Living in the Face of Death: The Tibetan Traditionby Glenn H. Mullin
Whereas Western society views death as the last taboo, the Tibetan tradition incorporates meditation on death into everyday life. Tibetan Buddhists believe that a conscious awareness of one's own impermanence allows a person to live a happy, fulfilled life. Over the centuries, the Tibetans have developed a wide-ranging literature on death, including inspirational
Whereas Western society views death as the last taboo, the Tibetan tradition incorporates meditation on death into everyday life. Tibetan Buddhists believe that a conscious awareness of one's own impermanence allows a person to live a happy, fulfilled life. Over the centuries, the Tibetans have developed a wide-ranging literature on death, including inspirational poetry and prose, prayers, and practical works on caring for the dying. This fascinating book presents nine short Tibetan texts. Important writings by the Second, Seventh, and Thirteenth Dalai Lamas and by Karma Lingpa, author of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, are included. It covers topics such as meditation techniques to prepare for death, inspirational accounts of the deaths of saints and yogis, and methods for training the mind in the transference of consciousness at the time of death.
"This is a practical and easy-to-understand read, a series of signposts to that doorway we must all pass through to our next life. It goes a long way towards transcending the negativity that Westerners attach to the implacability of impermanence and death."—Mandala Magazine
"Whether one is ardently attempting to make sense of the death and passing of a loved one, or wishes to delve into the conditions surrounding what will be the exit from the world of consciousness as we ourselves know it, this collection of concise writings is a marvel and an aide. . . . Mullin as compiler and editor shares with us many insights of some powerful and evolved Tibetan teachers and masters. . . . Excellent writings that need to be part of the library on the impermanence of our lives for those with the desire for understanding."—New Age Retailer
"Living in the Face of Death is intriguing reading for those looking towards death with honesty and could do much to improve one's life."—Bookwatch
"This profound collection of Tibetan Buddhist writing on the subject of death and transcendence is a gorgeous initiation into the thoughts shared by those that follow this religion/set of beliefs. As a whole, the collected works are easily digestible and clear in their impact. The writings bridge a gap between Eastern and Western thought on the subject of death.—The Feminist Review "Through the intense efforts of the author in this book, we have been provided with a remedy to face and overcome the dreaded and taboo topic of death . . . . There is tremendous insight into the insurmountable hurdle and fear of death provided by some of the renowned Tibetan Dalai Lamas and other writers."—East and West Series
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Death and the Bodhisattva Trainings
Then it is a fact, O Simmias, that true philosophers make death and dying their profession....
Socrates in Plato's Phaedo
The material in this first chapter is taken from the volume of sermons given by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Tubten Gyatso, on the occasion of the first full moon of each Tibetan New Year. This annual discourse represents the climax of the Great Prayer Festival of Lhasa, a religious fête that begins on the day before the new moon of February and lasts for fifteen days, culminating in the sermon of the full moon. The tradition of the Great Prayer Festival was initiated by Lama Tsongkhapa, guru of the First Dalai Lama, early in the fifteenth century, and has continued to the present day. The present Dalai Lama maintains the tradition in Dharamsala, India.
Throughout the centuries the full moon sermon of the festival has been delivered by the Dalai Lama incarnation or, in his absence or minority, an appointed high lama. The sermon that I have selected for this chapter was delivered in the spring of 1921, when the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was in the last year of his three-year retreat. In this discourse he chose as his theme the Kadam lineage of meditation upon death, probably due to the trans-sectarian nature of this transmission. This tradition had been brought to Tibet in A.D. 1042 by Jowo Atisha, who was invited to the Land of Snows by the king of Western Tibet and remained there until his death some thirteen years later To show the lineage andsubject of the sermon to follow, the Thirteenth opens with a verse from Atisha's writings that refers to death and impermanence.
The Atisha lineages did not remain confined to any one order of Tibetan Buddhism. Within a century of his demise they had spread to all regions of the Land of Snows and had influenced all Tibetan sects. They became the basis for the Kargyu order as outlined in Gampopa's The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, the Sakya as embodied in Separation from the Four Attachments, the Nyingma as reflected in Instructions on the Great Fulfillment, and the Geluk as presented in The Great Exposition of the Stages in the Path to Enlightenment by Lama Tsongkhapa.
The Thirteenth Dalai Lama's discourse thus serves as an excellent opening chapter, providing us with an inside view of a tradition of death meditation that is fundamental to all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Thus we get to see it not as an isolated spiritual exercise but in context to the path as an organic entity.
The Thirteenth was the first of the Dalai Lamas to be known intimately by Western people. His era was not an easy one. Wedged by British India on the south, expanding Tsarist Russia on the north and the unstable Manchu Dynasty on the east, Tibet was a continual target for the intrigues of these three superpowers. At the turn of the century it seemed as though Lhasa might go pro-Russian, so the British, always jealous of Russian designs in Central Asia, launched an invasion into Tibet in 1904 from India. This event, known to history as the Younghusband Expedition, resulted in the victory of British power in Central Asia, and the following summer a treaty was drawn up in which Tibet was forced to leave its foreign policy under the suzerainty of British-influenced China, a move the British felt would remove Tibet sufficiently from Russian influence while not angering Russia to the point of confrontation (as placing Tibet directly under the British umbrella would have). Strangely enough, Lt. Col. Young-husband, leader of the British forces, fell into a mystical trance when in Tibet, an experience that was to transform his life, and soon thereafter he returned to England, retired from the military and dedicated the remainder of his life to writing on spiritual affairs!
But Tibet was not content with the proximity to China that she had been forced into, and attempted to assert her independence to the world. China, on the other hand, was encouraged by the British policy and felt that the time had come for her to show a strong hand with the Tibetans. She launched an invasion in 1909, but fate would prove her move to be ill-timed, and a year later civil war erupted in China proper. The Chinese forces in Tibet, cut off from supplies and reinforcements, surrendered to the Tibetans in 1912. To add insult to injury, the Thirteenth had them march to Calcutta and return to China by ship, rather than directly via the overland route. No Chinese were allowed in Tibet from this time until after the Thirteenth's death in 1933.
Matters of state thus set in order, the Thirteenth returned to a quiet spiritual life after the China affair had been settled, in 1918 he entered the traditional three-year retreat, which he completed in 1921, the year in which this discourse was given. Several British officials were in Lhasa from the time of the expulsion of the Chinese. Among them, Sir Charles Bell, who had been Britain's liaison with the Dalai Lama from 1910-1912, visited in 1921, and became a close confidant of the Tibetan leader. Sir Charles' excellent biography of the Thirteenth, Portrait of a Dalai Lama, gives us a wonderfully clear picture of life in Tibet during these crucial years. It is a tribute to the Thirteenth that he was able to guide his people through these troubled times without a major mishap. Unfortunately after his death in 1933 Tibet suffered from internal turmoil, but then, this seems to have been a worldwide disease during the 1930s and 1940s.
The Thirteenth Dalai Lama had been born in 1876 of peasant stock. Perhaps due to his humble background he always remained a `people's Dalai Lama.' Many of his sermons were given openly, and his students came from all walks of life. The discourse that forms the basis for this chapter was just such a sermon, having been delivered to a mixed audience of more than 20,000 of his disciples. Because it was directed at both learned scholar/yogis and the most simple of listeners, it combines profundity and simplicity with a lucid charm that characterizes many of the Thirteenth's works. It provides the reader with an easy access to a view of the Tibetan tradition of death meditation and a perspective on how this tradition relates to the general system of Buddhist training.
DEATH AND THE BODHISATIVA TRAININGS
by Gyalwa Tubten Gyatso, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama
As was stated by Jowo Atisha, crown ornament of all the Buddhist sages of India and source of all the Kadampa oral transmissions:
This life is short
And the objects of knowledge many.
Moreover, when we shall die
Is something unknown to us.
Be therefore like the swan,
Which can separate milk from water.
We living beings are in a difficult situation. Helplessly overpowered by the three psychic poisons of attachment, aversion and misknowledge, we are propelled and guided largely by negative karma and afflicted emotions. In our constant craving for samsaric indulgence in the repeated cycle of birth and death since beginninglessness, we have again and again drawn ourselves into situations of frustration, suffering and pain. Again and again we have died and taken rebirth on the basis of ignorance and the twelve links of causation.
However, amidst the suffering and confusion that predominates in the lower forms of life, we humans have managed, as a product of previous positive karmic instincts, to find an auspicious life form capable of spiritual endeavor. In short, the ripening effect of our positive karmic seeds has provided us with a very special and precious life form: that of a human being blessed by the eight freedoms and ten endowments.
Not only have we been reborn as humans, we have also met with spiritual teachings and thus have the opportunity to accomplish the paths to higher being, enlightenment and eternal happiness. Yet this auspicious human form that we have found will not last for long. Even the Buddhas themselves were unable to prophesy the length of life of each individual human being.
Although we bring forth scriptural quotations from the sutras and tantras taught by Buddha, or set out a great display of reasoning, or rely upon other conventional means of persuasion, nonetheless our lives will not last forever. Before long our existence as part of humanity shall cease.
As our lives will be short, we should be like the swan, which if given milk mixed with water can, due to a special faculty of its beak, separate the two and drink only the milk, spitting out the water. When we know how to practice the spiritual path, each day provides us with the ability to extract the milk of goodness and joy and to spit out the ways of negative being that lead to frustration and misery.
At present we have the inner and outer conditions by which the path to enlightenment and everlasting happiness may be accomplished. We should not let the opportunity slip by, thinking, `I will practice tomorrow or the next day.' Do not be deceived even for a moment by the laziness of self-indulgence, which becomes entranced by the alluring images of the eight worldly concerns and loses sight of the spiritual path in its attachment to the ephemeral, transient pursuits which benefit this life alone.
One should strive with utter concentration to take the essence of this precious human incarnation by accomplishing the path to enlightenment and higher being. Then when the time comes for us to die we will be able to do so with confidence and serenity instead of regret and confusion, and thus will be able to find our way to a conducive rebirth. We should make our prime concern the accomplishment of the spiritual path and, to this end, should endeavor to practice the Dharma as intensely and purely as possible.
The practices to be accomplished are collectively known as the Dharma. It is said that the Buddha, seeing that the living beings were afflicted by 84,000 delusions and emotional disturbances, expounded the 84,000 aspects of Dharma as a remedy to these.
In terms of the written word these 84,000 teachings are subsumed under the three categories of scripture: the Vinayapitaka, Sutrapitaka and Abhidharmapitaka, or, respectively, the `Collection on Discipline,' `Collection of Discourses' and `Collection on Metaphysics.' In terms of actual content they are subsumed under the three higher trainings of discipline, meditation and wisdom.
Another way to divide the Doctrines of Buddha is into the twofold category of Hinayana and Mahayana vehicles. In this context the Mahayana Vehicle includes the teachings of both the exoteric Perfection Vehicle, or Paramitayana, and the esoteric Vajrayana, the tantric path.
Both of these Mahayana vehicles take as their main gateway the altruistic bodhimind, the aspiration to gain enlightenment as the best means of benefitting the world. For all Mahayanists, the bodhimind is the key point in practice.
When Jowo Atisha was asked about his teacher Serlingpa [the Indonesian master Dharmakirti], he touched his hands together in a gesture of reverence, tears came to his eyes and he replied, `Whatever Mahayana spirit I have attained is due only to the kindness of that great guru. Even when I would see him ten times in a day he would each time ask me, "Is the spirit of enlightenment, the bodhimind, blended in with your thoughts? His emphasis upon the cultivation of the bodhimind was always first and foremost.'
Thus although the Buddha taught 84,000 practices, we as Mahayanists should always make our foremost concern the cultivation of the bodhimind, the bodhisattva spirit of enlightenment, the mind of equanimity, love, compassion and empathy, which seeks full omniscience for the benefit of all living beings. Progress in all other Mahayana practices depends upon progress in the cultivation of the bodhimind.
Concerning the nature of the bodhimind, the text Seven Points for Training the Mind, which embodies the oral tradition given by the Indonesian master Serlingpa to Atisha, states:
The bodhimind is like a diamond scepter,
The sun and a medicinal tree.
In spiritual training, the bodhimind is like a diamond. Just as a diamond can eradicate poverty and fulfill all needs, the bodhimind eradicates spiritual poverty and fulfills all spiritual needs. Just as a fragment of a diamond outshines all other ornaments, even a partial development of the bodhimind surpasses more complete achievements in lesser practices. A tiny piece of diamond is far more precious than a large piece of a lesser gem.
The bodhimind is like the sun in dispersing darkness. When the sun rises, how can darkness remain? A sun rising over an entire continent illuminates the entire land. In the same way, the generation of the bodhisattva spirit within ourselves is like the rising of the sun of the mind.
The bodhimind is also likened to a medicinal tree. The tree as a whole is an effective antidote to all 404 types of diseases, and also its individual components such as leaves and berries have their own individual healing abilities, their unique powers to cure specific diseases. Similarly, if we develop the bodhimind within ourselves we become cured of every spiritual affliction, thus attaining full enlightenment. Even if we only develop a few small branches of the bodhi-sattva spirit, these will have their own spiritually reviving effects.
To have generated merely the foundations of the altruistic bodhimind is to gain the title of `bodhisattva,' the Awakening Warrior. One may extensively cultivate other spiritual qualities, such as concentrations and formless absorptions resulting from the training in higher wisdom, and through these practices may even gain the exalted states of a shravaka arhat or pratyekabuddha, yet anyone who has trained in the bodhisattva spirit will always surpass these lesser adepts purely by means of the essential nature of his/her path.
The bodhimind has the inherent ability to remedy the inner darkness of emotional afflictions and delusions, such as falsely grasping at the nature of the self and phenomena. As it has the power to cure the mind of the roots of cyclic sufferingthe product of delusion and compulsive karmic patternsit is indeed a supreme medicine, having both conventional means for curing conventional afflictions and ultimate means for dealing with deeper spiritual problems.
This is what is meant by the expression `method and wisdom combined.' There is the training in the conventional bodhimind practices of patience, love, compassion and so forth; and also the training in the ultimate bodhimind, which is the wisdom of emptiness that realizes the most profound and essential nature of the mind, body and world around us. When we accomplish the ultimate bodhimind, we attain everlasting emancipation from the imperfect world of suffering and confusion. We then become an Arya, a High One, a transcended being who is free from samsaric claws. When this is achieved on the basis of a training in the conventional bodhimind, we go on to actualize fully omniscient knowledge and the complete powers of a Buddha's body, speech and mind. This provides us with the ability to fulfill the bodhisattva spirit by manifesting in the world as is most effective in the uplifting of sentient life, while ourselves retaining complete abilities to maintain absorption in the vision of highest truth. Thus the bodhimind is a most precious method, and one should make every effort to accomplish it in its two aspects of conventional and ultimate.
How does one approach the trainings in the two levels of bodhimind? This is stated as follows in the text Seven Points for Training the Mind:
First train in the preliminaries.
In the beginning one must seek a qualified teacher possessing a valid lineage, and from him/her must receive the transmission teachings. Here it is said that one should carefully select one's teacher, and that after entering training should try to cultivate the attitude that regards the guru as an embodiment of all the Buddhas. He/she is to be seen as all enlightened beings, who manifest as ordinary people in order to train persons such as oneself. Practicing constant mindfulness of how the guru shows the kindness of unveiling the path to us, try to please him/her in the three ways: by making the threefold offering of respect, attention and sincere practice of the teachings.
The cultivation of an effective working relationship with a spiritual master is the foundation of all other trainings. It is the very life of the path to enlightenment. If we wish to become great bodhisattvas, we must first learn the methods of achieving the bodhisattva stages. Then we must accomplish the practices under competent guidance. If our own attitudes are not conducive to training, progress will be difficult. Consequently trainees are advised to regard the teacher as an embodiment of all the Buddhas. This is in fact the function the guru performs in our life.
The next important preliminary is meditation upon the precious nature of human life. We must learn to appreciate the special qualities of human existence and the spiritual opportunities with which it provides us. The scripture A Collection of Everything Valuable states:
By means of spiritual training
One leaves behind the eight bondages
Which share the nature of animal existence,
And by training one always gains
The eight freedoms and ten endowments.
The eight freedoms enjoyed by humans are set in contrast to eight states of bondage. Four of these are likened to four nonhuman states: the continual pains of the hells, the constant craving of the ghosts, the vicious stupidity and shortsightedness of the animal world and the sensual indulgence and spiritual apathy of the samsaric divinities who have gained all worldly perfections. The remaining four are undesirable human states: being born as a barbarian in a land where spiritual knowledge is nonexistent; having imperfect sensory powers, such as being retarded or demented; being born at a time when spiritual teachings are unavailable; and living under the influence of extremely negative views contrary to the nature of the spiritual path.
These are the eight states of bondage. If we have freedom from them, we may count ourselves as fortunate indeed.
The ten endowments are in two sets, personal and environmental. The former of these are given as follows in a verse by Nagarjuna:
Being born as a human being
In a spiritually civilized land,
Having full sensory capacities,
Not having committed severely negative karmas,
And having interest in spiritual practice
These are the five personal endowments.
These five personal factors provide one with an effective inner basis on which to strive for enlightenment.
Nagarjuna then states the five environmental endowments as follows:
Being born in an era when a Buddha has manifested,
When the holy Dharma has been taught,
When the Doctrine is still in existence,
When there are practitioners of the Doctrine,
And being shown supportive kindness by others
These are the five environmental endowments.
These five factors provide us with the external prerequisites of practice. They are called environmental endowments as they are qualities of the world in which we find ourselves rather than personal qualities directly connected with our own body or mind.
Any man or woman who possesses these eight freedoms and ten endowments is in a position to attain full and perfect enlightenment in one short lifetime. This is not an opportunity known to lesser forms of life. If we direct our lives to intense training, we can attain utter spiritual perfection, not to mention being able to fulfill every conventional aim. Human life is most precious, and we who have gained it should make every effort to take its essence. We should again and again meditate upon the eight freedoms and ten endowments, until intense appreciation of the human potential is constantly blended into our stream of being.
Consider also how rare is the human life form in comparison to the immeasurably large number of animals, insects and so forth. At the moment we have all the opportunities of human existence at our disposal, but if we ignore them for transient, worldly pursuits, there is not much hope that after our death we will regain an auspicious rebirth. Those who die bereft of spiritual training have little hope of happiness in the hereafter.
Once one has developed a solid appreciation of the human potential, it is important to take up meditation upon impermanence and death. In the Atisha tradition coining from Guru Serlingpa of Indonesia, this means practicing meditation upon three subjects: the definite nature of death, the uncertainty of the time of death, and the fact that at the time of death nothing except spiritual training is of any real value. These are known as `the three roots.' Each of these three root subjects in turn has three lines of reasoning to support it, and finally there are three convictions to be generated. Therefore the meditation is known as `three roots, nine reasonings and three convictions.' This is the principal method of meditating upon death as handed down from the great Kadampa masters of old.
The first subject is the definite nature of death. Three lines of reasoning are to be contemplated. (1) The Lord of Death comes to us all sooner or later, and at that time nothing can be done to turn him away. (2) There is no way to extend our life span indefinitely, and our time is continually running out on us in an unbroken stream. (3) Thirdly, even while we are alive we find very little time to dedicate to spiritual practice.
To speak of these three points in more detail: (1) The Lord of Death shall definitely come one day to destroy us. No matter how wonderful a body we may have, it does not pass beyond the reaches of death. `The Chapter on Impermanence' in The Tibetan Dhammapada states:
The Buddha himself, as well as his disciples
The mighty shravaka arhats and pratyekabuddhas,
Have all left behind their bodies.
What need be said of ordinary mortals?
Just before passing away Buddha told his monks, `O spiritual aspirants, take heed. It is rare to meet with an enlightened being. All phenomena are impermanent. This is the final teaching of the Tathagata.' Having spoken these words the Master passed into the sphere of parinirvana.
Similarly in India and Tibet many masters, yogis, great religious kings, scholarly saints and so forth have appeared in history, but without exception all have passed away. We can read the details in their biographies. All the kind teachers of ancient times demonstrated the drama of passing into parinirvana in order to impress the reality of impermanence upon the minds of those to be trained. How, then, can we mere mortals who are so attached to our contaminated samsaric aggregates hope to be beyond the laws of impermanence and death? There is not a single sentient being who has lived since the beginning of the world without passing through the cycle of repeated birth, death and rebirth.
It is said in The Sutra of Advice to a King:
The four great sufferings of birth, sickness, age and death destroy all achievements, just as four mountains crumbling into one another destroy all foliage in the way. It is not easy to escape by running, exerting physical force, bribery, magic, spiritual practice or medicine.
When the time of death arrives one may take the most expensive medicines, or may make elaborate ritual offerings to the most powerful guardian angel, yet death will not be turned away for long.
(2) There is no way to extend our life span indefinitely, and our time is constantly passing. The time that has already passed since our birth has mostly been dedicated to meaningless activity. Of what remains, this is steadily being eaten up year by year, the years by months, the months by days and the days by moments. Before we are ready for it, death will be upon us.
The Seventh Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Kalzang Gyatso, sums up our situation as follows:
From our very birth, life pauses not for a moment
But races onward toward the great Lord of Death,
Life is a walk down a wide road leading to death,
A melancholy scene, a criminal being led to his execution.
Like water dripping steadily from a container, and like a ball of wool constantly being unraveled, our life continually approaches its end, which moment by moment comes ever more near.
(3) Moreover, even while alive we dedicate very little of our time to spiritual endeavor. The Sutra on Entering into the Womb states:
Ten years are given to childhood, and during our final twenty years the body and mind are not strong enough to embark upon the spiritual path with any great degree of success.
During the first twenty years of one's life, thoughts of the spiritual path are rare, and during the last twenty years one's powers of memory and penetration are too weak to accomplish much. Moreover, it is difficult to have confidence in the belief that one will live to see old age. Many people do not.
Of what remains of our life, half goes to sleeping, eating, collecting the requisites of life, and so forth. As the illustrious Kadampa master Geshe Chekhawa once said:
A person who lives until the age of sixty will, after subtracting the time taken by sleeping, eating, gathering requisites and other such distracting activity, have only five years or so left for the practice of the spiritual path. And much of this will be lost to impure practice.
This is the nature of our situation. Therefore we should decide to practice the spiritual path now, without procrastination. As is stated in A Letter to King Kanika:
The merciless Lord of Death
Kills all beings without discrimination.
Hence for so long as he has not come,
The wise live in mindfulness of him.
When we plan to travel to a foreign country, we first gather the necessities of the journey. As it is definite that we must travel to the land of death, we should prepare ourselves through study, contemplation and meditation upon the path. We should generate a firm conviction to engage single-pointedly in spiritual endeavor, and to gain the inner qualities that give birth to the power to die with confidence.
These are the three lines of reasoning contemplated in conjunction with the first topic, the definite nature of death.
The second topic, the indefinite nature of the time of death, also is supported by three lines of reasoning.
(1) The life span of those living on this planet is not fixed. Legend relates that the life span of the humans on the mythological planet Draminyen is 1,000 years in length, but we on Earth have no set life span.
Vasubandhu's An Encyclopedia of Buddhist Metaphysics states:
Human life has no fixed span. At the end of an aeon the average life span is only ten years in length, and at the beginning it is thousands.
It does not matter whether one is young, old or middle-aged. Death can come to us at any time. As is said in The Tibetan Dhammapada:
Of the people seen in the morning,
Many are not seen [alive] at night.
And many people alive at night
Are no longer alive the next morning.
Boys and girls meet with death,
And adolescents meet with death.
What youth can say that
Death will not come to him soon?
Some die in the womb,
Some die just after birth,
Some die as infants
And some in their later childhood.
Some die in old age, some in youth
And some in the prime of life.
Death comes to all
Whenever the appropriate conditions ripen.
Just as death can come to others at any time, we can be sure that we ourselves live under the constant threat of sudden death.
(2) The causes of death are many and the forces supporting life few. The Precious Garland states:
The conditions bringing death are many,
The forces sustaining life are slender
And even these can cause death.
Therefore constantly practice Dharma.
Meet the Author
Glenn H. Mullin is an internationally renowned Tibetologist, author, and expert on Buddhist meditation. He lived in Dharamsala, India, the home of the Dalai Lama, for many years, where he studied Tibetan language, literature, yoga, and meditation under twenty-five of the greatest masters of Tibet. He is the author of over fifteen books on Buddhist topics and has led many pilgrimages to Nepal and Tibet. He now divides his time between writing, lecturing, giving, workshops, and leading pilgrimages to the power places of Central Asia.
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