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Home  → Teachings  → Articles  → Practical Buddhism  → Five Useful Teachings

Five Useful Teachings

Near-death letter of an Australian Buddhist to all the friends

David Po

Buddha Amitabha, Red Buddha of Limitless Light

Buddha Amitabha, Red Buddha of Limitless Light

I am dying. I know I am dying because my breathing gets smaller and smaller and is now down to less than
20% of normal. Thirty five kilos of muscle have dissolved into nothing and my capacity for swallowing is
getting less week by week. My remaining muscles ache. I choke on my food. I can’t walk. I can’t shower or
clean myself. My voice is nearly gone, I type with one finger and, the greatest tragedy of all, I can no longer
pop the cork on a champagne bottle. I am in the bardo of dying.

Last night I got scared. Lying in the dark gasping for breath, my breathing mask squeaking and farting away,
unable to cough, unable to pull myself to an upright position, I couldn’t swallow. I couldn’t relieve the
stabbing pains in my back. Every muscle was vibrating and cramping up. It felt like I was in hell. I was
trapped, trapped in this body with nowhere to go, there was no escape. Even though Elizabeth was sleeping
next to me I was never more alone. I lay there on the edge of panic unable even to scream.

I would like to share with you some of the things I find useful in this interesting time, this last little bit of my
59 years. I won’t be telling you anything you haven’t heard before. There is nothing new. Lama Ole travels
the world teaching these very things and I have heard him repeating them over and over again. I don’t know
how he does it but every time he comes he manages to make them fresh and new. I am not very bright. I
hear a simple, profound teaching many times and it goes in one ear and out of the other. But every time the
Lama comes he says something which, even though I might have heard it many times before, lights me up
like a Christmas tree. It is like an arrow finding its mark. It lodges deep in the heart and will never be lost.
Such is the skill of our Lama. In this potentially difficult time of my life I am proving the value of the
teachings. There is nothing else which can help me. I can no longer go running to mammy. I can no longer
turn to my beautiful wife. Even you can’t help me. There is only one refuge when it comes to the crunch.

I have Motor Neurone Disease and there is no known cure. Even though I am dying I am not on any
medication. There is nothing much the doctors can offer me. There is a machine which helps me to breath at
night. There is a suction machine to suck saliva from my mouth and prevent me from drowning in my own
spittle. There is morphine. Recently a doctor told me that his other patients were on morphine 24 hours a
day because panic accompanies the inability to breath. He was interested to know what was different about
me and why I didn’t take his drugs. When fear arises I know I could reach for the morphine but I don’t.
Instead I dive into the fear the same way that I would dive into an ocean wave. I embrace it. There is only a
thin line between panic and calmness. Panic is the gateway to the hell realm and I don’t want to go there.
There is nothing to help here but the strength and confidence which is the result of practicing the dharma. I
take refuge. For the good of all beings I take refuge. Taking refuge does not cure the disease or take away the
pain; it doesn’t restore the breath or make swallowing any easier. It gives me strength. It gives me
confidence. Taking refuge means I no longer need my mammy and I can get by without the morphine. The
first teaching I find useful is taking refuge.

When I was first diagnosed I quickly went through a whole range of emotions before I remembered that
everything is a point of view. This is my second useful teaching. Instead of seeing the disease as dreadful
and tragic I began to look at it in a different way. I had been given notice of my death. I didn’t know how
long I’d have but I did have time to prepare myself. To let go of my attachments; to mend all my fences; pay
my debts; tell people I loved them and tie up all the loose ends. Of course, in a wider sense, we all have
notice of our death, we know that one day it will come. This was like a final notice, and I was grateful for it.
Everything is a point of view. What freedom that realization gives us. In all aspects of life this teaching
spreads its influence and saves us from so much unnecessary suffering. It helps with the fear. Not so much at
the time it is happening but in preparation about how we greet it. We can see fear as being an undesirable
monster and run from it, or we can see a valuable teacher and greet it as such. Each time I embrace the fear I
get stronger. What a lucky man I am. Everything is a point of view.

The third teaching is behaving like a Buddha until we become one. This reinforces the practice of taking
the higher view. The time arrives when we are more a Buddha than not. The practice becomes a reality. I
used to pretend to be brave and fearless like a Buddha but situations are arising today in which I can’t
pretend. I can hardly believe the strength of mind which I am finding. This practice of pretence is really
working for me and I am ten times the man I was. It isn’t me. It is a process. And this is the fourth useful
teaching, I see myself as a stream of impressions. I no longer have a need to take things personally. If I am a
stream of impressions then I may as well be a stream of good impressions. Taking the highest view brings
good impressions; practicing being a Buddha until we become one brings good impressions and realizing
everything is a point of view brings good impressions. When the fear arises I don’t take it personally. It is
old stuff finally leaving me. When I dive through it I come out the other side and realise that fear is just an
idea. It’s not even a good idea. When there is no fear it is possible to see body and speech as tools for
helping other people. In the midst of fear this becomes forgotten. There is nothing there. Death is not the
enemy. I think the real enemies are succumbing to fear and sleep, mediocrity and dullness of spirit. Being
stuck in that pot of glue is surely a fate worse than death.

Ole was giving a talk on Ngondro one day and I was taking notes. Suddenly he said something which
penetrated my thick skin. He said, ‘Don’t care.’ He didn’t elaborate. I don’t remember ever having heard
him say that before and I haven’t heard it since. But it was one of those arrows which struck home. I
realised how much I cared about what other people thought about me. I saw how I sometimes
compromised myself by my efforts to please or impress and how much energy I wasted doing this. Don’t
care. Suddenly life became so much easier. Care for people but don’t care what they think about me. I’m
grateful for this teaching as I watch my body falling away and I let go of all concepts about privacy and
private parts. Everyone has their point of view and why should I worry about it? Not caring is my fifth
useful teaching.

These five teachings of skilful means have saved me from much suffering and discontent and I value them
highly. But there is something beyond the methods. There is a place and time where they are no longer
necessary. I know this place exists because I have been there. It is a state of existence where everything
just is because it is. The place is here and the time is now. I have confidence in being here now, not through
a belief system but through direct experience. Even when my body is fighting for air or choking or locked
in muscular spasms I have a huge smile in my heart. It’s just the way it is.

Years ago me and Elizabeth went on a business course in the city. The teacher told us that paying tax was
unavoidable in business. Everyone has to pay it whether they like it or not but there are ways of minimizing
the payments. Buddha said that there is suffering. Everyone has to suffer whether they like it or not but
there are ways of minimizing it. That is the business we are in as Buddhists, minimizing and dispelling
suffering. I know the methods work. I am one of the lucky ones.

When the doctor checked my blood pressure it was sky high. She went into panic; she was convinced I was
going to die any minute. I asked her to take it again and I dissolved the Karmapa into my body. My blood
pressure was now normal and the doctor was totally mystified. I told her what I had done and now she
goes around chanting Karmapa Chenno. Powerful medicine. Sometimes it is difficult to separate out the
teachings one from another. Each one supports the next. The net result is the confidence which comes
from experience which comes from doing the work. I am glad I made the effort while I had the
opportunity; I’m glad I had the chance to practice. Delighted to be alive and delighted to die.

Long life and good health to the Lama, to whom my gratitude is vast.

Karmapa Chenno

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