The late great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche (1926 – 2006), answers questions about death and dying put by Ven. Pende Hawter, founder of the Karuna Hospice Service in Brisbane, Australia, in Dharamsala, India, in May 1990. This piece was excerpted from an article from Mandala Magazine’s Sep-Oct 1997 issue. You can read the entire interview and additional advice from other Buddhist teachers in Mandala’s eBook Meeting Death with Wisdom.
What is the best way that we can help people who are dying or who have just died?
When a person is dying and in great trouble there is great benefit in trying to get them to feel a bit better, a bit happier, to turn their mind to good thoughts.
If a person has faith in Buddhism, we can enunciate to them the things they have learned to trust and take refuge in. We can remind them about bodhicitta, about equanimity, about stabilizing the mind in meditative concentration, etc.
For a person who does not have religious faith, we can advise them to think, “May everybody be happy, may all living beings please be happy, may every living being please somehow be freed from their misery.”
Also, for a Buddhist who is about to pass away it can be very beneficial to gently remind them of the qualities of the Buddha, to encourage them to bring to mind the form of the Buddha, to put a picture of the Buddha in their room. These things can have great benefit and can cause the person to take rebirth in a fine place. You can also say prayers in their presence.
Is it better for Dharma practitioners to take as little medication as possible at the time of death?
There is no blanket answer here. You have to look at the individual person. If a person is in excruciating pain, then to relieve them of pain is obviously a good thing. However, if the person has a tremendous spirit or a tremendous capability, who can bear the pain and keep a clarity of what is happening to them, then to give that person a soporific that takes away that clarity is maybe not the thing to do. So it completely depends on the person.
For a Buddhist with meditational practices it can be very helpful to employ practices such as: bringing to mind that the pain has arisen because of certain causes and conditions, karma; remember various mind training ideas that can really strengthen and build up the mind, like convincing themselves that they are capable of bearing all sorts of difficulties.
A person who has never had the opportunity of doing such practices can be told things such as, no matter what a person believes, they are going to get these pains so there is no point in being tied up in them and worried by them; it is better to try to distance themselves from them and to see that just like everybody else it is happening to them too. Most people can probably get their mind around the idea (at times at least) that being upset won’t make the pain go away, it is not giving any relief.
It can also be tremendously beneficial to repeat thoughts such as, “May this excruciating pain never happen to anybody else,” or “If this pain ever happens to anybody else may they quickly be relieved of it.” Even if a person has never been religious in their life before, these sorts of prayers can help greatly.
In the West the usual signs of death are when the breathing and heart have stopped. But, in Buddhist terms, how long is it before the consciousness leaves the body after these things have occurred?
There are probably two types of people that can be identified here. The first type is somebody like a young child or someone who has been wasting away for a long period of time, a person who has had a long gradual process leading to death. In this sort of case the subtle mind or consciousness probably won’t remain in the body very long, perhaps only for a day or so.
The second type is somebody who has quite a strong body, who has been in quite good health, and dies rather more quickly. For this type of person the subtle mind or consciousness can stay for as long as three days.
Another sort of death is that of a sudden, violent death. An example would be the case of two people fighting and one of them is killed and dies suddenly. In terms of the length of time the consciousness remains in the body of such a person we could put this type of case in the first category, that is, a person who has undergone a long slide into death, with the subtle consciousness leaving fairly quickly.
How can you tell when the consciousness has left the body? What are the signs of the consciousness leaving the body?
For the person whose mind may remain in the body for as long as three days, it is said that just before the subtle consciousness leaves the body it becomes enclosed in a smaller and smaller dimension, and that dimension is said to be defined by a red and white sphere. When this sphere comes apart, the subtle consciousness is let free and this is indicated by a small amount of blood coming from the nose and a white fluid from the sexual organ.
Even though you sometimes find people in whom there is no sign of any blood or fluid from the lower part of the body, it usually does occur. Remember, I am not talking about the person who dies suddenly.
What effect does it have on the consciousness if the body is touched or moved before the consciousness leaves the body? For example, often in a hospital, after the person’s breathing and heart have stopped, various procedures are done on the body. Does this interfere with the consciousness?
Firstly, if the person was an adept with some sort of meditational abilities, they are trying to remain with a gentle sort of concentration at this point. If we shake the person violently at this stage it will disturb that concentration.
That is why there is a tradition in Tibet for the helpers of a dying person, even if that person is not a great yogi or yogini, to avoid disturbing the body for as long as three days. And if the body has to be moved, they would do so very gently and carefully, not violently or suddenly. This tradition has come about in Tibet to avoid disturbing the mind of the dead person.
In addition, if we have to remove the sheets and mattress, etc., from the bed of the person who has just died, we should do so slowly and gently so as not to disturb the person’s mind.
Similarly, if a person dies with their eyes open, there is a tradition to close the eyes, and if there is an unpleasant expression on the face it is common to smooth out the skin to make the face look more pleasant. These things should also be done with gentle and slow movements to avoid disturbing the mind of the person who has just died.
Everybody has their own burial habits, and in Tibet we had ours. The tradition in Tibet was for the body to be taken away for disposal after three days. To facilitate this, the arms and legs would be bent into the flexed position. Because the weather could be cold, if the person’s arms and legs were outstretched when they died it could be rather difficult to get them into that flexed position. So slowly, slowly over the three days you would make sure you could work them up into that position so that you would be okay when it was time for the body to be taken away. I doubt if there is much need for that where you all come from!
What is the Buddhist view of suicide?
It is a great fault for a Buddhist to kill themselves. Why is this so? Because all living beings are important and to hurt or destroy any living being, oneself included, is wrong. Suicide is usually the result of anger. Just as anger directed towards others can lead to their being killed, which is a great fault, so to hurt or to kill oneself is also wrong. For a non-Buddhist, it is the same. As I mentioned, all living beings are important and to harm somebody or some thing that is important is considered wrong.
So we have to think about how we can help these people who are experiencing this tremendous suffering and hardship. If over a period of time we can introduce them to ideas about how their mind is working, then we can really be of tremendous benefit to them and help them out of the difficulties they find themselves in.
What is the best way to prepare for one’s own death?
For the person who is already familiar with meditational practices, when they see that their death is approaching, this is the time to turn the mind to practice.
For those who have not thought much about religious things at all in their life, they should try and get hold of that which is the heart of religion. And what is the heart of religion? It is to be kind, to think well of others, to hope that good comes to others in their lives. If a person who has never before thought about those things can somehow do so, then this is the best thing they can do to prepare for death.
The person with some knowledge of religion from before will enjoy listening to stories about the Buddha’s excellent qualities, what they did for others and so forth, and this will bring joy to their mind. For the other sort of person, it can make them feel good and bring joy to their mind to tell them how certain people have helped others, how somebody did something nice for somebody else, etc.
What I am saying, in other words, is that dying is a situation where a person needs to have prepared beforehand because you can’t get it together while you are in the middle of it.