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Death and Dying in Tibetan Buddhism

From Chapter 10 ofIntroduction toTibetan Buddhismby John PowersSnow Lion Publications,  Ithaca, N.Y. 1995Copyright c.1995 John Powers[Reprinted with Permission of the publisher]

According to traditional stories of the life of the Buddha, he first decided to leave his home and seek enlightenment after encountering the "four sights"-(I) a sick person, (2) an old person, (3) a corpse, and (4) a world renouncer. The first three epitomize the sufferings to which ordinary beings are subjects and the last indicates that one can transcend them through meditation and religious practice. The greatest problem of all is death, the final cessation of all our hopes and dreams, our successes and failures, our loves, hates, worries, and plans.

From its inception, Buddhism has stressed the importance of death, since awareness of death is what prompted the Buddha to perceive the ultimate futility of worldly concerns and pleasures. Realizing that death is inevitable for a person who is caught up in worldly pleasures and attitudes, he resolved to renounce the world and devote himself to finding a solution to this most basic of existential dilemmas. After years of diligent and difficult practice he became enlightened, and through this he transcended death. His life provides his followers with a model to emulate, and even today Buddhist teachers strongly advise their students to meditate on death and impermanence, since they are powerful counteragents to short-sighted concern with the present life and one's own transitory happiness. Buddhist teachers also point out that according to tradition Buddha began his teaching career discussing death and impermanence in his first sermon on the four noble truths, and he also ended his career with teachings on death and impermanence, which indicates how important they are in Buddhist teaching and practice.

Tibetan Buddhism places a particularly strong emphasis on instructions concerning death, and Tibetan literature is full of admonitions to be aware of the inevitability of death, the preciousness of the opportunities that a human birth presents, and the great value of mindfulness of death. A person who correctly grasps the inevitability, of death becomes more focused on religious practice, since he or she realizes that death is inevitable, the time of death is uncertain, and so every moment counts.

An example of this attitude can be found in the bioraphy of Milarepa, who began his meditative practice after having killed a number of people through black magic. The realization of his impending death and the sufferings he would experience in his next lifetime prompted him to find a lama who could show him a way to avert his fate. His concern with death was so great that when he was medititing in a cave his tattered clothes fell apart, but he decided not to mend them, saying, "If I were to die this evening, it would be wiser to meditate than to do this useless sewing."1

This attitude epitomizes the ideal for a Buddhist practitioner, according to many teachers. Atisha is said to have told his students that for a person who is unaware of death, meditation has little power, but a person who is mindful of death and impermanence progresses steadily and makes the most of every precious moment. A famous saying of the school he founded, the Kadampa, holds that if one does not meditate on death in the morning, the whole morning is wasted, if one does not meditate on death at noon, the afternoon is wasted, and if one does not meditate on death at night, the evening is wasted.

In stark contrast to this attitude, most people frantically run after transitory pleasures and material objects, foolishly believing that wealth, power, friends, and family will bring lasting happiness. This is particularly prevalent in western cultures, which emphasize superficial images of happiness, material and sensual pleasures, and technological innovation as avenues to fulfillment. We are taught to crave such things, but inevitably find that the wealthy and powerful die just as surely as the poor and powerless. We try to cover up the signs of aging through cosmetics and surgery, and we attempt to hide the reality of death by putting makeup on corpses to make them appear "lifelike." We are even taught to avoid discussion of death, since this is seen as being inappropriate in polite company and overly morbid. Instead, people tend to focus on things that turn their attention from death and surround themselves with images of superficial happiness.

As Dr. Richard Kalish states,

death is blasphemous and pornographic. We react to it and its symbols in the same way that we react to pornography. We avoid it. We deny it exists. We avert our eyes from its presence. We protect little children from observing it and dodge their questions about it. We speak of it only in whispers. We consider it horrible, ugly and grotesque.2

From its inception, Buddhism has taken a far different course. Anyone who has studied with Tibetan lama has been regularly reminded of the importance of mindfulness of death. Teachings on death and impermanence are found in every facet of Tibetan Buddhist teaching, and any student who tries to overlook them is soon reminded that dharma practice requires a poignant awareness of death. Buddhist teachings emphasize the idea that although one's destiny is always influenced by past karma, every person has the ability to exercise free will and influence the course of both life and death. We all shape our own destinies, and in every moment there are opportunities for spiritual advancement. According to many Buddhist texts, death presents us with a range of important possibilities for progress.

Meditation on Death
Buddhist meditation texts point out that we have ample evidence of death all around us, since everything is changing from moment to moment. A person wishing to ponder death need not go to a cemetery or a funeral home: death is occurring everywhere and at all times. Even the cells of our bodies are constantly being born and dying. All of us are inexorably moving toward physical death in every moment. Since every created thing is impermanent, everything we see, hear, touch, taste, love, despise, or desire is in the process of dying. There is nothing to hold onto, nothing that remains unchanged from moment to moment, and so anyone who tries to find happiness among transient created things is doomed to disappointment.

This transiency is the reason why we are prone to unhappiness and suffering, since everything we desire eventually breaks down, and we often have to put up with things that we find unpleasant. Impermanence is also essential for liberation, since the constant changing nature of cyclic existence makes progress possible. Every moment presents opportunity to train the mind in the direction of enlightenment, and since there is no fixed element to personality, every person

is constantly engaged in the process of becoming something else. We do, of course, tend to fall into patterns of behavior, and it is all too easy to become caught up in negative patterns, but since every moment is a rebirth, there is always an opportunity to initiate change. A wise person, according to Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, understands the imminence of death and plans ahead.

Warned of a hurricane, we don't wait until the storm pounds the shore before we start to prepare. Similarly, knowing death is looming offshore, we shouldn't wait until it overpowers us before developing the meditation skills necessary to achieve the great potential of the mind at the moment of death.3

Each moment is said to give us a glimpse of the bardo (bar do, antarabhava), the intermediate state between death and rebirth, since every moment of mind passes away and is replaced by a successive moment. Reflection on one's own mental processes graphically indicates the fleeting nature of consciousness: thoughts flow along in unending succession, each one giving way to its successor. Thoughts and emotions change in response to our experiences and perceptions, and even our most cherished ideas and aspirations are subject to change. Thus, for a person who has awareness of death, every moment becomes a lesson in death and impermanence.

Our dreams also provide an opportunity for mindfulness of death. In Tibetan Buddhist death literature it is said that at the moment of falling asleep one experiences a moment of clear light like the one that arises at the time of death. Moreover, the dream state is like the bardo, since in dreams one often conceives of oneself in a body and undergoes vivid experiences that are creations of mind, just as beings in the bardo do. Waking from a dream is similar to rebirth, since the illusory dream body passes away and we awaken to a new "reality." Because of these similarities, dream yoga is said to be an important method for gaining control over the production of mental images, a skill that is extremely useful in the bardo.4

How to Develop Mindfulness of Death
A person wishing to develop mindfulness of death should first cultivate awareness of its inevitability. Everyone who has ever lived has died, and there is no reason to suppose that anyone presently alive will be able to escape death. Even the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and Buddhist saints of the past have all died, and so it should be clear to a person who thinks on this that the same fate awaits us all.

This understanding should not result in passivity, resignation, or morbidity; rather, it should spur us to greater diligence in religion practice. Every moment should be viewed as being infinitely precious, and we should make the utmost effort to use our time to the best advantage.

After making this decision, the meditator considers the uncertainty of the time of death and decides that it might occur at any moment, which should lead to a resolve to begin practicing dharma immediately. Practice should not be put off until the future, but should begin right now. A person who thinks, "I'll wait until the children are grown," "After I finish this semester I'll begin meditating," or "I just don't have enough time right now" will probably never get around to meditation, and even if he does, meditation will most likely be halfhearted. A person who wishes to make real progress must feel a strong, sense of urgency, like a person caught in a burning house looking, for a way out.

The next stage in this process is coming to understand that at the time of death only spiritual accomplishments will be of any worth. Material possessions, friends and relatives, worldly acclaim and power all vanish at the time of death, leaving nothing behind. None of these can be carried over into the next life. Moreover, one's future birth will be determined by one's actions in this life, and so one should resolve to practice meditation and other religious activities diligently.

It is also important not to think that in one's next lifetime one will necessarily be born as a human. According to Buddhist teachings on rebirth, a human life is very rare, and it is much more likely that one will be born in some other life situation, and if this happens one's chances for becoming aware of the problems of cyclic existence and seeking a solution are greatly diminished. Humans are uniquely situated in cyclic existence: we are intelligent enough to recognize the problems and sufferings of cyclic existence (unlike lower types of beings such as animals), and we are not so overwhelmed by either suffering or happiness that we are blinded to the realities of cvclic existence. A person who understands this situation should become keenly aware of death and resolve to "extract the essence" of the present life.


Types and Causes of Death

According to treatises on death, there are two kinds of death: (1) untimely death, which is the result of violence or accidents, and (2) death that is the result of the natural end of one's lifespan. The natural end

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