Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche offers a fresh teaching on phowa practice and how navigating the various transitions in our lives, including the very small ones, lays a foundation for navigating the much bigger ones when they come.
In the most basic sense, phowa, as practiced in Tibetan Bön Buddhism, centers on the transference of consciousness at the moment of death. These teachings can prepare us to project our consciousness directly into a pure realm at the time of death, increasing our chance for liberation in a single lifetime. The time of our death may feel remote and unconnected from our day-to-day reality, but phowa begins now, in this realm of existence. Every day, we undergo a seemingly endless parade of transitions, from the mundane—one day, one week, or one year into the next—to major life transitions that can be much more difficult to adjust to. By recognizing each transition—recognizing that we have a choice, becoming aware, and then letting go of our attachment—we also prepare ourselves for the great transition at the time of death.
My teacher Yongdzin Rinpoche once said to me that the purpose of practicing phowa is to “be packed and ready” when the great moment of our passing approaches. Being packed and ready means just as we are, not bringing anything with us. Whether we are crossing to the other side of this life or simply passing from one phase of life to another, we endeavor to enter empty-handed. Tibetan Bön Buddhist teachings tell us that transitions themselves—even the great transition at the end of this life—are not the cause of suffering; it is our insistence on trying to take things with us that’s the problem. We can’t take anything, and in trying to do so we disturb our minds. So, our practice is to work with ourselves and that sense of attachment, because we all find something—usually many things—to become attached to.
We must pay attention and be willing to change.
When you walked into the room where you are now sitting, at the very moment of entering, how fully did you walk in? How conscious were you as you crossed the threshold? How much of your “stuff”—your stories, plans, replayed conversations, the lingering discomfort in your mind and emotions—did you bring in with you? Every moment of transition is an opportunity to practice awareness and clarity, to learn about ourselves, to see the ways we become stuck, and to let go. Each time we practice this, we can reflect a little more and be open to seeing our habitual patterns. We must pay attention and be willing to change. And if we find ourselves resisting change, we can pray that we will change: “I know I need to change. May I change. Give me the strength to change.”
Different transitions challenge our attachments in different ways. Just going from one day to another—Friday into Saturday—is not so hard for most of us. But what about going from one season to another, one year to another, one job to another, one relationship to another? Each of these transitions becomes harder as our attachments and expectations around them increase. Perhaps you are used to being able to get up and run or jog each day. There may come a time when this is no longer possible, and you must forget about jogging. That kind of change can be very difficult to adapt to. Maybe you’ve always had one kind of relationship with your parents, but now it’s become another kind of relationship. Now, instead of gathering for barbecues or parties, maybe you visit them in a hospital or nursing home and hold their hands. It’s a change. You are not used to it. It’s hard to transition to the new phase of life if you’re still attached to the previous one.
Because bigger transitions are more difficult, we must focus on our ability to let go now. If you look at this moment of your life, right now, how many things could you let go of? Think of one thing at this moment that you are attached to, that you’re identifying with, that you are holding onto, that causes pain. Perhaps you have a difficult relationship with someone in your life because of a grudge you are holding onto, or perhaps your attachment to the relationship itself is holding you back. Now compare how hard it would be to let go of that attachment with the letting go you will have to do at the time of your death. Which would you prefer, dying or letting go of that attachment? There’s no question, right? You would let go of that attachment. So why not just go ahead and do it?
With awareness, we can see that when we struggle with a transition, it has something to do with an attachment, whether to an identity or to something external. If you let that one thing go, and then another thing and another and another, then all the smaller things you can let go of will help you to be free. Each act of letting go benefits you, making it easier to let go of the harder things that will come along the way. If we do not apply ourselves to these opportunities to let go, if we can’t handle the little things that come along, then we are certain to have a harder time with the big things.
Letting go is like cleaning your garage or your closet. How many of us have cleaned our closets and found stuff in there that we were not using? This is a simple opportunity to practice letting go. When you open your closet and see something you put in there five years ago that you haven’t used, haven’t even touched, go ahead and take hold of it and let that one thing go! Energetically, these small acts of letting go can make a big impact. Even just deleting photos from your phone—a simple act of selecting and then deleting—can lighten our attachments. Do you know someone who has too much stuff, whose house has almost no space for people to move, let alone any sense of spaciousness? Energetically, that’s not good for us. In a monastery, the monks clean a lot. When they clean the gompa, shine the floors, clean the shrine, it’s seen as a purification. Both a shrine and a closet are easier to clean than the chakras. If you cannot clear your central channel, at least open your closet and clear some of those blockages.
There are many ways to enter the next moment. Ceremonially, socially, we do various things that are symbolic. In the Tibetan tradition, we perform a lot of big ceremonies at the end of the year. The end of the year is a time for clearing the old year, so we do purification and rituals. We raise a prayer flag on the first day of the new year, symbolically raising all the forces of elemental energies. In our daily lives, the principle is the same. We can find a way to bring the best out of each new space, new time, new purpose, new mission, new beginning, new phase of life, new moment. It doesn’t have to be the end of the year. Every morning can be like this. In the Tibetan tradition, every day we make an offering of the fresh water on the altar. This is an old tradition, and lately I’ve been feeling a strong connection to it. Bringing something fresh to the shrine, my sense of the day ahead feels very different. That sacredness, that freshness, that sense of connection, of offering, that sense of not forgetting the refuge or source, connecting there to start my day, is very powerful.
Often, at times of transition, we behave without awareness. We behave with condition, with pain, with fear. We feel we don’t have a choice. Just knowing we do have a choice can make all the difference. The choice comes when we can take time to be still, silent, spacious. We practice not doing, not saying, not thinking (not thinking is harder, but at least not doing and not saying). Then, once we have calmed down, we find a new space from which we can do and say and think, and what we do and what we say might be different from what we originally would have said or done. One thing that we want to be able to see clearly and to say to ourselves is, “If it’s not good, I will not make it worse.” Leave it as it is.
We have so many opportunities to be aware. Think about approaching it this way: I’m going to handle this little transition well so I can handle the next, harder one even better. Each time we make these little transitions and feel free, feel good, the world opens up for us. Moments, places, locations, changes, transitions happen all the time in life. These are all opportunities to cultivate and practice to better support the transition of phowa practice at the moment of death. Beyond just preparing us for the big transition at the end of life, bringing this mindset into times of transition can make our lives easier, more productive. In the end, whether doing the phowa practice or walking from one room into the next, it’s about how clearly we enter, how clearly we go to the next day, how clearly we go to the next thing. Every entrance is interesting if we approach it with clarity.