Tulku Gyatso Remembered
By Valentina Dolara
On November 21, 2011, Tulku Gyatso, who served since 2000 as the resident teacher of Centro Terra di Unificazione Ewam in Florence, Italy, stopped breathing after manifesting a stroke three days earlier. Ten days later, on December 1, he completed his clear light meditation and left his body.
With these events, the humble, loving, caring and quiet hidden master of Centro Terra di Unificazione Ewam has displayed the most powerful, public and eloquent lesson in one of the central and gripping points of Dharma practice: death and dying.
Events unfolded in a very quick and unsettling way, but they have manifested the skillfully planned agenda of this master. Early in 2011, students requested Tulku Gyatso to accept a long life puja and he decided to do it on an auspicious day during the following autumn. The ceremony, on November 17, was attended by many students from Florence and other Italian centers. He was in good health, happy to greet all the students and people who have benefitted the center in different ways over the years. He offered a khata to everyone, reminding us once again the importance of purchasing the center building to preserve the roots of Dharma in the city.
The following day, around 6 a.m., he manifested the signs of a stroke with seriously impaired movement, faculty of speech and, apparently, consciousness. Rushed to the hospital, the doctors immediately declared Tulky Gyatso to be in a coma and that recovery and survival would be impossible. What followed after this initial prognosis was the extraordinary manifestation of the power of a life-long pure, hidden and undistracted practice of Dharma.
Although the doctors had certified the coma as irreversible, while firmly holding a mala in his left hand, Tulku Gyatso managed to tell his attendant Sonam and the other two students in the room that “he could not open the eyes but that he could see them and that he was not in pain.” Also, he undoubtedly started to smile when, lying on the ER bed just after his arrival at the hospital, I told him that I had brought him an image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to “be with him” and thanked him for all he had done for us all these years.
As no medical procedures were going to be attempted, the hospital agreed to allow us to bring him back home and be monitored by Tulku’s personal doctor. As he was living in a tiny loft accessed only by steep stairs, a bed was arranged for him in the gompa. His breathing was almost nonexistent and short, but he kept holding the mala, moving his fingers around its beads and raising it to his heart every now and then for the following three days. Students were allowed to stay in the gompa next to him, quietly meditating and praying for the entire time, day and night.
On Novmeber 21 at 8:58 p.m., Tulku stopped breathing and entered clear light meditation until December 1.
If there is one common element to all the testimonies we have collected to compose this article, it is the profound peace and intensity of the energy inside the gompa for the entire period before he stopped breathing and for all the long, stupefying days following. Everyone, in different words, has mentioned the increased capacity to meditate, to stay focused, to have stillness, to get rid of useless discursive thoughts, to be in peace. Everyone received a direct, powerful, unforgettable teaching on how death can be faced and overcome, on what are the real, practical results of the teachings we listen to and study.
Tulku lived almost in disguise, as a devoted but not overtly renowned master. And he offered the example of his death to everyone who has been willing to come and sit even for few moments next to him. He has spent the last days of this life and the entire period of his after-death meditation in public, without any filter.
Everything was naturally and harmoniously peaceful. Tulku Gyatso had no pain before and showed no signs of physical decay after his death. So many people clearly smelled the scent of flowers in the room for many days after he had stopped breathing. And everyone (including complete strangers who had come to center out of curiosity) were amazed by the special radiance of the room.
For the first time, Tulku has displayed the fullness and strength of his realizations. It was as if he had never been so powerfully present to each one of us as our strong teacher on the Dharma path. Some disciples have seen him in their dreams, others feel his presence in their daily practices as never before; everyone is still feeling his presence in a quite physical way.
Most significantly, everyone, old and new students, have played a part in what has been necessary to do. Everyone has contributed to make bureaucratic procedures and practical steps smooth and effective. He has called on us all to cooperate in harmony to take care of the last, fundamental moments of his life.
His body was brought to Sera Je Monastery in Bylakuppe, India, and on December 20, Je Tsongkhapa Day, was cremated. When the coffin was opened before the cremation one month after he died, there were still no signs of decomposition.
We rejoice for the gift we have been offered – his loving and wise presence in all these years – and we hope to be able to meet him again soon.
May we all have the merit to proceed on the path in the way Tulku Gyatso has indicated to us.
Student Reflections on the Passing of Tulku Gyatso
Carmelo B., student and personal physician of Tulku Gyatso:
Tulku had a severe brain stroke and was technically in a coma with almost no chances of survival. In the best scenario he would have survived in a vegetative state. For this reason it was decided to avoid aggressive therapies and only assist him with an oxygen mask. When people are in a state of coma there can be automatic movements, and this may explain why Rinpoche counted the mala while hearing his students reciting Tara and other mantras.
What is really surprising from a medical point of view is that he remained such a long time without showing signs of body decomposition. Two to three days after people die, there are clear signs of degeneration and loss of liquids from the body, but in his case this did not happen. His face did not show the typical pallor of death. There was no foul smell at all.
What has struck me most is the behavior of his entourage before he died. Everybody had difficulty in understanding the fact that he could not survive. Tibetans thought he could be saved but after explaining them the medical situation, they understood. Western disciples had more difficulty in understanding. They hoped for some magical remedy and wanted to try anything from alternative medicines to invasive treatments. On Monday evening when I arrived, a half-hour after he ceased breathing, the atmosphere was completely changed. Everybody was relaxed. Tibetan women had prepared meals and there was no more sadness, just peace – I really perceived this change.
Tulku was a really pious person. Since he had respiratory problems, I had to ask him about living conditions while he was in [Chinese] prison camps. A typical punishment was to be put naked in the winter snow. He could talk about this with absolute detachment, without any hint of aversion, completely peaceful.
Antonio P., student:
During the first few days after Tulku ceased breathing, the gompa was pervaded by an intense scent. We had taken away all the flowers and incense, but the scent remained; it was strange and we could not explain it. There was incredible peace, something I have never experienced before. The evening he passed away, and also when his mind left the body, I was there and I consider myself so lucky to have witnessed this. I knew that when a great master dies his body remain fresh, and now it was happening in front of me, his body still fresh after days. For me it was a proof that Dharma teachings are correct. I did not go often to ask Tulku questions, unless it was about serious Dharma matters. My relationship with him was more related to non-verbal communication; he had great ability to go beyond words. I do not speak Tibetan, but when we were alone he used to speak to me and I could understand! He would not give long commitments during initiations, but always stressed the need to cultivate good heart and kindness. This was the main commitment. He was very kind, but at times he knew how to be tough. If it was necessary, he could become very tough for your benefit.
Silvia B., student:
Being able to witness Tulku Gyatso’s death process has been absolutely important for me because it gave me the certainty that Dharma teachings are correct, that tantra works and that there is continuity of consciousness. Although I already believed in these thing, there were still doubts in a little corner of my mind. This new understanding gave me faith and enthusiasm, and Dharma is now more central to my life. Since I could now see that Dharma teachings are confirmed, my relationship with others has changed. I now better understand that small things can have big consequences and therefore I see things in a perspective beyond this life.
I already lived through the passing away of my root guru, but at that time I was emotionally disturbed and it was not possible to see him. So I prayed that when the time came, that I could witness a great teacher pass away. Nine days after Tulku stopped breathing I had the chance to see his face after the veil was lifted by the attendant – and it was like how it was on the first day. All the time in the gompa there was an incredible serene and peaceful atmosphere. Tulku died in front of many students, and I could not believe that we could share a moment of death with such peace of mind. During the next 10 days people would come and go freely, quietly meditating close to him. It was so powerful that I felt I could easily put into practice all his teachings.
Mimmo P., student:
Throughout his 11 years with us, Tulku always showed the real, perfect qualities of a Mahayana guru: morality, compassion, generosity, etc. He used to live in the tiny loft, in such a narrow space that the bags with his personal belongings had to be stored at the end of his bed. There was no room to lay down so I am pretty sure he used to sit all night in meditation. The 10 days he remained in the clear light have been an incredible experience due to the energy emanating from his body. I went there any time I could. The more I think about this experience, the more I realize how extraordinary it has been. When I saw his face after a few days, it was like he had just died.
Ninì M., student:
Tulku for me was a great teacher, somebody very high, but my relationship with him was a bit formal; I could not go to him and talk about my petty problems or even ask for advice. He was a teacher which I regarded with great respect, but I also perceived him as a little distant and I did not want to disturb him. He passed so much time in the loft praying and meditating. So, when he died, it came as a surprise to me to realize how deep my relationship with him was. I was away at that time doing a retreat, and I suffered deeply, like if a part of myself had been cut. I wanted to come back but then I decided that to finish the retreat as this was the best way to honor him. I came back the last day of his clear light meditation and went immediately to visit him. I couldn’t see his face but his hands seemed still alive. The next day his consciousness left the body, and I thought how kind he had been to wait for me to come back!
Eleonora C., student:
While Tulku was leaving us I sometimes found myself denying the reality of what was happening right in front of me, the reality of my guru dying. But then I realized that I could not lose my teacher, only his body would go. So I passed through this experience positively, seeing it as an excellent opportunity to grow in the practice and becoming more responsible.
What I really appreciated was that access to Tulku, before and after he ceased breathing, was free for all his disciples. There were no students with more rights than others to stay close to him. We were all equal and could come and visit him anytime. Sitting in meditation, everything was so peaceful and profound. https://fpmt.org/mandala/archives/mandala-for-2012/april/tulku-gyatso-remembered/