A friend and classmate in my chaplaincy training program recently alerted our class to a newly conducted study led by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University on the efficacy of prayer for people who are ill. Dr. Benson is no stranger to the world of prayer and meditation, in fact he has built an entire career around studying the physiological effects of meditation and prayer. His findings have generally supported the belief that beyond the spiritual benefits of meditation, the meditator experiences a whole host of benefits ranging from a decrease in stress levels, lower blood pressure, and a general slowing of the body’s metabolism.
In the past Dr. Benson studied a variety of Tibetan monks, including the meditation master Bokar Rinpoche, while they meditated. Dr. Benson focused upon meditators who were practicing Tummo, a vajrayana completion stage yogic meditation that fuses a form of pranayama (breathing exercises) with visualizations of the body’s internal energy matrix. He relates in a documentary based upon his findings, that he could not believe what he discovered: breath and heart rates decreased dramatically, and measured brain activity appeared completely unlike that of a person in waking state. Recent interest in exploring the relationship between meditation and neuroscience by the scientific community, especially in collaboration with H.H. the Dalai Lama and H. H. the 17th Karmapa will undoubtedly clarify the benefits of meditation, and thereby help many people who may become interested in including meditation within their daily lives.
Here is a link to a Harvard Gazette article on the subject:
Additionally, I would like to share a link to a short video clip of Dr. Herbert Benson’s research: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WajTafbG7II.
The efficacy of prayer seems much harder to measure than that of meditation. The results of the study of meditation upon the physiology an individual meditator seem clear; they are easy to quantify, and allow for useful comparison of data recorded in studying a variety of meditators. The study of prayer in this way seems immensely difficult by comparison. Here is the link to the article that my friend emailed us last week:
Many salient points are raised by this study, and perhaps the most important one revolves around how such studies are structured. Prayer is a mysterious subject and it seems that it will take a number of attempts to be able to skillfully measure it’s effects. I do tend to agree with Dr. Richard Sloan’s warning in the New York Times article linked above that we must be careful not to destroy what prayer is about by deconstructing religion to “basic elements that can be easily quantified”. It would be ideal if future studies could honor the place and importance of science as well that of religion and sensitively examine where and how they overlap.
The vajrayana perspective on prayer is fairly clear: prayer is vital. Generally, ritual is included within prayer- often they are interwoven. The performance of prayer in this multi-dimensional way helps to form an active identification with the historical transmission lineage (from the Buddha directly to you), and allows you to rest in your basic-state as a particular buddha in body, speech, mind, as well as in essence. All of these coalesce around acting to benefit others (based upon our pledge to liberate all sentient beings). So important is this type of activity that most recensions of the Hevajra Tantra and Chakrsamvara Tantra, as well as most other root tantras, have chapters dedicated to engaging in the actions of Pacifying, Enriching, and Subduing. These kinds of actions can be best described as psycho-spritual activities to alleviate suffering, promote peace, and plant the seeds of liberation for others; prayer in this context, I would suggest, is quite important. Within the framework of Tantric Buddhism there is an active application of visualization, prayer, ritual and mantra recitation that help the individual to loosen up their conception of the ordinary identification of oneself as an independent being living in opposition to the external world with which they interact, so that one can glimpse the rich wealth of their buddha-nature which is deeply interconnected with the world around oneself. The tools: meditation, prayer and ritual help to clarify the recognition of our basic-state. In this context, prayer is a means to center oneself, to remain intimate with one’s teacher, a particular buddha or protector, or as a means to rest in the mind’s essential nature. It is also an offering; an act of generosity and kindness. Prayer also focuses the mind, making it a support of meditation, it can function as a means of clarifying doubt, as well as a means to receive inspiration. I am sure that this is not unique to vajrayana, or even Buddhism, but lies at the core of prayer regardless of one’s faith.
From the perspective of chaplaincy, specifically around the application of pastoral care in which prayer is requested, the exact physical result of prayer may not be the central goal as much as what the prayer does for the individual requesting it. The relationship between the person conducting the prayer and the person receiving it is a sacred and intimate relationship. Prayer may be directed towards aspects of the self that have little to do with the individual’s physical condition. Prayer can help relieve fear, a sense of separation from others, or help reinforce the inner ground that provides greater support for dealing with one’s particular situation. These factors, and a great many others may indeed lead towards an ability to heal more effectively, but it might have less to do with the actual prayer and more to do with the inner process that prayer energizes, relaxes, empowers, or clarifies. Perhaps it is this inner process that contributes to recovery from illness. Prayer and the use of ritual for a person who is actively dying may also help promote a greater sense of connection and meaning to a life that is transitioning into the experience of death- this can be profoundly important. Ultimately, prayer may not be best approached from the perspective of what it can do with regards to only physical responses, for surely prayer is mysterious, and some of the beauty involved in prayer is how it can return deeper meaning to various moments in an individual’s journey through life, creating a point of orientation that is more imaginal, timeless, and transcendent.
I recently arrived home from a wonderful and highly recharging six-week period in India. While there, I split my time between Mirik, near Darjeeling, where Bokar Ngedhon Chokhorling (Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche’s seat in India) is located, Ralang, Sikkim, where His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche’s seat-in-exile is located, and in Varanasi/Sarnath.
As I posted before I left, I had intended in requesting the ven. Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche, the dharma brother and direct heart-son of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, for some thoughts regarding the way we may be of benefit for people through the practice of ritual and the recitation of prayers and mantras for those who are sick, dying or who have passed away. While I was in Mirik, an old friend and former professor emailed me regarding the launch of changchub.com. He was quick to offer compliments regarding the structure of the site, and also expressed: “offering prayers on the behalf of others is something deeply established in the monastic tradition of the Himalayas; however, it is quite new to our culture.” Then he posed an excellent question: is it time for this in the west, and may such prayers be offered by lay people as well as monks?
This question is a good one. Thank you for bringing it up Robert!
For me, it raises questions in terms of what the true difference between the lay practitioner and the ordained practitioner may actually be- it reminds me of both the Vimalakirti Sutra and also the spirit of enquiry expressed in Vipassana (Tib. Lhaktong) meditation.
So, what is the difference between lay and ordained? Additionally, the question can be extended to what is the difference between “eastern” and “western” cultures?
Clearly, the goal of reflecting on these questions in an open way is not to carelessly toss the relative differences aside, as wonderful beauty exists in both lay practice with its endless possibilities for practice, as well as that of the cloistered support of the ordained sangha member. Then there is the natural beauty of the difference between being from Brooklyn and Darjeeling, for example.
However, perhaps it is possible to see that despite the apparent differences the same dharma is shared; the nun and the householder share the same essence- the root of the essential sameness is the point. At least that’s the way I came to formulate my answer to the question posed. We bring the tone and flavor to our own actions- a monk or nun with a busy distracted mind is the same as a layperson with a similarly distracted mind. Likewise, a layperson with clear penetrating recognition of the suchness of their mind is no different from a nun or monk with a similar view. That said, the ordained sangha performs the vital role of preserving the actual lineage- but it should not be forgotten that as lay-people, when we receive instructions and practice them, we too are preserving a practice lineage.
As for offering prayers or performing ritual practice for others; making such offerings and dedicating the merit of practice for others is of immense benefit to the recipient. It helps to create the conditions of peace and the alleviation of suffering; it is an act of kindness, a reminder of our interconnectedness, and an act of skillful-means. It seems to me to be the fresh-faced other-side-of-the-coin that is meditation practice; something that is often seen as solitary, often aimed at individual personal spiritual development, and perhaps in the West presented in an all too myopic fashion. Maybe we could benefit from being shaken up a bit and made to exercise more of the compassion side of the wisdom/compassion relationship…
I would like to return to this subject in the near future, as I feel that it’s an important one, but for now, I’d like to share Khenpo Rinpoche’s wonderful instructions.
As I had previously intended on asking Khenpo Rinpoche what should be done to benefit those who are sick, dying, or have passed away, on July 5th, I happily took this extra question to him as well. There’s a great bio of Khenpo Rinpoche at the gompa’s website: http://www.bokarmonastery.org, if you’d like more information about him, the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, and Bokar Ngedhon Chokhorling.
Ven. Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche on Practice for Others
When one is going to die, you should try your best to pacify the dying person’s mind. Try to bring peace. If the person is Buddhist then you can recite the lineage masters’ names, or for example “Karmapa Chenno” (Karmapa think of me), as well as one’s own root master’s name. If the person has died, you can whisper these in the person’s ear in a pleasing voice. You can also recite the names of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, for example, Amitabha (mantra: Om Ami Dhewa Hri), or Chenrezig (mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum), or some other mantra; whatever you know.
These are very important. You see, when one is dying as well as for the person who has passed away, after their death, while in the Bardo state hearing the names of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and lineage masters makes one recall the Dharma; it is like a positive habit where one remembers the dharma and then can easily be liberated. This is very important.
If the person is non-Buddhist you can see if the person likes hearing the names and mantras of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas or not. If one likes to hear the names and mantras of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and they are not Buddhist that’s fine.
If one dislikes hearing such names or mantras then you shouldn’t say them, but mentally you can visualize or recite the names and mantras of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to help the person who is either sick, dying, or has died. You should also visualize yourself as Chenrezig or Amitabha while your mind and the mind of the deceased person are merged, and then meditate. Also, you should do tonglen. You see, you should send your happiness, your virtuousness, your peace, to the person who has passed away- expelling their sorrows, fear, and unhappiness. This is an excellent time to do tonglen practice.
Without saying anything, you can also mix your mind with the mind of the person who has died and rest in the Mahamudra state.
These things, along with meditation on love and compassion are the best things that you can do.
When one is sick you can do Sangye Menla (Medicine Buddha), Lojong, and others, Guru Yoga, Dorje Sempa (Vajrasattva)- anything that purifies. You should try your best to examine what is best for the particular person- check the situation.
Basically, any practice can be done for the person who has died. Often though, it is good to do Amitabha so that the person may be reborn in Amitabha’s pure land. You can do the Dewachen Monlam many times, for forty-nine days, or three weeks, or one week even- or alternatively you should do the longer Amitabha practice if you know it and have the time.
All of these things will help.
[Note: While Rinpoche and I were talking, I specifically brought up to him the fact that for some in the West the dedication of prayer or ritual offerings for the benefit of those who are sick, dying or have died, may seem new as it tends to be less emphasized when one normally thinks of Dharma practice, and I asked if it is okay to perform such activities. Khenpo Rinpoche was very enthusiastic in his response, saying that indeed anyone can do practice for others. One can do whatever practices that they know. The most important thing is that one is trained in the practices that they are doing for others- this means that if the practice requires an empowerment and reading transmission, then these must be obtained, as well as whatever subsequent instructions are necessary to perform the practice. Practicing for others should not be seen as limited to ordained sangha members. He was very definitive in expressing this.]
May this be of benefit!
I am very pleased and excited to announce the arrival of the Ganachakra Blog and www.changchub.com!
Ganachakra is a traditional ritual-feast gathering held as an offering towards a particular Buddha, or in some cases, a dharma lineage holder. In the context of this blog, it is a gathering of like minded people dedicated to exploring Buddhism in its practice, as well as death, dying, and related topics. With that said, I welcome you to this ganachakra.
The inspiration behind changchub.com and this blog is rooted in the activities of an amazing lama from Sikkim, named Pathing Rinpoche. I initially met Rinpoche in 1997 when I was returning to India with my dharma brother Erik Bloom to study with our root lama the venerable Ani Dechen Zangmo, an inspiring and unique Sikkimese Tibetan Buddhist nun. At the time, Ani Zangmo was dying from complications of having had tuberculosis earlier in life and Pathing Rinpoche had been called in to offer prayers and to do ritual practice (puja) for her. During that painful period of time I came to meet Pathing Rinpoche and became his student.
Over the year that we were in India (spent mainly between Sikkim and the Darjeeling area), I was fortunate enough to spend some time in retreat with Pathing Rinpoche at his retreat site on the borders of Bhutan and Tibet. I also experienced the passing of Ani Dechen Zangmo, learning from her what living in the face of death means; and how we are constantly doing this even though we often, and with great convenience, choose to not notice this. Finally, and very fortunately, I had the opportunity to become a student of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, retreat master for the Karma Kagyu lineage, and lineage holder of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage.
During that trip, and over many fairly long periods of practice and study in India under the kind and warm guidance of Bokar Rinpoche in India, I came to know Pathing Rinpoche more intimately.
He had lived an extraordinary life, which I will share with you from notes taken over the ten years that we knew one another. When I first met Rinpoche he told me that he no longer knew how old he was, but knew that he was in his eighties. He was incredibly mischievous, loved to joke around, but could also cut deeply with his penetrating questions, and could vacillate between being funny and quite serious; all in the same breath.
Rinpoche came to Sikkim from Tibet some time during the 1930’s and settled in Barapathing, hence his name: Pathing Rinpoche. His original title is Phul Chung Rinpoche. He was born close to Shigatse, Tibet. When he was born his amniotic sack was intact; afraid that this was a bad omen, his parents left him to die. He was left outside for long enough for crows to come and pick at the amniotic sack, thus freeing him, and a cousin ran to his defense and ended up caring for him. As a young child while the Panchen Lama and his entourage were passing through Shigatse, Panchen Rinpoche stopped and remarked on what a special child he was and instructed his cousin to take good care of him.
Pathing Rinpoche became a student of Jetsun Shukseb Lochen Zangmo (1865-1953), an incarnation of Machik Labdron (the founder of chod practice), and lineage holder of the Longchen Nyingthig transmission. He spent a great deal of time with her, receiving her instructions, and putting them into practice.
Rinpoche came to be recognized as the 19th incarnation of the mahasiddha Kukkuripa (a teacher of Marpa Lotsawa), an emanation of the terton Chogyur Dechen Lingpa, and exemplar of a perfect kadam monk (fulfilling the requirements of the vinaya). Pathing Rinpoche spent over forty years in retreat, wandering here and there, with no cares as to his safety, eventually settling in Sikkim. His retreat cabin is located about one hundred yards from a cave used by Guru Rinpoche on his way to Tibet, which contains two springs, both of which represent the blessed bodily fluids of the female Buddha Vajrayogini.
Rinpoche was unique in so many ways, but the thing that stood out very clearly was his activity. He spent most of the latter portion of his life travelling from home to home doing ritual practice and performing prayer service for anyone who needed it. He would often stay in any given home for no more than two days, tirelessly pushing on to the next person or family that requested his care. Sometimes he stayed for longer if the need was expressed. Wherever he went, his energy and dedication to quelling the sffering of others was truly admirable. Notoriously hard to locate, once he arrived at someone’s home he focused all of his care and attention to those who requested his presence, soothing the fears and uncertainties of all with his application of prayer, ritual and instruction, his stories, and his humor.
The day before he passed away (he died on March 4th 2007), he was more concerned about my dharma brother and I, giving us tsampa, blessings, and jinlab (blessed substances)- appearing to be unconcerned with the deterioration of his physical frame- and the intense pain brought on by his stomach cancer.
Pathing Rinpoche represents the swift and gentle compassion of a wonderful chaplain, ritual and meditation master, and great Buddhist teacher. It is in the spirit of his memory and that of Ani Dechen Zangmo- a yogini of natural ease, and Kyabje Dorjechang Bokar Rinpoche- the essence of patient ocean-like- compassion that I would like to dedicate the activities of changchub.com and the ganachakra blog.
I would like to take a moment to thank some of the people who helped me in creating this project. First off, I owe a great deal of gratitude to my present teacher His Eminence Goshri Gyaltsab Rinpoche for his encouragement in pursuing the chaplaincy training that I have recently begun and for his ambrosial instructions. My dharma siblings Erik Bloom and Dekyla Chungyalpa (Ani Zangmo’s daughter) have been so kind and supportive, thank you. I wish to also thank the venerable Ani Karma Lekshe Tsomo, whose enthusiastic support and suggestions in the creation of changchub.com, was extremely helpful, thank you. The instructors at NYZCC ( http://zencare.org/) have helped open my eyes to what contemplative care really means, thank you for your support over the past year, specifically Koshin Paley Ellison, thank you. Finally, none of this could have been made without the skill of my sister, Andrea von Bujdoss of superfreshdesign.com (http://superfreshdesign.com/) who used her exquisite knowledge of visual dharma in translating my ideas into something that others can see, thank you.
May it be virtuous! May all beings’ suffering be pacified! May we gather here at the ganachakra- or ritual feast- of those who are living in the face of death!