Imagining your death

Verse 4 (continued)

Part of a series of talks on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path given in various locations around the United States from 2002-2007. This talk was given in Missouri.

Verse 4: Imagining your death (download)

We’ve been talking about the three principal aspects of the path. What are they? First one?

Audience: Renunciation.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Second one?

Audience: Bodhicitta.

VTC: Third one?

Audience: Correct View.

VTC: Good.

We’ve been exploring the first one on renunciation, also called the determination to be free from cyclic existence. We’ve talked about the first three verses and we’re on verse four—where we’ve been for quite awhile because the first sentence in verse four is very rich:

By contemplating the leisure and endowments so difficult to find and the fleeting nature of your life reverse the clinging to this life. By repeatedly contemplating the infallible effects of karma and the miseries of cyclic existence, reverse the clinging to future lives.

That verse is talking about the two levels of renunciation that counteract the two levels of clinging. One is to the clinging to this life. Second is to the clinging of future lives—to clinging to any kind of happiness in cyclic existence. We’ve been talking about the first one for quite awhile; that attachment to the happiness of this life swirls around the eight worldly concerns.

Remember those dear eight worldly concerns that we live every day? We have attachment to receiving money and material things, aversion to not getting them or when they’re destroyed. We’re delighted when we’re praised and have approval and sweet ego pleasing words, and then feeling upset and depressed when we face blame or criticism or disapproval. Then feeling delighted when we have a good reputation and a good image, and very unhappy when we have bad ones. And then feeling delighted at all of our nice sense pleasures; we just had a good lunch, chocolate ice cream (Yummm!) and nice sounds and smells, comfy bed to lie on—all of this; and then unhappiness when we don’t receive these.

Just to clarify, there’s nothing wrong with happiness. There’s nothing wrong with pleasure. What creates the difficulty for us is when we get attached to these things. As ordinary beings very often between the feeling of pleasure and the subsequent clinging to it, there’s barely a space. The happy feeling comes and “Boing!” We cling. So what we’re trying to do is to get some space between those. We feel the nice feeling, it’s there—but we don’t have to cling onto it and search for it and make it the purpose of our lives. If you’re doing the four mindfulnesses, when you’re doing the mindfulness of feelings you’re trying to be aware of your feelings. And aware without having them generate the subsequent clinging or the subsequent aversion that we often have to negative feelings.

Taking this meditation to heart

In this first sentence it talked about the “leisure and endowments so difficult to find.” Contemplating those is a way that helps us to value our life and to seek higher purpose and meaning besides the eight worldly concerns. Then the second antidote to the clinging of this life was contemplating the fleeting nature of your life, in other words impermanence and death. Last time we met we talked about impermanence and death. We went through the nine point death meditation. Has anybody done it since then? What kind of experience did you have?

Audience: I dreamed I was bit by a snake and was dying. But I don’t know if that was connected to the meditation. I didn’t have any profound effects by it, trying to go through and impress upon myself the importance of it.

VTC: It’s a very valuable meditation. Sometimes when we first start doing it, it just seems very intellectual. We go through the nine points, “Yes, death is definite, what else is new?” And the time of death is indefinite, “Yes, I know that already.” And at death time nothing matters but the Dharma, “Yes, yes, yes. Where’s my chocolate ice cream?” At first it seems rather intellectual. But when we really spend some time reflecting on those points and especially applying it to those that we care about and to ourselves: really thinking about our own death and what it’s going to be like to die; and imaging the death of those that we care about; and reflecting that in certainly not more than a hundred years none of us in this room are going to be alive. You know? When we reflect upon these things repeatedly it really has a strong impact on our life.

You expressed interest in going to see cadavers, corpses at the hospital. Why do we do this? Well, because sometimes death just seems like a very intellectual thing to us: it happens to other people, it doesn’t happen right now. But when we see a corpse then it really causes us to reflect, “Well, wait a minute. There was something there that’s not there now.” And seeing the body decay and, “This is going to happen to me.” What’s going happen when that happens to me? Am I really going to be able to handle it? Will I be able to die peacefully? And what happens after I separate from this body? Much of our security is focused on this body—all our feeling of security from having an ego identity.

This idea of who I am. Who I am and how people should treat me. What I should have. What my place in the world is. Much of that is centered around our body.

When we no longer have this body, who are we going to think we are? When we no longer have this body, then we’re also no longer going to be in this environment. The environment also helps condition us and give us a sense of identity. I am a nun who lives at a monastery. Here’s the monastery, here are the other monastics. Here’s my body wearing robes. This is my skin color. This is my ethnicity. This is my religion. So much identity just around our body and its environment—and when that disappears then who in the world are we going to be?

Just as the body has continuity after death, the consciousness has a continuity after death. The body doesn’t disappear after death. It has continuity and it decays. Similarly, the consciousness doesn’t just end after death. It has continuity. So what’s going to happen to our consciousness? If you have a sense for rebirth, or even if you don’t, well what happens to my consciousness after this lifetime when it’s no longer associated with this body? If you have a feeling for rebirth consider, “How am I going to handle getting reborn somewhere else?”—where I don’t have this body and this current ego identity to fall back on?

Venerable Chodron meditating.

Reflecting on impermanence and death is very valuable in helping overcome rigid conceptions of who we are.

It was real interesting for me just moving from Seattle to here. I’ve been watching how uncertain my sense of I became because my environment had changed. I had chosen the change, it was planned out and everything. Yet even when it happens, it was like, “Wait a minute. I don’t know how I fit in here. I don’t know what the rules are.” Now imagine just all of a sudden we find ourselves in another rebirth and here’s this new body. You don’t know how it works, you don’t have any ability. Think of infants. They don’t have any ability to think, “Oh, there’s my mother and father—and of course they’re going to care for me.” They don’t know anything. You can understand why babies cry a lot, all that uncertainty because there is no way for them to understand what life is all about.

Then, of course, once we start understanding what life is all about, we develop all these rigid conceptions of “who I am” and “how other people should be towards me.” That creates a lot of suffering. But reflecting on impermanence and death is really very valuable.

The shock of death

We’re always so surprised when somebody dies. It always comes as such a shock, “Oh, I just saw that person. Now they’re dead.” One of my cats, the one in Seattle, died just over the weekend. That wasn’t planned. I didn’t have that in my calendar. And that was just a cat. I shouldn’t say just a cat because from her viewpoint it was the center of the universe.

There are many people who are going to die between now and the time we go to bed tonight. Most of them think that they aren’t going to die. Like I was saying last time, even people in the hospital—they don’t feel like they’re going to die today. People who are going to have heart attacks between now and ten o’clock tonight, they don’t know it. People who are going to die of brain aneurisms, they have no idea. We just go on our merry way having this feeling that we’re going to live forever and not really taking care of our karma, not taking care of our minds. And then all of a sudden, bang! Death is there.

It was very touching for me when I was in Guatemala a few months ago. One woman came to see me. Her husband or boyfriend, I can’t remember which, he was living in another country. He came to Guatemala to see her and he had just arrived. His luggage had been stolen—which often happens in that country. When he finally got to her place he was a little bit upset about his luggage having been stolen. She got irritated at him for being upset about his luggage being stolen because she had warned him about people stealing luggage. She had told him not to go on public transportation and he did anyway and that’s how it got stolen. So he was upset, and then she was upset with him. They were young, it’s not that they were old. Then he had a brain aneurism. In the middle of the quarrel, the last thing he said to her was, “I feel like you’re pushing me away.” And then he had a brain aneurism. By that evening he was in a coma and a couple of days later he was dead.

She came to me because she was in so much torture because the last thing that he had said to her was, “I feel like you’re pushing me away.” They had just had this quarrel. I was thinking of him dying in that mental state and her dealing with his death and her mental state. All this happens because we feel like we’re going to live forever. They felt that they had the luxury to be able to get angry at each other and work it out mañana— some other time, later. But that didn’t happen. Now thinking how many times that happens in people’s lives—this feeling that we’re going to last forever. Yet it doesn’t happen.

Keeping on top of our lives

We have to be prepared to die on a finger snap. Are we ready? Are the things in our life really settled? Do we have a sense of peace about our lives so that if we had to die quickly we would feel okay about it?

I remember going to a workshop with a friend of mine who’s a hospice nurse. It was a Stephen Levine workshop; you may have been to some of them. It’s so interesting. He’s very good with the work he does. He has a microphone that goes out into the audience and people tell their stories. So many people were telling stories of their loved ones dying and how much they loved them—and they weren’t able to tell their loved ones they loved them. Or how they had fought with a relative years and years ago and had never made up—and then that relative had died. How much pain and suffering they were in because of it.

Sitting there listening to these people tell their stories, there was so much suffering. I was thinking, “They’re telling a room full of 500 people—but these 500 people aren’t the people they needed to be talking to. Who they needed to be talking to was the one person who died.” Yet because of arrogance or hatred or whatever, they never talked to that one person. Thus they’re left just feeling in mid-air and unresolved about so many issues.

This kind of thing happens because people don’t think about impermanence and death. We don’t keep on top of our life. We don’t clean things up. Like when you spill milk on the floor you clean it up right away. When we spill milk in our lives with various things, to try and purify in some way or resolve them in some way because death really could come at any moment. How are we going to feel if we have to die quickly? Or the other person that we care about dies quickly before these things are said. So that’s a kind of suffering in this life that comes from not recalling death.

If you think of the karma that we create by being attached, and angry, and resentful, and spiteful—all this suffering we set ourselves up for. That’s created by our attachment and these negative attitudes. These negative attitudes arise because we haven’t remembered impermanence and death and we think we’re going to live forever. If we remember death, then what’s the use of being angry with somebody? If we remember death, what’s the use in being attached to something? You can see why the recollection of death acts as an incredible antidote against defiled states of mind. This then prevents us from creating negative karma and encourages us to create good karma. Then at the time we die we don’t have any regrets. We can make that transition peacefully. So it’s something really to think about. Call to mind many examples of people that we know who have died or stories of people about people who have died. Think about those, reflect about them, reflect on what people have gone through. The nine-point death meditation helps us to so that.

Imagining our own death

There’s another meditation that helps us remember impermanence and death. This is one of imagining our own death. Of course it’s only an imagination, and each time you do the meditation you can change it slightly. What you do is you can practice dying in all different sorts of situations and see how that feels. It’s a very useful mediation to do. When we begin it there are various ways to begin. One way is just to think of a health problem that you’ve had or just not feeling good. Imagine then going to the doctor and the doctor running some tests. Then imagine going in to get your test results and the doctor has a certain look on his face—you know it’s not good news. Take cancer for example, we know so many people who have been diagnosed with cancer and people who have died from cancer. How would we feel if we got a cancer diagnosis?

The intellectual part of our mind might say, “Oh, I feel okay. Yes, I’m ready to die. I’ll just die gracefully and say goodbye to everything. It’s okay.” If you actually think about it, I don’t know—I don’t think I’d feel so good about going from today until tomorrow into the doctor’s office and having a cancer diagnosis. And especially it would be challenging if I was told that it’s a very very virulent kind of cancer, or one that was very far progressed. At Abhayagiri Monastery their neighbor had a cancer diagnosis and within a month she was dead. This was somebody who was healthy before. So this kind of thing, it does happen. She knew about the Dharma and everything, but you know, one month and goodbye.

Really think, if I got a cancer diagnosis how would my life change? How would I feel about my life? What would be important to me if I knew that I had a really serious disease? Consider that—how would I really feel? And who would I want to tell? I say this because once you have a cancer diagnosis it just isn’t my life. I have to inform other people. Then when people hear a cancer diagnosis, everybody starts giving you their remedy. Everybody starts telling you what to do and how to live your life. Some people cry and then you have to take care of them. Some people tell you, “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll recover.” What happens is you get everyone else’s namtok. Namtok means preconceptions or superstitions.

Here you are trying to digest the fact that you have a terminal illness. Then all of a sudden your mother is freaking out and your father is freaking out. Your friend is telling you, “Oh, you’ll recover. No problem.” Somebody else is telling you to go to Mexico because there’s a special healer. Somebody else is telling you to go get chemo. Somebody else is saying, “No, just do a long retreat.” Somebody else is telling you to do puja. Somebody else is saying, “Do radiology.” Somebody else is saying, “Don’t listen to the doctor anyway, they misdiagnose people. Go for a second opinion.”

Here you are sitting in the middle of this trying to deal with your own emotions. Meanwhile everybody else is projecting all this stuff on you. If you don’t tell them and they find out, then what are you going to do? It gets really tricky—so to really think about this.

Audience: I’ve heard also many people just disappear. They’re afraid of cancer. They don’t know how to deal with you who has cancer so they disappear. The first group is denying the cancer by trying to pretend it will just go away with this special healer in Mexico. But many people deny it by just avoiding you. I know people who that’s hurt the most. They wanted friends. They were accepting their own death and they wanted friends. And those friends were gone because their friends couldn’t accept what was happening.

VTC: A lot of suffering in that.

Audience: I had a similar difficulty like what you’re describing—like having a relative who’s been diagnosed. It’s not necessarily terminal; and you do have ideas and thoughts that you want to offer. But then you’re already anticipating that it’s not going to be very welcomed. You want to be helpful with what you might have to offer, but you end up kind of withdrawing altogether. This is because you don’t want to get rejected but what you want to try to do to help.

VTC: Very funny things can happen between people at that time because it’s difficult for them to speak honestly. This happens very often. How does that feel? In your meditation make these scenes.

I’ve often thought, “How in the world would I tell my parents this?” Ever since I can remember my mother’s always said, “The most awful thing I can think of happening is one of you kids dying.” How in the world then can you tell your mother you have a terminal illness if you’ve heard that since you were a kid? Then you’re put in a position of having to talk to your parents, “Oh, I’m fine, everything’s great!” When you get really ill and then they’re freaking out—so you have all this kind of stuff.

In your meditation you think about it, “Am I equipped to deal with this?” The interpersonal stuff plus how do I feel about myself dying? Here I am (at whatever age you are) and I have this plan for my life. Even if it’s not clearly spelled out I still have this feeling of, “I still want to do this, and I still want to do that, and there’s time to do this, and there’s time to do that.” We live our lives with a sense of time and a future and ideas of how we want to spend that future. Then all of a sudden it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a future there. How do we then feel about our lives—when we have to let go of all of our ideas about what we want to do in the future?

Often when we write to our friends, what do we write about? “I’m going to do this, I’m going to that.” Even amongst the nuns, and sometimes we’re the worst ones, “I’m going here for this teaching. I’m going there to do a three-month retreat. I’m going here to meet my teacher. I’m traveling.” We write to each other and we have all sorts of visions for the traveling we’re going do, places where we’re going to go, teachings we’re going to hear, retreats we’re going to do. How’s that going to be when all of a sudden—finished—none of that is anymore? All we have to deal with is now—and maybe six months if we’re lucky, and maybe not six months. How do we think of ourselves when we have to cut out that feeling of having a future?

How will we feel about dying with our potential having not been actualized? It brings up all sorts of issues of how accepting we are of ourselves—because we’re Dharma practitioners and we have this aspiration for enlightenment. Yet we are where we’re at. We can’t pretend we’re further along the path than we are. But how are we going to feel? When there’s this sense of future we think, “Well, I can progress along the path. Later on in my life maybe I can develop some realizations or gain more concentration or do more purification. I have this life in front of me to do this.” And then all of a sudden you have a terminal diagnosis and, “Well, I don’t have that time. What am I going to do? What really is important? How am I going to live the rest of the time I have? How have I spent the time that I’ve been living until now? Am I able to accept the level that I’m at on the path right now—even though I wish I were further along because I know I’m going to die in six months?”

Do you get what I’m saying? Especially this thing of accepting where we are right now? Because when we thought we had a long life in front of us, well there’s a lot of time to slowly gain those realizations. And now we realized, “No, there’s not a lot of time.”

Realizations aren’t going to come real quickly. There might be a chance if I practice hard that I can really get somewhere. But there’s a good chance, because we can’t push our practice, we can’t will ourselves to have realizations. So then there’s a good chance that I might die without those realizations. How do I feel about that?

What have I been doing until now? And then looking back on our whole life and all the issues about how we’ve been living until now, and how we’ve really been making use of our precious human life. This is an excellent opportunity for us to start guilt tripping ourselves. So then to look at our habitual mental states of how we blame ourselves for not making better use of our lives. Can we really accept where we’re at now, or do we now when we’re alive guilt trip ourselves and beat ourselves up? And if we get a terminal diagnosis are we only going to do that more—wasting more time? Or is there a way to accept where we’re at right now? Is there a way to keep on practicing with a hopeful and enthusiastic attitude; but also very accepting of what exactly we’re able to do and not do?

I remember one of your friends, maybe from Reiki, died. Do you want to tell that story?

Audience: My friend was 50 and she developed liver cancer and pancreatic cancer. She came to Seattle and five of us took care of her in the final weeks of her life. She was pencil thin, but she kept saying, “You know, I really can’t tell if I’m going to live or die.” Right up to the end she said, “I thought I would know if I was going to die, but I really can’t tell.” That really impressed me. She had a very peripheral relationship with Kalu Rinpoche so she was exposed to Dharma. One thing she said to me one night that really hit home to me was this. She said, “You know, I’ve been running around the last twenty years teaching Reiki—and the only thing that’s bringing me comfort right now is Dharma.” That really impressed me. This was right before I went on a three month Vajrasattva retreat. I spent a lot of time on that retreat thinking about death and impermanence. I really thank her because her example taught me a lot. Her life and how she lived her life up to the end and her death really made an impact on me.

VTC: Especially when you see people having that kind of regret at the end of their life, “And I ran around and taught Reiki and did not paid attention to the Dharma.”

Audience: I’m sure it helped her. I think it was a virtuous way for her to spend her life. But what she really found comfort in was the Dharma, for there she was exposed to working with the mind.

VTC: Think of that and think of people that we know who have died and the mental states that they’ve died in. I remember reading Palden Gyatso’s book—he was one of the Buddhist monks who was imprisoned for many years. He related this story of seeing one monk, who was very learned, I think was even a geshe, who had studied and knew the Dharma very well intellectually. But when the Chinese communists were threatening him with death, he made three prostrations to them and began to cry and beg for his life. Palden Lhamo said, “Wow! Here’s somebody who should have internalized the Dharma. He certainly knew it. But he hadn’t internalized it. He hadn’t really practiced—the result being at the time of death freaking out like that. Reading that story made a big impact on me—it’s good to think of these different situations.

Also, what I do when I’m in retreat, because I finally have the time to do it, is I make a list of all the people I know who have died. I do this because it doesn’t seem when you’re living like you know many people who have died. When I start to make a list, it’s unbelievable. Many of my Dharma friends have died. People that you practice the Dharma with and you think, “Dharma friends, they’re going to live longer.” But they don’t.

My first Dharma course that I went to, I sat next to a young woman named Teresa. We were both about the same age, in our early twenties. Our Dharma course was in California. She had been to Kopan Monastery before and she was going to go back there. She said to me, “When we get to Kathmandu, I’ll take you out to dinner, or for pie in Kathmandu.” Pie was very precious in Kathmandu —“So I’ll take you out.” We were looking forward to seeing each other at Kopan.

I got to Kopan and the course started. We were both going for the meditation course. Teresa didn’t come—and she didn’t come, and she didn’t come. We began to be concerned about what happened to her. A few weeks later we found out. We learned later that in Thailand there had been a serial murderer—I think somebody from France who had murdered a number of people. Teresa was one of his victims. She had a stop-over in Bangkok on her way to Kopan, had gone to a party, and met this guy. He asked her out for the next day. He poisoned her food at the restaurant. They found her body in a Bangkok canal. This is the kind of thing that’s written up in Newsweek. They recently let this guy out of prison a couple of years ago too. You think about it. This wasn’t supposed to happen to somebody in their early twenties who was going for a meditation course, who was my friend, who I was going to meet. And, wham! She’s gone. That was such a big impression for me.

At the course in Nepal, I sat next to one Italian man, Stefano. I don’t think you have ever met him, you might hear about him sometime. He was just coming off drugs at the time; and he was really into very hard drugs. I remember he could barely sit still. But he got himself through the course and got himself off the drugs. He wound up ordaining after a few years. Then he wound up giving his vows back, and I saw him in Singapore when I was there. We had lunch with my teacher. The next thing I heard—they had found him in Spain. He had died of an overdose. He was shooting up and died of an overdose. I could tell you more stories of people I’ve met—young people that you meet along the Dharma path that die of all sorts of things. Of course none of this was planned.

The thing is to think in our own mind if that were to happen to me, “Am I ready to die and let go of everything? Or do I feel in my life that there are many things that I need to take care of? The people I care about, have I told them I care about them? The people who I’ve harmed, have I apologized to them? The people who have harmed me, have I forgiven them? Am I still holding grudges for things done a long time ago?” Just really looking at our own mind and feeling peaceful about leaving this life. Or are there things that we somehow feel guilty about? Guilt certainly isn’t a virtuous mental state. Have we been able to resolve the things that we feel guilty about, and let go of the guilt itself? Let’s do something with our guilt so that at the time of death we don’t torture ourselves with this useless emotion. Just feeling guilty and beating ourselves up, it’s not a virtuous state of mind. But we so often fall prey to it and it’s very habitual. Are we able to do something with it?

In this meditation of imagining our death we think about these things. You get the diagnosis and who are you going to talk to? Who are you going to tell? How are you going to deal with the things that are happening?

How are we going to feel losing our bodily strength and losing our bodily function? One time when you do the meditation you think, “I have a cancer diagnosis so there’s going to be some time here to die. But how am I going to feel when it gets to the point where I can’t walk?” Because we are very independent people, aren’t we? We like managing our own lives, we like taking care of ourselves. There’s this feeling, “We have a body and we’re in control of our body and we can manage it.” Well, how are we going to feel when we can’t do this? Are we going to be able to accept other people’s help gracefully? If we get to the point where we’re peeing and pooping in a diaper, are we going to feel okay about our friends or our relatives changing our diaper? Are we going to be able to be kind to these people? Are we going to feel humiliated? Are we going to be angry because our body is losing energy and we feel it’s unfair?

I often think about this—especially about athletes, people who are very attached to their physical strength. Then when they age and their body doesn’t work? It must be very hard because so much of the ego identity is, “I’m independent, I’m a good athlete, I can control my life.” Then here you are and you can’t. I remember one young man who I was helping to care for as he was dying. He was dying at home and he couldn’t even walk to the bathroom, his family had to carry him. He was big and his sisters had to carry him to the bathroom, undress him so he could pee and poop and then carry him back to the bed. How do you feel? How are you going to feel when that happens? Or when other people have to bathe us? We can’t even bathe ourselves. Or we can’t speak? We have ideas or thoughts but we don’t have the energy to speak or our voice won’t work. How are we going to feel about that, our body abandoning us and losing strength?

What’s even scarier is how are we going to feel when our mind gets confused? Think about times when we’re sick in this life—we just have a cold. Is it easy to practice Dharma when we have a cold? Small head cold: “Oh, I can’t practice Dharma because I can’t think straight.” Or we get the flu. You know how when you get the flu, how your mind gets a little weird? Or like when you’re falling asleep, how sometimes your mind gets weird? What are we going to do as we’re dying and we’re taking different medicines? Or even if we aren’t taking medicines, just the course of deterioration of our body and our mind starts getting confused? We can’t tell one thing from another. We can’t express ourselves. What are we going to do then? Are we going to be okay, knowing that our minds are confused? Are we even going to be able to take refuge at that point?

Audience: Often we get humbled by that thought because I think, “I’ll be ready to die.” But then I try to do a practice of every morning as soon as I wake up, to just even mentally just recite the refuge prayer. Not even after the second time, if I’m doing it three times; the second time all of a sudden my mind had already drifted off somewhere else. I couldn’t even complete three verses.

VTC: Yes, that’s it. It’s very humbling isn’t it?

Audience: Just thinking about being deliriously dying—how much am I even going to try and bring these things to mind?

VTC: Exactly! Are we going to be able to focus our mind when we die? And especially as the body’s losing energy, and the different elements of the body are absorbing and that affects the mental state. Are we going to be able to practice at that time? One person from Seattle just wrote me, she was in a car accident. She didn’t see the accident coming because she was reading at the time. She said her first reaction when things smashed was, “Oh, beep, beep, beep, beep.” She just got really mad and she started swearing. That really shook her up because she said, “Wow, what happens if I get in an accident and I’m dying, or even I don’t get in an accident, if my mind so quickly gets upset like that.” She got quite nervous about that. This is stuff to think about and really imagine ourselves in these situations and see.

There are a few points of doing this meditation. One is that we might realize that the sense of a big me—who’s in charge and can handle everything, is a total delusion. When we start to check up and really be honest about it, we begin to see, “No, I’m not going to be able to handle this.” Then to use that humbling experience by saying, “But I want to be able to handle it—and the way to be able to handle it is through practicing the Dharma right now.” Use that as something to encourage us and push us along to practice. So that at the times when we get lazy and we say, “Ahh, I’ll do it later,” on and on. To be able to think about this and say, “No, I really have to practice now because I don’t know when death is going to come.” So we use that humbling experience, again, not to feel bad about ourselves but to encourage ourselves to really use our potential.

A second thing when we’re doing this meditation happens when we may realize that we’re not going to have it totally together when we die. So start to think, “Well, how could I think? Or how could I practice when this happens?” Imagine various scenarios and take out the Dharma teachings that we’ve had so far and try them on. Imagine, “What would happen if I shifted my mind to think like this in this situation?”

For example, and this wasn’t in a meditation, it’s a true story but it serves the purpose. I was leading a retreat and I was talking about this meditation of imagining our death. One woman raised her hand and she said, “Well, this is kind of what happened to me as I wasn’t feeling well. I went in and they did some tests and the doctor came and told me that I had a terminal thing. I really started to freak out about it.” She was young, she was in her twenties. And she said, “Then I thought, ‘What would His Holiness the Dalai Lama do? In this situation, what would His Holiness do?’” What came to her is, “Just be kind.” Then she said, “Okay, you know, if I’ve got to go through this illness and this and that, I’ve just got to be kind. Be kind to my family, be kind to the hospital staff, be kind to the nurses and the technicians and the doctors. Just be kind instead of getting into my own self-centered fear and my own trips.” Once she thought about “Just be kind,” and her attention focused/switched to others, she said that her mind became peaceful. This is how she handled it. As it turned out it was a wrong diagnosis, but it sure freaked her out—and she learned something very important.

Similarly, when we’re doing this meditation and we’re imagining our death—we’re looking quite honestly. We look at what kind of emotions come up in our mind when we hear about our death, or hear about our diagnosis, or when our body’s losing strength, or when we’re really nearing death. Imagine being near death and we hear everybody talking in the hospital room, “Oh, look at her, she’s looks like she’s having a hard time letting go.” And you’re saying, “No I’m not!!” But you can’t tell them that they’re wrong.

Think of these kinds of things and consider, “How am I going to practice? How am I going to practice when I hear folks whispering in the hospital room—and they say something about me that’s not true but I can’t express myself.” Or, “How am I going to practice? Here I am. I can feel my body losing energy. People have to help me take care of basic body functions and I feel really uncomfortable with this.” What do I need to practice to change my mind so that I can allow this to happen gracefully? How can I practice now so that I don’t feel ashamed or uncomfortable or helpless or hopeless? How can I allow other people to take care of me in a graceful way so that they feel comfortable and I feel comfortable?

Or consider, “How can I deal with not only my fears about dying but my parents’ fears of my dying, or my friends’ fears of my dying.” Or, “How am I going to feel if all of a sudden my friends walk away because they can’t handle it? All these people who I thought were very good friends all of a sudden are avoiding me.” Or, “How am I going to feel if I just want some time to be left alone and all these people are coming to see me with all their trivial conversation. How am I going to handle that?” Think of Dharma remedies. Watch your own mind.

How are we going to feel in that situation where people are talking trivial stuff around us? We might feel angry. Well, how am I going to deal with my anger when that happens? Use this meditation as a way of trying to imagine and to be honest about the possible internal attitudes and emotions that could come up. Then apply the Dharma to handling them. The benefit of doing this is that then we get some training and practice. When the time actually does come to die, then we have some practice to fall back on.

Audience: What do you think? We hear these stories of great practitioners who die gracefully and meditate and things like that. The fact that they’re able to die and have their mental faculties intact enough to do these things, is that a result of practice? If someone is dying and their mind is so clouded that they can’t practice, is that that simply karma? Illness is a karma. The type of illness is a result of that. Everything else is linked … [inaudible]

VTC: The illness and the kinds of things that come up in our mind are definitively conditioned phenomena. Karma certainly plays a part in that. In terms of the practitioners who have a clear mind, I think that’s definitively a result of their good practice, and of having some level of concentration. It’s also probably a result of enough good karma so that their mind also doesn’t deteriorate at the time that they’re dying. Now other people might have a very clear mind when they’re healthy but when their body gets sick? It’s very natural that when the body’s sick, the mind just doesn’t think so clearly. That’s a natural phenomenon. Karma probably plays an element in that but also just the physical relationship between body and mind does.

Audience: In the last couple years of Ajahn Buddhadasa’s life, he had a number of strokes. Some of them were minor. But in about the last six months especially, he died at the end of May, and one stroke he had around January or February which was pretty heavy. Throughout that he was still able to be alert. His ability to speak was impaired for awhile, but his recovery for his age was three to four times faster than most people. At the end of his life, the doctor’s estimated he had lost about 40% of his neocortex due to strokes. He could still give Dhamma talks and was pretty lucid. He lost a little bit of his vocabulary and parts of memory. It’s like he would get knocked down and his ability to spring back was quite impressive. And he did things like after the one major stroke he had a monk just read all the basic Dhamma books that young Thai monks read and memorize. He re-memorized that stuff at the age of 83. After he went through that he had this monk read back some of his own books and at least 500 page transcripts of lectures. You could see impacts and a capacity to spring back that was impressive.

VTC: It sounds like a kind of self-acceptance too, where he wasn’t railing and upset and angry about what was happening to him.

Audience: Before that he had had some heart attacks and his health had been poor since about his mid-60s. Although it’s impossible to see inside, he seemed to have accepted death. He could joke about it and it wasn’t a kind of nervous joking. It was a kind of open humor. Like he had diabetes for a week—that was interesting. His blood sugar went way off the scale and a week or two later it was no big deal. He would kind of smile and make little comments. But just to go back to the point, his concentration abilities were quite strong. He had established a very good mindfulness practice so that kind of momentum of mindfulness and alertness seemed to carry through, and then the ability to concentrate. He could use what resources were left to the best of his abilities even as the body was clearly falling apart.

VTC: And the lack of discouragement over his physical condition…

Audience: He had for a long time felt since the Buddha had died at 80 he had no business living beyond 80 years old. In some ways it was a relief. He seriously thought it was a little embarrassing to outlive the Buddha.

VTC: Just spend a few minutes doing some meditation now.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.