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The nine-point death meditation

Part of a series of teachings on the text The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for Lay Practitioners by Je Rinpoche (Lama Tsongkhapa).

  • Review of the points of the meditation
  • Commentary on the third point
    • Possessions and the karma we create to acquire them
    • Friends and relatives and the karma we create in relation to them
    • What comes with us into the next life

The Essence of a Human Life: The nine-point death meditation (download)

Je Rinpoche says,

Think, therefore, upon seeing and hearing of others’ deaths,
“I am no different, death will soon come,
its certainty in no doubt, but no certainty as to when.
I must say farewell to my body, wealth, and friends,
but good and bad deeds will follow like shadows.

This encapsulates the nine-point death meditation. The first major point being that death is definite. It has three sub-points. Then the second major that the time of death is indefinite, which also has three sub-points. And then the third point which is at the time of death our body, possessions, and dear ones stay here, but we only take our karma with us.

I’ve talked about the first two points Today I thought to talk about the last one, because if we really meditate on this last point—what we take with us at the time of death—it really helps us get our priorities very, very clear. Because it helps us think of the karma that we tend to create in relationship to our body, possessions, and friends and relatives. And that karma comes with us, but those objects that we create the karma in relationship to, don’t.

Possessions is the easiest one. In order to get possessions it’s very easy to create a tremendous amount of negative karma. We lie. We fudge on taxes, on fees. We do dirty business deals that we rationalize. We cheat customers, overcharge people. This one of “taking what hasn’t been freely given.” It’s called stealing, but it involves cooking the books, extortion, exploitation, all kinds of wrong livelihood the people do in order to earn a living. Building weapons or chemicals that are used to kill people, and so on. When you look around people, in order to get possessions, engage in some kind of livelihood. Even dealing drugs. It includes all the illegal livelihoods, as well as the “legal” ones that are done illegally. But we create so much negative karma, out of greed and attachment, to get possessions, and yet at the time we die the possessions stay here, the karma comes with us.

When we’re trying to get money to get possessions, to get all the things we want, when we can’t get the money we get angry. When we get the possessions and they’re not as good as we thought they were going to be we get angry. When they don’t make us happy like they were supposed to we get angry. When they break we get angry. A lot of karma also created with respect to anger in relationship to possessions. And yet when we die all the money, all the possessions stay here. And then your friends and relatives have to go through them. And they look at everything that you’ve had, and everything you’ve clung onto, in all your drawers, in all your closets, that you couldn’t bring yourself to give away and share with other sentient beings who need things. And then they take all those things that were so precious to you and they just give them away because most of them they don’t have any use for.

When you think about it it’s a really sad situation that we work so hard to get stuff. We could create a lot of merit by being generous with our stuff. But we can’t bring ourselves to do that because if we give something away we may not have it. So we create karma being stingy. We create negative karma getting the stuff. Then at the end all that karma comes with us, and all the possessions stay here. And they’re totally useless to us. At the time we’re dying, and certainly in our next life, all the possessions now totally useless.

If you’ve ever had the experience of going through the estate of people who have died…. I had this with my parents. You look at all these things that were so precious to them and you think, “Wow, who are they now? What is their mind experiencing now due to the karma they created, yet all this stuff sits here. And what do we do with all of it?” We packed it up and gave it to a charity. It’s kind of sad that you spend your whole life for this, create a lot of negative karma, and then nothing comes of it.

The same thing with friends and relatives. Create so much negative karma out of attachment, and anger, and confusion in relationship to people. I think sometimes much more than we create in relationship to money and possessions. Because we want people to love us, we want them to approve of us. We want their praise, their recommendations, their endorsements. So when we do things they don’t like we lie to them. We put on masks and pretend to be people we aren’t. We talk harshly to them and get angry at them when they say the things we don’t like, because we want to hear sweet, ego-pleasing words and instead they say, “Why don’t you do x,y,z, and why did you do a,b,c.?” Which we don’t want to hear at all.

Out of attachment to them if they want us to do harmful actions we’ll do them. Our friends and relatives want us to lie to cover up their bad deeds, we do it, no problem. I think that’s what they call enabling and co-dependence. But we do it and we think it’s kindness. They got themselves into a pickle so I’ll lie and cover up for them. Or they did something that’s not too cool, I’ll threaten and annoy and bother the people who found out about the bad thing my friend and relative did. We stick by people through thick and thin even when they’re doing negative actions. We won’t say anything to them. But we’ll stick up for them, creating a lot of negative karma in doing so, by lying, and rejoicing in the wrong things, and getting angry at other people who harm our friends and relatives.

And we do all these back-flips to get approval, and so on, and they say their sweet, ego-pleasing words and give us some good reputation, and we feel good for a while, but then it’s like an empty pit inside, mentally, isn’t it? Is the pit inside of us that likes to hear sweet words, does that ever get filled? No! We can hear all the sweet, wonderful words—I love you, you’re fantastic, you’re the best x, y, z, I’m never going to leave you, you’re more dear to me than the other one, on and on and on—does it ever fill that pit of wanting to hear sweet words? Does it ever truly make us feel good about ourselves? No. And yet look at what we do to get those words from other people.

Some people totally give up their Dharma practice to please friends and relatives, and to get those words. Completely give up the Dharma. Then what happens when you die? All the friends and relatives—you have all their approval, you have all the sweet cards (you know, the cards they write you on your birthday and at Christmas that you saved, that you hang up all over your place, so it reminds you of how much you’re loved by all these people….) You have piles and piles of these cards and letters. And emails. And then you die and what happens to all these things? They all go in the trash. Every single one of them.

Again, if you’ve gone through the estate of anybody, do you sit and read all their Christmas cards and lovely emails? No, it’s so boring. You just take them all into the recycle bin. Or press the “delete” button. And yet we spend our whole lives doing this. It consumes so much time. We get angry. We get attached. We get miserly. We won’t be generous because we want to buy our dear ones presents because then they love us more.

I remember when one man came here—this really shocked me—he said he felt his wife loved him more when he earned more money. And I imagine a lot of people feel that way. So you work hard, you spend your time doing all sorts of stuff, get the sweet, ego-pleasing words—never makes us feel totally good about ourselves. And then all that karma comes with us, and all those people stay here.

And to have all those friends and dear ones around you when you’re dying…. Some people see that as a lovely way to go. It’s not what I want. I think that must be so painful. They’re all sitting there crying. “I love you. Don’t die. I can’t live without you, you mean so much….” How are you going to die peacefully watching all these other people be so grief-stricken? You won’t be able to focus on your own process of dying like taking refuge, generating bodhicitta, and so on, because you’re mind’s going to be totally preoccupied, again, with taking care of them, instead of transforming our own mind. And no matter how we try and take care of them they’re still going to be grief-stricken.

Then they have a big funeral for us. Everybody brings flowers, or they don’t bring flowers, they bring cards. They sign a little guest book. “Oh, I never saw so-and-so ever get angry in their life.” That’s what they say about us after we die. When we’re alive? “Why are you always so angry and blaming me for your own stuff?” Have you noticed that? That after people die people only say sweet things. “They were the best one, never saw them get angry, never were greedy and stingy.” When they’re alive? “Nyah nyah nyah.” Yes? And that’s what we do back-flips for, to earn sweet words so that we can die with all that karma?

Really thinking deeply about this, it makes us ask ourselves—I’ll talk more about our body tomorrow, because that’s a whole other issue—but it really makes us think “what is a healthy relationship with possessions and money? What is a healthy relationship with friends and relatives?” Because we have to use possessions, and money functions in the world. But what is a good mental attitude to have towards it? And how can we use that money and possessions to create merit?

Similarly, we’re definitely social animals. Buddhism is not advocating “no friends, no relatives, no connections at all.” How are you going to be a bodhisattva and benefit others if there are no connections? But what does it mean to have a healthy Dharma connection with people so that the relationship benefits them and benefits us, both now in our Dharma practice, but also in future lives, where we can help each other to create virtue and to abandon nonvirtue. Instead of help our dear ones to create nonvirtue and abandon virtue.

So many people ask me when their dear ones die, “What can I do to help them?” And yes, you can do pujas and prayers, but the real way to help them is when they’re alive by teaching them the Dharma, if they’re receptive. If they aren’t receptive, then you teach all your friends and relatives from previous lives, who are all the other sentient beings you see around you. If the friends and relatives of this life aren’t interested then teach the ones from previous lives. They’re all around us. And that’s a way to really repay kindness, and to really benefit each other.

[In response to audience] Definitely, showing the example by ourselves living an ethical lifestyle. And when they want us to do things that aren’t so good, we explain that we aren’t going to engage in that and we explain why.And if we really want to help our friends and relatives encourage them to be generous, instead of saying “Let’s take all the money and go on a cruise that costs 30 thousand dollars, how about if we give some money to charity for people who don’t even have enough to buy food.” Encourage them to be generous. encourage them to keep ethical conduct. When they’re angry about something help them to overcome their anger by looking at the situation in a different way. Instead of joining in on them, “Yes, you’re right, that person really harmed you. Let’s go get him together.” And then we encourage nonvirtue in the people we love. That’s only going to bring them suffering in this life and in future lives.

Please think deeply about this. Review your relationships with money and possessions. Review your relationships with friends and relatives. See where there’s been nonvirtue, think about how to stop that nonvirtue, and how to help yourself and them to create virtue instead.

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.