The passing away of a friend or relative is a time of intense emotional upheaval.
It is nevertheless a time of primordial transformation, a time of foremost challenge and a unique possibility for spiritual improvement. It is a time of heightened awareness and the ideal moment to provide someone in need with spiritual assistance.
Yet this can only take place and benefit in a sane, quiet and conducive environment.
Therefore, the first rule of conduct is to refrain from any form of emotional behaviour in the vicinity of the dying relative! While it is quite understandable for the bereaved one, it can only be upsetting to the one who’s dying or dead.
In terms of what can be done, there are several ways to support the friend or relative who is passing away.
While every religious tradition has its own specific rituals for death, it is good to seek the expertise of a fully realized master such as a reincarnate Tulku or a Lama. Nevertheless, you should know that even your own spiritual practice can be of help, in as much as your ties with the deceased are used in a meaningful non-emotional way.
In requesting assistance, do it in a proper way as follows:
- Collect the basic information that the Lama needs to know such as the name, place and time of birth and the age and circumstances of death together with, when available, a picture of the person for which help is sought;
- Prepare an offering in the name of the deceased and a kathag - ceremonial white scarf - to be presented to the Lama at the time of your request;
- Present the offering and make your request providing the various data regarding the deceased.
Remember that the offering benefits the giver, not the receiver. So give with genuine humility and little conceit. One should practice generosity with proper moral ethics, i.e. devoid of stinginess or expectation in return. In this way the gesture is more pure and will be more to the point and beneficial for the deceased.
Seek the advice of the Lama to know what is more appropriate amongst the many rituals that can be done: Amitabha practice - Powa - Bardo prayers - Akshobya puja etc.
If one cannot reach a Tulku or a competent Lama to proceed with the appropriate rituals for the death, one should request the assistance of someone who understands the process of dying and the unfolding of the 'bardo' or intermediate state after death has taken place. To such a person one should request the reading of the Bardo prayers to support the deceased.
If not possible, rely on the following methods according to your ability while trying your very best to abide in a calm sate of mind:
1. As soon as it is detected that the dying process has begun, a family member or a friend should sit at the bedside and gently say to the deceased:
“Do not be afraid, whatever appears, it is only a projection of your mind, like a dream. There is nothing to fear, your body can no longer be hurt. Just relax and when a bright white light appears, go towards it, merge with it.”
This can be said several times.
Set aside a few moments daily to talk to the deceased. They should be reassured that even though they may see frightening things, they should recognise these as being merely projections of their own mind. As they no longer have a body, they can no longer be hurt. Light a candle and send blessings and positive thoughts to them:
Because hearing is the last sense to go, it is considered helpful to say this and other prayers aloud. This can be done for the 49 days following death which corresponds to the maximal time before taking rebirth. Even if the body has been disposed of, the mind has taken a 'spirit body' which is endowed with special faculties. Such a body can move through space, hear and see clearly without obstruction, etc.
2. The 7th, 14th, 21st, 28th, 35th & 49th days following death, are considered to be significant for the deceased and some people choose to sponsor 1,000 candles on those days.
3. As for what mantra or prayer to recite to accompany the dying relative, Chenrezig prayers, the meditation or just the mantra can be done as often as possible during the 49 days after death, especially during the first 3 days.
In general, the best prayers are the ones that you usually do in your Dharma practice and at the end, to dedicate them to the deceased.
4. More than that, one could practice ‘Sending and Taking’ called 'Tonglen' meditation which is suitable for Buddhists and non Buddhists alike:
- Sit comfortably with your spine upright, being aware of your breath as it flows in and out.
- Visualize yourself as a sphere of golden light, with the deep inner conviction that this form represents your true nature of perfect awareness and universal compassion. The white light of compassion is in your heart.
- Focus on the dying|deceased person.Breathe in.As you do so, take in all of his or her suffering, which comes out in the form of a thick, black, tar-like liquid, which is heavy and almost solid. With every few breaths this liquid enters your ‘heart of wisdom and compassion’ where the white light of compassion burns it up like fuel, creating more compassion and strengthening your awareness of your true nature.
- While this is going on, with every few breaths you breathe out all goodness, virtue and happiness from your heart to him or her.The pure qualities take the form of crystal-clear white light which frees the dying person from suffering and the causes of suffering.So it is a two-way process. You take suffering in the form of the black liquid, and exchange this for the pure white light.
- As you continue with the exercise, the black liquid becomes gradually thinner and paler as the suffering is slowly removed.Finally, after about half an hour, what you breathe in is the same white light of purity as that which you breathe out.You do not need to think of this process as happening with every breath; each third or fourth breath is sufficient. Visualize that the dying person’s suffering is relieved and that they have become perfect wisdom and compassion, the same as you.
There is no need to fear that you will become sick or overwhelmed, because you are not your ordinary self when doing this exercise – you are visualizing yourself as a light form and thus cannot suffer any harm.
5. One could also perform virtuous positive acts while dedicating the merit to the deceased:
- Being of service to others;
- Give up drinking alcohol; or smoking ; or eating meat for a certain duration;
- Take one or more of the Lay Five Precepts for a short period;
- Take the Sojong vows - eight precepts taken for a duration of one day - several time(such as on the special days of the bardo as mentioned above);
- Do 'Nyung-ne' practice (Thousand Arms Chenrezig fasting practice); etc.
- It is good to remember that the dying mind is about to be or has been moved to a 'spirit body' and is very sensitive to the outer disturbances. Therefore, keeping the dead body in a calm and peaceful environment is advisable.
- After the dead body has been disposed of, it is also beneficial to make positive connection with the Dharma through placing the remains at a special place of blessing. In the case of cremation for example, one can include the ashes in clay and make 'tsa-tsas', which can be placed nearby spiritual power places.
By Venerable Lama Gelong Sangyay Tendzin