The First Three of the Four Points of the Initial Scope

Overview of the Initial Scope

In the past few sessions, we’ve been speaking about reliance on a spiritual master and the precious human rebirth. Both these topics serve as a foundation for the subject matter that follows. It is possible that there are people of extremely sharp faculties who have trained very extensively in previous lifetimes and, because they’ve accustomed themselves with all the trainings and meditations and have gained familiarity in those previous lifetimes, in this lifetime they’re able to generate quite immediately and directly bodhichitta and insight into voidness. However, if this is not so in our cases, then we need to practice in an orderly fashion, going progressively through the various stages as outlined in the graded path.  

Concerning the initial level or the initial scope of motivation, there are four topics of meditation: 

  • The first of these is meditation on impermanence. 
  • The second is the disadvantages that follow if we are reborn in the lower realms. 
  • The third is taking refuge.
  • The fourth is thinking about karmic cause and effect. On that basis, we refrain from committing any of the ten destructive actions. 

Death and Impermanence

We have been discussing the precious human rebirth that we have. We should consider this further and think that if this human rebirth, this working basis that we have, were to last forever then that would be one matter; however, in fact, it isn’t something that lasts forever. It’s something impermanent. Since this human body is not going to last forever and will be quickly lost, we need to use the time that we have left to practice the Dharma as best as we can.  

Usually, when we think of death and impermanence, our minds become a little bit sad because there’s no one really who doesn’t fear death. There are some people so afraid of death that they don’t want to even hear any mention of the topic. This isn’t going to protect or help them, because it’s just a matter of time before their actual death arrives. Clearly, this isn’t such a good attitude to have. If, on the other hand, we’re mindful of death, then it is possible for us to be able to eliminate the suffering that might come at that time.  

Also, if it weren’t possible to eliminate the suffering at the time of death, then certainly it would be better not to think about it at all; however, since there is a method to avoid fear and suffering at the time of death, then it is purposeful to be mindful of death now. We have a precious human rebirth right now, and there exists a method by which we can avoid the suffering associated with the time of death. Therefore, it’s worthwhile for us to pursue these methods. 

Up until now, we’ve committed a lot of destructive actions and built up a lot of negative karmic potential. We’ve generally acted in a very unruly fashion and all of this has happened because we haven’t been mindful of our death. 

It’s extremely important to be mindful of death. One of the factors that caused the Buddha himself to enter into the intensive practice of the Dharma was his encounter with death, his seeing a dead person. If there were no such thing as death, then the Buddha himself would have been able to stay quite happily forever in the royal palace enjoying his position. But, because he realized that death would come and that his royal position wouldn’t last, he turned his mind away from this, giving up everything and devoting himself to the Dharma.   

When we aren’t mindful of death, what happens is that, at the time of our death, we experience a great deal of suffering and difficulty, and then it will be too late, as we will die. Jetsun Milarepa sang a song saying, “Because I fear death, I went off to the mountains to do intensive Dharma practice, but now that I’ve reached the ultimate achievement, I’ve got nothing more to fear of death. Death will not come to me.”

Meditations on Death

Concerning the meditations on death, there are three points to meditate on:

  • The first point is the fact that death is certain. 
  • The second point is that, in contrast, the time of death is completely uncertain. 
  • The third point is that, at the point of death, nothing will be of any use except our Dharma practice. 

Each of these three has three reasons that support it. Let’s elaborate on them.

Death Is Certain

The three supporting reasons for the point about the certainty of death are:

  • The Lord of Death will come for certain, and there are no circumstances that can turn him back.
  • When our lifespan is over, it cannot be extended.
  • While alive, the time we can devote to Dharma study and practice is short. 

Concerning this first supporting reason, there are also three points:

  • The first is that no matter what type of body we’ve taken, we have never taken rebirth in a body that is immortal or that has not been subject to death. 
  • The second is that no matter where we travel or where we live, we can’t run away from death. 
  • The third is that no matter what method we turn to, the type of medicine, mechanical devices, or mantras we use, when the time of death comes, these will not be of any help to avoid dying. When our time is over, we die. 

The Buddha is an enlightened being and thus is not forced to pass away, and actually doesn’t pass away in the normal sense; nevertheless, for our sakes, he manifested death and demonstrated passing away. For us, there’s no question that we’re going to pass away too, and that no matter what type of body we’ve taken, we don’t have an immortal one. 

No matter where we might go to, there’s no place that is free of death. There’s no place that death cannot reach. There are some people, for instance, who live in Dharamsala and become very sick, and they think to go to the West to one of the famous hospitals there to be cured. However, they might travel all that way and die in a Western hospital as well. No matter where we go, when our time is up, we die. 

There was once a geshe who was renting a room in an old woman’s house. The mother in this house took a flea off of her son and said, “Throw this away in some place where it won’t die.” The geshe who was renting the room overheard this and said to the old mother, “If there’s a place where you can throw this flea where it’s not going to die, please throw me there too.” There’s no place where we can go where we’re not going to die. Of course, the mother had in mind something a little bit more innocent, to throw it in a place without people, where it wouldn’t be stepped on. Ultimately, in fact, there is no place where we won’t die. 

No matter what type of mechanical devices we use, or even if we go to war against death, still there’s nothing that can stop us from dying. No matter what type of sophisticated medical facilities there might be, they can’t prevent us from dying when our time is up. In fact, the doctor himself will die too when his time is up. 

If it were possible to buy our life from death, if there were mechanical devices, medicine or mantras or something that could prevent dying, then the richest people would have been able to buy that. Yet, we find that this isn’t the case. There aren’t any rich people who can prevent themselves from dying. These are three points to meditate upon concerning this aspect of the time of death.  

The second point about death being certain is the fact that no matter what our lifespan is, there’s no extra time that can be added to that. In other words, if we’ve accumulated the karmic potential from a previous lifetime to live a lifespan of 100 years in this life, then there’s nothing that we can do in this life to live beyond those 100 years. Once we’re born, the 100 years just begin to tick away. 

As soon as we’re born, no matter what we do, we’re just going closer and closer to our death. We’re going constantly toward our death. It’s not that we can stop and sort of step off the moving belt for a while and then continue. It’s like being on a fast-moving airplane, car, or train in which there’s no stopping. When driving a car, of course we can stop it and back up; however, when we’re in the car that’s heading toward death, there is no backing up. We should think about that.  

The third point about the certainty of death is that while we’re alive, the actual time that we have to devote to Dharma practice is extremely short. For example, if we’re going to live for 50 years, then if we add up all the time that we actually devote to Dharma practice, it might come to only three or four years. If we consider the amount of time that we spend sleeping each night, eating, going to work, and all these things, then the amount of time that’s left to actually devote to Dharma practice is extremely short. 

When we’re young, when we’re children up to the age of about 16, we’re not even aware or mindful of Dharma practice. After that, if we do become aware of Dharma practice and we think to do it, then even so, there’s only a short amount of time that we can devote to it. For instance, we can consider the example of ourselves here today. The day is very long, but throughout the entire day we’re only devoting perhaps this one hour here for Dharma and the rest of the time we’re involved in other things. Even if we’re here now for an hour, it’s just for a short number of days and it’s a very rare occasion. 

These are the three reasons that substantiate why our death is certain. At the conclusion of meditating on these three points concerning the fact that, because we’ve been born, it’s certain that we’re going to die, we should make the decision to practice the Dharma before we run out of time. Even if we think to practice the Dharma, we might normally think to do it tomorrow or the day after tomorrow; however, we shouldn’t think of it like that at all.   

How Karmic Potential Affects Our Perception

The second main point that we should think about is that there’s no certainty as to the time of death. There are three aspects to consider in this regard, but before we get into them, there is something that needs to be presented concerning the description of the universe as consisting of Mount Meru, the four continents and the eight subcontinents. This is the description of the universe according to the abhidharma teachings. There’s another explanation or description of the universe according to the Kalachakra teachings that is slightly different. 

According to the abhidharma teachings, Mount Meru is square, extremely pretty, and is arranged in a very nice manner; in the Kalachakra description, Mount Meru is round and appears in a very terrifying aspect that sort of hangs just over our heads. There are actually people who perceive this feeling that there’s Mount Meru directly over their heads and it’s about to fall on them. It’s something very terrifying. Of course, Mount Meru doesn’t fall on them; however, according to this description, there are people who experience with great fear this terrifying vision of Mount Meru about to fall on their heads.  

The way that things appear to us really depends on our own karmic potentials. Because of an individual karmic potential and because of the shared, general karmic potential that’s been built up by everyone, the way the earth appears to people in general these days is as a sphere. This globe that we live on constitutes the appearance of the southern continent. We shouldn’t think that the northern, western and eastern continents are included on this earth. The globe just constitutes the southern continent. 

Concerning the description of the universe in terms of a square Mount Meru and the four continents, these days, we don’t have the karmic potential to be able to see things that way. They don’t appear like this to us. Yet, even though things appear to us now as just the sphere of the earth, and even if we’re very insistent that there’s only this earth and there’s no such thing as Mount Meru and the other continents and other worlds, there’s no way that we can actually prove that. We also can’t go to the other extreme and become a Dharma fanatic who says that the universe, in fact, only exists as Mount Meru, the four continents and the eight subcontinents. Yet another extreme would be to insist that the way that the world appears now as a globe is something like a mere appearance and it’s not really like that at all. We can’t go to that extreme either because, in fact, the earth is round, it’s like this sphere. It is the way it exists. 

Karmic potential is very interesting. For instance, consider the liquid in this glass – we all see it as water, but to hungry ghosts, it would appear as pus. When human beings look at it, we see it as water. When gods look at it, they see it as nectar. We can’t say that everyone will see this glass of liquid in the same way. It’s just in terms of the particular individual karmic potential to see it in a certain way that determines how it will appear to each being. This is something we should be very careful about here, as it is an important point.  

When we say that humans see this as water, hungry ghosts as pus and blood, and gods as nectar, each is a valid way of seeing and a correct point of view for the perception of that type of being. In other words, we would have to say that it is true, and, in fact, this is a glass of pus and blood for a hungry ghost, and it is a glass of water for humans, and it is a glass of nectar for gods. These are not distorted perceptions such as seeing a double image of the moon, a white snow mountain as blue, or seeing trees moving backwards when we’re riding past them in a train. Those are examples of distorted perception in that what we see doesn’t actually correspond to what exists. However, in this example of seeing this liquid as pus, water or nectar, these do in fact validly exist.  

Like this, we would have to say that the earth seen as a sphere is valid and true and it does exist like that, and people see it that way. Likewise, we would have to say that the universe can also be seen as a square Mount Meru with four continents and eight subcontinents due to the power of karmic potential. It exists in this form by means of the power of the karmic potential of those who see it that way. 

Within that system in which the universe appears as Mount Meru and so on, we live in the southern continent and, on the other side of Mount Meru from us, is the northern continent. When the sun rises and shines here on the southern continent, since the sun revolves around Mount Meru, then it’s night in the northern continent.  

Some people in Tibet say that because, when it’s day in Tibet, it’s night in North America, so therefore North America must be the northern continent. To say that is nonsense. That’s not so. To say it’s like that would be confusing the two different systems and mixing the two together, making a mess. It’s not that way. When we’re speaking of southern and northern continents, it’s within the context of the description laid out in the abhidharma texts and we shouldn’t confuse other systems and other ways of thinking into those systems. They are two completely different systems that shouldn’t be mixed together. 

The Uncertainty of the Time of Our Death

The relevance of this discussion of Mount Meru and the four continents is that in the text A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge, Abhidharmakosha, there is a description of the human beings of the northern continent as living for 1,000 years, with their lifespan fixed and certain. Humans in the southern continent, however, have lifespans that are uncertain with no fixed lifespan. This refers to us.

We can understand this in terms of how in general the lifespan of humans of the southern continent in the beginning of the last intermediate eon of the eons of evolving was a countless number of years, a zillion years, or the largest finite number, and then it slowly decreased until the lifespan was several tens of thousands of years, then several thousands of years, several hundreds of years, and now it’s below that and life spans are without any certainty. There are some people who live to be 100 and some die in their 20s. Some die as soon as they’re born. There’s no certainty as to how long any one of us will live.  

There are three aspects to meditate upon concerning the uncertainty of our life span and when we will die: 

  • The first point is that there are more circumstances for causing our death than there are circumstances for remaining alive. If we think about this, it is something that we can understand quite easily. There are so many different types of weapons and machines that can kill us and terrible things that are present in the world that can cause our death. We all know that. 
  • The second point is that the things that can actually keep us alive, such as all the various types of medicines or medical treatments, are very rare. Even if there is a powerful medicine that can help keep us alive, usually it’s very expensive and not so easy to get hold of. However, we don’t have to pay anything to get something that’s going to kill us. Furthermore, various things that we use to try to keep us alive, for instance food, can turn bad and kill us.  
  • The third point is that our bodies are extremely fragile and weak. It would be something else if our bodies were made out of stone or iron, but that’s not the case. Our insides are as delicate as the insides of a watch. Just like a watch, which has very delicate little wheels inside and the slightest thing can set them off, we have things inside us like lungs, intestines, stomach and liver that can be harmed and set off at the slightest touch. There’s the example of the potato farmer who was plowing his field to plant some potatoes. He went home to eat and started boiling some oil to fry some bread. He put the bread in the oil but dropped dead before he could take the bread out of the oil. 

From this example, we can surely see that the time of death is completely uncertain. We can just drop dead instantly at any time. Concerning the main point that the time of death is completely uncertain, we have these three aspects to consider and meditate upon. At the conclusion of this, we should come to the decision that we’re going to practice the Dharma right now. We’re not going to put it off until tomorrow or the next day, because we could die at any time. 

Nothing Helps at the Time of Death Except for Dharma

The next point is that, except for Dharma, nothing else is of help at the time of death. Taking this as the main point, again there are three points to consider:

  • The first is that our body is of no help at the time of death. No matter how nice the clothing we buy for our body, no matter how nice the food we feed it, at the time of death we have to leave our body behind. It’s not going to be of any help at all. 
  • The second point is that no matter how many friends, relatives, loved ones, attendants and employees we have, at the time of our death none of them are going to be of any help to us. Even if there is a powerful army general sleeping in bed with armed guards all around him, he’s going to die. The armed guards aren’t going to be of help. In fact, the more friends and relatives we have around us when we’re dying, the more pain they cause us because they’re all mourning about losing us. We become so attached when thinking about leaving them behind that, in fact, it causes more harm than help at the time of death. 
  • The last point is that money, wealth and possessions are of no use at the time of death. No matter how much wealth and possessions we have when we die, we can’t take even a tiny speck of them with us.  

A few years ago, His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave a Kalachakra initiation in Ladakh, India, and this is an account about the patron who requested this initiation. This patron had a very wealthy friend who died. When he died, there was nothing he could do with all his wealth and possessions. They just covered his body with a white cloth and took the body away to be cremated. Seeing the end that his wealthy friend came to, this man decided that he would use his money to request and sponsor the Kalachakra initiation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 

The patron explained all this to Rinpoche, about how the wealthy man died, with none of his wealth or possessions with him, and was cremated covered with a white cloth. Rinpoche relayed this story to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, explaining that this man told him how his friend died and had to leave all his wealth and couldn’t take anything; when he died, there was just the white cloth. His Holiness remarked, “Oh, he was able to take the white cloth with him then?” However, in fact, he couldn’t even take the white cloth either as it was burned in the cremation fire. Even the white cloth that they cover our body with for cremation cannot come with us.

After thinking and meditating about these three points, the conclusion is that we need to practice the Dharma. Nothing else is of any help – not friends, wealth, possessions, or our body – we can’t take anything with us. However, Dharma practice is something that can be of help and therefore this is the only thing that we should devote ourselves to in terms of what can benefit us at the time of death. 

We don’t have to study so much about death and impermanence from texts in order to realize the reality of it. All around us, if we just look, there are so many people who die, so many funerals, cremations, and things like that. It’s all around us. It’s just a matter of time until it’s our turn. When we observe advanced tantric practitioners and see them with human skull cup bowls, trumpets made of human thigh bones, and various things like this, there’s a purpose for all of that. It’s so they will always remain mindful of death. 


If there were nothing after death, it wouldn’t be so awful. There wouldn’t be so much to be apprehensive about. But, after we die, there’s rebirth. As for where we can take rebirth, there’s only two possibilities: in one of the fortunate states or one of the unfortunate ones. If we’ve built up a great deal of positive karmic potential from constructive actions we’ve done, we can be reborn in one of the fortunate states and then there’s nothing to be frightened of. However, if we examine ourselves honestly, we see that, in fact, we’ve built up, instead, a great deal of negative karmic potential and, as a result, that potential will lead to rebirth in one of the unfortunate realms.  

Rebirth in the Unfortunate Rebirth States and Taking Refuge as the Way to Overcome Fear of That

There are three unfortunate rebirth states. The hell realms and the hungry ghost realm are things that we can’t see ourselves with our own eyes, and therefore maybe they’re difficult to think about seriously. Yet, we do have animals to look at, and that’s an unfortunate state of rebirth. We should consider the type of suffering that’s involved with being an animal, and when we imagine this, we can develop great fear in that we don’t want this to happen to us. 

When we become frightened or apprehensive, then in this state of fear, we would look for some protection or refuge to show us a safe direction to take in order to avoid such a rebirth. If there were nothing that could afford protection from this fear, then all we are left with is fear. But there is something that can offer protection from the fear. If we ask, what is the source of refuge and safe direction that can help us to prevent this fear and avoid this suffering, it’s the Three Jewels of Refuge – the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha community. 

The verse of prostration at the beginning of this text specified the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as the Three Jewels of Refuge. What qualities must an object of refuge have in order to be able to provide a safe direction? The first quality is that they have to be a person who is free of all fears. If they weren’t free of all fears themselves, how could they possibly help others overcome their fears? The Buddha is such an object of refuge, free of all fears as a result of having built up an enormous store of positive potential from the constructive actions he committed over three countless eons, and as a result of his having eliminated all his shortcomings and defilements. 

The next thing a Buddha requires to be able to offer us refuge and a safe direction in life is being skillful in methods for being able to free others from their fears. But before we continue, are there any questions at this point?


What should I do if I am having difficulty, for example, in making a mandala offering of Mount Meru and the four continents etc., and in believing some things in general?

What is the basis for the difficulty in offering it with conviction? Is it that you don’t think that the universe exists that way? You shouldn’t have any doubts about it. It is a valid way in which it exists. And if we offer a mandala in that form, eventually we will be able to understand how it does exist in that way. If we think about it, eventually the conviction will come. 

Perhaps an example will help. For instance, let’s say we own a large piece of land and, being wealthy, we think of constructing a large house on that land. At the time when we’re making the plans, we shouldn’t have doubts about whether or not this house can come about in reality. In other words, if we have conviction about the probability that it will come about in reality, and we go through the process of building it, it actually will come about. But, at the time when we are making the plans, even though we have it in our mind as a projection, it doesn’t exist in reality at that time. However, it is something that we can build and bring about.  

We should think that the world does exist in this way and we might not be able to see it in this way now, but we do in fact have the karmic potential to be able to see it in that way. It’s just a matter of building up enough karmic potential to be able to see it in that way. For example, when they say that everybody has the karmic potential to be reborn as Indra, as the king of the gods, this possibility does exist, because we all have had beginningless lifetimes during which we have built up the karmic potential for experiencing everything possible. That is the way that it is. It’s just a matter of what’s going to bring this karmic potential to fruition.  

When we offer a mandala in this particular form, this in itself is something very positive and constructive. It is very meritorious and can contribute toward us being able to actually see the universe in that way at some point in time. If we have doubts about that, it could undermine all the deity practices that we might be engaging in as well. This is because, in fact, as we visualize ourselves as a meditational deity, at this point we’re not yet a meditational deity. However, it serves as a method for being able to actually generate ourselves in that form sometime in the future. This is the same thing.   

If we follow this line of reasoning further, we could have doubts about being able to generate a kind and warm heart. Likewise, it might be something that at present we’re meditating on, but we might not have it yet. However, just to say that if we don’t have it now means that it can’t come about would make it impossible for us to ever develop a kind heart. Likewise, it would be impossible to ever learn Tibetan if we don’t know Tibetan now. It would be even the case that a child born in England could never learn English because they didn’t know it in the beginning when they were born.

Why is it that the fact that we should devote ourselves to Dharma practice right now is a reason for the certainty of death?

That’s a very good question. What you say is correct. It’s not exactly a reason for saying that death is certain. But it is a fact that when we are alive, there is only a short amount of time that we can devote to Dharma practice. We should think about the time that we have alive. The amount of time devoted to Dharma is so short when compared to all the rest of the time we devote to activities other than Dharma. As our death is something that is going to come for sure, and as it’s just a matter of time, but we don’t know when it will come, then it pushes us more toward thinking about how we divide our time. We see that, in fact, we don’t put our major emphasis on Dharma practice, and therefore the time we allocate to it is very short. So, thinking of the certainty of death motivates us to feel a strong need to practice the Dharma, since it’s the decision that we come to on the basis of this point of death being certain.

Is our lifespan fixed? Is there nothing that we can do to ever change that?

We can understand this from an example. If a person is elected to a government position for three years, the term of office will last for three years unless this person does something really bad. Whatever happens, they lose office after three years. Likewise, from previous karmic potential, we have a certain lifespan; however, we also need circumstances to bring it about. In other words, if we have a seed of rice, it can produce a rice plant as a result; however, it also needs circumstances like water and fertilizer to bring it about. With bad circumstances like a drought or something like this, it won’t grow.  

Similarly, we might have the lifespan from past karmic potential to live for 50 years; nevertheless, if we just eat any which way and drive crazily on the roads, we can die before that because of bad circumstances. In other words, just because we have a certain lifespan, it doesn’t mean that we will live that long. It means that if we’re well and we’re careful, we can live that long. Nonetheless, we can also die before that by not being careful, from accidents and things like that.  

It’s the same in terms of a fortune teller. They can see the lifelines in our hand and say something about our lifespans, but we can die before that from other circumstances. Just because we have a lifespan, it’s not certain that we will live that long. Everybody also has the karmic potential to have untimely deaths. 

It’s possible that we have a lifespan of 60 years as a human being but, because of the karmic potential we’ve built up, we die of an accident at the age of 40. It is possible, although not in all cases, that we will then be reborn as a human who will live for the 20 remaining years from that previous life. That’s not always the case, but that can happen. 

We need three things to be exhausted for us to die. We need: 

  • The lifespan to be finished
  • The karmic potential for that rebirth to be finished
  • The vital force to be finished. 

When all three of those are exhausted, then our lifetime is finished. 

If there isn’t the karmic potential to die today, we won’t die today. We need to have the karmic potential. We have lots of different karmic potentials, but the point is that if we don’t have the karmic potential for something to happen, it won’t happen. We’ll be discussing this point in our next session. No matter what happens to us, it happens because we have the karmic potential for it to happen. 

I was taught previously that the karmic potential for a lifespan was measured in terms of the number of breaths taken. The impression, as I understood it, was that a life was not just measured in years as we know it but rather in the number of actual breaths we take. It seemed as though there are certain practices in which we could hold our breath, and we would actually lengthen our lives. Could you clarify this?

That’s the correct understanding. There are practices regarding extending our lifespan as measured in terms of number of breaths. There is the vase breath-holding practice and, if a person does that for six months, it can increase the lifespan by three years. It is said that there are 21,600 breaths each day. Therefore, if we breathe very quickly, pant and release breath in that manner, it will lessen our lifespan. Conversely, if we are much more relaxed and breathe slowly and easily, it’s much healthier and gives us a longer life. Likewise, we live longer if we live closer to sea level than if we live very high in the mountains. In Tibet the lifespan is slightly shorter compared to other places – only 50 to 60 years. This is due to the high altitude. Here, in lower altitudes, in general, people have higher life expectancies. It’s true.

We have discussed, now, three of the four points for the initial scope. The first is death and impermanence; the second is the suffering of the lower realms; and the third is refuge. The fourth point is karmic cause and effect. We’ll cover the details about karma in that discussion next session.