Remember Impermanence and Death

Remember Impermanence and Death

Date of Advice:
January 2022
Date Posted:
August 2023

A student wrote that he had previously taken refuge with a geshe but after a close relative suddenly died, along with others, his practice had weakened and he had resumed fishing and hunting. He now regretted the harm he had caused, felt lost and wanted to renew his vows. Rinpoche advised the student to remember that life is very short, like lightning in the sky.

My most dear, most precious, most kind, wish-fulfilling one,
Thank you very much for your kind letter. I remember Geshe-la telling me that he was making sure, making very clear that one man who was taking refuge really took refuge. So this might be you that he was talking about. Geshe-la said this man was helping him with work filling statues and things like that. So thank you very much for clarifying who you are, your story.

Yes I understand your practice is on and off. It is said that life is in the nature of impermanence and death. It is said by the great bodhisattva Shantideva that it’s unsure, we cannot understand what will happen first—tomorrow or the next life.

So to attend to the actions of tomorrow or to attend to the actions of next life—which one? That means even eating, sleeping, making food and so forth, our main purpose, our main aim should be making preparation for death, for all the happiness of the next life, not to be reborn in the lower realms, to be born in pure land, to have the body of the happy transmigrator being, a deva or human being. Of course, that means refuge in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and protecting our karma, practicing morality. That causes us to be free from samsara and to achieve ultimate happiness, liberation from samsara.

So we need to practice the three higher trainings, how to generate morality, how to generate concentration and how to generate wisdom, then renouncing the self-cherishing thought and practicing bodhicitta, and the root to the path to enlightenment, and then we will achieve enlightenment, then we’re free, then we can free the sentient beings from samsara by ourselves, and bring them to enlightenment by ourselves.

This is a commentary, what the Bodhicaryavatara says. Also in that text, Bodhicaryavatara, it says we cannot just relax, thinking “I will not die today.” That means not practicing Dharma; that means following delusion and karma. So we continually have to make preparation, to work for the happiness of future lives, not just this one. “Lives” means all the future lives, and all that I explained before, the three levels of happiness.

Also, Milarepa said, from his experience, by remembering impermanence and death we become victorious over laziness. By remembering impermanence and death, whatever we do becomes holy Dharma. That means our actions are not worldly Dharma, nonvirtue, actions done with attachment to this life, including anger and ignorance.

The Buddha’s teachings mention the example of someone who is definitely going to be executed. As the person takes each step toward the place of execution, they reach closer and closer to the executioner. So it’s just like that for all the human beings’ lives.

That means from now on we have a certain number of hours, a certain number of minutes, seconds and split seconds, so our life is over very fast, it’s finishing very fast. It’s like listening to a wristwatch—tsa tsa tsa tsa—like that.

Like the person who’s going to be born in hell, for example, then so fast in the presence of the Lord of Death. Even the heaviest human suffering is great peace compared to the very small suffering of hell. A second passes so fast, then a certain number [of seconds] are finished so fast, so we’re reaching the hells so fast. The reality is like that.

It is mentioned—it takes a lot of time to mention the quote to you, so I will just mention the meaning.

It is mentioned that during that time, our brothers, our family, other people, our parents, etc., bring us lots of gifts, offering flowers and so forth, but however much they give us, we have no interest because we’re going to die, we’re going to be killed. Our main fear is what is going to happen [when we die], so we wouldn’t have any interest in our parents or anybody bringing us so many presents, delicious cake or milkshakes, whatever they bring us on the way. We have no interest, we don’t see any purpose, any meaning, we have no interest. In reality it’s like that.

We don’t think about impermanence and death, therefore we’re not practicing mindfulness. We’re not realized and we’re totally distracted by the pleasures of this life, especially as we think they exist [inherently] from there. They never existed from there; it’s a total hallucination, they’re existing from the mind, they’re merely imputed by the mind. That which exists, there’s nothing from [its own side], but we have the great hallucination that everything exists from there.

The minute we examine it we find it’s wrong, we find that it’s wrong. When we don’t examine it, then we have the hallucination, we believe the hallucination. When we don’t think about impermanence and death, then we have attachment or we think everything exists from there; that’s the basis of hallucination.

By discriminating objects, attachment and anger arises—thinking “bad” and “good” the attachment and anger arises. If we remember impermanence and death, the reality of life—not the reality that this is emptiness, but the conventional reality of life, impermanence and death—it is like that.

So we’re continuously going there to be executed, therefore [at the time of death] when our parents or other people bring us a lot of presents, we have no interest. But if we don’t think about it or we don’t know we’re going to be killed, we’re going to continuously enjoy those things. Of course, if we don’t think about impermanence and death, and we think that life is permanent then of course attachment arises to the pleasures of this life, all the offerings. Then we have attachment to all the things—attachment to all the cakes, the milkshakes, the music—and attachment to all the people, attachment and anger.

The reality of life is it’s like lightning in the sky, when it is totally dark and there’s lightning. For a short time we have a human body and our house and our car and our things—they become clear and then they go away. We don’t realize it now but when we die, that’s how we get the feeling, like this.

Our mind is totally habituated in the concept of permanence, even the life, the mind, I, all this is now the energy of impermanence, but from beginningless rebirth we are habituated in permanence, the hallucination. It’s like a waterfall which doesn’t stop. Every minute it’s continuously falling down and then the water quickly goes away.

In Buddha’s teaching, Gyatso Rowaling, or Extensive Ocean, human beings’ life goes like lightning in the sky. We are going to the death so fast. We are reaching toward our death, which means the Lord of Death and the lower realms, the hell realms, like the waterfall.

Therefore, when we have freedom, power and strength, within that time we must do Dharma practice, we must do Dharma practice. Otherwise, even if our life is long and we go to old age, but we are thinking to do Dharma practice at those times, later, you know, then it’s very difficult to do that in so many ways. It is very difficult to practice Dharma at that time, even if we’re able to live long.

Why? Because life in the world is impermanent and there are the conditions of 424 diseases, 1,000 spirit harms, 360 spirit possessions who harm us, something like that, then 84,000 interferers and 1,080 other things. There are so many conditions for death, so death can happen suddenly.

It is said in the Buddha’s teachings that in the morning [we see] so many people, but in the afternoon we don’t see anybody. That means we’ve already gone, died. We see so many people in the afternoon, but then the next morning, some people we don’t see; that means we’ve gone, died.

The Seventh Dalai Lama, Kelsang Gyatso, said at this present time we are subduing the enemy and developing our friends, having a comfortable body and even the mind. We may be laughing but then when it’s night-time, when dusk comes, then the body is in the cemetery being eaten by birds. In Tibet the body is given to the vultures, it relates to that, or being eaten by dogs. It happens like that; that’s the sense of it being true.

Remember that it often happens, suddenly death happens. Guru Padmasambhava said that even if the king of medicine actually comes to us, if the life is finished he cannot help maintain our life. If the king of medicine comes after we die, he cannot join us back to life. Anybody who is not free from delusion and karma, the cause of samsaric suffering, nobody, no samsaric being, has lived without death. Since we are born there is nobody who didn’t die; there’s nobody.

Of course, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha is liberated from [suffering] and has totally ceased delusion and karma, the cause of suffering. He’s totally liberated from suffering and even the arhats are free from suffering. The buddhas have ceased the subtle defilements and they have completed all the realizations, so they don’t have the danger of death, old age and sickness, they are totally free.

Why is Buddha showing the aspect of passing away? That is because if Buddha always lived in this world, then we wouldn’t regard Buddha’s teachings as precious, we wouldn’t realize how precious they are. Also, for people who believe in permanence, to destroy that wrong concept, to help people realize the nature of impermanence and death, the Buddha shows the aspect of passing away. Buddha is totally free from the cycle of death and rebirth, because there is no cause of death and rebirth. There’s no cause, because there’s no delusion and karma.

There’s no one who is very powerful, a lawyer, a judge, or someone involved in a very powerful court case, there’s nothing for death to never happen, for them to never die. Somebody who is an expert in talking, can they stop death? There’s nothing. Somebody who’s so expert in speaking can’t continue to live and never experience death. There’s no such thing.

Also, we can’t have somebody else die for us. In Tibetan it’s called lu, which means somebody else dies for us. There’s no such thing, that we never die, that we can always live.

However much food, wealth, friends we have, there’s nothing we can take with us. We have no choice to be with that when we die. If we pull the hair from the butter, only the hair comes out, so our consciousness alone has to go to the next life. Even this world has begun and has an end, and totally becomes space, we have to know that.

Of course our family, our relatives will die. It’s not only that we, ourselves, will die. This is a small thing to understand. Nobody who is under the control of delusion and karma can live without death until they’re free from that.

So what is missing for you, what I think you need, it seems you didn’t really read well the lamrim, the complete lamrim. It seems you didn’t really go through it. You believe so much in your existence, and that of your family and friends, believing so much that they’re existing inherently. That’s why when something happens you are completely shocked.

If we’re aware of what the Buddha said, then we won’t be shocked. We understand it’s a normal thing, a normal thing. The nature of samsara is impermanence, so we don’t get shocked, we know the nature of suffering is like this and we understand impermanence and death. So it’s a small thing; actually it’s a very small thing.

When we believe that which is impermanent is permanent, then we have a very, very strong shock. Then when impermanence or change happens, when there’s a death in the family, then it’s an incredible shock. Many times, old people, couples who have lived together for a long time, when the husband dies, then the wife also dies soon after.

So it’s very important for you to please read the lamrim text. If possible, read Lama Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, and if that’s not possible, then read Pabongka’s Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand. Read that at least four times from beginning to end. Please read the text mindfully, then that becomes a meditation. You are mentally preparing, planting seeds of realizations of the path to enlightenment, so it’s really, really good. Every day you can spend time on that.

So now, you and I, we don’t live long, we will die quite soon, so please do this every day as much as you can. Read mindfully so that it becomes a meditation. This is very, very important, then in this way you can achieve enlightenment soon. Otherwise, we’re lost in samsara, our life is lost in samsara, so that’s why we get lost again and again.

I’ve explained this much; that the nature of life is death and impermanence.

For purification of all the negative karmas, I suggest you do 200,000 prostrations by reciting the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas. You can use the Lama Chöpa merit field, because the Thirty-five Buddhas of prostration are there. You can memorize the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas, you can record the names with a tape recorder or whatever and while playing the recording you can recite and do the prostrations while reciting at the same time, then later it comes in your heart.

Lama Tsongkhapa, as you know, did so many hundreds of thousands of prostrations by reciting the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas, then realizations came like rainfall, so easily. Even if you do prostration to the Thirty-five Buddhas well one time, really well, meditating with the remedy of the four powers, then the five very heavy negative karmas without break—killing one’s father, killing one’s mother, killing an arhat, drawing blood from a buddha or causing disharmony amongst the Sangha—if you did any of these negative actions in this life or in the past, they get totally purified, even by doing [the prostration well] one time. This is unbelievably powerful.

This is how you can be free from the sufferings of the lower realms; free from eons and eons and eons and eons of suffering in the lower realms resulting from one heavy negative karma. The negative karma collected from beginningless rebirths, as much as possible purify this, and you’ll be able to purify even more.

This is the best practice for you to do, so you must do this every day. You can do one hundred at least. In Lama Tsongkhapa’s tradition, the Gelugpa tradition of Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings, the great practitioners, the holy beings, the ordinary Sangha and the lay people, do many hundreds of prostrations per day, hundreds or thousands, like that. So for you, to do at least 100,000 is very good.

Do this every day and when you do it you can count the prostrations, then sometimes you can do it in the form of retreat. You do four or five sessions, whatever, each day, so sometimes you can do it in that way and then you will finish many more.

For example, you can do seven days, fifteen days, one month, two months or four months of retreat, then when you have less time, when you have work, you can do one hundred or more than one hundred, like that. Then again sometimes you can do retreat, with four or five sessions, whatever you can.

In reality, the hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, suras and asuras, everyone has been our mother and father, as you have heard many times. Everyone has been our mother, father, sister, also friend, enemy; everyone has been our friend, our wife, our children, so just like this life’s parents, it’s exactly the same for every sentient being.

You may have heard this explained many times, in the sutras and tantras the basis [of realization] is generating bodhicitta, compassion and bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is what we need to practice with that and to realize emptiness. That’s all I want to let you know. Not only having intelligence, but in order to practice and knowing what to think, the main thing is very much bodhicitta, in order to develop compassion, just like a mother has for her daughter and son.

Rather than using the example of the father for developing compassion, it’s the mother, because it is the person we’re born from and who has been with us the most, taking care of us. So that’s normally who is cherished as the most precious, kindest one.

All sentient beings have been our mother, the kindest to us, so we have to generate compassion for every sentient being, not only being concerned with this life’s parents or cherishing this life’s relatives and only feeling close to them. That is attachment. So what we need is to develop this feeling toward all sentient beings.

According to bodhicitta, everyone has been like our mother, most kind from beginningless rebirths, kind in the four ways of giving us our body, our life, protecting us from hundreds of dangers every day, from conception time not doing an operation, bearing so much hardship for our life, unbelievable, unbelievable, experiencing so much pain for us.

Our mother leads us in the path of the world; she gave us education so that in this life we can meet Dharma, we’re able to read Dharma books, we’re able to read and write, to learn the path to enlightenment, the base which is the two truths, and that includes all the existence, the path of method and wisdom, and then the goal, the dharmakaya and rupakaya.

So what the Buddha’s holy body and holy mind is that we can achieve, we can understand all of that and actualize that, all this learning and experience, by the kindness of the mother.

Thank you very much. If you have questions that are bothering you, then from time to time you can ask. But if you ask how many seconds until death, that one I can’t answer. There are many questions I can’t answer; we need an omniscient mind, we need enlightenment or at least clairvoyance. Thank you very much. That’s all.

With much love and prayers ...