The Certainty of Death

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal, 1981 (Archive #119)

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave this teaching on the precious human life and the certainty of death at the 14th Kopan Course in 1981. This is an edited excerpt from the Precepts Ceremony, Section Four of the course. Click here to read more.   

In order to take the pratimoksha ordination of the eight Mahayana precepts, to purify nonvirtue and revive or store up virtue, one of the most important things to make it a Mahayana ordination is the motivation of bodhicitta. So, please generate a strong motivation of bodhicitta—at least the effortful bodhicitta.

In front of you, imagine a mountain of diamonds on one side and a perfect human body on the other side. Then check the value of that many diamonds, as high as a mountain, and think about the value of this precious human body, which is qualified with eight freedoms and ten richnesses.

Think this way, “Without having a perfect human body, but with that many jewels alone—with wish-granting jewels that are even more precious than diamonds—even a mountain of diamonds cannot save me from the lower realms. This cannot benefit me so that I will be born into the realm of the happy transmigratory beings. This alone cannot benefit.”

Even if we achieve the blissful state of peace and release from samsara, this many jewels alone cannot lead us to the omniscient mind, and we cannot do extensive works for other sentient beings. But even if we don’t have that many jewels, we have this precious human body. Even if we don’t have even one tiny diamond or ornament, we have this precious human body qualified with eight freedoms and ten richnesses. With this precious human body we can stop rebirth in the lower realms and we can achieve rebirth as a happy transmigratory being. We can find a perfect human body again in the next life and we can attain release from samsara and the state of omniscient mind to accomplish the work for other sentient beings. With this precious human body we can achieve the three great meanings. This is what we have now.

Then think,“This is what I have now, and this is difficult to find again in the future life. I can’t have it in my hand and I can’t have it forever.” Definitely the time will come—in one month, one year or one hour—when we will lose it. It is definite that we will have to separate from this body, without freedom. Death can happen at any time—it can happen this year, this month, this week or even today.

When somebody dies, we receive a telegram, suddenly, somewhere, saying such and such has died. After the name it says “dead.” We are surprised, with big eyes—it’s a shock. We cry and we say “wauw.” Now we are the ones who receive a telegram when other people die, but one day, other people will receive a telegram saying, “Today Zopa died,” or if the name is Joseph, “Joseph died.” The telegram will be about us—there will be our name, and after our name, “dead.” One day, it will be our turn.

This could happen even today. The friends or parents receive a phone call or a telegram saying, “This person died in Nepal.” As it happens to others, it can also happen to us, today. Suddenly we become unconscious or we fall down—on the way to the toilet or outside our room, or even during meditation time, suddenly we fall and we don’t come back. Suddenly our body becomes very pale and white, or the breathing-out is very strong and the breathing-in becomes weaker, and we know, “I am dying.” Whether it is at home in the West or no matter where it is, nothing can be done to stop the death. Nothing can be done.

At the time of our death we are so upset, we are afraid and we have no method. Although we are upset and we feel great fear, nothing can be done. Our dearest and greatest friends, our most beloved friends surround us, full of tears, but it is time now to separate from them. It is time to leave them, and it is time to leave the possessions that were collected with much negative karma, miserliness and hardship.

Our body becomes a corpse, and after our name, whatever it is, people say, “dead.” Our body is at the cemetery, in the tomb or in the fire, and the consciousness or the self is facing the lower realms. Our relatives, our husband, parents or friends are left at the funeral place and all our possessions are left at the house. Those possessions earned with much hardship and miserliness—the car, everything—all the money and possessions are left there in the house. Those things collected with much hardship now belong to somebody else and become somebody else’s possessions. Whatever work is not finished, such as building a house, traveling, writing a book, working in an office or studying, whatever—whether it is finished or not finished, it is left. Doing retreat or whatever—whether it is finished or not finished, it is ended by the impermanence of this life and the certainty of death.

This will definitely happen, so without being lazy, from now on we should be careful with life, with what is still left. How many years, how many months, how many days, how many minutes, how many seconds—from now until death, we should be careful with it. With effort, by putting the lower lip under the teeth—that is an expression—we should put all our energy and all our effort into making our life meaningful, as much as possible, as much as there is left of life. Without cheating ourselves, we should make our life meaningful. Knowing such a thing can happen and being aware of it, we must practice the holy Dharma. We must practice the good heart in everyday life and also practice living in precepts, which is an incredible advantage for ourselves and for others, for the whole world.

We should make this precious human life highly meaningful. At the time of death, for the best Dharma practitioners, their minds are so happy and for them, death is like going on a picnic or like going back home to the parents. They are so happy that death is like being able to go to the pure realm.

However, if we cannot have a happy and fearless mind at the time of death, knowing that we will receive a perfect human body and will again have the opportunity to practice Dharma, we should not have doubt at the time of death. We need to be sure that we are not going to be born in the lower realms, and we should have confidence about where we are going to be reborn. We can have this confidence by being prepared, and we should prepare now, by practicing Dharma. The only thing that can benefit at the time of death is the holy Dharma.

Think, “Just as Guru Shakyamuni Buddha took the pratimoksha ordination and followed the graduated path and became enlightened, I myself also have the opportunity to be able to benefit others, like Guru Shakyamuni Buddha and to enlighten numberless sentient beings. I also have the same potential to be able to benefit others. I myself can become enlightened and I can enlighten all sentient beings. So, while I have this great opportunity and such potential and opportunity to practice the holy Dharma, especially the Mahayana path, if I seek only happiness for myself and release from samsara, then my attitude is no different from an animal. Sentient beings are so kind and so precious, and I receive all my three times’ happiness and perfections from them. While I am in samsara, there is no way that I can begin Dharma practice and receive omniscient mind, without depending on the kindness of sentient beings.

“What sentient beings want is happiness and what they do not want is suffering, so there is nothing more important in my life, nothing more precious than this work in my life—the work that frees all sentient beings from suffering and leads them into the state of omniscient mind. There is nothing more important or meaningful than this work. So I must achieve the state of the omniscient mind for sentient beings. Ordination is the cause of the path to attain the omniscient mind, and it is the method for accumulating merit to attain the omniscient mind. Therefore, I am going to take the Mahayana ordination for the sake of all sentient beings.”

Think that the purpose of taking this ordination is for the happiness of others, for the uncountable number of sentient beings who are on this earth, as well as all other sentient beings, including human beings who are suffering so much.