Make Your Spiritual Wishes Known by Writing a Dharma Will

by | Death and Dying

A legal will is a document that says how you want your money and belongings to be distributed after you die. For Buddhists, in addition to having a traditional will, it is a good idea to also have a “Dharma Will.”  The ideas is to ensure that your caregivers implement the practices and teachings that you desire when you die.  Entrusted dharma friends are those who can carry out your Dharma Will,  which they will find in your Dharma Box.

Start Your Dharma Will Process by Reaching Out to a Core Group of Spiritual Friends

The idea is to gather a core group of spiritual friends who agree to help each other die according to the directives left in each person’s Dharma Will.  These spiritual friends create a pact with each other, share their Dharma Wills and their visions for how they would like to die, and basically support each other’s wishes for a spiritual death according to the recommendations of their teacher or community. If an entrusted friend gets seriously ill, the group gathers to develop a strategy of spiritual care.

  • Choose your entrusted dharma friends with this in mind:
  • Who do you want at your side when you die, who can you take refuge in during this crucial time?
  • Who do you trust to manage your death, and therefore even the seeding of your next life?
  • Who do you want to take control when you no longer can?

Write Your Dharma Will

The Dharma Will is an informal document that will direct your dharma friends as to what you want them to do during and after your death.

Some of the things your Dharma Will should do:

  • Designate your entrusted friends who will carry out your wishes and how to contact them
  • Provide contact information for your teachers so they can be notified of your condition
  • List the information for the monasteries or retreat centers (and how to contact them) if you want specific ceremonies performed for you
  • Which post death rituals you want and when to conduct them.

Even though the spirit of the Dharma Will is more informal than official legal wills, there could be areas where they overlap.  You may want to check with an attorney to see if what you are requesting can actually be carried out.  Appendix I offers suggestions for what to put into this Will (see “Spiritual Check List,” and “Farewell Check List.”)

Where Will Your Body Go After You Die

Anyen Rinpoche suggests visiting funeral homes now to discuss any special requests in advance, and leaving the name of the funeral home in your Dharma Will.  If you die in a hospital, but want some time immediately after your death for your family and friends to be with you at your home, leave this request in your Dharma Will.  Rinpoche says, “If we do not actually write these documents in a timely manner and give them to our family and entrusted Dharma friends, and place extra copies in our Dharma Box, we risk losing precious opportunities for liberation when we die.”

Where to Keep Your Dharma Will: The Dharma Box

The Dharma Box is an actual box that contains everything your spiritual friends need to know to help you die.  A powerful practice is to envision your own ideal death.  Who do you want with you, what do you want around you, what teachings do you want read to you?  Visualize your good death in detail, then write in your Dharma Will what others need to know to actualize it, and place your wishes in your Dharma Box.  Be mindful not to overwhelm your entrusted friends with unreasonable details and requests.  This is why it is good to discuss your Dharma Wills with each other in advance, asking for honest feedback: is this something that others can actually implement, how would you feel if they asked you to do this?

The box would also include copies of your legal documents, ritual items, liturgies or practice texts you want read (several copies of these liturgies if you want others to read them together), and instructions for family and friends. Appendix I offers further suggestions for what to place in the Dharma Box.

Inform Your Non-Buddhist Friends and Family of Your Dharma Will and Dharma Box

Inform your family, or other non-Buddhist friends who may be involved with your death, about this box and the instructions it contains.  Otherwise it could be awkward if a well-meaning team of spiritual caregivers arrives to carry out your spiritual directives. As with most after death practical preparations, we really do them for our loved ones.

Let outside family and friends know in advance that it is your heartfelt final wish to have like-minded spiritual friends help you with your death.  It is your present job to ease the future job of your entrusted friends.  Your spiritual friends should then do everything possible to include outsiders, explaining the practices and rituals, and welcoming outside family to participate.

Update Your Dharma Will Annually

After you write your Dharma Will, review and amend it annually.  Do I see things differently this year, what is important to me now?  This annual review can also help you evaluate your spiritual progress, and remind you of the easily forgotten truth of impermanence. Once you arrange your group of Dharma friends and share your collective vision and personal Dharma Wills, you could meet every year to update your wishes, and to share new insights and teachings around death.

Creating your Dharma Will, placing your ritual items, sacred texts, and wishes in a Dharma Box, and having trusted spiritual friends to put it all into effect generates tremendous ease and relaxation — the key instructions for a good death.  Imagine your peace of mind knowing that everything possible is being done for you, by people you trust, and at a time when you need it the most.


Anyen Rinpoche offers a wonderful suggestion with his teaching on Dharma Wills, entrusted dharma friends, and the Dharma Box.[1] See pages 22-40 in “Dying With Confidence,” by Anyen Rinpoche.  This is a very practical short book on how to prepare for death.

“When the last hour is at hand, you will stand at a crossroad. If you have prepared in advance, you will be ready to move on with great ease and confidence, like an eagle soaring in the sky. If not…you will journey again and again though the passages of life, death and rebirth”- Tulku Thondup

Excerpt from Andrew’s book,Preparing to Die: Practical Advice and Spiritual Wisdom from the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition” 


‘Offers generous spiritual and practical guidance to help us develop confidence and compassion wherever there is fear–our own or others’–confronting death. A significant contribution to the continued transplantation of the Buddha’s wisdom in Western culture. May all beings benefit!’ – Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, author of Mind Beyond Death

‘Preparing to Die is such a timely gift for all of us. The book is filled with nectar-like religious and practical wisdom on how to make the best of the most profitable time of our lives. It is packed with clear and practical details and adorned with great love and care. This handbook is for anyone who will die and wishes to journey with the joyful blessing light of Dharma.’ Tulku Thundop, author of Peaceful Death Joyful Rebirth

‘A welcome addition to the literature on the Buddhist approach to death and dying. What is remarkable about this book is the way that Holecek intermingles profound spiritual insights with practical and up-to-date advice for people facing death or taking care of those who are dying.’ Judith L. Lief, author of Making Friends with Death

“Presents many different points of view and practices found within Tibetan Buddhism, and the author is skillful in introducing them within their proper context, so that the reader can understand their underlying significance. Particularly inspiring is the ‘heart-advice’ in Part Three, drawn from interviews with a selection of Tibetan masters. This advice ranges from a focus on specific rituals to the simplicity of the Dzogchen approach, but all emphasize the fundamental importance of one’s state of mind: for those who are dying, letting go, and for those who attend them, love.”—Francesca Fremantle, translator of The Tibetan Book of the Dead