This paper will compare two historical prayers, one Christian and one Tibetan Buddhist, both which are to be performed at the time of death. I will give a brief description of each prayer, and segue into their similarities and differences. The relevance of these prayers today will also be discussed.
The first prayer is the Proficisere, often called “Depart Christian Soul” or “Go Forth Christian Soul” originating from the eighth-century Gelasian sacramentaries. This prayer is to be performed by priests or people of high ranking in the church only, not laypeople, though this is speculation. The Proficisere is specifically for the time of death, or at least, to be said when a person is actively dying and their time of death is certainly close. This prayer is written in three parts. The first part starts with the phrase “Set out Christian Soul” and continues with sentences “In the name of” , naming the ranks of holy figures starting with God, continuing to include “even virgins and faithful widows”.
My take on this first part of the prayer is that it is directed at helping the dying one’s personality dissolve and foster new soul-identity by calling in the heavenly bodies to give credence and companionship to the departed one, and help usher one into God’s Heaven. This section concludes with the sentence “Today his place is made in peace and his dwelling in heavenly Jerusalem.” This conclusion has a tone of finality, as if to state that one’s dwelling is reserved and waiting.
The second part of the prayer begins with “May the holy angel Michael, who won the leadership of the heavenly army, uphold you.” Similar to the first section, it continues listing the names of Saint Peter, Paul and John, tying it all together with the Holy Trinity. However this section suggests that the journey from death to heaven might not be easy. Words are used like lead, help, intercede, pray, lighten your way, forgive.
The third part of the prayer continues the litany of listing of nine types of Biblical figures, all whom have been set free by the Lord from a myriad of difficulties ranging from the lions’s den to the belly of a whale. The beginning of the prayer however is where the intersections between the Buddhist Pho-wa prayer begin to be made: “Set free, Lord, the soul of your servant from all the dangers of hell and from all evil tribulations.” This part of the prayer is what excited me to do a comparison.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the prayer called “Pho-wa” is the prayer used for the moment of death. “Pho-wa” is translated as “The Transference of Consciousness at the time of death.” It is said that if one’s consciousness is successfully “transferred”, one will attain supreme enlightenment.Like most Tibetan Buddhist practices, Pho-wa includes visualizations, repetitions of mantras, and a strong component of linking the physical body with the psychophysical dissolution of the personality at the time of death. Pho-wa is said to have originated from a “primordial Buddha” Dorje Chang, one of the Buddhas said to have existed throughout time without a body. He passed the lineage and transmission of this prayer on to Tilopa, who lived between 968 and 1072.Anyone who has received the transmission or teaching of Pho-wa from a lineage master, someone who has learned from someone who eventually can be traced back to Tilopa, is allowed to perform Pho-wa for any human or animal at the time of death. They can even practice it for themselves, if they are conscious enough at the end of their lives to do it. There have been many accounts of Tibetan masters, especially during the Chinese occupation during the 1950’s, who “ejected their consciousness” themselves during or before extreme torture or imminent death.
In the Pho-wa practice, the nine human oraficesare sealed through a complex series of visualizations, so that the consciousness, or spirit of the body is encouraged to exit the body through the crown chakra at the top of the head rather than one of the lower orifices. Ejecting the consciousness through the crown chakra indicates that one will be reborn in a higher form of life with less troubles than if one’s consciousness exits through a lower center.
This exit is facilitated with the culmination of a visualization and a strange, loud, otherworldly syllable that sounds like a combination of a shriek and a “hik.” Practitioners of Pho-wa often find that the fontanels seams at the top of one’s skull have caved in somewhat. I myself am trained in Pho-wa, and have experienced this in myself but more remarkably, have seen a 3/4 inch indentation in my own teacher’s skull after a night when he had to perform Pho-wa twice in a row.
The similarities of these two prayers are many. To my surprise, the origin of both prayers are said to be within a century of each other. Both the “Depart” from the Proficisere and the “Hik” from the Pho-wa are directed at the moment the soul separates from the body. As John Lampard says, “The instruction to depart is made to the soul, clearly suggesting a concept of the separation of the body and soul at death.” Also, references are made in both prayers of the obstacles which may be ahead in the soul’s transmigrational journey. In Tibetan Buddhism, these obstacles are not so much of a possibility as a certainty.
Similarly, the importance of this moment being executed appropriately and completely has weight in determining the outcome of the journey ahead. Ralph Houlbrooke writes“Each person’s eternal fate, salvation or damnation, was settled when the soul left the body.” Another similarity is the calling on of a trinitarian composite: for the Christians, it is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For the Buddhists, it is the Buddha, the Dharma (the Teachings of Buddha) and the Sangha (community of followers.)
Surprisingly I have found fewer differences than similarities. One of the differences (which is an assumption I am making simply due to not finding a clarification) is that the Profiscere must be recited by a priest. As stated above, Pho-wa can be performed by anyone who has learned it from a lineage master, one who can trace their teachers back to Tilopa or Dorje Chang. Also, Pho-wa can be performed for one’s own death, if the dying person is conscious enough to do so.
Another difference which I am stating as an assumption is that in the case of the Profiscere, the prayer must be said at the time of death only. In the case of Pho-wa, the Tibetan Buddhist belief is that the soul/consciousness can linger in the body for up to three days, so the Pho-wa prayer can be performed after the moment of death. Actually, Pho-wa can be performed even longer than that after the moment of death, as Tibetan Buddhist believe that the soul takes a full 49 days to transmigrate into the next life, during which time there are numerous challenges which could lead to the consciousness becoming stuck.
Perhaps the most looming difference of all is not really a difference in theology as much as a difference in semantics and cultural belief. Christians believe in a Heaven that one is allowed into by God. Buddhists believe in a liberation of consciousness that can result either in complete liberation as a formless Bodhisattva, a kind of guardian angel working for the benefit of all sentient beings, or another life as a human or perhaps a lower form of life as an animal or insect, depending on one’s sins or karma. Unlike Christians with God and the Holy Trinity, Buddha is not awaiting us in this Buddhist Heaven. It is more like an expanded consciousness which is propelled by the desire to exist for the sake of all sentient beings. There is not one main theology at work here. Different sects of Tibetan Buddhism “place” heaven in different ways and words, ranging from “De-wa- Chen” or the Great Expanse of Bliss, to “The Copper-Colored Mountain” to “the constant, unchanging bliss of non-dual being.”
Relevance of both prayers to these times
Both the Proficiscere and Pho-wa are useful prayers for these modern times. Each of them addresses the vulnerability of the one about to die as well as the living who are present. In my experience with sitting with the dying, when the moment of death comes there is often a lingering of the “personality” that needs permission to let go into the soul or spirit. (I am including a short story at the end of this paper as an example of this.) One sometimes needs to be told to step into the boat so the journey to the other shore can begin. Both prayers remind the dying that they are right where they need to be, and that they will be guided into the next step of their journey by their beloveds here praying for them as well as those gone before. There is also great relevance to these prayers because when one is transitioning to death, the repetition and cadence of words properly chosen will invoke images that will help ease this transition from one world to the next. Both the “Depart, Christian Soul” and the Pho-wa visualization of the consciousness departing are aids in granting permission to go.
Finally, both prayers leave us, the remaining living, with the sense that we have done something to help our beloveds move on. This act, even if small and taking only a few minutes, can be the difference between prolonged grief and “good grief” that will become mourning, then memories embraced in love.