Select Page
How to Die Well

How to Die Well

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. 

 

Photo: Wolfgang Saumweber; Kalachakranet.org.

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.

The Dalai Lama’s Perspective on Aging

The Dalai Lama’s Perspective on Aging

Featured image: The Dalai Lama visits a patient at Westmead Hospital in Sydney in 2013. Photo Rusty Stewart/Dalai Lama in Australia (DLIA).

In April 2013 the Dalai Lama met scientists at the Université de Lausanne in Switzerland to participate in a conference on aging: “Living and Dying in Peace – Crossed Perspectives on Aging.” Below is a summary and some highlights from the talk, excerpted from the article about the conference, Conference on ‘Living and Dying in Peace’ at University of Lausanne.

“From the individual’s point of view, if we train from a young age on a mental level, developing our analytical ability, the mind will remain alert. I’ve noticed that people who do this may face physical decline, but their minds remain clear and alert. From the family point of view, affection and support are important.”

The first question put to His Holiness imagined a young boy asking his grandfather “Is it a good thing to grow old?”

His Holiness replied:

“I think it depends on what kind of life you have led, whether your life was meaningful and of benefit to other people. The grandfather might say time keeps moving on, eventually we all become old. One day, although you are young now, you will be old too. This is a natural process. He might say I’m fortunate to have lived this long, but I’ve not wasted my time and I’ve gained some experience of how to live.

“On the other hand, if he’s filled his time with sensory pursuits and dedicated himself, for example, to sport, he might say I can’t hear properly any more, can’t see properly – it’s all become hard work.”

His Holiness with his mother, Diki Tsering.

The first presenter spoke about increasing life expectancy and different categories of older people, the ‘young old’ who are still active and the ‘old old’ who are increasingly frail. He asked: “How can we age well when our physical abilities are declining?” His Holiness answered that an important factor is your state of mind. Whether your mind is calm and peaceful depends not on your being knowledgeable, but on whether you are warm-hearted. Inner peace automatically gives rise to trust and friendship. On the other hand suspicion, mistrust and lies mean you end up alone and unhappy.

“From the individual’s point of view, if we train from a young age on a mental level, developing our analytical ability, the mind will remain alert. I’ve noticed that people who do this may face physical decline, but their minds remain clear and alert. From the family point of view, affection and support are important.”

Asked how to deal with dementia in the old, His Holiness replied:

“I don’t know, because I have no experience, but I believe showing affection is very important. You can show affection without having to rely on words.”

He speculated about how memory declines, noting that while you tend not to forget faces, remembering names is difficult and because of the concepts they represent there is terminology that you never forget. He wondered whether we forget names because they have no meaning, whereas terms with meaning are much easier to remember.

Asked how to deal with dementia in the old, His Holiness replied:

“I don’t know, because I have no experience, but I believe showing affection is very important. You can show affection without having to rely on words.”

A question about spirituality prompted him to try to define the term, wondering if it means looking for meaning in life and the world; a collection of visions and values that are beneficial to ourselves and others. Because there could be spirituality linked to religious faith and independent of it, he suggested that people who have no faith might derive benefit from secular ethics. Otherwise, they are prone to come under the sway of destructive emotions. He stressed that just as it is wise to take care of our physical health, we also need to take care of our emotional well-being and proposed a programme of emotional hygiene.

University of Lausanne Rector Dominique Arlettaz welcoming His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his opening address at the conference on “Living and Dying in Peace” at the University of Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 15, 2013. Photo/Jeremy Russell/OHHDL

The discussion came round to the role of the aging in society. His Holiness recollected a programme in Stockholm in which old people were brought in to work in kindergartens. They took part in the care of young children, played with them and told them stories. He said that there is great potential for mutual benefit in such activities. The children liked the presence of the old people, who in turn were re-energised in the presence of children. His Holiness joked:

“When I talk to young people it makes me feel young, but when I’m talking to old people I wonder ‘Who’ll be going first, you or me?’”

His Holiness said that his discussions with scientists, educationists, social workers and other concerned people lead to the conclusion that we need a system of values that contributes to the basic happiness of all members of society. Such a system could include techniques for training the mind. Education is the avenue for change. Education is the way we can change the course of humanity. And he suggested that ancient Indian knowledge about the mind and emotions as preserved in literature belonging to the Nalanda tradition could make a valuable contribution to this.

When pressed to recommend ways that the elderly who have not trained themselves earlier in life could begin to change, His Holiness said he doubted that there was an effective method, pointing out that such methods need to be adopted when we are young.

After a leisurely lunch filled with conversation and discussion the conference resumed. Asked to respond to the statistic that a majority of people die in hospital His Holiness surprised the panel by saying that if you die in hospital it means that all efforts to save your life have been exhausted, so there will be no room for regret. On the other hand he agreed that doctors and nurses need to treat their patients as beings with feelings of pleasure and pain, rather than as inanimate machines brought in for repair.

When pressed to recommend ways that the elderly who have not trained themselves earlier in life could begin to change, His Holiness said he doubted that there was an effective method, pointing out that such methods need to be adopted when we are young.

Commenting on whether warm-heartedness is a natural function, he said:

“Yes, our lives begin in our mother’s womb and her physical touch and expression of affection are essential to our healthy growth. This is the basis for our later development of a warm heart.”

To questions about helping the old or sick to die, he said we have to investigate why they wish to die. We have to use both compassion and wisdom to assess what is the best course of action. He said that in Buddhist practice helping to end someone’s life is permitted if it will benefit them in the long run, but again compassion and wisdom are needed to make the judgement.

He was asked whether it is important to train ourselves to meet death, and if so, how to do it.

“Death will come because it is a part of life,” he said. “People who avoid the very words old age and death will be caught unawares when it comes. In some of our meditation practice we visualize the process of death and the associated dissolution of the elements every day, so that we may be prepared for the actual event. For those who believe in a succession of lives, death is just like changing your body. If you have led a meaningful life, when death takes place there’ll be no need for regret.

“Training depends on the individual’s ability. One approach is to develop awareness of your dreams. If you can train yourself to recognise that you are in the dream state and take control of it, you can have a deeper experience of the dissolution of the elements that take place during the process of death.”

When it came to questions about rituals associated with death, His Holiness was firm in asserting his scepticism about the efficacy of rituals in the process. He conceded that if they were conducted by someone with experience and understanding they may have some benefit, but otherwise he doubted they would be of much help.

“Death will come because it is a part of life,” he said. “People who avoid the very words old age and death will be caught unawares when it comes. In some of our meditation practice we visualize the process of death and the associated dissolution of the elements every day, so that we may be prepared for the actual event. For those who believe in a succession of lives, death is just like changing your body. If you have led a meaningful life, when death takes place there’ll be no need for regret.”

Coming back to the meditative practices that in effect rehearse the process of dying, he mentioned that he goes through them himself four of five times a day. In this connection he talked about meditators who remain in posthumous meditative equipoise after death. These are cases in which brain activity and the heart have ceased and yet the body remains fresh for several days. Over the last 50 years he is aware of 30-40 cases like this, including that of his Senior Tutor who stayed in such meditation for 13 days after he died. Science has as yet no explanation of this phenomenon, while the Buddhist explanation is that it involves the existence of subtler levels of consciousness. Although the heart, circulation and the brain have stopped, it is only when the subtle consciousness departs that the dying moment is reached and the decay of the corpse begins. (DalaiLama.com)


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
Modern Masters of Religion

Modern Masters of Religion

This CBSN 30-minute documentary explores the lives and influence of three religious teachers, Thomas Merton, His Holiness the 16th Karmapa and Karen Armstrong.

Thomas Merton

Photo: Publishing Perspectives.

For much admired Trappist monk Thomas Merton, the “deeply spiritual life” meant the “experience” of God’s presence and love at all times, combining that with action in everyday life. He was a prolific writer on topics ranging from contemplative prayer to non-violence. He also wrote poetry, essays and criticism. (PBS.org)


His Holiness the 16th Karmapa

Photo: Wikipedia.

As head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, was second Lama to the Dalia Lama. He was considered an emanation of the Buddha of compassion known as Avalokitesvara, the great compassionate one.

The 16th Karmapa was a great master who demonstrated intuitive wisdom, joy, and loving kindness, his compassionate activity for others was beyond words or concepts. Under his leadership, the Karma Kagyu lineage not only survived the escape from Tibet but thrived. Since then, Karma Kagyu lineage spread all around the world. The Buddhist monasteries, institutes, and centers that the 16th Karmapa established grew and now offer Buddhist methods to people in India, Asia, and across the West. (BeHereNowNetwork.com)


Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong has dedicated her life to the study of religion — both from inside the walls of a convent during her seven years as a Catholic nun — and as a author of books on the world’s faiths from Islam to Buddhism and a best-selling HISTORY OF GOD. Her examination of the commonalities of the world’s faiths has brought Karen Armstrong to her current project: the Charter for Compassion. (PBS.org)


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
It Is Beautiful to Be Old!

It Is Beautiful to Be Old!

Last Saturday, I read these striking words of reminder from the retired Pope in the Our Lady Queen of Angels bulletin.

WORDS OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI

Rome, Monday 12 November 2012

“I come to you as Bishop of Rome, but also as an old man visiting his peers. It would be superfluous to say that I am well acquainted with the difficulties, problems and limitations of this age and I know that for many these difficulties are more acute due to the economic crisis. At times, at a certain age, one may look back nostalgically at the time of our youth when we were fresh and planning for the future. Thus at times our gaze is veiled by sadness, seeing this phase of life as the time of sunset. This morning, addressing all the elderly in spirit, although I am aware of the difficulties that our age entails I would like to tell you with deep conviction: it is beautiful to be old! At every phase of life it is necessary to be able to discover the presence and blessing of the Lord and the riches they bring. We must never let ourselves be imprisoned by sorrow! We have received the gift of longevity. Living is beautiful even at our age, despite some “aches and pains” and a few limitations. In our faces may there always be the joy of feeling loved by God and not sadness.

I think there should be greater commitment, starting with families and public institutions, to ensure that the elderly be able to stay in their own homes. The wisdom of life, of which we are bearers, is a great wealth. The quality of a society, I mean of a civilization, is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life. Those who make room for the elderly make room for life! Those who welcome the elderly welcome life!

In the Bible longevity is considered a blessing of God; today this blessing is widespread and must be seen as a gift to appreciate and to make the most of. And yet frequently society dominated by the logic of efficiency and gain does not accept it as such: on the contrary it frequently rejects it, viewing the elderly as non-productive or useless. All too often we hear about the suffering of those who are marginalized, who live far from home or in loneliness. I think there should be greater commitment, starting with families and public institutions, to ensure that the elderly be able to stay in their own homes. The wisdom of life, of which we are bearers, is a great wealth. The quality of a society, I mean of a civilization, is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life. Those who make room for the elderly make room for life! Those who welcome the elderly welcome life!

From the outset the Community of Sant’Egidio has supported so many elderly people on their way, helping them to stay in their own living milieus and opening various “casa-famiglia” in Rome and throughout the world. Through solidarity between the young and the old it has helped people to understand that the Church is effectively a family made up of all the generations, where each person must feel “at home” and where it is not the logic of profit and of possession that prevails but that of giving freely and of love. When life becomes frail, in the years of old age, it never loses its value and its dignity: each one of us, at any stage of life, is wanted and loved by God, each one is important and necessary.

Today’s visit fits into the European Year of Active Aging and of Solidarity between the Generations. And in this very context I would like to reaffirm that the elderly are a value for society, especially for the young. There can be no true human growth and education without fruitful contact with the elderly, because their life itself is like an open book in which the young generations may find precious indications for their journey through life.

Dear friends, at our age we often experience the need of the help of others; and this also happens to the Pope. In the Gospel we read that Jesus told the Apostle Peter: “when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (Jn 21:18). The Lord was referring to the way in which the Apostle was to witness to his faith to the point of martyrdom, but this sentence makes us think about that fact that the need for help is a condition of the elderly. I would like to ask you to seek in this too a gift of the Lord, because being sustained and accompanied, feeling the affection of others is a grace! This is important in every stage of life: no one can live alone and without help; the human being is relational. And in this case I see, with pleasure, that all those who help and all those who are helped form one family, whose lifeblood is love.

Dear elderly brothers and sisters, the days sometimes seem long and empty, with difficulties, few engagements and few meetings; never feel down at heart: you are a wealth for society, even in suffering and sickness. And this phase of life is also a gift for deepening the relationship with God. The example of Blessed Pope John Paul II was and still is illuminating for everyone. Do not forget that one of the valuable resources you possess is the essential one of prayer: become interceders with God, praying with faith and with constancy. Pray for the Church, and pray for me, for the needs of the world, for the poor, so that there may be no more violence in the world. The prayers of the elderly can protect the world, helping it, perhaps more effectively than collective anxiety. Today I would like to entrust to your prayers the good of the Church and peace in the world. The Pope loves you and relies on all of you! May you feel beloved by God and know how to bring a ray of God’s love to this society of ours, often so individualistic and so efficiency-oriented. And God will always be with you and with all those who support you with their affection and their help.

I entrust you all to the motherly intercession of the Virgin Mary, who always accompanies us on our journey with her motherly love and I willingly impart my blessing to each one of you. I thank you all!”

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.