Introduction to Preparing to Die by Andrew Holecek
Note: This program is based in large part on Andrew Holecek's wonderful book, Preparing to Die, which is referenced often and used as the general framework for Ken and Andrew's 6-hour discussion. Although the book is not necessary in order to enjoy this program, we highly recommend that you pick it up and use it to further unpack and explore the major themes, concepts, and practices contained within this program.
Introduction to Preparing to Die by Andrew Holecek
Death is one of the most precious experiences in life. It is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The karma that brought us into this life is exhausted, leaving a temporarily clean slate, and the karma that will propel us into our next life has not yet crystallized. This leaves us in a unique “no man’s land,” a netherworld the Tibetans call “bardo,” where all kinds of miraculous possibilities can materialize. At this special time, with the help of skillful friends, we can make rapid spiritual progress and directly influence where we will take rebirth. We can even attain enlightenment.
Buddhist masters proclaim that because of this karmic gap, there are more opportunities for enlightenment in death than in life. Robert Thurman, who translated The Tibetan Book of the Dead, says, “The time of the between [bardo] . . . is the best time to attempt consciously to affect the causal process of evolution for the better. Our evolutionary momentum is temporarily fluid during the between, so we can gain or lose a lot of ground during its crises."
But even for spiritual practitioners, death remains a dreaded event. We dread it because we don’t know about it. We do not look forward to death because we don’t know what to look forward to. For most of us, it’s still the great unknown. Death is the ultimate blackout, something to be avoided at all costs. So we have a choice. We can either curse the darkness, or turn on the light.
Death is not the time for hesitation or confusion. It is the time for confident and compassionate action. Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, “This is when people MUST do something for the person who has died; this is the most crucial time for the person.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead says, “This is the dividing-line where buddhas and sentient beings are separated. It is said of this moment: In an instant, they are separated; in an instant, complete enlightenment.”
This book will help you prepare. It is based on the richness of Tibetan thanatology (the study of death and dying) and includes many references for those who want to study the complexities of the bardos in more detail. But it is meant as a practical guide, a hands-on manual culled primarily from the abundant resources of Tibetan Buddhism.
The moment of death, like that of birth, is our time of greatest need. The beginning and the end of life are characterized by vulnerability, bewilderment, and rich opportunity. In both cases we are stepping into new territory—the world of the living or the world of the dead. The person who is dying, and his or her caretakers, have an opportunity to create the conditions that will make the best of this priceless event. We will explore what these opportunities are, what it means to make the best use of this time, and learn how to approach death with confidence. We will learn what to do and when to do it.
While all these guidelines are helpful, they are not meant to restrict the sacred experience of death. The map is never the territory. Even though death and rebirth are described in extraordinary detail by the Tibetans, dying is never as tidy as the written word. It is important for the dying, and their caregivers, to study and prepare. But preparation only goes so far. Fixating on the idea of a “good death” can paradoxically prevent one. If we think that our death will follow a prescribed order, and that perfect preparation leads to a perfect death, we will constrict the wonder of a mysterious process.
Surrender is more important than control. A good death is defined by a complete openness to whatever arises. So don’t measure your death against any other, and don’t feel you have to die a certain way. Let your life, and your death, be your own. There are certain things in life that we just do our own way.
The vast literature about conscious dying is therefore a blessing and a curse. At a certain point we have to leap into death with a beginner’s mind and a spirit of adventure. Visions of the perfect death create expectations, a model that we feel we have to match. If experience doesn’t match expectation, we might panic. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” “I didn’t plan on it ending this way.” Death is about letting go. That includes letting go of any expectations. The danger in learning too much about death is that we end up prepackaging the experience, forcing reality into the straightjacket of our concepts.
The best approach is that of the middle way. Learn as much as you can. Study, practice, and prepare. Then drop everything and let this natural process occur naturally. Throw away the map and fearlessly enter the territory. It’s like preparing for a big trip. We want to pack properly, review our checklists, and ensure we have enough money and gas. But when the trip starts we just enjoy it. We don’t worry about doing it perfectly. Some of our greatest travel adventures happen when we take a wrong turn or get lost. Having thoroughly prepared, we relax in knowing we have everything we need.
Getting out of the way and letting death take its natural course is often the best thing to do. Death will always take care of itself. As a friend once told me, “Dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.” But there are times when it helps to step in and act with confidence. Death is an emotional time, and confusion is a common companion. Appropriate guidance can be of great benefit. It is the aspiration of this book to help provide that guidance. Refer to it; then, as with death itself, let it go.
This book presents the process of dying, death, and rebirth from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective. It assumes the immutable laws of karma. Understanding karma, which is one of the most complex topics in Buddhism, leads to an understanding of reincarnation. It is beyond our scope to thoroughly explore karma and reincarnation. We simply take them as givens. It’s up to the reader to choose how to view these teachings.”
Tibetan Buddhism is not the only Buddhist tradition that teaches the bardos, but it is the most complete. Other faith traditions have different views of what happens after death. Even within Buddhism, the views differ from one school to the next. While this book is directed to students of Tibetan Buddhism, it can benefit anyone interested in penetrating the mysteries of death from the Buddhist perspective.
The central orienting view in the Tibetan world, and a doctrine that provides the template for this book, is that of the three death bardos: the painful bardo of dying, the luminous bardo of dharmata, and the karmic bardo of becoming. They relate respectively to the “before, during, and after” structure of this book. As a brief overview: the painful bardo of dying begins with the onset of a disease or condition that ends in death. In the case of sudden death, this bardo occurs in a flash. It is called “painful” because it hurts to let go. The luminous bardo of dharmata begins at the end of the bardo of dying. For most of us it passes by unrecognized. “Dharmata” means “suchness,” and refers to the nature of reality, the enlightened state. It is fantastically brilliant, hence “luminous.” It is so bright that it blinds us and we faint. We then wake up dazed in the karmic bardo of becoming. Suchness is gone, and confusion re-arises as karma returns to blow us into our next life. The entire process takes about forty-nine days, and will be described in detail below.
Not everyone goes through the bardos the same way. Only a few teachers assert that the journey is universal and that everyone will, for example, experience the deities of the bardo of dharmata in a similar way. Most teachers say that cultural differences and personal idiosyncrasies generate a variety of experiences. Why would a Christian or Muslim, with very different beliefs, experience death the same way as a Buddhist?
As we will see, the journey through the bardos is a journey through the mind. In the Buddhist view, the essence of mind is the same for all sentient beings. But the surface structures that cover that essence are different. Hence the journey through the surface structures (bardo of dying), into the essence of mind (bardo of dharmata), and then out of it (bardo of becoming) is not the same. But the general pattern of this three-stage process is universal, at least according to the Buddhist view.
While the Tibetans have breathtaking resources that easily translate from their tradition into our own, modern masters admit to instances of cultural insularity and peculiarity. For example, the ancient texts state that it’s best not to cry out in distress when someone is nearing death, as this can adversely affect the mind of the dying person. Tibetan teachers familiar with our Western ways realize this instruction doesn’t apply as readily to us. Tibetans are emotionally reserved. They don’t express themselves like we do. For us, not only is emotion permissible, it’s expected. So while it’s not so good to grasp frantically after the dying person, as we will discuss, it’s also not healthy to completely repress our feelings.
The issue of universal truth vs. cultural vicissitude is present any time teachings migrate from an ancient culture into a modern one. This is something each reader has to wrestle with when entering the bardo literature. Even the Tibetans didn’t categorically accept Indian Buddhism without adapting it to their culture. For example, the “hot hells” of Indian Buddhism (where it gets hot as hell) were supplemented with the “cold hells” of Tibetan Buddhism (where it gets cold as hell). Buddhist scholar Carl Becker writes: “The important point here is that the Tibetans, like the Chinese before them, did not adopt Buddhism in its entirety merely out of political or aesthetic considerations. They accepted Buddhism insofar as it clarified processes that they already knew and as it illustrated new truths that they had not yet verbalized.”
On a personal note, my conviction about the importance of presenting these remarkable teachings is born from glimpses of experience. I have been meditating for thirty-five years and have completed the traditional three-year retreat. I have engaged in most of the practices presented below, under the guidance of some of the greatest masters in Tibetan Buddhism. I’m still a beginner, but spending so much time penetrating the mysteries of my own mind has shown me the truth of these mind-bending bardo teachings. Most of what follows can be proven by each of us—if we’re willing to make these discoveries for ourselves.
My conviction is also reinforced by twenty years of experience with many masters in India, Tibet, and Nepal. These extraordinary individuals display a fearlessness around death that is as contagious as it is awe-inspiring. They are absolutely unshakable. I marvel at the confidence, almost playfulness, they bring to the formidable topic of death. They know something we don’t. In the following pages I hope to convey some of what they know, through the lens of my own understanding. I will share what this gentle but fearless tradition has offered as a cherished gift to humanity.
WHY I WROTE THIS BOOK
Fifteen years ago the director at my meditation center asked me to teach a class on death. I knew enough to realize the complexity of the bardos, so I asked him for time to prepare. I began reading every book in print on the topic, attending every seminar, and doing the meditations associated with death.
Six months into my study I received a phone call that would change my life. A woman from rural Colorado, Susan, got my number from the meditation center and called me in a state of panic. Her beloved husband of forty years was dying. The doctors said he had only a few days left. Susan had no idea what to do and was beside herself. She told me that while neither she nor her husband had much faith in religion, they shared an interest in Buddhism. Susan heard that I was an expert on the Buddhist view of death. I had read some books, but was far from an authority. The problem was there were no experts in the area—no one but me.
I listened to her heartbreaking story. She spoke of their beautiful years together, and her desperation at not knowing how to help him in his greatest hour of need. Over the next few days we spent many hours on the phone. Between calls I crammed information from my books, then tried to convey it with confidence. I don’t know how much I helped, but she kept calling because there was no one else. As we spoke she would often whisper something that struck me like a thunderbolt: “I should have prepared earlier. If only I had prepared earlier.
Susan’s husband died within a few days, and we lost contact. But I have not forgotten her heartache and her remorse in not being prepared. Before talking to Susan I had an intellectual interest in death. After her call I began to pull these teachings off the page and into my heart. I was so moved by her regret that I resolved to do whatever I could to prevent others from experiencing it, and to prepare for my own death. This book is the product of that resolve.
The Renaissance statesman Montaigne wrote:
Men come and they go and they trot and they dance, and never a word about death. All well and good. Yet when death does come—to them, their wives, their children, their friends—catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion overwhelm them, what cries, what fury, what despair! . . .
To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. . . . We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere.
To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.
I have been at the side of many who have died—from my own loved ones, to spiritual friends, to strangers who have become my friends. For the past eight years I have presented a series of seminars on the Tibetan views of death and beyond, and have written numerous articles. The Tibetan teachings and the meditations associated with them have instilled a conviction that enables me to enter end-of-life situations with ease. I am no longer afraid of death nor swayed by the painful events that surround it. The information in the following pages has given me this certitude, my experience in being around death has strengthened it, and the blessings of my teachers have given me the confidence to share it.
The key to smoothly negotiating the difficulties of death is familiarity. This book is based on the seminars I have taught, in which we practiced the meditations discussed below as a way to become familiar with death by becoming familiar with our own mind. We visited funeral homes and crematoriums. We took walks in cemeteries, and went to anatomy labs to spend time with corpses. We took the mystery—and therefore much of the misery—out of death by spending time with it.
During these seminars I observed the initial resistance to the meditations and field trips. Participants stepped into the cadaver lab with trepidation, and they stepped into their own minds in meditation with similar apprehension. They were nervous because they didn’t know what to expect. But they trusted me because I had been to these external and internal places before. When they walked out of the anatomy lab, or the funeral home, or a long meditation session, I saw how much they had relaxed. Through the process of familiarity, they discovered that while death may not be easy, it’s also no big deal. They learned how to smile at death.
If one is unprepared, dealing with the details and intensity of death—the emotional impact, preparing for the funeral, handling friends and loved ones, dealing with medical and legal issues—is like preparing for a big wedding in one day. It’s overwhelming. If you deal with some of the details now you can relax at the time of death, and relaxation is the best instruction for how to die. Relaxation is born from familiarity.
You may find yourself referring to this guidebook when the crunch of death is upon you, but reading it in advance of this deadline will prepare you for it. Sogyal Rinpoche summarizes the aspiration of this book:
It is crucial now that an enlightened vision of death and dying should be introduced throughout the world at all levels of education. Children should not be “protected” from death, but introduced, while young, to the true nature of death and what they can learn from it.
Why not introduce this vision, in its simplest forms, to all age groups? Knowledge about death, about how to help the dying, and about the spiritual nature of death and dying should be made available to all levels of society; it should be taught, in depth and with real imagination, in schools and colleges and universities of all kinds; and especially and most important, it should be available in teaching hospitals to nurses and doctors who will look after the dying and who have so much responsibility to them.