The Meaning of Life and Death in Buddhism   HOME Mani 2011

by His Eminence Nubpa Konchok Tenzin Rinpoche

Translated by Lama Nyandak

June 29, 2011

Stockholm, Sweden


This is the second time that I am in this hall. Last year, I came here to conduct the Mani Retreat. I am very happy to be here again to meet you all again. First of all, I would like to extend my greetings to all of you all. In the next few days, we will have the Mani Retreat. Today and tomorrow, we will have public talks. The public talks will be based on the understanding and overview of the Buddhist teaching and especially today’s topic is on what is the meaning of life and death from the Buddhist perspective.

When we are alive, within the human society, there are different mentalities of human beings. According to that, we have different ways of thinking and different thoughts in our minds while we are alive. When we die, there are many different ways that people die. Also after individuals die, there are differences, for example, there are people who believe in the next life and there are people who do not believe in the next life. Even for those who believe in next life, there are people who believe that the next life is determined by their own causes and conditions while there are those who believe that their next life is determined by the transient God. There are people who believe in the interdependence nature of all things while there are others who believe in creators.  Therefore, there are different ways of looking at life.

From the Buddhist perspective, everything in this life is according to our own previous karma. Therefore, it is said in the Buddhist teaching that what we are now is because of what we have done in our past life. Whether an individual is happy or suffering depends entirely on individual’s precious karma that he/she has created. In the Buddhist teaching, it says that, “If you want to know your past life, look into your present life.” Your present life, if it is in good condition, in the sense that you are healthy, having long life, prosperous, these are the result of your past life’s actions that you maintained in the moral code and conduct, you practiced generosity to others. Because of those actions, the result is that in this life you are healthy, having long life and prosperity. There are two things in our lives that we must understand. One is that what we are now is because of what we have done in the past and the second is what kind of lives that we are going to have in the future is purely depends on what we are doing and thinking now. For example, if an individual who wish to have a better life in the future, it is important that in this life he/she should cultivate more positive thoughts and deeds.

In the Buddhist perspective, we talk about precious human life. It is said that it is very difficult to obtain. When you are able to understand that this is a precious human life, it will give you some understanding and awareness that the precious human life can achieve higher purposes. In the Buddhist perspective, there are different categories of individuals, one category is those individuals who only care about their own well-being and interest and they do not really have any consideration and concern for other beings. Their aim is not really that great and the result that they are going to achieve is also not that great. This kind of narrow-minded people is of course not so possible to bring so much well-being and benefits for oneself nor for others. The second category is those who have negative mind such as hatred, jealousy, attachment and so on. In order to fulfill their own wish, they take lives from many other animals or other beings. These people are of course not bringing any benefit for oneself nor for others in the society. They only create more and more negatives actions. The third kind is those who concern not only their own benefit but they also care about other’s benefit and they try to help and bring benefits to other sentient beings. They may not have enough time to achieve the ultimate achievement in this life. However, they try to achieve a better and higher rebirth next by practicing the ten virtuous deeds and abandon ten non-virtues deeds. The third category is those who care only about relieving the sufferings of the entire world. They do not really pay so much attention to this life but they try to liberate themselves to the state of enlightenment so that they may able to liberate others bringing more happiness and benefit for other sentient beings. The forth category is those of the highest mental capacity. They dedicate their lives totally for the benefits of the entire sentient beings. They are the highly altruistic individuals who just like those mentioned in the Buddhist teaching, “Just as the four elements are used by all the beings, I too will be used by all the sentient beings.” They dedicate their lives entirely just like the four elements for the benefit of the entire living beings.

From my own perspective, from the moment we are born to the moment we die, if an individual who is able to live their life with more altruistic intentions, bringing more benefits to other sentient beings, wishing to bring more happiness and peace to other sentient beings, I consider this is a very meaningful way to live one’s life. From the moment we are born until we die, within this whole period of time, it is important for us to distinguish what is the problem with self-cherishment and what is the benefit for cherishing others. Indian master Shantideva stated in the Guide to Bodhisattvas Way of Life that if we try to understand the state of enlightenment and the state of un-enlightenment, the state of enlightenment that Buddha achieved is due to the development of the altruistic intention wishing to benefit other beings, the development of compassion and loving kindness to all sentient beings. The sentient beings who cannot achieve the enlightened state is because of so much self-cherishment. Therefore, we have to distinguish the state of enlightenment and the state of un-enlightenment is the distinguishment between whether or not an individual is having genuine altruistic intention or not.

When we talk about birth and death, the birth’s nature is death and the death’s nature is birth. When there is birth, by nature, there will be death as well. When we are alive during that time according to different individual’s mind, there are different ways of living a life and different thoughts that an individual have. According to that, you will have different experiences during the time of death as well. it is always that when we hear the sound of death, this sound itself is very unpleasant – something that we really do not want to hear. When we talk about death itself, there are different causes to death. There are beings who die because they do not recognize that they have a precious human life. Because of this ignorant of not recognizing the precious human life, they commit suicide.

When we think about death itself, everybody knows that such event is inevitable since nobody can escape death. But in the process of death from the Buddhist teaching point of view, it is the greatest opportunity for an individual to gain higher rebirth, higher achievement. It is said that whether an individual who aspire to attain Buddhahood or aspire to rebirth in any of Buddha’s Pureland or aspire to take rebirth in any of the three higher realms, during the death process, we can achieve it if we are able to apply the spiritual practices that you have when you are alive. Milarepa said that in order for us to have confidence in the law of cause and effect, just look at the individual who has created very heavy negative karma in this life and when that individual is dying, at the time, he/she will be terrified and will go through a lot of suffering. Then we will convince ourselves that, there is law of cause and effect. When an individual who accumulated lots of wealth by creating lots of negative karma, during the process of death and after the individual have died, even though the individual is surrounded by friends and relatives, no matter how much they want the individual to come back, it would not happen. That shows that wealth and anything that you have acquired in this life, you will not be able bring with you. However, the negative pattern that imprinted in your mind will go along with yourself. None of the other things will help or support you. On the other hand, whatever negative karma you have accumulated will follow you.

There are different incidents/events that occur during the process of death according to the individual’s own karma that he/she accumulated during the life. I can give you an example, once in my home town, there was a man who was about to die, I was happened to be just right next to him. Even though he was just about to die, his clinging and attachment to his family is still very strong. He has one daughter whose eyes are not very well. He was asking me to help his daughter. I was just sitting next to him and I saw how much clinging and attachment that he had. This is the kind of event that happens to ordinary person who is about to die and who has no spiritual practice. However, individuals who have more spiritual practice, just like one of my teachers, when he was about to die, he sat in meditation posture and just like went to sleep, nothing really happened when he died. There was no attachment left behind. I was also able to visit some hospitals and in the hospitals, there were many people who had many difficulties in the process of dying. They had many tubes in their mouths and nose. When I saw those people, suffering for them was really immense. The great masters and superior persons tends to accept their death with joy thinking that this is the great opportunity to recognize their own true nature of mind and a great opportunity to achieve enlightenment. Mediocre persons die having neither fear nor regret. Even for the most inferior practitioners, they should die without regret. It is because when you are about to die, the negative karma that you have already created is already created. Even if you wish to purify your negative karma or you want to cultivate virtuous thoughts and actions, at that time is already too late. No matter what happens, you should die without regret.

According to the Tibetan Book of Death, it says that from the moment we are born to the moment we die marks the first bardo which is called the natural birth of the bardo. What kind of experience we are going to have in the bardo itself will be determined by our natural birth of the bardo. We are not going to go into details about the bardo itself today since we are going talk about that in the public talk tomorrow. The main topic today is about the birth and death. If we are want to find something meaningful during the period from birth to death, it is important to cultivate ourselves the mode which is constructive and eliminate anything that is destructive to ourselves or to others. The meaningful way of living can only happen if you have sincere altruistic intention wishing to help other sentient beings. If you want to die peacefully without regret, we have to prepare ourselves while we are alive. The preparation for our death would be to cultivate constructive and positive thoughts and emotions while we are alive.

We have still half an hour, if you have any questions, we can have an informal discussion. It is not necessary to just hear what I said and just believe it and accept it. You can also bring your suggestions and opinions. Based on our discussion, we can increase our wisdom.

Questions and Answers:

Q: What is the best time to look for enlightenment?

A: It is best that we cover this topic tomorrow because we will go through the teaching on bardo tomorrow and there is a part which is called the bardo death that will covers this subject.


Q: What I mean is in our daily life when you have strong emotions.

A: If you have strong emotions and if you are able to look at the nature of that emotion and understand that that nature of emotion is nothing than your ultimate nature of your own mind, then that strong emotion will dissolve just like getting close to enlightenment.


Q: When our close parents are closing to death, what is the best way to handle this? How to talk to them and give them advice on what to do if they do not have practice?

A: Regardless whether an individual is believer or non-believer, practitioner or non-practitioner, it is always beneficial if the individual follow the practice of love and compassion and cultivate altruistic intention to help other sentient beings. Try to give advice to those whom you are close to on how to be a more loving and compassionate person. It is a good idea to advise them to relax their mind and not to have much tension in their mind.


Q: Sometimes it is extremely difficult to cope with the loss of a person that you are close to or love. I would like to have some advice.

A: There are two ways to look at this problem. One is that if you are able to understand that death is something inevitable to every human being and death itself is pervasive to the entire world, therefore, if you have a wider prospective on death itself, not thinking that death only comes to yourself but rather comes to the entire living beings and so on, the strong pain that you have can be reduced. Another way to reduce the pain and suffering that you have is to see that there are many other beings who are going through the same pain and suffering that you are going through, so if you try to bring all the sufferings of all the human beings upon yourself, then naturally your suffering becomes less and less.


Q: How do you know that you have a sincere wish to serve others?

A: Whether or not we have a sincere wish to help others is sincere, there are two ways to look at it. One way is to check whether or not we help and serve others with sincere positive actions. Another way is to examine ourselves inwardly to look at our own mind. It depends completely on our mind whether or not we have sincere wish to serve others.  We have to look within us since the mind is within ourselves. We have to always check ourselves.


Q: Is it helpful to use Mantras and meditation to help a dying person?

A: Of course there are ways to help the dying person, for example, by reciting the name of the Buddhas. It is said in the sutra that if you recite the name of Medicine Buddha by the ear of a dying person, that person will not die in the lower realms. Also you can practice the meditation of love and compassion and dedicate this to the dying person.


Q: Is there anything in Buddhism which is similar to grace in Christianity?

A: According to the Buddha’s teaching, there are two conditions necessary for an individual to receive blessings. One is that the one who receives the blessing must have faith and devotion and the second is that the one who grant the blessings must have the ability and power to give blessings. If these two conditions are there, liberation has been mentioned in Buddha’s teachings.


Q: Without a teacher, is there still grace there?

A: The root of the blessings is the guru. No, the teacher has to be there.


Q: We do not know when we will die. It can happen any time. I do not want to die with bad emotion. We have to have mindfulness. When we go to bed, we do not know if we will wake up tomorrow. Rinpoche, can you give us some guidance? What do you mean and how, when you say that we have to prepare?

A: This is something that especially for Buddhist practitioners that we have to always remind ourselves that life is impermanent and death is uncertain. Every morning when we wake up, we have to remind ourselves that there is death and there is impermanence. Some of the Buddhist scriptures mentioned that one of the most supreme thoughts is the thought of impermanent lives. Having impermanent nature of life, it encourages you to practice and helps you to abandon greed in your mind. His Eminence Drubwang Rinpoche, a great yogi who had once lived in Tibet. His meditation cave did not have anything except the writing of impermanent nature of life, that was all.


Q: What do you enjoy most in life?

A: We cannot have definite enjoyment. Different people have different perspective on happiness and enjoyment. For example, I mentioned earlier to you that cherishment of others will benefit yourself, for example, when an individual who wish and try to help others, that itself brings happiness to that individual. There are of course individuals who only care about their own well-being. So, from their perspective, that is their happiness.


Q: I wonder if Rinpoche know any good mental medicine for anger. Is anger has to do with pattern from our earlier lifetimes.

A: The best medicine for the negative emotions is to know the secret of the negative emotion itself. If you know that, the secret of the negative emotions will become wisdom itself. For example whenever negative emotion arises, if you are able to look at the negative emotion, you will not be able to find the solid emotion that is disturbing you. That ceases to exist. If you are able to find out that this negative emotion within yourself cannot be identified, this is the wisdom of emptiness. If you keep trying more and more times, it is the best antidote.


Q: But it will come again.

A: Yes, mindfulness. One problem is that whenever emotion arises in ourselves, we are not looking at the emotion itself, but rather we are looking at the object of emotion then we are not able to find the nature and essence of the emotion itself. So it is important not to look at the object of emotion, but rather the nature of the emotion itself.



HOME Mani 2011

May all sentient beings gain the flavor of supreme knowledge,
that the unexcelled joy of truth fill their minds and bodies;
May all sentient beings obtain all the excellent flavors of nonattachment,
and not be addicted to mundane tastes, but always diligently cultivate and practice all aspects of Buddhahood;
May all sentient beings gain the flavor of one truth
and realize that all Buddha teachings are without difference;

Last updated on 2012-09-02.