by Sogyal Rinpoche

reading notes

The kind of death we have is so important. Death is the most crucial moment of our lives, and each and every one of us should be able to die in peace and fulfilment, knowing that we will be surrounded by the best spiritual care.

Death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.

My religion is to live and die without regret -Milarepa

Swept along by the chaos of every moment, we are the victims of the fickleness of our mind. If this is the only state of consciousness we are familiar with, then to rely on our minds at the moment of death is an absurd gamble.

Taking life seriously doesn’t mean spending our whole lives meditating (…). We have to work to earn our living, but we should not get entangled in a nine-to-five existence, where we live without any view of the deeper meaning of life. Our task is to strike a balance, to find a middle way, to learn not to overstretch ourselves with extraneous activities and preoccupations, but to simplify our lives more and more.

The realisation of impermanence is paradoxically the only thing we can hold onto, perhaps our only lasting possession. It is like the sky, or the earth. No matter how much everything around us may change or collapse, they endure.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that illnesses like cancer can be a warning, to remind us that we have been neglecting deep aspects of our being, such as our spiritual needs. If we take this warning seriously and change fundamentally the direction of our lives, there is a very real hope for healing not only our body, but our whole being.

Yet how hard it can be to turn our attention within! How easily we allow our old habits and set patterns to dominate us! (…) Reflection can slowly bring us wisdom. We can come to see we are falling again and again into repetitive patterns, and begin to long to get out of them. We may, of course fall back into them, again and again, but slowly we can emerge from them and change.

Taking impermanence truly to heart is to be slowly freed from the idea of grasping, from our flawed and destructive view of permanence, from the false passion for security on which we have built everything. (…) As we reflect and go on reflecting, our hearts and minds go through a gradual transformation. Letting go begins to feel more natural, and becomes easier and easier.

Just as when the waves last at the shore,the rocks suffer no damage but are sculpted and eroded into beautiful shapes, so our characters can be moulded and our rough edges worn smooth by changes. Through weathering changes we can learn how to develop a gentle but unshakable composure. Our confidence in ourselves grows, and becomes so much greater that goodness and compassion begin naturally to radiate out from us and bring joy to others. That goodness is what survives death, a fundamental goodness that is in every one of us.

If everything is impermanent, then everything is what we call “empty”, which means lacking any lasting, stable and inherent existence; and all things, when seen and understood in their true relation, are not independent but interdependent with all other things.

Despite the massive and nearly all-pervasive denial of its existence, we will sometimes have fleeting glimpses of the nature of mind. These could be inspired by a certain exalting piece of music, by the serene happiness we sometimes feel in nature, or by the most ordinary everyday situation. They could arise simply while watching snow slowly drifting down, or seeing the sun rising behind a mountain, or watching a shaft of light falling into a room in a mysteriously moving way.

The three sacred principles - the skillful motivation, the attitude of non-grasping that secures the practice and the dedication that seals it - are what make your meditation truly enlightening and powerful. (…) Bring your mind home, release and relax.

Remaining in nowness and stillness is an excellent accomplishment, but to return to the example of the glass of muddy water, if you keep it still, the dirt will settle and it will become clear, and yet the dirt will still be there, deep down. One day you stir it, the dirt will rise again. As long as you cultivate stillness, you may enjoy peace, but whenever your mind is a little bit disturbed, deluded thoughts will set in again.

The one-pointedness of Calm Abiding allows an increasing clarity of mind to arise. As obscurations are gradually removed and ego and its grasping tendency begin to dissolve, Clear Seeing, or “insight” dawns.

In one sense meditation is an art, and you should bring to it an artist’s delight and fertility of invention.

Be alert for any sign of beauty or grace. Offer up every joy, be awake at all moments to “the news that is always arriving out of silence”.

One of the central characteristics of the bardos is that they are periods of deep uncertainty. To live in the modern world is to live in what is clearly a bardo realm; you don’t have to die to experience one. This uncertainty, which already pervades everything now, becomes even more intense, even more accentuated after we die, when our clarity or confusion, the masters tell us, will be “multiplied by seven”.

This constant uncertainty may make everything seem bleak and almost hopeless, but if you look more deeply at it, you will see that its very nature creates gaps, spaces in which profound chances and opportunities for transformation are continuously flowering - if, that is, they can be sen and seized. (…) Normally, however, we are oblivious to the bardos and their gaps, as our mind passes from one so called “solid” situation to the next, habitually ignoring the transitions that are always occurring. In fact (…) every moment of our experience is a bardo, as each thought and each emotion arises out of, and dies back into, the essence of mind. It is in moments of strong change and transition especially (…) that the true sky-like, primordial nature of mind will have a chance to manifest.

The way to discover the freedom of the wisdom of egolessness (…) is through the process of listening and hearing, contemplation and reflection, and meditation.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few. -Suzuki-roshi

The essence of meditation practice in Dzogchen is encapsulated by these four points:

  • When one past thought has ceased and a future thought has not yet arisen, in that gap, in between, isn’t there a consciousness of the present moment; fresh, virgin, unaltered by even a hairs breadth of concept, a luminous, naked awareness? Well, that is what Rigpa is.
  • Yet it doesn’t stay in that state forever, because another thought suddenly arises, doesn’t it? This is the self-radiance of that Rigpa.
  • However,if you do not recognise this thought for what it really, is, the very instant it arises, then it will turn into just another ordinary thought, as before. This is called the chain of delusion, and is the root of samsara.
  • If you are able to recognise the true nature of the thought as soon as it arises, and leave it alone without any follow-up, then whatever thoughts arise will all automatically dissolve back into the vast expanse of Rigpa and are liberated.

The practitioner discovers (…) that not only do violent emotions not necessarily sweep you away and drag you back into the whirlpools of your own neuroses, they can actually be used to deepen, embolden, invigorate and strengthen the Rigpa. The tempestuous energy becomes raw food of the awakened energy of Rigba. The stronger and more flaming the emotion, the more Rigpa is strengthened.

Sometimes the dying person can linger on many months or weeks longer than doctors expected and experience tremendous suffering. (…) for such a person to be able to let go and die peacefully, he or she needs to hear two explicit verbal assurances from their loved ones. First they must give the person permission to die, and second they must reassure the person they will be all right after he or she has gone and that there is no need to worry about them.

When someone is suffering and you find yourself at a loss to know how to help, put yourself unflinchingly in his or her place. Imagine as vividly as possible what you would be going through if you were suffering the same pain. Ask yourself: “How would I feel? How would I want my friends to treat me? What would I most want from them?

Be vulnerable; use that quick, bright uprush of compassion; focus on it, go deep into your heart and meditate on it, develop it, enhance and deepen it.

“When your fear touches someone’s pain, it becomes pity; when your love touches someone’s pain, it becomes compassion.” -Stephen Levine

“Whoever wishes to quickly afford protection To both himself and others Should practice that holy secret: The exchanging of self for others.” This holy secret of the practice of Tonglen is one that the mystic masters and saints of every tradition know…

Your feeling of being unforgiven and unforgivable is what makes you suffer so. But it only exists in your heart and mind. Haven’t you read how in some of the near-death experiences a great golden presence of light arrives that is all-forgiving? And it is very often said that it is finally we who judge ourselves.

In order to clear your guilt, ask for purification from the depths of your heart. If you really ask for purification, and go through it, forgiveness will be there. (…) To help yourself to forgive yourself, remember the good things you have done, forgive everyone else in your life and ask for forgiveness from anyone you may have harmed.

The ideal way for a person to die is having given away everything, internally and externally, so that there is as little as possible yearning, grasping, and attachment for the mind at that essential moment to latch onto. So before we die, we should try to free ourselves of attachment to all our possessions, friends and loved ones. We cannot take anything with us, so we should make plans to give away all our belongings beforehand, as gifts or offerings. “Be free of attachment and aversion. Keep your mind pure. Unite your mind with (…).

If the time comes when you cannot practice actively any more, the only really important thing for you to do is to relax, as deeply as possible, in the confidence of the View and rest in the nature of mind. It does not matter whether your body or your brain are still functioning; the nature of your mind is always there, sky-like, radiant, blissful, limitless and unchanging… Know that beyond all doubt, and let that knowledge give you the strength to say with carefree abandon to all your pain, however great it is: “Go away now, and leave me alone!” If there is anything that irritates you, or makes you feel uncomfortable in any way, don’t waste your time trying to change it; keep returning to the View.

Think, then of the moment of death as a strange border zone of the mind, a no-man’s land in which on the one hand if we do not understand the illusory nature of our body, we might suffer vast emotional trauma as we lose it; and on the other hand, we are presented with the possibility of limitless freedom, a freedom that springs precisely from the absence of that same body.

The Tantric Buddhist tradition of Tibet offers an explanation of the body that is quite different from the one most of us are used to. This is a psycho-physical system, which consists of a dynamic network of subtle channels, “winds” or inner air, and essences (in tibetan: tsa, lung and tiklé).

Traditionally the position generally recommended for dying is to lie down on the right side, taking the position of the “sleeping lion” (…).The left hand rests on the left thigh, the right hand is places under the chin, closing the right nostril. The legs are stretched out and are very slightly bent. On the right side of the body are certain subtle channels that encourage the “karmic wind” of delusion. (…) It also helps the consciousness to leave the body through the aperture at the crown of the head, as all the other openings through which it would leave are closed.

(…) there are two aspects of our being that are revealed at the moment of death: our absolute nature and our relative nature: how we are and how we have been in this life.

Through our practice we gradually stabilise the nature of mind more and more, so that it does not simply remain as our absolute nature, but becomes our everyday reality. As it does so, the more our habits dissolve and the less of a difference there is between meditation and everyday life.

Take, for example, what manifests in our ordinary mind as a thought of desire; if its true nature is recognised, it arises, free of grasping, as the “wisdom of discernment.” Hatred and anger, when truly recognised, arise as diamond-like clarity, free of grasping, this is the “mirror-like wisdom.” When ignorance is recognised, it arises as vast and natural clarity without the concepts, the “wisdom of all-encompassing space.” Pride, when recognised is realised as non-duality and equality: the “equalising wisdom.” Jealousy, when recognised, is free from partiality and grasping, and arises as the “all accomplishing wisdom.” So the five negative emotions arise as the direct result of our not recognising their true nature. When truly recognised, they are purified and liberated, and arise themselves as none other than the display of the five wisdoms.

The judgement (…) shows that what really counts, in the final analysis, is the motivation behind our every action, and that there is no escaping the effects of our past actions, words and thoughts and the imprints and habits they have stamped us with. It means that we are entirely responsible not only for this life, but for our future lives as well.

Grief is a wound that needs attention in order to heal. To work through and complete grief means to face our feelings openly and honestly, to express and release our feelings fully and to tolerate and accept our feelings for however long it takes for the wound to heal. We fear that once expressed grief will bowl us over. The truth is that grief experienced does dissolve. Grief unexperienced is grief that lasts indefinitely. - Judy Tatelbaum

The times when you are suffering can be those when you are most open, and where you are extremely vulnerable can be where your greatest strength really lies.

Technology and the spirit can and must exist side by side, if our fullest human potential is to be developed. Wouldn’t a complete, and completely useful, human science have the courage to embrace and explore the facts of the mystical, the facts of death and dying (…)?

What unravels with such clarity in the bardo of dying, the bardo of dharmata and the bardo of becoming (…) is a threefold process: first, enfoldment leading to laying bare; second, spontaneous radiance; third, crystallisation and manifestation. (…) this threefold pattern does not only unfold in the process of dying and death: it is unfolding now, at this moment, at every moment, within our mind, in our thoughts and emotions, and at every single level of our conscious experience.

Each individual act and manifestation of creativity, whether it is in music, art or poetry, or indeed in the moments and unfoldings of scientific discovery, as many scientists have described, arises from a mysterious ground of inspiration and is mediated into form by a translating and communicating energy. Are we looking here at yet another enactment of the interrelated threefold process we have seen at work in the bardos? Is this why certain works of music and certain discoveries in science, seem to have an almost infinite meaning and significance? And would this explain their power to guide us into a state of contemplation and joy, where some essential secret of our nature and the nature of reality is revealed? From where did Blake’s lines come:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Ultimately the vision of the bardo teachings and the deepest understanding of both art and science all converge on one fact, our responsibility to and for ourselves; and the necessity of using that responsibility in the most urgent and far reaching way: to transform ourselves, the meaning of our lives, and so the world around us.

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous. - Thomas Merton

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  • Last modified: 2016-03-25 12:26
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