Sogyal Rinpoche, Tibet

Buddhist teacher & founder and spiritual director of Rigpa, international network of Buddhist centers. Author of 'The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying'.

Death is a vast mystery, but there are two things we can say about it: It is absolutely certain that we will die, and it is uncertain when or how we will die. The only surety we have, then, is this uncertainty about the hour of our death, which we seize on as the excuse to postpone facing death directly. We are like children who cover their eyes in a game of hide-and-seek and think that no one can see them. For all its technological achievements, modern Western society has no real understanding of death or what happens in death or after death.

People today are taught to deny death, and taught that it means nothing but annihilation and loss. That means that 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 themselves. All the greatest spiritual traditions in the world have told us clearly, that death is not the end. They have all handed down a vision of some sort of life to come, one which infuses this life that we are leading now with sacred meaning.

But despite their teachings, modern society is largely a spiritual desert, where the majority of people imagine that this life is all that there is.

Preparing for death
According to the wisdom of Buddha, we can actually use our lives to prepare for death. We do not have to wait for the painful death of someone close to us or the shock of terminal illness to force us into looking at our lives. Nor are we condemned to go out empty-handed at death to meet the unknown. We can begin, here and now, to find meaning in our lives. We can make of every moment an opportunity to change and to prepare – wholeheartedly, precisely, and with peace of mind – for death and eternity.

In the Buddhist approach, life and death are seen as one whole, where death is the beginning of another chapter of life. Death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.

The truth of impermanence
One of the chief reasons we have so much anguish and difficulty in facing death is that we ignore the truth of impermanence. We so desperately want everything to continue as it is that we have to believe that things will always stay the same. But this is only make-believe. And as we so often discover, belief has little or nothing to do with reality. This make-believe, with its misinformation, ideas, and assumptions, is the rickety foundation on which we construct our lives. No matter how much the truth keeps interrupting, we prefer to go on trying, with hopeless bravado, to keep up our pretense.

In our minds, changes always equal loss and suffering. And if they come, we try to anesthetize ourselves as far as possible. We assume, stubbornly and unquestioningly, that permanence provides security, and impermanence does not. But, in fact, impermanence is like some of the people we meet in life – difficult and disturbing at first, but on deeper acquaintance, far friendlier and less unnerving than we could have imagined.

A lasting possession
The realization of impermanence is paradoxically the only thing we can hold onto, perhaps our only lasting possession. It is like the sky, or the earth. No matter how much everything around us may change or collapse, they endure. Say we go through a shattering emotional crisis … our whole life seems to be disintegrating … our husband or wife suddenly leaves us without warning. The earth is still there; the sky is still there. Of course, even the earth trembles now and again, just to remind us we cannot take anything for granted …

The cells of our body are dying, the neurons in our brain are decaying, even the expression on our face is always changing, depending on our mood. What we call our basic character is only a ‘mindstream’, nothing more. Today we feel good because things are going well; tomorrow we feel the opposite. Where did that good feeling go? New influences took us over as circumstances changed: we are impermanent, the influences are impermanent, and there is nothing solid or lasting anywhere that we can point to.

The only thing we really have is nowness, is now.

As posted on, text adapted from Ch. 1 & 2 of 'The Tibetan book of Living and Dying', 1993, HarperCollins Publishers.

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