Caring for the Sick and Dying

Question:Many people face the painful task of helping a parent or someone they love when they are sick or at the end of their life. Does Buddhism have any tools for us to become more present to those who are dying? Are there rituals or meditations we can do if we havent been initiated into the secrets of Tibetan Buddhism?Tulku Thondup: Caring for a sick or dying parent or loved one is an amazing spiritual practice.

It isn’t always easy, of course. In those moments we should remind ourselves what a privilege it is to help another; what an opportunity it is to grow in patience, compassion, strength, and love – extraordinary mental qualities that will become a great source of good karmas for ourselves and others. So if we feel resistance, we should try to break through it and feel thankful for the privilege of helping the person during this hard time. The words “thank you” are magical in how they open our mind and heart. If we approach the situation this way, every moment will be a blessing.

It is very important to prepare yourself spiritually and meditatively, as the person nears the end of life. If your mind is peaceful, joyful, and energized with blessings, your presence and whatever you say will help. If you are sad, nervous, and shaky, your help will be less effective. So meditate and pray yourself. Try not to lose your own spiritual ground. Instead extend your experience to the person. Consider the mental, habitual and cultural background of the person and think about what help would best suit them.

If it is proper, hold the dying person’ hand. Look at them with kindness and confidence. Give whatever advice is proper. Meditate and think that the blessing lights and energies that you are experiencing are being transferred to them. Think that all their fear, worry, and sadness are totally dispelled in the form of darkness from their body and mind.

Don’t talk to the dying person about too many things, even if they are profound, for as people prepare to leave, their minds become less sharp. Say less, but make it meaningful. Just say something like, “Remember that the Buddha of Infinite Light [or whatever higher being the person believes in] is with you” or ” Om A(ah)-mi-ta-bha hri.” Say this over and over. This is simple and easy to comprehend. Repeating it with a gentle, strong voice makes it sink into the person’s mind and could remain with them through their journey.

How we speak to the dying person is as important as what we say. Everything should be from the heart. Everything should be said calmly, truthfully, with confidence. Do nothing that would hurt or upset the person. Say nothing that might create anger, confusion, or attachment.

Keep reminding the person to pray to whatever higher power they trust in. If you know whom they pray to, you can invoke them, too. If the person has no tradition, but is open to prayer, you might ask if they would like to repeat a prayer like, “God, please be with me all the time.” If the person is Buddhist, remind them to pray to whatever Buddha they prayed to. You can use the meditation on Buddha of Infinite Light Buddha and his pure land described earlier.

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.


This photo 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.