solitude, followed a spiritual practice, and truly faced themselves and the fact of death, they were healed. What is this telling us? That when we accept death, transform our attitude toward life, and discover the fundamental connection between life and death, a dramatic possibility for healing can occur. Tibetan Buddhists believe that illnesses like cancer can be a warning, to remind us that we have been neglecting deep aspects of our being, such as our spiritual needs. 4 If we take this warning seriously and change fundamentally the direction of our lives, there is a very real hope for healing not only our body, but our whole being. A CHANGE IN THE DEPTHS OF THE HEART To reflect deeply on impermanence, just as Krisha Gotami did, is to be led to understand in the core of your heart the truth that is expressed so strongly in this verse of a poem by a contemporary master, Nyoshul Khenpo: The nature of everything is illusory and ephemeral, Those with dualisic perception regard suffering as happiness, Like they who lick the honey from a razor's edge. How pitiful they who cling strongly to concrete reality: Turn your attention within, my heart friends. 5 Yet how hard it can be to turn our attention within! How easily we allow our old habits and set patterns to dominate us! Even though, as Nyoshul Khenpo's poem tells us, they bring us suffering, we accept them with almost fatalistic resignation, for we are so used to giving in to them. We may idealize freedom, but when it comes to our habits, we are completely enslaved. Still, reflection can slowly bring us wisdom. We can come to see we are falling again and again into fixed repetitive patterns, and begin to long to get out of them. We may, of course, fall back into them, again and again, but slowly we can emerge from them and change. The following poem speaks to us all. It's called "Autobiography in Five Chapters." 6