(4.24) Having understood this,
If out of ignorance I remain indolent,
Then, when the time comes for me to die,
I shall be choked with unimaginable terror.
(4.25) If my body will burn for a very long time
In the unbearable fires of hell,
Then, without doubt, my mind will be consumed
By the raging fires of regret.
In Buddhism, the time of our death is the most important moment of our lives. In many ways, we can say that all of our trainings in life are really preparations for the moment of death. The reason why the moment of death is so important is the quality of mind we have at the time of our death determines the quality of our next rebirth. The reason for this is simple: each mind we generate activates a karmic seed which ripens in the next moment. The karma activated at the time of death ripens in the first moment of our next life, indeed it determines what that next life will be. Due to the total absorption of the inner winds during the death process, the mind of death activates what is called “throwing karma.” This is also known as the “ripened effect” of our actions. If we die with a negative mind, it will activate negative throwing karma throwing us into a lower rebirth. We can say that throwing karma is the substantial cause of our life, and the other types of karmic effects are the circumstances we will experience in a given life.
We have received Dharma teachings. We have received sacred spiritual vows on our mental continuum. We have received many empowerments into the precious tantric teachings. We have been given everything we need to enter, progress along and complete the spiritual path. Those who choose to take full advantage of this spiritual opportunity will approach death in the same way we do when embarking upon a long vacation. We are excited about the adventure that awaits and we know we have prepared everything well. Those who waste their life following their delusions and squandering the spiritual opportunities they have been given will realize – too late – that their time is now up and they have little to nothing to show from their time here on earth. Such people die full of regrets.
When Dharma teachings refer to “dying full of regrets” the meaning here is not the regret we generate in purification practice, but rather a deluded form of self-guilt of having completely wasted our precious spiritual opportunity and now we realize, too late, that we are bound for the lower realms and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Our mind is seized by self-hatred and panic, activating negative throwing karma, casting us down into the lower realms.
In popular culture and movies, we are told when we die our “life flashes before our eyes.” This is actually true, from a certain point of view. The teachings on the 12 dependent related links explain that at the time of our death we will experience two death-specific delusions, namely dependent-related craving and dependent-related grasping. Practically speaking, dependent-related craving is at the time of death we will feel a sudden surge of craving for all of our strongest objects of attachment in life. Essentially all of our unresolved attachments – be it or chocolate, sex, a good reputation, whatever – will come flaring up in a sudden blast. If we have not worked to let go of our attachments in life, we will develop a strong desire for these things combined with a knowledge that we will never have them again. If in life we respond to our frustrated attachments with delusion and negativity, odds are we will do the same at the time of death. Deluded, negative minds activate deluded, negative karma.
Practically speaking, dependent-related grasping is a strong grasping at our self and body at the time of death. We realize our life and body are about to be ripped away from us permanently, and we grasp desperately trying to hold on to them. Think of the panic people feel when they have trouble breathing. Now imagine it really is the end and you can no longer breathe. Think of the grasping we feel when we fear our life is in danger from some criminal or terrorist. Now imagine it is the actual time of death and you know there is no turning back. If in life we respond with delusions and negativity when things are taken away from us, odds are we will do the same at the time of death. Deluded, negative minds activate deluded negative karma.
In many ways, I think the regret experienced by Dharma practitioners at having wasted their life must be far worse than that of non-practitioners. Most people are completely ignorant of what is spiritually achievable in this life, but we know exactly what is possible. Most people know nothing about the lower realms, but we know they are waiting for us. We might then wrongly conclude, “well maybe it is better to not know then,” but being an ostrich is no strategy for avoiding lower rebirth. It is not easy to confront the horror of samsaric existence. It all seems so exaggerated or so far removed from our daily experience, that we kid ourselves into thinking it’s all just a bunch of superstition, or in any case it is too depressing to think about so better to change the subject. But we’ve done the contemplations, we know it’s all a karmic dream, we know it is all empty, we know how karma works, we know the arguments establishing past and future lives. In short, we know better.
So we have a choice: face the horror now, and do what it takes to avoid it. Or face the horror at the time of death and fall in utter panic. Time to choose.