By Kellie Schorr
‘When the appearances of this life dissolve,
May I, with ease and great happiness,
Let go of all attachments to this life
As a son or daughter returning home.”
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche as quoted by Pema Chodron
How We Live is How We Die.
The leaves are turning golden and red.
Mornings are chilly and the afternoon sun, even at it’s height, is mild and sweet. Pumpkins dot doorways and here in the southern United States, apple cider is flowing like water. Of all the seasons, anywhere in the world, Autumn in the Mid-Atlantic has always been my favorite. It is a time to slow down, contemplate and gently, naturally, let things go. I can think of no better season than to read this new offering from Pema Chodron.
How We Live is How We Die is Pema Chodron reminding us, with her trademark compassionate clarity, that we need to go about the business of living and while we are at it, accept the reality of dying because we are doing it every day. Taking her cues from what is often translated as The Tibetan Book of the Dead the 86-year-old author and nun guides us through the beautiful gift of understanding that we live forever in Autumn.
Death Becomes Us
The book is not a look at death, per se, but an examination of the space before it—life, and the Buddhist ideas of what happens after it. She points out the bardo (often considered the time after death where the actual transition of ending one thing and beginning something new occurs) isn’t just for that day our bodies cease to function, but a phenomenon we experience every day.
She points out, most delicately, that as time moves forward, we experience the deaths of feelings, experiences and opportunities continuously. She teaches that recognition with the steady and sure logic that if we can accept the death of little things, like moments and ideas, we can start to get a handle on the big death that can come to us at any moment.
Never creepy nor maudlin, she approaches our understanding of death with the same confidence as someone telling how you to make a grilled cheese sandwich. Her ease of language and imagery make the book readily embraceable, ever for people who have been trying to avoid this topic most of our lives.
So Many Teachers
Pema Chodron has been a Buddhist nun engaged in continuous study and practice for over 40 years. The book references so many of her teachers and experiences that you begin to realize she wasn’t doing all that study for herself, but for all of us. There are references from Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche and others.
It can seem a bit overwhelming as one quote after another and another fill the pages, but there is a sense of generosity to it. Pema Chodron did not sit down and say, “Here’s what I think.” She sat down and said, “Here are all the teachings I have been given that created my thinking on death and I’m going to share them with you in a way you can understand. “
You Don’t Have to Be Buddhist (But It Helps)
The challenge she undertakes in this work is monumental. She’s trying to describe “After-death”—an event so profound and out of reach that no two people seem to be able to agree on what it is, or if it even exists at all. Using The Tibetan Book of the Dead and principles from the Vajrayana tradition to discuss our living understanding of death allows her to navigate some very choppy waters.
She says in the first chapter that you do not have to be Buddhist to gain this wisdom and learn to appreciate your precious life even as you accept the certainty of losing it. However, so much of this book is housed within Vajrayana concepts such as rebirth, the bardo and the six realms, that non-Buddhists would be highly challenged by the world view and vocabulary it represents.
Chodron herself seems to acknowledge it when she admits that while this is what she believes, if she dies and discovers this was wrong, she’s prepared for that too. Wisely, she doesn’t try to command acceptance for her views and say “this is the way of death and after-death” but instead encourages us to adopt sky-mind, where possibilities are vast and spacious. Her words are lyrical and her concepts solid.
It’s a wonderful book to help any person sit down and reckon with death in a way that is not fearsome or sad.
By bringing an acceptance of death onto our path of life we give ourselves an opportunity to enjoy the moments we experience with the slow, cool ease of our forever autumn.
Photo: Shambhala Publications
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