We can all agree that the fear of death is the most fundamental fear that all humans face in their lives. We may try to forget our uncertainty as to what happens in the afterlife, but the fear is ever present, always just below the surface.
What do Buddhists have to say about this wholly natural yet seemingly undesirable event in which all human life culminates?
We found a rare excerpt of one of the Dalai Lama’s speeches from 1994 where he shares his perspective on what happens when you die.
It gets better:
He offers practical advice at the end on how to live a virtuous life to prepare for the final reckoning.
The Dalai Lama describes the process of death
“As a Buddhist, I view death as a normal process, a reality that I accept will occur as long as I remain in this earthly existence. Knowing that I cannot escape it, I see no point in worrying about it. I tend to think of death as being like changing your clothes when they are old and worn out, rather than as some final end. Yet death is unpredictable: We do not know when or how it will take place. So it is only sensible to take certain precautions before it actually happens.
“The process of dying begins with the dissolution of the elements within the body. It has eight stages, beginning with the dissolution of the earth element, then the water, fire and wind elements. The color: appearance of a white vision, increase of the red element, black near-attainment, and finally the clear light of death.
“There is no way to escape death, it is just like trying to escape by four great mountains touching sky. There is no escape from these four mountains of birth, old age, sickness and death.
“Ageing destroys youth, sickness destroys health, degeneration of life destroys all excellent qualities and death destroys life. Even if you are a great runner, you cannot run away from death. You cannot stop death with your wealth, through your magic performances or recitation of mantras or even medicines. Therefore, it is wise to prepare for your death.
“From a Buddhist point of view, the actual experience of death is very important. Although how or where we will be reborn is generally dependent on karmic forces, our state of mind at the time of death can influence the quality of our next rebirth. So at the moment of death, in spite of the great variety of karmas we have accumulated, if we make a special effort to generate a virtuous state of mind, we may strengthen and activate a virtuous karma, and so bring about a happy rebirth.”
The Dalai Lama writes about consciousness in the fascinating book, Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness.
Knowing the process of death, how to live your life
In a later part of the presentation, the Dalai Lama shares how to use these insights to live a virtuous life:
“We cannot hope to die peacefully if our lives have been full of violence, or if our minds have mostly been agitated by emotions like anger, attachment, or fear. So if we wish to die well, we must learn how to live well: Hoping for a peaceful death, we must cultivate peace in our mind, and in our way of life.”
Can there be a greater motivation for cultivating your mindset and approach to life?
The Dalai Lama suggests we need to cultivate peace in our minds. The question is: how can you do this?
In my experience, identifying your purpose and building your life around it is the single most important element in cultivating your mindset.
The reason why it’s so effective is quite simple.
When you have clarity on your purpose, it helps you to embrace the life you’re living right now. Through experience, you naturally cultivate an approach to life that results in inner peace.
Yet many people focus on living for a world-changing purpose or big dreams.
I learned from the shaman Rudá Iandê how to identify my purpose in life. He offers a different approach to what’s most people take.
Here’s what he says about purpose:
“Purpose is usually a mistaken word. I’ve seen many people looking for a greater purpose in life, like a kind of mission to save the world. Basically, they were trying to find something to make them feel super special and fill their ego. Purpose is something different. You don’t need to change the world. You just need to shift your perspective from, from ‘what you can take from life today’ to ‘how you can contribute to life today’.”
The Dalai Lama has a similar perspective on finding your purpose in life. Here’s what he says:
“I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life. Since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.”
Both Rudá Iandê and the Dalai Lama emphasize finding fulfillment in caring for the happiness of others. Rudá suggests we can find our purpose by focusing on what we can contribute to life. The Dalai Lama suggests we should cultivate a warmhearted feeling for others.
The unfortunate reality is that we’re all going to die one day. How you face up to this reality is up to you.
You can succumb to fear and let your impending doom contribute to a general sense of anxiety. Or you can use the knowledge of your own death to motivate you to contribute to the web of life.
I know which one I’ll choose, and I sincerely hope you’ll do the same.
If you’re fearing death and want to learn how to cultivate a sense of purpose in life, then check out the free masterclass by Rudá Iandê on developing your personal power. In the masterclass, he goes a little deeper in his understanding of purpose and finding it in your contribution to life.
Correction: We changed the previous heading from “The Dalai Lama Explains What Happens When You Die (And How You Can Be Prepared)” to “The Dalai Lama on death (rare excerpt)” to more accurately explain the excerpt we share above.