Support for the Dying: A Talk at Karuna Hospice

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Brisbane, Australia (Archive #2131)

In this discourse, Lama Zopa Rinpoche advises the importance of providing support for people who are dying, so they can die with a happy and peaceful mind, free from fear and negative emotions. Rinpoche gave this talk to staff and volunteers at Karuna Hospice, a palliative care service in Brisbane, Australia, on October 5, 1994. First editor unknown. Second edit by Sandra Smith, August 2023.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Chenrezig Institute, Eudlo, Australia, 1994.

I want to say just a few words. First of all, the purpose of our life is not just to solve our own problems, to obtain happiness for ourselves. This is because all of our happiness, our comfort, everything we enjoy in our everyday life, we receive by the kindness of others. Our survival is dependent on the kindness of others, therefore we have the responsibility to repay the kindness of these precious and kind living beings. So the ultimate goal or purpose of our life is to free all other beings from all their problems and bring them happiness. There are different levels or states of happiness, namely temporary happiness and ultimate happiness.

The need to support someone who is experiencing death, who is at this crucial point in life, is unbelievable. People commonly find this experience terrifying, but for those who have lived a positive life, a life of sincerity, being good-hearted, loving and compassionate toward others, death is not something to be afraid of. For these people it is actually something to be enjoyed and it becomes a path for peace, so that in the life after this they can achieve or experience greater success and happiness. They die peacefully, happily and confidently, without fear, worry or doubt, knowing that they are going to a better place where they can be of more benefit for other living beings. They have full confidence and complete peace and happiness in their heart, even when they are experiencing death.

For people like this who have maintained a positive mental state, free from negative emotions such as the clinging mind, [attachment] to the body, belongings, the people around them and so forth, death is like this. Death is just like taking off an old dress and putting on a new one. We just leave our old body and take another fresh, new, healthy, young body. Then by developing our mind again [in the next life] we are able to be of more benefit to others. But for most people, when death is approaching, they find it the hardest and most difficult time in their life, therefore this is the time that they really need some refuge or support.

In Western culture there are a lot of questions about death and rebirth because there is a lack of clarity or education about these two things. Among psychologists and doctors there are many different points of view, which indicates that there is a lot to learn about the mind. It is only by understanding exactly what the mind is that we can understand what death and rebirth are and exactly what is the best method for helping a dying person.

I think that being able to help a dying person's mind is even more important than being able to cure diseases such as cancer or AIDS. If you are a healer and you are able to heal many people from diseases such as cancer and AIDS it is miraculous, unbelievable. But if you compare that to helping somebody who is dying, who is at the most terrifying point of their life, I think that our service [Karuna] is more crucial and important. This is because by offering psychological advice to the dying person, how to look at death as positive, it brings a state of peace and happiness to the mind.

Especially important is giving advice on how to experience death on behalf of all the other numberless living beings who are dying. We can advise how to use the experience of death to free others from death and to obtain happiness for them, especially ultimate, everlasting happiness. In this way that person’s death experience becomes very positive and useful, not terrifying, because it helps to bring peace and happiness within their mind. Thinking in this way also purifies from the mind all the negative energy and imprints left on the mental continuum by the person's previous negative or mistaken thoughts and actions. These unhealthy mental states are obstacles for present and future happiness, not only temporary but especially ultimate happiness.

If the dying person dedicates this experience for others, it will bring the cause of happiness to countless others. I think that this meditation or psychology is the key to transforming the death experience into the [spiritual] path, bringing not only temporary but ultimate peace and happiness for oneself and for others. As well as this method there is a lot of other advice that can be given according to the state of the mind of the person who is dying.

For example, it was explained by the kind and compassionate, omniscient Guru Shakyamuni Buddha that even though the body disintegrates [at death] there is a continuation of consciousness, and we have to experience the cycle of death and rebirth until we achieve the five Mahayana paths. The five levels or stages of the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) are the path of merit, the path of preparation, the right-seeing path, the path of meditation and no more learning. When a bodhisattva achieves the third of these paths, the Mahayana right-seeing path, the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness, which is called the true path, they don’t experience rebirth and death, old age and sickness. In relation to us, it means that until we achieve this level, this bodhisattva path, the right-seeing path, we have to keep experiencing this cycle of death and rebirth, old age and sickness, these things.

In Highest Yoga Tantra [a class of Buddhist tantra] there are two stages, the generation stage and the completion stage. The completion stage has five stages—isolation of body and speech, isolation of mind, illusory body, clear light, and the unification of those two, illusory body and clear light. When a tantric practitioner achieves the clear light, they have complete control over death and rebirth. Even in the Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle path), practitioners have to experience the cycle of death and rebirth until its cause is stopped.

Until we achieve one of these levels or stages which gives us control over death and rebirth, we have to go through the cycle of death and rebirth. The kind of rebirth that we will take after this life, after death, is dependent on the nearest cause, the state of mind at the time of death. Whether the state of mind at the time of death is peaceful or disturbed determines whether we will have a happy or suffering type of rebirth. The kind of rebirth we will take, whether happy or suffering, fortunate or unfortunate, is dependent on the nearest cause, the state of mind at the time of death.

So you can see that it is crucial that the state of mind at the time of death is peaceful and positive, a mind that is compassionate, loving, devoted, a mind that is free, detached, peaceful. It is crucial for the mind to be transformed like this because it determines the next life and our long-term happiness. If we are able to achieve a fortunate rebirth, we will have more opportunity to develop the mind and be able to bring more benefit to others.

In this way, from life to life we can develop the mind more and more, and experience more and more happiness until we ultimately achieve full enlightenment. By ceasing all mistakes of the mind and completing all the qualities, the realizations, in particular having complete knowledge, compassion and power, we are able to free everyone from all their suffering and bring them to the perfect happiness of full enlightenment. We attain the perfect power to understand all the different qualities of the mind of others and to reveal the means [to cease suffering and develop happiness].

So much of this is dependent on the state of mind before death and at the time of death. By understanding this you can see now that our service [Karuna Hospice] is unbelievably important and crucial, the best gift. This is what we are offering people through our compassion and wisdom. This is what makes our life most meaningful, satisfying and enjoyable, because what we are offering them [is the opportunity to] enjoy happiness from life to life right up to full enlightenment, and this is the best and most important gift. So from the depth of my heart, I want to thank all of you, including those who have been guiding the work for many years, Ken [Ven. Pende Hawter] and all the members, everyone. Thank you very much.

Additional comments

Of course, there are many hospices like [Karuna] but I think that Buddhism has a complete explanation of the mind at the time of death. Not only that evolution, but also the completion stages [of tantra], the different methods showing how to use our life experiences as a path to achieve ultimate happiness and to avoid suffering. These teachings explain how to stop the causes of suffering—karma and the disturbing thoughts, including the subtle obscurations—and to lead us to the complete peace of mind of full enlightenment. Especially useful is thought transformation, the psychology which clearly explains how to use all our experiences, including dying, as a way to benefit others. I think that by having this knowledge of what the Buddha taught, the Dharma, we should feel very fortunate and rejoice. That's all. Thank you so much.