How should we practise for those who have died? Do we focus on their ‘old’ identity? Should we expand the practice to all beings too?

A student writes:

I usually practise specifically for loved ones who have left this life. I sometimes wonder if my ‘ad hoc’ personal practice in this situation would be more effective if it was more focused and followed a more dedicated, traditional form. For example, I read recently that Shitro is a particularly appropriate practice in this context…

Lama Shenpen responds:

I think the best thing is to dedicate the punya of whatever practice you find you have most faith in – the practices you are most familiar with and can do most wholeheartedly.  I notice though that in the life stories of great practitioners it talks about specific practices being recommended for particular situations and people – and also I notice Tibetans will favour specific practices in the same way – so Amitabha at the time of death, Medicine Buddha for sickness, Green Tara for swift action, White Tara for long life and so on. However, when pressed they will say that since all Buddhas have all the powers of a Buddha and when you call on one, you simultaneously call on all. So they readily admit it doesn’t matter which you call on.

Shitro means peaceful and wrathful and tends to refer to all the different forms of the Buddha that manifest to us in the state between this life and the next.

Student:

I also wonder whether practice dedicated for the benefit of individual people we have known in this life should really be broadened and melded with practise and prayers for the benefit of all beings?  

Lama Shenpen:

Yes, we should always broaden our practise and prayers for the benefit of all beings, even though at the time of making them we might be focusing on particular people.  This doesn’t take anything away from others – it doesn’t work like that – but what it does do is strengthen our connection with the people we mention, calling them specifically into our presence, our heart, our love and compassion and the power of our pranidhanas.

Strengthening our specific connections with them in this way sets up the conditions for us to keep meeting them again in future lives and to be able to be especially helpful to them because of our connection with them – like we can help those closest to us in our personal mandala at any particular time even though we actually want to help all beings equally all the time. In practice we are usually helping those close to us the most, we have a certain responsibility towards them haven’t we?

Student:

Once someone has passed from this life and shed the identity we knew them by is it really helpful to them to keep bringing it back to that one identity in one particular lifetime?

Lama Shenpen:

The way we use the expression ‘identity’ can be confusing can’t it?  You would be you whatever the identity you had temporarily adopted was.  When we love someone we love them through all their changing identities in that sense don’t we?  We love them – the essence of who they are in their heart with our love coming from the essence of who we are in our hearts – so that is why we can say I love you forever with my whole heart – not with the parts of myself that change over time – but that essence of my being that never changes and its that part of me that wants that same part in you to respond and feel loved and – even better – to love me too!

When someone is in our heart they are always in our heart – through life through death through all their lifetimes and all our lifetimes too. That is how the Bodhisattva vow works, that is why we can make a vow to bring all beings to Awakening. It makes sense because we are connected with all beings in our hearts whatever life circumstances they are in or identities they have adopted.

Student:

Quite possibly we are praying for someone who has taken rebirth and is now conditioned to a new identity completely oblivious to the connection we had with them in their previous lifetime?

Lama Shenpen:

Oblivious perhaps, but the connection hasn’t gone anywhere! At some point we will meet again and at some level recognise each other and love each other again – feeling a strange sense of connection that seems familiar but cannot be explained by the circumstances of this life perhaps.

These are very interesting and important questions and related to what we mean by ‘person’ ultimately. That is perhaps the most important question of all and perhaps the most mysterious.

Find out more about becoming a student of Lama Shenpen and joining the Living the Awakened Heart Training – the structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme. The training, which is open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra Tibetan Buddhist teachings to a western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at www.ahs.org.uk/training

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