Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  How to face the moments just before death.

(2.42) O Protectors, oblivious to dangers such as these,
I, who am devoid of conscientiousness,
Have committed many negative actions
For the sake of this transient life.

(2.43) Terrified is the person who today is led away
To a place where his limbs will be torn from his body.
With a dry mouth and sunken eyes,
His appearance is completely distorted.

(2.44) So what need is there to mention the terrible despair
I shall experience when, stricken by great panic,
I am seized by the physical apparitions
Of the terrifying messengers of the Lord of Death?

(2.45) “Who can grant me real protection
From this great terror?”
Petrified, with wide, bulging eyes,
I shall search for refuge in all directions,

(2.46) But, seeing no refuge anywhere,
I shall become utterly dejected.
If I cannot find refuge there,
What shall I do at that time?

We must be crystal clear:  if we die with a negative mind, we will fall into the lower realms.  The quality of mind we have in any given moment determines the quality of the karma that gets activated.  If we have a negative mind, it will activate negative karma; if we have a positive mind, it will activate positive karma; and if we have a pure mind, it will activate pure karma.  This is true during life as well as at the time of death.  The difference is the karma activated at the time of death ripens in the next life.  So if we die with a negative mind, we will fall into the lower realms; if we die with a positive mind, we will take rebirth in the upper realms; and if we die with a pure mind, we will take rebirth outside of samsara.

We must also be realistic:  since at present we respond to life’s difficulties with negative minds, it is highly probable that we will do the same at the time of death.  Whenever things get stressful in our lives, we respond with negative minds.  There is nothing more stressful than the moment of our death.  We should take our negative reactions to the little things of this life as a warning of how we will likely respond at the time of death.

At the time of death there are three especially strong death-specific delusions which arise.  The first is called, “dependent-related craving.”  This is a special form of craving for everything that we have had strong attachment for during our life.  This strong attachment comes flaring up, much in the same way a child’s attachment to a toy surges when it is being taken away from then.  Because we have residuals of unresolved attachment for certain things still on our mind, at the time of death they come surging to the surface.  There is a big surge in our mind of attachment as we realize that we will be forever separated from these things we crave.  We can see how much we suffer from facing the prospect of not having the objects of our attachment now, it will be many, many times worse at the time of our death because we are losing everything simultaneously and the finality of death is overwhelming.  For this reason, we need to make it a priority to overcome all of our attachments now.  We should essentially live our life as if we are already dead, so the things of this world are no longer of interest or use to us.  Overcoming these attachments now will enable us to die without attachment.  Soldiers are trained to do this to avoid fear in battle.  If they can do so for the sake of battle, surely we can do the same for the sake of bodhichitta.

The second major delusion that arises at the time of death is called “dependent-related grasping.”  When we are afraid or something happens suddenly to us, we feel this strong sense of self-grasping, usually at the heart, much like the feeling we get when the police car flashes its lights at us.  This flares up at the time of death just as dependent-related craving does.  The reason for this is not hard to understand.  We spend almost all of our lives living in total denial of our inevitable death.  There comes a point when we can no longer live in denial and the truth of our imminent death becomes inescapable.  If dependent-related grasping ripens at the time of death and we do not counter it with wisdom, it is guaranteed we will have a contaminated mind at the time of death and so take another samsaric rebirth.  Like with attachment, we need to make it a priority to overcome our feeling of self-grasping now.  The key is to cease identifying with the appearances and start identifying with the container of the mind.   Appearances come and go like waves, but the container of the empty mind is always the same.

The third and final delusion that often arises strongly at the time of death is extreme guilt for having wasted our precious human life.  We essentially die full of regrets.  We realize too late that we wasted our one opportunity to get out and that we will now fall for what will be incalculably long periods of time.  We see our whole life flash before us in a special way where we see all the opportunities we had to practice Dharma but that we wasted because we allowed ourselves to be distracted by samsara.  We realize that we have burned up all the good karma we had on our mind, and so there is no future for us except to fall.  It is too late to do anything about it.  We then feel like we are a total idiot for having known better but still wasted our life, and an enormous feeling of guilt arises in our mind, which is anger directed towards ourself.  We become incapable of stopping this anger towards ourself, even though we know it means it will send us to hell.  We then start to panic and the situation quickly spirals out of control.

We need to do two things to avoid this terrible reckoning.  First, we need to meditate on this possibility again and again to be able to generate a real fear of it happening.  This will lead us to the conclusion:  I will not let this happen to me.  I will leave no stone unturned.  I will do everything I can while I still have the chance.  Second, we need to make a concerted effort to overcome our guilt right now when we make mistakes.  When we make mistakes, we generally fall into one of two extremes:  either we fall into the extreme of guilt where we beat ourselves up about the fact that we made a mistake or we fall into the extreme of denial that we in fact did anything wrong.  We think it doesn’t matter.  The middle way between these two extremes is to accept that we made a mistake, to learn from it, and to generate the virtuous intention to do better next time.  If this middle way is made our habit during life, it will be our reaction at the time of death.  Instead of generating guilt when we see our life flash before our eyes, we will feel like we are being given one last teaching revealing to us the main lessons we can learn from this life before we proceed to our next life.

5 thoughts on “Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  How to face the moments just before death.

  1. Hello there – I never thought of the notion that we’d develop anger with respect to ourselves ie that even if we managed to not be angry with other or even death itself at that moment, our relationship with our self could still be a stumbling block with respect to anger. It’s an intriguing thought and makes perfect sense. Is this angle covered anywhere in Geshe-la’s books?

  2. Very well written, very good encouragement. I believe working specifically in each category is initially important because it prepares the mind for more effective absorption into the tantric meditations of ‘bringing death into the path of the truth body’ or ‘mixing death with the path of the truth body’. These are the supreme transference of consciousness, that in one meditation on mahamudra, we resolve the three issues mentioned in the article. Preparing for death in a compartmentalised manner is important, but we should know that eventually one meditation should become the main preparation – the truth body/mahamudra.

    • Good point, Chokyi. I encourage everyone with highest yoga tantra empowerment (HYT) to practice the yoga of sleep, and fall asleep after the first bringing (bringing death into the path of the truth body). Then, you will not at least be wasting 30% of your day, and you can practice the same at death, which is like falling asleep. And if you don’t have HYT, then get yourself to the Fall Festival in Toronto next month! And, Kadampa Ryan, wonderful post.

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