I remember how people would often come to see my master, Jamyang Khyentse, simply to ask for his guidance for the moment of death. He was so loved and revered throughout Tibet, especially in the eastern province of Kham, that some would travel for months on end to meet him and get his blessing just once before they died. All my masters would give this as their advice, for this is the essence of what is needed as you come to die: "Be free of attachment and aversion. Keep your mind pure. And unite your mind with the Buddha."
The whole Buddhist attitude to the moment of death can be summed up in this one verse by Padmasambhava from the cycle of the Tibetan Book of the Dead:
Now when the bardo of dying dawns upon me,
I will abandon all grasping, yearning and attachment,
Enter undistracted in clear awareness of the teaching,
And eject my consciousness into the space of unborn Rigpa;
As I leave this compound body of flesh and blood
I will know it to be a transitory illusion.
At the moment of death, there are two things that count: Whatever we have done in our lives, and what state of mind we are in at that moment. Even if we have accumulated a lot of negative karma, if we are able really to make a change of heart at the moment, it can decisively influence our future and transform our karma, for the moment of death is an exceptionally powerful opportunity for purifying karma.
The Moment of Death
Remember that all the habits and tendencies that are stored in the ground of our ordinary mind are lying ready to be activated by any influence. Even now we know how it only takes the slightest provocation to prompt our instinctive, habitual reactions to surface. This is especially true at the moment of death. The Dalai Lama explains:
"At the time of death, attitudes of long familiarity usually take precedence and direct the rebirth. For this same reason, strong attachment is generated for the self, since one fears that one's self is becoming nonexistent. This attachment serves as the connecting link to the intermediate state between lives, the liking for a body in turn acts as a cause establishing the body of the intermediate (bardo) being."
Therefore our state of mind at death is all-important. If we die in a positive frame of mind, we can improve our next birth, despite our negative karma. And if we are upset and distressed, it may have a detrimental effect, even though we may have used our lives well. This means that "the last thought and emotion that we have before we die has an extremely powerful determining effect on our immediate future." Just as the mind of a mad person is usually entirely occupied by one obsession, which returns again and again, so at the moment of death our minds are totally vulnerable and exposed to whatever thoughts then preoccupy us. That last thought or emotion we have can be magnified out of all proportion and flood our whole perception. This is why the masters stress that the quality of the atmosphere around us when we die is crucial. With our friends and relatives, we should do all we can to inspire positive emotions and sacred feelings, like love, compassion, and devotion, and all we can to help them to "let go of grasping, yearning, and attachment."
Letting Go of Attachment
The ideal way for a person to die is having given away everything, internally and externally, so that there is as little as possible yearning, grasping, and attachment for the mind at that essential moment to latch onto. So before we die we should try to free ourselves of attachment to all our possessions, friends, and loved ones. We cannot take anything with us, so we should make plans to give all our belongings beforehand as gifts or offerings to charity.
In Tibet the masters, before they left their bodies, would indicate what they would like to offer to other teachers. sometimes a master who was intending to reincarnate in the future would leave a particular group of objects for his reincarnation, giving a clear indication of what he wanted to leave. I am convinced that we should also be exact about who is going to receive our possessions or our money. These wishes should be expressed as lucidly as possible. If they are not, then after you die, if you are in the bardo of becoming, you will see your relatives squabbling over your goods or misusing your money, and this will disturb you. State precisely just how much of your money should be dedicated to charity, or different spiritual purposes, or given to each of your relatives. Making everything clear, down to the final details, will reassure you and help you truly to let go.
As I have said, it is essential that the atmosphere around when we die should be as peaceful as possible. The Tibetan masters therefore advise that grieving friends and relatives should not be present at a dying person's bedside, in case they provoke a disturbing emotion at the moment of death. Hospice workers have told me that dying people sometimes request that their close family do not visit them just as they are dying, because of this very fear of evoking painful feelings and strong attachment in the dying person, which make it harder than ever for him or her to let go.
It is extremely hard not to cry when we are at the bedside of someone we love who is dying. I advise everyone to do their best to work out attachment and grief with the dying person before death comes: Cry together, express your love, and say goodbye, but try to finish with this process before the actual moment of death arrives. If possible, it is best if friends and relatives do not show excessive grief at the moment of death, because the consciousness of the dying person is at that moment exceptionally vulnerable. The Tibetan Book of the Dead says that your crying and tears around a person's bedside are experienced like thunder and hail. But don't worry if you have found yourself weeping at a deathbed; it can't be helped, and there is no reason to upset yourself and to feel guilty.