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Graham Coleman

About Graham Coleman

An Interview with Graham Coleman

More About Graham Coleman

Graham Coleman is president of the Orient Foundation, a major Tibetan cultural conservancy organization based in the United Kingdom, and writer/director of the acclaimed feature documentary Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy.

A Transforming Perspective on Bereavement

"When we look at life and death from a broader perspective, then dying is just like changing our clothes! When this body becomes old and useless, we die and take on a new body, which is fresh, healthy and full of energy! This need not be so bad!"
The Dalai Lama

The sadness, emptiness and sense of meaninglessness that we experience at the loss of a loved one is one of the most challenging emotions that we encounter in our lives.

I remember very vividly the shock and confusion in my own family when my brother-in-law died in a road accident. My family was not religious and had not considered or prepared for the inevitability of death. Everyone tried to be consoling and to carry on as best they could. But, in the more intimate moments, there were many questions: what is death exactly, how should we behave, how can we help him, can he still see us, if we speak with him, will he hear us…?

One of the tragic losses of the modern age is that we no longer commonly see life and death as two inseparable facets of our journey through time. Even though different cultures and different eras all have their good and bad aspects, the understanding of the inseparability of life and death, as a continuity, is a true treasure.

At the time of my brother-in-law’s death, I was in my early twenties. I had read the extracts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead published in 1927, texts relating to the after-death state from classical Greece, modern research on the after-death state, and had begun a life-long study of Tibetan Buddhism. But, it was living in Tibetan communities from my mid-twenties onwards and later marrying into a Bhutanese family that demonstrated to me so powerfully the freedom and creativity that the Tibetan Buddhist appreciation of death and dying can bring to our everyday life, to our perspective on death and to coping with bereavement.

My experience of death in my wife’s family was very different to that in my own family. There was, of course, profound sadness. But, this was tempered by an open acceptance of death as a natural process and the sorrow was creatively transformed by a resolute purposefulness in wishing to do all that was possible to support and comfort my mother-in-law, a mother of seven children, who had passed away.

There is no doubt that living close to the rhythms of nature, surrounded by the awesome majesty of a Himalayan landscape, can in itself inspire an appreciation of the fundamental impermanence of all things. Yet, in Himalayan cultures this appreciation resounds throughout the monastic and lay literatures and throughout the arts. From an early age, children hear songs and poetry describing our journey through life as like ‘honey on a razor’s edge’ or ‘as fragile as a bubble in water’. The reality of death is not hidden away and this acceptance of death as a natural part of life takes away so much of the suffering generated by our clinging to this one physical dimension of our existence.

This acknowledgement of the imminence of death is not a morbid or nihilistic perspective, it is simply a realistic acceptance that all things: thoughts, emotions, days, seasons, our physical bodies and even mountains, come and go naturally. In Tibetan Buddhist cultures, the array of our experiences in our dreams, in our waking state and in death are seen as inextricably bound together by an underlying continuity. Just as the cycles of the seasons are a mere consequence of a turning world, life and death are seen as just two facets of the continuity of awareness. Moreover, the transition between life and death is seen as a time of great opportunity. Our state of mind at the moment of death and our reaction to the experiences that unfold after death are seen as determining the nature of our future existence. Thus, when a loved one dies, less emphasis is placed on one’s own sorrow and greater emphasis is placed on supporting the one that is passing through this state of transition. Grief is not repressed, but the family members and friends see supporting and inspiring the consciousness of the loved one as their main purpose. Creating an atmosphere of openness, compassion and acceptance of change is emphasised and highly valued. Inviting a lama or accomplished practitioner to the household, who has experiential knowledge from his or her daily practice of the pure awareness that the departed one will experience at the moment of death, is also regarded as ideal. As is the invitation to the lama, and attending monks, to remain in the household for up to forty-nine days to guide the consciousness of the loved one through the various experiential states that they may encounter.

As the Dalai Lama points out in his introductory commentary to the complete Tibetan Book of the Dead, normally in our lives, if we know that we are going to be confronted by a difficult or unfamiliar situation, we prepare ourselves for such a circumstance in advance. This is nearly always what we do, even if we are going on holiday, we may buy a map and a guide so that we know as much as possible in advance about our destination. Strangely, when it comes to our own death or the death of a loved one, many of us make no preparation at all!

The complete Tibetan Book of the Dead was set down for precisely this purpose. In a compelling beautiful form the text poetically portrays the appreciation of impermanence that motivates an understanding of death, sets out ways of discovering the interrelationship between our mode of experience in our waking state and the mode of experience in the after-death state, presents a way of creatively addressing our grief at the loss of a loved one and of guiding and supporting the consciousness of a departed one.

Coming to the open and light-hearted realisation that death can be ‘just like changing our clothes’ will of course not be easy, or achievable for most of us, but the guidance contained in the complete Tibetan Book of the Dead can, as it has in Tibetan society, offer us a way of exploring the nature of death and coping positively and creatively with the loss of a loved one.

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