Preparing to Die

By His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama

Just as when weaving
One reaches the end
With fine threads woven throughout ,
So is the life of humans .

It is in the nature of cyclic existence that what has gathered will eventually disperse -- parents, children, brothers, sisters, and friends. No matter how much friends like each other , eventually they must separate. Gurus and students, parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and friends -- no matter who they are -- must eventually separate .

While my senior tutor, Ling Rinpochay, was healthy, it was almost impossible, unbearable, for me to think about his death. For me, he was always like a very solid rock on which I could rely. I wondered how I could survive without him. But when he suffered a stroke, after which there was a second, very serious stroke, eventually the situation allowed part of my mind to think, " Now it would be better for him to go." Sometimes I have even thought that he deliberately took on that illness, so that when he did actually pass away, I would be ready to handle the next task -- to search for his reincarnation .

In addition to separating from all of our friends, the wealth and resources that accumulate over time -- no matter how marvelous they are -- eventually become unusable. No matter how high your rank or position, you must eventually fall. To remind myself of this, when I ascend the high platform from which I teach, just as I am sitting down, I recite to myself the words of the Diamond Cutter Sutra about impermanence:

View things compounded from causes
To be like twinkling stars, figments seen with an eye disease ,
The flickering light of a butter lamp, magical illusions,
Dew, bubbles, dreams, lightning, and clouds .

I reflect on the fragility of caused phenomena, and then snap my fingers, the brief sound symbolizing impermanence. This is how I remind myself that I will soon be descending from the high throne.

Any living being -- no matter how long he or she lives -- must eventually die. There is no other way. Once you dwell within cyclic existence,  you cannot live outside of its nature. No matter how marvelous things may be, it is built into their very nature that they and you, who take joy in them , must degenerate in the end.

Not only must you die in the end, but you do not know when the end will come. If you did, you could put off preparing for the future. Even if you show signs of living to a ripe old age, you cannot say with one hundred percent certainty that today you will not die.

You must not procrastinate. Rather, you should make preparations so that even if you did die tonight, you would have no regrets. If you develop an appreciation for the uncertainty and imminence of death, your sense of the importance of using your time wisely will get stronger and stronger. As the Tibetan scholar-yogi Tsongkhapa says:

When the difficulty of finding this human body is understood ,
there is no way to stay doing nothing.

When its great meaning is seen , passing the time
senselessly is a cause of sorrow.

When death is contemplated , preparation to go
to the next life is made.

When actions and their effects are contemplated ,
sources of non-conscientiousness are turned away.

When in this way these four roots have become firm,
Other virtuous practices easily grow.

Thinking about death not only serves as a preparation for dying and prompts actions that benefit future lives, but it also dramatically affects your mental perspective. For instance, when people are not accustomed to this practice of being mindful about the certainty of death, then even when it is obvious that they are old and will soon pass away, their friends and family feel they cannot be realistic with them, and even feel the need to compliment them on their physical appearance.

Both parties know it is a lie. It is ridiculous!

Sometimes even patients suffering from terminal diseases such as cancer avoid using the words 'die' or 'death'. I find it almost impossible to speak with them about their impending death; they resist hearing about it. But for one who cannot now face even the word ' death', never mind the reality of it, the actual arrival of death is likely to bring with it great discomfort and fear .

On the other hand, when I meet with a practitioner who appears to be near death , I do not hesitate to say, ' Whether you die or recover, you need preparation for both.' It is possible for us to reflect together on the imminence of death. There is no need to hide anything, for that person is prepared to face death with no regret. A practitioner who, early on, thinks about impermanence is much more courageous and happy while dying. Reflecting on the uncertainty of the time of death develops a mind that is peaceful, disciplined, and virtuous, because it is dwelling on more than the superficial stuff of this short lifetime .

Summary Advice

  1. If you cultivate a sense of the uncertainty of the time of death, you will make better use of your time.
  2. To prevent procrastination with regard to spiritual practice, take care not to come under the influence of the illusion of permanence.
  3. Realize that no matter how wonderful a situation may be, its nature is such that it must end.
  4. Do not think that there will be time later.
  5. Be frank about facing your own death. Skillfully encourage others to be frank about their deaths . Do not deceive each other with compliments when the time of death is near. Honesty will foster courage and joy.
Advice on Dying : And Living a Better Life, Chapter 3 : Preparing to Die : pages 94 • 98, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Translated & Edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Atria Books • 2002 • New York

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