Mitchell Willoughby (USA)
When you realize emptiness, there is no fear.
—Lama Zopa RinpocheHaving been on death row for over thirty years, I have had to deal with major issues of anger, self-worth, and forgiveness. I can truthfully say that my Buddhist practice has transformed me from being a drug and alcohol addict to being more human. I have had to learn to accept my fate. I saw how much I had hurt so many people and I came to the realization that no matter what I did to get here, I knew I was never going to get out of prison alive. So I had to make the best of a very bad situation.
My transformation started with reading The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa.1 At first I did not understand Milarepa’s devotion to his guru, Marpa. How could someone be so devoted? After Venerable Robina Courtin of Liberation Prison Project2 first visited us in 1997 and said in one of her talks, “You have to do the work, no one else will do it for you,” it really struck home. I literally had to take my life apart and rebuild it to see who I am. I had no one left to face except myself.
Robina helped me to prepare to take the Bodhisattva vows, the precepts. (These vows are the foundation of the Mahayana Buddhist path: they help you to commit yourself to the activities and life of a bodhisattva, an enlightened person.) During this time, I not only committed them to memory, but also practiced living according to them and devoting my every action to benefiting other living beings. My practice gave me insights into how people think and react to different situations and problems.
Once I accepted this new space of being, a whole new world began to open up and I was amazed at how I missed it in the first place. My life in here is now spent helping others, even at great criticism from fellow inmates. Over the years I have made many crafts for friends and family. I have written to numerous troubled people and have helped the sick and the dying here on death row. I do not do this for praise or to be recognized for it. I do it because I can.
This is the way it is. I created all this mess. I don’t have anyone else to blame. My practice has helped me make the best of an awful situation. That’s the reality. I have to own up to it and face it daily. Once I began to do this, my anger gradually lessened, as I knew it was all up to me. My family and I are now closer. My mother’s mind is more at ease. I put myself here; no one else can be blamed. The burden should not be placed on my family. I have to carry it. Only when you can really see the harm that you have done to yourself and stop blaming everyone else for all your problems can you see the avalanche of heartache you have caused others. No one will ever know how sorry I am. It still really hurts my heart after all these years.
And whatever awaits me in the next life, I will accept it as well. I don’t fear death. As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, “When you realize emptiness, there is no fear.”
These verses from Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji—the sacred text revered by Sikhs as “living” Eternal Guru—convince us that the gift of human life is our most precious and divine asset. Such a life must be wisely and passionately lived, valued, and safeguarded. It should also be directed towards serving the Creator and all creation. Since childhood, I have sung, recited, and listened to these melodic teachings. Now that I am in my seventies, they continue to inspire and fill me with optimism. Translations are a poor substitute for the original, but I have endeavored to convey a few chosen verses translated here in English, as a starting point for reflection.
Like a Precious Diamond
Bhai Sahib Bhai (Dr) Mohinder Singh Ahluwalia (UK)
1. Heerey Jaisaa janam hai, kaudee badle jaaey…
Like a precious diamond is our human birth into this world;
Let us not waste it, as if it were worth mere cowrie shells.
2. Jeevat marai dargeh parvaan…
When one accomplishes the art of remaining “dead
whilst still alive”
And lives free from ego’s negative grip,
Such a person earns a place in the Divine Court.
3. Aagey kaou kichh tulhaa baandhoh,
kiaa bharvaasaa dhan ka…
So plan ahead and build a raft for the voyage across life’s
This will help you, both in the here and now and in the hereafter.
Place not your faith in perishable possessions,
for they will be of no avail.
4. Jin nirbhau, jin har nirbhau dhiaaiaa
jee, tin kaa bhau sabh gavaasee…
Only those who attune themselves to the Fearless One,
Will have their fear (of death) dispelled.
5. Sooraj kiran milai, jal ka jal hooaa raam;
Jyoti jyot ralee, sampooran theea raam…
Just as sunrays can merge back into the sun,
And droplets of water merge back into the ocean,
So should one’s inner light merge with the Divine Light,
And therein find wholeness complete.
—Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji
The many references to death in Sri Guru Granth Sahab Ji urge us all to wake up and harness our full potential, instead of wasting golden opportunities and ending our days in regret. This is the gist of the first verse. From a Sikh perspective, the opportunity is golden because human birth offers a unique chance to ignite the divine spark latent within us. This involves mobilizing spiritual attributes such as compassion, contentment, wisdom, courage, love, and forgiveness, which enable us to live in God’s image.
The challenge before us all is haumai. This is our inherent selfish “ego”—an acronym, you could say, for “edging God out,” because it can cause us to lose a sense of the vast and infinite context of our lives. We become “fully alive” when, for all intents and purposes, we become “dead” to ourselves—that is, by overcoming this powerful haumai. Freed from ego, we have the potential to be spiritually liberated in the here and now, before our physical death. This idea is introduced in the second verse.
Our journey from birth to death makes us all, in a way, migrant travelers. Sikhs understand this as part of a greater voyage of the spirit. Upon death, the body perishes and disintegrates. Just as it was once composed, it starts to decompose. While we were living, our haumai’s negative forces—the likes of greed, arrogance, and hate—had posed as our great friends and allies, ever shadowing and influencing us. At the moment of death, they disappear from the scene, like traitors. All that is left is the indestructible spirit, wrapped in layers created by our accumulated thoughts, actions, and deeds. As we depart from this earthly sojourn, there are no material souvenirs we can take. We do, however, carry forward an “essence” determined by the virtues and values we lived by. And so the second and third verses advise us of the need to prepare for the bigger journey ahead.
The subject of death is often approached with trepidation. Although we can marvel at life, we keenly fear its consequence. All creation, the sacred teachings describe—from the sun and the moon to the rivers and the wind—operate with a measure of fear. It is part of the awe and the wonder in which everything exists. Only the sole Creator is nirbhau, free from fear, and nirvair, free from enmity—and thus the source of all love. The fourth verse advises us that the only way to bypass our fear is to connect up with the One who is fearless and all-loving.
In my own life, I have known fear and pain, confusion and helplessness arising from death. Living in Kenya as the youngest sibling, I was aged four years and seven months when my beloved mother passed away. She had been ill in hospital and it was there on the twentieth day that she told me, calling me “Mindi” as she always did, that tomorrow she would be going away. She hugged and kissed me over and over again with tears in her eyes. A family friend of my own age told me of her passing on; my dear, heartbroken father could not bring himself to tell me so. Thus, from this tender age, questions about death and the purpose of life began to intrigue and haunt me. Ultimately, they set me on my own lifelong search.
I find great peace, solace, and a sense of fulfillment in the fifth quote, which is often sung to mark the death of loved ones. This verse expresses the idea that the soul or spirit, like myriad aspects of nature, longs to connect with its root or origin; like the rays of the sun or droplets of water, it finally merges back into it source. This ultimate phenomenon of final unity, complete emancipation and oneness with Almighty God can help us embrace life and death positively, by striving to mobilize the best within us each day—and to prepare for the final breaths we will take one day.
We can never actually be sure as to when we will depart, for life and death are only a breath apart. Perhaps, then, we should each endeavor to write, in advance, our own obituary, to take stock of our life’s battles and set out our enduring hopes. To do so would be a sobering, stabilizing, and poignant exercise. ♦
1 A guide book of devotions and teachings by the eleventh-century Tibetan Buddhist pet and saint, Milarepa.
Reprinted by permission from Rosalind Bradley’s A Matter of Life and Death (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2016). Permission granted to use excerpt from transcript of teachings by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Vajrasattva retreat, Land of Medicine Buddha, California 1999. Permission granted by Bhai Sahib Bhai (Dr) Mohinder Singh Ahluwalia to use his translaiton of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji.