Death and refuge

Stages of the Path #29: Death and impermanence, Part 7

Part of a series of Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks on the Stages of the Path (or lamrim) as described in the Guru Puja text by Panchen Lama I Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen.

  • How thinking about death leads us to taking refuge
  • Making life meaningful

We finished talking about impermanence and death. When we think that we’re going to die, and we don’t know when, and when we die our karma and our habits come with us, but not body, possessions, or friends and relatives. (When we think about that) then it naturally leads us into thinking about refuge.

It leads us in two ways to thinking about refuge. One is (this on is not specifically in the lamrim) when you see you’re going to die, and that what you’ve been putting your energy into is kind of meaningless in terms of future lives, then it seems to me you automatically seek a method to make your life meaningful, so you take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha because they teach the method to make the life meaningful. You could go directly from death and impermanence to refuge.

In the lamrim you go from death and impermanence to the possibility of being born in the lower realms. That is because if you’re going to die then the natural question is, “Where am I going to be reborn?” Then you look at the karma you’ve created and there’s a good chance it’s going to be a bad rebirth. Then you get quite concerned about that, and that concern makes you take refuge.

I think you could go either route: directly from death to refuge. But that’s my thinking, that’s not in the lamrim. The lamrim has you go through the lower realms.

I think if you can do both it becomes more powerful. If you think about the possibility of a bad rebirth you get concerned, and that can be very potent in telling us to get off our tush and do something. Not just kind of, manana a la manana, but we have to do something urgently, and we have to do something strongly, because otherwise we’ll wind up in the lower realms. That can be a very strong motivator. Stronger than just going directly from death to refuge.

But I think if you go from death to refuge in addition, then that has the effect of really thinking, “I want to make my life meaningful.” Of course, avoiding a bad rebirth is a way of making your life meaningful, but putting it as “I want t make my life meaningful” puts it in a different language, and affects our minds a little bit differently. Because then we think of “THIS life I want to make my life meaningful.” Plus next life I don’t want to be reborn in the lower realms. Therefore in this life I need to do something strongly.

I think both ways of doing it make the intensity of turning to the Three Jewels for refuge, and then following their first advice which is to get our act together in terms of the karma—the actions we do. It makes that whole process much more powerful for us.

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.