It has been almost fifty years since many lamas of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation crossed the borders of Tibet and changed the spiritual face of the West forever. The early students of Tibetan Buddhism here in the United States, now my adopted home, are advancing both in their practice and in their years. While death can surely arrive at any moment, for many the truth of impermanence is just now beginning to dawn with some clarity, with some certainty. The true test of their faith and practice is beginning.
While there is much debate and legitimate concern about how Buddhism has adapted to the West—and vice-versa—it seems timely and useful now, regardless of our age, to focus on our personal progress since taking up the Buddhist path. How have we changed? How have we worked with obstacles that have arisen along the way? Have we slipped back into any unwholesome habitual patterns and not even noticed? What kind of faith do we find in our hearts right now? What is our current commitment to practice? Where do we want to be as dharma practitioners at the time of our death?
These are not just rhetorical questions. Please ask yourself these questions right now. Take an honest look inside and recognize what you need to do to fulfill your spiritual aspirations in whatever time you have left. All of these questions together are what is meant by the question, What is your dharma vision? What kind of practitioner are you truly willing to become so that the moment of death fulfills the hopes you have for enlightenment—or at the very least your hopes for a rebirth that allows you to continue your practice and be in the presence of authentic teachers again?
Just as all of us make great effort to maintain our everyday lives, we should make similarly great effort in our preparations for death. If we are living and practicing the essence of the dharma teachings, there should be no difference between our spiritual practices while we are living and those that we engage in at the time of death. One practice that we all share on the path, no matter what other teachings we have received or practices we have committed to, is training in mindfulness to ensure that in our last moments we will be able to make good use of our death.
We all seek to be the best human beings we can be. And regardless of our beliefs, death will come to all of us. Everyone can benefit from preparing for death as a spiritual practice. Additionally, if we learn how to support a loved one while they are dying, we will be giving them a great gift by helping them fulfill their own spiritual aspirations.
The Need for a Dharma Vision
Many of us on the Buddhist path have heard from our teachers that “the path is the goal” and that we should cut through any attachments to results. This is most true specifically on the path of meditation; we should not have hope for any particular experiences or signs of realization in our meditation. Hungering for such experiences will only bring us obstacles. Nevertheless, without earnest self-reflection and a vision for ourselves as practitioners, we will not really know how to take up the path.
In Tibet, few monks and nuns receive the teachings of Dzogchen, and even fewer laypeople are introduced to them. Here in the West, we expect the highest teachings to be given freely even if we have made little effort in the foundational practices. But it is the yogis who spend years training their minds, using self-reflection as a tool to further their progress, who become the highly realized practitioners.
We must be careful about having only the appearance of a dharma practitioner. Some students who have received many teachings tell me they are “on and off” practitioners; they “sort of” practice and have little experience. Sometimes they are very passionate about their practice for a short period of time. They may burn like fire, but then something or other happens and they stop practicing. They lack certainty about what is the perfectly pure path. We need to abandon this habit of being an “on and off” practitioner. If we let our energy get too high, we can expect a counterbalancing low to follow when we lose our enthusiasm. Thus, in terms of dharma practice, having a tempered passion is a more useful quality.
Because it is so easy to deceive ourselves about our practice, it is very important to have a relationship with a spiritual friend who will help cut through any self-deception. But we must do our part to be prepared for and to nurture such a relationship; we must be diligent in our practice and have a realistic idea of our spiritual goals. Self-reflection can bring a new level of trust and mutual respect to an established relationship with a teacher by demonstrating that we are suitable spiritual “vessels,” worthy of receiving profound lineage teachings. We can transform our outer trust in the three jewels—in the Buddha, in the teachings, and in the community of noble practitioners—into authentic confidence that develops unshakeable faith in the Buddhist path to enlightenment.
I consider the dharma vision, what we might call our spiritual aspirations, to be an evolving meditation on living and dying. It makes no difference what stage of life we are in. Practitioners need a guide for living as well as for dying that we can skillfully rely on during our lives as well as at the moment of death.
It’s also important to include others in our dharma vision. Many of us, wishing to increase our expressions of loving-kindness and compassion, also want to help friends, loved ones, pets, and strangers alike die with the same opportunities for a “good death” that we wish for ourselves. If we do have the wish to help others through the dying process, we must first train ourselves to understand how our own lives move toward death. We must gain knowledge and wisdom about the process of dying that will enable us to use one of the most important moments of this incarnation wisely. Then we can make a serious commitment to becoming practitioners who take responsibility for accomplishing the vision of helping ourselves and others to die well.
The Dharma Will, Entrusted Dharma Friends, and the Dharma Box
When we understand the importance of the dying process and the potential we have for liberation during and after our death, it will be easy to see how essential it is to prepare properly for death. I would like to plant seeds here first for the idea of a dharma will and also for what I call entrusted dharma friends.
I encourage students to form core groups of entrusted dharma friends who agree to help each other through the dying process according to the wishes written down in each person’s dharma will. The dharma will allows us to record our spiritual directives, so family and friends will know the kind of death we wish to experience and how it can be accomplished. Our entrusted dharma friends should at least be familiar with phowa [the transference of consciousness at the time of death] and other Buddhist practices. Once each person has written a dharma will, he or she can share it within the core group as part of training in recognizing the signs of death, mastering phowa, and learning how to skillfully help someone through the dying process.
Entire sanghas, or spiritual communities, can also pledge to help entrusted dharma friends within their community fulfill their commitments. Each core group will need others from the spiritual community to assume some of the tasks involved in supporting the dying person’s wishes, such as informing the sangha about appropriate prayers and rituals, practicing phowa together, and helping with funeral arrangements. This will be a wonderful way to strengthen our spiritual relationships and gain confidence in using the dying process for spiritual practice. Once we are skilled in phowa, a monthly or bi- monthly group practice session can support the entire community’s effort.
I also advocate creating a “dharma box,” an actual box which will contain everything we and our entrusted dharma friends will need to help us through the dying process. The dharma box will include copies of our dharma will and legal papers, ritual items, dharma practice texts, and instructions for family and friends. Once the dharma box is complete, we can return to our dharma vision and engage fully in the practices we have committed to through the creation of that vision, with the assurance that we have put everything in place for the time of death.
Creating Your Dharma Vision through Contemplation
There are many traditional meditations on death and impermanence in the foundational practices of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. We can think about how the seasons change and how the elements of the world around us transform; we can look at how our bodies have changed from the time we were born until now; we can contemplate how our minds are constantly transforming. Reflecting on impermanence is the best way to prepare ourselves for the moment of death. Please take some time to reflect on the contemplations below.
Here, I will suggest some specific questions for you to contemplate. It would be best to set aside a personal retreat day or weekend without interruptions for these practices, or to do this with your entrusted dharma friends in a group retreat. You may want a journal to write down insights and ideas that arise as you do these practices. Some students have also found journaling helpful in tracking their progress in meditation and conduct over a period of a month or so and they use that as a basis for further reflection. You should decide what tools will help you the most in making this assessment of your dharma practice.
Again, I encourage you to take an honest look at yourself as a Buddhist practitioner on the path. Sit quietly and cultivate a proper motivation. Generate bodhichitta—the wish to become enlightened in order to help others attain enlightenment. I suggest you begin by reading one of the contemplations below to yourself several times. Take time to consider it fully, keeping your mind focused but open to all ideas that arise. When you feel ready, rest in meditation free of reference points for as long as you can. When you finish your meditation, if you like, take time to write about your insights and experiences. Then continue with the next contemplation in the same way.
When you’ve thoroughly explored each of the contemplations below, you can begin to incorporate what you have learned about yourself as a practitioner into your dharma vision. Even if you have been practicing for a long time, you may be surprised at what you find lacking in your practice when you have taken an honest look. Many of my students find great inspiration in this process to increase their diligence and to focus on areas needing attention. Don’t forget to practice compassion for yourself. Appreciate the past efforts you have already made and include the efforts you are willing to make to become the excellent practitioner you have envisioned.
One of the biggest obstacles we might find we have as practitioners is that we lack a sense of urgency about the need to practice. This is caused by our strong experience of self-attachment. Self-attachment is expressed in many different ways. For example, we might think, “Let me just enjoy my life right now; let me enjoy this particular moment.” We put off practice for a later time, which we fail to realize may never come. The best time to practice, the best time to prepare for the reality of death, and the best time to clarify our own dharma visions, is the present. Don’t waste a moment.
Having a sense of urgency about practice could cause us to overestimate ourselves, or to want to skip over the hard work of developing a solid and stable base of daily practice. As you create your dharma vision, make an effort to balance idealism with realism. We may all wish to be great yogis like Milarepa or Longchenpa, but our capacity is more likely to be one of an ordinary practitioner. So we should reflect realistically on where we are now in our practice and what kind of practitioner we wish to become that is not beyond our reach. We must be honest about our capacity and realistic in our goals. As I have stated above, we must also continually be mindful of life’s impermanence and the reality of impending death. We may not have all the time we think we will have for practice.
We can aspire to such goals as receiving profound instructions from authentic teachers of all lineages and gaining experience and certainty in their meaning and in the primordially pure view of Dzogchen. We can always aspire to increase our bodhichitta and can do so by daily employing such practices as tonglen, in which we take in the suffering of others and send out positive wishes for healing and happiness in exchange. We all should wish to become proficient at practicing phowa for ourselves so that we may use it effectively at the time of our deaths, to die without regrets and with altruistic motivation for our next life. We may wish to become a practitioner who can sit with confidence with people who are dying and support them during the dying process. We may think about how we may help our teachers accomplish their dharma activities and where we can contribute our talents.
Regardless of how we regard our talent for writing, we can all compose an aspiration prayer for the time of our death and include it at the end of the dharma vision. We can read this aspiration prayer before sleep each night so its meaning fully enters our hearts. Then, as we are dying, an entrusted dharma friend can read this to us to remind us of what we are trying to accomplish and of our bodhichitta. A copy of this prayer can be kept in our dharma box, and buried or burned with us after we die.
Ideas to Contemplate
Contemplate Impermanence from the Outer Point of View
Reflect on how your outer environment has changed during the past year. Recall how the seasons changed: how the plants, flowers, and trees transformed over time; how the daylight increased and decreased. Think about it in terms of your own personal living environment and throughout the globe as well. Think about the natural catastrophes that occurred around the world. Reflect on all the births and deaths of people, animals, and insects. Allow the enormity of these changes to reach you on a deep level until you feel with certainty that not even one thing remained the same.
Contemplate Impermanence from the Inner Point of View
Imagine yourself as a small baby. See the physical changes you have gone through until now. Sometimes looking at photos of yourself from childhood to the present can be a poignant way to examine your own physical impermanence. Look at the transformation that has occurred in you physically. Then think about your physical being from last year until now, from last month until now, from yesterday until today. See that your body is changing even from moment to moment.
Contemplate Impermanence from the Secret Point of View
Reflect on the wild nature of your own mind. Remember yourself as a child and how your intelligence developed over time. Look at how your mind changes moment by moment as it fills with entertaining distractions or follows after different sensory experiences. Contemplate how you are constantly transforming mentally and how the mind is also impermanent.
Contemplate Your Spiritual Practice
Reflect on your daily practice. Are you practicing regularly and for as long as you would like? Are you able to incorporate all the practices you wish to master into your daily practice? Reflect deeply on what type of practitioner you really want to be. What are the obstacles that stand in your way? Think about any tendencies you have that prevent you from practicing in this way. What is the main cause? Identify the things that cause you to put off practicing.
Contemplate the Impermanence of Things to Which You Are Attached
If you are attached to material objects in the world around you, reflect on their changing nature. If you are attached to a person, reflect on him or her growing old and dying. Actually envision his or her physical and mental changes. If you are attached to your own life, as we all are, go through your body from the ends of the hair on your head to the tips of your toes and try to find anything that is lasting or permanent in your body. Do a very thorough examination, looking from outside to inside to see if you can find anything that is unchanging. Do this until you are confident that you, too, are actually going to die, and that you cannot hold onto this life forever.
Contemplate the Six Paramitas, or Transcendent Actions
Starting with this past month’s practice of generosity, look at how you practiced during the past month and how you have integrated practice into your daily life by examining how you have expressed generosity. Were you able to give love, emotional support, or material goods without attachment? Was your heart open unconditionally? If you compare this month to the previous month, was your generosity different or the same? If you compare last year to this year, have you been more generous? Less generous? The same? If you are the same, what will you do to increase your expression of generosity? If you have been less generous, reflect on why have you changed.
Contemplate This Past Month’s Spiritual Practice in Terms of the Remaining Paramitas
In the same way, examine your progress in virtue and morality; patience and tolerance; diligence and enthusiastic effort; meditative concentration; and wisdom. Take time to look at each quality and how you express it in your daily life. If you find yourself lacking in the expression of these enlightened qualities, make a plan to work on them. For example, make an effort to stay mindful of one quality over the next month and look for ways to enhance it. You will find many opportunities. Over time you can become habituated to remaining mindful and increasing the practice of each quality. You will find your daily practice improving greatly.
Contemplate This Past Month’s Spiritual Practice in Terms of Anger
It is very important to similarly contemplate your recent expressions of anger and resentment. These are the hardest to purify. Compare your expressions of anger and resentment in the past to how you feel currently. As a general trend, is it becoming easier to let go of them and generate compassion? If not, how will you work on this? Again, focus on anger or resentment by remaining mindful as these emotions arise. Work with any methods you have been given to cut through afflictive emotions. If this is difficult for you, ask your spiritual friend for advice.
Contemplate This Past Month’s Spiritual Practice in Terms of the View
If you have received instructions from your teacher on abiding in the view, or the nature of mind, assess your progress during the past month. Were you able to remember to abide in the view one hundred times a day? Twenty-one times a day? Three times? Have you increased the number of times you remembered to practice? Has it become easier? If not, how will you improve your practice?
Contemplate the Importance of Mastering the Mind
Your mind must deal with every experience. Think about how attaining mastery over the mind will enable you to lose any fear of death. Come to the certainty that you must master your mind in order to die with confidence.
Contemplate the Death of a Pet or Animal You Love
Imagine that an animal you love very much is ill and close to dying. Or, considering what is happening in our world today, think that the last of an entire species you love is about to die. Recognize that animals have no way to take care of themselves spiritually or mentally in this situation. It is not that they do not want to; they are simply incapable of doing so. With compassion for their suffering, also reflect on your good fortune in being born as a human being who can take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually at the time of death.
Contemplate the Death of a Person You Love
You may have already experienced the death of someone you were close to. Perhaps they did not have all the spiritual support they needed to die without fear or regret. If so, recall the experience of their death and again reflect on the good fortune that you are able to prepare well for your own death. If you have not had someone close to you die, imagine the death of someone you love and reflect deeply on your wish that they will experience no suffering and have all the support they need to die mindfully.
Contemplate the Causes and Conditions That Led to Your Birth and Will Lead to Your Death
Recognize the long chain of positive and negative actions that brings you to this very moment. Search for a deep understanding of karma, causes and conditions, and how you can affect your spiritual path with mindful actions from now until death. Then consider the type of practitioner you wish to be at your death and what kind of spiritual support you will want from others. Take time to imagine yourself in the dying process. Do you have the confidence to die well? Are you ready?0
Also, reflect on the idea that you may die suddenly, or during an accident. How can you be spiritually prepared for that experience?
Contemplate Difficulties with Your Death
As you imagine yourself dying, do any obstacles arise in your mind that would prevent you from having the kind of death you wish? What are they and what can you do to remove them?
Contemplate Your Ideal Death
What will your mind be like? What qualities will you have developed? What practice will be most important for you to do or hear at that time? Who do you want to be there to help you stay focused on your practice as you are dying?
Contemplate Your Level of Practice
What changes do you need to make in your daily practice to best ensure you become the type of practitioner you want to be?
Contemplate Your Relationship With a Spiritual Friend
If you have had the good fortune to meet and make a strong connection to a lama or spiritual teacher, reflect on this relationship and what it is like now. Have you developed the kind of relationship you envision? If not, what can you do to develop this relationship further?
Revising Your Dharma Vision
The dharma vision is a living and evolving meditation. We are always changing and growing in our understanding. I recommend that each year, perhaps at the new year or on your birthday, you commit to reviewing your vision as a dharma practitioner, assessing your progress, and seeing if there is anything new you want to add. You may want to again return to the contemplations above. If you have done any of this work in a group retreat, it would be fruitful for everyone to meet again to review and share both your progress and your obstacles. Support each other with kindness and appreciate the efforts everyone has made. Your sangha and entrusted dharma friends are most precious!