by Gyal-wa Tubten Gyat-tso, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama
(notes selected and arranged for personal use)
Once one has developed a solid appreciation of the human potential, it is important to take up meditation upon impermanance and death.
Death will definitely come one day to us all. No matter how wonderful a body we may have, it does not pass beyond the reaches of death.
It is said in a Sutra, ',,,illness, old age and death destroy all achievements, just as mountains crumbling into one another destroy all foliage in its way. It is not easy to escape by running, exerting physical force, bribery, magic, spiritual practice or medicine.'
When the time of death arrives one may take the most expensive medicines, or make elaborate ritual offerings to the most powerful protective divinity, yet death will not be turned away for long.
There is no way to extend our lifespan indefinitely, and our time is constantly passing. The time that has already passed since our birth has mostly been dedicated to meaningless activity. Of what remains, this is steadily going by year by year, month by month, day by day, moment by moment.
Our life continually approaches its end, moment by moment becomeing ever more near.
During the first twenty years of one's life, thoughts of the spiritual path are rare, and during the last twenty years one's powers of memory and penetration are too weak to accomplish much.
Of what remains of our life, half goes to sleeping, eating, collecting the requisites of life, and so forth. As Geshe Che-kha-wa said, 'A person who lives until the age of 60 will, after subtracting the time taken by sleeping, eating, gathering the requisites and other such distracting activity, have only five years or so left for the practice of the spiritual path. And much of this will be lost to impure practice.'
Our lifespan is something that is not fixed. We have no set lifespan.
'Of the people seen in the morning, many are not seen alive at night. And many people alive at night are no longer alive the next morning.
Boys and girls meet with death, and adolescents meet with death. What youth can say that death will not come to them soon? Some die in the womb, some die just after birth, some die as infants, and some in their later childhood. Some die in old age, some in youth and some in the prime of life.
Death comes to all'
(Stop grasping this life as something permanant.)
We should consider: we cannot be sure that we will live to see old age. Many people do not. This is the nature of our situation. Therefore we should deceide to practice the spiritual path now, without procrastination.
And it is not enough to simply determine to practice Dharma.
As the time when death will fall is unpredictable, we must determine to practice Dharma purely, without mixing our practice with worldly concerns. (the eight wordly concerns of: gain, loss, pleasure, pain, fame, obscurity, praise and criticism)
Death strikes suddenly, at unexpected times. Do not say,
'I will begin practice tomorrow.' Engage in the holy Dharma immediately.
After death, nothing will continue but our stream of consciousness and the positive and negative karmic instincts that it carries, the karmic seeds that were developed during our lifetime.
'Except for positive and negative karmic seeds, we enter the hereafter with nothing. Nobody can accompany us. Before that time, become a treasury of spiritual knowledege.'
The early Kadam masters always cultivated these preliminary meditations: the preciousness and rarity of human life; death and impermanance; the karmic laws of cause and effect; the shortcomings of unenlightened existance; and the nature of taking refuge and entering the spiritual path.
Some people have little regard for the preliminary trainings and regard the higher methods with great reverence. However, although generally speaking gold is more precious than water, to a man nearly dead from thirst the water will be the more useful. Only after he has had his fill of water and thus revived himself will gold be of interest to him.
We practitioners who are on the initial stages of development, who have been under the influence of the three psychic poisons for countless lifetimes, should first think about how to make firm the foundations of the path while the slender thread of our lifespan remains unbroken.
Until the basis is laid, forget about grasping at the higher practices such as those of the tantric path, which are beyond our present abilities. Once the foundations are secure the higher teachings of the Sutras and Tantras become meaningful.
In the beginning it is more important to generate a confidant understanding of the preliminaries by recieving direct meditational instructions from a qualified master and then cultivating an inner experience. We should make sincere efforts to fathom the more subtle levels of the basic trainings. Only then can we enter the higher practices with the prescribed degree of competence and maturity.
In order to practice Dharma well we need to know the points and stages in training. We must know what needs to be cultivated and what needs to be eliminated from within our psyche. Then we have to take upon ourselves the responsibility of accomplishing the path. Our progress depends exclusively upon our own efforts. Others may guide us, but they cannot carry us to enlightenment. We must personally understand the teachings and, by integrating them into practice, must accomplish their meaning within our continuum of being.
At each level of training, we should always try to maintain the associated disciplines. At the very least we should try to avoid the ten negative actions (killing, stealing, sexual misconduct; lying, harsh speech, divisive speech, meaningless talk; attachment, anger, and wrong views)
It is said that the practice of (moral) discipline for a single day surpasses the practice of generosity for a lifetime when the generosity is devoid of a sense of discipline.
A generous gesture is positive, useful and in fact a necessary virtue for anyone practicing the Bodhisattla path; but without moral discipline one merely uses one's acts for one's personal gain, rendering the activity spiritually meaningless. The Bodhisattva practices six perfections-
generosity, discipline, patience, energetic perseverence, meditative concentration and wisdom - but these are all interdependant and discipline is the basis for progress in the other five.
It does not matter which Buddhist path we follow, ethical discipline is required. In the teachings on individual liberation, the principal method is the threefold application of discipline, meditative concentration and wisdom, or insight. Without discipline, the first of the three, there will be no progress in the two higher trainings of meditation and wisdom.
The same applies to the Mahayana, the essence of which is the practice of the six perfections. Without a basis of self-discipline they exist only as words.
When our self-discipline is strong, all the forces of goodness are behind us. As a result we will always be blessed with sufficient requisites of life, such as food, clothing and shelter.
To gain control over our stream of being and bring our rougher aspects under control, we require constant mindfulness of the events of our body, speech and mind. Without mindfulness and self-observation there is no way to stay on the spiritual path. Always be aware of your thoughts, words and actions, analyzing them for their content and source.
As our lives will be short, we should be like the swan, which if given milk mixed with water can, due to a special faculty of its beak, seperate the two and drink only the milk, spitting out the water. When we know how to practice the spiritual path, each day provided us with the oppourtunity to extract the milk of goodness and joy and to spit out the ways of negative being that lead to frustration and misery.
(...'We should make sincere efforts to fathom the more subtle levels of the basic trainings. Only then can we enter the higher practices with the prescribed degree of competence and maturity.')
(When we have become quite familiar with the precious human life, its suffering, impermanance and death, cause and effect, and ethics, or moral discipline, we can then proceed to the practices of love, compassion and altruism.)
One can then receive the wisdom teachings on the nature of the self, mind and phenomena. The foundations however, must be made firm before the higher paths can be approached, otherwise, progress will be stilted or distorted.
(When, with a basis of love and compassion, one's spiritual practice is an expression of altruism, this is called the awakening mind. (bodhimind, or bodhicitta) Having this motivation is what distinguishes Mahayana practice.)
There are many ways to cultivate the bodhimind. However, the basis of all is the cultivation of love and compassion, and the aspiration to highest enlightenment as the most effective means of benefitting the world.
As the principle Mahayana endeavour is the cultivation of the Bodhimind, in the beginning of each action we should think, 'May this work produce benefit and illumination for the sake of all living beings.' This transforms all activities into Bodhisattva deeds. During the action we should meditate upon the bodhimind spirit of enlightenment, and when the activity is complete, we should seal it with the dedication, 'May this action produce happiness and illumination for the uplifting of the world.'
We should try to dwell constantly in the Bodhisattva spirit of love, compassion and the wish for enlightenment as a supreme means to benefit the world.
Human life is very precious, and we who have attained it should turn our backs on the eight wordly concerns and instead make our primary concern the cultivation of spiritual goals. If we have met with a spiritual master and have received his instructions, we should make every effort to practice well.
All living beings carry the Buddha-nature, the seeds of enlightenment, within their own mental stream.
'The mind is the fountainhead from which wisdom is born.
Do not look for Buddha in any other place.'
The seed of perfect wisdom is always within us. When fertilized by the forces of creative being and watered by the refreshing liquids of study, contemplation and meditation, the laws of causation and evolution encourage it to unfold and blossom.
Every moment of our life we are presented with a choice. On the one hand there is always the oppourtunity to waste time, or even worse, to engage in negative activity. On the other hand is the constant oppourtunity to engage in spiritual practice.
Some people feel that in order to practice Dharma properly one must become a monk or a nun. This is untrue. What is necessary to practice Dharma is awareness of and control over the activities of our body, speech and mind. Whether we have taken the robes or not does not matter; this is more a matter of choice in lifestyles. What is important is to be aware of our stream of being and the forces that direct, focus and motivate us, and to use our life experiences as a means to cultivate appropriate inner qualities.
The Fifth Dalai Lama once wrote, 'It may appear that the people who devote themselves to working in society have no oppourtunity to practice Dharma. This is in fact untrue. When a person maintains mindfulness of practice, all works become spiritually significant, as though touched by an elixir able to turn iron into gold.'
From this quotation we can see that whether we are ordained or not, of high or low position in society, rich or poor, does not determine how well we are able to practice Dharma.
We can read numerous accounts of accomplished practitioners who were not ordained. Some were kings, other ministers, others totally ordinary in social standing. High and low alike, those who devote themselves to correct training accomplish spiritual progress.
At the time of death it does not matter whether one is a monk or lay person, rich or poor. What really counts is the state of one's mind. If at the time of one's death one has managed to generate a state of mind posessed of clarity, control, love, wisdom and so forth, our life has been well spent.
Amidst the suffering and confusion that predominates in life, we have managed, to find this auspicious life, capable of spiritual endeavour.
And not only have we been reborn as human beings, we have also met with spiritual teachings and thus have the oppourtunity to accomplish the paths to higher being, enlightenment and eternal happiness. Yet this auspicious human form that we have found will not last for long.
Although we bring forth scriptural quotations from the Sutras and Tantras taught by the Buddha, or set out a great display of reasoning, none the less our life will not last forever. Before long our existance as part of humanity shall cease.
At present we have the inner and outer conditions by which the path to enlightenment and everlasting happiness may be accomplished. We should not let the oppourtunity slip by, thinking, 'I will practice tomorrow or the next day.'
Do not be deceived even for a moment by the laziness of self-indulgence, which becomes entranced by the alluring images of the eight worldly concerns and loses sight of the spiritual path in its attachment to the ephemeral, transient persuits which benefit this life alone.
Every minute of our lives is precious, and if we cultivate the habit of idly wasting time due to direct or indirect attachment to the eight worldly concerns, before long it becomes a pattern in our lives and robs us of all spiritual progress. We become like the fool who directs his energy to foolish things, and as a result gets only the fool's achievements.
We have to be honest with ourselves concerning our practices. At the time of death we will not be able to hide the nature of our spiritual development. (We should try to do our best to live our lives meaningfully.)
One should strive with utter concentration to take the essence of this precious human incarnation by accomplishing the path to enlightenment and higher being. Then when the time comes for us to die we will be able to do so with confidence and serenity instead of regret and confusion, and thus will be able to find our way to a conducive rebirth.
We should make our prime concern the accomplishment of the spiritual path and, to this end, should endeavour to practice the Dharma as intensely and purely as possible. We should practice with energy and care, not wasting a moment, steadily as a river's flow.
I have spoken here on a large variety of Buddhist topics, though mainly on the subject of death awareness and how it applies to spiritual training. I pray that it may cause some of you to engage in the Bodhisattva practices with full intensity, with constant awareness that death could come at any moment and rob you of the golden oppourtunities afforded by the precious and rare human incarnation. Now that we hold the jewel of humanity in the palm of our hand we should make full use of it and achieve perfect enlightenment. Procrastination leads to further procrastination, and in the end death strikes and leaves us empty-handed. Alternatively, if we grab the oppourtunity while we have the chance, the essence of a meaningful life can become ours.
But who am I, you may ask, to talk of such serious matters amidst a world of great philosophers, thinkers and practitioners? How can I express myself on these affairs? It is true, I may not be anything especially great. However, I do none the less carry upon my head dust from the feet of many enlightened gurus whom I served with intense devotion in order to receive their teachings; and even though I may not have accomplished much myself, they were all perfect Buddhas and I thought that it may be beneficial to pass on to you some of the essential instructions with which they entrusted me. My motivation, therefore, is simply to show what of their teachings was most beneficial to my own practice, with the hopes that it may be of value to others. If you feel that anything in it could be of benefit to you, please take it into your hearts and lives.
From 'Samatha Meditation', by Gen Lamrimpa, On Impermanance
It is stated in the sutras that whatever arises must inevitably be destroyed, that each phenomena has the quality of passing away. Everything around us, our parents, our children, our friends, all material things to which we are attached- each of these is in a continual state of change and moving towards its own dissolution.
If we really become familiar with the inevitability of constant change and impermanance- when we at times are compelled to part from friends, parents, loved ones, from all the things to which we are attached- in each of these cases we can respond correctly, simply recognizing that all phenomena are of the nature of things from which one must be seperated. With this insight, attachment does not arise, we are not disturbed, and we are not subject to the anxiety that would otherwise arise in the face of parting with such things.
This relates directly to Santideva's statement which can be paraphrased as: When one being is an utterly changing phenomena, not remaining for a moment but in a constant state of change, and another being is also in a constant state of change, how can there be attachment by one for the other? When suffering arises from attachment we can consider: When I am totally impermanant and the other is totally impermanant, how can there be attachment by one for the other?
This is not an antidote for attachment alone. It works equally well with anger: When I am impermanant and the other is impermanant, how can there be anger of one for the other? It works in the same way for competitiveness, jealousy, arrogance or pride. In each of these situations the same verse can be a very powerful aid for changing and relaxing the mind. The situation that frustrates you, that dissapoints you, is the result of causes and conditions.
The causes and conditions will change, and the situation will pass. This is how the mind finds calm and equanimity.
During meditation, in the face of excitement arising from attachment, or when you feel excited about something, bring out the thought: This situation that excites me is something arising in dependance upon causes and conditions. It has the nature to pass away and I shall be seperated from it.
When the nature of suffering is investigated in detail, the truth of impermanance inevitably appears. This, in turn,can lead to a realization of selflessness.
In a sense, the recognition of impermanance can be applied as an antidote to both excitement and laxity. (86, 87, 88)
From the Chapter 'Tibetan Traditions of Death Meditation',
by Ge-she Nga-wang Dar-gye
To be born as a human being in this world system is held by Buddhists to be a great blessing. The human life is very powerful, able to cultivate all perfections of the spirit. As humans we have the chance to become a Buddha within our lifetime. This is a most rare oppourtunity not known to lesser forms of life.
Yet not many humans take advantage of the human situation. When Buddha was asked how many people use their lives meaningfully, he scratched the earth with his fingernail and, pointing to the dust that he had picked up under the nail, replied, 'This many as compared to the weight of the world.'
To dedicate ourlives soley to materialistic or worldly persuits is to reduce our human status to that of a rat, who also has no spiritual sense. It would be like a beggar who finds a wish-fulfilling gem but, rather than use it, he just throws it away. Our life can be useful both to ourselves and to others; to throw it away on worldly concerns is foolish.
One of the most important meditations for encouraging the mind to follow the spiritual path is meditation upon death. Through always keeping the thought of death present in our mindstream, life becomes increasingly meaningful. To understand life we must appreciate it in context to impermanance and death, which is its final nature.
Not everything dies at death; only the body and the works of this life. The mindstream, together with the instincts cultivated during life, continue into the bar-do, the hereafter, and then into our future cycle of lives.
Thus it is extremely important to emphasize the cultivation of spiritual traits in our mindstream while we are alive, traits such as love, compassion, wisdom, patience, understanding and so forth. To generate such qualities is the most meaningful thing we can do. If we die with a mindstream refined with positive qualities such as these, we will have harvested life's most wonderful treasure.
The result will be a positive rebirth conducive to progress on the spiritual path.
There are many people who study and practice Dharma in words, but who never bring the essence of practice into their hearts. Their Dharma remains in their mouth. This is because they have not spent enough time meditating upon death and impermanance.
One of the early Ka-dam-pa masters commented, 'If on waking up in the morning one does not meditate on death, the entire morning will be wasted. If we don't meditate at noon, the afternoon will be wasted. Similarly, if we don't meditate on death in the evening, the night will be lost to meaningless persuits.'
In this way most people waste their lives.
Even if we do practice some Dharma, if we do not meditate on death, practice remains impure and mixed with worldly ambitions, such as the eight worldly dharmas.
In order to practice Dharma well, one must transcend the eight worldly concerns: wishing to experience wealth, fame, praise and pleasure; and wishing to avoid poverty, notoriety, criticism and discomfort.
Without a continual awareness of death, attachment to the things of this life persists.
It is certain that death will come. If one has not lived in mindfulness of it, it will come as a suprise. At that crucial moment one will realize that all of the materialistically oriented attitudes one had cultivated during one's lifetime are of no value whatsoever, and that one's wealth, friends and power are useless. When death strikes, nothing but one's spiritual realization is of value.
The Ka-dam-pa Ge-she Kar-ma-pa once remarked that we should fear death now, while there is still time for us to act, and at the time of death we should be fearless. The situation is reversed for ordinary beings. When strong and healthy, they never give a thought to death, yet when death comes to them they clutch at their breasts in utter terror.
Most practitioners never begin to really practice. Every day they procrastinate. Then, lying on their death-beds, they pray for just a few more days of life, hoping to do the practices they so long ignored. But then, lying between the jaws of death, the time for practice is only a memory.
Like a piece of meat which we held in our hands but, not eating it, let it slip from our fingers; the meat fell to the floor and is now in the belly of a dog. It can never be brought back again. Although regret is pointless, regret arises.
If one properly practices death meditation, one's mind will yearn to seek a deeper understanding of life.
In addition, meditation on death is an extremely powerful opponent to the delusions of the mind. The strongest opponent to delusion and afflicted emotion is meditation upon emptiness, the highest nature of phenomena. Death awareness is second to this alone. If one recollects death whenever attachment or anger arise, that delusion is instantly dispelled.
The yogis and maha-siddhas of ancient India ate their food out of bowls made from human skulls and blew on trumpets made from thighbones. Similarly, monks often painted skulls on the door to their washrooms. This was not done to scare people, but to maintain awareness of death. Even nowadays many Buddhist temples hang a painting representing death, holding the entirety of cyclic existance in its mouth. This image is usually placed near the main entrance of the temple, not as a decoration, but to instill thoughts of death and impermanance in the minds of all who may visit.
Some people who have taken up the practice of meditation on death for the first time have had such an intense reaction to it and have developed such a heavy sense of renunciation that they have lost their perspective and, unready, have jumped into long meditational retreats. Meditation on death is very powerful. But we must be careful in the beginning to be moderate and not to be overwhelmed by our response to it.