Dharma Mitras

Published on 04 September 2012

Helping others according to their need is the true expression of compassion and I am always encouraged when people take practical steps like this to put such positive motivation in action… 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama 

An amateur (from the Latin word for lover) is defined as someone approaching a subject with an open mind and financially disinterested manner, meaning amateurs (like Charles Darwin) do it for love… 

Therapists and teachers from many traditions agree that underlying all fears is the fear of death, and that a willingness to examine this inescapable fact can help to free us from unnecessary suffering. The time of dying is rich in spiritual possibilities. This can be enhanced, through the Buddhist emphasis in care for the dying, on qualities of simplicity, kindness, humour, warmth, openness and stability.

During her work with the AIDS Council of NSW, long time Buddhist practitioner Judy Arpana designed and implemented care programs to support people through this transitional process. A counsellor for many years to clients with life-limiting illnesses, their relatives and carers, Judy has been invited to hold training seminars for doctors, nurses, social and pastoral care workers, educators, staff and volunteers in aged care facilities and hospices in Australia, the UK, NZ, Ireland and Europe. 

At the invitation of Siddhartha’s Intent Australia, for one weekend a month during winter 2011 Judy delivered a six-day series of seminars for dharma practitioners. This was with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s wish that participants would go on to serve their local communities in the capacity of dharma mitra, or spiritual friend at the end of life. The program’s aim was to train a group of volunteers to respond effectively to requests from the general public and sangha members for visitors with a Buddhist-based approach to those approaching death.

The interactive seminars used meditations and practices of mindfulness to explore the concepts of fearless receptivity, unconditional acceptance, quiet confidence, and authentic presence. The importance of providing a stable environment for the dying person and their relatives – of remaining peaceful, respectful and calm. As it progressed, the program familiarised participants with the physiology and psychology of the dying process, and shared exercises on working with unfinished business, forgiveness, bearing witness, being fully present and offering the gift of compassionate listening

With time in between each weekend for practice and reflection, the course addressed practical issues involved with the grieving process, organ donation, supporting bereaved families and communicating openly about death and dying using simple, everyday language. Participants learned the difference between help and service, wrote personal motivation and dedication prayers and reflected on their own spiritual journey in preparation for accompanying others on theirs.

Consciously experiencing life’s continuum of mini-deaths made the non-duality of life and death increasingly apparent, and we learned that healing is always possible, even while dying. That facing our own death by putting our legal, family and funeral matters in order serves us well for being with another dying person. The parallels between the way we live life and the way we die deepened our appreciation of the necessity for maintaining a daily spiritual practice as a preparation for death. As happens in group dynamics, while material was covered and skills developed, there were also beneficial side effects of learning from each other and teaming up in pairs to work into the community. 

While insights from the course continue to unfold in our lives, Judy prepares for her annual North India pilgrim’s tour with Karma Rinpoche to attend the Dalai Lama’s teachings and present her workshop Facing Death, Embracing Life at Deer Park Institute. Here in Australia several Dharma Mitra volunteers are already responding to local requests