Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Dying with Confidence - Selections

A Tibetan Buddhist Guide to Preparing for Death

On Death and Mindfulness

May the wisdom of our teachers' minds be transferred to our minds.
May we understand the teachings and put them into practice.

From the moment we are born, we are carried by four great rivers: birth, sickness, old age, and death. From the time that we enter the mother's womb until the actual moment of dying, there is no escape from this ordinary life into which we are born. No being escapes death. We all must die; we all will die—the only question is when.

The river of birth carries us to old age. No matter what we look like on the outside, we are all going to get old. We should not think that just because we are young, just because we are healthy now, that we have time. And we don't need to wait for the signs of death to appear; the signs of "far-away" death have already manifested for all of us! We have been born—that itself is a sign of death. We must therefore reflect on the fact of death now. If we do not think about it now, it will be difficult to think about it when it is happening—as it inevitably will. Most importantly, it will be impossible to have any kind of mindfulness that death is approaching if we refuse to reflect on it during our life. Through the cultivation of mindfulness now, the forces of habit and practice will help us practice it at the time of death. Truly, through the power of committed practice, there is nothing that cannot become easy. So if we put effort into reflecting upon death during our lifetime, we will find that this will support our practice and mindfulness at the actual time of death.

As the river of birth carries us to old age, it will also carry us along the river of illness, bringing us even closer to death. Reflect on all the various kinds of illnesses that exist on the planet today. Some are chronic and can make us ill for twenty or thirty years—or a whole lifetime. Some occur suddenly and are incurable. Some have gradual onset, so slow we barely notice until they are already very far advanced. As we get ill and closer to death, the "close" signs of death will begin to manifest. We can all recognize these signs if we train in mindfulness.

Many of you have taken birth in the country of America, where there is access to many material things. What is most needed, though, is access to true Dharma teachings. We may even have the good fortune to encounter the Dharma and to receive precious teachings, but often we lack the diligence to actually practice the teachings we receive.

Teachings on death and dying and on the transference of consciousness are supreme teachings. For ordinary practitioners, phowa is the teaching which is most accessible and which we are most capable of mastering. We should receive these teachings many times over, as often as possible. Doing so will strengthen our connection to that practice, which in turn will help us to be more present at the time of death.

The fact of death is certain. And for this very reason, because it is completely certain, death is something we should be fearless about. If we are not fearless at the moment of death, the only choice is to return to samsara, to re-enter the cycle of birth, suffering, and death, over and over again. We should reflect deeply on this.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, many great lamas predict their own death far in advance. We wonder how they can do this with such certainty, often predicting the exact day they are going to die. One simple answer is that they have gained great experience in the signs of death and have such mindfulness that they can tell exactly when any of the senses begins to degrade. This allows lamas or yogis to abide in the profound teachings and do incredible things like dying in the posture of meditation, shrinking their bodies—a sign of nearly-complete realization—or even dissolving into rainbow body, a sign of complete realization. After their bodies are cremated, other signs appear, like the manifestation of rangsel, or luminous beads. The rangsel is able to manifest because these great yogis were able to abide in their lama's heart teachings at the moment of death.

In the West, old people are often placed in nursing homes to die. They don't want to depend on their children or accept help, and sometimes their children are just too busy to take care of them. If the children are in a position to offer care, their parents should accept it. Then the children can see every day how their parents get older and older; they can see the dying process. Then it becomes natural to think about death.

During our lifetimes, we generally pay a lot of attention to our bodies, but rarely think about what goes with us when we die. We cannot, of course, take any physical or material aspect of our lives with us when we die. It is only the consciousness that goes with us. It is also only the consciousness that experiences suffering or, more accurately, is able to perceive the experience of suffering. Most importantly, it is the consciousness itself that can be transformed into wisdom during the dying process. The majority of the time we are focused on maintaining our physical body and material environment, when we actually need to place our attention on practice! Realizing this can help us shift our focus and motivate us to practice every day.

An example we can use to understand this is the act of fainting. While the body and consciousness don't actually separate when we faint, we "lose consciousness" and as a result are not aware of what is happening with our bodies. Just like during the experience of the dying process, it is the consciousness that experiences everything, including our fears and our past experiences.

Thus, when we receive teachings on death and dying, or teachings on Dzogchen and Mahamudra, or any other profound Tantric teaching, we should never neglect or forget these teachings. They are essential instructions and we should try to reflect on them every day. If we are able to do that, we will remember them at the time of death and we will be liberated from the suffering of the bardos. If we do not reflect on the teachings, even having someone read the Bardo Thodrol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead or, literally, Great Liberation upon Hearing) to us at the time of death will not be meaningful. It will not stir that memory of something we did habitually during our lives.

Western students like to take a lot of notes at teachings, but I am not sure what happens to those notes after the student goes home. Condense your notes and make them truly your own; compose your own version of the teaching for personal use. Don't make something up, but write what your teacher taught you, in a way that is meaningful especially to you. Read it again and again over time. Then if a friend reads it for you as you are dying it will be easy for you to remember and actualize the essence of these teachings.

I have also found that Western Dharma students often want to do everything themselves. In this case, we should actually do so—we should take responsibility for ourselves by planning and practicing in such a way that we will be able to experience the death that we envision. We should also include others in our plan, allowing them to help us where it is appropriate. But, of course, if we do not practice with great diligence, having a plan for death is just pretending.

We may receive teachings and develop a close relationship with a lama, but we still have to practice. We must remember that when we do not practice, it is not for lack of time. Please don't deceive yourself in that way. We do have enough time. It doesn't matter how busy we are; we can find some time each day. Training to be mindful at the time of death is a step-by-step process. If we make great effort now, the signs of death will become signposts for practice and they will awaken our mindfulness when death is upon us.

I just learned to drive recently, so I need a lot of mindfulness when I am driving. But when I look around at other drivers, I see that they don't seem to need as much mindfulness. They have trained in this since they were sixteen years old; it has become natural for them. Dharma practice is just like that. Right now we need to practice mindfulness no matter what we are doing—walking, eating, sitting, sleeping, driving. Then one day we don't need to try to "have mindfulness," it will come naturally. It won't be hard to practice Dzogchen; it will be just like driving down to the grocery store!

Mindfulness training is actually based on the outer objects or conditions that are happening in the world around us all the time. When we gain experience, we begin to notice the kinds of outer conditions that make it possible to abide in meditation more easily. When we become skillful and recognize, "Oh, in this situation it is easy for me to meditate," or, "When I have these kinds of conditions or energy around me it helps me," this improves our mindfulness and our ability to abide in the view, to fully rest in the mind's primordial nature. It is very important that we make a study of the outer environment and our interaction with it as it relates to practice. This is something that acts as a general support for all kinds of meditation.

We need to work on summoning our motivation to practice and train hard in this life, as it will be very hard to remember our practice if we are sick or in pain. It is important to remember that practice and realization is not like a rock falling from the sky; it will not just suddenly hit us. We cannot attain skills in mindfulness and meditation instantly. Accordingly, we must not downplay to ourselves the importance of practice and training in mindfulness.

Mindfulness that is endowed with effort over time will naturally transform into effortless mindfulness. Effortless mindfulness endowed with rigpa, primordial non-dual cognizance, is a synonym for abiding in the view.

The Meaning of Confidence

Let me tell you a beautiful story about having a plan for death. When I was very young, I went to see a great Bon master whose lama had attained rainbow body. He was living in a tiny room and on the table was a small stupa. I was a mischievous child and I asked a lot of questions, so of course I asked him why he had that stupa. The master answered, "I have this stupa because when I die they are going to put my body in it." I looked at him. He was huge. So I asked, "How will you fit in that stupa?" The master said, "I will have to train myself to fit or there is no benefit to even having a stupa like this." This master had so much confidence, he was sure he was going to fit in the stupa when he died. This is real confidence in one's preparation for death.

I was told that the Bon master almost attained rainbow body. His body did shrink to a very small size, but one obstacle arose. He told his niece, who was helping to care for him, that when he died she must not open the door to his room for seven days no matter what happened. He made her promise that. She was very young, though, and after five or six days she thought, "I don't know what is happening to my uncle." So she opened the door and as a result, his body was unable to dissolve any further. If she had not opened the door, he would surely have attained rainbow body.

Maybe here in America we can put a security code on our door so that will not happen!