Death Of Uncle
It was late afternoon when Khema Samavati arrived along her pilgrimage route at the stupa of her initiation, which meant that she was just one day’s trek to the gateway of the Beyul of Sikkim. This stupa was devoted to Padmasambhava, and was said to contain his footprint pressed into stone. Khema’s veneration to Padmasambhava was to circumambulate the stupa 108 times, and with every step chant the sacred syllables given to her by the Lama. Following that she was to sit at the roots of the great tree which was adjacent to the southern facing wall of the stupa and contemplate the Buddha’s fourth noble truth, the dharma of the eightfold path. By the time she finished this lengthy process it was late in the nighttime. The new year followed a new moon, so on this day for Khema the moon was only a sliver in the night sky, and did not offer much in the way of visibility on the ground. She thought to herself it was best to set up her small camp and sleep the night near the stupa, to continue on her way in the morning.
A few yards down a path leading from the stupa Khema found a small platform built from bamboo. There, still in her meditative headspace, she unpacked her meagre belongings, setting up a bed for herself. She lay her head down on her bundled up sweater, covered by the small blanket that had been a gift from people in the town where she had stopped for the afternoon of Losar. She felt a great sense of clarity upon falling to sleep.
She had found deep sleep almost immediately, as her first dream came to her, she was transported through time to when she was a young girl. This dream was derived from a memory which, in the past, Khema had often wished she could delete forever. Lucidly Khema knew that this must be a barrier in the depths of her mind she must overcome to acheive success on her pilgrimage. She asked herself to open to the memory and receive what ever lesson was to be taken from the dream.
She was with her mother on a visit to her mother’s brother, who was Uncle Dechen to little Khema. Khema’s mother struggled to take care of her brother who was a very devout Tantric practitioner but who also, as Khema’s mother insisted, misused the Tantric teachings to justify drinking and yelling and throwing things which scared Khema and her mother. On this occasion, there was a great sense of alarm Khema could sense from her mother. When there was no answer to their knocks on the door, they entered Uncle’s tiny hut, the strong smell of urine and chang hung in the air. Uncle Dechen had thick curtains drawn, very little light trickled in, but Khema remembers the glimpse she got of Uncle before her mother ushered her back outside. He was sprawled naked on the floor, in the centre of a half drawn, chalk mandala.
In her dream Khema took the form of her mother, poking at her brother with her shoe until he was roused from his drunken state. Enraged he leapt to his feet, shrieking that she had disturbed him as he was on the verge of breaking through the fog of illusion. “You are definitely in a fog” she mocked, “look at you, drunk in the morning, passed out in your own filth. When was the last time you had a bite to eat? Come now, this won’t do…” she tried to grab his wrist and guide him to the basket of food she had brought. He ripped his arm away, “It is so pathetic how you are happy to be stuck in the mundane world. I don’t need the petty things you rely on.” he spit the words at her. Running to the door he cried “Don’t bother ever returning here, or trying to find me…” and he was out the door, still unclothed, heading toward the thick brambles which bordered the foothill and mountains.
Khema opened her eyes wide in the darkness of night, her heart was racing. She started crying in empathy with her mother, then sobbing in fear for her Uncle. He hadn’t been seen or heard from since that day, except in rumours, and it had been about 50 years. For the first few years after his disappearance some of the kids in town would taunt her calling him her “Crazy Uncle”. The taunting faded but the name Crazy Uncle became commonplace. Rumours abound; he was drunken and crazed living in a cave, a madman high up in the mountains beyond the town, or he was a Tantric master who had no need for the physical realm or societal norms, a hermit living a spiritual life with nature. Khema herself didn’t know which to believe, and eventually she just ignored the tall tales and carried on with her life.
At that moment in time, in the woods, alone, at night recalling, no, reliving this family secret that as a child she had felt ashamed of and had then tried to pretend never happened, Khema thought she must be a fraud. How can she be on this pilgrimage, following the footsteps of Padmasambhava, trying to peirce through ignorance and realize the cessation of suffering, being so bold to think she could possibly master the rituals of her lineage when she had hid her own suffering and ignored that of her family member for so many years? “What am I doing in these sacred mountains? Who am I to be here? I am not worthy of this honour!” she cried aloud to the dakini of the mountains and trees throwing herself down into the dirt.
Silence encompassed her, it was not a thick, heavy, daunting silence though, but a clear, light silence which was inviting. She sat up, brushed herself off, “What can I learn from this?” she repeated in her head. Slipping into a trance, Khema once more envisioned her body floating up above the ground, above the trees, above the mountains then through the night sky in the direction of her hometown. The dream was a call for her to find her Uncle Dechen. She knew the mountain where he was rumored to have sheltered in a cave, and when she arrived there she intuited his whereabouts. On the summit of his mountain, in the thin air, he was seated in the lotus position, draped in threadbare robes.
She sat on the same rock with her back against his, assuming the lotus position herself. She sensed his body heat draining from his lower region but the space between his shoulder blades was so hot it caused her to perspire. He didn’t stir as their bodies touched, but she knew he was aware of her presence. The words came into her mental space; “These are my last breaths in this worldly realm” she didn’t react, she just waited.
“I did not live the typical life of a family man, although it was my duty to take part in the lives of my sister, my nieces and nephews. Life in the town weighed me down, I was ashamed of how heavily I drank as a result, and abused my sister when all she wanted to do was care for me. Honestly and genuinely, the life of a hermit was the life I was meant to live, and I do not regret my decision to renounce society. I did not touch a bottle of chang in my years residing in nature. I discovered the universal ebb and flow, and realized the impermanent nature of all things, the ultimate truth. I know that by absence caused my family great suffering, and for that I apologise.” Khema’s quiet, open stature maintained, this signalled that she accepted the words of her Uncle. “Khema, you were there with your mother the day that I shamefully ran away. You were so young, and you must know that there is nothing you could have done then to change the events which unfolded. It was my decision to remain a hermit and not to contact you or anyone else. You need not carry any guilt with you as you carry forward.”
Uncle Dechen’s head fell back against Khema’s, there was sweat trickling from his brow around his ears and heat radiating from his neck while his lower body became as cold as the stone upon which they were perched, all signs that it was possible for him to achieve a favorable rebirth. With that Khema began to speak the words she knew from the ritual for leading the dying into the bardo, as it is written in the Bardo Thodol: “Listen to what I am saying to you Dechen, death has now come and you are departing from this world. You are not the only one as death comes to all people on earth…whatever fear or terror may come…recognize that any mental images are your own creation. Maintian that recognition and you will achieve liberation.” As she carried on his last breath evaporated, his body slumped and became lifeless. There was no way yet for Khema to know what reincarnation her Uncle might go toward, but she had a feeling that he had relinquished some of the load of his earlier sins against her mother, meaning he might escape rebirth as a hungry ghost or a hell-being.
In that moment there was nothing more Khema could do, so she lifted herself form her seat, kissed her Uncle’s forehead and flew back in the direction of the hidden valley. She returned to her body, still seated upright on the ground those few yards from the stupa. She opened her eyes but continued to sit gazing toward the ground in front of her. She had encountered a slight sense of redemption in visitng her Uncle and supporting him in his last moments yet her lesson felt incomplete. She sat with it.
She expanded her consciousness to see her entire life since the days she felt the shame of not being able to take care of her own family member but also the time before that. She expanded further until she could see her past life and that of her uncle and of her mother as well as her family lineage. She saw the hardships, violence and sadness and she saw the joy and bliss and peace all of which came and went and came again. She understood the lesson of letting go, that no object or lifeform or feeling can be held onto forever. She understood more deeply the necessity for compassion for all beings, in all realms, everywhere because suffering is a part of life. She held space for gratitude to fill her heart. She was grateful for the amount of suffering she had experienced because it was a teacher of sorts, without which she would never have sought peace, and she never would have grown spiritually.
With that Khema joined her palms, lifting her prayer hands over her head, brought them to her heart and then bowed her entire body to touch the ground. She rose to her feet, took three steps and prostrated again. This is how she made her way slowly toward the gateway of the Beyul of Sikkim.