(From “Heart of Unconditional Love” Tulku Thondup)
In the Golok province of Eastern Tibet, where I was born and grew up, I knew many older laymen and laywomen who joyfully and vigorously prayed with unreserved devotion to the Buddha of Loving-Kindness (Chenrezig) and enjoyed heartfelt blessings.
Many of them were illiterate, in the Western sense. But in reality, they not only knew how to recite all the essential prayers and pray with true love for mother-beings and devotion to the Buddha, but they also did so sometimes more earnestly than many well-educated monks and nuns. Yet many of these laypeople knew very little about the fancy interpretations and complex meanings of the textual teachings. They weren’t really interested in theoretical views of different traditions. Nor were they interested in becoming logicians who could criticize, defend, and refute intellectual and doctrinal arguments. They didn’t care whether they could cite historical or bibliographical evidence. Most weren’t interested in performing elaborate ceremonial liturgies.
But these laypeople had something that was far more precious: absolute trust, confidence, and devotion to the Buddha of Loving-Kindness and his unconditional love, as instructed by their teachers. They fully believed in his power to protect them from misfortune and fulfill all their needs if they prayed sincerely from their hearts. With this trust and devotion, they continuously recited the Six-Syllable Prayer as their daily spiritual prayer to the Buddha, day and night, unless they were asleep. While walking or sitting, even while eating and drinking, somewhere, somehow, the waves of devotional prayer were always alive on their breath. Even while they were asleep, if they woke up for a second or two in the night, I would hear them starting to recite their prayers a couple of times before they fell back asleep.
When I was growing up, I remember hearing from the father of my tutor Kyala Khenpo (Chechog Dondrub Tsal), whose name was Yumko of Kyala and who was then in his eighties, that when he was in bed, he held his prayer beads on his stomach as he was counting prayers instead of resting his hand on the bed. That way, he explained, the movements of the beads would keep him awake longer, so that he could say more prayers.
These wonderful devotees seem to have transformed the waves of their breath into a cycle of prayer, as if the chain of their thoughts was a continuous flow of devotion and all the waves of the phenomena around them turned into the presence and actions of the Buddha of Loving Kindness (Chenrezig), wishing joy for all.
That is why these older people, whether they were happy or in pain, rarely seemed to get distracted from the light of love of the Buddha. When they were happy, they would respect it as the blessings of Buddha’s love. When they were sick or suffering, they would still maintain a sense of thankfulness by seeing it as a washing away of their negative deeds (karma) that, thanks to the power of the Buddha’s unconditional care, they wouldn’t have to experience in future. If they lived long, they used their years as an opportunity to pray more to their beloved Buddha and engage in more virtuous deeds for others. If they were dying, they would be pleased as if they were going home, since they fully trusted that the Buddha would lead them to his Pure Land — a Buddha paradise.
Because of the power and effects of these life-long positive thoughts and deeds, when the hour of their death arrived, most of these laypeople hardly felt sadness, pain or fear. While dying, many expressed joy at leaving for their long-awaited destination, for which they had long prepared. They would start to describe their beautiful visions of Buddhas or Buddha pure lands and the soothing sounds of prayers.
According to the Buddhist teachings, when devout and meritorious meditators die, they behold clouds of enlightened ones such as the Buddha of Loving-Kindness (Chenrezig) in the sky before them, in the midst of lights of love and music and prayers. They move swiftly and peacefully through the bardo, the intermediate or transitional period between death and rebirth. They take rebirth in a Buddha Pure Land of everlasting peace, joy and wisdom.
In today’s world, it is becoming harder and harder to find people like this anywhere, inside or outside of Tibet. But when I was growing up, seeing people who led such meaningful lives opened my eyes to the world of true authentic teachings and meditators. These simple people became a great source of inner joy and true understanding for me. Whenever I think about them, I get lost in great wonder.
In case anyone is wondering, the dying visions of these laypeople were not hallucinations or delusions. They were the result of these peoples’ transforming their mental habitual tendencies by pacifying conflicting and confused thoughts, healing bruised emotions, and cooling the flames of sensations. The kind of world or phenomena that people encounter after death is a manifestation of the qualities of their mind, of the habitual reflections they built over lifetimes. By the time death arrived, these laypeople were blossoming with the joyful energy of devotion and trust in the Buddha.
If our mind is full of devotion, trust and loving-kindness, then what we will see and feel at death will be a world of ultimate joy and love. This transformation can take place in anyone, if they developed a mind of true trust and devotion to the Buddha of Loving-Kindness (Chenrezig) and if they prayed with the skilful means of devotion from the core of the heart.