Even though we don’t realize it, our biggest problem is we are trapped in a hallucenagenic cycle of ritual sacrifice where we are the offering put up for repeated slaughter. We are caught in a dream that we believe to be real in which we are uncontrolledly and repeatedly dying, going through an intermediate state and then being reborn once again in another contaminated dream. In short, we are trapped in a cycle of uncontrolled death, thrown from one contaminated dream to another, each one ending in us dying, often in very painful ways. Most of the dreams we are thrown into are frankly too horrible for words, but through some miracle we have been born into a relatively mild dream of our present human life with access to a method to break free.
In Buddhism, this cycle of uncontrolled rebirth is called samsara. Buddhism itself is a method for conquering uncontrolled death, breaking free from this cycle and intentionally choosing to take rebirth awoken from these contaminated dream worlds. What makes a dream world a contaminated dream world is we do not realize it is a dream world – we think it is real. When we escape from the cycle of samsara we do not leave dream worlds for real worlds, because there are no real worlds, rather we leave contaminated dream worlds that we think are real to pure dream worlds which we understand to be created by our mind in accordance with the laws of karma. Since we have been born, we cannot escape death, but we can escape death’s hold over us. We can, once and for all, break free from this cycle and emerge as a deathless being. And not just any deathless being, it is possible for us to emerge on the other side as what Jesus called “a fisherman of men” capable of eventually (or instantaneously depending upon your perspective…) extracting each and every being from the deadly ocean of samsara and releasing them into eternal freedom.
In short, we are trapped in a cycle of death called samsara. Buddhism is a method for conquring death. When we do so, we will be capable of helping all others also find their way to everlasting freedom.
So the question is how do we conquer death in this way? The answer is we use our entire life to train to purify the cycle of death, intermediate state and rebirth. In short, we use our life to burrow an escape route out that we take at death.
To do so, we must build a series of way points, or stages that we must go through during the death process. In our daily practice we construct these way points, familiarize ourselves thoroughly with them, train in passing from one to the other, and we do this every day of our life. If we do so, there is a very good chance that we will break free at the end of this life. If we fail to build for ourselves the way out, there will be no way out for us – ever. So our choice is actually stark – either we intentionally do what it takes to build an escape route or we remain forever trapped. There is no third alternative.
So what are these way points that we must build? (Note, I will explain this in the context of Kadampa Buddhism. By doing so, I in no way mean to imply that only Kadampa Buddhism has an escape tunnel. Many other pure spiritual traditions and religions do so as well, but I am not familiar with how those work. The tunnel I am trying to dig for myself is a Kadampa one because that is the one I know and the one I seem to have the most karmic connection with).
- Initial refuge. To get out we must turn to one who has already gotten out and who has come back to get us (a Buddha). We must make effort to put into practice the methods s/he teaches (the Dharma). And we intentionally come under the influence of a good circle of friends seeking to do the same thing we are (Sangha). Initial refuge is the opening of the escape tunnel, we must find it and go through it.
- Correct motivation. Everything that appears is karmically created. Our motivation, or intention, is the most important ingredient in whatever karma we create. To conquer death, we must have the intention to do so in all our actions. This intention will define the nature of the karma we create from our training, which will ripen later as an actual path out. At a minimum, we can intend to get to a pure land so that we can continue with our training. We can also intend to once and for all escape completely for ourselves, or we can intend to become a fully enlightened Buddha capable of freeing all others. Any one of these three intentions will be sufficient, but obviously the latter is the highest. It is called bodhichitta.
- Purify negative obstructions and delusions. Since beginningless time, we have engaged in countless negative actions which serve as “iron chains” binding us in samsara. We must break these chains through the practice of purification. A prisoner may wish to escape from prison, but will be unable to do so if they do not break the chains binding them in. There are several different methods for purifying our negative karma, such as the 35 confession Buddhas and Vajrasattva. But the best method for purifying all of the negative karma towards each and every being is to generate a motivation of bodhichitta, wishing to become a Buddha so that you can save them from samsara as well. This corrects for all of the harm you have ever done towards them, and thus is the supreme method of purification. We must also pacify and ultimately abandon our delusions. Delusions function to activate our contaminated and negative karma. If we die with a deluded state of mind, it will activate contaminated karma and we will be thrown once again into an uncontrolled contaminated rebirth. So we must train in keeping our mind free from delusions, most importantly through an anvil-like mind of patient acceptance, the supreme good heart of bodhichitta and the wisdom realizing the ultimate truth of emptiness.
- Accumulate sufficient merit. Just as a rocket needs tremendous fuel to escape from the Earth’s gravity, so too we need tremendous mental fuel to escape from samsara’s gravitational pull. We accumulate such fuel, or merit, through our virtuous actions. There are countless things we can do to accumulate merit explained in the lamrim teachings. One of the most effective methods is making mandala offerings to our Spiritual Guide with a bodhichitta motivation. When we make a mandala offering, we are essentially offering a promise to do whatever it takes to transform the entire universe and all of the beings within it into a pure land. When we offer it to our spiritual guide (normally in the context of our daily meditation practice) we create the same karma as offering it to each of the countless Buddhas. And by doing it with a bodhichitta motivation, we multiply the merit by the number of beings for whose benefit we make the offering, in this case countless living beings!
- Receive blessings. Just as a spark lights the fuel of a rocket, blessings light the fuel of our merit. Buddha’s have the power to bless our mind, which basically means they have the power to activate our virtuous karmic potentialities. The escape tunnel is built according to the following cycle: we create a certain level of the karma necessary for its existence through the various practices, we then receive blessings activating that level of karma, then on the basis of experiencing this level we create the karma to experience an even higher or more robust level of the tunnel’s existence, and so on. We continue in this way until the entire tunnel is complete, both in terms of the full length of the tunnel and it being sufficiently strong and consolidated that it won’t collapse along the way when we take it at the time of death.
- Dissolving the guru into and mixing his mind inseparably with our root mind. If we want to get some place, we can walk ourselves or we can get into a taxi. The taxi is faster and the driver knows where he is going. It is exactly the same with getting out of samsara. Mixing our root mind inseparably with our guru’s mind is like hopping into a spiritual taxi which then takes us to the pure land. When we understand this deeply, we not only generate great confidence that we can indeed get out, but we also develop a great desire to ourselves become a spiritual taxi for others in the future!
- Purify uncontrolled contaminated death. We do this through the practices of bringing death into the path of the Truth Body according to generation stage and through the mahamudra meditations of completion stage. How to do this is explained in detail in the Tantric teachings. But the short version is we train in maintaining the continuum of our mindfulness and alertness of our realization of emptiness as we go through the eight dissolutions of the inner energy winds up to and including the final dissolution after which we emerge into the clear light emptiness or Truth Body. This final meditation on the clear light emptiness, which is explained in detail in the Mahamudra teachings, is the most important method for purifying the sway of death itself.
- Purify uncontrolled contaminated intermediate state. We do this through the practices of bringing the intermediate state into the path of the Enjoyment Body according to generation stage and through the meditations on illusory body according to completion stage. Again, these meditations are explained in detail in the tantric teachings. But the short version is motivated by bodhichitta, we train in manifesting our subtle winds in the form of the seed letters of Buddhas while maintaining the continuum of our realization of emptiness.
- Purify uncontrolled contaminated rebirth. We do this through the practices of bringing rebirth into the path of the Emanation Body according to generation stage and through training in the union of clear light and illusory body according to completion stage (all explained in detail in the tantric teachings). The short version is we train in transforming ourselves into the pure land, including all the Buddhas who inhabit the pure land. A pure land is a realm we emanate so that beings can take rebirth in and complete their spiritual training. Meditating on the self-generation with a bodhichitta motivation is the principal method for creating the substantial causes necessary to take rebirth outside of samsara. The importance of this meditation cannot be overstated.
- Engaging in the actions of a Buddha. The way stations up until now (the 9 above) take us into and through the tunnel, but this final way station takes us outside of the tunnel and irreversibly delivers us to the other side. After we conquer death, our work of liberating others begins. We will do so through sending countless emanations into the realms of samsara to lead and assist all beings along the path from the deepest hell to the highest enlightenment. To anchor this as our final outcome and to reinforce our bodhichitta motivation for making the journey we train in actually engaging in the actions of a Buddha. During the meditation session we do this through the practices of mantra recitation, making offerings, purifying migrators, etc. During the meditation break we do this through engaging in virtuous actions towards them, most notably by giving teachings and good advice.
Every single day of our life, we should train in each of these 10 way stations. By doing so, we will gradually build within our mental continuum a reliable escape tunnel from the cycle of uncontrolled death. At the time of death, we will then feel like we are on the cusp of an incredible journey to the pure land. We will then effortless proceed through each of these same ten stages. We will become a conqueror of death!
Your turn: What is something practical you can do today to prepare yourself for (and indeed conquer) death?