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Lama Zopa Rinpoche's Online Advice Book
Death & Transitions : Practices for the Deceased

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche at various locations (Last Updated Nov 28, 2013)
Teacher Passed Away
Rinpoche gave this advice to a Kopan monk whose teacher had passed away.

Make these for your teacher:

  • Five Kadampa stupa tsa-tsas
  • Four Guru Rinpoche statues, the large size tsa-tsas

Medicine Buddha Practice
After a Sangha person passed away, Rinpoche gave the following advice.

If you are not able to do Medicine Buddha puja, then do a short Medicine Buddha practice:

Visualize the Medicine Buddhas, inseparable from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, stacked up above the head [of the Sangha person who has just passed away].

Do the motivation, then recite the seven-limb prayer at least seven times for each of the limbs. Recite the limbs for offerings and rejoicing extensively, in order to collect a lot of merit.

Then recite each Medicine Buddha's name seven times and make request for [the Sangha person who has just passed away] to be born in a pure land or gain a perfect human rebirth and meet with Dharma at a young age and actualize the path in that life.

After reciting each name, that Medicine Buddha absorbs to the one below. When the last Medicine Buddha has been requested and is on the crown of the Sangha person who has passed away, recite the very long mantra three times, followed by a round of the short mantra. Light rays radiate out from the mantra at the Medicine Buddha's heart, purifying and blessing the person who has passed away and all sentient beings. Then the Medicine Buddha absorbs to the heart of the person who has passed away.

Finally there is a requesting prayer to Medicine Buddha and dedications.

Afterwards, recite the King of Prayers and Lama Tsongkhapa's Prayer for the Beginning, Middle and End of Practice.

This gives some idea of what Sangha can do when somebody dies. Do the short Medicine Buddha practice with meditation. You can do the longer one, but with this shorter one there is more meditation. Otherwise you can do Lama Chöpa and when you get to the po-wa prayer [v. 112], just repeat it three times, chanting it slowly. The main thing is the visualization. As you recite the po-wa prayer, visualize the consciousness going up to the heart of Maitreya Buddha.

Creating Merit For Future Lives
Rinpoche gave the following advice for the future lives and karma of a benefactor who had passed away.

Rinpoche did prayers last night for the deceased with the abbot of Kopan Monastery and 11 Tantric College monks. Prayers and tsa-tsas of Medicine Buddha and other deities have also been done for her good rebirth by the nuns at Rinpoche’s residence.

Rinpoche has checked and further things have to be done. These are:

  • Statues of Vajrapani and also Padmasambhava have to be made.
  • Reading of the Kangyur by Bati Kangtshen.
  • Recitation of the names of the 100,000 buddhas (Sangye sem bhum). Rinpoche and five other monks will do this.
  • Writing of the Prajnaparamita in gold.

Father Had Died 
Rinpoche gave the following advice to a student whose father had just died.

Dear Charles,
Do Medicine Buddha puja every day for the next week at least. From the day your father passed away, try to do Medicine Buddha puja every day for forty-nine days, or at least once every seven days for forty-nine days.

Print a nice photo of White Tara, as large as you can, and have it blessed on the same day. Do this on the next eighth day of the Tibetan calendar.

Try to make longlife deity tsa-tsas every day, or organize for someone else to make them, until  you have made the number equal to his age (approximately 90 tsa-tsas).

This is my advice.

Family Deaths
A student asked Rinpoche to check his two brothers’ and his father’s current rebirths, following their deaths and he also asked what practices should be done to lift them up to higher rebirths if necessary. His brother had died of pneumonia aged seven in 1959, a second brother was killed in a plane crash in 1971 and his father died of lung cancer in 1973. Rinpoche gave the following advice.

Dear John,
I checked about your brothers and father and advise the following:

Death on TV
Rinpoche made the following comments on what you can do when you see a being killed on TV.

When you watch TV, one benefit is when you see people or animals die (e.g. animals being cooked alive), then immediately you can pray:

By the merits of the three times collected by myself and all other sentient beings, may this being be reborn in the Pure Land of Buddha and achieve enlightenment as quickly as possible.

Then, recite some mantras, just a few – mani mantras or mantras of the Five Powerful Deities of Purification. By the power of your merits from beginningless rebirths and others' merits, it becomes very powerful. It makes watching TV very worthwhile – you are able to be of benefit to beings who have no guide.

Jang-wa
Rinpoche gave the following explanation of the practice of jang-wa.

JANG.CHOG means "Purification Ceremony." It is a skilful Vajrayana practice for purifying the negative karma of those who have died, and transferring their consciousnesses to a pure land. It can liberate beings from the lower realms, and can benefit those who have died recently and are in the intermediate state on their way to a lower rebirth, by changing their rebirth to the human realm or a Pure Land. In that way, those beings have a chance once again to meet the Dharma and meet a fully qualified virtuous friend. At the same time, the ashes or remains of the deceased can be blessed, so they actually become holy objects, at which time they can then be placed in holy objects like stupas and statues. This becomes highly beneficial for the deceased and for those family or friends left behind, because every time they make offerings such as flowers or lights and pay respects to the deceased, they create a great deal of merit.

There are a number of sources where Buddha explains or depicts this as being appropriate to do. Also, in the very extensive commentary by Desi Sangye Gyatso (who organized the building of the Potala), he explains the extensive benefits of various actions performed with holy objects. He also quotes sources from the sutra.

This skilful practice that benefits the dead originated with Guru Shakyamuni Buddha. One deva's son died and was reborn in a lower realm. The devas perceived this, and requested Shakyamuni Buddha to help him. The Buddha manifested in the form of a deity named Kunrig, and then all of the practices of this deity, including the Jang-wa practice, were given. The practice of this deity is to liberate sentient beings from the lower realms. Later, the Jang-wa or Purification practice was combined with the practices of other deities such as Amitabha.

The names of the dead people should be written on a large sheet of paper (use thin paper that can easily be burned), and on the reverse side of the paper, write the first letter of the name of each person (e.g."A" for Alice).

We do not offer food to the dead people (as in the Chinese tradition), but we can make offerings of food, flowers, light, etc. to the Three Jewels on behalf of the dead people, to accumulate merit for them. Any food can later be distributed.

When Sangha Members Die
A nun who had been active in the FPMT organization passed away after a battle with rapidly advancing cancer. Rinpoche asked the rest of the Sangha to do the following practices for her.

These are some ways that the Sangha community can help when an FPMT Sangha member is dying or has died. This is the most critical journey for that person, especially one who is going to the lower realms. It is important to receive support at least for 49 days, and the individual Sangha member who is dying will feel so happy, knowing that they are receiving this support from the FPMT Sangha community. What a joy for that Sangha member.

After the person has died, the Sangha can do pujas together at the end of each week—according to an intermediate state being’s week, which is seven days, counting seven days from the day the person died. Assuming the person who died is still in the intermediate state, the general length of life of intermediate state beings is seven days. The lifespan doesn’t have to be exactly seven days. It is possible that they take birth in the intermediate state, and then immediately take another rebirth right after. But if they cannot find a rebirth within that seven-day period, they are reborn again in the intermediate state. When a Sangha member dies, even in Dharma centers with no Sangha, if the students at the center want to sponsor or perform a puja, it is welcomed.

Especially where there are Sangha communities, you can recite mantras up until the 49 days. In this nun’s case, Namgyalma mantra was the most beneficial thing to recite, 21 times if possible. If it is too difficult for each person to recite the long mantra 21 times, then you can recite the long one 6 or 12 times, and then recite one mala or a few malas of the short mantra. The mantra is available in a book I translated which also contains the meditation of Namgyalma, with the benefits, the story about Namgyalma, and how powerful the Namgyalma practice is. It’s good for all the Sangha to have that practice, especially where there are Sangha communities. Maybe not all the benefits are mentioned there in the book, but the basic story is there, and some benefits.

Many years ago, Lama Yeshe and I went to Mundgod to meet our root guru His Holiness Song Rinpoche, and he talked to us while he was doing his meditation. In the middle of the interview, Rinpoche mentioned that he was reciting Namgyalma mantra. He said people think that it is only for a long life, but it isn’t only for that; it is also very powerful purification. Rinpoche said he had received offerings from all over the world for people who had died, and therefore was reciting the Namgyalma mantra. Also, when I check what is the most beneficial mantra to recite for somebody who has died, normally it is the Namgyalma mantra.

If the Namgyalma mantra is written on a banner and put on top of a house, and the shadow of the banner touches a being, his or her negative karma is purified. If the mantra is on the top of the mountain, the animals and insects on that mountain have their negative karma purified, and so do people climbing the mountain. If you have this mantra or text in your house, the people living in the house are purified of their negative karma. It’s the same if the mantra is in water: the beings in the water are purified of their negative karma, liberated from the lower realms, and achieve a good rebirth. This mantra has incredible power and is a very powerful and easy way to benefit others.

Anyway, please recite this mantra and dedicate it to her and all sentient beings, especially the ones who are born in the lower realms, who have intense suffering. Then, dedicate the merits by reciting the King of Prayers, the Bodhisattva’s Holy Deeds. You can also recite malas of OM MANI PADME HUM, and whatever other prayers you normally recite. The mala of OM MANI PADME HUM can be recited for anyone.

It is very good to do the Vajrasattva tsog composed by Lama Yeshe. While reciting the mantra, visualize beams of nectar emitting from Guru Vajrasattva, purifying the person, and then all sentient beings, particularly sentient beings in the lower realms. When offering the tsog, the merit can be dedicated to that person and to others.

One can also practice nyung-näs within those 49 days, individually or as a group, and dedicate the merit to that person.

The minimum is to recite Namgyalma mantra. That is extremely beneficial. The other practice is Vajrasattva tsog, and to make at least one stupa, which is very easy to do. I am not talking about a 500-foot stupa or the size of one of the high buildings in New York, Malaysia, or Taiwan. Regarding other mantras, there is the Stainless Beam Deity’s mantra. By reciting it 73 times, the person will be immediately liberated from the lower realms. This is the basic advice.

This can also apply for lay students. The centers can perform the practices of extensive light offerings, Namgyalma mantra, Medicine Buddha meditation (at least the very short one), and Vajrasattva tsog. On top of those, it is good to sponsor whatever other practices you can.

These are some basic ideas about how to help a person who has died. This also helps our life become meaningful, becomes purification for us, and collects extensive merit.

How to Benefit Those Who Have Died
A student from a Dharma center died, willing a generous sum to the center. When people at the center asked what practices to do, Rinpoche gave the following advice, emphasizing that people must do something for a person when he or she dies, as this is the most crucial time for the person. Rinpoche added that these are general instructions for what a Dharma center or individual students can do whenever someone dies, to benefit them.

• Medicine Buddha puja and Medicine Buddha practice.
• Do the eight prayers that are normally done in monasteries when someone passes away: King of Prayers (the Maitreya long prayer with the mantra Jhampal Monlam); the dedication section from the Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life; the Prayer of the Beginning, Middle and End; dedication prayers for happiness (De mon); Je se Tub jog—Until Enlightenment; the short Maitreya Prayer (called Maitreya's prediction); Dechen Lhundrup—Effortlessly Achieving Bliss; also Confession to the Thirty-five Buddhas. Students should recite whichever prayers are available in English.
• Recite a certain number of the King of Prayers, for example, for one full day or for a weekend.
• Offer Vajrasattva tsog.
• Make many thousands of light offerings. Make extensive offerings of water bowls, flowers, or other offerings.
• Practice nyung-näs. This could be done over one weekend.
• Do a weekend Vajrasattva retreat, Chenrezig retreat, or Medicine Buddha retreat. Or you can do all of them.
• Meditate on tong-len and dedicate it to the person who has died. This can be for half a day, or for one session. While doing the meditation, recite OM MANI PADME HUM.
• Recite the Diamond Cutter Sutra.
• Recite and meditate on the Heart Sutra.
• Meditate on emptiness for one session, or for one day. Or you could do a weekend retreat on emptiness with all the students, dedicating it to the person who died.
• Perform Dorje Khadro fire puja as a group with the students, dedicating it to the person who died.
• Make stupa tsa-tsas. As you put the four powerful mantras in the tsa-tsas, dedicate them to the person who died and say his or her name. Doing this can create the causes for a person who is going to be reborn in the lower realms to have a good rebirth instead.
• Make Mitukpa tsa-tsas.
• Make thangkas or statues, and dedicate them to the person’s good rebirth. (Of course, it doesn’t have to be a 500-foot statue!)
• Publish Dharma books.
• If the person who died practiced tantra, then do self-initiation of the person’s main deity, and offer tsog to the main deity. Also, do a weekend retreat on the person’s main deity.
• Make offerings on the person’s behalf. It is very powerful to make offerings to the Sangha on the person’s behalf. Also, offer to lay students who have the same guru as the person who died. This collects a vast amount of merit, which you can then dedicate to the person who died. Do not offer food to the dead person. Instead, make offerings of food, flowers, lights, and so on to the Three Jewels on behalf of the dead person, to accumulate merit for him or her. Then the food can be distributed afterward.
• Also, make offerings to the person’s gurus, or you can offer to your own guru on that person’s behalf.
• Offer charity or offer to the Dharma center on the person’s behalf, as the center is a place for people to meditate in, to learn Dharma, where people come to purify their minds, collect merit, and meditate on the path (lam-rim).
• Offer charity on the person’s behalf to sick people, homeless people, to solve other people’s difficulties, to charities, and to poor people.
• Offer charity on the person’s behalf to animals.

These are all things that the Dharma center can organize as group events, or people can do individually.

Praying for the Deceased
Rinpoche gave the following talk to Sangha members in a restaurant in Singapore on the benefits of performing pujas for those who have died.

It is very important for the Sangha to participate in praying for someone who has died. Students can sponsor a puja for the person at a Dharma center. There are many benefits for the deceased, the family of the deceased, and the sangha’s mind. It reminds us of impermanence. We can also recite prayers either at the person’s funeral or in the hospital; it helps people’s minds. When one student of a geshe passed away, the geshe did elaborate prayers for the student and took care of his family very well. It made the family feel extremely happy. When time allows, the best would be to perform the Medicine Buddha puja or recite the King of Prayers. If there is not enough time to do a Medicine Buddha puja you can perform Medicine Buddha practice with the visualization.

Disposing of a Deceased Person’s Wealth
Rinpoche gave the following advice on how to dispose of a person’s wealth after death.

Traditionally, as soon as the person’s breath has stopped, the person’s wealth is offered to his or her gurus.

Another thing that is traditionally done when somebody dies is to make light offerings. According to how wealthy the person is, you can offer any amount of lights: 100, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000, or more. Every day, up until 49 days after the person’s passing away, you can make light offerings. Or, you can make light offerings at the end of each week, using the practice for offering lights that I have composed.

If you are just doing the light offering practice, you can recite the prayers in that practice. However, if you are making extensive light offerings, you can use Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga or the Guru Puja, and make the offering during the offering section of the seven limb prayer, or at the beginning when you make the preliminary offerings. If you are making light offerings with other sadhanas, offer them when you come to the practice of the seven-limb prayer, in the part for offerings. If you are performing Chenrezig practice, which is the same as the nyung-nä practice, there is a section for extensive offerings, and you can practice the meditation at that time.

One should perform the blessing when one is actually lighting the offerings. That is part of the normal practice. Before you do the extensive offering meditation, whenever you do group practice or when you perform a sadhana, it is good to recite the mantra of clouds of offerings. Even if there is only one light offering, numberless buddhas receive numberless light offerings. The Guru Puja merit field receives numberless light offerings. That mantra has the power not only to bless, but also to increase the offerings. It is very important to perform light offerings when somebody has passed away.

This is the minimum that can be done. But if somebody has more money, or people want to sponsor a puja for the person who died, there is the Namgyalma thousand-offering puja, and the middle and long Medicine Buddha pujas, which are extremely good to do, with many offerings. These pujas can be done at the end of each week, and especially at the end of the 49 days. They can be done in a Sangha community, and if there is enough money, the pujas can be sponsored and be performed in monasteries where there are many monks or nuns. This way, by making offerings to more Sangha, it collects more merit. You can request monasteries to perform these pujas. There is so much merit in making offerings to Sangha, as long as they are living according to their vows, especially the fully ordained. When money is offered to me after someone has died, I use it for pujas, to build stupas and prayer wheels, etc.

If you offer to the monastery by thinking that you are offering to the pores of your own guru, remembering your guru, you collect extensive merit. Any amount offered to all the ten directions’ Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and to the ten directions’ statues, stupas, and scriptures collects extensive merit.

Whatever money or property a person has, it is extremely good to use it for public service, in order to build monasteries, temples, centers, holy objects, and to support Western Sangha. That can make it most beneficial. Of course, the same applies to offering to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. If the offering is given to build holy objects, temples, or monasteries, whatever amount is given—$1, $5, $10—generates so much merit.

There is a story that just by offering a drink, one is born as a king in the human world. I think there was a very poor couple who offered medicinal drinks to some Sangha and they were reborn as kings in the place called Gashika, with an incredible amount of power. For millions of eons they were never poor through having offered food and drink. And that’s just concerning temporary happiness, without even mentioning ultimate happiness. One will receive so much happiness in all those lifetimes.

It is the same when building or buying a Dharma center, a hall for the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and for all sentient beings—a place for sentient beings to meet the Dharma, the unmistaken path to happiness. Through the unmistaken method, they can achieve future happiness, and more important, everlasting happiness, liberation from samsara, and most importantly, full enlightenment. This way, there is the deepest benefit by eliminating the root of suffering, which is deeply rooted in their minds. Nothing else can do that except Dharma,. Without Dharma, they will suffer without end. Even if they try to achieve happiness by other means, the happiness they achieve will be only temporary, and is actually in the nature of suffering. Creating the facilities for sentient beings to meet and practice Dharma brings them to the cessation of suffering and to enlightenment.

What to Do with a Deceased Person’s Ashes
Rinpoche gave the following instructions on what to do with a deceased person’s ashes, to be of maximum benefit for them.

For your mother, it would be good to recite the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM or the Medicine Buddha mantra many times, then blow on her body to purify her, and to protect her from the lower realms. You can also practice Medicine Buddha meditation for your mother’s liberation.

After the cremation, the ashes need to be blessed through the puja jang-wa. Once jang-wa has been performed with some of the hair or bone of the person, for purification of negative karma and for the person’s liberation, then the ashes, hair, or bone can be put inside a stupa. Jang-wa is a very powerful tantric puja performed to transfer the person’s consciousness into higher realms, such as pure lands. Through jang-wa, the person’s ashes, hair, bones, or other physical remains are blessed and actually become holy objects, and so can be placed in holy objects like stupas and statues. This becomes highly beneficial for the person who died, and for the family or friends left behind, because every time they pay respects to the deceased by making offerings such as flowers or lights to the stupa or statue, they create a lot of merit. Doing jang-wa for your mother would also create extensive merit for those she left behind that are doing the puja or rejoicing in having it done.

There are many good geshes who have a good understanding of Dharma, the entire path to enlightenment. The ashes can be divided for different geshes to bless, or just one geshe can do it; it doesn’t matter. But the more times the ashes are blessed, the more benefit there is for the person who died.

After jang-wa has been done, if possible, a lot of the ashes should be put in the ocean, because when they are blessed, they become like relics. When the ashes are put in the ocean, all the animals are purified of their negative karma for the next rebirth and future rebirths. This is mentioned in the jang-wa text, which also mentions throwing the ashes into the wind on top of a high mountain, so that all the insects and other sentient beings who are touched by the ashes will be liberated. I think putting them in the ocean would be better, because there are so many more sentient beings there. You can also sprinkle them on the ground where there are many insects.

A small amount of the ashes can be placed in the base of a stupa. The person who has died will receive all the merit from having the stupa dedicated to them. At Land of Medicine Buddha retreat center in California, there is a temple to house stupas with people’s ashes in them.

Some people say that you can’t put the ashes of ordinary beings inside a stupa, and that this is very heavy negative karma, but this is not a well-analyzed thought. If the ashes are purified and blessed by a good meditator, with good concentration, the ashes can be put inside a stupa, and circumambulated. Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche says this is OK, and it is also mentioned in the text itself.

In case people have superstitious thoughts about not wanting to circumambulate a stupa with ashes in it, then put the ashes in the base of the stupa and not the stupa itself. It will make it easier for people with those thoughts to circumambulate and worship the stupa.

I suggest that a tsa-tsa stupa can be made at the end of each week for the person. One, two, or three stupas can be made, but at least one. Then the stupas can be filled with the four different mantras that I have copied from the Kangyur or Tengyur. They have so much benefit, and incredible power. It makes the stupa or statue so powerful for people who are worshipping or circumambulating it. There is one mantra called the Stainless Beam Deity’s Mantra. If you circumambulate a stupa or tsa-tsa with one of these mantras in it one time, it has the power to purify the heavy negative karma that causes one to be reborn in all the eight hot hells. This is just from one mantra, and it is possible to fit many of these mantras inside one stupa. The more mantras there are in the statue or stupa, the more powerful it becomes.

I will also be saying prayers for your mother.