Tara's Puja Ceremony
Among Buddhists, death is regarded as one of the occasions of major religious significance, both for the deceased and for the survivors. For the deceased, it marks the moment when the transition begins to a new mode of existence within the round of rebirths. When death occurs, all the karmic forces that the dead person accumulated during the course of his or her lifetime become activated and determine the next rebirth. For the living, death is a powerful reminder of the Buddha's teaching on impermanence; it also provides an opportunity to assist the deceased person as he or she fares on to the new existence. In Buddhism, death marks the transition from this life to the next for the deceased.
Tibetan Buddhists believe that there is an in-between stage known as the bardo which can take up to 49 days. Prayers are conducted to facilitate this journey of the deceased into the afterlife.
Puja is a skillful tantric practice of purification using the power of mantra, the power of concentration, and the power of Buddha’s words of truth. Pujas are rituals that involve visualization, recitation of mantras and prayers and making offerings to the enlightened beings (Buddhas/Deities). Pujas are performed to receive the blessings of enlightened beings, accumulate merit, and dispel obstacles and negative circumstances.
TARA'S PUJA CEREMONY AND ASHES PLANTING AT PADMA SAMYE LING
Tara’s husband, Mark Lamport-Stokes, journeyed up to the Padma Samye Ling Monastery and Retreat Center in upstate New York for Tara's Buddhist Puja ceremony which took place on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. Here is an account of that trip:
In Tibetan Buddhism, after someone passes away, relatives and clergy keep vigil over the deceased for between four and nine days, during which a lama reads from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This text guides the deceased through the passages and obstacles of the bardos (the in-between states between death and rebirth).
Day seven after passing is a key date, and this was the day (March 18, 2022) when we held Tara's Buddhist funeral ceremony in St. Augustine.
Another pivotal date after passing is day 49, since this is when Tibetan Buddhists expect the deceased to be re-born. Based on this time frame, Tara's son Robert and Laia, one of the Lamas who is based at Padma Samye Ling, agreed that the ideal day for Tara's Puja ceremony would be April 27, 2022. Plans were consequently made for this ceremony to take place and I felt very sad for Robert that he was unable to travel up to Padma Samye Ling after contracting a severe bronchial infection.
For obvious reasons, we could not change this crucial date so it was my absolute privilege and indeed a labor of love to travel to upstate New York on my own to honor Tara with her Puja ceremony and also to plant the remainder of her ashes in a sacred spot identified by the Ven. Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche, one of Tara's influential Buddhist teachers over the years.
Why Padma Samye Ling?
A few years after Tara began practicing her religion, the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, she ended up living at the Buddhist monastery in South Florida where she was the caretaker and student of Venerable Lama Chimed Namgyal, who became a beloved father figure to her. The Ven. Lama Chimed had two sons, Ven. Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Ven. Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche, who also became very important mentors and teachers for Tara. In 1993, the Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches founded Padma Samye Ling Monastery and Retreat Center and Tara made her first trip there that same year.
Padma Samye Ling was established in a beautiful location on the western slopes of the Catskill Mountains in Delaware County in upstate New York. Open throughout the year, the facilities are contained within 500 acres of forests, meadows and natural springs. The three main buildings at Padma Samye Ling are: a Three Kaya Gonpa (a traditional three-story Tibetan temple replete with traditional murals and sacred art, a library and meditation halls); the Sangha House, which includes the Pemai Chiso Dharma Store, a full kitchen and dining hall and personal accommodations; and the Bodhichitta Inn, which contains shared dormitory rooms, single rooms and apartments. I stayed in the Bodhichitta Inn while I was at Padma Samye Ling and ate my meals in the Sangha House.
Tara's Puja ceremony, a beautiful and very moving service which lasted 90 minutes, was held in the Three Kaya Gonpa (pictured above) where Lamas Laia and Dragpa both officiated. Laia spoke about Tara's amazing impact as a human being at the very start of the service and he reminded those attending the ceremony that she died on exactly the same day in the Tibetan calendar as when the Venerable Lama Chimed passed in 2001. The rest of the service followed the traditional pattern of Tibetan Buddhist Puja ceremonies with moments of reflection, chanting and offerings - but throughout there were key links to the Venerable Lama Chimed and to the Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches. Most of the prayers and mantras of "supplication, dedication and aspiration" came from a book compiled by the Khenpos while another sequence of mantras - the Sky Teaching - was something that the Ven. Lama Chimed recited every day of his life. As part of the offerings and gifts required for a Puja ceremony, we set up a small shrine for Tara that included a black box containing the remainder of her ashes, a ring of candles and some beautiful flowers (her shrine is on the left in the picture below).
After the Puja ceremony had concluded, six of us (including Lamas Laia and Dragpa) piled into an all-terrain vehicle and we followed a rough track down the hillside, across a stream and then two-thirds of the way up the far ridge line before we arrived at the spot to plant the rest of Tara's ashes. This beautiful area, surrounded by pine trees and notable for its peace and tranquility, had been identified by the Ven. Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche several years earlier. There were already six separate cairns of stones in the spot to mark other Buddhists with strong links to Padma Samye Ling. We dug a hole, which Lama Laia blessed by scattering a few drops of holy oil, and we then scoured the area for enough stones to build a cairn for Tara.
It was a cold day with a high of 37 degrees Fahrenheit but the heavy snow which had been forecast never panned out. However, as if on cue and just as we found the last few stones, a smattering of snow bathed the scene in a wonderful white hue. Tara’s favorite Buddhist deity: White Tara. White Tara is known for compassion, long life, healing and serenity. Also known as The Wish-fulfilling Wheel or Cintachakra, White Tara is said to be as white and as radiant as the moon.
With incense burning, Lamas Laia and Dragpa chanted several prayers and mantras as I planted the remainder of Tara's ashes in the hole. We then filled the hole and built the cairn of stones over it before Lama Laia tied a khata, the traditional ceremonial white scarf, around the bottom of the top rock. The ashes ceremony lasted around 20 minutes and it ended with all five Sangha members praying in silence to pay their final respects to Tara.
I could not think of two better places for Tara to have her ashes scattered: in a sacred spot earmarked by the Ven. Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche at the Padma Samye Ling Monastery and Retreat Center and in the same area where we had scattered the ashes of our beloved dog, Bailey, a year earlier - outside our home in St. Augustine, right next to the bird feeder with the view that Tara so enjoyed of our lake and the woods beyond!