On Sunday January 28 at 2:30 pm, the Venerable Geshe Gelek Chodak initiated a prayer service in memory of Candy Wei at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life on the campus of Duke University. The memorial service was attended by approximately 170 people, including Kadampa Center members Stephanie Smith, Hong Pei, and Sherab Lama. This was the first Tibetan Buddhist prayer service for most of those present and many of them commented on how deeply moving it was for them. Candy’s mother, Jing Wang, Chair of the Department of Asian and African Languages and Literature and Director of the Center for East Asian Cultural and Institutional Studies at Duke, is Tibetan Buddhist and Candy had been brought up in a Buddhist household.
Candy committed suicide Tuesday January 16 in her dorm room at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor between 2:30 and 3:00 pm by placing a plastic bag over her head. She died in the lion position on the floor of her room after attending class on Tibetan Buddhism less than two hours earlier. Her class notes cover the bardo, impermanence, no self, time of death is indefinite, death is definite, practice of the Dharma is the only thing that helps during death, the statement “a human being is just a process”, the order in which the aggregates dissolve, and end with a star by the last line “mental consciousness”. Candy’s roommate told us that when she found her, her posture was relaxed and natural, as though gently sleeping. She had not taken an overdose of any drug.
Jing and I flew to Ann Arbor the next morning in a state of shock, with The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche for guidance. We contacted Donald Lopez, an old colleague of Jing’s whose daughter played with Candy when they were children, through the University and asked for a Tibetan Buddhist monk for a phowa in Candy’s dorm room. He brought Gareth Sparham with him and they performed the ritual together.
On Friday the 19th, Gareth initiated a prayer service for Candy at the funeral home in Ann Arbor which was attended by Jing, Candy’s boyfriend Don DeSander, Candy’s father, her uncle and aunts, and a few of her closest friends. Her body was cremated after the prayer service. Jing, Don, and I initiated a visualization exercise in her dorm room at the moment the cremation started to try and help her transition. That evening, at the Student Union, friends shared their memories of Candy. Don had put together an exhibition of her art work and Jing announced the establishment of a scholarship fund in her memory in the School of Art and Design for international travel.
Valle Jones was an ocean of comfort while we were in Ann Arbor and after our return, available at any time to listen and console, guide and reassure, working with Geshe-la and Sherab-la to prepare for the prayer service in Durham. She asked for information so prayers for Candy could be initiated at the Kadampa Center right away and followed through with loving kindness and support. Even when unexpectedly called out of town, she kept in touch through email. In the Monday night class at the Kadampa Center the day before Candy’s death, Valle covered the nine-point death awareness meditation and “All conditioned phenomena are impermanent”. This was an amazing parallel to Candy’s last class and an unexpected preparation for her departure.
Candy was a brilliant artist, gifted writer, and loving friend. She had completed a highly successful first year at the University of Michigan, seemed to have a strong sense of self-confidence, and was excited about returning for her sophomore year. Two weeks before Thanksgiving, she had to drop out of school because of a re-occurrence of psychosis after a five-year break. She responded well to outpatient therapy and wanted to return to school. She apparently felt that anti-psychotic medication would be necessary in order to function but that it impaired her artistic abilities, and did not want to live with that limitation. Her decision was unexpected. Candy’s latest work exhibited amazing imagery of rebirth, which now seems quite clear. Geshe-la commented on the bardo content of her drawings and her unusual awareness. Her work can be seen at www.candywei.org.
Geshe-la and Sherab-la have been sources of boundless compassion in helping Jing and myself deal with the pain, focus our minds on what we can do to help Candy, and plan for prayer services at Sera Je Monastery and at the Kadampa Center on March 6, the 49th day. Jing asked me to thank everyone on her behalf for their prayers and feel they have helped Candy so very much. Candy attended a Monday class at Kadampa Center last year. Donald Lopez asked me to express his regards to Don Brown, Robbie Watkins, and Valle Jones. Gareth Sparham asked about the Kadampa Center and wanted to know if it had relocated yet. The Sangha is strong and deep, alive and well.