Dying Words

If you are a practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism, you will eventually come across teachings about the dying process referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Tibetan title is Bardo Thödol which is translated as, “Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State.” This book is meant to compassionately guide a person through the dying process by addressing the inner experiences that may arise. If we have not attained liberation from some of our deeply held mental and emotional patterns at the moment of death, we may experience some obstacles to a peaceful death.

The Bardo Thödol is very accurate but also bogged down by Tibetan terminology and cultural references. For some weird reason, it is my karma to become somewhat familiar with the book and do what I can to make it more accessible to a Western audience. It is a daunting task and I do not think I am particularly good at it. Nonetheless, some folks seek me out to help them as they move through the dying process and I draw heavily on the wisdom contained within this treatise.

I was with my father-in-law, father, and mother when they died. I also attended a few folks when I was a hospice volunteer and others with connection to our sangha. Each time, I applied the Book of the Dead according to my capability. I saw first hand what happens as earth dissolves into water, water into fire, fire into wind, and wind into space. The signs became obvious and I am now more able to be present to dying.

This week I was contacted by two parties seeking spiritual guidance for end of life. A mother and son sought help in letting go of an estranged son/brother who died suddenly in a hiking accident. Another woman reached out to find a sense of peace in dealing with her diagnosis of advanced stage cancer. Many people in this moment are trying to make sense of their life as they face a death. One would think, with the many living years most of us have, we would address dying before we die.

This is precisely what Buddhist practices are designed to do. They help us enter the venue of dying to our self-absorbed motivations and take a re-birth into a more altruistic compassionate expression of being. We die in order to live. Then when we approach our actual corporeal death, we are used to it. We experience less suffering. And we are able to help others as they approach death. This is a very good deal.

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