Life and death are critically important to everyone because they are destiny. No one can reject or avoid suffering associated with birth, aging, sickness, death and real life. Mustering up enough courage to face it is the only way.

When facing death, all the worldly wealth, knowledge, experience and so forth are rendered useless. Without prior training in preparation for one’s mortality, every person, however prominent his or her status in life is, will panic in the face of death. Many people become extremely pessimistic and despaired, turning gray-faced and gaunt in no time, after being diagnosed with advanced cancer and given the verdict of death by the doctors. Very often their fear is more detrimental to their condition than cancer itself.

Most people just feel helpless about how to face death. If the whole process of death can be transformed into a joyful and meaningful journey of liberation, then there is no need to feel anxious and doomed.

Here, we will discuss the part about how to face death in the Tibetan text Bardo Tödröl or Liberation through Hearing during the Intermediate State. Due to the fact that Bardo Tödröl is a Dzogchen text, one must receive Dzogchen empowerment and complete the five preliminary practices beforehand in order to make in-depth study of the text. Otherwise, it is considered a violation of the sequence of learning the esoteric teachings of Vajrayana when giving the teachings to someone unqualified. Not only that this is a fault, but also the teachings cannot benefit anyone not meeting the requirement. Therefore, the special practices of Vajrayana in this text will not be discussed here.

It is presented in Bardo Tödröl two types of method to face death: one is how to face death personally; the other is how to help others face death, such as reciting scriptures or mantras at the time of death or practicing the transference of consciousness, a post-mortem ritual, which, like the hospice care service in the West, are particularly helpful for the terminally ill patients. The instructions given in Bardo Tödröl are not available anywhere in the regular studies except in Tibetan medicine where they are somewhat mentioned.

I.To face death right

To know death correctly can help us overcome fear, anxiety and evasion when death is mentioned because we already know that death is only a part of the cyclic process of life, not the end. There is no need to feel disheartened and pessimistic when facing death. On the contrary, we may even be able to elevate our life to a different level when in death if we know how to make use of the opportunity.

From death to rebirth, there are at least more than a few chances for a person to obtain liberation, attain Buddhahood or be reborn in Sukhāvatī (pure land of Amitabha) if one has grasped the pith instructions on death. Short of attaining Buddhahood or being reborn in Amitabha’s pure land, by applying the pith instructions on death, one can also freely choose to be reborn in the human realm, having a life endowed with freedom and leisure to practice the Dharma and ultimately gain liberation. Having grasped the pith instructions, one is no longer just at the mercy of past karmic force when taking rebirth. Absent this knowledge, one will miss all the opportunities to be free from the control of karmic force time and time again. It is therefore crucial to learn the pith instructions on death.

i. Premonitory symptoms of death

First of all, how does one know he or she is dying? Premonitory symptoms of death have been mentioned in many Dzogchen texts. Among them, a lucid explanation is presented in Longchenpa’s The Seminal Quintessence of the Spiritual Master.

Premonitory symptoms come in many types: psychological, physical, dreaming, distant, near, very near, etc. When a distant symptom appears, a person will die in two to three years time. Some symptoms indicate a person may die in one year, six months or a few months while some others within a few days. However, we normally don’t pay any attention to these premonitions because we don’t know they are signs of death.

The nearest symptoms indicate a person will die in a couple of hours or less than 20 hours after such signs appear. For example, when eyes can still see but the vision is blurring; ears can hear but the sound is faint, as if it comes from very far away. When these happen, one should know that death is already very near.

But when a distant symptom is recognized, one cannot just use Phowa practice to reach death directly as it would amount to killing a life. What should be done is to engage in Amitayus long life practice to turn away death temporarily. If this fails to avert death after repeated attempts, one should take the following measures.

It is said in Bardo Tödröl that a good practitioner would know the time of his or her own death. Naturally, those who don’t practice have no way of knowing this. Being students of Buddhadharma, we ought to tell the doctor this, “Please tell me truthfully if I can’t be cured. I will not be afraid as I am a practitioner and I need to prepare myself for dying in advance.” If the doctor still withholds the truth, then observe the attitude of people around.

ii. The key points for facing death in exoteric Mahayana Buddhism

1. Let go of attachment to the worldly wealth of this life

Give away all your properties and belongings to do good deeds, either donate to charity schools, social welfare organizations, or make offering to the buddhas and sanghas, release live beings, etc. It is also fine to leave a portion to your offspring. Albeit not the best kind, it is still considered a type of giving after all. Just don’t get attached or be reluctant to give up anything or anybody. Even just a tiny bit of attachment can become a hindrance to rebirth.

2. Do not fear death and generate virtuous aspirations

Be sure to tell yourself, “Being separated from beloved family members forever is indeed a huge blow, but living and dying, joy and sorrow, separation and gathering of sentient beings are nothing but the natural law of life. All seven billion people in the world will face death at some point. I’m not the only one.” By thinking this way, you will not feel too distraught with your own death.

Normally, one ought to strive to repent past unwholesome deeds, but when nearing death, one should not take one’s evil karma too seriously, worrying and regretting so much that one loses focus on the crucial practice at hand. This would be a big problem otherwise. Instead, one should think to oneself this way: although I have committed serious misdeeds, I have also done many good things so that most of the faults should have been cleansed already; it can’t be too bad. It is important to treat one’s evil karma rather lightly at this point in order to quiet the mind and face death calmly.

Additionally, one should make a vow according to the teaching of Seven Points of Mind Training: May I come upon Mahayana Buddhism, meet a good spiritual friend who can explain to me the teachings of the Great Vehicle and arouse bodhicitta in all the lives to come.

Any thought held on deathbed can exert a crucial effect on death. Any aspiration made before death commands great power as well. Thus, do your best to generate virtuous aspirations when death is near. Make sure not to harbor any hatred or complaint toward anyone, anything, or the society as a whole. Lay down all your bags of desire, anger and delusion, and go on a brand new journey of life with total ease. It will be hard to say, however, whether one can encounter Mahayana teachings again in the next life if such aspiration is not generated near the end of this life.

3. Break down self-grasping and self-cherishing

At the same time, one should also ponder the reason why having gone through countless times of life and death since time immemorial, one fails to gain liberation every single time. One toils hard over the few decades of living in this world, only realizing at the end of life that none of life’s work is helpful toward a person’s liberation and rebirth. And the reason for the countless failures is none other than self-grasping. Due to self-grasping and self-cherishing, one only loves oneself, is interested in serving just oneself and disregards the needs and feelings of other beings. This time, with the pith instructions on death finally in hand, one must resolve to destroy self-grasping and self-cherishing.

4. The power of induction

There are quite a few cases using the power of induction in daily life. For example, if you must get up at five o’clock in the morning the next day, when you’re about to fall asleep, you resolve to do that by repeatedly telling yourself, “I must wake up at five tomorrow morning.” This way you can be sure to get up on time the next day.

Arhats also do the same before entering into deep concentration. If they prepare to remain in deep concentration for seven days, they will make a vow right before that: I must emerge from the meditation on the seventh day. Doing this will ensure that they can end the meditation naturally on that day. This is the power of induction.

It can also be used when facing death. Upon knowing that you are about to leave this world and enter into death, you must remind yourself: In a while, I will enter into a deep coma and then wake up from it. When I wake up and see the surroundings, I must tell myself that I am already dead. At this point, I must not be frightened but try to look for a better place to be reborn. I must also resolve not to forget compassion and bodhicitta when taking rebirth and to bring compassion and bodhicitta with me to the next life.

Our mind already has such capability. So we should do all we can to develop this capability. This is the power of induction to be used at time of dying.

5. Need to visualize the deities in the course of dying

iii. The key points for facing death in Vajrayana Buddhism

In Vajrayana, there are two methods that are the best for facing death: one is the Phowa practice, the other is the special pith instructions of Secret Mantra.

If possible, it would be ideal to invite one’s own master to come over and explain what may happen when going through death and the important points to keep in mind. This is common practice in Tibet. Upon hearing that someone is going to die soon, the master will set out immediately to go to that person. It is best to reach that person before death to give all the crucial instructions in time for the dying person to use soon after. The result may not be as good if the person dies before the master’s arrival. If the master is not able to come, ask an experienced Vajrayana practitioner who is close to the dying person to do the same; if this is not possible, it is just as good to ask a Vajrayana practitioner who keeps relatively pure samaya to give reminders to the dying person.

II.The specifics to be done for the dying:

1. Transmit precepts and give empowerment

If the dying person has never received any precepts before, either precept for taking refuge or that of lay practitioners, transmit whichever is needed. If the precepts received before have somehow been broken, now is the time to restore them. In Tibet, when a person is about to die and if time permits, the dying person must be given the chance to receive empowerment. If empowerment is received at time of dying, there will be no chance of breaking the Vajrayana vows. Hence the precept will be kept pure when the person is leaving this world, which can favorably influence the direction of rebirth to the next life. It is therefore critically important to be able to receive precepts and empowerment at time of dying.

2. Repent

Now is also the time to have the master or dharma friends guide the dying person to repent the unwholesome deeds committed. Even if the person is no longer able to speak or kowtow to show regrets, just holding a sense of remorse in mind is enough to purify past misdeeds.

3. Let go

Make sure to remind the dying: do not miss, complain or hate this world. Everything is finished. All will be left behind and all relationships ended. You should focus all your attention on the big questions of how to face death, how to take rebirth and how to meet the next life. Let go of all entanglements of this life and go without any burden!

There is a specific sadhana for the intermediate state, of which the content is just what we have discussed here. If this sadhana is available, all one needs to do is to read it to the dying person.

4. Posture

The posture that one takes at time of death is quite important. When dying, one should keep the same lying position as that of Sakyamuni Buddha when he went into parinirvana—head to the north, feet south, lying on the right side of the body, placing right hand under the head, pressing the right nostril with the right little finger and breathing through the left nostril. It is said in the scriptures that when lying on the right side of the body, breathing will naturally go through the left nostril. Nevertheless, it is still important to block the right nostril. Whether being Buddhist or not, by taking the right posture when dying, one can be sure not to take rebirth in the three lower realms for the next one or two lives, even without the help of any other transference ritual.

It is rather rare to see the lying Buddha being worshipped in either Tibetan or Chinese Buddhism. However, Theravada Buddhism holds that parinirvana of the Buddha represents the ultimate state that can possibly be attained. Hence, the statue of the lying Buddha, which signifies the Buddha’s parinirvana, is commonly seen in the temples of Southern Buddhism such as those in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. This interpretation is not incorrect as the Buddha never really dies.

If no one is available to give reminders and one has to rely on oneself to navigate the passage of rebirth, the first thing one should do is to be penitent and give up all desires and animosity toward this world. While one is still capable of speech, be sure to tell family members to lay one on one’s right side when dying. To all people alike, death is more critical than birth so that the wishes of the dying really should be honored by all concerned.

5. Phowa practice

The practice includes the phowa of the dharmakāya, sambhogakāya and nirmāṇakāya. As the ones related to dharmakāya and sambhogakāya are the same as that presented in A Guide to the Dzogchen Preliminary Practices, they won’t be discussed here. The phowa of the nirmāṇakāya is common for both the exoteric and the esoteric schools of Buddhism.

After lying down on the right side, one should place in the front an image of Sakyamuni Buddha, Chenrezig, Padmasambhava or one’s own root guru. Practitioners of Pure Land should place that of Amitabha while those who have done yidam practice should use the image of the yidam. At the same time, family members should help prepare offerings to the deities. If no image of the deity can be found, visualization by the dying person is also acceptable.

Then generate aspiration: In order to deliver all sentient beings, may I with this death attain the nirmāṇakāya, be the heir to the Buddhas of the three times and continue the activities of benefitting sentient beings forever.

Subsequently, visualize one’s own consciousness as a white dot (a point of light) touched with a tinge of red below the navel. As one pulls air up from the abdomen with some force, the dot also moves up along the central channel. When it reaches the left nostril, one exclaims, “Ho!” and immediately pushes out the consciousness from the left nostril, which dissolves into the heart of the yidam or one’s root guru who is placed in the front; the dot is not retrieved. It is also practicable to visualize the guru or the deities flying higher and higher to the Pure Land of the West, taking along one’s consciousness. To visualize this just once cannot ensure the chance of being reborn in the Pure Land of the West. But one can be sure to succeed if the visualization is practiced enough times.

The method of visualizing consciousness getting out from the left nostril is primarily for those who have cultivated certain virtuous root but whose practice is still somewhat lagging. It is not a method for attaining liberation but only for being reborn in the human realm so as to continue Dharma practice until finally obtaining liberation.

For the deceased, it is critically important where consciousness leaves the body at the end. The principle of Phowa practice is such that consciousness must go through the central channel and out from the center of the vertex in order to gain liberation and be reborn in a pure Buddha field.

The mark of a successful Phowa is that after death, there is visible hair loss, a bump or some yellow liquid seeping around the vertex. These marks serve as proof of successful rebirth. If these symptoms are present, the subsequent guide for the practice of the intermediate state will no longer be needed. If not, the guru or dharma friends will need to provide guide for the practice of the intermediate state.

6. Guide for the practice of the intermediate state

First of all, next to the ear of the dying person, call out his or her name three times. Then say, “so-and-so, you must pay full attention to what I’m saying. You are dying, but don’t be afraid because death is only a periodic phenomenon of life. You should face each juncture of death based on what I tell you.”

When assisting in recitation for the dying, one should speak loudly and repeatedly to the ear of the dying person about the process of the intermediate state and the way to practice it. The voice should be as loud as possible because all the sense organs of the dying person are about to stop functioning. If the voice is too low or too far, it may not be heard. We can also imitate some masters in the past who spoke through a pipe attached to the dying person’s ear. The purpose of doing this is perhaps on the one hand to make sure the instructions can be heard and, on the other hand, to prevent casual spectators from hearing these instructions and safeguard the secrecy of Dzogchen practices.

In the old days, the transmission of Dzogchen was strictly controlled. It was always done on a one-on-one basis and never more than seven or eight people at a time. The transmission was also conducted by whispering through a pipe into the ears of the receiver – hence called whispered-ear transmission.

It is as if a king or a person with authority orders someone to hand-deliver a message. The messenger will do everything he or she can to deliver the message to the right place or the right person without fail. In the case of Phowa, the dying person at the juncture of life and death will surely listen carefully and follow the instructions on the passage of the intermediate state and how to face it.

7. The way to take rebirth in emergency

When encountering sudden situations like earthquake, tsunami, or car accident, one should use a short cut to ensure rebirth in pure land: Visualize the Buddha, bodhisattvas and one’s guru sitting atop one’s head, and concentrate all attention on the vertex. This simple method, also the easiest, can help you achieve a good rebirth.

It is common knowledge for students of Vajrayana or ordinary Tibetan people to call out to Padmasambhava, Buddha Sakyamuni, or their own guru whenever they are scared, even when they are unconscious. This is a very simple habit that can also engender much benefit, so we should do likewise. For example, one can make it a habit to call and to pray to Amitabha whenever convenient so that when a critical moment comes, the mind will go to Amitabha instinctively.

On the other hand, a better way for practitioners to continue to the next new life is through training in meditation.

We should neither be scared of nor ignore death. Abandon these two extremes but face death with a calm and peaceful mindset instead, and strive to elevate our own life to a different level in the course of death.

III. Key points about chanting for the dead

Buddhists should have team spirit, helping and caring for one another. To offer prayer chanting at the time of death is the last and the best help of its kind.

Nowadays, some Buddhist groups are also promoting this idea and have teams set up to do the chanting specifically. It is a useful and needed service for everyone. We should all respond positively to this activity.

1. Criteria for the chanters

There are three criteria for people doing the chanting:

a) The chanting should be done out of loving-kindness and compassion instead of flaunting one’s own ability to communicate with Amitabha, to assist the deceased to be reborn in pure land, or any such intention to prove one’s superiority. It is simply wrong to perform chanting with arrogance or the intent to show off. Moreover, during the course of the death rites, one must repeatedly remind oneself to generate loving-kindness and compassion, even contrived generation is acceptable because absent loving-kindness and compassion, there is no way to help the deceased take an auspicious rebirth. This is a very important point to note.

b) One must firmly believe that both the sadhana and the rites performed have the power to guide the deceased to an auspicious rebirth. Otherwise, how can the deceased benefit from these actions when even the performer has doubts?

c) In the course of chanting for the dead, one must pray with pure faith to Amitabha, the Medicine Buddha, Buddha Sakyamuni, or other buddhas to come take the deceased to Amitabha’s pure land. Visualize the consciousness of the deceased leaving his or her body and entering into the heart of Amitabha. Be sure to concentrate fully on the visualization from beginning to end.

It is stated very clearly in the scriptures that beings in the intermediate state are endowed with paranormal power which enables them to read the minds of those performing the death rites. If those people are scatter-brained, lethargic, or worse, filled with greed, anger and delusion, the intermediate beings will form an aversion toward them as a result. And such aversion will cause the intermediate beings to be reborn in the hell realm. It is therefore so critical to have loving-kindness and compassion when performing chanting for the dead. Moreover, it should be done with keen attention, not superficially or inattentively.

The point is that being unmindful while in sitting meditation affects just one’s own practice, but it will cast a negative effect on other people when chanting for the dead.

As long as these three criteria are satisfied, people are qualified to be members of the chanting group even if they don’t have any other merit from Dharma practice. However, if someone has violated root samaya and refused to repent for more than three years, it would be better not to join the chanting group as the negative force associated with breaking root vows does affect others to a certain degree.

2. How to handle the body and the possessions of the dead

If the family agrees, go to the home of the deceased to do chanting; if not, take the body to a temple and do chanting there. If neither works, it would be best to go out of town where other people won’t be disturbed, find a suitable house or room and prepare a simple shrine inside. After completion of chanting, remove the body for cremation.

It is better not to cremate the body in the first three days. If possible, members of the chanting group can take turns to chant the names of the buddhas and their mantras non-stop for three whole days or as much as possible. Cover the body with dharani blanket and drawings of various radial patterns that represent the mandala of the buddhas, which can all be cremated along with the body.

If the deceased wears a locket containing a text of a tantra (takdrol given as liberation through wearing), place this on top of his or her heart center and cremate together with the body. Be sure not to take this for personal use as it is deemed a serious wrongdoing. It is clearly stated in the Dzogchen texts that all the protective objects carried by the deceased must be cremated with the body.

3. The best time to perform chanting for the dead

When a person is about to stop breathing, he or she will exhale deeply but not inhale. This indicates that the person will soon pass away and it would be best to give him or her some blessed nectar pills at this point. If the person can still inhale and exhale, it means death is not imminent, at least not right away. It is said in the tantric texts that as a person stops breathing, blood in the arteries and veins will go to the life vein. When three drops of blood enter the heart successively, the person will exhale deeply once after each drop. Afterwards, breathing will stop completely.

The face of ordinary people who have not done any practice when alive will turn to a bluish color of death right after breathing stops. From the time when vision and hearing cease functioning to the point before breathing stops is the best time to chant and perform Phowa.

4. The way to perform chanting for the dead

When chanting, do not stand by the feet of the deceased because it will lead the person’s focus downward which tends to affect rebirth negatively. As a person is about to stop breathing, one must stand at the crown of the person’s head, which is the north, pulling constantly the hair at the vertex, patting the head lightly and say to the deceased loudly, “Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of great compassion, is on top of your head. Please pray to him wholeheartedly. You are leaving soon. Focus all your attention on the vertex wherefrom you will be leaving.” If a person has been dead for a long time, all these would be useless.

When chanting is done for non-believers, one can recite the name of Buddha Ratnasikhi “Namo Buddha Ratnasikhi” or the various titles of Buddha “Namo Sugata, Sambuddha, the one worthy of offering,…Tathagata Ratnasikhi” because the aspiration of Buddha Ratnasikhi is different from other buddhas. His vow is this: May all beings who have heard my name or titles be freed from the three lowest realms. Therefore, reciting his name garners exceptional meaning.

Besides, chanting the names of Buddha Sakyamuni, Amitabha, the Medicine Buddha and other buddhas as well as the Great Compassion Mantra, the heart mantra of Buddha Akshobhya and others is extremely important for those who are nearing death. These recitations are sure to bless the deceased to take an auspicious rebirth.

If the deceased is a Vajrayana practitioner, he or she should be reminded this way, “so-and-so, in a little while, you will see the mandalas of many buddhas and bodhisattbas as well as many horrific scenes, but they are not external devils but projections, manifestations and the nature of our mind, just like dreams. Don’t be afraid. Don’t miss this world. You should visualize all these angry and terrible faces as Chenrezig or Amitabha; in fact, they are Chenrezig and Amitabha. Then, you should just follow Chenrezig and Amitabha to the Western Pure Land.”

If the dying person is somewhat familiar with the Tibetan Book of the Dead, read the three kinds of Aspiration Prayers for Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State which are available in Wisdom Light, Vol. 7. This is the most useful and powerful text to be used for this occasion. Subsequently, recite three or seven times Karma Chagme’s Aspiration Prayer of Sukhavati, and lastly The Aspiration of Samantabhadra.

In everyday life, when we see in the market or some other places the animals who are about to be killed, we should try to chant the name of Buddha Ratnasikhi to their ears, and make the animals lie on their right side, face to the west, head to the north. This will bring unexpected benefit to the animals. Although non-Buddhists may not understand such actions, they at least would not deem these actions harmful and put a stop to them.

Neither should we think of all these as nonsense, as these were practiced by masters in the past, so there must be reasons for doing so.

We should know that traditional custom of offering flower, bathing and putting on new clothes for the dead only shows our emotional attachment to the deceased. It is not meaningful at all in a real sense because at this point the body of the dead, like a stone or mud, can no longer feel anything. If we want to give the deceased one last meaningful gift for his or her final journey, it is the chanting which is simple and easy to do and of great benefit. If the deceased received some form of training in life and has the help of dharma friends at this critical juncture, he or she will surely be able to take an auspicious rebirth. Do keep this in mind.