The Meaning of Dzogchen
by Ven. Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche
In this video, Ven. Khenpo Tsewang Rinpoche clearly defines the essential meaning of Dzogchen, offering strong advice about the importance of putting the teachings into practice.
One Month Dzogchen Retreat on Lama Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol’s Togal Instructions
Padma Samye Ling
April 11, 2018
“Meeting these teachings is not coincidental. We are soaked with so many great teachings. But this alone is not enough. We have to practice. Now is our time. Each person has to do their own share.”
Ven. Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche
Photo of the Sangha first greeting Ven. Khenpo Tsewang Rinpoche on the 1st day of the 2018 PSL Togal Retreat on April 7, 2018.
What Is the Purpose of Going on a Meditation Retreat?
by Ven. Khenpo Tsewang Rinpoche
One Month Dzogchen retreat on Flight of the Garuda
Padma Samye Ling
April 24, 2016
Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind from Samsara
1. Life is Precious
3. Cause and Result is inevitable
4. Life has a lot of difficulties
PBC 2018 Winter Dzogchen Retreat
Palm Beach Dharma Center
January 18, 2018
Photo of Ven. Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche bestowing a Guru Dragpo empowerment at Padma Samye Ling in 2012.
Garland of Views
by Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche & Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche
Edited by Alan Pope
Free Download: 2010 PBC Pema Mandala Magazine
Excerpted from the Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches’ commentary on Garland of Views by Guru Padmasambhava, in West Palm Beach, FL, January 2005
“As we listen to this teaching, it is important to restrengthen our motivation of bodhichitta, joy, and appreciation, and together with that, our purity understanding of the absolute true nature. With this motivation, we will briefly discuss Garland of Views: A Collection of Esoteric Instructions (Tib. man ngag lta ba’i ’phreng ba),which was given by the great teacher Guru Padmasambhava, and is one of the most renowned works of philosophy in Buddhism. In this teaching, Guru Padmasambhava used the metaphor of a garland to represent the wide range of possible views that we can have.
What is the purpose of studying and knowing all these views? When we practice, three very connected elements are always present: view, meditation, and conduct. Among these three, our view is the most important. If our view is wrong, then our meditation and conduct will be wrong, and they will not go in the right direction. Therefore, knowing the perfect view is crucial. Try to strongly activate that view and meditate on it. Then, based on that view and meditation, good actions and conduct will naturally follow.
As Guru Padmasambhava stated in this teaching, we can summarize the vast number of possible views into two groups: (1) the worldly views of samsara and (2) the nonworldly, or Buddhist views. The worldly views are associated with the ways most of us think, believe, and act. They are known as “worldly” because they are always connected with some form of grasping or clinging.
These views are not developed outside of us—they are created by the mind and projected outwardly. Because people’s ways of thinking, seeing, and reacting to phenomena are so complex, the variety of possible worldly views is also complex. Even so, we can organize them so that every worldly view falls into one of four groups:
(1) flat views [phyal ba]
(2) rejecting views [rgyang ‘phen pa]
(3) dead-end views [mur thug pa]
(4) hanging-up views [mu stegs pa]
According to the Guhyagarbha Tantra, these four worldly views can be considered in two groups: the first two are far from the true nature, while the second two are much closer to the true nature, although they are still mistaken views of ignorance.
The first worldly view, the flat or blank view, is far from the true nature. With this view, you generally do not think about anything; you are entirely unreflective. You do not consider anything about form, foundation, or the process of cause and effect. You do not think about the past or the future, or even much about the present. You do not believe in virtues or nonvirtues. You simply are the way you are, without ideas or thoughts, enjoying this life, or struggling against it, with no real means of advancing yourself further. Because you have no ideas, you do not think that such things are of any importance. This is the basic character of the flat or blank view, although we should recognize that within this category there actually are many individual variations in views and ways of thinking.
The second group of worldly views, the rejecting view, or throwing-far-away view, is that of the materialist or hedonist. If you hold a view that falls into this group, you generally do not want to investigate or analyze too much, choosing instead to simply accept what you believe or have heard, giving complete power to “the authorities” for your knowledge and understanding. You do not believe that you can see anything beyond what the naked eye reveals; therefore, anything that you do not see, hear, feel, or sense, you reject or throw away as though it doesn’t exist. For example, you think that only this present life exists—there is no past and no future. Only this life matters. You do not think about whether there is a life before or after this one, and you therefore do not consider the past or future lives of yourself or others. You simply want to be rich and powerful in this life, and there is nothing more to consider than that. You reject or throw everything else far away.
The third view, the dead-end view, is closer to the true nature, although it is still a view of ignorance. This is the view of the nihilist. If you hold this view, you want to go far beyond to a deeper level, but you are stuck where you are. You believe nothing beyond what you can see for yourself. You investigate and analyze things, but when you do not find something, you say it doesn’t exist. For example, you do not believe very deeply in the past or the future, or in all the different types of causes, conditions, and results. You will challenge others to prove that there is a life after this one. You have no confidence in the virtues described in spiritual teachings because you have not seen good results from doing good things or bad results from doing bad things. You believe there are no reasons for things like the sun coming up because these things just happen naturally by themselves. Similarly, you would say that we are here in the same way, without reason or cause. There is nothing more than that.
The fourth classification of worldly views, the hanging-up view, is also closer to the true nature, but it falls short as well. This is the view of the eternalist. If you hold this view, you make exaggerated or extreme claims and hold onto them. You analyze and investigate all kinds of systems, but then fabricate something that you claim is there, such as the existence of a permanent ego or soul, or a principle force that has created everything. In addition, according to this view, things such as permanence, permanent existence, and causes and results are not really connected together. For example, the permanent ego or “I” has no cause, which implies that even though there is no cause, there can be a result, and that result is permanent. It is even believed that there can be a cause without a result. Although individuals holding this view are looking beyond the present to the past and future, and beyond where the five senses can go, they nominate the idea that suits their own beliefs or philosophy and then grasp onto it, even in the absence of logic or proof.
The nonworldly or Buddhist views are divided into two categories: (1) the views of the causal Sutrayana, which are the beginning or foundation of the Buddha’s teachings; and (2) the views of the Tantrayana or Vajrayana, the advanced teachings that are the most direct, detailed, and complete teachings. Either way, the teachings of the Buddha are liberative and lead practitioners beyond the world of samsara.
The Sutrayana is called the “Causal Yana” because in this practice you mainly focus on the causes and conditions required to produce a good result. Even though you may look forward to having a good result, it won’t come to fruition if you do not establish good causes and conditions. Therefore, in the Causal Yana teachings, Buddha emphasized that we should be wise with regard to causes and conditions. If causes and conditions are good, a good result will come without any difficulties. If causes and conditions are not good, a good result will never come even though you are looking for it. Therefore, it is important to be very wise and careful in gathering and activating good causes and conditions.
While the Causal Yana focuses mainly on the causes and conditions, the Vajrayana or Resultant Yana focuses principally on the result. In this vehicle, you connect directly with your innate awareness—the indestructible nature of mind that is beyond duality. For example, when you practice the Vajrayana, you instantly visualize yourself as an enlightened deity and see the universe as a pure land; in other words, you adopt the same vision as that of a buddha. Through these techniques and through your meditation, you try to jump into that state of awareness instantly. This does not mean that you are making up something that is not there; instead, you are going directly and forcefully, yet skillfully, through all of your habitual patterns to the inner state of your own true nature. This true nature is the original, authentic, pristine, enlightened state—which is the nature of all beings—yet only enlightened awareness fully recognizes this. Therefore, Vajrayana practice is the true and ultimate practice, direct and powerful. If you are able to continually maintain this view without doubt and hesitation, then you will achieve enlightenment very soon. For this reason, the Vajrayana is known as the swift diamond path. By residing in the free, brilliant awareness of our authentic nature, we chop down every habitual pattern and every bit of grasping instantly within its own natural state. This is known as the Resultant Yana.
Our view is very important in determining how our meditation and conduct unfold. In presenting and describing all of these different views, Guru Padmasambhava is not saying that you should do this or avoid doing that. He explains these views so that Buddhist practitioners can understand them better, so that, as Vajrayana practitioners in particular, we can refresh and restrengthen our Vajrayana view and realization.”
Photo of the Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches in Oregon in the 1980s.
“Maitreya clearly states that buddha-nature, or tathagatagarbha has four different qualities. We have seen that some of the great early Tibetan scholars explained buddha-nature almost as though it were a state of negation. One scholar countered that such a view is incorrect, given that Maitreya clearly showed how Buddha Shakyamuni did not explain buddha-nature as a state of negation. Some of the early masters dismissed this point in low-key way. In any case, what are the four qualities of buddha- nature?
(1) First, ‘Buddha-nature is great purity beyond all concepts of pure and impure.’
(2) Second, ‘Buddha-nature is the great self beyond all beyond all concepts of self and no-self.’
(3) Third, ‘Buddha-nature is great blissfulness of pleasure and pain, or suffering and bliss.’
(4) Finally, ‘Buddha-nature is the great permanent state beyond all concepts of permanence and impermanence.’
We can summarize this in a simple way by saying, ‘Buddha-nature is beyond duality mind.’ Characteristics such as permanent and impermanent, clean and dirty, pure and impure, self and no-self are all dualistic conceptions—they are the labels, restrictions, and distractions of duality mind. In reality, tathagatagarbha goes beyond each and every one of those boundaries. The Buddha taught this very specifically throughout his Prajnaparamita teachings. If you have the time or opportunity, it is good to read the one hundred thousand stanzas of the Prajnaparamita; I think this text has been translated into English. In this teaching, the Supreme Teacher states, ‘O Subhuti, noble sons and daughters engage in the Prajnaparamita, the wisdom that goes beyond. If you hold on to form as permanent, you are grasping; if form is impermanent, you are grasping; if form is clean, you are grasping; if form is unclean, you are grasping.’ When the Buddha taught this, he was uprooting the dualistic conceptions to which we normally cling. Duality will never discover the true taste of reality itself. By making and holding on to labels, we get caught and bound up in delusion; whatever we do will be like a pigeon who walks in a cotton field and gets caught in the cotton, or a pigeon who gets stuck in a lamb’s wool. We have a Tibetan word that refers to when a pigeon tries to walk on a lamb and gets stuck in its wool—that big pigeon can’t get out!
The mind of the Buddha is known by many different names in the Buddhist scriptures. Sometimes it is known as ‘the union of the two truths’ or ‘the great absolute truth that is the union of the two truths.’ Other times it called ‘great emptiness with all inherent good qualities’ and ‘great wisdom that goes beyond all conception.’ It is also called ‘mother of the buddhas of the three times,’ ‘tathagatagarbha,’ and ‘buddha-nature.’ The beginning of the Heart Sutra briefly explains this nature, stating, ‘Inconceivable, inexpressible prajnaparamita, unborn, unceasing, by nature like the sky. Experienced by self-reflexive awareness discerning pristine cognition…’
When we discuss buddha-nature and study it according to the different systems of philosophy, it almost looks as though buddha-nature exists somewhere else, somewhere outside ourselves. Nonetheless, we are actually discussing our own innate nature. Buddhist philosophy establishes tathagatagarbha by means of logic and valid cognition, arriving at conclusions about the truth of the nature in this way. This is exactly what the Buddha taught; he said we should use logic and reason to examine the truth of his teachings, discovering and actualizing the nature in our own experience. In order to practice correctly, we need to develop certainty wisdom. Certainty and trust in the teachings will bring about the result of realization. Without the confidence of certainty wisdom, our practice will become shaky.
In his Beacon of Certainty, the great Mipham Rinpoche asks, ‘If you don’t engage in detailed analysis of the teachings, how can you be free from doubt? And if you haven’t freed yourself from doubt, how can you practice? Being full of doubt, how will the continual chain of karmic winds and actions be stopped? Even if you somehow manage to stop general reactions based upon these karmic winds, how can you go beyond or renounce samsara?’ Upon developing realization of the great dharmadhatu, we will no longer discriminate between samsara and nirvana, because we will perceive both as a display of the beautiful nature; samsara and nirvana are the completely pure display of the innate nature of our buddha mind. The teachings refer to this as the ‘one taste of samsara and nirvana,’ in which both merge into a single state. This is buddha-nature, the authentic nature of mind.”
Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches
Opening the Wisdom Door of the Rangtong & Shentong Views (pgs 93-95)
Photo of Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches bestowing a Tsasum Lingpa Vajrakilaya empowerment in New York City in 2009.
“Once the Tibetan Queen Ngangyung Palje Gyalmo asked Guru Padmasambhava for teachings on the nature of mind. He introduced her to the nature of mind, and at the end he said:
Practice many times and in short sessions, like an old leaking roof,
While continually maintaining joyful effort.
Meditate by resting in rigpa for short periods according to your capabilities. Repeat your recognition many times, with an emphasis on the quality of your practice rather than striving to practice for a long time. Between formal sessions of sitting meditation, cultivate devotion to your teacher, pure perception of your fellow practitioners, and see the whole universe as unreal and like a dream. Reactivate all of these points during post-meditation, and then return to Dzogchen meditation. By carefully considering the seven nails again and again, you will develop a deep sense of impermanence, karma, and the futility and unreality of samsara, as well as joyful effort on the path, devotion to your teacher, and proper presence in meditation.”
Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches
Forthcoming: The Seven Nails: The Final Testament of the Great Dzogchen Master Shri Singha (pg 97)
Photo of Ven. Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche meditating in 1992, by Nancy Roberts.
INTRODUCTION TO THE SIX BARDOS
Venerable Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
Venerable Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche
“Buddhism is a teaching of non-violence, kindness, and compassion, as well as respect and appreciation for all living beings. Being harmonious and peaceful with everything that exists is the foundation of the entire teaching of Buddha Shakyamuni.
The great teacher Buddha Shakyamuni said that this is our nature—these qualities are not new ideas or dogma that you bring into your life only when you practice Buddhism. Love, kindness, and compassion are the basic nature of every living being. When we connect with this nature, it is so soothing; we feel more calm and peaceful, as well as more joy and satisfaction. Therefore, as we practice and reflect on life, death, and dying, the Buddha always emphasized that we should ignite our basic goodness qualities of love, kindness, and compassion, which in Buddhism are known as “bodhichitta,” or the “mind of enlightenment.” This will help us better understand the meaning of the natural rhythm and process of life and death.
The entire universe, including ourselves, is based on this nature. We never go out of the nature. Actually, we can’t go outside of the nature, and we’ve never been apart from it. Everyone has this same basic nature—every tiny movement and everything in general moves according to the nature’s rhythm and is a part of the natural process. In this way, life is natural, death is natural, and even the period after death is natural. These are all ongoing processes of the same nature. We should try to continually embrace all of the ways that nature manifests itself without fear. When we accept the nature with confidence and joy, everything is seen as a beautiful process.
This entire natural system moves in cycles. We can see this when we look at the movements of day and night. If there is day, then definitely there will be twilight and nightfall. If there is night, there will be dawn, morning, and daylight. This process continues, day after day and night after night, like a spiral. Similarly, winter, spring, summer, and autumn continually rotate into one another. When you look at all the cycles, from galaxies to our own bodies, every natural system is continually spiraling, breathing in and out and then pausing, before breathing in and out again. That is how the process of everything works.
Buddha Shakyamuni said this throughout his teaching, and it was also taught by Guru Padmasambhava and all the other great practitioners and masters. Every system is a part of the nature. There is nothing outside of the nature. Everything exists within this frame, and we ourselves are also a part of that. It is not that the nature is on one side, and we are on another side. We are part of the nature itself.
When we look at the external world, we see that everything goes through a similar process of birth, growth, and eventually comes to an end. But that is not the final end of the process. If the perfect causes and conditions meet, new, rejuvenated qualities emerge from what has fallen apart, and the process continues. This happens with the seasons and plants and everything. Nothing ever actually ends. When something passes, it continues into the beginning of a new cycle.
Our life is the same. We take birth, grow up, and then die. According to Buddhism, death is not the end of life. In a way, death is the beginning of another era or chapter of life—we continue the process of life and death. Nothing ever really stops. As long as the right causes and conditions exist, everything continues—the light continues to spark without end. In Buddhism, this is known as “karma.” Karma never ends. In a way, karma is a continual chain reaction. The first moment is the cause and condition, and the next moment becomes the result. That very result becomes the cause and condition for the following moment. Each moment ignites and rejuvenates itself in a continual process that never ends. This is how we continually go through life after life. In brief, this is the general view of the process of life and death in Buddhism.
If we look at our own situation, all of our lives began with birth. According to Buddhism, this current life is not the first time we took birth. This is just one of the many births that we have taken in this world. We are in an ongoing process of life and death. Our birth in this life was not the first and will not be the last. It is just one of our births in a chain of births that has no beginning and no end.
When we are born, what is it exactly that is taking birth? Consciousness takes birth. When our mind merges with the causes and conditions of our parents’ red and white elements coming together, we are conceived. After conception, we go through a process of many different stages—every week we grow and change in our mother’s womb. Then after about nine or ten months, we come out. This is normally known as “taking birth.” We then continue to grow from being a baby until where we are now. We are currently in the process of living.
The next stage we will all go through is that of dying and death. According to Buddhism, the time to prepare for our death is right now. We should all begin preparing for this transition now because while we’re in the process of dying, it’s difficult to begin making these preparations. So right now, while we are alive and well, is really the best time to prepare for the next transition or stage of life that we will have to face.
How do we prepare for our death and dying? The teachings always say that we should prepare by connecting to our nature. This goodness nature is the nature of the mind. There are many different ways to connect with this nature, but we should just immediately go to our mind. The mind is what is going to travel when we die. Therefore we should make a close connection to the mind itself. That is the great preparation. Connecting to the mind means touching the nature of the mind, which is love, kindness, and compassion, joy and confidence. These qualities are the nature of the mind, so we should really become closely connected to them.
Loving-kindness and compassion are really so important. They are not important because religion says so. According to the Buddha, these have nothing to do with religion—they are simply the nature of the mind. Everybody appreciates love and compassion because they are natural qualities. Religion may talk about or emphasize these qualities a little more, but aside from that, love and compassion are really just the nature of the mind. Therefore we should always connect our mind with its nature of love and compassion. When we connect to these qualities, we feel a sense of genuineness in our hearts and minds. We feel more relaxed, more calm, and peaceful. We also feel more satisfaction and joy. A very deep joy fills our hearts and minds when we have thoughts of love, compassion, and kindness. We can see this for ourselves.
On the other hand, without joy, love, and compassion, even if we have everything else in the world, everything seems kind of empty—nothing gives us a sense of complete satisfaction and joy. This is because we are not closely connected to our own nature. Unnatural things cannot provide the same ultimate satisfaction as the beautiful qualities of the nature. Therefore, loving- kindness and compassion are known as bodhichitta—the mind of enlightenment. Bodhichitta is the nature of the mind. When we cultivate these qualities and feel more closely connected to them by doing more activities based on love and compassion, this is the preparation for death and dying. It is also a great reward to ourselves—it feels good immediately and leads to final, ultimate joy as well. Sharing love and compassion is also a very special gift that we can provide for others, so that everyone is more joyful and happy. It’s a great healing process. For these reasons, discovering the nature of our mind and sharing all of our beautiful natural qualities is very important on many levels and in many ways—for this life, for when we are dying, and for our life after death.
In order to touch to this nature we must start with our mind. This is crucial. Each of us has a mind. It is intelligent and brilliant. It is beautiful, sparking, and shining. It encompasses multiple, colorful richness qualities. This is how the mind naturally is. The Buddha even said that it’s impossible to explain all of the richness qualities of our mind. They are beyond our mundane conceptions. And we all have this richness; it’s not something outside of what our own nature already is. In Buddhism, this basic, essential nature that we all have is known as “buddha-nature.” When we reconnect to our base, our mind becomes totally open, free, and infinite like the sky. Yet if we look and try to find out what this mind is exactly, we cannot find our mind. The mind is nowhere. It is beyond time and space, beyond all limitations and boundaries. This is how the nature of our mind is right now. We’re not talking about someone else’s mind. We’re talking about the mind of each and every one of us, and all of our minds are full of this richness.
So why aren’t we already aware of the nature of our own mind? In a way, our mind is deluded. It is filled with delusions of grasping and ego-clinging, self-importance and negative emotions. These unnatural qualities are completely deluding and preventing us from beholding and recapturing the beautiful, richness nature of our mind.
Grasping makes our minds very narrow, partial, regimented, and very tight. The grasping mind always wants something else—whatever fits exactly with what the ego wants. But the true nature of mind is totally free and flexible. It is infinite and includes everything. Therefore, grasping and the nature don’t fit very well together. Right now we are almost totally occupied and controlled by grasping and ego-clinging, which doesn’t agree with the nature. Eventually, the nature always takes over and grasping suffers. Grasping becomes sad and melancholy, and so we suffer. But that is not the nature’s fault. It is our mistaken grasping and ego-clinging that causes this. Grasping and ego-clinging don’t like to accept natural changes because they are set on having everything their way. When our mind gets stuck like this, the nature overruns us by following its natural flowing system, and so we begin to suffer.
Due to grasping, death can become very painful. If we refuse to accept the natural breathing rhythm of this process, as we die and even after death we can become very scared and uncertain. Otherwise, we will see death as just a transition or change, like day turning into night. Why are we clinging on to the day and trying to avoid the night? The night will come. If we’re always grasping on to day, and don’t want to experience twilight and night, what good does it do? Either way, night will come. We suffer because our grasping and ego-clinging don’t like to accept or see change. They like to see things a certain way, and when it doesn’t happen or when things change, that’s why all difficulties come.
As we move closer to our nature of acceptance, openness, freedom, love, and compassion—if we allow ourselves to be filled up with our nature’s beauty as it is, then everything in this life and after this life becomes a beautiful show of the nature’s rhythm. There is really nothing to be scared of, nothing that is alien or strange. It’s all a part of the display of the nature itself.
This beautiful nature is the nature of everything, including our mind. Our mind is naturally filled with love, compassion, and wisdom. These qualities are completely united. They are inseparable from one another. Love is emptiness, and emptiness is love. Compassion is emptiness, and emptiness is compassion. There is really no separation at all. Buddhism talks a lot about “emptiness.” Emptiness is not a vague, blank negation state of mind. Emptiness is total freedom, infinity, and fullness. It is beyond all territories, limitations, and boundaries. It’s not some icy, cold, hollow state. Emptiness is bursting with total freedom. Therefore, the Buddha taught that emptiness is loving-kindness, and loving-kindness is emptiness. Compassion is emptiness, and emptiness is compassion.
We can directly experience this by looking at our own mind. For example, when we talk about loving-kindness, where is that loving-kindness? When we look and try to find and grab that love, we cannot find any solid core existing in our experience of loving-kindness. That is known as “emptiness.” And yet, there is love, which is known as “appearance,” or “clarity.” The nature of our minds is so beautiful and special. When we closely connect to the nature, we immediately experience total fearlessness. All of our doubt and hesitation instantly disappear. In their place, we find total satisfaction, joy, and confidence arising within our mind. This is what we need to practice.
To practice means to closely connect to this nature. In Buddhism, this is known as “meditation.” Meditation means abiding within the nature, or being one with your own nature. When we become familiar with our nature and stay with that, we continue to carry that light now, during our dying process, and after we pass away. That light never ends. Now is the time to ignite our inner light. Then our light of wisdom, love, and compassion will shine throughout all the changes that we go through. This is why the teachings always say to prepare for death and dying now while we have every opportunity. While everything in our situation is under our control, we should prepare. If we wait until we’re dying, then even if we want to prepare for death, the circumstances and conditions usually don’t allow for that. It’s very difficult to start then. Now we are free and have every opportunity, so we should begin right now.
Preparation for death with actual practice is very important to do now. Even though you may intellectually be familiar with these ideas, if you don’t practice, your intellectual understanding and your actual experience of the nature remain separated. Whatever you learn intellectually, you must also absorb into your heart and mind. That is known as “practice.” As we all know, “practice makes perfect,” and even if it doesn’t make it exactly perfect, practice will make it close to perfect!
In Tibetan, the processes of death and dying are known as bardos. Bardo means “intermediate state,” or “period.” There are three main intermediate states that we all go through: (1) birth and life, (2) dying and death, and (3) after death. Among these three periods—the bardo of life, the bardo of dying, and the bardo of death—we are currently in the bardo of life. Our next period is the bardo of dying, which will continue until we die.
Death is inevitable for everyone without exception. Since death is an essential part of nature’s rhythm, everyone has to go through this period. Everyone who is born has to experience dying and death, no matter how rich they are, how powerful they are, or how renowned they are. Even beings with the highest realization have to pass through the bardo of dying. This is just a passage that we all have to go through. If we experience the day, we will inevitably experience the night. No one is outside of these experiences—we cannot avoid them. This is just how the nature moves. Of course, we’re not really telling you anything that you don’t already know. Still, it’s really important to reflect on why we die. Death is a part of the nature. The immediate reason that we die is that our body declines as it grows older. The elements in our body don’t have enough strength to hold themselves together as a body. In Buddhism, these elements are called the “five elements,” which include earth, water, fire, wind, and sky, or space. In a way, our physical body is a small example of these five elements, while the external world is a larger instance of the same five elements.
Buddhist cosmology describes how the external world also goes through these periods. Right now, the world seems very permanent, but it’s not going to stay this way forever. It might stay together for aeons and aeons, but in the end it will fall apart. Similarly, our body is made of the five elements. When we are young, our body is very fresh, more tangible, and light. But as it gets older and declines, eventually it loses the strength to hold itself together and it falls apart. The teachings often say that the five elements will go back to the five elements, and consciousness will depart and take off. Currently, our mind resides within a physical body that is borrowed from the five elements. Our consciousness is like a tenant, and our body is like a house. Eventually, the house will decline until it completely falls apart, and then the resident mind will go on to the next bardo. This is a general idea of how the dying process unfolds.
While there are many different teachings about the body and the five elements, a simple way to explain this is that the flesh aspect of our body is the earth element, which goes back to the earth when we die. The liquid aspect of our body is the water element, which returns to the water element. The warmth of our body is the fire element, which goes back to the fire element. Our breathing is the wind element, and that returns to the wind. Our consciousness is part of the sky, or openness, and after it separates from our body, it merges with space as it travels to the next stage. When the elements of our body “dissolve,” the nutrition or energy of these elements completely merges into the outer five elements, and that is when we usually say that a person is dead.
On a subtler or more detailed level, the tantric teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Padmasambhava say that even after our last breath, we are still not completely dead. Right after our last breath, the white and red elements in our body lose their positions. At the moment of conception, our white element came from our father, and our red element from our mother. The essences of these two elements reside in two different locations in our body. The essence of the red element mainly resides below our navel center. The essence of the white element mainly resides in the top of our head in the crown chakra. Right after our last breath, these two elements lose their positions: the white element’s energy begins coming downward, and the red element’s energy moves upwards, until they meet in our heart center, where our consciousness becomes completely trapped by them. At the beginning of this life in our mother’s womb, our consciousness was also trapped by the white and red elements as we were conceived. Similarly, when we are dying, the essence energy of the two elements meet in our heart center where they almost crush together, trapping our consciousness. This is the moment when a person is considered to be totally dead since the white and red elements have completely lost their positions in our body.
The bardo of dying concludes at the moment of death. During this process, the teachings often say that the dying person should connect more closely to their nature by bringing up more love, compassion, wisdom, and more confidence. You have to accept the situation. Don’t let yourself be manipulated by ego-clinging, grasping, and duality mind. Embrace the nature. Try not to be scared of this process—you have to accept it. If you’ve been practicing or developed some faith during your life, you should ignite that faith. It doesn’t matter what faith you have. You may be Buddhist or some other faith, but bring up your faith. This will support your confidence and affirm your destination.
This is the time to be more relaxed, settled, and confident. Maybe it’s a bit like skydiving. We’ve never been skydiving, but it seems that after you’ve learned all the instructions and are in a plane with a parachute and everything is ready, when it comes to the final jump, it’s good to be confident—it’s good to be happy and excited, and not scared and timid of your jump. Really, your practice of love and compassion and kindness is your parachute. Have joy and confidence, and bring up your faith and devotion. It’s an exciting moment. You’re moving forward in a beautiful way towards a beautiful destination. The teachings say that it’s very important to activate all of your good qualities and not to be scared.
If there are friends and family members around you, they should try not to create any kind of big emotional disturbances. Of course, the death of a loved one is a very emotional time. But try not to be very sad and cry since it can disturb the person who is leaving. Try to generate more peace and harmony, and create a more relaxed atmosphere. All of this will really help the person taking this journey to transition more smoothly.
If you’re a Buddhist practitioner and have made a close connection to the great nature by practicing Dzogchen, Mahamudra, or Madhyamaka during your life, the process of your death and dying provides great opportunities for realization. The time right after the energies of the two elements join together and your consciousness is trapped in your heart center is usually very brief. It depends on the individual, but it could be only a few seconds or a few minutes—either way, it won’t last too long. Right after the energy of that joining force releases, at that moment your mind will experience the authentic nature free from habitual patterns, free from any dogma, and free from any conceptions. It is brilliant like the autumn sky. This direct experience of the true nature dawns right then for everyone, but if you’ve been practicing Dzogchen, Mahamudra, or other great meditation techniques, then you’ll be more likely to recognize the true nature. If you’re able to merge your awareness with the realization of the nature right then, you won’t have to go through any further delusions in the bardo. At that moment, you reach enlightenment and connect to the “Dharmakaya Buddha,” the experience of complete realization.
The next bardo is the bardo of death. The bardo of death occurs between the moment of death and when you take rebirth. According to the Buddha, this period usually lasts an average maximum of about forty-nine days. Some people can stay one or two weeks, and after that they take rebirth, while others stay in this bardo for forty-nine days. In some cases, this state lasts for more than forty-nine days, but the average maximum of the bardo of death is forty-nine days.
What will our experience be like after we die and are in the bardo of death? Guru Padmasambhava said that it will be like a dream. It’s not the same as life because there’s no physical body or environment, but still your mental body goes through dream-like experiences. What you experience depends on your past actions. In your lifetime, if you did good things that were connected with true love, compassion, and wisdom, then this bardo experience will be smooth, soothing, and overall more comfortable. If you did a lot of negative activities that caused suffering and created trouble and imbalance during your life, due to these negative habitual patterns in your mind, your experiences will arise almost like mirror images of these activities, and your journey can be a little uncomfortable, restless, and frightening. You might experience this bardo more like a struggle. In any case, it’s all just a dream-like state. The dream-like nature of this bardo doesn’t really change, but according to the actions of previous lives, one dream may be smoother and the other rougher.
In either case, the experiences of the bardo of death do not exist outside of your mind. They are just imagined, self-reflected, dream-like experiences without any solidity. They are mental imaginations or reflections. If you practiced Vajrayana techniques of visualizing buddhas and other forms during your life, when you experience the illusory displays of the bardo of death, it’s very easy to connect to the imagined images and see them as your own self-display. If you immediately recognize that all of those experiences are just your mental imaginations, you will instantly stop rejecting and accepting them, and all of your feelings of hope and fear and doubt will cease. At that moment, your awareness kind of wakes up and you experience sudden realization, and all of your deluded displays end. By connecting to the “Sambhogakaya Buddha” in this way, you achieve enlightenment.
The forty-nine day period of the bardo of death is not the end. After this, consciousness takes rebirth according to its karma or previous actions. The habitual force of the mind draws us to take rebirth, wherever that might be. The moment of our rebirth begins with conception, taking birth, and the process goes on and on. This is how the process of birth, death, and dying continues.
Before taking rebirth, meditation practitioners have another opportunity to reach sudden enlightenment. If you have developed a good practice during your previous life, as you take rebirth you will have some control in choosing your destination and some of the circumstances of your rebirth. Instead of being controlled entirely by karma, your own intelligence will consciously choose rebirth and you will be born. This is known as immediately connecting to the enlightened quality of the “Nirmanakaya Buddha.” Nirmanakaya is the emanation quality of enlightened mind, so you consciously emanate in a new form out of your love and compassion for all beings.
This completes a full cycle of the nature’s rhythm: day becomes twilight and night, followed by dawn and the sunshine of another day. Then we can have breakfast, but not only that—we get to have a birthday party!
This is just a brief introduction to the process of death and dying and living according to the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Padmasambhava. Again, the most important time for us is this life—where we are right now. We should try to do good things connected with unconditional love, compassion, and wisdom. When we do these positive activities, we should try to be in touch with our nature, and not get caught up in too much grasping or clinging. That is the best preparation for the next stages that we’ll go through. This is what the teachings often say. The present time is very crucial and important for us—the time is in our hands, under our control, and we can do whatever we want. This is where we can make positive changes that will greatly support our future destinations and activities.
Of course, in our lives we have so many important things to do. But our activities of true love, compassion, and wisdom are so special and rewarding. Even the smallest expression of love and compassion contributes to a much larger vision in ways that are so special, we can’t even imagine. Therefore, we shouldn’t ignore even the smallest positive action. It really benefits ourselves and everyone, and we’re setting a very beautiful foundation that will grow and provide positive support for everyone as we go through the natural changes of life and death. This is what the teachings say, and this is how we can beautifully use our time now to prepare for the next bardos of death and dying.”
Venerable Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
Venerable Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche
The Essential Journey of Life and Death, Volume 1 (pgs 63-76)