We’re often asked for suggestions for Buddhist reading on dying and care-giving. These books generally reflect a Buddhist perspective and provide detailed discussions of many of the points we cover in our discussions and writings.
Awake at the Bedside: Contemplative Teachings on Palliative and End-of-Life Care, edited by Koshin Paley Ellison and Matt Weingast, (Wisdom Publications, 2016).
Great compilation of teachings, poetry, and instruction written by pioneers of palliative care, doctors, chaplains, and poets.
Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, by Joan Halifax (Shambhala, 2008).
Zen Roshi Joan presents the teachings in the format of the three tenets for peacekeeping. The first tenet: not-knowing, invites us to give up fixed ideas about others and ourselves and to open the spontaneous mind of the beginner. The second tenet: bearing witness, calls us to be present with the suffering and joy in the world – as it is – without judgment or any attachment to outcome. The third tenet: compassionate action, calls us to turn to or return to the world with the commitment to free others and ourselves from suffering. These teachings are based on many years of working with dying individuals and their caregivers and include practical suggestions as well as exercises to assist us in looking at our mind and how our view affects the way we work as caregivers.
Dying with Confidence: A Tibetan Buddhist Guide to Preparing for Death, by Anyen Rinpoche (Wisdom, 2010).
This book is divided into four parts and includes a long appendix with helpful practices and guides. The four parts are: (1) Spiritual Preparations for the Time of Death: An Evolving Meditation on Life and Death, (2) Spiritual Practices as the Time of Death Nears, (3) Medical Considerations for the Buddhist Practitioner, and (4) Buddhist Practitioners as Caregivers. The Phowa practice he describes is from the Longchen Nyingthig tradition, which is the same source as the practice given to Shambhala practitioners at various centers by H.E. Namkha Drimed.
Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, by Frank Ostaseski, (Flatiron Books, 2017).
Written by the co-founder of Zen Hospice project and renowned teacher, Frank Ostaskeski, who shares his wisdom from sitting with more than 1,000 dying people. The chapters are: Don’t Wait, Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing, Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience, Find a Place of Rest in the Middle of Things, and Cultivate Don’t Know Mind.
Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality, by Judith Lief (Shambhala, 2001).
Using the Buddhist view as a framework, Acharya Lief divides her book into three parts: (1) Ground: Cultivating a Personal Awareness of Death, (2) Path: Opening the Heart, and (3) Fruition: Helping the Dying. Meditation exercises designed to assist the reader in putting the teachings into experience are interspersed between easily understood, but pithy, descriptions of Buddhist teachings.
Mind Beyond Death, by Dzogchen Ponlop (Snow Lion, 2008).
This book teaches about the bardos, or the intervals of life and death. It explores all six bardos and the journey through and beyond death ultimately explaining the importance of learning how to live fearlessly.
Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of life, by Megory Anderson (Marlowe & Company, 2003).
Written by theologian Megory Anderson, the book includes prayers, poems, instructions on how to create rituals to assist those who are dying. Topics include how to help with “unfinished business,” use music, and letting go.
Sacred Passage: How to Provide Fearless, Compassionate Care for the Dying, by Margaret Coberly (Shambhala, 2003).
Coberly is a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and a registered nurse. Her book is divided into three major sections: (1) Death in Western Health Care, (2) Resources from the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, and (3) Practical Applications for Caregivers. Her section on how to be aware of the dissolution of the body and suggestions for practically assisting people as the dissolution process unfolds is extremely helpful and not available in most resources.
Mirror of Mindfulness, by Tsele Natsok Rangdrol, (Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2010).
This book offers Tibetan teachings on the bardos, which is the foundation for the commentary Bardo Guidebook by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche.
There’s More to Dying than Death: a Buddhist Perspective, by Lama Shenpen Hookham (Windhorse, 2006).
Shenpen Hookham is a student of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso Rinpoche, who has thousands of students via the internet. The section on Relating to your Mind at Death is especially helpful as she speaks of how to deal with whatever experience is unfolding. She gives many teachings on meditation, awareness, and the awakened heart. Chapters include Stages of Death and Rebirth, How the Living Can Help the Dead or Dying, and Practical Planning for One’s Own Death, which includes teachings on organ donation, the post-mortem process, drugs, life-support machines, and leaving the body undisturbed, among others.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche (Harper Collins, 2020).
The first section, Living, includes ten chapters on such subjects as impermanence, the nature of mind, karma, rebirth, bardos, and the spiritual path. The second section, Dying, has five chapters on helping the dying, including compassion, spiritual help, and the process of dying. Death and Rebirth, the third section, has five chapters including the bardo of becoming and helping after death.
A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last, by Stephen Levine (Bell Tower, 1997).
Zen author Levine decided to live for one year as if it were his last: to practice dying, to being fully alive. He offers suggestions for facing some of the issues we may face with a terminal diagnosis ahead of time, such as fears around dying and death, forgiveness, and gratitude. Included are various meditation techniques to work with the mind as one goes on this journey.
A Beginners Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death, by BJ Miller, MD, and Shoshana Berger, Simon & Shuster, 2019.
Written BJ Miller, a Hospice and Palliative Medicine Physician, and Shoshana Berger editorial director at IDEO.A great resource and road map for all aspects of navigating illness and end of life. A guidebook that encourages planning ahead, paperwork, end of life healthcare, funerals, and last wishes. Their ultimate purpose here “isn’t so much to help you die as it is to free up as much life as possible until you do.”
The Art of Dying Well, by Katy Butler, Scribner, 2019.
Written by the scientist Kay Butler who stresses the importance of having a tribe—people who care about you-a good social support network. Combines medical, practical and spiritual guidance. The book is not only about dying but about living intentionally. It provides a map to help us navigate through the health care systems and a practical guide to a good end of life.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande, Metropolitan Books, 2014.
An excellent book about end-of-life issues and how we are set up to treat disease, but not to provide good quality of life treatments at the end of life. A look at the history of nursing homes, and the options for living a life of vibrancy and purpose. He follows a hospice nurse on her rounds, a geriatrician in his clinic, and reformers turning nursing homes upside down. He finds people who show us how to have the challenging conversations and how to ensure we never sacrifice what people really care about.
Advice to Future Corpses, by Sallie Tisdale, NY, Touchstone, 2018.
It is a guide to what happens to the body as it dies and directly after—and how to care for it. How to touch someone who is dying. (“Skin can become paper-thin, and it can tear like paper. Pressure is dangerous.”) How to carry a body and wash it. How to remove its dentures. She presents a cultural history of death rituals and rites, from traditional Tibetan sky burials to our present abundance of options. She invites not just awe or dread—but our curiosity. And why not? We are, after all, just “future corpses pretending we don’t know.”