1) Recalling death in the sense that we do not remain long in this life

This section also has three subsections: (1) the disadvantages of failing to recall death; (2) the advantages of recalling death; and (3) the actual method of recalling death.

a) The disadvantages of failing to recall death

This subtopic has six divisions: (1) the disadvantage that we will fail to recall dharma; (2) the disadvantage that, although we might recall dharma, we will fail to practice it; (3) the disadvantage that, even though we might attempt to practice dharma, we will not do so correctly; (4) the disadvantage that our practice will not be carried out in earnest; (5) the disadvantage that we will develop a bad character; and (6) the disadvantage that we will feel regret at the time of our death, and then have to die in that state of mind.

i) The disadvantage that we will fail to recall dharma

The result of our failing to recall death is that we will always be thinking only about this life. And so our preoccupation with food, clothing, and many other presumed necessities will prevent us from practicing dharma. On the other hand, if we're able to recall death properly, we will concern ourselves only with preparing for future lives. We'll become like the visitor from Kham, who, because it was time to leave, spent all his time gathering provisions for his upcoming journey.

The reason for our great attachment to such things as food, clothing, and reputationthree primary concerns of this lifeis that we have failed to contemplate our impermanence. And whenever we fail to remain mindful of our impermanencewhether it lasts one day or any other length of timethat entire period is lost to the concerns of this life.

ii) The disadvantage that, although we might recall dharma, we will fail to practice it

When we fail to recall death, we assume that it is not going to occur any time soon. Then we are overcome by procrastinating thoughts, such as: "I can practice dharma tomorrow or the day after tomorrow." So, even though we may recall dharma, we will not actually practice it. Instead, we will distract ourselves with concerns such as the need for money, and waste our lives without ever having been able to practice dharma. As Je Tsongkapa explained,[1] we all know that eventually we are going to die. But day after day we have this evil thought that keeps telling us: "You won't die today, you won't die today." And this thought can stay with us right up to the time of our death [169a].

iii) The disadvantage that, even though we might attempt to practice dharma, we will not do so correctly

The fault of attempting to practice dharma but failing to practice it correctly comes from our inability to overcome thoughts related to this life.[2] Our efforts at hearing and contemplating dharma degenerate into the desire to become a scholar or the desire for fame. We also come to regard meditation, mantra recitation, and other dharma practices as methods for removing the problems of this life. Even some great meditation practitioners who live in complete isolation cannot avoid becoming tainted by nonvirtuous deeds.

When the great Atisha was asked, "What result does a person acquire by thinking only of this life?" he replied, "He acquires a result right there." And when asked, "What does he acquire in the future?" he said, "He is born in the hells, as a hungry ghost, or as an animal." Thus, the result of such actions is that we achieve some small purpose in this life, and in the future we are reborn into the lower states. If this is all that those of us who are monks can accomplish with our lives, then we will not have distinguished ourselves in any way from householders.

To practice dharma, we must first abandon attachment to this life. But this does not mean that we should become beggars, since even beggars wander around without having abandoned attachment to this life. Therefore, the things we must abandon are the eight worldly dharmas.

Any endeavor that becomes mixed with the eight worldly dharmas is not dharma. For instance, Neljorba Chaktri Chok asked Lord Atisha, "Should I meditate, teach, or meditate some of the time and teach at other times?" But he was told that none of these activities were beneficial. When he asked what sort of practice he should follow, Lord Atisha replied, "Renounce worldly life!"

Gyamawa[3] also wrote:

Although you've never pursued a single dharma practice,
You vainly think you are a dharma person. What a fool!
The first dharma act is to renounce desire for this life.
So check your mind and see whether you have done this or not.

Geshe Tīlungba also once said to another practitioner, "Brother, it is indeed virtuous to perform acts of generosity. But it would be even better if you practiced dharma." These examples all illustrate the meaning of the expression that "dharma and worldliness are complete opposites." Potowa also made similar remarks, such as: "You can't sew with a two-pointed needle."

Unless we recall death, we won't be able to abandon our attachment for this life. And if we fail to do this, we will become pleased when we gain something of material value, and upset when we don't. We will also react in this same inappropriate way toward well-being and suffering, fame and disrepute, and praise and scornthat is, we will come under the influence of the eight worldly dharmas.

Nagarjuna described the eight worldly dharmas with these lines:

Gain and loss, pleasure and pain,
Fame and dishonor, praise and scorn
World-knower, be indifferent to these eight
Worldly dharmas and bar them from your mind.[4]

(To illustrate how we should act toward these eight conditions, Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche related an incident in which someone offered a turquoise to Potowa.[5])

Lingrepa[6] also said:

The zombie of the eight worldly dharmas
Wanders in samsara's city of thoughts.
There's your terrifying cemetery.
Guru, practice equanimity there.

Therefore, we should renounce our attachment for this life and, as our ultimate aim, dedicate ourselves to the dharma.[7] Once we've done this, we may begin to have thoughts such as: "Will I be able to find a livelihood and other material things?" Then we must dedicate ourselves to a life of poverty as our ultimate form of dharma. This means to resolve that it doesn't matter whether we find material things or not.

When our Master[8] left home and entered the homeless state, he abandoned all his royal fortune and clothed himself in garments gathered from garbage heaps. This act and others illustrate how he dedicated himself to the dharma as his ultimate aim and how he dedicated himself to poverty as his ultimate form of dharma. Je Rinpoche also pursued a life free of attachment.

After devoting ourselves to poverty as our ultimate form of dharma, we might think to ourselves, "But won't I die if I can't find food?" When we have this thought, we must devote ourselves to the ultimate form of poverty, which is to remain in poverty even if it brings our death. We reflect this attitude when we think, "If I should die because of austerities done for the sake of dharma, then so be it."

Even after having renounced all worldly life in this way, no dharma practitioner has ever starved to death because he was unable to find food. In fact, our benevolent Master dedicated to the material well-being of his followers an amount of merit greater than sixty thousand times the merit that would bring rebirth as a wheel-wielding monarch. For this reason, although the world may se e famines where kernels of grain become equal in value to pearls, no follower of the dharma will ever starve to death.

(Kyabje Rinpoche then cited several passages to illustrate this point:

If great meditators fail to come down,[9]
Then gobs of food may well go rolling up.

Geshe Ben said:

When I was a householder, I fastened the triple weaponry[10] to me like thorns; yet my foes remained many and my friends few. When I lived alone as a bachelor, I had a field that yielded forty kel[11] of grain; so people called me "Forty Earner."[12] During the day I was a bandit on mountain passes and at night I was a robber in the town. Even so, I rarely had any food or clothing. But now that I've taken up dharma, I never lack food or clothing, and my enemies have all disappeared.[13])

Consider also these lines:

If you cast off attachment like a human corpse,
Material things will come thronging down like vultures.

Moreover, Je Tsongkapa and others achieved the ability to accomplish spiritual deeds as vast as space through renouncing all concern for their current lives and conducting themselves according to the dharma. (Kyabje Rinpoche then related how a certain follower of the Sakya tradition thought that Je Lama[14] must have achieved the great prestige he enjoyed through the power of subjugation. This prompted the Sakya monk to ask Je Tsongkapa what, in his opinion, was the most profound method for acquiring this power.[15]

(Kyabje Rinpoche further explained in great detail how we need to cultivate the attitudes taught in the Kadampa instruction known as the "Ten Jewels of Ultimate Commitment." This instruction addresses such mundane thoughts as the belief that we have to make all arrangements for our death in advance, including how to dispose of our body. As the teaching explains, the proper response to this thought is to dedicate yourself to dying in a barren ravine as your ultimate form of death. That is, we should abandon all concern about the circumstances that may surround our death. In connection with this point, Kyabje Rinpoche also quoted Milarepa, who said that his wishes would be fulfilled if he could die with no one weeping nearby or gathered round his corpse.[16])

Though we might think it's important to set aside money for the disposal of our lifeless body, the truth is people will be revolted by it and quickly have it removed. There is absolutely no need to worry that our corpse might be left to lay on our deathbed.

If we succeed in renouncing the eight worldly dharmas as described, and if we are able to do so with conviction, we will find three major concerns of this life; pleasure, happiness, and fame coming to us in great abundance.

To put it briefly, a worldly person is anyone who concerns himself with the eight worldly dharmas and a dharma person is anyone who has renounced this life. When Potowa asked, "What is the dividing line between dharma and nondharma?" Dromtinba replied, "If something acts as an antidote to the mental afflictions, it's dharma. If it doesn't, it's not dharma. If something is at odds with everything that is worldly, it's dharma. If it's in agreement with everything worldly, it's not dharma."

This is what is meant by the axiom that dharma and the world are completely incompatible. Nonetheless, it is possible for someone both to recite dharma and manage an estate.[17] On the other hand, there are some monks among us who continue to hold the eight worldly dharmas as their most deeply cherished aims. While these individuals may physically resemble dharma practitioners, their minds are no different from the minds of ordinary householders.

The principal method by which we can renounce attachment for this life and successfully carry out a pure dharma practice is to meditate on impermanence in the form of our impending death. On the other hand, if we fail to renounce this life, whatever dharma practice we may in fact undertake will be just another worldly endeavor.

Thus, it is from our side that we must develop indifference to the eight worldly concerns and renounce our attachment to the three objects of food, clothing, and reputation. Moreover, the standard for determining that we have successfully abandoned our attachment to this life is for us to become like the Lord of Conquerors Kelsang Gyatso[18] and Panchen Losang Yeshe.[19]

The Lord of Conquerors Kelsang Gyatso declared that the only things he considered as belonging to him were his vajra, his bell, and his three monk's robesnothing else. (Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche also described how Panchen Losang Yeshe once expressed displeasure when a hundred "horse-hoof"[20] ingots were presented to him as an offering.)

Of the three main objects for which we most often have attachment; food, clothing, and reputation; some persons are bound by their attachment to one, some by their attachment to two, and some by all three of them. Among the three, however, the most difficult one to abandon is desire for reputation. It doesn't matter if one is a scholar, a well-disciplined monk, a teacher, or a meditator; there are many such persons who desire fame and a good reputation. (Kyabje Rinpoche then quoted a lengthy passage by Geshe Drowey Gīnpo[21] that includes these lines:

The great learned and disciplined meditators who are attached to this life
Want to become known as learned and disciplined for this life's sake.

They are great meditators who refuse to meet with anyone;
They go into retreat and write admonitions above the door.
These great meditators want to be known as devout for this life's sake.

Several more lines state:

Even an offering to the precious Triple Gem
Is done with the hope that others will notice.

Some persons vainly think of themselves as great meditators or as practitioners who have achieved spiritual attainments.[22] They forsake all interest in food or clothing and diligently undertake such austerities as the flower or mineral chalen[23] practice. Still, it would be rare to find such an individual who did not harbor some desire for a good name in the deepest recess of his mind.

The work Edifying Similes[24] contains the line "a grouse, close by one's threshold, a fox, and a weasel," which relates to this topic. For instance, in preparing to go on a journey we might well overlook a fire pit that's close by our threshold and only investigate places and roads that lie far from home. Similarly, we might always be trying to find out what we can about Buddhahood and such high paths as those found in the Mantrayana, while making no effort whatsoever to overcome our attachment to the concerns of this life. But in so doing we fail to liberate ourselves from these bonds. This is a fault that stems from not recalling death.

iv) The disadvantage that our practice will lack intensity

The failure to remain mindful of death prevents us from developing a dharma practice that has intensity. Because of this, we are unable to practice continuously and without interruption. We may find that we have a tendency to get tired quickly whenever we attempt to undertake some virtuous activity. This inability to exert ourselves greatly is a fault arising from our failure to recall impermanence in the form of death.

By contrast, Geshe Karakpa practiced virtue so earnestly that he couldn't find time even to cut the thorn bushes growing next to the door of his meditation room. This attitude arose from his having recollected impermanence. Milarepa was also so devoted to his practice that he wouldn't take the time to sew such things as his clothing or his tsamba sack when they became torn from use. And if our efforts to recall impermanence prove successful, we too will be able to put aside all other endeavors and always strive only to practice virtue. Moreover, each time we undertake such practice, we will be able to generate a keen enthusiasm that is free of all lethargy.

v) The disadvantage that we will develop a bad character

By failing to recall death, we become greatly attached to this life. So as we pursue the aims of this life, we react toward others with either desire, hatred, or ignorance, depending on whether they have tried to help or hinder us. We also fight and argue with others, and they in turn accuse us of having a bad character or treat us unfavorably in other ways. As a result, we end up causing ourselves all manner of harm, ranging anywhere from such things as a cut on the head to other more serious injuries. In short, we bring ruin upon ourselves both in this life and in future lives.

vi) The disadvantage that we will have to die in a state of regret

By failing to recall death, our practice becomes a mere semblance of dharma. Because our efforts are mixed with this life's pursuits, we fail to accomplish any true dharma. Then, one day, the enemy known as death appears suddenly. At that moment, we see that the power, status, material wealth, and so forth that we pursued before is of no benefit whatsoever. Moreover, we also realize that we have failed to obtain that which truly does benefit usthe holy dharma. A feeling of unbearable regret also arises in us. However, all we can do at that point is accept our plight, for it is too late. This is like the monk from Mīndro Ling monastery named Chīdrak, who came down with a fever. When he realized he was going to die, he uttered all the things that he regretted.

Kamapa said:

We must fear death now, so that we can avoid being afraid when we are about to die. Instead we do the opposite! We don't fear death now; but when we are about to die, we clutch our breasts with our fingernails.[25]

In this practice of meditating on the impermanence of death, we must begin by fearing death so that we can lose that fear when we are about to die. Typically, though, we do the opposite. That is, right now we remain complacent and avoid giving any thought to the fact that some day we will have to die. Then, when we are on the verge of death, we find that all we can do is ask ourselves anxiously: "What can I do? Is there anything that will help me now?"

When we are about to die, it wouldn't matter if we were so rich that we could fill a hundred storerooms with our gold or we were a king with dominion over an entire country. At that moment even such wealth and power are utterly meaningless and without value. Moreover, there is a common emotional reaction that persons have after being stricken with an intensely painful and terminal illness. When they realize that they are about to die without having achieved anything that would allow them to feel secure about their future lives, they think to themselves, "If I could only avoid death this one time, then I would surely practice dharma." But by then it is too late. This is like the saying: "The person who doesn't eat food while it's in his hands gains nothing if he thinks of eating it after a dog has carried it away."

This concludes the discussion on the six disadvantages of failing to meditate on death.

The advanta