The Noble Living, Noble Caring, Noble Dying team met with Phakchok Rinpoche on several occasions to discuss questions frequently posed by sangha members. In this recorded conversation, various participants raised issues from a variety of perspectives. Most of these questions pertain to Buddhist practitioners who are either preparing for their own death, or who are currently caring for others.
Conversation on Impermanence
First, Dr. Lisa Wang posed the question about how we best prepare for our own death—and are there differences depending upon our own age? Our sangha includes members from the 20’s to the 80’s—should we all do the same thing? Yes, Rinpoche responds—the principle is always the same—all of us need to keep in mind impermanence. In each moment we are losing time—death is just the conclusion of that process. So, we remember impermanence and the fact that we will all die—but we don’t know when or how. And at the time of death, we can’t take anything with us. That’s why impermanence is the main pillar of noble dying. As a pillar, then we remember that our practice should happen now—in every moment.
Conversation on What Practice to Do as We Are Dying: Live Nobly Now
Kevin Gormley then asks Rinpoche what practice we should do when we know we are dying—is there something special we should learn? Here, Rinpoche reminds us that whatever we practice as our main practice during our life should be our main focus at the point of death. The short answer is that we need to apply what we are practicing and what we know well. For example, Rinpoche says that he focuses on bodhicitta, compassion, and focus on the teacher–guru yoga.
We let go of all our expectations and practice no regrets. Noble Dying means Noble Living. Impermanence is the key of mindfulness. Death is really there—so live nobly now! If we say that in Dharma terminology, we say, “Practice now!” But we should do this gently—gradually, without being too harsh or forceful. Feeling doesn’t come from pushing too hard or squeezing ourselves—we need to let this understanding deepen naturally. And again, integrate whatever your main practice is with your dying time.
Conversation on Caring for Non-Buddhists in a Skilful Way
Andrea Sherman, a gerontologist and doula, asks Phakchok Rinpoche about how best to care for non-Buddhists. Rinpoche reminds us to be aware of the individual capacity. As a person is dying, especially if they are quite old, they may not have the mental capacity to understand new topics. It is good to share some basic Buddhist principles, but we should be careful not to overwhelm a person with new information at a difficult time.
It’s fine, for example to remind people that we all will face death–that all of us are alike in this situation. We should assess the particular situation though, and make sure that they are ready to hear—but generally, it is helpful to remind people that everyone will face death–they aren’t alone. We can talk about compassion and care, and emphasize goodness—the importance of a good heart is something most people can understand. And we try to integrate basic compassion and loving kindness with all the experiences they are undergoing.
Advice on Letting Go
It’s also helpful to gently remind people to let go, especially of anything they regret. Many people suffer a great deal with regrets. People regret things they did that they shouldn’t have. Or they might regret things they wanted to do but that they ignored. And these regrets cause suffering. Knowing this, we can hold the dying or sick person with gentle tenderness, and encourage that tenderness in them as well.
Conversation on Devotion in the Dying Process
Kevin asks what role devotion plays in the dying process—and gives an example from Anyen Rinpoche about remembering his lama during a near-death experience. Rinpoche reminds us that when we are dying, we experience whoever we are most devoted to—and this is true for all spiritual people, regardless of the type. We see our own teachers if we are very familiar with them.
Devotion is very important in the Buddhist tradition—especially as we die. We know that our gurus are our refuge—and if we have great devotion, then we have 100% trust. And we may trust our family, but we know they aren’t coming with us when we die. Or we may trust our practice, but we haven’t completely developed or perfected our practice—and the same goes for our understanding. But if we rely on devotion, we know that won’t disappear. We know that our gurus will care for us all the way until we realize enlightenment.
And why does devotion work? Because the object of devotion—the guru—is the same nature as the person experiencing. Devotion is the way of uniting our own nature with the nature of the refuge object. And devotion is the dignity that gives you no fear. Devotion is the pillar of fearlessness.