Lou Reed died an exemplary death. He was surrounded by his wife and his friends, bathed in the dappled gauze of a Long Island morning sun. As Laurie Anderson tells it, he took his last breath with his arms outstretched toward the autumnal light and with the broad, open smile of one in rapture. Of one at one with the world. He was prepared. His long tutelage under the Tibetan master Mingur Rinpoche allowed him to embrace this transition with grace and, ultimately it seems, without fear. By contrast, we know all too well how Philip Seymour Hoffman died. And it is we who were unprepared.
Both Lou and Phil played pivotal roles in the life of the Rubin Museum. In 2008, Lou helped up the museum's longstanding Brainwave series on the map, documented here. Phil took part in the final HappyTalk series late in 2012. As wrenching as it was to revisit this recording in the wake of Phil's death, such was the depth of his engagement with the big issues of happiness, unconditional love, and dying, that I felt we should let Phil's conversation with philosopher Simon Critchley be publicly available. We posted it on the Tuesday after his death, not fully appreciating the need people would have to understand Phil's death. Within a week it had accumulated over 40,000 views. The video is now posted for HuffPost readers on GPS for the Soul.
When Phil visited the Rubin he never got a chance to explore the galleries. But had he done so, I would have wanted him to have seen the painting that accompanies the GPS for the Soul posting. It is a contemporary re-envisioning of The Wheel of Suffering. This is a common visual tool often seen outside a Tibetan Buddhist temple. It depicts the fierce three-eyed Lord of Nothingness. He is playfully holding the whole of existence -- depicted as an oversized communion wafer -- up to his fearsome open maw. Hear this, people: Existence can be consumed, in its entirety, at any moment. The Wheel reminds us of the shortness of life, and to understand the laws of cause and effect (karma), and practice the Buddhist teachings while the opportunity is available. Beings who are consumed by the three negative preoccupations of ignorance, hatred, and desire (shown in the axle of the wheel) will cycle endlessly between the six realms of rebirth that rest between the spokes of the Wheel: Gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hell-beings, and the Hungry Ghosts.
To emphasize the constant relevance of this condition we commissioned some graphic and comic artists to each take on a contemporary envisioning of a segment of the Wheel. Steven Guarnaccia took on the eeriest depictions on this wheel -- that of the Hungry Ghosts. This realm is reserved for those who have fallen prey to uncontrolled desire. These forlorn individuals are beings are shown in a form of purgatory, with large, hollow stomachs and extremely narrow throats who can never satisfy their hunger. They yearn without ever being satiated. There is a passage in the video in which Phil movingly acknowledges the inevitable threat of the past reaching up through to the present, so I think he would have related to the karmic principle outlined on the Wheel: You can be a demi-god one minute, and a hungry ghost the next.