Reincarnation: Tibetan Buddhism
Saturday January 10th Weekend Edition Saturday

Alex Van Oss looks into the appeal of reincarnation to Americans. Rebirth is a basic tenet of Tibetan Buddhism, which has seized public attention as a result of several recent movies and rock concerts. But interest in reincarnation has actually been rising in the United States for about a quarter of a century. And Tibetan Buddhism seems to be attractive to growing numbers of Americans who find the belief comforting when illness and death loom near.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST: Reincarnation has seized the attention of some of the public in recent months through some Hollywood movies and rock star concerts. But interest in rebirth has actually been rising in the United States for about a quarter of a century now. A Gallup poll a few years back showed that some 25 percent of the American public believe in some kind of reincarnation. While almost all religions address our anxiety over death, reincarnation is one of the central tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, which has many distinctive ideas and practices concerning both living and dying. Alex Van Oss reports that Tibetan Buddhism seems to be attractive to growing numbers of Americans who find it comforting when illness and death loom near.


ALEX VAN OSS, REPORTER: The room is white, all white, with no windows. None required. In 1882, this was the locker room of an old YMCA in the Bowery, Manhattan. Over the decades, it became a loft that hosted all kinds of artists and cultural events. It was called "The Bunker," the home of the late writer William Burroughs. But now this plain room has taken on a new life, this time as a Tibetan Buddhist shrine and study center.


ALEX VAN OSS: The Bowery is a far cry from the Himalayas, but the corner of the bunker is all aglitter with candles and silks and exotic Tibetan things. There are offerings on the shrine altar of incense, crystals, peacock feathers -- even a blueberry muffin. The students arrive, take off their shoes, grab a cushion from a pile in the corner and sit on the floor. Soon, the Tibetan teacher comes in and leads the group in meditation.


ALEX VAN OSS: The Buddhist teaching conducted here are about practicing such things as compassion, healing, living right and dying well. Dying is a daily concern for John Giorno (ph), who lives in a loft above the bunker. He's a poet and a caregiver.

JOHN GIORNO, POET AND CAREGIVER: A friend of mine is quite sick with cancer and is dying these days. I mean, well, he's an old -- very old -- friend. And I'm helping him through it all and going to be there when he dies and in the, sort of, the many hours of the day after he dies, with his body.

ALEX VAN OSS: Keeping company with the dying and the body after death is important in Tibetan Buddhism, which John Giorno has studied for 30 years. It's given him a lot of experience in thinking about death, as did his own bout with cancer. Then in the '80s came AIDS, and John Giorno set up one of the early AIDS financial assistance programs. And now, every day, he gives out money or tends to the sick and the dying. Buddhist practice has changed his outlook.

JOHN GIORNO: In the Western world, the person's dead, put him in a body bag and get him out of here, you know? But when somebody dies, it's not just, sort of, like...


... turn out the light and it's dark -- the dark room. I mean, dying is a long, complicated process. And so one can -- one works with that before, during, and after the moment of death.


ALEX VAN OSS: Tibetan Buddhists believe that preparation in life for death can make all the difference. They hold that the moment of death may actually lead to enlightenment, or at least to a transition period before the best possible rebirth.

Tibetan texts have mapped this spiritual terrain in great detail. For example, the famous "Tibetan Book of the Dead" is meant to be read and chanted to the dying and to the corpse for many days. It's a kind of guidebook that tells the dying person what to do and how to concentrate after death. The idea takes a bit of getting used to, but Tibetan spiritual teacher Sogyal Rimpoche says these ancient words are meant to be practical.

SOGYAL RIMPOCHE, TIBETAN SPIRITUAL TEACHER, AUTHOR, "THE TIBETAN BOOK OF LIVING AND DYING": At the moment of death, there is this wonderful advice or instruction given by this great master called Padma Sambhava (ph), who is the author of the "Tibetan Book of the Dead." And he says, "now, when the moment of death dawns upon me, I will abandon grasping, yearning and attachment, and enter it undistracted, into the clear awareness of the teaching." When the moment of death has come, suddenly you realize all this, you see, world is all just illusory. And that realization -- if you really realize in a profound way -- will actually help you to let go of attachment and aversion, which can actually hinder us in the transition. Do not be distracted. Do not be distracted. Do not be distracted.


ALEX VAN OSS: In 1992, Sogyal Rimpoche wrote an interpretation of the old Buddhist teachings, for Westerners, called, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying." It's become a bestseller. Indeed, there is now a wave of interest in Tibetan Buddhism, with classes offered across the nation. Tibetan Buddhists believe that preparation for death can help anyone, regardless of religion or belief.

Last August, the poet John Giorno traveled to be with his old friend, the writer William Burroughs, who was dying. Giorno is Buddhist. Burroughs was not. But Giorno stayed with him during the entire dying process, and for a period afterwards.

JOHN GIORNO: Since I'm an intimate of his -- I'm his family, you know -- I was all -- they let me in immediately into the funeral home to sit with his corpse, you know, and do practice. You know, it was very fresh. I mean, his consciousness was still there outside his corpse. But the corpse and the consciousness were in the same place. And one just did various meditation practices.

And in doing it, one got very good signs that William, indeed, had -- I mean, all very blissful and joyful and peaceful and strong and great clarity -- great. The room, you know, like shivered with clarity. And so it was -- all of them pointed that he had a very good death.

ALEX VAN OSS: Reducing suffering and having a good death are what Buddhists believe they can contribute to the Western world.

ROBERT WEINRAUB (PH), BUSINESSMAN, PHOTOGRAPHER: I debated: should I tell my father? Should I start talking about -- to him about rebirth and what's going on, even though he is a -- is an adamant atheist?

ALEX VAN OSS: Robert Weinraub is a New York businessman and photographer and mountain climber. He calls himself basically an agnostic. But Buddhism, he says, was helpful when his own father lay dying, though they didn't discuss religion. Somehow, he was able to stay calm and focused for his father. Weinraub says he's read Sogyal Rimpoche's The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and it was useful.

ROBERT WEINRAUB: One of the thing he says is don't upset the ones who are dying. You don't want them to be upset, teaching them about a new religion or a new practice, you want -- the most important thing for them is to know that they're loved and to be put at ease.

CHRISTINE LONGACRE (PH), BUDDHIST CAREGIVER, HOSPICE OF SANTA CRUZ: We basically call out and invoke in the sky in front of us the presence of a Buddha or of Jesus Christ or any saint or enlightened being to whom we feel a devotion or connection -- not as solid, but in the form of radiant light.

ALEX VAN OSS: Christine Longacre is a Buddhist caregiver who helped to establish the Hospice of Santa Cruz in California. She says the atmosphere of ease at death is brought about through specific training and techniques that are largely internal, even silent. One of these is called "phowa." It's believed to help transfer or even eject the consciousness at the moment of death.

Longacre says these mental states seem to help dissolve emotional barriers between the caregiver and the dying, even in the hectic atmosphere of a hospital. Longacre tells of one doctor whom she taught to practice the phowa meditation every day before and during this work so it became a reflex.

CHRISTINE LONGACRE: What he told me is that now, since he's been continuing to do his spiritual practice in the emergency room, the whole atmosphere when someone dies is completely changed. He said, "I see their tension and their anxiety -- in the dying person's face -- change into one of a deep release, even a gentle smile. Then, when I go to tell the family members that their loved one has died, instead of becoming hostile, they often thank me and sometimes even hug me."


ALLEN GINSBERG, POET, SINGING: Born in this world You got to suffer Everything changes You got no soul.

ALEX VAN OSS: Poet Allen Ginsberg was a student of Tibetan Buddhism who often wove traditional teaches about suffering, impermanence, and death into his songs and verse.

BOB ROSENTHAL (PH), SECRETARY TO ALLEN GINSBERG: Allen told me once that the one part of Buddhism that he never could fully accept was the idea of reincarnation.

ALEX VAN OSS: Bob Rosenthal was Allen Ginsberg's secretary for 20 years. And he took care of the poet last April, when Ginsberg was dying at home in his New York loft.

BOB ROSENTHAL: The liver biopsy confirmed a inoperable, heavily metastasized cancer. The game plan switched. Allen always planned work, and he planned out the next several months of his life, but we only -- he only had one week.

ALEX VAN OSS: Rosenthal says Ginsberg always had many projects going at once, but that now Ginsberg accepted the end and did not become obsessed with all his undone work. Rosenthal is Jewish, not Buddhist.

BOB ROSENTHAL: I feel very confident that Allen's meditations eased his dying process, that he really -- he could let go and did let go. In a sense, I think that almost aided his dying in that he -- when the terminal diagnosis came, he was in a low form of ecstasy. He was exhilarated by this experience. And he put his energy into being aware of the experience. SOUND OF CHANTING

ALEX VAN OSS: The loft is a large space that admits light from the north and from the east. There are cushions on the floor and a Buddhist shrine with an altar. Ginsberg took to his bed at the far end of the room. His spiritual teacher, Geleg Rimpoche arrived, along with Tibetan monks. At some point during Ginsberg's last hour, someone turned on a recorder.

BOB ROSENTHAL: During the day that he was in a coma, there were 70 to 80 friends and relatives in attendance, talking to him, holding his hand, stroking his feet, holding his head. During the death vigil, the monks were chanting. And they were chanting the various initiations and -- that were part of Allen's practice, in a sense completing them. It was like a wake or -- I imagine -- or a pre-death wake.



BOB ROSENTHAL: The Buddhist tradition is when the last breath is gone that the body is not to be touched. And when Allen did die there in the middle of the night, there were only about 12 of us in attendance. And we cordoned off his body. And Geleg Rimpoche was here. And he determined how long Allen's consciousness was taking to leave his body. And Allen lay there for 20 hours before Rimpoche said that he was gone finally. And then, he could be taken to the funeral home.


ALLEN GINSBERG SINGING: Hey, Father Death I'm flying home

ALEX VAN OSS: There are a number of Tibetan and other Buddhist- inspired hospices and outreach programs in San Francisco, Santa Fe, Philadelphia. Christine Longacre and Sogyal Rimpoche conduct workshops in spiritual care and education for caregivers and health professionals. And Longacre has written a new book, "Facing Death and Finding Hope." In Colorado, the Tibetan Buddhist-inspired Naropa Institute has a gerontology program that works closely with a Boulder hospice. And there are others. For NPR News, this is Alex Van Oss, in Washington.

SCOTT SIMON: The Tibetan way of death is part of a series "The End of Life: Exploring Death in America," which continues on this and other NPR news magazines over the next several months. More information about the End of Life series is available at our website at

This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Scott Simon.

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