Nigel Westlake on The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Nigel Westlake, award-winning Australian composer featured last month’s post ‘A Symphony of Living and Dying‘, shares his moving personal story: “In June 2008, a dear friend gave me a copy of “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”following the tragic, violent & unexpected death of our youngest son, Eli. Over the next 12 months this book became my constant companion. I read it cover to cover three times, paying particular attention to the chapters dealing with death, the state of bardo and re-incarnation. I stumbled through the prescribed meditation practices and would frequently share the prayers, mantras and ancient words of wisdom with my family.  The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying became my spiritual manual as I grappled with the cruel tragedy that had befallen our family that winter.

Amongst the dreadful grief, mourning and interminable agony of his loss, a certain restlessness of spirit weighed heavily upon me. Eli’s life had been brutally and senselessly taken by another just weeks before his 22nd birthday, and I believe the soul cannot rest in peace after such an indignity.

Eli was a treasured soul, a young man brimming with empathy, goodwill, and a wisdom way beyond his years. Imbued with a wonderful sense of humor, he touched many hearts with his kind and funny ways. The devastation wrought by his death was felt so keenly, & left us searching for a way forward.

Nothing in the world could ever have prepared me for Eli’s death, but I was acutely aware that my grief was exacerbated by the absence of any spiritual  guidance. For, like the culture in which I had been raised, I  too had spent my life in denial of mortality.  Death! – the unwelcome visitor – the inconvenient truth – the awkward conversation topic – something that happens to old people and of no particular relevance to the present.

But strangely enough, I was overwhelmed by a powerful instinct to reach out to Eli on a spiritual level, to continue my fatherly duty to care for him, to offer him reassurance and assistance in negotiating the afterlife. For someone emerging from a lifetime of denial, this was a difficult concept to grapple with and it was a task for which I had no resources, sense of protocol or reference points.

Consequently it was the source of much consolation that some close friends who were followers of Tibetan Buddhism undertook to surround our family with their love and guidance in such matters.

Through meditations, prayer dedications, chalk mandalas and butter lamp ceremonies, efforts were made to guide Eli’s spirit through the states of the bardo according to the age old traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Mandala chalk from one of these ceremonies was handed to us at Eli’s funeral in a silver locket marked with an image of the Buddhist never ending knot. My wife has worn it ever since.

At the time of Eli’s death, in the Namgyal monastery, Dharamsala, India, a seven week puja (prayer ceremony)  was commissioned  for Eli by a friend who happened to be working there producing a documentary about Buddhism for children. Performed by the resident monks each Friday evening for an hour, we were able to call from Australia by phone and listen in.

Even though we had little understanding or insight into these practices, they were nonetheless profoundly moving and offered us much consolation. I have chosen to honour Eli’s memory by composing a requiem, a prayer in music for the repose of the soul. “Missa Solis – Requiem for Eli“, for symphony orchestra, chorus and solo boy soprano is an expression not only of grief, but also of joy and celebration of his life.

“Missa Solis” is latin for “Mass of the Sun”. The text is taken from various sources, referring to the essential life giving force of our nearest star. Within the third movement, “The Song of Transience” are enshrined teachings from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

Sogyal Rinpoche has incorporated many diverse writings and teachings in his book as expressions of wisdom.  The words of Lord Buddha and William Shakespeare, as quoted from the book are sung by the solo boy soprano as a reminder of the preciousness of life on earth, the qualities of compassion and the transient nature of all living things.

I am indebted to Sogyal Rinpoche for his kind permission to use these excerpts from his famous book.

In order to facilitate a future path embracing the qualities of compassion & empathy, our family, in partnership with APRA (Australasian Performing Right Assn) have established the Smugglers of Light Foundation in memory of Eli. This is a charitable organisation that raises money to facilitate cultural awareness, empowerment through education & storytelling via the mediums of music & film in youth & indigenous communities & also provides professional development scholarships for talented Australian indigenous musicians and film makers.

The results of our community workshops (called “Song Nation”) are original songs & video clips about cultural connection, future aspirations and reconciliation which are uploaded to YouTube. These clips are attracting tens of thousands of views, which in effect disseminates positive cultural mantras throughout communities that have been socially disadvantaged & disregarded for generations.

We believe it is the qualities of trust, compassion & understanding that must now play a vital role in Australia’s future with regard to its indigenous people. For more information please visit

Even though I am attracted to the notion, I must admit that I am undecided about the possibility of life after death and the reincarnation of the soul. And I am unsure whether, despite the best efforts of our Buddhist friends, Eli has successfully negotiated the bardo and has achieved reincarnation. But I know for certain that Sogyal Rinpoche offers us consolation and guidance through his writings. He has distilled the essence of the buddhist teachings, allowing all humanity a glimpse into the wisdom of these treasured ancient beliefs.

“The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”  is a gift to the world, a soothing balm for these troubled times that has the capacity to awaken within us those qualities of love and compassion that are at the very core of the teachings and which enrich our lives with meaning, insight and depth.

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