Stan Goldberg gains sobering insights into death and his own insecurities during a retreat with Ribur Rinpoche.
The opening line of the pamphlet was straightforward: Join us in a workshop where you will experience your own death. Six months prior, I would have thought it an interesting exercise. But having received a diagnosis of “aggressive prostate cancer,” it had the relevance of a guidebook for an upcoming trip.
“I’m going to the Santa Cruz Mountains for ten days,” I said to Wendy, my wife. “Want to come?”
“And do what?”
“Attend a workshop.”
I don’t remember her exact words, but I sent in a reservation for one. Three weeks later in the meditation hall at the Vajrapani Institute for Wisdom Culture, I was among more than a hundred people waiting to hear the words of the revered teacher. Monks and nuns silently peered toward the blue double doors as other people talked or looked out the windows, like excited children on the last day of school. In the distance we saw him. Some started whispering and pointing, but the monks and nuns bowed deeply toward the closed doors and waited. Eventually they opened and the Venerable Ribur Rinpoche entered, supported by his devoted interpreter, Fabrizio Pallotti, and a Tibetan assistant.
A maroon robe cocooned the seventy-eight-year-old. He wore his black Reeboks without socks and the shoes squeaked as he slid each foot. After ten years in a Chinese prison, he couldn’t walk without help. His curved spine and knees made him appear as if he were preparing to jump, and he could look up to see faces only if he bent his neck at a painful angle, which he did continuously. Earlier, I had found a space off to one side and immediately in front of the teaching platform. Through the haze of incense I saw that Rinpoche’s bent body, from the floor to the top of his closely cropped head, was no taller than a seven-year-old. Most beguiling was his toothless smile.
He stopped on the way to the platform in front of a woman wearing a red headscarf who appeared to be in her early sixties. Rinpoche drew her close, placed his hands on her head, and spoke softly to her in Tibetan, waiting after each phrase for Fabrizio to translate and for her to nod before continuing.
When Ribur Rinpoche reached the platform, Fabrizio and the assistant each cradled a thigh and pushed him up as if he were a young child learning how to climb stairs. At the top, they gently lowered him onto a golden pillow. Once his shoes were removed, he rotated forward into a lotus position. After his breathing quieted, he looked at each participant, beginning on his far right and slowly moving left. I watched people react as his eyes met theirs. It was as if a wave of joy was spreading across the room. Finally, looking at me, he said something in Tibetan. I waited for Fabrizio to translate, but he didn’t say anything. They looked at each other, then at me. Rinpoche closed his eyes and sat motionless for a few minutes. Then, opening them, he spoke to the audience through Fabrizio.
“Death is certain, but not the time.”
As everyone else thought about his words, I wondered what he had said about me. My self-absorption stopped when he burst into laughter. Life, according to Rinpoche, was part of a wheel, where death was just another spoke, as natural and as beautiful as birth.
“Everything changes,” he said. “Nothing begins or ends; it goes from one thing into another.”
I wrote furiously, believing that unless I wrote everything down, I wouldn’t remember all the ideas flowing from Rinpoche—in words so simple there was no room for obscure meanings. Those words, I surmised, could be the ideas I was searching for.
“You cannot turn away death,” he said.
For six months I had tried, pretending the lion stalking me would go away. For a while it had been easy. No detectable PSA (protein specific antagen), no reason to think the cancer cells were growing. Eventually, I realized it was just a reprieve. At some point in my life, the cancer would become virulent. The surgeon had made it clear that we were in a holding pattern and that he hoped I would outlive the cancer, or that a new protocol would be developed before my current treatment stopped working.
“Death is hard to accept,” Rinpoche said as I wrote furiously. When I didn’t hear any more words, I stopped and looked up. Staring at me, he said, “If the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and arhats gave up their physical bodies, what makes you think you’ll live forever?” I hoped his comments were meant for everyone, and the only reason he had looked at me was that I was next to the platform. He turned away before continuing. “Death is a part of living. No death, no life. If you understand this, you won’t fear it. Death will be as natural as drinking a cup of tea.”
He spoke for two hours while I wrote nonstop, believing that somewhere in these words would be the wisdom I was desperately seeking. Next to him on the platform was a covered cup of tea from which he sipped sparingly when Fabrizio translated. On his other side was a box of tissues. He slowly pulled a single sheet from the box and covered his head with his robe. From beneath the robe came violent coughs. After a few minutes he uncovered his head and continued talking in a barely audible voice. Earlier in the day, Rene, a monk who would lead us in discussions, had said Rinpoche was ill and might stop speaking at any time.
Barely above a whisper, Rinpoche said, “Many sages have said that if you don’t understand death, you don’t understand life. You take it for granted and waste it. If you understand it, and even if you don’t finish the path at the time of your death, you will have no regrets, and will have the confidence to go on to the next life and continue the journey.”
He gestured with his head to Fabrizio and the assistant, who then moved in unison to the platform. After carefully putting on his shoes, they helped him down. Rinpoche glanced at my open notebook and frowned. I didn’t know what I had done wrong, nor did I have the courage to ask. Since everyone was watching him, they also saw his look, which I thought was, at the very least, one of annoyance. He continued moving until he was in front of the woman with the red scarf. Unlike everyone else who rose when Rinpoche descended the stairs, she remained seated. He tenderly patted her on the cheek and continued walking. At that moment I felt as if the two of us were at opposite ends of a continuum. She was on the “to be given compassion” side, and I was on the “to be scorned” end. After Rinpoche left, two women gently lifted her into a standing position. A few minutes went by before she was steady enough to move.
We had a fifteen-minute break before discussions of Rinpoche’s talk, led by Rene. The woman walked by me on her way outside, and I saw her bald head through the translucent scarf. I stood in line for tea and instead of thinking about the profundity of Rinpoche’s lessons, I wondered what everyone thought of me. I went outside, consumed with devising a plan for slithering unseen out of the workshop. As I inhaled the pine-scented air, I heard someone say, “Hi.” I turned and saw it was the woman with the scarf, smiling as she sat next to me.
Her smile vanished as her facial muscles tensed. She bent over, rocked slowly, and wrapped her arms around her abdomen.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
“No, but thanks. I’m Marie,” she said, trying to smile again.
“I’m Stan. Are you sure there isn’t anything?”
“No, really. I’ll be all right.” We were silent for a few minutes. “I hope I can come back tomorrow,” she said. I looked into a stand of ancient redwoods, trying to think of what I should say, occasionally glancing at her pained expression. “Sometimes when the drugs make me nauseated, I can’t do anything but lie on my side. High price to pay for a few more months, don’t you think? I have ovarian cancer and I’m having chemo.”
“Oh,” I said. I didn’t know what to say to someone who tells you they are, or may be, dying.
I blurted out the only words I could retrieve: “I have prostate cancer.”
“Then, you know,” Marie said.
I’m not sure I did, but I was too embarrassed to say anything. “Do you know Rinpoche?” I asked.
“No, I never met him before today. It was strange how he stopped in front of me, wasn’t it?”
“Marie,” one of her friends called from the road. “The car is here. Are you ready?” She nodded and turned back to me.
“I hope to see you tomorrow,” she said.
“I hope so too.”
The next day, Marie and her friends arrived just before Rinpoche. He entered the room and walked past her without stopping. With help, she painfully sat down on the floor, and moved slowly into a lotus position. After a few minutes she grabbed her abdomen and quickly lay on her side, her head supported by two pillows. I could see a friend whisper into her ear while Marie shook her head “No.” Before Rinpoche began, he looked in my direction, his eyes moving from my face to my open notebook, where they rested. Hesitantly, I closed it and put away my pen. He smiled, this time showing a full set of false teeth.
After taking notes the previous day, I had spent the evening reviewing them, often reading the same sentence over and over. But now, just listening, there was an immediate understanding, similar to the inexplicable feelings I often have when I look at a painting. At noon, Rinpoche stopped speaking and everyone went outside for lunch.
“My life,” Marie said to me, “as short as it is, has been good. I have wonderful children and a husband and friends who love me. I think I’ve done well during my forty-three years.”
I felt like a fraud. I’m sure she shared these thoughts because the previous day I’d told her I had cancer. I didn’t tell her that it was controlled. She spoke with an appreciation of what she had accomplished, what she had now, and an understanding that to grasp at anything was unrealistic. She was there, right where I wanted to be psychologically—living in the moment, relishing every second.
“I may not be here tomorrow,” she said. She held my hands and kissed me on the cheek. “It’s not that bad,” she said as friends came to help her to the car.
I arrived early the next day, eager to share my insights with Marie, but neither she nor her friends were there. As Rinpoche spoke about death throughout the morning, most of us glanced at where Marie had sat. We looked to that empty space every day until the workshop ended. I never saw Marie again, nor even learned her last name. As for developing a better grasp of death? That would have to wait until I became a hospice volunteer a year later, and sat at my patients’ bedside when they died.
Postscript: Two years after the workshop I learned that Marie died peacefully in her home surrounded by family and friends who celebrated her life. Six years after the workshop, Kyabje Ribur Rinpoche died on January 15, 2006 at the age of 84 in Sera Me monastery in southern India. A few years later Fabrizio returned to Vajrapani with Rinpoche’s relics—perfectly formed luminescent pearls.