Front cover image for Living in the face of death : the Tibetan tradition

Living in the face of death : the Tibetan tradition

Glenn H. Mullin (Author)
Living in the Face of DeathThe Tibetan TraditionEdited by Glenn H. MullinTranslated by Glenn H. MullinSnow Lion PublicationsCopyright © 1998 Glenn H. Mullin. All rights reserved.ISBN: 1-55939-100-6Chapter OneDeath and the Bodhisattva TrainingsThen it is a fact, O Simmias, that true philosophers make death and dyingtheir profession....—Socrates in Plato's PhaedoTRANSLATOR'S PREAMBLEThe material in this first chapter is taken from the volume of sermonsgiven by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Tubten Gyatso, on theoccasion of the first full moon of each Tibetan New Year. This annualdiscourse represents the climax of the Great Prayer Festival of Lhasa,a religious fête that begins on the day before the new moon of Februaryand lasts for fifteen days, culminating in the sermon of the fullmoon. The tradition of the Great Prayer Festival was initiated by LamaTsongkhapa, guru of the First Dalai Lama, early in the fifteenth century,and has continued to the present day. The present Dalai Lamamaintains the tradition in Dharamsala, India.    Throughout the centuries the full moon sermon of the festival hasbeen delivered by the Dalai Lama incarnation or, in his absence or minority,an appointed high lama. The sermon that I have selected for thischapter was delivered in the spring of 1921, when the Thirteenth DalaiLama was in the last year of his three-year retreat. In this discourse hechose as his theme the Kadam lineage of meditation upon death, probablydue to the trans-sectarian nature of this transmission. This traditionhad been brought to Tibet in A.D. 1042 by Jowo Atisha, who wasinvited to the Land of Snows by the king of Western Tibet and remainedthere until his death some thirteen years later To show the lineage andsubject of the sermon to follow, the Thirteenth opens with a verse fromAtisha's writings that refers to death and impermanence.    The Atisha lineages did not remain confined to any one order ofTibetan Buddhism. Within a century of his demise they had spread toall regions of the Land of Snows and had influenced all Tibetan sects.They became the basis for the Kargyu order as outlined in Gampopa'sThe Jewel Ornament of Liberation, the Sakya as embodied in Separationfrom the Four Attachments, the Nyingma as reflected in Instructions onthe Great Fulfillment, and the Geluk as presented in The Great Expositionof the Stages in the Path to Enlightenment by Lama Tsongkhapa.    The Thirteenth Dalai Lama's discourse thus serves as an excellentopening chapter, providing us with an inside view of a tradition ofdeath meditation that is fundamental to all schools of Tibetan Buddhism.Thus we get to see it not as an isolated spiritual exercise but incontext to the path as an organic entity.    The Thirteenth was the first of the Dalai Lamas to be known intimatelyby Western people. His era was not an easy one. Wedged byBritish India on the south, expanding Tsarist Russia on the north andthe unstable Manchu Dynasty on the east, Tibet was a continual targetfor the intrigues of these three superpowers. At the turn of the centuryit seemed as though Lhasa might go pro-Russian, so the British,always jealous of Russian designs in Central Asia, launched an invasioninto Tibet in 1904 from India. This event, known to history as theYounghusband Expedition, resulted in the victory of British power inCentral Asia, and the following summer a treaty was drawn up inwhich Tibet was forced to leave its foreign policy under the suzeraintyof British-influenced China, a move the British felt would remove Tibetsufficiently from Russian influence while not angering Russia to thepoint of confrontation (as placing Tibet directly under the British umbrellawould have). Strangely enough, Lt. Col. Young-husband, leaderof the British forces, fell into a mystical trance when in Tibet, an experiencethat was to transform his life, and soon thereafter he returnedto England, retired from the military and dedicated the remainder ofhis life to writing on spiritual affairs!    But Tibet was not content with the proximity to China that she hadbeen forced into, and attempted to assert her independence to theworld. China, on the other hand, was encouraged by the British policyand felt that the time had come for her to show a strong hand with theTibetans. She launched an invasion in 1909, but fate would prove hermove to be ill-timed, and a year later civil war erupted in China proper.The Chinese forces in Tibet, cut off from supplies and reinforcements,surrendered to the Tibetans in 1912. To add insult to injury, the Thirteenthhad them march to Calcutta and return to China by ship, ratherthan directly via the overland route. No Chinese were allowed in Tibetfrom this time until after the Thirteenth's death in 1933.    Matters of state thus set in order, the Thirteenth returned to a quietspiritual life after the China affair had been settled, in 1918 he enteredthe traditional three-year retreat, which he completed in 1921, the yearin which this discourse was given. Several British officials were inLhasa from the time of the expulsion of the Chinese. Among them, SirCharles Bell, who had been Britain's liaison with the Dalai Lama from1910-1912, visited in 1921, and became a close confidant of the Tibetanleader. Sir Charles' excellent biography of the Thirteenth, Portrait of aDalai Lama, gives us a wonderfully clear picture of life in Tibet duringthese crucial years. It is a tribute to the Thirteenth that he was able toguide his people through these troubled times without a major mishap.Unfortunately after his death in 1933 Tibet suffered from internalturmoil, but then, this seems to have been a worldwide disease duringthe 1930s and 1940s.    The Thirteenth Dalai Lama had been born in 1876 of peasant stock.Perhaps due to his humble background he always remained a `people'sDalai Lama.' Many of his sermons were given openly, and his studentscame from all walks of life. The discourse that forms the basisfor this chapter was just such a sermon, having been delivered to amixed audience of more than 20,000 of his disciples. Because it wasdirected at both learned scholar/yogis and the most simple of listeners,it combines profundity and simplicity with a lucid charm thatcharacterizes many of the Thirteenth's works. It provides the readerwith an easy access to a view of the Tibetan tradition of death meditationand a perspective on how this tradition relates to the generalsystem of Buddhist training.DEATH AND THE BODHISATIVA TRAININGSby Gyalwa Tubten Gyatso, the Thirteenth Dalai LamaAs was stated by Jowo Atisha, crown ornament of all the Buddhistsages of India and source of all the Kadampa oral transmissions: This life is short And the objects of knowledge many. Moreover, when we shall die Is something unknown to us. Be therefore like the swan, Which can separate milk from water.We living beings are in a difficult situation. Helplessly overpoweredby the three psychic poisons of attachment, aversion and misknowledge,we are propelled and guided largely by negative karma and afflictedemotions. In our constant craving for samsaric indulgence in the repeatedcycle of birth and death since beginninglessness, we have againand again drawn ourselves into situations of frustration, suffering andpain. Again and again we have died and taken rebirth on the basis ofignorance and the twelve links of causation.    However, amidst the suffering and confusion that predominates inthe lower forms of life, we humans have managed, as a product of previouspositive karmic instincts, to find an auspicious life form capableof spiritual endeavor. In short, the ripening effect of our positive karmicseeds has provided us with a very special and precious life form: thatof a human being blessed by the eight freedoms and ten endowments.    Not only have we been reborn as humans, we have also met withspiritual teachings and thus have the opportunity to accomplish thepaths to higher being, enlightenment and eternal happiness. Yet thisauspicious human form that we have found will not last for long. Eventhe Buddhas themselves were unable to prophesy the length of life ofeach individual human being.    Although we bring forth scriptural quotations from the sutras andtantras taught by Buddha, or set out a great display of reasoning, orrely upon other conventional means of persuasion, nonetheless ourlives will not last forever. Before long our existence as part of humanityshall cease.    As our lives will be short, we should be like the swan, which if givenmilk mixed with water can, due to a special faculty of its beak, separatethe two and drink only the milk, spitting out the water. When weknow how to practice the spiritual path, each day provides us withthe ability to extract the milk of goodness and joy and to spit out theways of negative being that lead to frustration and misery.    At present we have the inner and outer conditions by which thepath to enlightenment and everlasting happiness may be accomplished.We should not let the opportunity slip by, thinking, `I willpractice tomorrow or the next day.' Do not be deceived even for amoment by the laziness of self-indulgence, which becomes entrancedby the alluring images of the eight worldly concerns and loses sight ofthe spiritual path in its attachment to the ephemeral, transient pursuitswhich benefit this life alone.    One should strive with utter concentration to take the essence ofthis precious human incarnation by accomplishing the path to enlightenmentand higher being. Then when the time comes for us todie we will be able to do so with confidence and serenity instead ofregret and confusion, and thus will be able to find our way to a conduciverebirth. We should make our prime concern the accomplishmentof the spiritual path and, to this end, should endeavor to practicethe Dharma as intensely and purely as possible.    The practices to be accomplished are collectively known as theDharma. It is said that the Buddha, seeing that the living beings wereafflicted by 84,000 delusions and emotional disturbances, expoundedthe 84,000 aspects of Dharma as a remedy to these.    In terms of the written word these 84,000 teachings are subsumedunder the three categories of scripture: the Vinayapitaka, Sutrapitakaand Abhidharmapitaka, or, respectively, the `Collection on Discipline,'`Collection of Discourses' and `Collection on Metaphysics.' In termsof actual content they are subsumed under the three higher trainingsof discipline, meditation and wisdom.    Another way to divide the Doctrines of Buddha is into the twofoldcategory of Hinayana and Mahayana vehicles. In this context the MahayanaVehicle includes the teachings of both the exoteric PerfectionVehicle, or Paramitayana, and the esoteric Vajrayana, the tantric path.    Both of these Mahayana vehicles take as their main gateway thealtruistic bodhimind, the aspiration to gain enlightenment as the bestmeans of benefitting the world. For all Mahayanists, the bodhimind isthe key point in practice.    When Jowo Atisha was asked about his teacher Serlingpa [the Indonesianmaster Dharmakirti], he touched his hands together in a gestureof reverence, tears came to his eyes and he replied, `Whatever Mahayanaspirit I have attained is due only to the kindness of that great guru.Even when I would see him ten times in a day he would each time askme, "Is the spirit of enlightenment, the bodhimind, blended in withyour thoughts? His emphasis upon the cultivation of the bodhimindwas always first and foremost.'    Thus although the Buddha taught 84,000 practices, we as Mahayanistsshould always make our foremost concern the cultivation ofthe bodhimind, the bodhisattva spirit of enlightenment, the mind ofequanimity, love, compassion and empathy, which seeks full omnisciencefor the benefit of all living beings. Progress in all otherMahayana practices depends upon progress in the cultivation of thebodhimind.    Concerning the nature of the bodhimind, the text Seven Points forTraining the Mind, which embodies the oral tradition given by the Indonesianmaster Serlingpa to Atisha, states: The bodhimind is like a diamond scepter, The sun and a medicinal tree.    In spiritual training, the bodhimind is like a diamond. Just as a diamondcan eradicate poverty and fulfill all needs, the bodhimind eradicatesspiritual poverty and fulfills all spiritual needs. Just as a fragmentof a diamond outshines all other ornaments, even a partial developmentof the bodhimind surpasses more complete achievements inlesser practices. A tiny piece of diamond is far more precious than alarge piece of a lesser gem.    The bodhimind is like the sun in dispersing darkness. When thesun rises, how can darkness remain? A sun rising over an entire continentilluminates the entire land. In the same way, the generation ofthe bodhisattva spirit within ourselves is like the rising of the sun ofthe mind.    The bodhimind is also likened to a medicinal tree. The tree as awhole is an effective antidote to all 404 types of diseases, and also itsindividual components such as leaves and berries have their own individualhealing abilities, their unique powers to cure specific diseases.Similarly, if we develop the bodhimind within ourselves we becomecured of every spiritual affliction, thus attaining full enlightenment.Even if we only develop a few small branches of the bodhi-sattva spirit,these will have their own spiritually reviving effects.    To have generated merely the foundations of the altruisticbodhimind is to gain the title of `bodhisattva,' the Awakening Warrior.One may extensively cultivate other spiritual qualities, such asconcentrations and formless absorptions resulting from the trainingin higher wisdom, and through these practices may even gain the exaltedstates of a shravaka arhat or pratyekabuddha, yet anyone who hastrained in the bodhisattva spirit will always surpass these lesser adeptspurely by means of the essential nature of his/her path.    The bodhimind has the inherent ability to remedy the inner darknessof emotional afflictions and delusions, such as falsely grasping atthe nature of the self and phenomena. As it has the power to cure themind of the roots of cyclic suffering—the product of delusion and compulsivekarmic patterns—it is indeed a supreme medicine, having bothconventional means for curing conventional afflictions and ultimatemeans for dealing with deeper spiritual problems.    This is what is meant by the expression `method and wisdom combined.'There is the training in the conventional bodhimind practicesof patience, love, compassion and so forth; and also the training in theultimate bodhimind, which is the wisdom of emptiness that realizesthe most profound and essential nature of the mind, body and worldaround us. When we accomplish the ultimate bodhimind, we attaineverlasting emancipation from the imperfect world of suffering andconfusion. We then become an Arya, a High One, a transcended beingwho is free from samsaric claws. When this is achieved on the basis ofa training in the conventional bodhimind, we go on to actualize fullyomniscient knowledge and the complete powers of a Buddha's body,speech and mind. This provides us with the ability to fulfill thebodhisattva spirit by manifesting in the world as is most effective inthe uplifting of sentient life, while ourselves retaining complete abilitiesto maintain absorption in the vision of highest truth. Thus thebodhimind is a most precious method, and one should make everyeffort to accomplish it in its two aspects of conventional and ultimate.    How does one approach the trainings in the two levels of bodhimind?This is stated as follows in the text Seven Points for Training the Mind: First train in the preliminaries.    In the beginning one must seek a qualified teacher possessing a validlineage, and from him/her must receive the transmission teachings.Here it is said that one should carefully select one's teacher, and thatafter entering training should try to cultivate the attitude that regardsthe guru as an embodiment of all the Buddhas. He/she is to be seen asall enlightened beings, who manifest as ordinary people in order totrain persons such as oneself. Practicing constant mindfulness of howthe guru shows the kindness of unveiling the path to us, try to pleasehim/her in the three ways: by making the threefold offering of respect,attention and sincere practice of the teachings.    The cultivation of an effective working relationship with a spiritualmaster is the foundation of all other trainings. It is the very life of thepath to enlightenment. If we wish to become great bodhisattvas, wemust first learn the methods of achieving the bodhisattva stages. Thenwe must accomplish the practices under competent guidance. If ourown attitudes are not conducive to training, progress will be difficult.Consequently trainees are advised to regard the teacher as anembodiment of all the Buddhas. This is in fact the function the guruperforms in our life.    The next important preliminary is meditation upon the preciousnature of human life. We must learn to appreciate the special qualitiesof human existence and the spiritual opportunities with which it providesus. The scripture A Collection of Everything Valuable states: By means of spiritual training One leaves behind the eight bondages Which share the nature of animal existence, And by training one always gains The eight freedoms and ten endowments.    The eight freedoms enjoyed by humans are set in contrast to eightstates of bondage. Four of these are likened to four nonhuman states:the continual pains of the hells, the constant craving of the ghosts, thevicious stupidity and shortsightedness of the animal world and thesensual indulgence and spiritual apathy of the samsaric divinities whohave gained all worldly perfections. The remaining four are undesirablehuman states: being born as a barbarian in a land where spiritualknowledge is nonexistent; having imperfect sensory powers, such asbeing retarded or demented; being born at a time when spiritual teachingsare unavailable; and living under the influence of extremely negativeviews contrary to the nature of the spiritual path.    These are the eight states of bondage. If we have freedom from them,we may count ourselves as fortunate indeed.    The ten endowments are in two sets, personal and environmental.The former of these are given as follows in a verse by Nagarjuna: Being born as a human being In a spiritually civilized land, Having full sensory capacities, Not having committed severely negative karmas, And having interest in spiritual practice— These are the five personal endowments.These five personal factors provide one with an effective inner basison which to strive for enlightenment.    Nagarjuna then states the five environmental endowments as follows: Being born in an era when a Buddha has manifested, When the holy Dharma has been taught, When the Doctrine is still in existence, When there are practitioners of the Doctrine, And being shown supportive kindness by others— These are the five environmental endowments.These five factors provide us with the external prerequisites of practice.They are called environmental endowments as they are qualitiesof the world in which we find ourselves rather than personal qualitiesdirectly connected with our own body or mind.    Any man or woman who possesses these eight freedoms and tenendowments is in a position to attain full and perfect enlightenmentin one short lifetime. This is not an opportunity known to lesser formsof life. If we direct our lives to intense training, we can attain utterspiritual perfection, not to mention being able to fulfill every conventionalaim. Human life is most precious, and we who have gained itshould make every effort to take its essence. We should again andagain meditate upon the eight freedoms and ten endowments, untilintense appreciation of the human potential is constantly blended intoour stream of being.    Consider also how rare is the human life form in comparison to theimmeasurably large number of animals, insects and so forth. At themoment we have all the opportunities of human existence at our disposal,but if we ignore them for transient, worldly pursuits, there is notmuch hope that after our death we will regain an auspicious rebirth.Those who die bereft of spiritual training have little hope of happinessin the hereafter.    Once one has developed a solid appreciation of the human potential,it is important to take up meditation upon impermanence anddeath. In the Atisha tradition coining from Guru Serlingpa of Indonesia,this means practicing meditation upon three subjects: the definitenature of death, the uncertainty of the time of death, and the fact thatat the time of death nothing except spiritual training is of any realvalue. These are known as `the three roots.' Each of these three rootsubjects in turn has three lines of reasoning to support it, and finallythere are three convictions to be generated. Therefore the meditationis known as `three roots, nine reasonings and three convictions.' Thisis the principal method of meditating upon death as handed downfrom the great Kadampa masters of old.    The first subject is the definite nature of death. Three lines of reasoningare to be contemplated. (1) The Lord of Death comes to us all sooneror later, and at that time nothing can be done to turn him away. (2)There is no way to extend our life span indefinitely, and our time iscontinually running out on us in an unbroken stream. (3) Thirdly, evenwhile we are alive we find very little time to dedicate to spiritual practice.    To speak of these three points in more detail: (1) The Lord of Deathshall definitely come one day to destroy us. No matter how wonderfula body we may have, it does not pass beyond the reaches of death.`The Chapter on Impermanence' in The Tibetan Dhammapada states: The Buddha himself, as well as his disciples The mighty shravaka arhats and pratyekabuddhas, Have all left behind their bodies. What need be said of ordinary mortals?    Just before passing away Buddha told his monks, `O spiritual aspirants,take heed. It is rare to meet with an enlightened being. All phenomenaare impermanent. This is the final teaching of the Tathagata.'Having spoken these words the Master passed into the sphere ofparinirvana.    Similarly in India and Tibet many masters, yogis, great religiouskings, scholarly saints and so forth have appeared in history, but withoutexception all have passed away. We can read the details in theirbiographies. All the kind teachers of ancient times demonstrated thedrama of passing into parinirvana in order to impress the reality ofimpermanence upon the minds of those to be trained. How, then, canwe mere mortals who are so attached to our contaminated samsaricaggregates hope to be beyond the laws of impermanence and death?There is not a single sentient being who has lived since the beginningof the world without passing through the cycle of repeated birth, deathand rebirth.    It is said in The Sutra of Advice to a King: The four great sufferings of birth, sickness, age and death destroy all achievements, just as four mountains crumbling into one another destroy all foliage in the 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 expensivemedicines, or may make elaborate ritual offerings to the most powerfulguardian angel, yet death will not be turned away for long.    (2) There is no way to extend our life span indefinitely, and our timeis constantly passing. The time that has already passed since our birthhas mostly been dedicated to meaningless activity. Of what remains,this is steadily being eaten up year by year, the years by months, themonths by days and the days by moments. Before we are ready for it,death will be upon us.    The Seventh Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Kalzang Gyatso, sums up our situationas follows: From our very birth, life pauses not for a moment But races onward toward the great Lord of Death, Life is a walk down a wide road leading to death, A melancholy scene, a criminal being led to his execution.    Like water dripping steadily from a container, and like a ball of woolconstantly being unraveled, our life continually approaches its end,which moment by moment comes ever more near.    (3) Moreover, even while alive we dedicate very little of our time tospiritual endeavor. The Sutra on Entering into the Womb states: Ten years are given to childhood, and during our final twenty years the body and mind are not strong enough to embark upon the spiritual path with any great degree of success.    During the first twenty years of one's life, thoughts of the spiritualpath are rare, and during the last twenty years one's powers of memoryand penetration are too weak to accomplish much. Moreover, it is difficultto have confidence in the belief that one will live to see old age.Many people do not.    Of what remains of our life, half goes to sleeping, eating, collectingthe requisites of life, and so forth. As the illustrious Kadampa masterGeshe Chekhawa once said: A person who lives until the age of sixty will, after subtracting the time taken by sleeping, eating, gathering 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.    This is the nature of our situation. Therefore we should decide topractice the spiritual path now, without procrastination. As is statedin A Letter to King Kanika: The merciless Lord of Death Kills all beings without discrimination. Hence for so long as he has not come, The wise live in mindfulness of him.    When we plan to travel to a foreign country, we first gather thenecessities of the journey. As it is definite that we must travel to theland of death, we should prepare ourselves through study, contemplationand meditation upon the path. We should generate a firm convictionto engage single-pointedly in spiritual endeavor, and to gainthe inner qualities that give birth to the power to die with confidence.    These are the three lines of reasoning contemplated in conjunctionwith the first topic, the definite nature of death.    The second topic, the indefinite nature of the time of death, also issupported by three lines of reasoning.    (1) The life span of those living on this planet is not fixed. Legend relatesthat the life span of the humans on the mythological planet Draminyen is1,000 years in length, but we on Earth have no set life span.    Vasubandhu's An Encyclopedia of Buddhist Metaphysics states: Human life has no fixed span. At the end of an aeon the average life span is only ten years in length, and at the beginning it is thousands.    It does not matter whether one is young, old or middle-aged. Deathcan come to us at any time. As is said in The Tibetan Dhammapada: 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 him 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 Whenever the appropriate conditions ripen.    Just as death can come to others at any time, we can be sure that weourselves live under the constant threat of sudden death.    (2) The causes of death are many and the forces supporting life few.The Precious Garland states: The conditions bringing death are many, The forces sustaining life are slender And even these can cause death. Therefore constantly practice Dharma.(Continues...)
Print Book, English, ©1998
Snow lion publ., Ithaca (N.Y.), ©1998
238 p. ; 23 cm
9781559391009, 1559391006

Living in the Face of Death
The Tibetan Tradition

Edited by Glenn H. Mullin
Translated by Glenn H. Mullin

Snow Lion Publications

Copyright © 1998 Glenn H. Mullin. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-55939-100-6


Foreword by Professor Huston Smith...................................7Preface by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross....................................11Acknowledgments.....................................................15Introduction........................................................191 Death and the Bodhisattva Trainings...............................45    by Gyalwa Tubten Gyatso, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama2 Tibetan Traditions of Death Meditation............................69    by Geshe Ngawang Dargye3 A Conversation with an Old Man....................................89    by Lama Gungtang Konchok Dronme4 The Death of Gye-re Lama.........................................101    by Terton Dulzhug Lingpa5 Self-Liberation by Knowing the Signs of Death....................129    by Terton Karma Lingpa6 The Longevity Yogas of the Bodhisattva of Life...................149    by Gyalwa Gendun Gyatso, the Second Dalai Lama7 The Yoga of Consciousness Transference...........................171    by Lama Tsechokling Yeshe Gyaltsen8 A Ritual for Caring for the Dead.................................189    by Lama Mahasukha9 Meditations on the Ways of Impermanence..........................209    by Gyalwa Kalzang Gyatso, the Seventh Dalai LamaEpilogue...........................................................215Notes..............................................................221Bibliography of Texts Translated...................................237