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What is Enlightenment? Series Part 4.- The Afterlife?

What really happens when we die, we would all love to know once and for all. Is there an afterlife? A young Colorado dharma woman passed away last year, and I read some her last beautiful and poignant words to us again and again that I’d like to re-share here:

“As I feel the time drawing nearer. As I go to bed every evening uncertain if my heart will continue beating through the night. Or wondering if I can stand up in the morning. As the nurse informs me of estimated timelines based on what she is seeing and I sink into how brief my time left on this gorgeous planet is. As I fathom no longer hearing the birds chirps in the morning, seeing a violet tree blossom out my window, taking a walk through a meadow, or feeling the rain on my bare skin. The grief I have around leaving this world is mounting. Yes. I have peace around crossing over. But that does not mean that my heart is not breaking into a million pieces. The world is so beautiful. More so each day. The love is so limitless. The moments each one so sacred. And my heart is just splitting wide open. I have the most amazing angels around me at this moment doing the hardest work there is. Holding space for someone who is letting go and witnessing that process.” *

May we all appreciate the beauty of this very short life. Sometimes, it is the impermanence that makes us appreciate, and “we” may not continue. Often I think that most religions offer a promise of some personal continuity, and I’m questioning that now. That hopeful promise of reincarnation/ everlasting life can make us complacent, when in fact all we may very well have are these moments. Thank you to this woman who passed, for the clarity and reminder. Maybe it is this life that is where the sacredness is, religions often promise something next and just what if indeed, this is it? Probability, for me, if I look up into the sky with an open mind, at the stars and galaxies, one might feel that religion is made by humans, and it is relative not absolute truth. If this life is it, would we then, be kinder, would we make it count? Maybe it is actually “reverse nihilism” to hold the promise that we continue and invest in some unperceived spiritual self rather than right now?

Self Knowing- Self Empowerment

The famous Tibetan teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche gave a three word dharma teaching once. I think he had called students together in the middle of the night, while everyone was on retreat in Colorado. His words were: “NEVER FORGET HINAYANA.” Hinayana, which means “lesser vehicle” is a slightly pejorative term referring to the original teachings of the Buddha, from India that relate to discipline, desireless-ness, and analysis. I always thought that Trungpa was referring to curbing our sometimes wild hedonistic conduct from the 70’s, but in these degraded times, I now see it refers to one of the even more fundamental instructions of the Buddha.

In the Kamala Sutra, The Buddha instructs his students to not believe ANY doctrine he said unless they could verify it in their own experience.

We should never, ever lose the wisdom of our own insightful discrimination, nor believe any tenet whatsoever with blind obeisance anything: karma, realms, any afterlife, 18 hells, the ‘path’, enlightenment, unless one experiences it within oneself. Religions, throughout history have many colorful stories and  suggestions about what happens when we die, and near-death experiences, but no one has provided any reproducible, empirical proof as of yet. Oftentimes also, our current religion’s views, texts, teachings and rites may have be written and rewritten by men, and significantly altered from the original source and intention. You could say that our Buddhist meditation practice was the first evidence based science, using the mind itself, our human experience, as the experiential lab.

I think we should indeed, Never Forget Hinayana, and always ensure that whatever teaching or dogma is offered, passes the litmus test of our own experience, and basic ethics. One example is- Tibetan astrological dates, some scare people with reward or punishment “karma multiplier days,” and some say certain weeks in a year one should never travel and these things really evoke fear. They are archaic Tibetan cultural superstitions, not existing somewhere in some ultimate spiritual authority. We must retain or take us back our essential power of discrimination as the Buddha insisted. If it seems: untrue, harmful, infused with cultural taints and mores, creates any mental or emotional harm, is unethical, exploitative (financially, sexually, emotionally or spiritually), implausible or just plain wrong, it is probably not the authentic Dharma, and should be firmly corrected or discarded. I’m concerned about the very viability of our Tibetan Buddhist tradition now, and we must update for it to endure.

Many of us in the west found Buddhism as an antidote to some of the antiquated, heavy handed, punishment based religions that we grew up with. We were longing for something we could trust, for true kindness, simplicity, ways of living life without a savior, no fear of hell in an afterlife and authoritarian religion’s mandates. Guess what many found, more of the same, if not worse. Tibetan Buddhism  is exceedingly complex and has actually 18 hells instead of one, and we offer our teachers 100% power and control. I can only pray that it is able to update as it takes its root in the west, and westerners are not blamed for “not understanding” its dated orthodoxy. If we can recognize this, the Dharma can indeed grow and flourish, if not, it may continue to contract.

Furthermore, when spiritual hierarchy, like Guru worship and judging people as more or less “evolved” is used to access value- to exalt, ignore or exclude people, it creates indelible harm. Everyone possesses the exact same raw “Buddha Nature” and is composed of the very same elements. The value of life to its possessor, is equal.

Matter is the Sacred Five Elements

It is said that the five basic elements, earth, water, fire, wind (air), space make up all manifestation, the basic building blocks of form. They say that~ as we are unenlightened we see these as “matter,” but if we meditate a lot with some of the higher yogas, we see the elements as sacred, we call them then, the essential “5 Buddhas,” of light and manifest wisdom.

With this logic, the “material world” is not unenlightened, inert matter, but rather a fantastic dynamic display of energy coming and going. It starts to look a lot more like quantum physics when you directly see “matter” in its oscillating, semi psychedelic light form. When you see this, there is no “you,” no personal self that exists nor continues, nor is there a creator. However, it is no less magical or fantastic. This, from my meditation experience is what we are a part of, and made of and will be again when we pass. We are the stardust of the universe and we, parts of us, elementally, make up all that was or ever will be. Isn’t that fantastic enough? Why must we impose images of Gods, Demons, Angels, Buddhas, human imputed moral rewards and punishments on a vast and cosmic interconnected system? Seeing this, feeling it to me, is my religion, and my promise of continuity, my solace. This world, the elements, as they are, amazing, life right now, in awe.

“A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot


*This quote is from a mutual Facebook friend Ali, who, so sadly passed from complications from anorexia and lyme at a very young age. May her last post touch many hearts.

Dawn Boiani,

Owner Sakura Designs, Mantra & Yoga Mala Bead Makers


  1. So there were some after thoughts and discussion with a few friends, and although we realize some of the suggestions are utterly heretical- we should be able to debate like the old monks from Nalanda to test everything we believe. It is not breaking our vows to go deep and question. I think so much of what we believe has deviated from what the original gentleness and simplicity and methods of the original Buddha might have taught, to anyone.

    Look for example, at the compassion of Christ and his patience and tolerance and what men did to it after his teachings got written and rewritten and reinterpreted use for money and power and created gold gilded intolerant orthodoxy. I think we might have built-up the same control based heavy handedness that is part of *human culture* not part of any thing that exists as a real true helpful and liberating spiritual path. It is indeed time that we examine this with great honesty and going very very deep into ourselves, ourselves only- in quietude to find out what is there.

  2. Article 18.
    From the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

  3. I think foundation is a good word – and when the ethics and original teachings aren’t even allowed to be discussed without people treating you like a dogmatist or fundamentalist you know you are in a whole different religion. The ethics are also there to protect the whole system of study and practice so it doesn’t fall into disrepute which it has done now in many places due to trying to downplay ethics.

    In the case of Rigpa and other groups students were attacked merely for asking for an explanation in public. This was considered to be a samaya breakage but the very same action had been a promise “if you are confused then come for clarification” but that was not honoured. So it was done in a way where people did it as a group after individuals kept being selected for various punishments and reputation attacks by bringing their grievances.

  4. I agree. For me, this me, there is only this life. Even if there is some continuity of moments of consciousness propelled by some subtle casualty, this I will never be again. Here, now, I am a distinct human being, that will never be again after my time is over, and there is true beauty and sacredness in that, and yes, in every precious sacred moment.

    Lovely post. Thanks for sharing.

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