Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Retreat To Remember

In April, 2002, I was on a ten-day retreat in Yucca Valley, when Jack Kornfield delivered some startling news before the mid-morning sitting practice. "It is my very sad duty to inform you," he said, his naturally soft voice nearly at a whisper, "that one of our retreatants has died." There was a collective gasp form the 125 attendees. Then Jack gave some sketchy details of how the man, Phillip Behrens, had apparently died during the night before. All of us were stunned, whether we knew Phillip personally or not.

The remainder of the retreat was devoted to his memory. Over the next days, teachers read passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, such as:

Remember the clear light, the pure clear white light from which everything in the universe comes, to which everything in the universe returns, the original nature of your own mind. The natural state of the universe unmanifest.
Let go into the clear light, trust it, merge with it. It is your own true nature, it is home.
The visions you experience exist within your consciousness, the forms they take are determined by your past attachments, your past desires, your past fears, your past karma.
These visions have no reality outside your consciousness. No matter how frightening some of them may seem they cannot hurt you. Just let them pass through your consciousness. They will all pass in time. No need to become involved with them, no need to become attracted to the beautiful visions, no need to be repulsed by the frightening ones. No need to be seduced or excited by this sexual ones. No need to be attached to them at all.
Just let them pass. If you become involved with these visions, you may wonder for long time confused. Just let them past to your consciousness like clouds passing through an empty sky.
Fundamentally they have no more reality than this.
Remember these teachings, remember the clear light, the pure bright shining white light of your own nature, it is deathless.
If you can look into the visions, you can experience and recognize that they are composed of the same pure clear white light as everything else in the universe.
No matter where or how far you wonder, the light is only a split second, a half-breath breath away. It is never too late to recognize the clear light. ~ Translation by W.Y. Evans-Wentz
These words were originally intended to be whispered into the ear of a person who has just died and as they pass through the "bardo" - the space between worlds. When I heard this invocation in the space between worlds during my own vipassana practice, I began to have some of the most intense and profound altered-state experiences I have ever known.

I, too, began to "go toward the light," which had seemed to appear behind my closed eyelids. As I drew closer to the light, I could feel a sensation similar to the peeling away of layers of my body. It was as though I was shedding a lifetimes worth of psychic junk that I had come to regard as "I," "me," and "mine."

Soon, there appeared before me a translucent, golden curtain, and behind it was the clear light. In the glow of the light I could see what looked like a shadow play created by beings moving in a gracefully choreographed danse macabre. Fortunately, the weight of ego and self prevented me from reaching the curtain, and soon I was pulled back down to earth and my cushion.

Toward the end of the retreat, we were asked to give a written offering to be placed on an altar dedicated to Phillip. These offerings were later delivered to Phillip's widow. In the spirit of the Tibetan rinpoches, I composed a "spontaneous Vajra song:"

"For Phillip"

Your Spirit merged with mine and
we journeyed together toward the Clear Light.
But this Spirit of mine,
heavy-laden with leaden ego,
and small sense of self,
had to stay behind,
content to stand at the curtain's edge.

And yet, even from here could be seen
wonders of the Unmanifest and the Light,
veiled though they were,
as if too powerful for mere mortal eyes.

Thank you for taking me this far.
I know you are dancing in the light, now.
I look forward to
following you in freedom.


(A meditation bench honoring Phillip's memory can be found at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in front of my favorite statue of the Buddha, just north of the dining hall.)

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