The Importance of Meditating on Impermanence and Death
His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be giving some very precious teachings soon. Because of that, my Italian friend and I had a conversation about this and came to the conclusion that, before the teachings, we could have a discussion to help people prepare. I can share some of my knowledge, and you can contribute what you think too. We’ll be discussing impermanence. Meditating on impermanence is very important; but many Buddhists, especially within Tibetan Buddhism, rush for the highest teachings – for voidness as well as bodhichitta. We forget to go step-by-step.
We also forget the example of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life. Among the twelve enlightening deeds enacted by the Buddha, one is that he renounced his life in the palace and became a monk. He came to understand that everything is impermanent, and that we cannot cling and hold onto things forever. As an ordinary being, Siddhartha Gautama was shocked to discover this, and he became fearful. He thought, “I have this beautiful palace with everything I could ever want. However, a man that once looked fine is now dead, leaving all his possessions behind. I too will end up like him. How can I be satisfied and live happily? Everything that I call ‘happiness’ I cannot take with me, but surely must part with.”
All of us want to enjoy the pleasures of life, and we feel that they are very important to us. At a basic level, our wish is to have a long, happy life. If it were possible to live forever, we imagine, all of the things we enjoy would be there for us forever. The physical body we have is made of flesh and bones, but these don’t last forever, and one day we will have to say goodbye. Whether or not we believe in future lives, we have to accept that once we are dead, we are dead. Whether or not a second chance at life exists is the domain of religion. If we look at the story of Shakyamuni Buddha, his initial motivation to attain liberation was, “I don’t want to die.” So, we can see how central this thought is. We all feel, “I don’t want to die,” and the Buddha felt this too. He investigated and explored so many methods, finally concluding, “It is foolish to water this plant-like body. It will not last forever.”
Now, is there what we might call a “Plan B?” Through meditation, the Buddha found a method of working with our consciousness, which enables us to cultivate a kind of strength that will endure even after this lifetime ends. Our physical body is like a guesthouse; we travel here and there and then the body leaves. But our consciousness is something that continues after this life. When I talk about the consciousness and how it travels, we shouldn’t get it mixed up with the idea of a soul. Consciousness is not permanent. It is impermanent, because it changes each moment.
The Benefits of Reflecting on Impermanence and Death
Let’s think for a second. How many teachings we have received? How many beautiful things have we learned in this life? But, without the practice of impermanence, we cannot become good practitioners. Our minds remain the same because we do not reflect on impermanence. And then I think laziness grows. We live as though we will live forever. When Buddhist teachers talk about preparing for death to a Western audience, people become very fearful! Often, we try to skip the topic, but this is such a foolish thing to do, because death is our final destination. Death is something that we all have to face, sooner or later. If we cannot face it and could somehow avoid it, then that would be fine. However, this is something we cannot ignore.
Reflecting on death brings us lots of benefits. For example, when the Buddha talked about suffering, he also spoke about impermanence. We need to look deeper at impermanence to better understand suffering. When the Buddha taught the truth of suffering, he said that suffering, especially the suffering connected with this body, has four aspects or characteristics. Our bodies are an example of true suffering because they are impermanent, miserable, devoid and selfless. He explained it this way for ordinary beings who do not study and do not have any deep knowledge.
In Hinduism and some other philosophies, they talk about the soul, or “atman,” as being permanent in the sense of never changing. The body is temporary and, according to them, the permanent soul carries on after death. In order to further our understanding and to correct such misconceptions, the Buddha taught about impermanence, and then suffering.
It is important to understand and appreciate the reasoning these philosophies use to demonstrate their point. We should consider how in Hinduism the atman is permanent, and what they mean by permanent. As an example, they say let’s take a house, with empty space inside. If you were to create a small bottle inside the house, the space inside the bottle is not created but already exists. In Hinduism, there is the same idea when they talk about the atman. The atman is permanent because it is like space. When a person has the aggregates of a body and mind, the atman is there. Once the aggregates disperse, the atman leaves. It’s like breaking all the bottles, after which all the space becomes one. We cannot say that this is one space, that is the second space, and so on. It’s rather beautiful logic!
In Buddhism, there is a totally different rationale, that details continuity in consciousness, how consciousness works, and how this impacts the body itself. We don’t need to go deeper into this, however. My main point is that there is not a single great practitioner who does not practice impermanence. It is the key! It doesn’t matter whether they follow the Hinayana or Mahayana traditions, or Tantrayana, or any Tibetan school – Sakya, Kagyu, Nyingma, Gelug. The defining feature of a real practitioner starts with their practice of impermanence, for sure. If we contemplate impermanence, then we have hope for achieving renunciation, the determination to be free of our sufferings. That’s it. By not remembering impermanence, we will remain very ordinary. We’ll feel that the “me” of yesterday and today are the same.
Once you have a deep understanding of impermanence, you will feel differently. For example, if we go to a bridge and watch the river, like children without much understanding, we say that the river flows every day. For a great practitioner, although it’s like the same river is flowing, there is a completely different understanding. The water flowing at this moment in time will move down to that part of the river. That’s why the great Kadampa masters recommended, “If you really want to practice impermanence, go somewhere where there’s a flowing river. There you should meditate. The river does not stop. It continues on and on.”
The Certainty of Death
If I were to ask, “Do people die?” we would answer, “Yes, once we are born, we have to die for sure.” Most people will answer like that. That people pass away is a certainty. But that answer alone doesn’t really help our practice much. If I were to ask a follow-up question, “Do you know when you will die? Can you guarantee that you will live up to the age of 60 or 70? Can you guarantee that you will be alive tomorrow?” Well, that is quite an unanswerable question.
There were great Kadampa masters who had a practice with their begging bowl. Lunch was the final meal of the day, so after eating, they’d clean their bowl and put it upside down on the table as a means of expressing, “There’s no guarantee that I’ll still be alive tomorrow.” This is a great practice, showing that they accept the reality of death. Once we see reality, we have to accept it. These Kadampa masters, the great practitioners that they were, showed this example to their students. It doesn’t mean that we are just waiting for death, but that death is definitely coming toward us.
A person starts dying as soon as they are born. The countdown begins right at that moment. Some of us might feel that thinking about death is not interesting at all. If someone feels like they have nothing precious in their brain and are not afraid of losing anything, then they don’t need to think about impermanence or dying. In that case, they can enjoy their life by taking drugs and going to parties. Enjoy it! However, if we really do have something to lose, something that we want to carry into the next life, like all our knowledge, experience and understanding, then we should be full of curiosity: “Can we take this kind of knowledge and understanding with us?”
How to Have a Peaceful Death
If, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, we benefit others, then that is great. Mother Teresa did such good service for humanity and for God, and with this belief she could die very peacefully. These people are very well-known leaders. There are also so many that are not well-known at all, but who are doing the same kind of work as the great ones.
Look at the example of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He is now almost 85 years old. Oh, my goodness! I cannot imagine how His Holiness sees two or three hundred people every day. He gives advice and does his practices, and he’s 85! Although I am only in my 30s, I won’t be able to do the same thing as His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He can do this because he is full of compassion.
We should discuss all these great deeds by these great people. The Buddha said that when we cultivate good qualities, their imprints stay in our consciousness and continue on. So, there is hope for us, as it is these kinds of imprints from our good deeds and from what we’ve learned and understood during this life that we can take to the next life. Reflecting on this a little bit can really motivate us.
Five years ago, I received a phone call from my friend, who told me about a lady in her 50s who was in a hospice. She was eager to meet a Tibetan master and learned that I was in Calgary, Canada, which was near where she lived. My friend relayed that she would love to meet me if I had time, so I went to see her. She was connected to tubes and wires everywhere, which looked very uncomfortable. It was very sad. But to my eyes, she looked very calm. I told her, “I don’t know. I may die tomorrow, and you may live longer. There is no certainty. But, because you are here now in this situation, it’s very important to prepare. There is no need to be afraid to die. Stop the fear first.”
I was saying things, which is a habit of mine, going on and on and on. She continued to listen. Then I stopped, she smiled at me and said, “I don’t worry about dying. I don’t have any fear. I have studied and practiced for almost thirty years. Every day I thought about preparing to die. I said to myself, ‘Once death comes, I will think this way.’” She told me that she had received so many teachings from Kagyu and Nyingma Rinpoches and added that her meditation was quite ok, although not the best. She had a growing brain tumor that hurt a lot. She said, “I cannot deal with the pain, so they have to give me drugs, which make me unconscious.” She worried that when unconscious, she would be unable to meditate or to begin preparing to leave this life. That was her main concern.
This surprised me, and I remember thinking, “Here is a great hero.” For a few minutes after this, I felt like I had nothing very helpful to say, because she was probably ten times better than me! Then I recalled one text, regarding a debate about great bodhisattvas as they go into meditative absorption. Their consciousness is very subtle and is focused single-pointedly on voidness and nothing else. Nothing else. There’s a great debate as to whether these bodhisattvas have bodhichitta. This is a big debate. However, there is no debate as to whether the influence of bodhichitta is still there, no matter how long they’re absorbed in meditation. They might be in meditation for a month, while waiting to benefit sentient beings. But the influence of that motivation to benefit all others is there like an alarm clock. You set an alarm and you go to bed, but sometimes the real alarm is inside you. You wake up before the alarm rings! That has been my experience. Maybe that has happened to you all. You beat the alarm clock by five minutes. The same thing happens with these bodhisattvas in meditation. Their bodhichitta motivation is their internal alarm clock.
So, I shared some advice with the lady, “Well before this treatment – that for sure you have to undergo – knocks you unconscious, do your meditation, and perhaps you will wake up to the next life very smoothly.” My thinking was that the imprints from her meditation can perhaps serve as her internal alarm clock. She replied, “That is a really important point,” adding, “I have a little offering. I was thinking that if I got a good response, I would make the offering. If I didn’t, then I would only give you a khata.” She placed a donation inside an envelope and offered it to me.
This meeting with her was very touching. I suggest that this is how we should prepare for death. We all want to become extraordinary. This is the reason we study and why meditate. We want to become something special. We become something special by planting an internal alarm clock for our future lives. We do this by planting imprints on our minds with our studies, meditations and all our positive deeds.
Starting to Reflect on Impermanence
How do we begin to think about impermanence? How can we start to “let go?” One teacher gave a very good explanation. He held some Euro notes in his clenched fist, saying, “We have to let go.” He opened his hand, and everything fell out. But then he showed a better way: place the bill gently on top of your open palm. Practitioners who have a great understanding of impermanence hold everything like this. We ordinary people clench our fists. We don’t want to “let go” because everything falls and we lose it all. But if we can keep our hands open and upright and hold things very beautifully, this is extraordinary. This teacher gave a very good explanation.
Perhaps you have found something very special in your life and you want to hold on to it forever. So, prepare your mind by meditating on impermanence. Then you will know how to hold it and you will also know how to let it go.
Now for the text. I haven’t received the transmission of these verses from any masters yet. Regardless, this work, Training for How to Meditate on Impermanence, Written in Verse (Mi-rtag sgom-tshul-gyi bslab-bya tshigs-su bcad-pa bcas), supports my daily motivation. I find it very helpful. That is why I want to share it with you.
I know this great master who wrote it by his words only. His name is Gungthangtsang Konchog Tenpe Dronme (Gung-thang-tshang dKon-mchog bstan-pa'i sgron-me). I haven’t read his biography to see who he was, who his master was, and why he’s renowned. This text itself is good enough to know about his qualities. Let’s begin.
Homage to the Gurus
(1) Within the sky-sphere of marvelous great bliss, your cloud-like forms gather to train beings, showering down rains of teachings, profound and vast – to you, holy gurus, I bow and prostrate.
In this first verse of homage to the gurus, this great master is giving us a teaching on the gurus in terms of, first, their Dharmakaya aspect. When we talk about the guru, automatically our focus is on the ordinary person of the guru. With His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he has this “ordinary” body of flesh and bones. I am not saying that’s wrong to view him in terms of this aspect, but in doing that, we may forget to focus on his deeper aspects as his main one. His main aspect is his Dharmakaya.
This beautiful poem starts with an indication of the gurus’ main aspect, Within the sky-sphere of marvelous great bliss. I think sky is the key word here. “Sky” and “space” are often used to describe voidness, the Essential Nature Dharmakaya. Why is the gurus’ voidness important here? Well, let’s forget about the guru for a moment and just focus on the importance of voidness in terms of phenomena in general.
Buddhists talk about how all phenomena – everything – arises within the state of voidness. It is said, “Through voidness, phenomena arise.” If we recall the Heart Sutra, there is an analysis of not only the five aggregates, but of all phenomena. When we try to analyze phenomena, we cannot find anything solid.
There’s a story of the Buddha giving an examination on voidness. I’m making up the details here. I love making things up! There were many students and top scholars, and maybe Shariputra and others were there at the exam. Buddha asked, “Give an explanation of voidness.” One student stood up and gave their reply, and then the second student, and so on. The Buddha said, “Very good, very good.” Then the time came for one of the great scholars to answer. Buddha again asked, “Give an explanation of voidness.” This great scholar had tears in his eyes and could not say anything. Shakyamuni Buddha turned to everybody and said, “Now, this is voidness.”
My main goal in relaying this story is to show that you can only explain what voidness feels like. If I eat a very delicious cake, and then my friend asks me how delicious it is, I say, “The cake is really good.” That’s the best answer! However, we cannot really give the experience or the taste to another person. That would be very awkward! When we say, “Voidness has no form,” we can see and feel phenomena, but still there is no solid existence. There is no self-established, inherent existence.
When we feel like something is inherently there, or inherently beautiful, and we are so into it, this is the level of how an ordinary being experiences things. But how about arya beings, those who perceive voidness directly or indirectly? They see and feel as we do, but their understanding of reality is totally different than ours. When we look at them, they seem just like us. They do what we do – eating, sleeping, talking, and teaching. In our daily life, we become sad and fearful, have anxiety, worries, and loneliness, but aryas don’t experience life like that. The difference comes from the aryas’ view and realization of voidness . For these great beings, whatever happens, they look very happy.
Just look at His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He lost his country, and he lost his throne. He was the ruler of Tibet. China came and occupied Tibet, and he lost everything. Imagine for a moment a person who doesn’t know the history of His Holiness. If that person looks at him, they won’t realize that His Holiness is an extraordinary person. I am not speaking only of the conflicts inside Tibet or among Tibetans in India that he deals with, because his concern is not only for Tibetans. He takes on the burden of the problems of the whole world. He is the principal spiritual leader who talks about global warming, for example. He has very strong energy within him. This is extraordinary, isn’t it? He can do that because he sees everything as like an illusion.
How has he come to see everything as like an illusion? Because he has seen how everything is void. Nothing is truly existent on its own and there isn’t any real, independently existing thing. This gives him inner strength.
The purpose of going into a retreat on voidness is to get more inner strength and energy for helping others. That is the true purpose, not because we are trying to escape from something. It is so we get ready to apply voidness in life and help all others by seeing everything to be like an illusion. How amazing is that, right? I think that is very important to take note of.
Inviting the Gurus
When Konchog Tenpe Dronme writes, Within the sky-sphere of marvelous great bliss, this is part of the practice of inviting the gurus to be with us by realizing their Dharmakaya aspect, their voidness. We cannot just invite gurus like His Holiness the Dalai Lama by saying, “Come here!” We invite His Holiness as the Dharmakaya. In our practice, we have to see the extraordinary qualities of His Holiness Dalai Lama and dissolve everything into the Dharmakaya of His Holiness. We dissolve all of his qualities into the Dharmakaya because everything arises from that, all his extraordinary qualities arise from his voidness.
Another aspect of this line, Within the sky-sphere of marvelous great bliss, is the creation of a meditative field – a state of mind for meditating on the text. Great bliss is the type of mind we have with the understanding of voidness and refers to the gurus’ understanding of voidness, the other aspect of their Dharmakaya.
Once we have a basic understanding of voidness, we gain a feeling of bliss. I think that in any kind of Dharma practice we do, if there is no feeling of bliss at the end, our practice is not on the right track! It won’t be, unless and until we get this bliss. I am not talking about the Great Bliss discussed in tantra. Don’t be greedy! First, just go for sutra kind of bliss. Gradually, you will feel this Great Bliss. This sometimes happens in tantra practice, but there is no need to talk about tantra here. At the sutra level, there is a quote by Nagarjuna that says, “Since everything is void, everything is possible” or something to that effect. So all good qualities, including a blissful understanding, arise because of everything being void.
People who have a basic understanding of voidness don’t just think “void” when they say “voidness.” If we don’t have much education about voidness, when we talk about it as emptiness, then people can think, “Oh, he’s talking about empty and he’s talking about full.” But voidness doesn’t mean “empty,” like there is a room full of furniture and when you take out the furniture, then it is empty. The correct understanding of voidness gives rise to bliss.
Speaking of voidness and everything being like an illusion reminds me of an experience I had that makes me laugh. Once, when I went to Toronto, I visited Niagara Falls. It was very beautiful. People were taking selfies with the beautiful rainbows, which were appearing all over the place. People continued to click and click and click. I was also looking down at the rainbows, which were very beautiful. But no matter how beautiful they were, nobody wanted to go down to grab hold of one. I felt very stupid because the impulse arose in my mind of wanting to hold one! It looked so concrete and real. I thought, “This rainbow is so beautiful, wow.”
A rainbow is a beautiful example we can use to explain all phenomena. There are beautiful and ugly phenomena. But actually, there is nothing to grasp or hold onto. Grasping would be similar to how I felt about the rainbow. If I jumped down the waterfall to grasp a rainbow, then I am the stupid one. This is how the great masters really want us to think about voidness, that phenomena are illusion-like. This is something to bring into my practice. I will never forget Niagara Falls!
So, with the line, Within the sky-sphere of marvelous great bliss, we are speaking about voidness because we are discussing the Dharmakaya.
The next aspect of the gurus our author speaks about is their aspect of being a Sambhogakaya. The Sambhogakaya is the body of a Buddha that appears and from which we receive the profound teachings of voidness and the vast teachings of bodhichitta. It does not teach us these directly, but only indirectly through its emanations, its Nimanakaya bodies.
The next line, Your cloud-like forms gather to train sentient beings, indicates this Sambhogakaya aspect and relates to the gurus’ wish to help all sentient beings. The clouds are like a Sambhogakaya. Our generation knows a lot about clouds and rain. Farmers in previous generations could only look at the sky and, from the clouds, know whether or not it would rain. But here, these are a different type of clouds. Because of knowing people’s individual feelings and having the wish to fulfill their prayers, the gurus’ Dharmakaya produces clouds of Sambhogakaya forms. What do they do? The next line indicates this, Showering down rains of teachings, profound and vast. Once the clouds start showering, there is another kind of bliss! It helps plants to grow well.
Why are the teachings called profound and vast? I have read in so many textbooks why voidness is profound and why bodhichitta is vast. Chandrakirti talks about this with a lot of feeling. But we can see how profound and vast the teachings are and how important they are from the example of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
One time while His Holiness was teaching, he casually shared, “When I was young, I became so enthusiastic about studying voidness. I started to get really into it when I was around 25 years old.” He felt at that age that although voidness is very hard to understand, he could eventually gain a complete understanding. Right? At the outset, it may take a long time to understand, but with bodhichitta, it may be quicker to learn about it. But to put it into practice takes almost the rest of our life! His Holiness indicated this very casually with this great comment.
At that time, when I heard him say that, I felt that it was quite a normal, obvious thing. But I saw that while His Holiness explained it, my teacher had folded hands in respect and said, “Now here, His Holiness is talking about his own experience.” His Holiness described it very practically and in a very down-to-earth way.
The best way to invite the guru is the same as how we call the Buddhas and bodhisattvas in our practices. But perhaps you don’t have the bodhisattvas Manjushri or Avalokiteshvara in Western culture that you call and invite when you do certain practices. In any case, it seems funny to call His Holiness by saying, “Please come here.” You would invite him with the greatest respect.
I love to watch Bollywood movies. There’s a funny story I will share with you. There is a movie with a family who is very devoted to their god. The son gets very sick and falls into a coma, so the mother goes into a temple, rings the bell and pleads, “Up to now I have had very strong devotion. I have offered up flowers and milk every day on the Shiva lingam. I did so many things, and now this is what you are doing to me!”
You see it’s very funny: she begins to scold a god! But it’s a movie, so of course a miracle takes place, and her son recovers. It seems like Hindu gods need some scolding to get to work! It doesn’t work that way in Buddhism. It is completely not like this. We show respect to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and to the gurus. This is not really how Hinduism is either, actually. That was just a movie.
I think for those of us who have been practicing Buddhism for a while, we have commitments for showing respect to our gurus. For people who don’t have such commitments and are new to Buddhism, still we need to show them respect. This is how we call and invite our gurus: we call them with folded hands.
The verse then reads, To you, holy gurus, I bow and prostrate. Now, this is something done within Hinduism and Buddhism. Vietnam, Korea, and in all the Buddhist countries, we see some form of bowing or prostration. In the West, bowing and prostrations are not seen much. We value more our own good qualities. Everything is saved in our head – our intelligence, our ego – it’s all locked in there. And based on that, we feel so proud to say, “I’m educated at Harvard University. I have a degree.” We say that very directly!
So, why is bowing important? This is important to know. If a practice doesn’t have any meaning, then we don’t have to follow it. We bow when we see a quality in someone else that is so precious. In a sense, we fall in love with this quality that we don’t have. Let’s say that somebody enters the room, for example a great being like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness walks into the room, we don’t just stay sitting down and say, “Hey, His Holiness the Dalai Lama!” We wouldn’t say or do that. To show your respect in the West, you stand up. In places like Tibet, Japan and Korea, people bow because the head is the top of our property, the uppermost part of our body. So, we bow to show respect.
Prostrations carry a lot of meaning as well. Our folded hands move down from the top of our head, the crown, making a prayer that, “In the future, may I have a crown bump like the Buddha has.” We focus on all the qualities, physical and mental, that are so difficult to cultivate. In order to benefit others, we need to achieve the same qualities as the Buddha. Then, we throw ourselves to the ground because up until now, we actually are on the ground! We think, “I don’t want to stay on the ground anymore. I want to fly. I want to become fully enlightened.” We then stand back up. There is so much meaning here. The most important thing is how you recall the qualities of your guru at the start of your practice. I feel the rest then works automatically.
The Precious Human Rebirth
(2) This fortunate birth, which is obtained but once, is liable to slip from our grasp without bearing fruit. So, traverse the path to liberation while you can, and for that, let this whip of advice spur you on!
What does the author mean by this fortunate rebirth? This is the big question here. It continues, which is obtained but once. The first half is the question, and the second half is the answer. There was a great master that went to China and began his teachings by talking about the precious human rebirth: “This fortunate rebirth, which is obtained but once.” After he finished teaching, the Chinese people started saying, “Ahah! We should invite Rinpoche to the subway or the train or where many people gather! The population of China is in the millions and millions and we have a problem with overpopulation!” Maybe they thought, “Rinpoche has only seen few people in Tibet and has never seen the amount of people we have in China.” So, we should look to see what the line really means. We have to really check.
Do we have a precious human life? For Westerners, in my point of view, it’s better to check first. We can debate it if you don’t actually think you have one. The people who are here learning Buddhism may think that Dharamsala is a land of opportunity to become fortunate or get something precious in this life. They are indirectly saying that it’s not a fortunate rebirth to be born in the West! On the other hand, so many Tibetans want to go to the West. A hundred years ago, in China they had a saying, although maybe not these days: “We are going to the land of golden opportunity.” Chinese people tried so hard to get to the U.S. by ship. It’s not like that these days, right? By coming to the U.S., nowadays Tibetans are also saying that it’s a place to become a good human being and be happy. But wherever we are, we can’t do this unless we are educated about liberation from samsara.
We want to get out of samsara not only because of the suffering of this life. If we just wish to escape suffering and have no thoughts about our next life, then we can take medicine and go to sleep! We might feel better upon waking but then a headache comes, and we have to take yet more medicine and go to sleep again. But the Buddha has said that the complete cessation of suffering is possible. Once we achieve its true cessation, we can say goodbye to suffering! If we understand this, feel its value, and know that we have an opportunity to achieve it with the precious human life that we have now, we will discover how fortunate we are to be able to practice.
Then, all those other people who are millionaires and billionaires, but who don’t use their lives to work for getting out of samsara – we won’t admire them but think, “Poor them!” They might seem very happy now, but in a few days, they could lose everything. A billionaire might lose their wealth and feel they cannot continue living. Back at the monastery when I was 16 or 17 years old, I remember reading an article about a businessman in Delhi. He built his business on developing and selling buildings. For a long time, he was very successful. One day he faced bankruptcy, and the bank was going to confiscate everything. He would have to move into a shelter with his wife and two children. He was not at all ready to do that because of his ego and fame. He called his wife and kids and said, “Today, we will eat very well.” He served a big feast to his family and poisoned everyone. After they died, the businessman tried to commit suicide, but the neighbor caught wind that something was wrong and prevented it.
We may look at his life and say, “That guy is so stupid.” But if we look honestly within ourselves, we will see something familiar. Not the exact same situation, but that we have these kinds of seeds. Every seed or tendency is within us. We all care about our reputation, wealth, fame, and so on. Nothing is wrong with these things on their own. Nonetheless, when people only focus on acquiring them, their way of understanding is corrupted. Everything becomes dirtied by their ignorant mind. We might say that a baby who is born into a millionaire’s or billionaire’s home is very fortunate. But whether that child will have ultimate happiness, or even just general happiness, that is a big question. It’s not guaranteed. When they are ready to die, great masters pray, “May I be reborn into a family that is not very wealthy or concerned with reputation and wealth.” Neither do they pray to be reborn into a family that is very, very poor, where they would have to beg. Instead, they pray, “May I be reborn into a middle-class family.” This is the prayer. This is how they pray, so there we will be more opportunity to work to get out of samsara. Or else the prayer is to become enlightened like Buddha Shakyamuni, made with very strong determination.
Making the Most of Our Precious Human Life
This next line, our precious human life Is liable to slip from our grasp without bearing fruit, continues my explanation. Since we are talking about opportunities, we can look at that death as though, “My opportunities are finishing.” Death is not merely just that the body and consciousness separate, but about losing the precious opportunities we have. The great masters understand it in this way. Ordinary death is concerned with, “What will happen to my beautiful things? What about my money in the bank account?” Whereas great masters think about death in the following way: “Okay. Now I have to remain very calm in order to find my next opportunity to make further progress on the path. Without staying calm, I won’t get into a calm next life.” They want a smooth rebirth. This is how they think about death.
In this way, before they die, they don’t go empty-handed. Actually, whatever we study at university, even if it’s Harvard University, whatever degrees we get, we cannot bring with us. Even the geshes or khenpos, the monks who study in the big monasteries, get degrees. Mostly we become more ignorant once we have this degree! We may say, “Oh I’m the most learned one now.” This piece of paper becomes very important, right?
The same thing is true with money. Modi, our Indian prime minister, showed us the voidness of money. It’s very funny: “I have money, money, money.” Then one day, around 8:30 in the evening Indian time, he said, “From this time on, 1,000-rupee and 500-rupee notes are no more.” He called it “demonetization.” We all had this startled reaction. “What? Tomorrow we’ll just throw away this money like it’s a piece of garbage?!”
This was a great teaching actually. Right? We cannot bring it with us. What we do take are imprints. The imprints from when we become angry, for instance. This is what we take with us into future lives. With our attachment and strong clinging, we also create imprints that we carry with us. This is what we need to be focused on. The text says that we shouldn’t go empty-handed with no positive imprints. We should be very careful about actions that imprint into our consciousness. That is why ethical conduct is very important.
Onto the third and fourth lines. The third line goes, So traverse the path to liberation while you can. You have to work and practice, so you can realize liberation “while you can.” This is the opportunity we have. And for that, let this whip of advice spur you on! This is saying, “Now listen to me!” Whatever we ordinarily value is usually not really worth so much. We should remember what is valuable and what isn’t. He is saying, “I will give you advice.” This whip is not to beat you with. I don’t know whether this translation is really accurate because my English is not very good. In Tibetan, we talk about an “encouragement hook” like what they use for leading elephants in India. When somebody is not doing very well, we encourage them: “If you don’t do this, then you won’t get this. Similarly, if you do this, you will get this.” The person becomes encouraged and moves forward. It’s like an encouragement hook and is not to whip you! Don’t be afraid!
Tomorrow, we will go through some more verses and discuss them. I will try my best to read to you with my broken English. You’ll either understand or you can just say, “What are you talking about?” I will try my best to explain clearly. For now, I think we can stop here.
Please let us do the dedication. I don’t need to teach you how to do the dedication. Whatever you feel is most important, you can dedicate toward that. Whatever merit we have accumulated together, let’s dedicate it in order to continue building up more in the future. We have been talking about impermanence. This advice about impermanence is not just for Buddhists or religious practitioners. It’s also advice for everyone, especially people who are going to die and maybe have a lot of fear and anxiety. All of this can give encouragement.
Impermanence is a very important subject to learn about. If you agree, think, “I will do more research on impermanence and death.” That is a great thing to do. Please rejoice like this and dedicate it for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to live healthily for a long time. And pray for those who are going to receive His Holiness’ teaching on Madhyamaka that they can understand it and do their practice very smoothly. Please pray like this. Thank you very much. See you tomorrow.