HOW TO DIE – A TEACHING FROM THE LOTUS-BORN

In INSIGHTS by Erik Pema Kunsang28 Comments

While we are alive, we need to be realistic and learn about the nature of this mind and how it really is, when it’s free of beliefs and preconceived ideas. I deeply wish that all meditators who spend so many hours sitting and stay in retreats will understand their mind. When this life is over and we face the real challenge, death. We need to be familiar with this topic: what is death? What will happen? Will it hurt? Is there anything after? Will I be okay? Some have given the fact that we die a lot of thought, some ignore it, some try their best to never think of it. Death is the parting of body and mind, and the big fear is what’s going to happen? Because of this worry, people have different beliefs, sound or unfounded: we only live once, death is the final end, there is nothing after, finally the misery ended, he or she has found peace, he or she is in a better place. But such a belief is by definition not very convincing. A belief is just imagination, and not anchored in experienced insight. At best, a belief corresponds to reality; at worst, it can be justification for unspeakable crimes. Whatever we believe, sooner or later the breath will stop and the body is declared dead.

Some people believe that experience ceases, because perception, knowing and everything known has vanished, just like switching off the display or like a flame being extinguished. No pain, no pleasure, not even the feeling of peace. It doesn’t matter what we did in life, it has no consequence now. The body returns to dust, merges with the great circle of life. A romantic brand of nihilism. Some people hope that experience continues, but without any content. Space, you and nothing else. Dead peace, rest in peace, for eternity. A guaranteed vacation that lasts forever with nothing to worry about. That is also imagination. There are many other fantasies, but we need to relate to what actually happens, not beliefs or wishful thinking. The outstanding meditation master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche said, we can of course hope for that death is the end of everything, but sorry, we will be sadly surprised!

So how is death experienced on a personal level? What can we do? What will help us? Is there a set of methods we can familiarize with to such an extent that we are unafraid, confident or at least, without regrets? How do we handle losing everything we know? How can we deal with the intense and vast unfolding of the primal energies of consciousness? How do we find a secure place to be?

According to the Buddha experience continues. He explained that consciousness by nature is beyond nothingness and a concrete thing, because reality of mind is like that. Our understanding of what we are and what we experience should therefore also transcend those two extremes, because its nature is like that. This fact is directly proven by the experiences of dying and taking rebirth. Since mind is no thing in itself, nothing permanently sticks to it, which becomes evident during the actual process of dying, when all thoughts and emotions cease, even the sense of personal identity dissolves. It is here the meditator has the first major chance for liberation. Moreover, since mind isn’t nothingness, something entirely different begins to happen after everything dissolves: the nature of mind shines forth with tremendous color, light and sound.

The experience of passing on will not be a new event; we all have gone through it countless times. No one forces us to take one rebirth after the other. No one has done it to us, not a god, devil, fate or chance. So what makes the wheel spin? It is lack of realization of the nature of mind. When all thoughts and emotions have dissolved at the moment of death, for the one without meditation experience and insights, the vastness is terrifying, the natural displays are overwhelming, and the mind soon seeks safe surroundings, a shelter, a new rebirth. It is therefore of utmost importance to learn and grow familiar with a meditation experience that correspond to the nature of mind and reality, in its fullest sense, beyond nothingness and concrete things and which has a natural radiance of love. 

We therefore need instruction in how to recognize the death process as it happens, in how to be at peace with leaving our body behind, and with the gradual melting away of everything we have ever known, all names and concepts. We also need an instruction for being at peace with the spectacular sceneries of lights, colors and sounds, which are infinite, multidimensional, omnidirectional and coming from all directions at once. To be liberated here requires a firm knowledge that all these displays are not real, and that they are our own nature at play. We also need instruction in how to take the right rebirth, rather than leaving it to chance or karma, so we can continue our spiritual path.

I am delighted to share with you a condensed version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The author is Padmasambhava, the Lotus-Born. It was written down by my teacher Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s great grand-father, according to vision-teachings he directly received from Padmasambhava. It is short and therefore easy to memorize. Tulku Urgyen always said that meditators would all benefit immensely from being familiar with these reminders. You can read them gently near the ear of the dying person who has been a meditator, as a reminder of something he or she already knows. You can also learn them by heart for yourself, in case you die alone. The reminders are more precious than gold and diamonds, because remembering them in the bardo states will free you.


Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo:
From the Six Wonderful Methods for Enlightenment Without Cultivation.

Here I [Padmasambhava] shall explain the profound meaning of liberation through hearing
for the ones who have arrived at the time of death.
Among the three kinds of bardos, the first is the time of the bardo of dying.

Fortunate one of noble family, listen one-point­edly. Pay heed. Do not wander.
Every experience in this world is Mara’s dream-like illusion.
Everything is impermanent, everyone is subject to death.
Noble one, turn away from further painful states.

The experiences of whiteness, redness and blackness are all the magical display of your mind.
These experiences are nothing other than yourself.
Do not be afraid. Do not fear them.

Now it seems that you are losing consciousness.
Outer appearances resemble the sky at dawn.
Inner experience resembles the flame of a butter lamp in a vase.
Remain one-pointedly in the clarity of non­thought.

This luminosity of death is buddha mind itself.
Rest naturally. Do not try to fabricate or change anything.
Noble one, in this way you are liberated into dharmakaya.

Give this advice in a pleasant and clear manner.
Those of the highest capacity will be liberated through this.
Now comes the second bardo of dharmata.

Fortunate noble one, listen one-pointedly. Pay heed. Do not wander.
Earlier, you did not recognize awareness.
For the next seven days, all of your experience unfolds as rainbows and lights,
as rays and spheres and as the bodily forms of deities.
All are sublime displays of means and knowledge of the five buddha families.
Do not be afraid, do not be terrified by the brilliant colors and lights.
They are your natural expressions. Decide on that.

Together with these lights, there will also come dull colored lights and they may attract your mind.
Do not be attached to them.
They are the self-display of the five poisons, the pathways of samsara.
Your experience will arise as both true and untrue paths.
Do not mistake. Chose the right path.

From the heart centers of the male and female buddhas of the five families, shafts of light reach your eyes.
This is Vajra­sattva’s vast and direct path.
While remaining quietly and aware, form this thought, Be kind, help!
Call out with intense yearning.
Do not approve or reject anything.
Do not ward off anything; do not hold on to anything.
Be the continuous state in which the divine forms are indivisible from yourself.
Right here, as one deity dissolves into another, you are liberated into sam­bhogakaya.

Listen fortunate one!
If you are not liberated now, know that time does not change though the displays do.
Everywhere in the four cardinal and four intermediate directions,
above and below, appear a roaring mass of flames and rainbow colors.
In the middle of this appears is the Great Glorious Heruka.
His retinue of deities and terrifying attendants shower cascades of sharp weapons.
They shout hung, phat and roar with laughter.
This fiery spectacle of immense variety makes one billion world systems tremble.
Do not be afraid, do not be terrified.
Acknowledge that everything is the display of awareness.
Remain firm in this knowing.
Settle indivisibly mingled with the natural state.
Having entered this pathway, you are liberated.

In this way, those of the middle capacity are liberated.
Thirdly, during the bardo of becoming, say to the dead person:

Listen, child of noble family. Pay heed. Do not wander.
Your body is now comprised of energy-currents and mind.
Around it unfolds the displays belonging to the bardo of becoming.
Recognize that you have died, and that you long to be alive.

You may be caught by the fierce servants of the Lord of the Dead.
There may be horrible sounds.
A steep abyss may open up before you.
There may be many definite and indefinite signs.
They are all your mind’s displays.
This mind is ultimately open like the sky.
Space cannot be harmed by space.
So reclaim your unconditional confidence.

When consecrated substances are burnt and given to you, enjoy it as an inexhaustible feast.
Enjoy this the sublime food of liberation through smell.
Do not yearn for a new life.
Direct instead your longing to your yidam deity and master.

To the west of here is the Blissful Realm where Lord Amitabha dwells.
Whoever recalls his name will be born there.
You, too, recall his name, make prayers.
Generate devotion and think, Lokesh­vara and Guru Rin­poche, help me!
Have no doubt.
Fly there with the spontaneous vajra leap.
And within the hollow of a lotus bud, in that same buddha realm,
you will be swiftly and miracu­lously born.
Therefore, noble one, trust in this with deepest joy.

Those of the lowest capacity are liberated like this.
If not, now comes the way of liberation once one has passed through to rebirth.

Listen, child of noble family.
Since you have not closed the door to the womb, you may now see a log or a hollow space,
a dark place, a forest or a palace.
Cast away all desire and clinging.
Make up your mind to be born on Earth;
specifically in Tibet [a land with Dharma teachings] in the presence of your teacher.
Visualize your future parents, from a virtuous family, to be Guru Rinpoche and his consort.
Do not yearn for or resent them.
Have trust and settle in the state of equanimity.
You will become a vessel for the profound Dharma.
And then you will swiftly realize timeless wakefulness.

Through these gradual instructions,
no matter how low one’s capacity may be,
one will certainly be liberated within seven rebirths.

Draw the session to a close with the dedication and aspiration prayers.
Then settle in the natural state that is the sublime nature of all experience.

This immensely profound instruction is not dependent on cultivation;
it liberates through hearing.


This teaching was extracted from a text in Vol. 1 of the Chokling Tersar, called Sheldam Nyingjang, The Essence Man­ual of Oral Instruc­tions. This precious instruction is found in Perfect Clarity, Rangjung Yeshe Publications.
There are many translations of the longer version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Here are three recommendations: The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing In The Bardo (Shambhala Classics)The Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) and The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Awakening Upon Dying.
About the Author
Erik Pema Kunsang

Erik Pema Kunsang

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Translator of ancient Buddhist scriptures, author, bridge-builder to modern life, Buddhist teacher & meditation instructor. Board of director at 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha. Founder of Rangjung Yeshe Publications and LEVEKUNST art of life. Other LEVEKUNST articles by the same author. Erik’s website & retreats.

Art by Carol Herzer.

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Comments

  1. While alive, you make mind, after death mind makes you. In the heart of love there is no fear of death nor revulsion of rebirth. It is the nature of the mind to wander, therefore do not be the mind, be the heart of bliss. This is the blessing from my master and I heartily recommend it.

  2. Levekunst.com,your post on BARDO TEACHINGS is enlightening,please put forth the teachings on Tibetan language(written in english)so that we sound Tibetan.Also homage to the Great nyingma masters that revealed these teachings.O!lord guru padmasambhava please liberate us all.you are our only hope and saviour

    1. Martha Boyden

      Thank you for sharing this supreme method of compassion and wisdom

      May they be embraced in nowness

      Perhaps best not asking “where to look”

    2. Erik Pema Kunsang Author

      Dear Jigmey and others, thanks for the questions. The Tibetan title is zhal gdams snying byang, the first book in the mchog gling gter gsar. There is a chapter on the Six Wonderful Methods for Awakening without Cultivation, ma bsgoms sangs rgyas ngo mtshar chos drug, of which the Bardo Teachings is just one.

  3. Please add words: “at the time of death” after the words Total Freedom. The error is regretted.

  4. Thanks Sir for this post. Many years back I have read the book: Tibetan Book of the Dead. Yes at the time of deep meditation, which is beyond this body, mind and self, the opening of Third Eye Chakra, there are Infinite light, Bliss and Anand, which can never be described in words, because the describer has already disappeared. Everyone can experience that state of Total Freedom, if one has experienced it while living in the body. Thanks for this extraordinary post.

    1. Erik Pema Kunsang Author

      That sound quite radical, Robin, and in exact opposition to popular belief and experience. Would you consider explaining what you mean?

  5. My mother is going to lead me through the Bardo. She has power my father said. For so many years I am longing to go back where I came from. I enjoy to know that she waiting for me!

  6. Thank you very much.

    Pray, everyone will get this profound teaching and endeavour to practise wholeheartedly.

    Guru Rinpoche, please look upon us mercifully and grant your Blessings !!!!!!!!

    May everyone be liberated through this teaching.

    Om Ah Hung Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hung.

  7. Pingback: HOW TO DIE – A TEACHING FROM THE LOTUS-BORN | LEVEKUNST art of life | THE SILVER BIRD 3

  8. ATMA NAMASTE🙏🙏THANKS FOR THIS WONDERFUL AND INSPIRING MESSAGES IN THE ART OF HOW TO DIE !! DIE BEFORE YOU DIE🙏🙏

  9. Gaby Garcia Lopez

    THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!! PRECIOUS AND PRICELESS LAMA ERIK!!!! HEALTHY AND LONG LIFE!!!!!! MAY YOUR GURU RINPOCHE ACTIVITY REMAIN UNTIL THE END OF TIME AND LOST OF CONSCIOUSNESS!!!!!!!!!!!!!! MY LOVE AND GRATITUDE.

  10. Thank you so much for the teaching. Attempted to read the Tibetan Book of Dying in the past and failed miserably to understand.

  11. Thank you so much!!! Prayers that we all benefit from such teachings.

  12. My mum passed away 2 weeks ago, she loved this site and often went over things she found on here again and again! This post is very very useful!! Thank you so so so much!!! . . .

  13. Thank you! I only wish I had shared this with a loved one…

    1. Thank you so much for these precious words!

    2. Erik Pema Kunsang Author

      You are welcome. Here is a note from Thrangu Rinpoche:

      WWW-Wednesday Words of Wisdom (from Journey Of The Mind
      Putting The Teachings On The Bardo Into Effective Practice During This Life
      By The Very Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche)
      **************************************************************
      Rather than forgetting about it, however, it would be better actually to prevent the Bardo from becoming a negative experience and to cause it to become a positive experience by preparing for it in this life. Therefore, the best attitude toward the Bardo is the resolution that you will do whatever you can to ensure that the Bardo becomes a positive and not a negative experience for you.
      This is an appropriate attitude, because if you put these teachings into practice, you can actually determine what will happen.
      Sometimes people have the attitude that, although instructions for traversing the Bardo exist, they are not easy to practice. These people seem to be too timid to practice these instructions, feeling that they will be unable either to practice them at all or to practice them effectively. But it is not that difficult to understand the process of the Bardo, and it is by no means impossible to put the teachings on the Bardo into effective practice. Just as the appearances of this life are produced by states of mind, so are the appearances in the Bardo and the appearances in one’s future lives produced by states of mind. Positive states of mind produce positive experiences, and negative states of mind produce negative appearances or experiences.
      Therefore, if you cultivate a positive state of mind in this life, the appearances or experiences of this life, of future lives, and of the Bardo will become more and more positive. While you may regard the Bardo as a state that you have very little control over, the fact is that if you cultivate a strong positive state of mind, you will gain some control over it.

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