In the Four Reminders, a traditional Tibetan Buddhist teaching, the second reminder urges us to remember how fleeting and fragile life is, like a bubble, and how quickly and unexpectedly the bubble may be ruptured. “Death comes without warning,” it says. “This body will be a corpse. At that time, the Dharma will be my only help. I must practice it with exertion.” In other words, carpe diem: practice like your hair is on fire, for you never know when your time will be up.
“We do not know where death awaits us so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.” – Montaigne
It’s true that death sometimes comes without warning, but at other times it mounts an all-out media blitz to warn people of its coming. It can arrive suddenly in a burst of unthinkable horror, as it did for my friend John; or it can send word discreetly that it is planning to come in the near future. Death can creep in bit by bit over the course of many years, gradually tightening its grip with agonizing slowness, giving you plenty of time to think about it. That’s how it came for Ani Palmo, who had battled first throat cancer and then emphysema for about a decade. She had rehearsed and anticipated and talked about her death for so long that it became a sort of running joke at the Abbey. Ani Palmo was dying, and she had been dying ever since most people could remember; but we wondered if she might end up out-living most of us.
In the effusive manner of an old-world Polish grandmother, she was famous for her hospitality, and for the cookies and chocolates and gossip she would offer to visitors at her cabin. But once you were relaxed and comfortable, she would turn her flashing, slightly intimidating blue eyes on you and ask you — in her thick Polish accent — about your meditation practice. Her frivolity was matched by her gravitas as a practitioner. Her students loved her passionately, and had a respect for her that bordered on fear – and for good reason. For all her sweetness, Ani Palmo had sharp edges. She could be severe and demanding, and disarmingly perceptive.
By the time I knew her, Ani Palmo was confined to her cabin, tucked in the woods a short ways from the Abbey, and she breathed with the help of an oxygen machine. I often went into town and did the shopping for Abbey residents, so I was the one who brought Ani Palmo her supplies of cookies and chocolates. Her eyes always lit up when I walked into the room, and she would greet me with a cheerful “Hieeee!” or with my monastic name, “Zopa!” Occasionally, she would ask me to bring her something contraband, such as an “everything” bagel with garlic and onions (both taboo substances in the Buddhist monastic code), and we would share a conspiratorial smile. Then she would invite me to sit down, offer me some of the goodies I had brought for her, and ask for the latest gossip from the Abbey. Often, she would break down in a spell of acute wheezing, unable to catch her breath, the fluids deep in her lungs rattling in a guttural way that alarmed me every time I heard it.
With Ani Palmo there was none of the usual tip-toeing around the subject of death. It was constantly on her mind, and on her tongue. She anticipated death every day, and in fact she wished it would hurry up and come. It was long overdue, as far as she was concerned. Any casual conversation with her was likely to come around to the topic of her death, and she often sent visitors away with some little cherished possession as a parting gift, in case they never met again: a photo, a tchotchke, a Dharma text or practice implement. She seemed to have an endless supply of these objects, so her practice of giving them away was never finished. Again and again, people came to visit her and say their final, emotional farewells, only to return in a year or two or three to find her still alive. At her 76th birthday celebration, she told us that if her birthday wish came true, she would not live to see another one.
Ani Palmo did not fear death; what she feared was the suffering involved in dying. She had seen her mother dying, also from emphysema. She had witnessed the horror and pain of someone slowly drowning in her own internal fluids, so she knew more or less what kind of physical suffering was in store for her. She was already deep in the grips of that suffering, and could only tolerate it with the help of morphine and Dilaudid. Among the team of people at the Abbey who shared the task of giving Ani Palmo her medications, it was joked — but we weren’t sure it was really a joke — that she took enough painkillers every day to kill William S. Burroughs in the prime of his opiate addiction.
Yet, for all that, she was remarkably clear-minded, and surrendered to her situation. She had long ago accepted her illness as her own karma coming to fruition, and she did not seem to have any resentment about it. Since there was no looking away from death, in her case, she chose to fully embrace it. Following the Tibetan tradition, she saw death as the greatest opportunity for liberation and enlightenment — as long as one is properly prepared for it.
When I went to visit Ani Palmo I would sometimes find her listening to a reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This reading had been recorded specifically for her, years before, by Pema Chödrön. The book is a shamanic guide both to dying and to liberation for the consciousness of the dead person in what is called the bardo — the disembodied, confusing state after death but before rebirth. According to tradition, this in-between state is fertile with the potential for full awakening if one is trained to recognize the nature of mind and to rest in it with equanimity. Over the years she spent preparing for death, Ani Palmo must have listened to that recording at least 100 times.
During Ani Palmo’s last stay at the hospital, about an hour's drive away from the Abbey, we set up a team of people to take turns staying with her around the clock. On the day she passed, I went to the hospital for a late-morning shift. Serri, one of the other temporary monks, was there along with Barbara, the director of the Abbey. Ani Palmo was very agitated, and tears were streaming down her cheeks. She was talking very fast in what seemed to be Polish, and struggling to catch her breath in-between phrases.
“Look, Ani Palmo,” said Barbara. “Zopa’s here.” Ani Palmo grew quiet for a moment and opened her eyes wide, making an effort to focus on me; I couldn’t be sure if she still recognized me. Then her eyes went unfocused again and she lapsed back into her Polish monologue. I sat by her bed for a while and stroked her hand and arm. She seemed to want desperately to communicate something, but we had no idea what she was saying.
Then, from somewhere within the stream of incoherent words, a few syllables jumped out at me, and I suddenly recognized them: “...Vajra Guru...” I realized that Ani Palmo wasn’t babbling incoherently — she was reciting the Guru Rinpoche mantra. I began to sing the mantra repeatedly to its familiar melody: Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum. Barbara and Serri joined in. Ani Palmo stopped speaking, her eyes still closed, and listened intently for a while as we repeated the mantra, and then she piped up again: “Om Ah Hum!” Those three syllables from the mantra that was sacred to her were her last clearly spoken words.
After a little while Ani Palmo raised her hand and gestured toward the MP3 player that held the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Serri turned on the recording, and we listened to Ani Pema’s voice as she began to guide Ani Palmo, according to tradition, through the stages of the dying process and its immediate aftermath. Since she had listened to the recording so many times before, it was natural to assume that this time might be like all the others.
After Barbara and Serri left to return to the Abbey, I was alone with Ani Palmo and the vivid descriptions, wafting out from the little MP3 player, of what one sees and experiences in the bardo of dying and the bardo of dharmata — the moment when the consciousness of the now-dead person reawakens without a physical body. According to tradition, in the bardo of dharmata the mind’s inherent luminosity and openness shines brilliantly and without obstruction, if only for a moment, before habitual patterns begin to cloud it over again. That moment of clarity is said to be ripe with potential for complete awakening, if one is able to recognize mind’s luminous, empty nature and remain within that experience.
The MP3 player was set on repeat, and Ani Palmo and I must have listened to that forty-minute section of the recording two or three times before it began to dawn on me that this might not simply be another in Ani Palmo's long series of rehearsals for death — that this might be the real thing. At a certain point Ani Palmo’s breathing abruptly shifted and became strangely calm. I called in the nurse to look at her. The nurse checked her IV line and felt her forehead, shrugged her shoulders, and left unfazed. She had seen similar things before.
I ran a washcloth under the tap and wiped Ani Palmo’s forehead with it. She was no longer very responsive to touch, but I could tell she was still listening to Ani Pema’s voice, and following the instructions. Every once in a while when Ani Pema would say her name, she would respond with a non-verbal sound of recognition, just the smallest of grunts — but enough to tell me she was still there, still listening. According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the hearing is the last of the senses to go; in fact, hearing is believed to continue functioning even in the bardo after death, which is why the Tibetan Book of the Dead is read aloud to people who have recently died.
Gradually, the spaces between Ani Palmo’s breaths became longer and longer. I began to silently count the time before her next in-breath: three, five, ten, fifteen seconds. At some point I waited for the next breath and counted the seconds, and then just kept counting: one minute, two minutes went by. I kept waiting, but she never took another breath. At the very end, after all those years of battling illness, she slipped across the threshold of death so peacefully that I wasn’t even sure it had happened. I reached out a hand to stroke her forehead and smooth her hair back, and whispered: “Your struggle is over, Ani Palmo. You’re free.”
Death is the greatest uncertainty, and yet nothing could be more certain than the fact that we will die. We don’t know when it will come, or how; and despite what we may believe and what tradition may tell us, we don’t really know what will or won’t happen once we cross that threshold. As with a black hole, we can’t know what lies beyond the event horizon because no light or information escapes the gravitational pull of this greatest of unknowns. But we can choose, to some degree, how we cross into the vast, open space of that question. We can go kicking and screaming with fear and regret, clutching in vain at the shards of the mirror that is shattering before our very eyes; or we can dissolve into that open space and trust that our fractured reflection in the broken mirror of self wasn’t really who we were in the first place.
Ani Palmo became one of my greatest teachers that morning: she showed me what the death of a great Dharma practitioner looks like. To the last moment, her commitment to waking up did not falter. Despite the complete deterioration of her body, the unbelievable amount of medication she was on, and whatever traces of fear and anxiety and attachment she might have felt — with so much stacked against her, she maintained the clarity and strength of mind and singularity of purpose to continue practicing, right up to the threshold of death, like her hair was on fire.