Meditating on the nature of death

This topic represents the personal instruction of my precious guru. (Pabongka Rinpoche added that the instruction is taught principally as a form of meditation to be carried out during an experiential instruction.[1] When practicing it, we should reflect in just the way it is presented here.)

We should recall such points as the ones expressed in the prayer called Compassionate Savior[2] and Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyeltsen's Plea for Deliverance from the Treacherous Path of the Intermediate State. We know that we're going to die someday, so we need to consider what that experience will be like. The Plea for Deliverance from the Treacherous Path of the Intermediate State gives this description:

When the doctor gives up and rituals cannot help,
When my family has lost all hope that I will live,
And when there's no recourse left for me to pursue,
Please bless me, Guru, to recall your instruction.[3]

With the approach of death, we become more and more sick no matter what kind of medical treatment is tried, and despite religious rituals that are meant to remove obstacles. Then the doctor delivers a speech with two messages.[4] Our family and friends also offer words of encouragement in front of us, though in private they are convinced we will die and begin to pack up our possessions.

Then we begin to manifest various unattractive inner and outer physical signs. For instance, the body gradually loses its warmth and color, we become short of breath, the nose flattens, and the lips curl up. We feel remorse for the evil we did in the past. We also realize that we have failed to achieve the assurance[5] that comes from practicing confession, resolving not to commit any further evil, and performing genuine acts of virtue. Beset by excruciating pain, the signs that accompany the dissolution of the four elements begin to arise and we undergo various terrifying and delusional visions. Such are the circumstances under which all the vivid experiences of our current life come to an end.

After this, the body is wrapped in a sheet and placed in the corner of a room. A curtain is hung setting the corpse apart from the rest of the room. An oil lamp is also lit and placed next to the remains where it burns dimly. If the deceased person was a lama, his body is clothed in tantric apparel and made to appear as appealing as possible.

At present, we struggle to acquire a nice house, comfortable furnishings, and warm clothes. But after we die, we will endure a different sort of treatment. First, our arms and legs will be folded against our torsos. Then our bodies will be bound with a rope and tossed onto the bare ground.

At present, we enjoy eating the most delicious food we can find. But one day we'll have to wait around, hoping to experience the mere smell of a soor[6] burnt offering.

At present, we enjoy being referred to by such appealing forms of address as Geshe, Kushab, or Gelong.[7] But there will come a time when our bodies are referred to as "that corpse," and phrases such as "the deceased" or "the late" will be added at the beginning or end of our names.

The proper result of this instruction is for us to react in the following manner. When those of you who are lamas see your tantric apparel and ritual instruments, you should recall that these very same things will be arranged on your bodies after you pass away. And when all of us see our bed sheets, we should recall that some day they will be used to wrap up our corpses.

Je Mila said:

That terrifying thing that's called a corpse
Sits in the nadis[8] of a yogi's frame.

In these lines, Milarepa was referring to this very physical body.

When we reach the intermediate state that comes right after death, we will experience various kinds of incredibly frightening and delusional visions. These occur when the elements of fire, wind, and so forth undergo dissolution. They include such visions as mountains splitting apart, being crushed under a great mass of earth, entering an immense blazing fire, and being swept away by wind or water.

After reciting a description of the intermediate state beside the head of a corpse, some lamas say, "I just gave an excellent introduction to the intermediate state." But it would be more meaningful if such an excellent introduction to the intermediate state were given now, before a person has died.

For example, when we are about to die and find ourselves having to say such things as, "Please lift me up,"[9] we can't even do the kinds of basic actions that are familiar to us and that we do every day, such as taking food and drink. So if the dharma is something we didn't become familiar with before while we were still alive and well, then we certainly won't be able to apply it at this time. Nevertheless, practices such as introducing someone who has just died to the intermediate state are endowed with the Buddha's inconceivably great blessing. Therefore, it's still possible that they will have some small benefit.

The scriptural source for the present topic of meditating on the nature of death is the following verse from Engaging in the Bodhisattva Activities:

When will I reach that final resting place
Where my body becomes identical
To those skeletons of other beings
In that it too must undergo decay?[10]

When will our bones become the same as the bones of others who have died and been discarded in cemeteries? The corpse which is now sitting in a cemetery was also once cherished by some human being just as our bodies are by us.

It was a practice of the great yogis in India to carry cups made from human skulls and trumpets made from human thighbones. Their purpose for doing this was not to present a frightening appearance or to threaten others; it was to help them recall death. For instance, a skull which once formed part of a human being's head was so highly cherished an object that it would provoke cries of "Ouch!" at the slightest poke of a finger.

Those of you who are humble monks should also reflect that one day your rooms will be emptied and different persons will come to stay there. Referring to you, the new occupants will say things like, "It's been this many days since he died." And the monks' robes which you wear on your bodies will also one day come to be worn by other persons, who will say things like, "These robes which I bought used to belong to so-and-so, who passed away." There will also definitely come a time when others will buy the clothing and other possessions that you didn't use up or wear out.

The Supreme Conqueror Kelsang Gyatso also described this point by saying, "Time will surely discard these riches as well; they're like admiring someone's borrowed gems."[11] The only thing uncertain about our possessions is how long we get to keep them. Therefore, we ought to regard them as nothing more than borrowed items.

If we are unable to develop an awareness of our own mortality, then we should go stand in front of someone who has just died and look at him. This is an instruction that cannot possibly fail to instill in us a true awareness of death.

How is it that the sight of jute rope[12] could fail to engender fear in us? Indeed, it is an object we should properly dread. Only our failure to reflect on these points keeps us from doing so.

When we reflect how death can come even before such objects as a monk's robes wear out, we should realize that life is very short. This is one of several points which are mentioned in the Sutra of Instruction for a King and which are also described in the Red Hat Lamrim.13 These instructions for meditating on impermanence represent methods for correcting the conceit that we have when enjoying excellent food and clothing. Therefore, we should reflect continually on them as well.

For instance, when we see such material possessions as our clothing, we should reflect as follows: "Although we currently act as if these things belong to us, the day is sure to come when others will carry them off, saying, 'This used to belong to so-and-so, who is now deceased.'" And we should reflect about our bodies: "This very object which I cherish so lovingly will one day be referred to as 'that corpse.' Then it will instill fear in those who see it and disgust in those who touch it. It will also be bound up with rope and treated in other hideous ways."

You should also reflect on the various activities that will be performed after you die. For instance, the remainder of your tsamba will be used to prepare tsamba offerings.[14] Some lama will sit next to your pillow and recite to you an introduction to the intermediate state.

There may well come a time when someone picks up your skull, or some other part of your physical remains, and says things like, "This skull belonged to so-and-so. How would you rate its quality?" Therefore, what we must do is make sure that we have no reason to feel any regret before any of these events take place.

(Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche then explained the measure for determining whether we have generated a genuine spiritual realization about impermanence. We will know that we have achieved it when we develop the same attitude as Geshe Karakpa did.[15] Finally, he concluded the discourse by reviewing in moderate detail all the subjects he had just presented.)

DAY 11:

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