What happens when we die? Maybe you have an answer, or maybe the question elicits bewilderment and uncertainty. Or perhaps both. Most agree at the very least that we won’t be bringing along any possessions or posterity, fame or fortune, people or places. And, though the details differ, many spiritual traditions concur that—at most—it’s only one’s consciousness or soul that will continue the journey when the body drops out.
For the Drinkung Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the answer to what happens is: “It depends.” Indeed, the spiritual self will carry on, but how or where depends on the way one lives life and the person’s spiritual state at the time of death.
Phowa, an approach to living and dying first taught by 11th-century Buddhist master Naropa, teaches how to live a more joyful life based on the fundamental nature of reality—and includes special “transmission” rituals whereby adept masters actually empower practitioners to transfer themselves into the “Limitless Light” at the time of death. Key to the success of such transmissions, however, are faith and devotion—qualities that are ever more scarce to “modern-types,” explains dorje lopön Dr. Hun Lye, spiritual director at local nonprofit Urban Dharma.
For locals interested in getting better acquainted with Phowa, Urban Dharma is introducing the six-week class series Phowa: Transference of Consciousness. Death, Dying & the Possibilities of Awakening, which begins Sunday, Nov. 15, and continues one Sunday per month through the end of March.
Xpress spoke with Lye to learn more about Phowa and the upcoming series.
Xpress: How widely is Phowa practiced in Tibetan Buddhism? Is it a common approach for the layman or something that is primarily practiced by monks and spiritual leaders?
Hun Lye: Phowa is a very well-known practice among Tibetan Buddhists — it’s one of those practices that originated in the most esoteric of Indian Buddhist traditions known only to an elite few that somehow in Tibet underwent a transformation that rendered it accessible and popular to the general laity. Tibetan laity turn up in large numbers, especially when an important teacher gives the “transmission” of this practice. (This is happening on the fifth weekend of our six-weekend course — a visiting teacher from the original monastery of the Drikung Kagyu lineage will do the transmission). Although most Tibetans do not attend formal pre-transmission classes or retreats, over the years I’ve observed that because a non-Tibetan audience is generally lacking in the historical, cultural and spiritual contexts that make Phowa transmission so effective and powerful for Tibetans, I’ve decided to offer the our six-weekend program to provide context for the transmission and its subsequent practice. It is said that one of the most important elements in successful Phowa is devotion. Since devotion is often a challenge for many so-called “modern types” who are plagued by cynicism, suspicion and nihilistic tendencies when it comes to spiritual possibilities and potentials, it’s important that we get the context of traditional Phowa.
What happens when one dies full of fear and regrets?
Most Buddhists believe that to die with fear and regrets will only lead to an undesirable future rebirth — what we call the “lower realms,” where suffering and confusion rule. As well, to die with fear and regrets is indicative of a life lived with fear and regrets. Phowa isn’t just preparation or dress rehearsal for death — proper practice of Phowa transforms life, frees us here and now from fears, suspicions, paranoias — so that we can live more authentically and fully. So although on the surface Phowa is addressing the crucial moments of dying and death, it is also about living and life. These two are not opposed — they are part of a cycle and inseparable. To prepare well for death is to live well, and to live well is to die well. To live whole and complete right now is to die whole and complete later. We don’t have a choice of whether we die or don’t die.
To think otherwise is to kid ourselves. But what we do have a choice is: Am I going to die broken and defeated, or am I going to die healed and whole?
If you choose the latter, then Phowa has something to offer.
Do you think that this practice is especially important or relevant for people in the U.S. to be in touch with at this time?
I think not just in the U.S. but everywhere we see how the “lords” of fear, suspicion, paranoia and stress have taken over. In response, some of us prefer to “not deal with it” and resort to pretending that we don’t have any problems. Others sink into spiritual depression and darkness and give up. There is no better and more critical time than now to awake from this and to overcome the tyrannies of confusion and suffering. It is said that “esoteric” practices such as Phowa become even more effective during the darkness of the “degenerate times.”
Can you briefly describe the “Limitless Light” into which one passes when practicing Phowa? Does it entail liberation from Samsara?
There are various levels on the path to full awakening — to be awake is the meaning of “Buddha.” So this “Limitless Light” in Phowa is a metaphor, a sign, of the awakened state. If one practices well, Phowa could lead to full awakening. But even if full awakening does not result, we could still remove layers of confusion, putting us closer to full awakening.
Is there any wisdom you can share—or any articulable tenets of Phowa—for those who will not be able to attend this series?
Consider this: “Death is a certainty. When it happens is uncertain. When it happens, it is our heart-mind that experiences it.” So whether you can participate in this or not, please take these points to heart and attend to your inner life. The attainment of the richness of our inner lives is our birthright and the only wealth we can take with us when death arrives. Now imagine living each moment informed by this view.
Preregistration is required to participate in this class series, and attending all courses is required. For more information, visit udharmanc.com.