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Liberation through Contact

Upon the death of loved ones we often notice a transparency in the borders that normally seem to separate the spheres of existence. Their favorite unusual bird may hover in the vicinity of the living; their mirror may slide from its hook to the floor. I am one of many siblings and the first of us to die was not quite forty. After my brother Tom’s funeral in early 1999, I deeply missed our sensory contact, and wished for it aloud. Between that evening and next morning three epiphenomenal electrical events occurred in my motel room, including a recurrent blinking light on the telephone’s message button. I would raise the receiver, call for my message, listen to the silence, and then hear the recording “your message has been received.” Tom had lost his life but not his sense of humor. After death, it is as though the energy contained in one body has been released for the awareness of all beings. The two triangles that form the symbol of the Dharmodaya are one.

During the June 2002 retreat in New York City, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche reminded us that when placed on the dying, tag drol creates a cause for their joining the Dzogchen path. Tag drol means liberation through contact, through touch. Some years ago, at the end of a Ganapuja held before he departed from New York following treatment for leukemia, Rinpoche gave a tag drol to each of those present, a miniature paper mandala on which are inscribed hundreds of empowered mantras. He also gave each of us a packet of powder called chin lab, meaning ocean waves of the blessings of the teachings, the empowering energy of the lineage. The powder is made of things from Rinpoche’s own teachers. He taught us that these two objects are especially helpful for the dying. Placed on the head, they connect the person with enlightenment here in the Nirmanakaya.

I have had several occasions to use the gifts that Norbu gave us for those in need, and one of these was as my brother moved toward death. He had been ill for seven years. Following his last, and merely palliative, surgery for ogliodendroglioma he was discharged, upon his prior request, to rejoin his wife and children, to die at home. He had been in coma about ten days, and the surgeon would give my sister-in-law medications for only 48 hours since in his view that was more than enough. It was a somber gathering of family and siblings who had traveled long distances; at bedtime I took the first watch.

I placed the tag drol and a bit of the chin lab on Tommy’s head and then a large chunk of crystal from Tibet on his chest, of the type known as self-healing because of the way it was formed. I told him what I was doing, where he was, what had happened. I talked about how much love surrounded us, and that whichever way he chose to go was okay. Feeling my own emotions and those of the sleeping household, I took a long time with these prayers for all of our letting go. Then I settled into my chair. I felt like putting the blanket that draped my shoulders over my head. It was winter. It was dark.

Of the eight siblings, Tom got the blue eyes. Two hours later I looked up to see those eyes staring at me, with expression. ‘Mary,’ he whispered urgently, ‘I have to go.’ ‘You have to go?’ I said, from the realm of grieving metaphor. ‘Yeah. I’m thirsty. And I have to go!!!’ ‘It’s okay,’ I said, realizing what he meant, ‘just go. You’re catheterized.’ For perhaps half an hour I could see consciousness reassemble in his eyes, in his face, as we talked. At one point I asked where he had been during those days in coma. ‘I was in God’s heart,’ he said; then after a pause, ‘I was in God’s belly.’ For three weeks a miracle unfolded. With the use of only his face and one hand free of bodily paralysis, he dispensed love, comedy, memory to those present. One day his wife, who is a nurse, took him to a hospital for rehydration. They insisted on an MRI as well, and declared (a bit huffily, according to Marie) the man should not be alive, as his breathing reflex had been destroyed in the surgery that had taken place next to the brain stem. Tom made it though the Christmas holidays and his son’s thirteenth birthday before moving on.

‘Most important is not [that] you are integrating in a calm state. That is easy. For everybody. Most important is you are integrating with movement. Then you are educated. You can integrate more in daily life.’ These words are among my notes from Norbu Rinpoche’s teachings in New York City on Friday, the day before he transmitted the lung of many practices, communicating their syllable in the ear of his students. A retreat increases the capacity of our practice; our challenge when retreat is over is to apply the teachings. On Sunday, both humorous and poignant in tracing the possible foibles of our intentions, Rinpoche prepared uss for reentry to our daily lives: ‘In our idea….how I like this practice and one day I will do. But that famous one day….Our lives are very busy. And so pass months, years.’

Being with the dying has brought me moments beyond measure. But measure applies to every moment I am living, when time and obligations seem so pressing. The day for practice is today, for I may never see another. Like malas and thankgas and other sacred objects used in our practice, tag drol and chin lab help to increase awareness of our intention and our circumstance. Life is not infinite, but it is boundless.

first published in The Mirror, 2002


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