Glimpse of the Day by Rinpoche

 

by Sogyal Rinpoche

One of the most important revelations of the near-death experience is how it transforms the lives of those who have been through it. One man said:
“I was transformed from a man who was lost and wandering aimlessly, with no goal in life other than a desire for material wealth, to someone who had a deep motivation, a purpose in life, a definite direction, and an overpowering conviction that there would be a reward at the end of life. My interest in material wealth and greed for possessions were replaced by a thirst for spiritual understanding and a passionate desire to see world conditions improve.”

Whatever we have done with our lives makes us what we are when we die. And everything, absolutely everything, counts.

Death is a vast mystery, but there are two things we can say about it: It is absolutely certain that we will die, and it is uncertain when or how we will die. The only surety we have, then, is this uncertainty about the hour of our death, which we seize on as the excuse to postpone facing death directly. We are like children who cover their eyes in a game of hide and seek and think that no one can see them.

At every moment in our lives we need compassion, but what more urgent moment could there be than when we are dying? What more wonderful and consoling gift could you give to dying people than the knowledge that they are being prayed for, and that you are taking on their suffering and purifying their negative karma through your practice for them?
Even if they don’t know that you are practicing for them, you are helping them and in turn they are helping you. They are actively helping you to develop your compassion, and so to purify and heal yourself. For me, all dying people are teachers, giving to all those who help them a chance to transform themselves through developing their compassion.

Dudjom Rinpoche was driving through France with his wife, admiring the countryside as they went along. They passed along cemetery that had been freshly painted and decorated with flowers. Dudjom Rinpoche’s wife said: “Rinpoche, look how everything in the West is so neat and clean. Even the places where they keep corpses are spotless. In the East not even the houses that people live in are anything like as clean as this.”
“Ah, yes,” he replied, “that’s true; this is such a civilized country. They have such marvelous houses for dead corpses. But haven’t you noticed? They have such wonderful houses for the living corpses too.”

The still revolutionary insight of Buddhism is that life and death are in the mind, and nowhere else. Mind is revealed as the universal basis of experience—the creator of happiness and the creator of suffering, the creator of what we call life and what we call death.

The purpose of reflection on death is to make a real change in the depths of our hearts. Often this will require a period of retreat and deep contemplation, because only that can truly open our eyes to what we are doing with our lives.
Contemplation on death will bring you a deepening sense of what we call “renunciation,” in Tibetan ngé jung. Ngé means “actually” or “definitely,” and jung to “come out,” “emerge” or “be born.” The fruit of frequent and deep reflection on death will be that you will find yourself emerging, often with a sense of disgust, from your habitual patterns. You will find yourself increasingly ready to let go of them, and in the end you will be able to free yourself from them as smoothly, the masters say, “as drawing a hair from a slab of butter.”

From the Tibetan Buddhist point of view, we can divide our entire existence into four continuously interlinked realities:
1. life; 2. dying and death; 3. after death; and 4. rebirth. These are known as the four bardos:
1. the natural bardo of this life,
2. the painful bardo of dying,
3. the luminous bardo of dharmata, and
4. the karmic bardo of becoming.
The bardos are particularly powerful opportunities for liberation because there are, the teachings show us, certain moments that are much more powerful than others and much more charged with potential, when whatever you do has a crucial and far-reaching effect.
I think of a bardo as being like a moment when you step toward the edge of a precipice; such a moment, for example, is when a master introduces a disciple to the essential, original, and innermost nature of his or her mind. The greatest and most charged of these moments, however, is the moment of death.

To learn how to die is to learn how to live; to learn how to live is to learn how to act not only in this life but in the lives to come. To transform yourself truly and learn how to be reborn as a transformed being to help others is really to help the world in the most powerful way of all.
Let us dare to imagine now what it would be like to live in a world where a significant number of people took the opportunity, offered by the teachings, to devote part of their lives to serious spiritual practice, to recognize the nature of their minds, and so to use the opportunity of their deaths to move closer to buddhahood, and to be reborn with one aim, that of serving and benefiting others.

It is crucial now that an enlightened vision of death and dying should be introduced throughout the world at all levels of education. Children should not be “protected” from death, but introduced, while young, to the true nature of death and what they can learn from it.
Why not introduce this vision, in its simplest forms, to all age groups? Knowledge about death, about how to help the dying, and about the spiritual nature of death and dying should be made available to all levels of society; it should be taught, in depth and with real imagination, in schools and colleges and universities of all kinds; and especially and most important, it should be available in teaching hospitals to nurses and doctors who will look after the dying and who have so much responsibility to them.

According to the wisdom of Buddha, we can actually use our lives to prepare for death. We do not have to wait for the painful death of someone close to us or the shock of terminal illness to force us to look at our lives. Nor are we condemned to go out empty-handed at death to meet the unknown. We can begin, here and now, to find meaning in our lives. We can make of every moment an opportunity to change and to prepare—wholeheartedly, precisely, and with peace of mind—for death and eternity.

Loss and bereavement can remind you sharply of what can happen when in life you do not show your love and appreciation, or ask for forgiveness, and so make you far more sensitive to your loved ones.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said: ‘What I try to teach people is to live in such a way that you say those things while the other person can still hear it.” And Raymond Moody, after his life’s work in near-death research, wrote: “I have begun to realize how near to death we all are in our daily lives. More than ever now I am very careful to let each person I love know how I feel.”

It is important to reflect calmly, again and again, that death is real and comes without warning.
Don’t be like the pigeon in the Tibetan proverb: He spends all night fussing about, making his bed, and dawn comes up before he has even had time to go to sleep.

Those who have been through the near-death experience have reported a startling range of aftereffects and changes. One woman said:
“The things that I felt slowly were a very heightened sense of love, the ability to communicate love, the ability to find joy and pleasures in the smallest and most insignificant things about me. . . . I developed a great compassion for people that were ill and facing death and I wanted so much to let them know, to somehow make them aware that the dying process was nothing more than an extension of one’s life.”

The fundamental message of the Buddhist teachings is that if we are prepared, there is tremendous hope, both in life and in death. The teachings reveal to us the possibility of an astounding and finally boundless freedom, which is ours to work for now, in life—the freedom that will also enable us to choose our death and so to choose our next birth.
For someone who has prepared and practiced, death comes not as a defeat but as a triumph, the crowning and most glorious moment of life.

The teachings show us precisely what will happen if we prepare for death and what will happen if we do not. The choice could not be clearer. If we refuse to accept death now, while we are still alive, we will pay dearly throughout our lives, at the moment of death, and thereafter. The effects of this refusal will ravage this life and all the lives to come.
We will not be able to live our lives fully; we will remain imprisoned in the very aspect of ourselves that has to die. This ignorance will rob us of the basis of the journey to enlightenment, and trap us endlessly in the realm of illusion, the uncontrolled cycle of birth and death, that ocean of suffering that Buddhists call “samsara.”

So many veils and illusions separate us from the stark knowledge that we are dying. When we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.
Sir Thomas More, I heard, wrote these words just before his beheading: “We are all in the same cart, going to execution; how can I hate anyone or wish anyone harm?” To feel the full force of your mortality, and to open your heart entirely to it, is to allow to grow in you that all-encompassing, fearless compassion that fuels the lives of all those who wish truly to be of help to others.

I remember a middle-aged American woman who came to see Dudjom Rinpoche in New York in 1976. She came into the room, and sat in front of Dudjom Rinpoche, and blurted out: “My doctor has given me only a few months to live. Can you help me? I am dying.”
To her surprise, in a gentle yet compassionate way, Dudjom Rinpoche began to chuckle. Then he said quietly: “You see, we are all dying. It’s only a matter of time. Some of us just die sooner than others.”
With these few words, he helped her to see the universality of death, and that her impending death was not unique. This eased her anxiety. Then he talked to her about dying and the acceptance of death. And he spoke about the hope there is in death. At the end, he gave her a healing practice that she followed enthusiastically. Not only did she come to accept death, but, by following the practice with complete dedication, she recovered her health.

We need to shake ourselves sometimes and really ask: “What if I were to die tonight? What then?” We do not know whether we will wake up tomorrow, or where. If you breathe out and you cannot breathe in again, you are dead. It’s as simple as that.
As a Tibetan saying goes: “Tomorrow or the next life—which comes first, we never know.”

Why exactly are we so frightened of death that we avoid looking at it altogether? Somewhere, deep down, we know we cannot avoid facing death forever. We know, in Milarepa’s words: “This thing called ‘corpse’ we dread so much is living with us here and now.”

We often wonder: “How will I be when I die?” The answer to that is that whatever state of mind we are in now, whatever kind of person we are now, that’s what we will be like at the moment of death, if we do not change. This is why it is so absolutely important to use this lifetime to purify our mindstream, and so our basic being and character, while we can.

Switch on the television or glance at the newspaper: You will see death everywhere. Yet, did the victims of those plane crashes and car accidents expect to die? They took life for granted, as we do. How often do we hear stories of people whom we know, or even friends, who died unexpectedly? We don’t even have to be ill to die: Our bodies can suddenly break down and go out of order, just like our cars. We can be quite well one day, then fall sick and die the next.

These teachings on the bardos come from the wisdom mind of the buddhas, who can see life and death like looking in the palms of their hands.
We too are buddhas. So if we can practice in the bardo of this life, and go deeper and deeper into the nature of our mind, then we can discover this knowledge of the bardos, and the truth of these teachings will unfold in us by itself. That is why the natural bardo of this life is of the utmost importance. It is here and now that the whole preparation for all the bardos takes place. “The supreme way of preparing,” it is said, “is now—to become enlightened in this lifetime.”

At every moment in our lives we need compassion, but what more urgent moment could there be than when we are dying? What more wonderful and consoling gift could you give to dying people than the knowledge that they are being prayed for, and that you are taking on their suffering and purifying their negative karma through your practice for them?

Even if they don’t know that you are practicing for them, you are helping them and in turn they are helping you. They are actively helping you to develop your compassion, and so to purify and heal yourself. For me, all dying people are teachers, giving to all those who help them a chance to transform themselves through developing their compassion.

Bereavement can force you to look at your life directly, compelling you to find a purpose in it where there may not have been one before. When suddenly you find yourself alone after the death of someone you love, it can feel as if you are being given a new life and are being asked: “What will you do with this life? And why do you wish to continue living?”
My heartfelt advice to those in the depths of grief and despair after losing someone they dearly loved is to pray for help and strength and grace. Pray that you will survive and discover the richest possible meaning to the new life you now find yourself in. Be vulnerable and receptive, be courageous and patient. Above all, look into your life to find ways of sharing your love more deeply with others now.

If, at the moment of death, you can unite your mind confidently with the wisdom mind of the master and die in that peace, then all, I promise and assure you, will be well.
Our task in life is to practice this merging with the wisdom mind of the master again and again, so that it becomes so natural that every activity—sitting, walking, eating, drinking, sleeping, dreaming and waking—starts to be increasingly permeated by the master’s living presence. Slowly, over years of focused devotion, you begin to know and realize all appearances to be the display of the wisdom of the master. All the situations of life, even those that once seemed tragic, meaningless, or terrifying, reveal themselves more and more transparently to be the direct teaching and blessing of the master, and the inner teacher.

I remember how people would often come to see my master Jamyang Khyentse simply to ask for his guidance for the moment of death. He was so loved and revered throughout Tibet, especially in the eastern province of Kham, that some would travel for months on end to meet him and get his blessing just once before they died. All my masters would give this as their advice, for this is the essence of what is needed as you come to die:
“Be free of attachment and aversion. Keep your mind pure. And unite your mind with Buddha.”

There would be no chance at all of getting to know death if it happened only once. But fortunately, life is nothing but a continuing dance of birth and death, a dance of change. Every time I hear the rush of a mountain stream, or the waves crashing on the shore, or my own heartbeat, I hear the sound of impermanence. These changes, these small deaths, are our living links with death. They are death’s pulses, death’s heartbeat, prompting us to let go of all the things we cling to.

Looking into death needn’t be frightening or morbid. Why not reflect on death when you are really inspired, relaxed, and comfortable, lying in bed, or on vacation, or listening to music that particularly delights you? Why not reflect on it when you are happy, in good health, confident, and full of well-being? Don’t you notice that there are particular moments when you are naturally inspired to introspection? Work with them gently, for these are the moments when you can go through a powerful experience, and your whole worldview can change quickly. These are the moments when former beliefs crumble on their own, and you can find yourself being transformed.

If all we know of mind is the aspect of mind that dissolves when we die, we will be left with no idea of what continues, no knowledge of the new dimension of the deeper reality of the nature of mind. So it is vital for us all to familiarize ourselves with the nature of mind while we are still alive. Only then will we be prepared for the time when it reveals itself spontaneously and powerfully at the moment of death; be able to recognize it “as naturally,” the teachings say, “as a child running into its mother’s lap”; and by remaining in that state, finally be liberated.

Because life is nothing but a perpetual fluctuation of birth, death, and transition, so bardo experiences are happening to us all the time, and are a basic part of our psychological makeup. Normally, however, we are oblivious to the bardos and their gaps, as our mind passes from one so-called solid situation to the next, habitually ignoring the transitions that are always occurring.
In fact, as the teachings can help us to understand, every moment of our experience is a bardo, as each thought and each emotion arises out of, and dies back into, the essence of mind. It is in moments of strong change and transition especially, the teachings make us aware, that the true skylike, primordial nature of mind will have a chance to manifest.

For most of us, karma and negative emotions obscure the ability to see our own intrinsic nature, and the nature of reality. As a result we clutch on to happiness and suffering as real, and in our unskillful and ignorant actions go on sowing the seeds of our next birth. Our actions keep us bound to the continuous cycle of worldly existence, to the endless round of birth and death. So everything is at risk in how we live now at this very moment: How we live now can cost us our entire future.
This is the real and urgent reason why we must prepare now to meet death wisely, to transform our karmic future, and to avoid the tragedy of falling into delusion again and again and repeating the painful round of birth and death. This life is the only time and place we can prepare in, and we can only truly prepare through spiritual practice: This is the inescapable message of the natural bardo of this life.

When we die we leave everything behind, especially this body we have cherished so much and relied upon so blindly and tried so hard to keep alive. But our minds are no more dependable than our bodies. Just look at your mind for a few minutes.
You will see that it is like a flea, constantly hopping to and fro. You will see that thoughts arise without any reason, without any connection. Swept along by the chaos of every moment, we are the victims of the fickleness of our minds. If this is the only state of consciousness we are familiar with, then to rely on our minds at the moment of death is an absurd gamble.

Why do we live in such terror of death? Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is that we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity; but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our “biography,” our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards. . . . It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?
We live under an assumed identity, in a neurotic fairy-tale world with no more reality than the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland. Hypnotized by the thrill of building, we have raised the houses of our lives on sand.
This world can seem marvelously convincing until death collapses the illusion and evicts us from our hiding place. And what will happen to us then if we have no clue of any deeper reality?

At the moment of death, there are two things that count: whatever we have done in our lives, and what state of mind we are in at that very moment. Even if we have accumulated a lot of negative karma, if we are able to make a real change of heart at the moment of death, it can decisively influence our future, and transform our karma, for the moment of death is an exceptionally powerful opportunity to purify karma.

Your compassion can have perhaps three essential benefits for a dying person: First, because it is opening your heart, you will find it easier to show the dying person the unconditional love he or she needs so much.
On a deeper, spiritual level, I have seen again and again how, if you can embody compassion and act out of the heart of compassion, you will create an atmosphere in which the other person can be inspired to imagine the spiritual dimension or even take up spiritual practice.
On the deepest level of all, if you constantly practice compassion for the dying person, and in turn inspire him or her to do the same, you might heal the person not only spiritually but perhaps even physically. And you will discover for yourself, with wonder, what all the spiritual masters know: that the power of compassion has no bounds.

At present, our body is undoubtedly the center of our whole universe. We associate it, without thinking, with our self and our ego, and this thoughtless and false association continually reinforces our illusion of their inseparable, concrete existence. Because our body seems so convincingly to exist, our “I” seems to exist, and “you” seem to exist, and the entire illusory, dualistic world we never stop projecting around us looks ultimately solid and real.
When we die, this whole compound construction falls dramatically to pieces.

Ask yourself these two questions: Do I remember at every moment that I am dying, and that everyone and everything else is, and so treat all beings at all times with compassion? Has my understanding of death and impermanence become so keen and so urgent that I am devoting every second to the pursuit of enlightenment? If you can answer “yes” to both of these, then you really understand impermanence.

There are those who look on death with a naive, thoughtless cheerfulness, thinking that for some unknown reason death will work out all right for them, and that it is nothing to worry about. When I think of them, I am reminded of what one Tibetan master says: “People often make the mistake of being frivolous about death and think, ‘Oh well, death happens to everybody. It’s not a big deal, it’s natural. I’ll be fine.’” That’s a nice theory until one is dying.

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