Story: Wunwipa Malainual
The 1st of November, 2017 was another day transformed into a beautiful and special occasion by ‘Nong Kan’ or Rasawan Muangmingsuk’s passing that gave many people the opportunity to learn about preparing for a peaceful death. It all originated from a letter titled ‘When I Die’, Nong Kan’s ‘living will’, which expressed her desire to impart what she had learned in life to the people she loves and who love her, and many others, before she passes away. She wanted to be of as much service as possible to her peers in the mortal world. Therefore, many good things took place throughout the day in the Sodsri meeting room in the Bhor Por Ror building at Chulalongkorn.
The first half of the day was composed of light and laid-back workshops organised by the Buddhika Foundation’s ‘Let’s Talk About Death’ project. ‘The Healing Journal’, the first workshop, began with a song called ‘A Light Heart’, with lyrics written by Kru Mint Traetulakarn of babiemind studio. The song invites participants to embrace and learn from change in each other’s companionship. This was followed by an activity for body-mind healing which filled everyone with the joy of friendship, and re-animated their desire to care for themselves in their last stage of life. Then, the participants were guided through an investigation of the decisions they would want to make at certain critical junctures and unexpected crises in their own, or their loved one’s, lives. The array of ideas and analyses, synergized with the invaluable lived experiences of each person in the room, brought the participants much greater clarity on the importance of having an end-of-life care plan in advance. The activity concluded with the participants giving expression to the breadth of their feelings for the important people in their lives, for the group to learn from and extend to their beloved family and friends to the best of their ability for the remainder of their lives.
In the afternoon session, “Attaining Mindfulness with the Ratnamali Prayer”, led by Assistant Professor Dr. Krisadawan Methawikul and Professor Miew Yeunten from the Thousand Stars Foundation, participants were led through the Guru Yoga prayer. In prayer, they become one with their spiritual teacher — every line a gesture of humility, uttered in remembrance of one’s teachers — before engaging in acts of service.
Professor Krisadawan conveys the invaluable teachings of Vajrayana buddhism through the ‘Ratnamali’, a chat for the end of life that, like the garland of jewels, brings good luck to the devotee. The prayer was written by a Tibetan guru, Gurchok Cembo, in the 11th century, and is derived from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Once the meaning of every line is understood, the prayer will bloom and flourish within, imbuing and transforming one’s heart, says Professor Krisadawan. So, she slowly parses the meaning of the prayer, passage by passage, for her listeners, focusing on certain words that can not be translated into Thai, such as ‘bardo’ or wado in Tibetan, or ‘antarapop’ in Sanskrit, which means ‘the state of being in-between’. In the context of discourse on death, bardo usually refers to the state between death and rebirth, which deeper study will reveal is composed of many stages.
The essence of Tibetan Buddhism is maintenance of a spirit detached from the illusions of the self, regardless of the ‘bardo’ one is in. In the ‘bardo of living’, we must forgo attachment to worldly matters, for they are all impermanent; similarly, we must be unattached to the ‘bardo of death’, regardless of how the elements of the body decompose, or what state the spirit is in.
The content and meaning of the Ratnamali prayer introduces the group to the deep meaning within preparing for one’s death. The purpose behind the recitation of the prayer was to accustom and instill the spirit with the knowledge that everything that it encounters is illusory. The listeners understood and recognized the importance of earnestly practicing the buddhist way: to be detached from the self, access our mundanity through our inner wisdom, and attune to the fundamental state of our spirit. To conclude the lecture, the two professors led their audience in a recitation of the Ratnamali prayer and a dedication of merit for all living beings to reach enlightenment.
The final event for the evening was a talk called ‘Practicing the Dharma with Flowers’ by Prof. Dr. Pramuan Pengjan, who elegantly synthesized the beauty in each event of the program. He said that even the beauty of a flower in full bloom can not be compared to the beauty of a persevering spirit that realizes certain truths of life. A spirit shrouded in fear will not blossom; we will never reach that beauty if the spirit is still mired in fear of death. Of course, it is death that gives profound meaning to our lives. However, if the meaning of death is made completely intelligible, or if we are unable to find its beauty, then it will be difficult to see the beauty of life and this world. Only upon overcoming our fear of death will we know the beauty in being alive.
A bright and joyful spirit, radiant through the dawn and dusk of life, can become manifest in life, and felt through our hearts. Though crucially, this feeling can’t be awakened through listening and thinking, regardless of one’s dedication to the path of enlightenment. We will not be able to summon the power needed to overcome our fear of death if we approach it with the mind. Rather, this power is manifested through meditation and praxis — that is, confronting death in our daily life. Modern society hides death behind closed doors, which turns it into a source of terror, when in fact, we must learn that death is the meaning of life. Studying the meaning of life within the bounds of death will also lead us to discover the value of the life we still have.
Nong Kan, who is 37 years old, walked up to the professor and, with a smile, invited him to her funeral. He saw that this young woman had led an ordinary life — she wasn’t a monk — but had learned the meaning of life through her sickness. Ultimately, her understanding led to insights so profound that a multitude of people began to talk about her online. This is an instance of a flower in bloom — the ‘dharma rosa’ — which simply arose from one joyful spirit: sublime beauty that, once perceived, leads to the private realization that we too, can be joyous and bright in this life. As soon as the clouds of fear disappear, our hearts will radiate lightness and joy.
Regardless of what happens in our lives, let us be able to feel that beautiful meaning. Let us be firm in our faith. If we understand the fundamental meaning of life, we will have the profound realization that everything happens for a reason: each one of us has our own karma and obstalces in life, and our own journey in living and leaving this earth; everything that happens can bring us enlightenment. Let us submit in faith and have confidence that the path that I have described exists, just as how we are gathered today, through one spirit, that is, Nong Kan, who desires that we meet and discover the source of rapture within our hearts. So please have faith in everything that unfolds on this earth — there is nothing more beyond it — and allow this fact to bring you enlightenment. The greatest expression of faith in Buddhism is in Tathagata Bodhisatta. Everything we encounter is for the purpose of illuminating that ‘everything is what it is’, ‘it is so’. Nong Kan has taught us that ‘it is what it is’ that her passing has allowed us to meet.