Stan Goldberg gains sobering insights into death and his own insecurities during a retreat with Ribur Rinpoche.

Are You Ready for Death?

What we see as the worst crisis of our lives is actually a wonderful opportunity to discover enlightened mind, says The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.

By Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Photo by Greg Ortega

Whether or not we are prepared, we will all meet the Lord of Death. Who is this great Lord and what is his power over us? This legendary figure that inspires so much fear is merely the personification of impermanence and cause and effect, or karma. In Buddhist literature, this Lord is invincible. No one can beat him at his game, except a true holder of wisdom. It is wisdom that slays the slayer.

Ultimately, what we call life is just an illusion of continuity—a succession of moments; a stream of thoughts, emotions, and memories, which we feel is our possession. And, therefore, we too spring into existence, as the possessors of that continuity. However, upon examination we discover that that continuity is dreamlike, illusory. It is not a continuous or substantial reality. It consists of single moments, which arise, dissolve, and arise again, like waves on an ocean. Therefore, this “I” arises and dissolves in each moment as well. It does not continue from one moment to the next. The “I” of one moment dissolves and is gone. The “I” of the next moment arises afresh. These two “I”s cannot be said to be the same or different, yet they are identified by conceptual mind as a single, continuous self.

When this illusion of continuity comes to an end, however briefly, we have an opportunity to glimpse the deeper reality that underlies it. This is the true and abiding nature of the mind, which is inseparable from the mind and realization of Padmasambhava. It is the primordial awareness, the luminous wisdom, from which all phenomena spontaneously arise. This wisdom is unknowable in the ordinary sense because it is beyond concept. Therefore it is also beyond time. It is called birthless and deathless. If we can connect with that experience, past and future are transcended, and we naturally wake up to a vast and brilliant world.

When we truly know that with every ending there is also renewal, we begin to relax. Our minds become open to the process of change. We feel we can actually touch reality and are no longer afraid of death. We can learn to live well and fully now, with the understanding that death is not something apart from life. So from the Buddhist point of view, we have a choice: to direct our story of living and dying now, or to wait, closing our eyes to the message of impermanence, until death itself opens them. Since we value happy endings, why choose to gamble with the Lord of Death?

Embarking on a Journey

Whenever we embark on a long journey, there is a sense of death and rebirth. The experiences we go through have a transitional quality. The moment we step outside our house and close the door, we begin to leave our life behind. We say goodbye to family and friends and to the familiar rooms and routines that we inhabit. We might feel regret mixed with excitement as we climb into the taxi that will take us to the airport. As our vision of home recedes, we are both sadly parted and joyfully released from all that defines us. The further from home we go, the more focused we become on our next destination. We think less of home and more about where we are going. We begin to look at a new map; we start to think about where we will land, about the new people, new customs, and new environment—all the new sets of experiences to come.

Until we reach our destination, we are in transit, in between two points. One world has dissolved, like last night’s dream, and the next has not yet arisen. In this space, there is a sense of total freedom: we are free from the business of being our ordinary selves; we are not tied to the day-to-day world and its demands in quite the same way. There is a sense of freshness and appreciation of the present moment. At the same time, we may have moments of feeling fearful and groundless because we have entered unknown territory. We do not know with certainty what will arise in the next moment or where it will take us. The moment we relax, however, our insecurity dissolves and the environment becomes friendly and supportive. We are at ease in our world once again and can move forward naturally and with confidence.

Leaving this life is similar in many ways to going on a long trip. In this case, the trip we are making is a journey of mind. We are leaving behind this body, our loved ones, our possessions, and all our experiences of this life and moving on to the next. We are in transit, in between two points. We have left home but have not yet reached our next destination. We are neither in the past nor in the future. We are sandwiched between yesterday and tomorrow. Where we are now is the present, which is the only place we can be.

This experience of the present moment is known as bardo in Tibetan Buddhism. Bardo in a literal sense means “interval”; it can also be translated as an “intermediate” or “in-between” state. Thus, we can say that whenever we are in between two moments, we are in a bardo state. The past moment has ceased; the future moment has not yet arisen. There is a gap, a sense of nowness, of pure openness, before the appearance of the next thing, whether that is our next thought or our next lifetime.

The Bardo Teachings

The bardo teachings describe six distinct sets of experiences: three that are related to this life and three that are related to experiences of death, after death, and our entrance into the next life. When the six bardos are viewed in full, we see that they encompass the entire spectrum of our experience as conscious beings, both in life and in death.

The teachings on the six bardos point out the fundamental continuity of mind through all states of existence. From this perspective, what we call life and death are simply concepts—relative designations that are attributed to a continuous state of being, an indestructible awareness that is birthless and deathless. While impermanence—the constant ebb and flow of appearance and dissolution—characterizes all phenomena that we can see, hear, taste, touch, or mentally conceive, this pure, primordial mind endures all transitions and transcends all boundaries created by dualistic thought. Although we may cling to this life and fear its end, beyond death there is mind, and where there is mind there is uninterrupted display: spacious, radiant, and continually manifesting.

However, whether this understanding remains merely a comforting idea or becomes a key to accessing deeper levels of knowledge and ultimate freedom depends on us.

It is important to see that the bardo teachings are a complete cycle of instructions. This means that if we were to practice only the instructions on the bardo, these instructions by themselves would be sufficient for us to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime. It is crucial that we develop confidence in these instructions, that we trust in their message and that we trust our own hearts so that we can take these instructions into our lives effectively.

Within this cycle of instructions, there are various systems of classification of the bardo teachings. The system presented here is the complete classification, consisting of six bardos.[1] The first is called the natural bardo of this life. The second is called the bardo of dream. The third is called the bardo of meditation. These first three are mainly related to the appearances and practices of this life. The fourth bardo is called the painful bardo of dying. The fifth is called the luminous bardo of dharmata.[2] The sixth is called the karmic bardo of becoming. These last three relate to the appearances and practices for the after-death states.

Briefly, the natural bardo of this life is the interval between the moment of our birth and the moment that we meet with the condition that will cause our death. It contains all our experiences of joy and suffering and is the basis of our practice of the spiritual path. The bardo of dream relates to the interval between falling asleep and waking: the appearances of the waking state dissolve, there is a gap in which the illusory dream appearances arise, and then the appearances of the waking state become perceptible again. The bardo of meditation refers to the interval in which our minds are resting in a state of meditative absorption, or samadhi. At this time, our minds are not subject to the full power of confusion of the normal day-to-day state.

The painful bardo of dying is the interval between the moment we meet with the condition that will cause our death and the actual moment of our death. During this period, all the elements of our coarse and subtle bodies and consciousness dissolve gradually into space, and the clear light of death manifests. The luminous bardo of dharmata is the interval that begins immediately following the moment of death and ends when we enter the bardo of becoming. At this time the empty yet luminous appearances of the primordial and utterly pure nature of mind arise vividly. The bardo of becoming is the interval that begins after the luminous bardo of dharmata and ends when we enter the womb of our future parents. Having not recognized the nature of our minds, and thus having failed to achieve liberation, we “wake up” from a state of unconsciousness and wander for forty-nine days, undergoing a variety of intense experiences while our longing for a home and parents grows stronger and stronger. At the culmination of this bardo, the appearances of the natural bardo of this life arise again, as we enter the next lifetime. Thus, the cycle continues, and we experience further suffering, along with further opportunities to develop our wisdom and compassion.

In this discussion, I will focus on the painful bardo of dying.

The Painful Bardo of Dying

At this time, when the bardo of death appears to you,
Abandon attraction, attachment, and fixation to all.
Enter into the nature of the clear oral instructions without distraction.
Transfer into the unborn space of self-arising awareness.[3]

The painful bardo of dying begins when we are struck with some unfavorable condition that causes the dissolution of the appearances of this life, whether it is an accident, a terminal illness, or any natural cause such as old age that results in the exhaustion of our body. It ends with the cessation of our inner respiration, just before the dawning of the bardo of dharmata, which follows it.

For realized beings, such as Padmasambhava, the painful bardo of dying does not exist; consequently, the two subsequent bardos also do not exist. However, when you are not a realized person—even though you may feel that you know enough, or just enough, to get by and escape those experiences—you must go through the interval called the painful bardo of dying. It is said to be painful because at the time of the dissolution of the elements, when we begin to lose contact with the appearances of this life, we experience some degree of physical and psychological pain and suffering.

At the time of our death, we may become overwhelmed by feelings of sadness, fear, and pain. What is the source of that pain and suffering? Its origin is our attachment—our grasping at and holding on to the appearances of this life. We are simply unwilling to let go of them, whether our attachment is to our spouse, family, home, work, wealth, or reputation. That is the primary cause for the pain of this bardo.

Even now, when we reflect on death, we may feel that fear and attachment. Whenever these feelings arise, we can remind ourselves again and again that such emotions are of no help to us. If we find ourselves lingering in these states, we can recall that we are not the only ones dying. Everyone who has taken birth will die. Everyone who was born long ago has died. Everyone living in the present is dying now or will die. Everyone who will be born in the future will also die. No one is left behind to go on living. We cannot find anyone who is 2,500 years old. We might live a long time; perhaps we will live past a hundred years, but then we will be gone.

If it were the case that no one but you had to die, that no one but you were to be punished by death, then of course it would be reasonable to feel sadness or fear. You could say, “Why only me?” However, even though we know this is not the case, when death approaches we continue to ask, “Why me?” and “Why now?” Since there is no one who we can tell us how long we have to live, the point is to be ready.

In first aid training, we learn emergency techniques like CPR so that when a crisis comes we are prepared to save someone’s life. Similarly, if we receive a call that tells us our death is approaching, we need to be ready with these instructions; we must be ready to use the tools in our first aid kit as effectively and as forcefully as we can. That is the whole purpose of working with the instructions on the bardo.

If we can let go of our attachment, then this bardo is no longer the “painful” bardo of dying. It is simply “the bardo of dying,” which we can then experience clearly. But if not, then our minds are so overwhelmed by our clinging and grasping that we miss the whole experience. We lose our opportunity to notice what is actually taking place; we overlook each occurrence of the manifestation of the nature of mind. Then we are unable to take the experience of this bardo fully onto the path. In order to counteract this tendency and create a more positive situation, we can practice letting go of our attachment to this lifetime.

When we look closely at our attachment, we see that it is nothing more than habituation. We have developed certain patterns that we persist in, patterns of clinging and grasping that have become so entrenched and solidified that we have ceased to notice them. Therefore, we have to reorient ourselves; we have to habituate ourselves to a new way of relating to our experience that will help undo our old patterns and extricate us from our attachment. The most effective means for doing this is to become habituated to the practice of mindfulness and awareness. Thus, it is important to remind ourselves repeatedly to apply this practice in every situation. We don’t wait until we are sitting on our meditation cushion. If that were the case, then a lot of time would be wasted.

If we can undo our habitual clinging and attachment now, in this lifetime, then we can transcend the suffering of this bardo.

Preparing For Death

When we see that the time of our death is approaching, coming closer and closer, we can prepare ourselves by making the aspiration to remain calm. We can tell ourselves, “Now death is coming. It is my time to die. This is a very important moment for me.” At this point, we should focus on our intention instead of thinking about things left undone or ways to extend our life.

Once the moment of death has arrived for us, no matter how desperate we may be to prolong our life, nothing can be done. Nobody can alter our karma; we have no choice but to follow it. What will help us is to begin preparing for that moment now by setting a firm intention to meet our death with calmness and mindfulness. We prepare ourselves mentally by becoming familiar with the stages of death, and then affirming our intention to remain calm and present, alert and mindful, throughout these stages. It is very important to give rise to this aspiration now and to train in it; then, at the time of death, it is essential to reaffirm that aspiration and to maintain our motivation, our one-pointed determination, to remain in a peaceful yet alert state of mind.

At the same time, we must understand that our intention will be interrupted at times by pain and fear, so it is important to reinstate our intention again and again. Sometimes we think that doing something once is enough. For example, we may have taken the bodhisattva vow and generated bodhichitta—the aspiration to liberate all beings—at that time. We may think that is enough, but it is not. We need to generate that aspiration every day, and not just every day, but at least three times a day. Similarly, at the time of death, we will need to voice our intention again and again until we are firmly rooted in it. When we are one with that intention on the levels of both body and mind, then we have a very good and powerful practice.

The Dissolving of the Elements

According to the bardo teachings, our bodies are composed of five elements: earth, fire, water, air, and space. When we are born, these five elements come together and our bodies come into existence. At the time of death, these elements are departing, dissolving, or falling apart as opposed to coming together.

From the perspective of Mahamudra, Dzogchen, and the Vajrayana traditions, our ordinary physical body, composed of the five elements, is the coarse body. The inner essential body, also known as the subtle body, or the vajra body, is not visible to the eye. The subtle body is composed of channels, or nadis; winds or energies, known as pranas; and essences of the physical body, or bindus. The channels are pathways through which the subtle energies, or winds, move. The winds carry the essences of the physical body. There are several examples that illustrate how the channels, winds, and essences relate to one another. In one, the channels are like a house, the winds are like the people in the house, and the essences are like the minds of those people. In another, the channels are like the body, the winds are like the breath, and the essences are like the mind.

From the perspective of these teachings, the inner essential nature of mind, which is referred to as the connate wisdom of bliss-emptiness, is the basis for the development of the inner essential body (the subtle body). The inner essential body is in turn the basis for the development of the coarse body. Thus the physical body arises from mind, just like the rays of sunlight arise from the sun. This view is different from the Hinayana view that regards the formation of the physical body as the result of negative karma and as a basis for suffering, and also from the Mahayana view that regards the body as illusionlike and as a confused appearance of relative truth.

During the process of death, the energies of the channels, winds, and essences in the body dissolve, as do the five elements; as a result, the systems of the body begin to function less and less effectively. As each element dissolves, the sense consciousness and wisdom to which they correspond also cease. Of course, wisdom itself does not cease, as the ultimate nature of the five wisdoms is transcendent and changeless; however, the relative or dualistic manifestation of the wisdoms ceases along with the elements with which they are associated. For example, when mirrorlike wisdom dissolves, we lose the capacity to clearly see multiple images distinctly and at once.

The details of these systems and processes may be learned through a study of the Vajrayana teachings.

Practices for Dying

During the stages of dissolution of the coarse and subtle body, we should apply whatever methods we have been practicing in this life, whether they are Mahamudra, Dzogchen, or Vajrayana. It is important to understand, however, that not everyone has exactly the same experiences. Although we all undergo these dissolutions, each of us experiences the process in a slightly different way. For example, the inner signs of death—those that manifest as alterations in our cognitive functioning—might not confuse or agitate the mind of a practitioner who has established some basis of calmness, but they may be disturbing for someone who has not developed any mental stability.

If you are accustomed to Mahamudra or Dzogchen, then you can employ the various enhancement practices of those traditions, which are taught for the purpose of stabilizing insight, improving the recognition of the nature of mind, and developing love and compassion for all sentient beings. If you have trained in Vajrayana deity practice, then you can rely on the Vajrayana practices of prana, nadi, and bindu at that time. You can also engage in phowa, a practice that is especially connected to the time of death, when our minds and bodies start to separate and begin to lose the connection they now have. The term phowa is often translated as the “transference” or “ejection” of consciousness. It is important, however, to understand more broadly what phowa is. What we are essentially doing at this time is transferring our consciousness from an impure, confused state into a pure and unconfused state. We are transforming consciousness and connecting with the true nature of mind and the reality of all phenomena on the spot.

In general, the phowa teachings are not much different from those of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. The intention of Mahamudra and Dzogchen is to penetrate our confusion and see its ultimate nature of nonconfusion, or wisdom. The purpose of all forms of phowa is the same: to transform a confused state of mind into an unconfused state. If we broaden our understanding of phowa in this way, then we will see that it includes all those practices that have as their goal the realization of the true nature of mind. Mahamudra, Dzogchen, and Vajrayana practices all accomplish this purpose—that is, ultimate liberation through the transference of consciousness from a state of samsara to a state of nirvana, or from a condition of ego-centered suffering to one of profound peace, openness, joy, and unceasing compassion.

The teachings also say that we can use devotion as a path. When we connect with our heart of devotion, then, in that moment, we are connecting very powerfully, immediately, and directly with the awakened heart of the guru and the lineage, as well as our own inherently awakened state. Working with our devotion means that we are not just relying on our own efforts. We are opening ourselves to a source of blessings that is an embodiment and a reflection of our own fundamental nature. When we genuinely supplicate the guru and the lineage, we feel the presence of the sacred world; the qualities of clarity, gentleness, peace, joy, and equanimity are naturally with us. Therefore we are confident, relaxed, and fearless. If you practice deity yoga, such as Vajrasattva, then you can supplicate the deity as well. It is no different than supplicating your guru and the lineage. In general, in the traditions of Mahamudra, Dzogchen, and Vajrayana, devotion is seen as a key that unlocks the doorway to the most profound experiences of mind.

There are many beautiful and inspiring supplication prayers that we can recite, such as the supplication to Padmasambhava called the Guru Rinpoche Prayer. Such practices should be done regularly in the bardo of this life and also at the time of death. We recite these prayers now with the intention of transforming the fear and suffering we experience in this life, and at the same time we maintain an awareness of our impending death and its potential for suffering. Accordingly, we form the strong intention to supplicate in the same way at that time. We say to ourselves, “In the bardos of death and after-death, I will supplicate just as I am doing now.” In this way, we develop a habitual connection with the practice so that when we enter those bardos, our supplication comes easily; it is very natural, genuine, and relaxed.

One Last Chance for Enlightenment

All of our disturbing emotions cease with the dissolution of the subtle body and consciousness itself; therefore, they no longer manifest in us as they usually do. Since we are finally rid of our kleshas, we should be happy. We should make every effort to connect with that pure space and attain some profound realization. If we have failed to recognize the nature of mind beforehand, then at the time of death we have one last chance to recognize it and attain liberation on the spot.

That is why each time you practice meditation, it is important to sit with confidence and to arouse the intention to achieve enlightenment in that very session. If you become accustomed to generating such confidence now, then at the time of death you can manifest the same level of confidence and trust in your practice. You have one last chance—for this lifetime, at any rate. It is not your last chance ultimately; there is no sense of being doomed forever. However, the time of death is our last opportunity to achieve enlightenment now. Thus, your attitude toward your practice makes a great difference. If you do it halfheartedly, thinking to yourself, “These are the instructions, so I will try them. Who knows, maybe this will work and maybe it won’t,” it is still better than not practicing at all. At least there is a faint sense of trust and hope. However, it is not very strong and it will not be very effective.

Mind Beyond Death

Being in the present, in the state of nowness, is where we began our discussion of these teachings, and that is where it ends, too—not in any other place, but right here and now. When this bardo cycle ends, we take birth either in samsara or in nirvana, in some form. From the Buddhist point of view, death is not the end because it is also a beginning. The end of this life’s appearances is the beginning of the next life’s appearances. It could be the end of samsara and the beginning of nirvana. It could also be the end of a precious human birth and the beginning of a painful samsaric experience. It is up to us, to how we work with our journey through the bardos.

It is important for our spiritual journey that we connect with these teachings personally and review them periodically. These days, translations of the bardo teachings are available in a variety of languages. There are also many transcripts of oral teachings, many books, and many charts. We may have more than we actually need to understand these teachings; however, it is necessary for us to utilize them. For example, it would be beneficial to set aside some time once a year to read the teachings and reflect on the instructions. We should stop what we are doing to remember impermanence and to prepare ourselves for death. When will our death come? It could be tomorrow. It could be today. The time that death will arrive is uncertain. Therefore, we have to be prepared for it. We have to be ready twenty-four hours a day.

These practices are relevant, even crucial, for all of us, until we transcend the journey itself. At some point, we make the discovery that, ultimately, mind transcends death. Who we are and where we are is mind. Mind endures because it is unborn and unceasing; it endures because it transcends our concepts of time and space; it is not fixed to one occurrence in time or to one place. It is mind that journeys as a guest in this physical body until we take full possession of the boundless wisdom and compassion that are innate to us, and realize the freedom and purity of our abiding nature.

[1] This presentation of the bardo is based primarily on the teachings of Padmasambhava in Instructions on the Six Bardos from the Shitro cycle of teachings revealed by Karma Lingpa, as well as the oral teachings that I have received personally from my own masters.

[2] Dharmata (Sanskrit) refers to the inherent nature of mind and all phenomena called “suchness” or “thatness.”

[3] From Padmasambhava’s Instructions on the Six Bardos. Translated by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and Gerry Weiner. © 2002 Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and Gerry Wiener.

photo of Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is founder and president of Nalandabodhi and Nitartha International, and the author of several books including, most recently, Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You.