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Apr 20
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The Last Days of Khenpo Gawang’s Father

By Khenpo Gawang

Several people have asked me to share the last part of my father’s life.

Dad, Mom, Khenpo, and Sister

Dad, Mom, Khenpo Gawang, and Sister

My father, Dechen Chogyal, passed away on February 15, 2011. In December 2010, my father was in retreat with my mother and my older sister. At that time he became very ill and said that he felt he was near the end of his life. Although he began to feel better, he moved from the retreat place to the family’s high mountain yak herder’s hut.

He told his eldest son that he wished the family to arrange to have three sutras, The Fortunate Aeon, The Sutra of Great Liberation, and The Amitayus Long Life Sutra carved into stone for him. His son contacted a monastery asking that these sutras be carved and the stones be put at a very special place blessed by Patrul Rinpoche.

Then my father began to make and fire small statues from local pottery clay that are called tsatsa in Tibetan. Normally my father slept a great deal or rested in his bed saying mantras and turning his prayer wheel. Now he would awaken at 5 AM and make the small statues all day long. From the end of December until the beginning of February, my father worked making these little statutes. While he was making them he would tell neighbors and visitors in a joking, lighthearted way that he was going to die soon.

Beginning in January, he started to eat whatever he wanted. He asked his niece and nephew, who were also his neighbors, to please give him some yogurt and milk. They were concerned that this would not be good for his health but he said, “Now my health and life are near the end, so it is good to eat what I want and be happy.” My father soaked in local hot springs, which made him very ill. At the request of other members of the family he was moved to the home of his eldest son with the hope that he would seek medical care.

My father understood that he was going to die soon. I called to speak to him on February 13th, recommending that he go to the hospital. He said, “No, no, I don’t want to go to the hospital. I am seeing a local doctor and I am taking his medicine. If this medicine helps then it will lengthen my life, and if it doesn’t then my life will end.” When the doctor came he brought three days of medicine. Later my brother told me that my father said, “Now I have three days of life left.”

My older brother told me that when he first came to town some family members offered to buy him medicine. He told them in the words of the great teacher, Padmasambhava, to whom he was very devoted, that good medicine taken at the end of life is poison.

My brother told me that on the evening of the 13th he invited all the relatives and his children living close by to come and eat dinner together. He said, “We must all eat together and have a good time.” After they had eaten he said, “We need to sleep together tonight.” The family tried to move his bed to a quiet corner but he said, “No, I don’t want to stay in the corner, I want to stay in the middle of the room. We will all sleep here tonight.” He was very pleased with the meal and asked that his bed be left exactly where it was in the room.

I called the next morning. At first my father did not want to talk with me because he was concerned I would ask him to go to the hospital. When I said, “No, I do not want to talk you into going to the hospital,” then he was very happy to talk to me.

We had a wonderful conversation. He told me that he did not have any regrets about his life and that he was not attached to anything. He said, “Everything I wished for has been accomplished. I was able to go on a very good pilgrimage to all the sacred places. At each place I prayed and dedicated the merit for all sentient beings. I was not only thinking of myself but of all beings. Now, I don’t have any problems. I have no regrets.”

Then he asked me, if it was possible, to take care of my mother as long as she was alive and I promised that I would. I said to him, “You have practiced dharma your whole life and it is very good that you do not have regrets or attachment.” He said again, “I don’t have any regrets, any attachments, or any worries.”

This was our last conversation. I thought, “Well, he is okay.” While I was a little bit sad, it was bearable. I knew that he was relaxed and present, and this is a good way to die.

The day before my father died he was still very strong, talking and relaxed. He wasn’t nervous or afraid of dying and he was not feeling any pain. When visitors came he gave them advice and some dharma teachings. He told them, “Look at your situation carefully and do what you need to do to keep your family and yourself alive. When you die you cannot take anything with you except what you have learned of the dharma and your good heart and mind.”

Garuda Mountain

Garuda Mountain

He said, “It is very important to always dedicate the virtue to all sentient beings.” Close to the yak herder’s hut is a large mountain called Garuda Mountain which he used as an example. He said we need to create virtue equal to twice the size of Garuda Mountain. He said, “You should not do any non-virtuous activities, not even a little, such as actions that disturb other people’s minds. It is very important always to have a good heart.” He said again, “I have no attachments and no regret. Don’t worry about me.”

Then slowly, in the process of dying, he moved from being able to talk to not being able to talk. He was still present and relaxed, with a clear mind. When visitors would come, such as my younger brother and cousin, they could see that he understood them and recognized them. He would touch his heart and fold his hands into the gesture of prayer as he offered his unspoken last words of advice.

Throughout the whole process he did not have any pain or confusion—not even a little. He was very subtle and clear, even in the process of dying. His grandson, who is a monk, was at his bedside reading the Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo or Bardo Tödrol. It was clear that he understood what was being read to him. He said “I understand now.” His breath became shorter and shorter until finally it ended. The family described it as being like a butter lamp going out when the last of the fuel is gone.

A few weeks ago I called my sister who lives high in the mountains on lifetime retreat. She has a cell phone now and we had made a plan for me to call. At that time we had a long conversation about my father. I was saying that I thought my father needed to receive some instructions and there were some very great teachers who lived close by on lifetime retreat and were his friends.

My sister said, “He doesn’t need to receive any teachings or instructions. He got all this in prison, and this is enough for him.” Though he didn’t read, he had many great teachers visit him over the years, and read to him, and he understood a great deal.

My father spent many years in a Chinese prison in the early 1960s. At that time he received very good teachings from great Lamas who were imprisoned with him. He said many times that their heart instruction was to see that the very bad situation in Tibet was not just the fault of the Chinese but that our negative karma was being dissolved. They said, “We should not feel anger or hatred and act badly toward the Chinese. Instead, we need to raise compassion and dedicate all our virtue to them first.”

Let me share a story that he told about his time in prison when he was sleeping in the same room with his main teacher Lama Ngasung. In the room next to them was one of my father’s friends. In the middle of the night he called out, “Ngasung, Ngasung, I am dying! What should I do?” Lama Ngasung called back through the wall saying, “Amitabha is in the north and is red.” Then his friend called back, “Yes, yes that’s it!” In the morning he had died.

So you see my father received very good teachings in the Chinese prison and he met great teachers. My father was an illiterate yak herder but he was devoted to the dharma. He could not read but he could recite many mantras such as the Mani mantra and the Vajra Guru mantra. He was always doing dedications of merit and aspirations that all sentient beings would be liberated, have no suffering, and be happy. He was a very good-hearted person.

Tsatsa Making Place

Tsatsa Making Place

In that conversation with my sister on the cell phone she told me that my father was staying at the yak herder’s hut making the little statues. She said that he was getting better, making the little statues, and how wonderful he was, with so many good qualities. She told me about the time he was staying in retreat with her, and there were some small baby goats that were abandoned because their mother had died. She said his heart was so touched that he cried, and she saw clearly his kind heart and his compassion.

During all this time my mother has been in retreat with my older sister. When my father first became ill my mother decided to recite one billion Mani mantras for his benefit. When it became clear that my father was dying another brother went to the retreat and asked my mother if she would like to come to town to see my father.

My mother in her wisdom said, “I do not need to come. If I go then I will have to stay a long time and cannot recite mantras like I can here. No one who is alive can escape old age leading to death and this is how it is. So it is better that I stay in retreat and recite the Mani mantra.”

My mother was not upset or crying, but kept right on practicing and reciting the Mani mantra. My sister, the nun in lifelong retreat, said, “now is the right time for him to go and he is ready. It is proper that old parents are able to die before their children. When the children die first and the parents are old they are left with great suffering in their old age.”

All of my extended family and friends feel that my father died at the right time and with the right attitude and view. He had great confidence in the dharma and he had no regrets about his life. He was not attached to anything and this is very good, because many people find it very difficult to die due to attachment to people and things.

My father understood that he was dying. His mind was very clear, he was relaxed, and he was talking to each family member, giving them his heart advice. Near the end, while he was still able to talk, he said again and again, “I am dying, so may I now take on the suffering of all sentient beings. May I take their disease, their sickness, their pain, and all their problems onto me since I am dying.” It was clear to those who were with him that even after he was unable to speak he was still praying and holding this wish.

Our family has been Nyingma Lineage practitioners for many generations. My father’s brother, who died two years ago, seemed as if he was always meditating. He had a mantra power—when someone was injured, he would recite a mantra that could help. I remember… as kids, we would bother him as he meditated. We would hide and call out to him while he tried to concentrate. After he died, his body stayed in the meditative posture for three days.

My family is full of these kinds of stories… It is great practitioners like my father and my uncle, those who practice from the heart, who have true power. They were both illiterate, but their practice was steady and strong.

Spoken by Khenpo Gawang Rinpoche with light editing by Candia Ludy and Ellie Maclin.

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11 responses to “ The Last Days of Khenpo Gawang’s Father ”
  1. Kristine McCutcheon
    Apr 25, 2011

    Khenpo la,

    Thank you for giving us such a genuine example of how to die. Your father and mothers examples will be remembered. May all of us be such examples. Please continue to teach the dharma that benefits all beings. It is such great auspiciousness that you can teach here.

    Pema Dolma

  2. Claire Culver, "Lady of Joyous Effort"
    Apr 23, 2011

    As I told you before, Khenpo-la, your father was an extraordinary man. I am so grateful to him, and his extraordinary son for bring this dharma to the world.

  3. Mark Hobbs
    Apr 22, 2011

    Your father is a shining example for all practitioners of how to live and die. Just hearing this story is a blessing.

    May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness
    May we be free from suffering and the root of suffering
    May we not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering
    May we dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression and prejudice

    Thank you

  4. Katrina Miller
    Apr 22, 2011

    Thank you so much Khenpo. What a beautiful story!

  5. Laura Dorfman
    Apr 22, 2011

    Thank you Rinpoche for a beautiful story of a beautiful man.

  6. Khenpo Gawang, thank you for sharing such a touching story of your family and father’s good death. It is this example of which I will think when I dedicate the merit of my practice and offerings.

  7. Khenpo – what a blessing it is for you to share this story about your precious father. Thank you.


  8. Gayle Van Gils
    Apr 21, 2011

    Khenpo, thank you so very much for sharing this inspiring true story of faith and compassion with us. In the west, we have had few examples of this kind of total dedication to truth, and hearing of your father opens my heart and reinforces what I know to be true. It is our own connection to our hearts and to goodness and practicing the view in all of our activities that is of the greatest benefit to our world. Personally, I want to add that I miss you, and hope that I will have the opportunity to see you again before too long! Much love, Gayle.

  9. Thank you Khenpo for sharing this story.

  10. Greg Bronswinkel
    Apr 21, 2011

    Rinpoche, thank you so much for sharing.
    Missing you deeply.

    Your devoted Mipham Academy student

  11. Brad Hoffman
    Apr 21, 2011

    Many thanks.

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