Reflections on Death from Tsoknyi Rinpoche

by | Death and Dying

In this interview which is taken from the book, “Preparing to Die: Practical Advice and Spiritual Wisdom from the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition” by Tsoknyi Rinpoche.  These reflections on death from Tsoknyi Rinpoche offer what to do for yourself and others to spiritually prepare for death and what to do for loved ones after death.

What is the best thing a student can do before death?  Reflections on Death Tsoknyi Rinpoche

“Refresh the teachings.  Whatever you have received, go through your database of teachings and refresh it.  There are a lot of teachings, but try to capture the essential points of what you have received.  The main points are to be detached, and to refresh your recognition of the nature of mind.”

What is the best meditation to do before death?

[This being a phone interview, Rinpoche heard “medication” instead of “meditation,” to which he replied:]  “It’s best to have medications that reduce the pain, but that don’t interfere too much with cognitive functions, that allow the person as much mental clarity as possible.  [After clarifying the question, Rinpoche continued:]  For older students, find the nature of mind, which is mind beyond death and dying.  This mind doesn’t die.  Find that mind and rest there.  For newer students, they can rest in meditation.  Mostly it depends on each person, according to their belief, to create some hope.  It’s okay to connect to your own belief to find some peace.”

What is the best thing to do when someone is actually dying?

“There are several options here.  One option is that if you have a yidam [meditation deity], you can grab onto that.  By doing so, the yidam binds your mind.[1] Again, whatever is happening, whatever is dissolving, the best thing is to maintain the unborn mind, the recognition of the nature of mind.  Don’t be afraid of the dissolution.  Things may be dissolving, but you are resting in the nature of mind which is beyond dissolution and death.”  

What’s the best thing for sangha to do to help the dying person?

“If you know the person’s yidam, that is very good.  Invoke the mind of the yidam, and mix your mind, the mind of the dying person, and the mind of the yidam together — then rest in the nature of mind.  That is a very big support for the one who is dying.  [I asked Rinpoche if the sangha should do the yidam practice along with the dying person, and he said yes.]  If the helping person is familiar and understands yidam practice, then they can remind them of the qualities of the yidam.  It is also helpful to recite the mantra of the yidam.  The dying person can recite it, and sangha at the side of the person can recite it with them.  Think of the person’s mind, the mind of the yidam, and your nature of mind, mingled together.  Rest in that state.  That is very helpful.  It is also good to read Vajra songs and dohas of fearlessness.  Beginner practitioners can also do this.  Read teachings on Mahamudra, Dzogchen, and other inspiring readings, along with the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The helping person has to have some kind of intuition, and be able to adjust according to the person who is dying.  If they are Christian, say something to connect them to God.  If they are Buddhist, then say something to help them connect to the underlying mind.  If they are a free thinker, then help them connect with the peace in their mind, and to let go of fear.  You have to see and understand the person in order to know how to best say: relax, let it go.

Provide what gives them hope beyond life – whether it’s God, the Pure Lands, or the undying and unchanging mind.  Most importantly, the helping person needs to use their intuition and wisdom to properly convey what they understand, and to match the belief of the dying person.”

What’s the best thing to do when someone wakes up in the bardo after death?

“The first thing is for you to recognize that you are dead.  Secondly, you should know that all the phenomena that you are experiencing now are bardo phenomena.  Know that everything is the expression of your own mind.  Think to yourself: “I’m not going to go crazy with the expressions of my mind.  I’m going to try to find the nature of my own mind, which is beyond the delusion.”  Everything that is happening is the expression of your mind.  It is better not to get caught up in that expression, but to capture the royal seat of the nature of mind.”

What is the best thing that sangha can do to support someone after they have died?

“In a general way, every week you can do practices for them, because every week they have a chance to change their life, to change the course of their bardo experience.  The most important thing for changing in the bardo is to know that they have lived their life properly, and can therefore let go of that life with confidence.  On those days, you can do more pujas or prayers, or you can go through the The Tibetan Book of the Dead, day-by-day.  If you can read it in the house where they lived, where they spent the most time, that is best, because they usually come back to familiar places.  They will probably not recognize that they are dead, so when they come back and hear the reading, they may recognize or remember that they are dead, and then they may click onto some good things – like remembering the teachings and what they should do.”

Any final comments Rinpoche, if you were at the side of someone who was dying?

“Two things.  First, if they are willing to hear your advice, then give them hope.  Tell them that the relative is dying, the ultimate is not dying.  Give them hope that they can recognize the ultimate, the nature of their mind, the mind that is unchanging and undying.  You have to give a little promotion on the deathless side.  Secondly, then the phenomena of this life that they are leaving, that they used properly – just let it go.”

What is the role of Pure Land teachings for students in the West?

“It depends on the student.  In Tibet they have a very strong belief and trust that the Pure Land is there, so they have hope to be reborn there.  It’s case-by-case.  I can’t tell someone who has spent their entire life not believing in Pure Lands to suddenly start to believe in them at the time of their death.  That’s very hard to do.

But Western practitioners tend to believe in the nature of mind as something special, so make that the doorway.”

[1] “Yidam” is sometimes translated as “binding deity” — using the visualization of a deity to bind you to your innate awakened nature.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche is widely recognized as a brilliant meditation teacher, is the author of three books, Open Heart, Open Mind, Carefree Dignity, and Fearless Simplicity, and has a keen interest in the ongoing dialogue between western research, especially in neuroscience, and Buddhist practitioners and scholars.

Related reading What  is the Best Way to Prepare for Death: Advice from 8 Buddhist Masters




[1] “Yidam” is sometimes translated as “binding deity” — using the visualization of a deity to bind you to your innate awakened nature.