Helping Others Prepare for Death

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Tushita Meditation Centre, Dharamsala, India (Archive #515)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche advises that the best way to help others prepare for death is by offering guidance when they have the capacity to understand and put Dharma into practice. This talk is excerpted from Lecture Four of teachings given at a Heruka Body Mandala Retreat, Tushita Meditation Centre, Dharamsala, India, 10–18 May, 1990. First editor unknown. Second edit by Sandra Smith, August 023.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche with a mandala offering, 1990. Photo: Merry Colony.

When someone actually reaches the state when they are dying, of course, we should help, we should guide them, but at that time it is more difficult to help that person meditate or understand [Dharma]. It is difficult for them to think at that time and to understand, and therefore, difficult to put it into practice. This is because for someone who is dying without control, even if they don’t have physical problems or pain, there are mental fears, worries. Even if they don’t have physical pain, cancer or something like that, there is very heavy torture at the time of death—not from someone else torturing them but due to their own karma.

Even if there is no heavy physical pain, due to karma there is much fear and they feel overwhelmed by worry, shock and fear. There is fear of separating from their relatives and friends, separating from the possessions and beloved ones, leaving all of these things. Of course, the last one is attachment to the body and fear of separating from the body. All these mental problems make it so difficult at that time to really change the mind, especially for someone who is not used to thinking about these things in their life. Generally speaking, especially for a person who is not used to practicing renunciation, it is quite difficult to cut clinging. We spend our whole lifetime with the mind habituated, trained and developed in just one way—clinging. It is so difficult with this type of mind.

In addition, for those close to actual death, there are physical problems, pain, disease and so forth. So it is very difficult to help someone who has reached that state. It is difficult to explain meditation and the teachings to that person and directly help them, and it is difficult for them to practice, to be able to change their mind at that time.

Therefore, while the person is alive and while they have the capacity to understand and to practice, if we are able to help them during those times, there are a lot of opportunities for them to understand and put Dharma into practice. There is time for that. So in regard to helping them, it becomes very important to do this when they have the opportunity to understand and practice Dharma. It’s important to do this when they are healthy and it is easier to help, generally speaking. Of course, for some people it is not easy during their lifetime but when such circumstances happen, it is much easier. For instance, when someone starts to experience the body collapsing and they feel they are dying then maybe the mind is more open to renunciation. However, generally speaking, it is easier during their lifetime.

It is very important to help others when they have the capacity to understand and the opportunity to practice. Similarly, when someone is in a coma or is mentally incapacitated, which is the worst thing, and incapable of practicing, then it is very difficult to help them. So when they have the opportunity to understand and to practice, it is very important to help at those times.

Even cutting down one wrong conception, stopping others from creating one negative karma is powa. It’s my understanding that this is powa; this is the best powa for that person because they will have a better rebirth. We do powa for someone to create the cause for them not to create negative karma and to create the cause for better rebirth.

Powa is a method for even an evil being to immediately become enlightened. Even if someone created much negative karma in their early life, if they are skillful at the time of death and are able to practice, by doing the practice of powa they may be reborn in the pure realm and in that life they are able to become enlightened. So powa is a method for even evil beings to achieve enlightenment quickly. However, all these things depend on individual karma, even if we know powa.

If the obstacles, the degenerated samaya vows and so forth, the heavy negative karmas, are not purified; if the obstacles are stronger than the karma to be able to transfer the consciousness, then this [transference of consciousness] cannot work. During that time, if the obstacles are greater than the karma to take rebirth in a pure realm, then things may not succeed. Success of powa or a better rebirth—rebirth in the upper realms or a perfect human rebirth and so forth—is dependent on purifying the cause of the lower realms that has already been accumulated. We need to abandon that, and to accumulate virtue and the cause for rebirth in the higher realms, the body of a happy migratory being.

So what I think is that during our lifetime if we can cause others to have even one less negative conception or if we can stop one negative karma in relation to other sentient beings—animals or human beings—in my view that is the really practical way to help. That is powa and that definitely helps at death time and in the future lives, up to enlightenment. It not only helps for a good rebirth or to go to the pure realm, but up to enlightenment, so that itself becomes guidance for deathtime. Helping others during their lifetime, causing others to create less negative karma, that itself is the most practical guidance for the death time. Helping others, guiding others from day to day to make one less wrong conception, one less negative karma, that itself is guiding the death, intermediate stage and rebirth. We are guiding them from the lower realms and not only that, it becomes the basis for liberation and enlightenment.

Another example, relating to daily life, is to not get angry with someone so that we don’t cause them to become angry back. If we don’t get angry with that person, then they won’t get angry back. We don’t cause that anger and they don’t create this extra negative karma. Practicing patience saves that person from one more rebirth in the lower realms. How long and how many times [we are born in the lower realms] depends on which karma is heavier. So one time practicing patience, not getting angry with that person and not harming them with words, with the body, with the mind, we save them from the lower realms. We save that person from one extra negative karma and one extra suffering in the lower realms. Like that, karma is related to us, it depends on us. Other people create negative karma depending on us, therefore, we have to pay attention.

Even if it is not related to us, whatever negative karma the other person is trying to create, we can help them stop or cut down even one negative karma. That would be the most practical thing to do to help them, then at the time of death their negative karma is lessened or weaker. We are helping them prepare for a better death and a better rebirth, even if they are not dying now, even if they are not experiencing old age or heavy disease. We are helping them have a better death and rebirth—that is the first thing. Then eventually, of course, since it is Dharma, it leads to the cessation of death and rebirth. Morality leads us there.

I think that is why the Dharma center is very important, spreading the Dharma, spreading the Buddha's teachings about karma and the good heart. Whether we call it the Buddha's teaching or not, it’s important for our happiness to avoid harming others. Even if we don’t call it negative karma; even if we don’t use the term “karma”, the emphasis is on not giving harm to others. We need to understand what causes harm to others. The main thing is to not harm others because when doing so we harm ourselves. Therefore, benefiting others becomes the best benefit for us, the best way for us to obtain happiness. Benefiting others opens the door for the happiness of other sentient beings and also, by the way, it opens the door to our own happiness.

The common understanding is that with the good heart there is nothing we can reject, nothing we can find mistakes with. Where we cannot find any blame, any mistakes made by others, that is the good heart. When we don’t hurt others or don’t find their mistakes, that is the good heart. By teaching Dharma, by teaching meditation on the good heart, the essence of Dharma, it reduces the negative karma others will create. And depending on how much they are able to practice, they can abandon that much negative karma. Also, it becomes a purification.

With much compassion and loving kindness for others, that itself becomes a purification of past karma. You have heard the life story of Asanga [who generated great compassion toward the wounded dog]. There is also the story of Getsul Tsembulwa, the one who saw the manifestation of Dorje Phagmo as a woman whose body was covered in leprosy sores, very black, with pus coming out.

This lady was waiting at the river and she asked the great yogi, Ngagpa Chöpawa, to carry her across. Ngagpa Chöpawa had been to the holy place, Oddiyana, where he probably wanted to do the practice of tantra called chöpa. He was not permitted by his guru to go there, but he insisted and went anyway. Due to that obstacle, as it’s mentioned in the story, by breaking the guru's advice he created an obscuration and was thus unable to recognise the woman as Dorje Phagmo. He only saw a woman whose body was filled with leprosy disease, black, with pus coming out, waiting at the riverbank. She asked Ngagpa Chöpawa to carry her to the other side of the river, but he just went straight across without her.

Later his disciple, Getsul Tsembulwa, came along. Getsul Tsembulwa felt unbearable compassion for the woman—he practiced bodhicitta, exchanging self for others, and then felt unbearable compassion for her. The lady was full of leprosy disease with pus coming out, but he carried her on his back, even though he was a monk living in the thirty-six vows.

Then in the middle of the river, she transformed into Dorje Phagmo [Skt: Vajravarahi] and took Getsul Tsembulwa to the pure realm of Vajrayogini, Dagpa Kachö. He felt so much compassion and sacrificed himself to carry her. Therefore, because of his unbearable compassion, so much negative karma was purified. As a result, during that lifetime, before dying, Dorje Phagmo took him to the pure realm.

The stronger the loving kindness and compassion for others, benefiting and serving others, that itself becomes great purification, purifying the past negative karmas and accumulating merit. So there are many benefits to spreading Dharma, the good heart.

Practicing meditation with other sentient beings, as much as that is done and as much as others practice, that itself becomes purification and the accumulation of extensive merits, so it becomes the method for success. Therefore, during our lifetime, teaching Dharma to others, teaching lamrim, the three principal aspects of the path at least, this is the best. Then if others are meditating on this, it becomes powa, many lifetimes of powa up to enlightenment. Many lifetimes of having a good rebirth, everything comes from there, from understanding lamrim. All our happiness comes from there, not just from the powa wishing for the pure realm or wishing for a good rebirth.

It is very important to help others and it is our responsibility to help when someone has a problem or sickness. We must do whatever we can, and of course when somebody is dying, we must do what we can, but it is not easy. Therefore, when we have an easy time and it is easy to help, then at that time we should help them as much as possible. So organizing a lamrim retreat, organizing teachings, making the place and the conditions for the teachings available, is very good. Even though the person is not dying today or this month or this year, we can help them like this. That itself is helping them with dying, that itself is helping them to not get sick, that is for everything. The meditation on lamrim is for everything. Teaching lamrim, explaining it, leading others to meditate on lamrim, that itself is a consultation to solve problems. That is everything.

Other than that, the most important thing is doing our own practice, then other people can feel the vibration of our mind—a warm heart, good heart, generosity, sincerity. And that makes other people respect us, listen to us, and follow and practice Dharma. Even if we don’t talk about Dharma, just by us being around other people it becomes very beneficial for them, for their problems and their mind. We bring happiness and peace to their mind and we become an example for them. The other very important thing, the most beneficial thing, is that by practicing, we become an example to others.

The second thing is teaching. So even for ourselves, we should know that in our daily life not getting angry one more time is the best powa. In everyday life, abandoning negative karma is powa, the best preparation for death. Even one time sacrificing ourselves for others—just one time not following a self-cherishing thought, that is the best powa, the best preparation for death.

Previously I was talking about helping others, now here I’m talking about our own happiness, our own preparation for death by practicing powa, going to the pure realm or whatever it is. The best protection, the best treatment, is dedicating ourselves for the enjoyment of the sentient beings, becoming useful for other sentient beings, sacrificing ourselves for others, especially to obtain the most benefit, the ultimate benefit, enlightenment.