Pema Khandro Rinpoche shares the life of the Tibetan yogi Shabkar, whose practice and teachings were inseparable from loss and grief. From the Fall 2020 issue of Buddhadharma.
Sadness rages like a great fire, though in mind, there is no wood.
A storm of tears pours down ceaselessly, though in the sky of my eyes there are no clouds. —Shabkar
Throughout his profound spiritual awakening, the great Tibetan yogi Shabkar experienced immense loss resulting in grief marked by raw pain, a sense of disorientation, sadness, and tears. Witnessing how a Buddhist master mourns can shed some light on how we can navigate our own grief and demystify any fantasies we might have about a peace that negates sadness.
Shabkar (1781–1851) lived in northeastern Tibet with his mother and sister. As he came of age, he yearned to go on a great spiritual journey. According to his autobiography, he believed he would be able to attain the great state of liberation that would relieve the suffering of all beings. But the journey he envisioned meant leaving home against the wishes of his mother, who begged him not to go. She told him, “You are like the very eyes in my head. If you go far away, your mother will be like a blind woman. You are like my very own heart. If you go, your mother will be like a corpse.”
Despite his mother’s pleas, Shabkar resolved to leave, promising to return soon and settle near home so that she would let him go. Not knowing that this conversation with his mother would be their last, his final words to her were a lie. Year after year he extended his travels despite his mother’s letters begging him to return. In the end, when he finally returned home, his mother had died and the home he had been raised in had fallen into ruins.
From the time of his great departure until his return, Shabkar’s life was one of great heroism and generosity. He gave away his wealth, clothing, and food to the hungry. He healed the sick, stopped the fighting between three tribes, and converted bandits and thieves. He ransomed the lives of thousands of animals who would have been slaughtered. He restored more than a hundred temples and ten thousand statues of the Buddha. He gave thousands of blessings, teachings, and empowerments. The list goes on.
Shabkar benefited countless people, and his life is still benefiting people today through his autobiography, which is a beautiful repository of Buddhist teachings on grief. Shabkar experienced great sadness and grief over the loss of his mother and was haunted by it until his death. He also experienced much sadness at the loss of his teacher, which revisited him often.
Shabkar did not hide his grief. In fact, his autobiography gives us a window into how he expressed it and also captures his direct advice for anyone burning with sorrow.
Go Ahead and Weep
In his autobiography, Shabkar recounts stopping at Mount Kailash to give advice to an assembly of people who followed him there. His speech was a long exposition about waking up from the denial of impermanence, a teaching typical of introductions to Vajrayana. But it also included something not so typical: a rare lesson on the importance of crying. Shabkar wrote:
To cry when parting from one’s guru, and when one’s father or mother dies, is a noble thing in this world. It is something you should wish for, not something despicable. Those who don’t cry need not feel uneasy about the many who do; those who are crying need not feel ashamed, since crying is quite just on this occasion. Anyone who feels like crying should just go ahead and weep—there is nothing wrong with it.
Shabkar’s suggestion that we should not hesitate to cry when the occasion calls for it, and also that we shouldn’t feel guilty if we can’t, is advice that would fit in well with modern psychology, which reminds us again and again that there is no one right way to grieve. Moreover, he cuts through the notion that Buddhist equanimity somehow means being stoic or unfeeling.
Indeed, Shabkar wept for three days when he left his teacher, and later wept more when his teacher died. He wept when he saw the tears of his own followers. He wept when his student died. When his mother died, his grief was infinite. Even when his tears had dried, it followed him throughout his life.
Transferring Compassion to Others
Shabkar processed his grief about his mother through his encounters with others who reminded him of her. This reflects the Buddhist practice of considering all beings to have been one’s mother at one time or another. It also reflects how Shabkar worked with his mind. The sorrow and loss he felt fostered a raw and openhearted compassion toward others.
On one occasion, he saw an old woman who could no longer walk lying in a hollow, with infections that oozed from her body. Seeing that she was starving, he begged for a month’s worth of food for her and prayed over her, saying, “There is not a single being who has not been my mother.” He wept upon seeing her helplessness, and when she saw his tears, she wept as well, telling him, “I had a dear son who died. Your coming here is like meeting him again; it’s as if he came back from death.” And they wept together for a long time. It is a poignant scene in which two people separated from their loved ones share a moment of grieving and love.
Grief opens us to much tenderness and love.
A life can be like this. Sometimes, we cannot give love to the one we wish to give it to. Maybe that person can’t receive it, or maybe they have passed away by the time we have the love to give. Other times we may try to give love and it falls on deaf ears. Sometimes it is not safe to love a person directly. But grief opens us to much tenderness and love, and we can give that love to someone else, even if it is only with our lost one’s memory in our heart. In doing so, we can also dedicate the merit of our altruism and compassion to the loved one we wish we could have given it to. There is satisfaction in this.
This transference of compassion happened again when Shabkar returned to his hometown after having been away a long time. Not only was his mother dead, but his childhood home had fallen into ruins. There in the wreckage he found a paralyzed homeless woman. It’s a scene that is common in India or Nepal today: people with disfigured bodies, living in alleyways and on corners, begging or sleeping. As Shabkar looked upon this woman with sorrow, the image of his mother arose in his mind. Her helplessness reminded him of his own mother’s pleas for his help and for his return, a wish Shabkar never granted. A deep sadness welled up from the depths of his being and he cried. When that woman saw his emotion, she cried too.
As they wept together, Shabkar sang a song of realization. In it, he mourned the loss of his home and his mother, and expressed sadness for his own helplessness and that of this woman. A song about realizing impermanence, it reveals how spiritual insight and grief go hand in hand. After the paralyzed woman died, Shabkar erected a stupa and temple at the site and it became a place of pilgrimage and prayer for years to come.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattva has compassion for the suffering of all beings. The bodhisattva is a hero, with realization that has given rise to such great compassion and wisdom that it is the guiding principle of their life. In this scene, however, Shabkar is not portrayed as a bodhisattva hero, but as a grieving son. This is another face of compassion—compassion born not from esoteric realizations or the crisp, keen, logic of Buddhist philosophy, but rather from loss.
However many losses we go through, there remain many people who are suffering and need to be loved. Shabkar’s meetings with the two women are reminders that we can find healing for ourselves and others by continuing to love the ones we encounter.
Shabkar ends that song standing with this beggar woman, reciting a prayer that both he and his mother would be guides to relieve the suffering of beings in all future lives.
According to Buddhist philosophy, the denial of ceaseless change and impermanence drives our neurosis and suffering. Thus the key to becoming a buddha is recognizing impermanence as a mark of existence.
Sometimes impermanence is a radical rupture. Other times it is just another subtle, unnoticed change, the kind that we experience thousands of times each day. This series of changes, from day to day, season to season, one life to the next, all add up to the liminal experience of being that Buddhism so aptly describes. By liminal, I mean that it is in-between-ness, ever transitioning, beyond the reach of logic and control, beyond the bounds of the scripts of our culture and the straightjackets of our concepts. In Vajrayana Buddhism, one of the training grounds for integrating with this ever-changing world is in our dreams.
Tibetan Buddhism regards dreams as a rich and fertile place where spiritual training can continue—or where mental afflictions can be reinforced. Dreams are sometimes a source of revelations for advanced Buddhist masters. In Shabkar’s life, dreams were a domain of omens and meetings with teachers in which he received instruction and prophecy. It is also in dreams that Shabkar found assurance that his mother had journeyed toward blissful realms in the afterlife.
One night, toward the end of his life and the peak of his profoundly benevolent teaching career, Shabkar had a dream that he was in a paradise with a jeweled temple and three young maidens. One of them spoke to him and said, “Don’t you recognize me?” He realized it was his mother with her two old friends. He recalled a memory from his childhood watching these two ladies with his mother as they recited prayers to Tara. Now, they had been reborn in Tara’s pure land! He saw that his mother was happy. They spoke and she encouraged him to continue benefiting beings. Shabkar felt great joy. He remembered that his mother had accumulated much merit in her life and saw that it had delivered her to a blissful realm. In contrast to the image he had in his head of her desperately writing letters to him, he saw her now joyfully accompanied still by her close friends. And he saw her release him. She gave him the blessing he had so yearned for—the blessing to continue traveling and doing his work. In the dream, Shabkar was freed from decades of guilt and grief.
Dreams such as these may be regarded as either messages from beyond or messages from one’s own mind. The bereaved can’t make such dreams happen, but when they do come, we can cherish and welcome them.
Grief that Comes and Goes
Joy and sorrow are like travelers on the roadside,
suddenly come and suddenly gone. —Shabkar
It’s good to remember that grief was not Shabkar’s only experience. On the contrary, Shabkar lived a life of great joy and service, before, during, and after his grief. As he said in his song of realization, the sun of love and the moon of compassion arose again and again in him. His realization of impermanence did not leave him in despair; on the contrary, it was further training and insight confirming the teachings he had received. Although dreamlike and not to be reified, Shabkar saw reality as something to be enjoyed. He could dance with joy at the vivid, brilliant, immaculate clarity of awareness.
Grief is not necessarily the harbinger of a life of darkness that we sometimes fear it will be. For Shabkar, grief was part of his path to becoming true, openhearted, and free. And in the end, Shabkar’s grief was as impermanent as that which he grieved.
 This and subsequent quotations by Shabkar are from The Life of Shabkar: The autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, translated by Matthieu Ricard (Snow Lion, 2001).