A dear sangha member passed away recently. He simply faded away with ease and demonstrated the face of death to remind us of the tenuous nature of existence. Everyone will wear this face at some point. We will experience shape-shifting, living into dying, and continue the dance of awareness in the realm of limitless light or rebirth.
They say Buddha demonstrated birth and death for the benefit of all beings. I always wondered what this meant until I began to work with end of life care. The face of death is familiar. It is something we wear every time we release something we tightly hold whether it be a person, place, thing, idea, or an emotion. We have the capacity to shape-shift for the benefit of others every time we inhabit the realm of letting things be.
This is why I chose to simplify the Phowa aspiration in the Ngöndro practice to, “Knowing death, I vow to help others let go.” It is not enough to have a conceptual idea about non-attachment, not clinging to experience. It requires practice to remember natural arising and liberation, noticing the natural way things come into being and pass away.
Buddha demonstrated birth and death to show us the way to recognize the coming and going quality of existence. The famous tendrel teaching offers a glimpse into the simplicity of his teaching: “Regarding dharmas that arise from a cause, the Tathagata taught their cause and also their cessation.” Dharmas in this case refers to all phenomena we label as solid experience—including ourselves.
When we recognize cause and cessation, arising and liberation, within a single breath, our thoughts settle and we abide in original unconditioned awareness. Whatever moves in the mind from that perspective brings about a more peaceful and happy life dedicated to unconditional loving kindness. As Dudjom Rinpoche said, “By letting go in the free natural flow of uncontrived awareness, not clinging to whatever arises, the blessings of self-liberation are obtained.”