Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Dying with Confidence - Introduction

A Tibetan Buddhist Guide to Preparing for Death

Introduction

Starting when I was about two or three years old, I began to have experiences of death. One day, a woman named Kaki Padmatso came to my village. She gave me a walnut with a red-painted husk as a gift. It may sound incredible to a Western audience, but after I received that gift from her, strange things began to happen to me. I would stop breathing—and, one might say, literally die—for several minutes up to a half an hour. These death experiences continued to occur for about three years.

These were unique experiences in my life. Lama Chupur, the realized Dzogchen yogi who raised me, could not explain why this was happening to me. But he worked very hard to bring me back to the living, and practiced hard to release my life from the grasp of this obstacle. Although this could have been a very frightening time, the instructions I received helped me work through any fear I might have otherwise experienced.

One day, a poor, one-handed beggar named Pasang Lhakto came to our village. My mother told me later that Lama Chupur gave him all of the food we had in our humble kitchen—butter and steamed corn. Usually, my mother is a very generous person but on that day, Lama Chupur's generosity was even greater than hers. "What are you doing?" she asked him. Lama Chupur just smiled and said, "Your son will not experience this obstacle any longer." And I didn't. I did not experience death again until many years later.

Later, I felt as though the teachings on death and dying were, in a way, narrating the experiences of my childhood. I realized I had received an incredible gift: I know that what the Vajrayana Buddhist texts describe about death is what a being actually experiences before the inner breath ceases. I know that the descriptions given in the teachings on the bardos, literally the intermediate states, are accurate—and I know all this as a matter of personal experience. As a result, my trust in these teachings can never be shaken.

In 1997, I had another experience of death. I became very sick with pleurisy and fluid began to fill up my lungs. My body became very heavy. The Chinese doctor, untrained in any of the techniques of Western medicine, had never used a needle to remove fluid from the lungs before, but he decided he needed to do so now—and so he put a large needle in my back. No one knows exactly what he hit when he put the needle in, but I was unconscious for more than an hour. I didn't breathe for more than forty minutes.

I can assure you that when you are unconscious and not breathing, it is very difficult to recognize that you are dying and that you need to continue your Dharma practice. As I began to experience the stages after death, I was enveloped in heavy blackness. I don't know at what point, but suddenly I remembered my lama deeply in my heart, and began to pray to him. I was filled with devotion, and I thought to myself, "If I die now, I die with no fear. But if I am able to live, I will rejoice in that opportunity." Remembering that I had more work I wanted to do for the Dharma and for all beings, I thought to myself, "I am going to live and I am going to go back." With that thought, I was able to wake up again.

I can tell you it is very, very difficult to remember to practice at such a time. I can also tell you that it is sometimes even possible to "come back to life" if we recognize the state of death and then exert our will to live.

Throughout my life, I have remembered these experiences over and over again. I often reflect on death and the process of dying, and this has inspired me to begin working on projects to support those who are preparing for death. I feel that if practitioners have the same conviction about what will happen during the dying process that I do, they will feel more inspired to practice. Knowing what will happen when death arrives is so useful and practical—it is like a roadmap. After all, who wouldn't look for clear directions before they travel somewhere new?

We all know that death is certain—no one ultimately evades death. What we often forget is that death can come at any time. For Buddhists, the moment of death is the most potent opportunity to practice. Indeed, it is the key opportunity to attain realization or a positive rebirth. Thus, meditation practice in Buddhism is actually practicing for death. You are practicing so that you can have mindfulness and clarity in that moment when you are dying, so you are confident you are prepared to use the experiences after death for the best rebirth possible—or even complete and perfect liberation.

We must redefine the meaning of our practice so we can cultivate a feeling of rejoicing about the moment of death. If we practice hard enough in our lifetime, the experience of death will be our absolute best opportunity to have the strongest result from all of the aspirations and practices we've cultivated in our Dharma life. If we are duly prepared, I can promise that the moment of death will be an experience of rejoicing. If we are not prepared, it will surely be a time of fear and regret. When we think about death in this light, we should feel strongly motivated to practice every day.

Some people think that contemplating their own death will make them sorrowful. They would prefer not to think about it. For a meditation practitioner, however, this is a great mistake. By avoiding thinking about the reality and moment of death, we are losing a chance to really motivate ourselves to practice. We must reflect on our lives: there may only be a short time left. Do we have the confidence and the tools to die skillfully? Have we done the utmost to practice properly? Although we may plan how we would like to die and express our wishes to our friends and family, it may not always be possible to have someone next to us reminding us what to do. It is our responsibility to be prepared. No one can do this for us.

There is a metaphor in the Tibetan texts that says that one who receives teachings but does not gain experience through practice is like a farmer who doesn't tend his own fields—even as he constantly tells others how they should tend theirs.

People today receive many teachings, but at the time of death have they gained enough experience to die well? If we don't rethink how we are spending our lives and investing our energy in terms of our practice, we will be like the farmer and have nothing to eat at harvest time.

Preparing for Death

Students from many different cultural and spiritual backgrounds come and ask me for help when a loved one is dying. When someone close to us is dying or has died, we begin to think seriously about what our own death will be like. While this book will guide Buddhist practitioners preparing for their own death, it will also serve Buddhists and non-Buddhists who would like to help someone die while relying upon the supports of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Those who would like to help non-Buddhists in the dying process will also find these instructions useful and can adapt them to incorporate the spiritual tradition of the dying person—even if they are not Buddhist, they might appreciate your efforts anyway. And if they do not want you to perform phowa for them, you can instead generate compassion and pray for the person as much as you can.

For Tibetan Buddhists, however, unless you have extreme confidence or certainty about your ability to properly recognize and rest in the nature of mind, and unless you can rest in the Dharmakaya constantly, you should train in and practice phowa. It will not create any obstacles so it is always good to do. Furthermore, our assessment of where our practice is now may not be accurate. We may think that we are more skillful practitioners than we actually are. In light of this, it is best to practice phowa. What's more, it cannot be emphasized enough that everyone—practitioner and helper, Buddhist and non-Buddhist—will benefit by learning about the signs of death. Knowing what to expect will help us know what to do at the right time.

Before we learn the traditional Buddhist teachings on the signs and stages of death, before we take up the practice of the transference of consciousness, before discussing medical and spiritual considerations at the time of death—all topics we will explore together in this book—there are necessary preparations to enhance our chances of using these teachings effectively.

First, I am a strong advocate of each of us as Buddhist practitioners taking time for honest self-reflection and knowing where we are now on the spiritual path and where we would like to be in the future. Then I suggest creating two documents: one, a Dharma Vision, a realistic plan and commitment for accomplishing this lifetime's aspirations for practice; and two, a Dharma Will, a plan for how we wish to die that designates "entrusted Dharma friends" who have agreed to assist with rituals, prayers, and practices at the time of death. When people in the West get older, they write wills for their children. What we need now is a Dharma Will for ourselves!

After reading through this guide and creating your Dharma Vision and Dharma Will, I encourage you to prepare a special "Dharma Box" as well—this box should contain the Dharma Will, copies of our advance medical directives and other legal papers, as well as all the practices and ritual items we wish to have with us as we die.

I will offer specific instructions on using the different stages of the dying process as a spiritual practice and will also give detailed instructions on a phowa text that was passed down to me by my root lama, Kyabje Tsara Dharmakirti Rinpoche. This text is from the Longchen Nyingthig lineage. It is important to learn the visualizations now while you are healthy and sound of mind and body and able to practice energetically. This does not mean that phowa cannot be learned or trained in when we are elderly or sick, however, it is easier to master this practice when we are young and healthy. It is, of course, best to study with an authentic teacher and to attend phowa retreats whenever possible so there is appropriate support and sufficient time to experience the results of successful practice. The essence of all phowa teachings is the same, although there are slight differences in the texts. The phowa instructions given later in this book are sufficient to begin practicing now if you have not had prior instruction, or will serve as a reminder of any prior phowa teachings you have received.

Finally, we will explore the role of the entrusted Dharma friend and decide if we wish to serve sangha members and friends by practicing with them as they die and reminding them how to use the unique opportunity of death. I encourage each and every one of us to consider performing this service to our Dharma brothers and sisters. With very little effort, everyone can learn to do phowa successfully and contribute to the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

The phowa text and other practices to be recited as we are dying and to guide the consciousness after death can be found on the Phowa Foundation website at www.phowafoundation.org.

May these teachings inspire and guide us to practice the true Dharma and to face death fearlessly. May they help create the conditions for all to attain liberation and perfect enlightenment!