In addition to “others first,” another important resource the mind training tradition offers us is a set of specific practices for empowering both our life and our death (point 5 of the 7 points of mind training, Great Path of Awakening page 25).
In both cases we are applying the same five practices, literally called the five strengths or powers, but in a different order and with somewhat different content depending on whether we have entered the bardo of dying or not. According to the Vajrayana teachings, the bardo — or transitional state — of dying begins as soon as we know what’s going to kill us, e.g, when we get a terminal diagnosis, even if we potentially have years yet to live. However, since we don’t always get a lot of notice, it’s good to be familiar with the five ways to empower our dying process even when we are fit and healthy, and especially if we find ourselves facing a fearsome cause of serious illness and death.
I recommend reading this section in The Great Path of Awakening or another book on mind training, but here’s the gist:
To empower your life:
- Motivation: Begin each day with a strong motivation to always remain in touch with the two bodhicittas: awareness (ultimate bodhicitta) and love and compassion (relative bodhicitta). We can renew this motivation as needed throughout the day.
- Familiarization: Follow through on that motivation by training in awareness, love and compassion consistently and steadily. Whatever your practice is: do it.
- Seeds of virtue: Never pass up an opportunity to benefit others or to engage in meritorious activity. This ratchets up our momentum on the path of awakening. It is the wind beneath our wings — the two wings of awareness and compassion.
- Repudiation: Whenever you spot your own ego-clinging in action, skulking around like Crabby Appleton or a Batman villain, recognize it for what it is and forcefully reject it: “Ha! I see you, ego-clinging! In this lifetime and throughout all my lives, you have done nothing but get me in trouble and dig me deeper into samsara! I am not going to follow you this time!” Jamgon Kongtrul and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche both suggest that we directly address our ego-clinging in this way. You could have fun with it.
- Aspiration: This includes remembering to dedicate all dharma activity, and also making aspirations from now until enlightenment: to keep practicing and strengthening both kinds of bodhicitta in all circumstances and to take all adversity on the path (we keep aspiring because we don’t always remember or succeed).
To empower your death:
- Seeds of virtue: Practice generosity. As soon as you know you have entered the bardo of dying, begin to give away all your possessions “without any trace of attachment, clinging, or concern … wherever you think they will be most helpful.” Traleg Rinpoche in his book on mind training, The Practice of Lojong, says this applies not only to possessions but also to getting all our affairs in order and tying up all loose ends.
- Aspiration: As death approaches, begin to turn your aspirations toward future lifetimes, reciting the seven-branch prayer to accumulate merit, and making strong aspirations to continue to meet the teachings and authentic teachers in all future lives in order to continue to progress on the path.
- Repudiation: Keep recognizing and calling out your ego-clinging. Know that it is ego-clinging that causes fear and emotional distress about illness and death. Of course, we are very likely to experience some level of pain, grief and other distress in our dying process; the point is to work with it as much as possible as it arises (for instance, with taking and sending) instead of letting it completely engulf us.
- Motivation: Expand your motivation to resolve never to lose touch with awareness, love and compassion, not only in the time that remains before you die, but also in the bardo states and all future lives.
- Familiarization: This one is the same as before: keep practicing. Jamgon Kongtrul instructs us in particular to continue taking and sending to our last breath. Since this practice empowers both life and death, and it can be done both on the cushion and in daily life, you could start right now.
Previous posts on how to bring fear onto the path:
Part 1: The four ends
Other related posts:
From Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation: Impermanence of the composite
A beautiful day in New Hampshire: In a Nutshell
From the 37 practices: Verse 4: to let go of attachment to this life
Ways to work with fear itself: Some Buddhist ways to work with emotional overwhelm
Bonus reminder from Western literature: Ozymandias