Death, Dying and Reincarnation

The following article is from the Spring, 2002 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.



Venerable Traleg Kyapgon Rinpoche at his monastery (Tra'gu) in Tibet

(photo by Given Merrick)




Because of the ever-present fear of death and the lack of contact with death and dying, it is important, from a Buddhist point of view, to have a proper encounter with death. It is also particularly important to deal with the fear of death, because from a Buddhist point of view coming to terms with death is part of making our life worthwhile and meaningful. Death and life are therefore not opposed. Rather, death and life give rise to each other; they co-exist in a sort of complimentary fashion. From a Buddhist perspective, the aim is not to conquer death, but to accept death and to familiarize ourselves with our sense of mortality and impermanence.

It seems to me however, that from a Christian point of view, death is viewed quite differently to this. This is particularly true of the Protestant theologies, where death is seen as the direct result of our original sin. In this view, it is only because of Adam's transgression that death came into existence in the first place. Until that point, God had created Adam as immortal. Human beings only became mortal because Adam transgressed the will of God. In these Christian theologies therefore, death is seen as unnatural. As an 11th century Christian author, Saint Anselm states:

"Moreover, it is proved that man was so made as not to be necessarily subject to death. For as we have already said it is inconsistent with God's wisdom and justice to compel man to suffer death without thought , when he made him wholly to enjoy eternal blessedness. It therefore follows that had man never sinned, he never would have died."

This view is very different from the Buddhist concept of mortality. In Buddhist doctrine we die because we are a product of causes and conditions, called Pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit. Whatever is caused is impermanent, and therefore subject to death and decay; human beings are no exception to this. It is a natural process. From the Buddhist point of view, life without death is impossible, and visa versa. The ultimate aim of Buddhist practice is to learn to accept death and not view it as something ugly and menacing that robs us of our life. This kind of thinking only leads us to ignore the reality of death and think about the possibilities of living forever. On the contrary, we should see death as part of life, because everything is transient and impermanent. Death and life are inseparably bound with one another, because death, to an extent, is present even while one is alive, the aging process itself being a part of the dying process. Life and death are inextricably bound to one other, moment to moment. When one moment has passed, that is death, and when another moment has risen that is life, or rebirth you could say.

Thinking about death in this way may be a bit upsetting at first, but one will be much better off for having done so, because the fear of death is always there and often influences our life in a negative way. The contemplation of death is simply another aspect of Buddhist meditation. In meditation, we try to incorporate everything within our experience, even the negativities of mind. We try to deal with them rather than ignore them. In Tibet, the monks sometimes even used to go to charnel grounds to contemplate death. This may seem a bit excessive, but it helped them to deal with the fear of death, and the fear of the dead as well, I suppose. In Tibet, the charnel grounds used to be in the wilderness, so they could be very eerie places to practice by oneself. They also used such things as thighbone trumpets as part of their practice. Westerners often freak out at this, thinking it is some kind of shamanistic black-magic implement, but for the Tibetans, these things are simply used as reminders of impermanence.

When we actually contemplate death in meditation, all kinds of thoughts and emotions will arise, and we have to deal with that. In this way, a real transformation can take place on an emotional as well as an intellectual level.

This is not to say that some Christians do not die very peaceful deaths. Some do and some do not, it is the same for Buddhists, and even atheists for that matter. As Elizabeth Kubler Ross said in one of her books, you can never judge how a person is going to respond to death. A very mild-mannered person may become aggressive and obnoxious at the time of death, while others, who are very characteristically disagreeable, may accept their death in an amiable and calm manner. What we can say though, is that doing certain meditations on death can help people to accept their own death. But we should not think that only people who do Buddhist meditation on death can accept death properly. It all depends on our habit. If we think about death and become familiar with certain ideas, then we have developed a habitual response that will help us to be more capable in dealing with our death when the time comes.

It is not simply a matter of thinking about death however; one has to have a real experience of it. In Buddhism, this can only come about through the practice of meditation. It's not enough to read what Buddhism says about death and impermanence, because this alone will not make the issue an existential concern. It has to be translated into real experience and become a real encounter with death. For when we actually contemplate death in meditation, all kinds of thoughts and emotions will arise, and we have to deal with that. In this way, a real transformation can take place on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. It is not sufficient to simply think about and say this is what Buddhists believe- I now think that everything is impermanent. Most of us already have a fair degree of intellectual understanding that everything is impermanent. That is not the point; the sense of impermanence has to be felt. Then when our relationships break up, when we get divorced, when our loved ones and relatives die, we will be able to handle those situations differently.

Death is something that happens to everybody, not just one person, or a few people. Knowing that can at least, diminish the fear of death. If you think only of the person you have lost and concentrate on your own grief about them, your focus becomes very narrow and your loss may seem overwhelming. But if you think of all the mothers in the world who have also lost their children and experienced the same grief as yourself, then the experience is more encompassing, it is no longer such a personal problem.

As the Buddha said we come into contact with things that we do not want to come into contact with, and we get separated from things that we do not want to become separated from that is how things are. It is very difficult not to occasionally succumb to our emotions, our anger, resentment, jealousy, and so on, but through the practice of meditation we may no longer get so overwhelmed by them when these emotions arise. In a similar way, death may still be a very fearful experience when it occurs, but one may be able to maintain a sense of awareness. This is what, the Tibetan Book of the Dead talks about. This is the main point, the fear of death may still be there, but we can maintain a sense of equilibrium along with that.


Venerable Traleg Kyabgon, Rinpoche, IX

The Venerable Traleg Kyabgon, Rinpoche is the President and Spiritual Director of E-Vam Buddhist Institute, New York, and Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute, Melbourne, Australia. Born in 1955 in Eastern Tibet, Traleg Rinpoche was recognized by His Holiness the XVI Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage, as the ninth incarnation of the Traleg lineage, which can be traced back to the time of Salton Shogam, a contemporary of the first Karmapa. Traleg Rinpoche was enthroned at the age of two as the supreme head of Tra'gu Monastery in Tibet and following the Chinese invasion of his country was taken to safety in India. He has returned to Tra'gu Monastery twice in the past five years, thus reestablishing his connection with the monastery and its monks, some of whom are very elderly and served Rinpoche's predecessor. In India he continued the rigorous training prescribed for tulkus born with responsibilities as major lineage holders in the Tibetan tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism.

The Venerable Traleg Rinpoche has been giving lectures and seminars on Buddhism and related topics in Melbourne, Australia since 1980 where he established Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute, and more recently, Maitripa Contemplative Centre.

E-Vam Buddhist Institute- New York is a newly established retreat facility in Hudson, New York where he will be conducting seminars and retreats. For further information, contact the Centre at (518) 672-6333; (718) 204-7690 or visit our website at

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