Question: Doesn't focusing on death in your meditation make it more difficult to be in the present, to be really living? Doesn't it take me away from my day-to-day activities? Wouldn't such a focus add more stress to our lives?
Tulku Thondup: You might think that meditating on death and rebirth would be stressful. However, stress – the bad kind anyway – usually occurs when we feel scared and helpless.
Regarding feeling scared, we tend to fear what we don’t know, just as children are afraid of the dark. But Buddhism gives us all the information we need about death. Enlightened Buddhist masters going back to the Buddha have described death and after-death in detail. Even today, clairvoyant Tibetan adepts – including my own teacher -- can remember their past lives and see where others take rebirth.
Tibet also has an amazing tradition of people who undergo prolonged near-death experiences (they're called delog, returners from death). They travel extensively through the next world until they revive, days later, to share vivid accounts of what they saw and learned. My book, Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth, describes 11 such stories. Simply having all this information demystifies death and helps reduce our fears.
As for feeling helplessness, Buddhism’s core message is that we can handle death and our journey beyond. There’s no reason to feel helpless. No matter how negative our life may be now, Buddhism shows us how we can dispel the nightmare of our confusion and usher in the dawn of peace and joy when we die.
Also, if we believe in life after death, preparing for our next incarnation is the ultimate insurance policy. It lets us rest easier and enjoy life more. It’s like students before exams. They can’t feel confident unless they studied. Or it’s like stocking up before a storm. If the refrigerator is full, we can relax despite the storm. So preparing for rebirth should make us feel more confident and hopeful.
Now, if thinking about death just makes us worry without doing anything constructive to improve our lives, then that’s not helpful and we should think less about it, and try to improve our life.
Meditations on death and rebirth do not remove us from living fully in the present. What is most important to living fully is not to be aware of every detail in our surroundings. Rather, it is to be aware of the peaceful, joyful, devotional, compassionate qualities in our own mind and heart.
That’s what most death and rebirth meditations try to do: transform awareness from the inside. In many meditations, we imagine that we are in a celestial paradise of light and love. We generate feelings of peace, devotion, joy, love, purity, and respect, and contemplate in them. The purpose is to transform our mind’s way of perceiving so that we see everything with peace, devotion, joy, love, purity, and respect.
When that happens, we begin to really live life fully, bringing these amazing mental qualities to everything we do, for the mind is the source of everything. As our mind becomes more peaceful and joyful, whatever we say or do becomes the expression of that peace and joy. We become a source of peace and joy for others. And after we die, these inner qualities will manifest for us as a world of peace, joy, and love, and we will be reborn in such a world.
As we develop these inner mental qualities, we experience everything -- from washing the dishes to taking a walk -- as much more beautiful, vibrant, and open. Why? Because when we transform our mind, we transform our perception of the world -- and that is what fills life with meaning, richness, and wonderment.
This question is part of a longer interview with Tulku Thondup by Linda Sparrowe, editor in chief of Alternative Medicine magazine. A portion of this interview appeared in the May 2006 issue of Alternative Medicine magazine. To read the entire article, click here.
The photo below is a picture of Thigles (spheres made of colorful lights), which filled the sky during the cremation of Khandro Pema Dechen on September 9, 2006 in Sikkim, India. This is seen as a sign of her high Dzogchen attainment. Photograph by Tsewang Trungkar.