Purelands Meditation Retreat Day 4 - October 2013
Day4: On death and dying
Let us look at Sumpa Lotsawa’s third piece of advice. The lady says that she is terrified of dying. She says: “Last night I felt very restless mentally, I felt like I was going somewhere and I hope it doesn’t mean I am going to die. I am terrified of dying.” The other lady, who remember is an emanation of Tara, says: “If your mind is turned to dharma O Lady, you can die with ease. Your mind suffers because it is not usually turned to Dharma. Our mind is usually so distracted and not merged with the dharma.”
This advice is about how we need to practice positively during our life. It tells us how we need to make the most of our life, doing what we can to integrate dharma into our life in many different ways: in our actions, our speech, and our mind; through meditating, doing positive acts and accumulating merit, using speech in a beneficial way, developing inner awareness. Eventually we may recognise the nature of mind.
This advice is about how we can be ready for death, when that time comes. If we have followed this advice during our lives and our mind has been fused with the dharma, then we can die with ease. If our mind has not been fused with the dharma then it may be difficult, as the dharma is the training. The teachings say that a lot of the happiness we have in the present moment depends on our previous merit. If we have done good things in the past, if we have planted seeds of merit, then when those seeds ripen the results will come back to us. So in the present moment we need to try to use our life to do positive things, not just because we want to have a good future life but because we know that is the right thing to do for everybody.
More advice on death and dying can be found in Milarepa’s doha to Lady Paldarboom. Yesterday I told you how she asked Milarepa for advice about meditation, and as a result of following this advice she had excellent experiences, seeing her mind as stable and without boundaries, centre or edge, without any diminishing radiance, and recognising that thoughts are not separate from mind. After some time she came to see Milarepa again and he sang to her:
O young lady Paldarboom, listen wealthy lady endowed with faith. The next life’s journey is longer than this one. Have you prepared provisions for the next life? The provisions are generosity. Do you have this? The enemy known as miserliness causes obstructions. It works seeming good but will bring harm. Do you know miserliness to be the enemy? If you know this leave it behind you.
O young lady Paldarboom, listen wealthy lady endowed with faith. The next life is darker than this one. Have you prepared a torch? The torch is luminosity. Do you meditate? The enemy known as delusion is corpse like sleep. It works seeming benefit but will bring harm. Do you know delusion to be the enemy? If you know this cast it behind you.
O young lady Paldarboom, listen wealthy lady endowed with faith. The next life is more fearful than this one. Have you prepared a guide? The guide is the divine dharma. Do you practice it? The enemy is known as attachment to relatives or hindrances. They work seeming good but will bring harm. Do you know attachment to be the enemy? If you know this cast it behind you.
O young lady Paldarboom, listen wealthy lady endowed with faith. The next life’s journey is longer and more perilous than this one. Have you prepared a stallion? The stallion is exertion. Have you mounted it? The enemy known as laziness is sloth. Do you know laziness to be the enemy? If you know this cast it behind you.
These are the four counsels that Milarepa gave to Paldarboom. She had meditated for a long time and gained good experiences but Milarepa said that you must prepare for the next life. These verses are about preparing for death, and are similar to the advice of Sumpta Lotsawa who said that you need to prepare to die so that you can die with ease.
Milarepa says that the next life is darker than this one, its journey is longer and it is more fearful and perilous. Sumpta Lotsawa said that if your mind is mixed with the dharma you can die with ease. The reason you suffer is because your mind is not mixed with the dharma. So we really need to be able to face death and dying. When it comes to dharma practice we need to think about impermanence, and that means thinking about our own death. Everything and everyone that is born will die. There is nothing more certain than death. We don’t know when or how it is going to happen: it could be slow, it could be sudden, it could be peaceful or very painful. Look at what happened to Akong Rimpoche. Who would ever have thought that he would die this way? He spent his whole life doing only good things and then he ends up dying in such a dramatic way.
When we die, we want to have no regrets. We want to feel that we have spent our life in a way that we feel quite happy with. We want to feel that we have done our very best. We don’t want to think, if only I had done this differently, done this better, if only I had not made those mistakes. We don’t want to have all of those things on our mind at the time of death. That’s a real hindrance, a sad way to die. We want to clear all of those things before we die. We want to die having no regrets, no resentments, having forgiven people and asked for forgiveness, having not too intensely strong attachments so that we are held back by our attachments. If we accept impermanence and know we are going to die, then we will have less attachment because we will have accepted that we will eventually be separated from everything and everyone that is dear and closest to us.
If we are lucky and have our senses intact we can practice with a clear mind when we die but we don’t know even that. We may be in a hospital drugged and unconscious. We really need to investigate and analyse death and impermanence while we can, and that is what Milarepa is telling Paldaboom. Have you prepared provisions? Have you prepared a torch? Have you really thought about all this? That is what he is telling her: are you really aware of all of these things that are necessary at the time of death so that you have a good passing and, if you believe in rebirth, a good next life.
Certain things are really important at the time of death and one of them is called the force of white seeds. This is about overcoming the tendency to hang on to negative emotion. Instead, if we are still conscious, we need to practice positive things at the time of death. We need to learn to forgive, to develop compassion, to give up attachment and worries. We can see that if we have not worked on this during our life then it’s a bit late to start thinking about these things once we are very close to death. We are going to be regretting, thinking why didn’t I think of this earlier? So we should already be thinking about not hanging on to negative emotions. If there have been any negatives in our lives with other people, we should forgive them. We should develop kindness and compassion to others and let go of our attachments.
And then of course during our life we have spent so much energy and time gathering possessions. At the time of death we should make sure that they are all divided up and that they go where we feel that they will bring benefit. That could be to our children, or our family, or we may donate for charitable or spiritual purposes. Whatever we decide, we should make sure that we arrange this before we die. We must not leave it so that after we have gone people squabble over our possessions. The last thing parents would want is for their children to argue over their wealth. So it’s important to leave a very clean deck behind. That means you need to make a will, you need to make very clear arrangements for when you are gone so that you avoid being the cause of problems, being the cause of arguments, being the cause of suffering. Instead you should dedicate all of your possessions so that they become a cause for positive action: they make people happy and benefit others. And because we know that we are definitely going to die, we might as well give our possessions away earlier. Rimpoche has often said that parents should not necessarily wait until they die to give some of their wealth to their children. Why not give it before they die? Why not share it with them while they are still alive, while they are still in their full strength and can see the benefit of it.
This is all part of these white seeds or positive action. By planting white seeds, you do something positive with what you have. You are creating good merit for the future. And then you pray or make a dedication or motivation that in your next life, in the future you will have all the right conditions to meet the teachings again. You pray that you will meet the spiritual path, the practice and teachers, and be born in a place where this is possible. At the time of death it is very good to keep positive things near you so that it is easier. If you are in bed sick, then you keep a shrine near your bedside. You try and make it as easy as possible for yourself. Or if you are helping someone who is dying this is what you can help them to do. You can ask them what they would like to do.
Dying is like going on a long journey. We leave things behind. Sometimes we have mixed feelings about going: we are looking forward to going but also we don’t really want to go. We have attachments holding us back, but we need to plan, to prepare for the journey. It’s a journey of the mind and we need to prepare. Many people are too frightened to think about death. In the West we are not accustomed to think about death. We are not accustomed to seeing dead bodies, they are whisked away to a mortuary, and when people go to visit the mortuary they are terrified. I remember when my grandmother died, her body was at home and all the family gathered around the coffin. I think it is still possible here but somehow it doesn’t happen any more. It has all become very clinical and hospitalised. So we tend to shy away from death. We almost feel like it is inauspicious to think about death, which is a strange attitude when we see the reality that we are all going to die. It is better to think about this journey, to prepare. We need to become familiar with the idea of our death. If we just think over and over and recognise this fact then we become more and more used to the whole idea. And when we are more familiar it is much easier to cope. And of course through our meditation our mind becomes more stable and settled.
One of the questions Milarepa is asking Paldaboom is: do you meditate? We need to meditate so that when death comes we have the clarity of mind, the presence of mind to cope with it. And this applies not only to the process of actual death but after death, in what we call the bardo or in between stage. If our mind is stable when we are dying ourselves or when we have friends who are dying, we can be a calming influence, a good support and help at the time of death. It is very important who we surround ourselves with when we die. We shouldn’t just be with people who stir up a lot of anxiety in us, that’s not very helpful. You want to surround yourself with people who have a calming and positive influence on you at that time. Not people who make you upset by the things they talk about or what they do. So it says if we have been practising well then maybe we can die without regret and if we have been practising really well then maybe we can die without fear, without fear and regret. And if we are an extremely good practitioner then we can die joyfully. We know no fear, no regret and sense that your mind is not hindered by leaving your body. This happens with the very great practitioners, and there are many examples.
Being practical and looking at how you can use your possessions to do good is very important: you are planting seeds for the future. Then when we know we are dying we should dedicate the merit and practice whatever we know, whatever meditation we have learned especially compassion. Feel compassion for others who are in a similar situation. We should not just think of ourselves, but try to think of others. Many other beings are in a similar situation and they may not have the support or good conditions that we have. So you steer yourself in a positive direction at the time of death by thinking positively. Again, it is about how much we have trained our mind. If we have trained our mind to a great degree and have familiarised ourselves with this process of death then at that time we have more control over our mind. Negativity is less likely to take over and we have more ability to steer our mind in a positive direction, to hold the reins. You pray and develop compassion instead of thinking: oh poor me, I’m so sad and upset. Instead think of compassion for others, feel grateful for everything you have had in your life, and try to think of having a peaceful death, a good death so that you have peace of mind and a good rebirth, if you believe in rebirth. If you don’t believe in rebirth then dedicate, and think that the actual death process may be peaceful. If you believe in rebirth you dedicate that you may find good, kind and wise spiritual teachers in the future.
Death is a time to make friends, to let go of grudges or resentments. If you have enemies you should really try to make up. It is strange how people who may have a very negative relationship find that at the time of death it is finally possible to say I’m sorry. Finally it’s possible to say I forgive you. When we are at the time of death we become very sincere, very honest and open. We can accept our own shortcomings, we can acknowledge our limitations and let go of hanging onto obstacles. It’s never too late. You should feel joy and relief in letting go and then have a clear mind, free at the time of death.
Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, or feeling anger or frustration we should try and think of the four immeasurables: we should try and develop compassion. Compassion is the key quality: to place our mind in a state of loving kindness and compassion for all beings. To feel gratitude and loving kindness for all those close to us, and for all beings. This is very important. When there is loving kindness and compassion there is no deep self involvement or strong negative emotions. Compassion is hugely important. We can see how everybody goes through similar things, so we try to send our compassion and positive energy to all beings with the wish that it may help others. Really feel that you are radiating out compassion and loving kindness to all beings through the practice called tonglen, or sending and taking. That is a very powerful practice that you are recommended to do at the time of death. It is very simple. You do tonglen with the breath, focused on compassion. This helps us to overcome negativity and to overcome whatever distress and suffering that we might otherwise be feeling.
If we can steer our mind in a positive direction then our death becomes meaningful, a positive experience. It is said that our attitude at the time of death is very important. It is what carries with us into the next life. If we die with great anger, this is very disturbing and a very negative way to die. But if we die with a mind immersed in loving kindness this is the most positive goal. So we should bring to mind any teachings and practice we have learned and try to use it at that time because that is when it will really benefit us. It will keep our mind from going in a negative direction. As I said before, sunlight and shadow cannot be in the same place at the same time, so when we bring in positive thoughts and emotions they dissolve the negativity because there is no room for the negativity. Instead of fighting with fear, anger, regret, or sadness, bring in the positive, bring in the light, bring in goodness. Think about how fortunate you were. Think about how many positive things have happened in your life. Feel compassion.
That is the general advice for the time of death, known as the 5 strengths. They are intended for the time of death, but also for during our lifetime. You are supposed to be applying all of these things, as much as we can.
Milarepa says: “The next life’s journey is longer than this one. Have you prepared provisions? The provisions are generosity. Do you have this? The enemy known as miserliness causes obstruction. It works seeming benefit but it will cause harm. Do you know miserliness to be the enemy? And if you know this leave it behind you.”
Milarepa is saying that we are going on a long journey, as if we are going to the mountains, so we need to pack our bag full of energy bars, and whatever else we may need. He says that “provisions are generosity. Do you have this? The enemy known as miserliness causes obstructions.” Generosity is provision. It almost seems contradictory because generosity is about giving things away. This advice is about planting positive seeds. Whatever positive things we do in this life will benefit us in the future. Whereas of course at the time of death whatever we have kept for ourselves is not going to benefit us because we can’t take anything with us. None of our objects, possessions or wealth can benefit us after death: they are useless after death. But if we use what we have during our life for good purposes it is as if we have planted seeds for the future which will benefit us. Generosity is one of the six perfections and it is said that if you practice generosity you become very wealthy yourself. The Buddha said that if we practice generosity we become wealthy. The result of giving is wealth. Of course it doesn’t mean that you immediately have wealth pouring in and that you win the lottery or whatever. For one thing it means that if you are content, contentment is the greatest wealth you can possibly have. And by giving away joyfully with real generosity and wishing to benefit others it means that you have no attachment yourself to those things so you are free of attachment and you are content. You are not grasping. Contentment in itself is a great wealth.
We know that some wealthy people are very stingy and worried about their possessions. There are all kinds of problems that are brought by having huge amounts of money. Your life may be full of stress and worry that you might lose your wealth or be kidnapped, or your children might be kidnapped or whatever. You just have to look at what is happening to some people. If you are always worried or unable to share, or be generous your mind is not content. You are actually a poor person, a mentally poor person.
Our society tends to be built on desire and greed, a consumer society is very much built on greed. We are told that the more we get, the more we consume, the more happy we should become. But it’s like stoking a fire. The fires of greed inside keep growing. But there is no peace of mind, no real contentment. When there is desire, there is no contentment. We feel that there is more and now is not good enough. This restlessness is described in the Hungry Ghost realm in the Six Realms. This is this mentality of never finding satisfaction. No matter how much we try to consume, no matter how much we try to eat or drink or buy, there is a sense of emptiness. There is no happiness or satisfaction. So here Milarepa is saying that whatever you have, if you use it now by making others and yourself happy, then this is planting seeds for the future. Whereas if one holds onto it, due to miserliness then we become very poor and it’s not really useful for anything. At the time of death it’s no use to us, it’s no use in general.
In terms of generosity Milarepa talks about 3 different types of giving: material giving, the giving of protection and the giving of dharma. These are the 3 types of generosity. When you look at the paramitas in the teachings they are divided into these 3 categories. When we practice generosity we can give things: we can give food to the homeless, we can give shelter to the homeless, medicine to those who are ill, wealth, or anything suitable. Of course we should not give unsuitable gifts, we should not give with the wrong motivation or in the wrong way, like giving in an angry way. We should not give unsuitable gifts that are harmful. We should give with the right motivation of wishing to benefit. So that’s the material wealth of giving.
Giving of protection means that we try to support others who are having difficulties. Maybe just by listening to somebody you might help them, give them peace of mind. That is giving of protection, loving kindness. Trying to help them to become clear about what is right or wrong in their situation.
And the third kind is giving of dharma: even if you don’t teach dharma you can still explain your own understanding of what has helped you, what you feel is beneficial, sharing through your own understanding of dharma.
These are what Milarepa was talking about, the provisions of generosity for the next life. He’s telling us we should prepare for death and dying and in the first verse he says that the way to do that is to practice generosity. In the second verse he says practice meditation. In the third verse he asks whether you have given up attachments to all things in life so that you are ready to leave them behind. The fourth verse says have you prepared the stallion of diligence? Are you diligent? Are you applying yourself?
These are the 4 advices he gives to Paldaboom, and as Sumpta Lhosa said, if your mind is turned to the dharma lady, you can die with ease. Your mind suffers because it is not turned to the dharma. Usually our mind is turned to the busyness of everyday life, our involvement, our complete immersion in all our day to day worldly activities. It’s not really so much spriritual thinking. So Sumpa Lotsawa is being told, if you merge your mind with the dharma you can die with ease. And Milarepa is telling Paldaboom when you die, if during your life you have done these things, this is merging your mind with the dharma: practising generosity, practising meditation, giving up attachment and clinging, and exerting yourself and giving up laziness.
Question: how does giving up desire fit with the desire to gain knowledge and understanding on the spiritual path?
Lama Zangmo: You give up, or try to let go of clinging and grasping to things that are temporary and less beneficial, and those attachments that can cause a lot of pain and suffering and we need some guide. We can’t all of a sudden give up all attachments, but you are shifting that on to positive things. You are shifting it onto things that are beneficial and gradually you let that go as well on the path. It is a gradual process. They say it’s a bit like to cross a river you need a boat, but once you are on the other side you don’t need the boat anymore, you can just let that go. But we do need some way of crossing the river, and so all the positive activity and positive mind states, even if there is some attachment to dharma that’s not really any obstacle. It’s what takes along the path.
Every moment you have a new chance. Every moment you can try again. We never fail completely because each moment is a new moment and there you are. You can do your best in that very moment.