Death & Dying – A Buddhist Perspective

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winters rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finish’d joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

–          William Shakespeare

Fact:  Human life involves both birth and death.  We must all come to dust – we must all die.  Our society seems out of whack by how it celebrates and has a love-affair with birth and avoids and mourns death.  There are birthing classes in every city.  But, when was the last time you heard anyone say that they were taking classes on learning how to die with full presence and joy?    Almost unheard of!

 Most of the world lives either in denial of death or in terror of it. Even talking about death is considered morbid, and many people believe that simply mentioning death is to risk wishing it upon ourselves.  Others look on death with a naive, thoughtless cheerfulness, thinking that for some unknown reason death will work out all right for them, and that it is nothing to worry about. – Sogyal Rinpoche

If we are lucid during the process, dying is such a precious period, because it is a time when we are confronted with life’s deepest truths. To be able to learn from and be transformed by these truths is one of the ultimate tasks of one’s spiritual practice.

Buddhism encourages people to prepare for death, by living  mindful, conscientious lives.   Buddhist practices serve to prepare a person for death. For example, people who’ve practiced mindfulness meditation regularly will generally have less fear of death than people who haven’t.  They will also have typically developed some of the inner qualities that help bring balance and equanimity in the face of death.  Experienced mindfulness meditators have a deeper appreciation for moment to moment impermanence – the birth and death of, or the arising and passing away of each moment. The ability to practice mindfulness on one’s deathbed is considered one of the most opportune times for liberation.  This practice also helps prepare for death as it requires one to become well practiced in continually letting go, and death is the ultimate letting go – of life!

 What happens at the moment of death is that the ordinary mind and its delusions die, and in that gap the boundless sky-like nature of our mind is uncovered.  So it is vital for us all to familiarize ourselves with the nature of mind while we are still alive. Only then will we be prepared when it reveals itself spontaneously and powerfully at the moment of death; be able to recognize it “as naturally,” the teachings say, “as a child running into its mother’s lap”  – Sogyal Rinpoche

Tibetan Buddhists view death as a transition point to the next life. For these Buddhists, death is a series of stages involving disintegration of physical elements into more and more subtle elements until finally the consciousness leaves the body.   Tibetan Buddhists believe one’s consciousness enters a “Bardo” or intermediary spirit body, which is the precursor to the next life. The consciousness may remain in this intermediary form a very brief time or up to 49 days before the soul finds a new womb to be reborn into and the new life is begun.

Buddhism, in general teaches us that the emotional, and mental state with which we die, will create karma that carries us into the next rebirth.  Thus, one of the main goals in dying in this tradition, is to die with as much awareness as possible, and in a wholesome state of mind.  Mindfulness is a wholesome activity of mind, so one should continue one’s mindfulness practice as long as possible while dying.  In order to avoid being plagued by unwholesome feelings while one is dying, if one has the time and energy, one will also want to heal any unresolved interpersonal relationship issues.

A number of practices are recommended for improving the quality of one’s mind during the death process. For example, one can recall one’s good virtues, deeds, or memories. One can practice loving-kindness to gladden the mind. One may also choose to think about the Buddha or other inspiring spiritual teachers. One can perform acts of generosity. One can arrange for the dying person’s environment to be as peaceful and spiritually supportive as possible –  Some people set up an altar with pictures of loved ones or important spiritual teachers placed around their rooms.

Theravada Buddhist teachings differ from Tibetan in that they say that there is no interval of time between one’s death and one’s rebirth into another realm.  One is immediately reborn into one of 31 different planes of existence.   These teachings rely heavily on dependent origination as the key to the state of one’s rebirth.  One’s karma (and not a soul) – the collection of unwholesome, wholesome or neutral karmic energy developed during one’s life time mostly dictates into which plane of existence one’s karmic awareness gets reborn.  Obviously, those who reach arahantship in both traditions, stop this cycle of rebirth and their karmic awareness gets to experience eternal nibbana.  The rest of us unenlightened beings will supposedly end up in one of the 31 different realms or planes of existence, which range from the “heavens” realms all the way down to “hell-like” realms (Hhmm, sounds vaguely familiar?), with several different realms in between (including our Human realm).

According to these teachings, unless we break free from this iron grip of karma, we are doomed to wander aimlessly from one of these planes of existence to another, without any true peace or satisfaction. The Buddha devoted his lifetime after his awakening to give us a key to breaking free from this wearisome wandering, once and for all.  

In addition, Buddhism encourages people to take the time to actually contemplate the topic of death. Instead of avoiding the topic, one is encouraged to confront it, not in a morbid, dreading way, but as directly as possible.  This is meant to help us develop a celebratory attitude towards death, and also to recognize it as an inherent part of life. Some Dharma teachers instruct students to maintain death as a constant companion, like one’s shadow that constantly follows the person.

I am a hospice volunteer, and I am humbled and honored to be able to sit with people who are dying.  Many of the dying people talk a lot to me while they still have the strength.  What I’ve noticed is that they really don’t give a hill of beans about any of their physical acquisitions.  Instead, they want to talk about the people they have loved – friends and family, alike.  They also want to talk about their regrets and sorrows.

Buddhism teaches us that at death, if you’ve lived a loving and caring life, you’ll think about all the special, magical moments of your life, and thereby have a more peaceful, joy-filled death.  Whereas, if you’ve lived a self-serving, disconnected life, you will die an emotionally painful death filled with remorse and regrets.

In reality, since none of us who are here remember dying recently, we really have NO clue what happens to us after death.  Even though people blame karma for atrocities that kill many, we also really cannot understand or explain for a fact why good people die horrible deaths.  Any theories we have are nothing more than pure speculation.  Plus, whether you believe in an afterlife or not, I believe that it would still be greatly beneficial to prepare for death, while you are still very much alive.  To prepare your mind and heart for death, contemplate the following questions regularly:

  •  How prepared am I to die?
  • What REALLY matters most to me?
  • Have I led a meaningful life?
  • Have I loved well, with an open and generous heart?
  • Is the world a better place because I was here?
  • How present have I been for each moment of my life?

Today may be our last day.  There are no guarantees we will be here tomorrow.  So, each day we wake up and are still here, we have been given a second chance – at loving and caring more deeply, engaging in our spiritual practice with greater diligence, and being present to actually enjoy, appreciate, and embrace each moment as though it were our last.


One of the best resources for practicing the contemplation on death is Larry Rosenberg’s book Living in the Light of Death (Shambhala, 2000), in which he offers a variety of helpful death awareness practices

The Thirty One Planes of Existence are clearly delineated at:

Tibetan Book of the Dead, outlines the Tibetan death rites, death process and rebirth process.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche

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2 Responses to Death & Dying – A Buddhist Perspective

  1. sherry says:

    I had a lovely visual, somewhat insightful while contemplating the subject of death and that was one of a pool. ,,but it was an “infinity” pool. The kind that blends perfectly with the ocean or the sky that can be seen coming off of it, but it was sparkling with clarity. Our life in comparison can be represented by the pool which has a path bordering it and defining it.
    It was a beautiful analogy of the possibility of this life and the release from it.

  2. Pingback: You Can Grow Less Beautiful — Christine Longaker « Namaste Consulting Inc.

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