Life, Death, and the Sky-Like Nature of Mind with Sogyal Rinpoche

Sogyal Rinpoche is one of the foremost interpreters of the ancient wisdom of Tibet to the Western world. Born in Tibet, he was raised by one of the most revered Buddhist masters of this century, Jamyang Khyentse Chokya Lodro. With the Chinese occupation of Tibet, he went into exile with his, master, who died in l959 in the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. After the death of his master, Sogyal Rinpoche studied at Delhi University, India, while continuing to study the vast Buddhist teachings. Beginning in l971, he studied Comparative Religion at Cambridge University, England. Sogyal Rinpoche has spent the last 22 years bringing the wisdom of Buddhism to the West. He is the founder of Rigpa Fellowship, which has established Buddhist meditation centers in Great Britain, the United States, France, Ireland, Germany, and Australia. He is the author of the international bestseller The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

Sounds True: I learned from reading your book that, in Tibet, death is considered central to life. It is everywhere—at least on a symbolic level. Here, the only place you find death is in hospitals. What can we learn about life from contemplating death?

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Sogyal Rinpoche: Let me begin by saying that I know two things about death: It is certain that we are all going to die, but it is uncertain when. It is because the time of death is uncertain that we feel we have an unlimited lease on life. Of course, life is not permanent, but we become very attached to this life, and in turn deny and reject our death. We see death as isolation. Death becomes our ultimate fear, the last thing we want to look at.

When you really look deeply, beneath our fear of death is actually the fear of looking into ourselves. And so, when we reflect on death, we see that life and death are one whole. Reflection helps us realize that death is not just a bitter end, but is the key to the whole meaning of life.

That is why I have said that death is like a mirror in which the true meaning of life is reflected. If you do look in this mirror, you might discover who you really are and the true nature of your mind.

Sounds True: Often it seems that people who are dying have greater clarity about life than people who are in good health—who have everything to live for.

Sogyal Rinpoche: It's very interesting. Unfortunately, in the present day, people only think of death when they are dying. And when they are dying, suddenly their life becomes very clear.

You see, when you really look into death, this doesn't mean that you are just morbidly thinking that, “ …you are going to die, you are going to die!” As the great Tibetan saint Milarepa said, “In horror of death, I took to the mountains and meditated on the uncertainty and hour of death. And now, capturing the fortress of the deathless, unending nature of mind, all fear of death is gone.” Living with the immediacy of death helps you to sort out your priorities in life. It helps you to live a less trivial life, you see.

Sounds True: On your new workshop recording you mention that in the West, we distract ourselves by running around and doing various projects. Why do you see this as a waste of time? What should we be doing with our time?

Sogyal Rinpoche: There are two types of laziness. There is a kind of passive laziness, which is what is practiced in India and the East. In the West, though, the laziness is very active. What people do here is fill their lives with trivial activities and distractions so they do not have to face the important issues of life. We make our lives so hectic that we eliminate the slightest risk of looking deeply into ourselves. If you do look past yourself and see death, it refines your life and frees you. And with all these many, many activities at the end of your life, what have you really accomplished? You have to think.

Sometimes, I think, in the kind of modern world we have, there is no real vision of the future. As such, we get stuck in the day-to-day existence. When you are very young and you are in school, the time goes very slowly. But as you get older and you get more busy, there does not seem to be any time to give to the things in life which are really most important. Suddenly, it is time to die, and you have tremendous regret because you did not really accomplish all the things that you wished to.

I think it is unfortunate that people do not understand what it is to live a meaningful life. We are very much taught how to live and how to go—society just dictates to us, and we just go on. There are only a few people really questioning deeply about this, and learning what it is to live a meaningful life.

Sounds True: What does that mean to you, “a meaningful life”?

Sogyal Rinpoche: For me, living a meaningful life is to, first of all, realize that I have a limited time. For example, I see that death is something that happens once in life, and that life is full of changes. These changes must prompt us to let go—change is really a teacher. Through contemplating the immediacy of death, I sort out and take care of the most important things. And then, to ask, “What is it that survives after death? If everything is in permanent change, what survives?”

For me, the meaningful life requires a true meditation practice and other teachings. Then one begins to discover there is a fundamental nature of mind, which is very much like the sky. And even though sometimes the sky is clouded, you can take a plane and go beyond the clouds, and find there is an infinite sky that is never touched by the clouds. You discover the sky-like nature of mind, which is, in a sense, deathless. When I reach this dimension of the mind through meditation and the teachings—I'm presenting it rather simplistically—I often say to myself, “Well, if I were to die in this particular state, I think I would be quite okay.” At other times, when I am distracted and confused, I am afraid of death.

So living the meaningful life means that you are focused and mindful of the truth of yourself. We will all stop breathing quite successfully. But how are we going to be when we face death knowing the truth of ourselves? That is what we are afraid of: to meet the truth of ourselves. That is why I say that death is like a mirror in which the true meaning of life is reflected. Through the wisdom of what we see, we become free of ourselves.

Sounds True: How accurate do you think are the visions that many people have during their near-death experiences?

Sogyal Rinpoche: I think they are perhaps indicative of things to come. But what I think is most interesting is how much in common all the different accounts really have. I think there are two things which are quite wonderful about near-death. The most important thing is that, when someone goes through a near-death experience, their whole life changes. You see, death is the greatest teacher of life, really. The second thing is that the person realizes there is nothing about death to be scared of. It is something that gives them hope.

But at the same time, I think that just because these people say that death is beautiful and wonderful, that does not mean we should not work and prepare for it. In the preface of my book, the Dalai Lama says that if you want to die skillfully, then you must live a peaceful and good life. Naturally, most of us would like to die a peaceful death, but we cannot hope to die peacefully if our lives have been full of violence. If you wish to die well, then 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. I think if you live well, then that is also the way to die well.

Sounds True: In the introduction to your book, you write, “What it is I hope for this book to inspire is a quiet revolution in the whole way we look at death and care for the dying.” What would you like to see in the way that we care for people who are dying?

Sogyal Rinpoche: We need more compassion and awareness, first of all. Sometimes, I hear people in the West talk about the rights of the living, but it seems that the dying people have no rights at all. Only when you are facing death do you see that there is little knowledge of dying: you may be treated rather badly, in a very busy hospital—not a peaceful environment at all.

Sogyal Rinpoche

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Sogyal Rinpoche was born in Tibet, and trained by several revered masters of traditional Tibetan Buddhism. Beginning in 1971 he studied Comparative Religion at Cambridge University in England. Since 1...

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