Helping the Dead

By Rob Nairn
A great deal can be done to help the dead, according to Buddhist teachings. When entering this area most of us find ourselves in strange territory, because we are familiar only with the practice of saying prayers for the dead and perhaps the offering of candles. In general people feel that those who have died are beyond help. This is not the case. As Ringu Tulku points out, this is where Buddhists - particularly Tibetan Buddhists - really swing into action, far more so than for births or weddings.

I go every year to Samye Ling, the big Tibetan Buddhist centre in Eskdalemuir, Scotland, which is where my teachers live. In fact, my tropical blood froze through five Scottish winters there when I did my long retreat. As this might indicate, there is something more compelling than my Scottish ancestry that still drives me back year after year. For me it is a supercharged place of spiritual energy. The focus is a huge stupa - the biggest in Europe -, which was consecrated in 2000.

Within the stupa is a chamber where the ashes of the dead can be placed, thus connecting their minds to the immensely powerful spiritual forces that magnetise the place. As long as the stupa stands, their streams of consciousness will be influenced by the blessing, life after life, down through the ages. People who die may arrange for their bodies to be transported to the stupa to be kept in this chamber for the 49 days of the death bardos, and upon request, monks and nuns will say prayers beside the coffin for this period.

This is only one of many practices that Tibetan Buddhists offer to the world as ways of helping those who have died. Of course the strangeness and mystery of it is daunting to many people, because we tend to fear the new and unknown and thus project our superstitions onto it. Let's look at it again.

When we die, our stream of consciousness floats free and roams the death bardos, undergoing very powerful experiences. In this state a huge potential for liberation is present, because if the person's bardo mind were to focus on its spiritual reality, the realisation and experience of that reality would be beyond anything we could imagine from our knowledge of spiritual practice here". The mind is nine times stronger and the environment in which it moves is less solid than this one. Thus, if it thinks of a place, it will be there. If it is able to focus on spiritual truth it will immediately be drawn into it, experience it and be liberated by it.

In the death bardos our enlightened reality appears to us over and over again, and by now we know the key. If the bardo mind can focus sufficiently to recognise the experience for what it is, instead of fleeing in fear or falling into confusion, the result will be immediate enlightenment.

The problem is that although the mind is much stronger, it is also unstable, in the sense that the rational frameworks that held it in place here have gone. Think of dream. An apparently simple thing like recognising the dream as a dream while we are in it is almost impossible for most of us.

Thus the potential for becoming enlightened, which is so tantalisingly close all the time we are there, is constantly missed because we simply cannot get it together to focus and recognise.

All the practices to help the dead are based on a knowledge of the above, with the understanding that although the dead have lost the power to communicate with us, we have by no means lost the power to communicate with them. For one thing, they can hear us. The subtitle to The Tibetan Book of the Dead is Liberation in the Bardo through Hearing. Traditionally lamas and monks spend the 49 days reading to the dead person. They sometimes do so beside the body, or call the person by name. So no matter where the mind is, it will hear the call and come. Then, day after day the lama reads, saying to the person words to the effect, 'Now you are dead, you have left your body and entered the bardo of death. You cannot return; do not attempt to go back; go forward. Today such and such will happen. There will be appearances, vivid lights, sounds. Do not fear. They cannot harm you. They are projections of your mind. See them for what they are and go towards the bright light. Merge with the bright light; it is your enlightened mind.'

In this way the dead are constantly encouraged and helped to come into focus. Apparently we don't even have to speak to them. Thinking of them is like calling their name, so they will be drawn to us. Thus there is truth in the old injunction, 'Don't speak ill of the dead' because they hear and may be affected by what we say.

This is the first aspect of these death practices; making direct contact with the person and offering guidance, instruction and reassurance.

The other aspect is the generation of beneficial spiritual forces to help them. This can be done in many ways and at many levels. To obtain full details you would need to contact your nearest Tibetan Buddhist centre, but here are a few examples.


Through meditation and reflection we experience spiritual forces that go beyond the limited confines of the rational cognitive mind that is thinking these words. Whether there is value or benefit in trying to name those forces, I don't know, but I can say for sure that the common quality that always manifests is compassion. Compassion, like the sun, is an impartial and powerfully healing blessing that shines on all beings, whether they be 'good' or 'bad' and whether they believe in it or not.

Compassion is expressed through the discerning ability to help in an appropriate manner. It manifests as an all-embracing caring that arises within the mind, a caring that sees all forms of life and beings as equal. It can arise only in a mind that is open and accepting of itself and others; a mind that is not stifled by preferences, judgments, intolerance, self-absorption.

Because of this I am prepared to live by the proposition that the universe is an expression and manifestation of compassion, and that the essence of our enlightened nature is compassion. If this is the case, we can awaken and manifest that compassion to heal the world and ourselves.

Tibetan Buddhism works along roughly these lines, and it contains many practices that invoke and channel into our world different aspects of the universal power of compassion to benefit beings.

The most common of these is the Chenrezig practice, which has as its focus the Buddha of Compassion. We could use the term 'universal archetype of compassion' instead, archetype being a primordial principle that exists in each one of us, but also exists independently. It is not the projection of our minds.

The mantra that goes with this practice is om mani padme hum (Sanskrit). The Tibetans give it a different spin and sing om mani peme hung. But it's the same thing.

Right now, at this very moment, if you want to help someone, dead or alive, think of the person and recite the mantra for a few minutes.

Delogs who have entered the death bardos and spoken to people there, report that the dead plead with them to say the mantra for them because the effects are so enormously beneficial and powerful. Here's an interesting account I read a while ago.

A lady was stuck in a traffic jam caused by an accident. Feeling sure people must have been hurt, she sent kind and loving thoughts to whoever was involved.

Some weeks later she received a letter of thanks from one of the accident victims who told this remarkable story. She had been knocked unconscious and found herself looking down on the scene, feeling frightened and disoriented. A comforting wave of love and caring swept over her, making her feel much better. She quickly traced the feeling to our woman sitting patiently in her car.

The unconscious victim was so powerfully impressed by this experience that she resolved to thank her benefactor and noted her car registration number. When she regained consciousness she remembered this number, traced the owner of the car and wrote to her.

Mantras are words of power that focus very strong spiritual forces. If loving and kind thoughts can have such a tangible effect, imagine how much more effective mantras can be, especially when accompanied by a visualisation.

So there is one option to consider; the mantra of universal compassion.


Most lamas will conduct prayers and ceremonies upon request. If you go this route, accompany your request with a financial offering as you would do if you were requesting the services of a cleric in another religion. Ordained nuns and monks also perform these services.


A yantra is a picture, usually geometric, that brings into focus and magnifies spiritual forces. If we contact a yantra through one of our senses, including touch, the blessing is transmitted to our stream of consciousness. There is a set of yantras that can be placed within and upon a coffin prior to burial or cremation. It is said they will help the consciousness of the deceased to remember to focus. They create a beneficial atmosphere to ward off fear and confusion, and connect the mind to its enlightened reality.

Some Buddhist Centres have made up a 'death kit' which contains a set of yantras and an audio tape with chanting of mantras to help the dead.

These are a few of the things you can do. If you want to follow up on them, contact an authentic Tibetan Buddhist centre. Even though many lamas and monks will not charge to perform these services, it is appropriate to make a meaningful offering, especially if you are serious about wanting to help someone and if you value that person. These offerings are for the benefit of the person concerned, rather than a reward for the teachers. The teachers personally don't mind whether there is an offering or not.

In all the methods we have reviewed here there is a simple principle involved. When we die and enter the death bardos we find ourselves in very strange territory where familiar reference points have vanished. Most people become confused and afraid, so they suffer and forget all the teachings about recognition. They are blown through the death bardo as by a hurricane.

To some extent we can reach them by speaking to them, and this may help. But in addition there are immensely powerful ways of helping, ways that involve bringing beneficial spiritual forces into focus upon them. Because their minds are so much more sensitive, there is a good chance they will respond and benefit. Even if they do not become enlightened, the benefit will carry over into the following and even future lifetimes.

This may seem very Tibetan and not acceptable to some people. In this book we are looking at the Buddha's teaching as preserved and transmitted to us within a Tibetan Buddhist context. But it doesn't mean we can't benefit, and neither does it mean we have to take on board all the Tibetan 'stuff. I am trying to extract the principles and give them to you in a way you can understand and use beneficially. You don't have to be a Buddhist, you don't have to be Tibetan. All you need is to have compassionate motivation and a bit of determination to go for it.


Outside the walls they stand, and at crossroads. At door posts they stand, returning to their old homes. But when a meal with plentiful food and drink is served, no one remembers them:
Such is the karma of living beings.

Thus those who feel sympathy for their dead relatives give timely donations of proper food and drink - exquisite, clean thinking: 'May this be for our relatives. May they be happy!'

For in their realm there's no farming, no herding of cattle, no commerce, no trading with money.
They live on what is given here, hungry shades whose time here is done.

'He gave to me, she acted on my behalf, they were my relatives, companions, and friends': Offerings should be given for the dead when one reflects thus on things done in the past. For no weeping, no sorrowing no other lamentation benefits the dead.
But when this offering is given, well-placed in the Sangha, it works for their long-term benefit and they profit immediately.

In this way the proper duty to relatives has been shown, great honour has been done to the dead.

The KHUDDAKAPATHA from the TIROKUDDA KANDA SUTTA (From one of the Buddha's teachings)


This falls into two categories:
1) Food offerings to the deceased.
2) Offerings on behalf of the deceased


It seems that some people who have died think they still need food and drink even though they no longer have a body to support. This belief causes them suffering because they search for sustenance without finding it, and experience the psychological equivalent of hunger and starvation without being able to find relief. We can help them.

When you have a meal, think of the person and put a small portion of food aside on a plate for them. When doing so, say the mantra om mani peme hung three or seven times, and think, 'This is for you.' After the meal, put the food outside where people don't walk, in a place where birds or wild animals will be able to eat it. This will give relief.

A more complicated procedure involves a bit of chanting. In this instance you burn the food and offer the smoke or smell of burnt food. Evidently the smell of burnt food offered in this way satisfies the hunger of those who have died. Not only humans, but a wide range of suffering beings. This is normally done at monasteries and is called 'tsur' in Tibetan.


Helping people who are poor, hungry or suffering generates good karma.

What the lamas suggest is that we do beneficial acts on behalf of a deceased person, thinking, 'This is for you; I dedicate the benefit of what I am doing to your welfare' or words to that effect. The words aren't important. What matters is to undertake compassionate activity with the pure intention of helping the person. Best of all, distribute some of their wealth or possessions with this in mind. Practising generosity, even on behalf of others, is a very powerful spiritual help for them.

In Buddhist countries it is common for relatives of dead people to make offerings to monasteries or to endow temples with this motivation. It is said that one way of generating spiritual energy, not only on behalf of people who have died, but for everyone, is to make offerings to spiritual teachers or to support spiritual institutions. The teachers are not enriched by these offerings; in the Tibetan tradition they do not earn 'salaries'. The offerings contribute to the professional running and upkeep of the centres, to the support of visiting teachers, the printing of dharma texts and other literature.

So this is something we can all do; it's practical and in harmony with our Western philanthropical practices. Many of the West's greatest institutions - universities, hospitals, schools, churches were founded and are supported by the endowments and bequests of ordinary folk, as well as industrial billionaires. In the East there is also an extra spiritual dimension to this that can help the dead; that ordained Buddhists keep their vows of poverty, teachers are not paid, and that the intention of the giver, not the size of the gift, is what counts. Dana (an offering to a teacher or institution) benefits the giver as well as the recipient.

I find this area of teaching very heartening and practical, because it is so empowering. Instead of collapsing in grief and self-pity when someone close and dear dies, we know that death is not the end of the story. It is the opening of a new chapter where we can do things that will help the person as never before. We can do more for their true, long-term spiritual welfare than may have been possible in life. If we love someone, what more could we ask?

Reference: excerpt from 'Living, Dreaming, Dying' by Rob Nairn
The Buddhist principle is to be everybody's friend, not to have any enemy.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Meditation means simple acceptance.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
Only the impossible is worth doing.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Whenever we see something which could be done to bring benefit to others, no matter how small, we should do it.
Chamgon Khentin Tai Situ Rinpoche
Freedom is not something you look for outside of yourself. Freedom is within you.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Hasten slowly, you will soon arrive.
Jetsun Milarepa
It doesn’t matter whatever comes, stop judging and it won’t bother you.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
Whatever obstacles arise, if you deal with them through kindness without trying to escape then you have real freedom.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
To tame ourselves is the only way we can change and improve the world.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Strive always to be as kind, gentle and caring as possible towards all forms of sentient life.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Every sentient being is equal to the Buddha.
Chamgon Kentin Tai Situ Rinpoche
Wherever and whenever we can, we should develop compassion at once.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Reminding ourselves of how others suffer and mentally putting ourselves in their place, will help awaken our compassion.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche