Postcard 61 from Robina: Portland, OR, October 22, 2015

2015-10-22 11:00:00

From the Staffords in Santa Cruz I went to Reno, NV for the weekend of October 9–11. On my first visit there, two years ago, I drove. It’s only five hours, and I like driving. Well, maybe I used to like driving: the thought of it this time didn’t appeal to me, so I flew. If I do go in a car these days, I prefer to be driven – perhaps it’s all those speeding tickets that put me off! John Flandrick drove me from LA to the Bay Area recently, via Kern Valley State Prison; and he’s flying to meet me in Nashville, TN in early November to drive me first to Kentucky State Prison in Eddyville on Monday, November 9, then later that day six hours northeast to the University of Pikeville in eastern Kentucky where I’ll give some talks. More about that when we get there.

Meanwhile, it was good to be in Reno to see the progress of Dharmakaya Center run by Trey Ligon, his spiritual program coordinator, Anne Ligon, and the rest of his team. We had a good weekend together, using Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s book about death. People are loving these discussions. The book puts everything in order, explains each step of the way what to do to help; it demystifies the process. Then, of course, there’s less fear.

Trey, in the red t-shirt, and his crew at Dharmakaya Center in Reno. Photo Trey Ligon.
Rainbows after the death courses at Dharmakaya Center in Reno, above (photo Trey Ligon), and Maitripa College in Portland, below. Who knows if they mean anything? 

Rinpoche’s book is proving popular. My next visit was to Boise, ID, where Treasure Valley Buddhists also wanted teachings on it on the three evenings of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday October 12–14. And last weekend in Portland: the same, at Maitripa College.

From Boise I flew to Seattle at the invitation of Dharma Friendship Foundation. I hung out with my old friend Sue Shaw, one of the first people I met when I came to the States in 1994: in Boulder Creek, where as the Spiritual Program Coordinator at Vajrapani Institute in California we started a little group. She has retired to Seattle to be near her two daughters. She lives in a very nice studio apartment in Horizon House, one of those apartment blocks for old people, established often by churches. Hers is run by the Church of Christ, and it’s lovely. Elegant, warm, like a nice hotel. You buy your way in when you’re 62 or more – how much depends upon the size of your apartment – and you pay a monthly fee and then get the care that you need all the way up to your death. Our Buddhist centers should start such a plan!

With some of Seattle’s Dharma Friendship Foundation, including their coordinator, acupuncturist Jordan van Voast (at the back with the orange collar). Photo Dharma Friendship Foundation.

Then to Maitripa College in Portland. I love Maitripa! I admire what they’re doing in becoming a university. It’s not easy to qualify, it seems. Besides the curriculum, etc., you need to create endowments of millions of dollars. I wish many of the other centers would follow. We have these extraordinarily qualified Tibetan geshes in many centers worldwide, but it’s like they’re invisible. Who knows that you can learn the entire Buddhist worldview from one of them if you simply say that a place is a “meditation center.” And not only that, people study with these geshes for years and end up with no recognition in the Western world. If you want to use your knowledge professionally, whether philosophy or psychology, you need to get a Western degree in Western knowledge. Whereas Maitripa students get that when they study there. So sensible.

As I’ve mentioned in Postcard 60, our colleague Tim Powell in Raleigh was killed in a car accident. Apparently he offered all of his organs.

Over the years, whenever you ask the lamas about the consequences for the person who dies of having their organs cut out after they’ve died – whether this can disturb their mind – they’ve always said no; that in fact because of their pure motivation and the generosity of having offered their body to others, the results can only be good.

Rinpoche’s advice over the years has always reflected this. It does so in the book as well. Rinpoche says this: “I think because the person is dying with the thought of benefiting others they wouldn’t be disturbed and therefore won’t be reborn in the lower realms. Because your loved one is offering their organs to others, they are dying with the thought of making charity, of giving, and that’s a virtue. If your loved one has made charity of their body before they passed away, dedicated for others, then it is the same as if they were alive and made charity of their body. It’s as if they had chosen to offer their life or their limbs to others when they are alive; many great masters actually did this.”

However, it seems that Rinpoche’s, and other lamas’, assumption was that after your loved one stopped breathing you’d be able to spend time with them, do the recommended prayers and practices, then make sure their consciousness had left the body before allowing the doctors to take the body and cut out the organs. I had assumed that, too. But I discovered not long before the book went to the designer that, in fact, that isn’t what happens at all. Apparently they keep the person breathing after they’ve been declared brain-dead until after the organs have been cut out.

I told Rinpoche this and this is how he replied (see chapter 22 in the PDF of the book): “I question this. Even if the brain is no longer functioning, if the person has the karma to breathe this means they have the karma to be alive, which of course means the mind is still there [the subtle mind; the gross consciousness has stopped].

“Also, as we discussed in chapter 7, even if the breath has stopped and the brain is not functioning, some people can come back to life. This means that the usual definition of death is not correct. It’s a big question that has to be discussed with learned great meditators.

“However, if the person is brain-dead, they might not feel anything when the organs are cut out. If the person is not in meditation when this happens, I think it doesn’t matter.”

I’d also asked the resident lama at Institut Vajra Yogini in France, Geshe Loden, about this. He agreed with Rinpoche’s assessment – that because the gross consciousness has ceased functioning they wouldn’t feel anything when the doctors cut out the organs – but he made the added comment that you can’t be certain that just because the person had offered their organs their mind wouldn’t be disturbed at the time of death, which therefore means that their rebirth might not be a good one.

I read a book last year by an American medical journalist, Dick Teresi, called The Undead. It’s subtitle explains: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating-Heart Cadavers – How Medicine is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death. It’s a detailed report of some of the many problems arising about exactly when death occurs as a result of organ harvesting in the United States. He reports that in a harvest one nurse witnessed, she “observed that the donor’s heart suddenly accelerated from 100 to 200 beats per minute. The surgeons were alarmed and shocked it back to normalcy with a jolt of electricity from defibrillating paddles. Inquiring minds might ponder why a dead person’s heart would suddenly become excited. . . . anesthesiologists, whose primary duty is to spare their patients unbearable pain, are beginning to wonder about these racing heartbeats and other suspicious symptoms exhibited by donors. What does a ‘pretty dead’ [quoting another doctor] patient experience during a three to five-hour harvest sans anesthetic?”

I can’t help but think about Tim: he was declared brain-dead at noon and by midnight all of his organs were gone. Fortunately, a couple of the nuns from Kadampa Center in Raleigh spent some hours with him before they began taking blood samples, etc., and eventually the organs. And Lama Zopa Rinpoche did prayers for him during this time as well. Anyway, I’ve decided not to offer my organs after death; much more benefit, in my opinion, to offer my entire old bag of bones for dissection and analysis by student doctors.


In Portland I spent a few days with Carina Rumrill and her husband Nick Dickison. They’re both seriously into food. They’ve closed their Cheese Plate cart – which got quite a name for itself – and now plan to open a restaurant called Of Roots and Blooms. Bloom is Nick’s mother’s family name and when Carina and Nick had their children, Dechen, who’s eight now, and Milam, who’s five, they decided to give them Bloom as their last name, not Rumrill or Dickison. “Roots” comes from a dream I had! Carina asked me for some ideas for the name of their restaurant. They’d wanted merely “Blooms” but someone had that name. In my dream Carina’s family name was Roots, so I jokingly suggested “Roots and Blooms” for the restaurant. They liked it! Someone had that, too, so it ended up as Of Roots and Blooms, which is perfect, anyway, for a vegetarian place.

Michelle Stewart, who drove up from San Francisco, and Dechen were there, too. He recited the first five verses of Lama Tsong Khapa’s The Principal Aspects of the Path for us when I arrived; Lama Zopa Rinpoche advised him to memorize it. He’d already memorized The Heart Sutra a couple of years ago.

With Carina and Michelle in Portland. Photo Michelle Stewart.
Dechen asked me about emptiness so here we are discussing the emptiness of the pink napkin. And saying goodbye to each other at PDX, on my way to Vermont. Photos Carina Rumrill. 

Carina told me the strange story about PDX’s carpet. It’s being replaced, and because of its popularity – cult status, even! – since 1987, the airport is making available for sale by local shops leftover pieces. Apparently there’s a tradition of people taking photos of their feet on the carpet. 

Dechen, Carina, Michelle and I on PDX’s cult carpet. Apparently the geometric shapes on the carpet, designed by SG Architects, represent the intersection of the north and south runways seen by air traffic controllers. Photo Carina Rumrill.

Now I’m off to Milarepa Center in Vermont, via Chicago, Philadelphia, and Burlington.

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