What Is the Best Way to Prepare for Death?

by | Death and Dying

Advice from 8 Buddhist Masters

In the process of writing my book, “Preparing to Die: Practical Advice and Spiritual Wisdom from a Tibetan Buddhist Tradition”I had the great opportunity to interview a number of Buddhist meditation masters. One of the questions I asked them was, what is the best way to prepare for death?

I was continually struck with the ease they brought to this topic, and how utterly unflappable they were. I came away from my time with them thinking, “They know something we don’t.”  It’s like they were all in on a remarkable secret, one that they were happy to share.  These interviews remain one of the highlights of my life,  and inspired me deeply. I hope the sampling below inspires you.

Rinpoche is a title that is used for important teachers in the Tibetan tradition. The word Rinpoche means “precious one” in Tibetan.

What Is the Best Way to Prepare for Death?

The basic idea is that what you got now is what you’re going to get when you die. I’m very much a believer in this statement. This is what Buddhism says. There’s an expression in Tibetan Buddhism that says “Where you are going into the future can be known by looking at the color of your mind now.” So, I don’t think there is a preparation for death separate from that of life.

My advice is to become awakened as soon as possible, then at the time of death everything is taken care of. There is no advice separately for death and for life. Same advice for life and for death. If you don’t know how to live then you don’t know how to prepare for death either. So the question is: how do you want to live? Do you want to live as an awakened being? ­ Anam Thubten Rinpoche

If practitioners want to be able to meditate in the bardo state, then it is essential to work at listening, contemplation and meditation now, during the bardo of birth and abiding. It is especially important to work at recognizing the dream state and at abiding in meditation in the dream state, since the dream state and the stages of death have similarities.

Based on this preparation, you will have nothing to worry about during the stages after death. However, if you do not practice in this lifetime and just spend your time thinking that the bardo states are amazing or wondrous, this will not benefit you at all. – Anyen Rinpoche

Death is natural. Sometimes we live long, or short. The bottom line is we all will die. Each of us, there are no exceptions. Whether you like to talk about it or not, or think about it or not, it is very important to know about death and impermanence, we need to face that. We tend to think that death is ugly, not good. We ask ourselves “Why should we talk about it, it’s not necessary.”

This is not a wise way of thinking—we need to face it. We need to face sickness, old age, and death. Rather than hiding or being ignorant about these difficult topics, it’s good to know about them.No matter what religion or faith, people still want to die smoothly, easily, no one wants to die a horrible death. So, what makes a peaceful death, what makes a difficult death? Difficult deaths are brought on by too much clinging. Clinging to self, or relatives, or what you have created in this world—name, fame, power, money. So much clinging, not letting go, leads to a horrible death. At the moment of death, you realize you can’t own anything. Even during life, if we lose little things, we feel uneasy, “Goodness, I lost my shoe, I lost my cat, I lost my camera, my car, my this or that.” This is just a tiny piece. At death, we lose everything. Everything that you created anything physically, verbally, mentally is being taken away. All of it, suddenly, you need to give up. There is nothing you can take with you.

So, now, what is the method? Very simple: let go, let go. You need to let go. You need to know that if you cling, it only leads to more suffering. You need to give up. You need to let go, don’t cling. Whatever you created—land, home, money, family—whatever, clinging is of no use. Especially to loved ones. Show them your love, care, respect, and let them go.

We also need to be kind to others during life, if we’re not kind, suffering starts. Understand how kindness leads to happiness. Sometimes people may think you’re naïve, “He’s kind to everyone. This person has no discrimination.” But the motivation to be kind to everyone is very important. So now you need to give good and wise advice to your friends, family, whoever loves you, whoever trusts you—you need to give them very important and good advice: Don’t be selfish. – Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche

What is the best way to prepare for death? First and foremost, since we have this precious human life, it’s very important that we really use this golden opportunity in a better way. If you want to go to the upper realms or to the lower realms, it depends totally on how you deal with your precious human life. How you are going to use this life in a better way—whether you go up or down—depends on what you do now. It’s very necessary that while we are healthy and living we should accumulate virtuous actions and not get involved in non-virtuous actions with our body, speech, and mind. This is an important preparation—living in a good way, with pure motivation and virtuous action.

One has to practice a great deal, starting from the preliminary practices (ngöndro) all the way to dzogchen. These are very necessary to do as a Buddhist. Don’t skip, don’t jump to dzogchen. Do the stages properly and thoroughly, step by step. If you practice like this, it will be very beneficial. If you practice in a really good way, you will be prepared. You will be content at the time of death. –Namkha Drimed Rinpoche

Live your life fully. And use every moment, every opportunity, in a way that is beneficial for oneself and for others. If we live every moment the same, in a positive, peaceful, and kind way, then death is also another moment—the same. So there’s no difference. If we’re not living our life in that way, and always preparing for something to come in the future, at the end, then our preparation is a little bit contradictory with what we’re trying to do. How can we expect something positive to happen in one instant, at some point in the future, when we are not living that in every moment.

So I think that’s the most important thing.How do we know—are we going to die in an accident, are we going to die from a terminal disease, are going to die in some unusual way, or usual way? There’s nothing to predict. And if we can’t work with every moment then we will definitely not be able to work with that moment. So setting our mind in that direction, setting our mind in that way, preparing and working with every moment is the best way to prepare for death. And don’t make death a big deal. –Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

The main thing, the best thing is to just let go of everything. Don’t worry about anything. Whatever is remaining, whatever you have left behind, people will take care of it. You need to be free from loved ones, from possessions, from your own ideas and thoughts. Try to do what you have been trained to do on the path. Everything you have done over the spiritual path in this life is about letting go.

At the end just let go of everything possible. If that is not possible, then you do need to take care of things. But to prepare oneself the point is to step-by-step just let go of whatever you are able to let go of, and gradually work your way into what you are not able to let go of, and then try to release that. There will always be challenges at the last minute, some people still don’t want to let go of things—but do your best in advance to let go. – Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

In teachings on the bardo, the period of this life is called the natural bardo of this life. It is important to do spiritual practice and meditation in this life. In particular, lojong– the teachings on mind training and the tonglen – the practice of sending and taking are the most important.

So the best way to prepare for the bardo is to place good tendencies on your mind now. If you have a good heart, and a very stable mind right now, then that will naturally extend into the bardo. – Thrangu Rinpoche

The Tibetan Book of Death and other esoteric (tantra) teachings have taught the ways of attaining Buddhahood by realizing one’s own nature of innatewisdom and wisdom lights while we are dying or while we are traveling in the bardo. These teachings are the most profound instructions for those who are highly accomplished meditators.

However, it is very important for us to know that for ordinary people like ourselves—who have been drowning long and deep in the ocean of samsara with hardened habits of dualistic concepts, emotional afflictions and sensational feelings and have little or no high meditative experiences in advance—it is hard to realize and maintain one’s wisdom nature and attain Buddhahood at the junction of such a traumatic period of life—death and bardo. For such realization, we must transcend our samsaric mentalities and awaken the innate wisdom nature and qualities of nirvana, the Buddhahood.

But there is also another way. If we accumulate a good amount of merits and make heartfelt aspirations to take rebirth in a “manifested pure land” (nirmanakaya-ksetra), such as the Blissful Pure Land (Sukhavati) of the Buddha of Infinite Light (Amitabha), taking rebirth in the Pure Land will become much easier. For taking rebirth and living in such a Pure Land, there is no need to transcend dualistic mentalities, emotional afflictions, and sensational frictions—because in manifested Pure Lands, we live with positive thoughts, positive emotions and positive feelings. Furthermore, in such a Pure Land we will not be experiencing any sufferings or committing any cause of sufferings, so that the attainment of Buddha is assured for us before very long.

Therefore, it might be practical and feasible for many of us to work toward taking rebirth in a manifested Pure Land, or at least for a happier and helpful rebirth in a healthier human or god realm, by accumulating merits and making aspirations. The principal of making merits and aspirations is the way of gaining peace, joy and enlightenment for oneself and sharing them with others. It is the heart of Tibetan Buddhist trainings, and the esoteric teachings such as The Tibetan Book of Death elaborate on them extensively. – Tulku Thondop Rinpoche