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Death and the intermediate state

Death and the intermediate state

The text turns to training the mind on the stages of the path shared with intermediate level practitioners. Part of a series of teachings on the Gomchen Lamrim by Gomchen Ngawang Drakpa. Visit Gomchen Lamrim Study Guide for a full list of contemplation points for the series.

  • The factors of death—what makes us die
  • The mind at death—virtuous, nonvirtuous, or neutral
  • Training the mind to monitor our thoughts will benefit at death
  • How you reach the intermediate state after death
  • The length of time one remains in the intermediate state

Gomchen Lamrim 52: Death and the intermediate state (download)

Contemplation points

This week, we looked at what causes death, how the thoughts we have at the time of death influence our experience at the time of death as well as the rebirth we take, and what happens in the intermediate state (bardo).

A student asked a question at the end of the teaching about how understanding this process influences how we practice day to day. In response to his question, Venerable Chodron said that the point of this section of the lamrim is not to get lost in the details of the death process, but to fuel our renunciation. Let’s contemplate the teachings with that in mind:

  1. Consider the three factors of death (exhaustion of lifespan, exhaustion of merit, and death from failing to avoid danger) in light of people you know who have died. Which of these factors was at play? Venerable Chodron said we have this idea that we will live a long time and that we’ll have the opportunity to plan our death. With these three factors in mind, and getting a sense of the reality around how others have died, cultivate a feeling of the instability of samsara… that karma can ripen at any time that could lead to your own death.
  2. Consider the powerful influence that our state of mind has at the time of death. We can die with a virtuous mind, a non-virtuous mind, or a neutral mind. We like to think that we’ll think of the Dharma, cultivating a virtuous mind, at the time of death, but the truth is our mind will quite naturally default to the kinds of thoughts we habituated during our life. Do you naturally rest in a virtuous state of mind? Or does your mind have a long list of complaints, attachments, and resentments? When something suddenly doesn’t go your way, do you let go or do you get angry and resist? You are creating those habits right now, making it critical that you vigilantly watch your mind, cutting afflictions as soon as they arise and turning the mind towards virtue. Resolve to devote great effort towards this end.
  3. Consider the process of transitioning to the next life in the bardo. We are reborn and die, going through this process again and again and again. We leave our bodies, our possessions, and our loved ones again and again and again. We start over with nothing but our karma again and again and again, struggling to survive, clinging after our objects of attachment again and again and again. Do you feel exhausted at the thought of this painful cycle of existence? Resolve to abandon the causes for it and to cultivate the path that leads to liberation from it.
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.