The Dalai Lama on death

The Dalai Lama on death

The Dalai Lama on death

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 from the Dalai Lama from the forward that he wrote for the book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

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 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.

Naturally, most of us would to die a peaceful death, but it is also clear that we cannot hope to die peacefully if our lives have been full of violence, or if our minds have mostly been agitated by emotions anger, attachment, or fear. So if we wish to die well, we must learn how to live well: Hoping for a peaceful 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.”

Helping others to die well

“No less significant than preparing for our own death is helping others to die well. As a newborn baby each of us was helpless and, without the care and kindness we received then, we would not have survived.

Because the dying also are unable to help themselves, we should relieve them of discomfort and anxiety, and assist them, as far as we can, to die with composure.

Here the most important point is to avoid anything which will cause the dying person’s mind to become more disturbed than it may already be. Our prime aim in helping a dying person is to put them at ease, and there are many ways of doing this.

A dying person who is familiar with spiritual practice may be encouraged and inspired if they are reminded of it, but even kindly reassurance on our part can engender a peaceful, relaxed attitude in the dying person’s mind.”

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Why the Dalai Lama says reincarnation might not be for him

The Dalai Lama on death

Adherents of Tibetan Buddhism believe the Dalai Lama, the religion’s highest spiritual authority, has been reincarnated in an unbroken line for centuries. But the current Dalai Lama says he may be the last.

In an interview with the BBC this week, the 79-year-old Nobel Peace Prize recipient said that he may not reincarnate after he dies.

“There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next, who will disgrace himself or herself,” he said. “That would be very sad. So, much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama.”  

But what does reincarnation mean, and why would the Dalai Lama not want to have a successor?

How do Tibetan Buddhists believe reincarnation works?

Tibetan Buddhism teaches that after death, nearly all of us are flung back into the world of the living under the influence of harmful impulses and desires.

But through compassion and prayer, a few can choose the time, place and the parents to whom they return.

This affirms Buddhist teachings that one’s spirit can return to benefit humanity; it also serves to maintain a strong theological and political structure based around monasticism and celibacy.

The process through which reincarnated Buddhist masters, known as “tulkus,” are discovered is not uniform among the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

But generally, through dreams, signals, and other clues, senior monks identify candidates from a pool of boys born around the time the previous incarnation died. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th in the line of the Gelug school.

The son of a farmer, he was recognized in 1950 after he correctly picked out objects owned by his predecessor, such as a bowl and prayer beads, jumbled among unfamiliar items.

So why would the Dalai Lama refuse to reincarnate?

Almost certainly to prevent the Chinese government from inserting itself into the process for political ends. Tibet was incorporated into China more than 60 years ago; the Dalai Lama went into exile in India in 1959 amid a revolt. China’s government has denounced him as a separatist, but the Dalai Lama currently says he only seeks a high degree of autonomy for Tibet.

In the mid-1990s, the Dalai Lama identified a 6-year-old boy as the Panchen Lama, a position second only to the Dalai Lama himself. But Chinese authorities took custody of the child, and his whereabouts remain unclear. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities identified another youth as the Panchen Lama, but he never won the trust of Tibetans.  

In 2011, the Dalai Lama wrote: “Should the concerned public express a strong wish for the Dalai Lamas to continue, there is an obvious risk of vested political interests misusing the reincarnation system to fulfill their own political agenda.” He said then that he would reevaluate whether the custom should go on when he was in his 90s.

Why the statement now?

In fact, the Dalai Lama has claimed that as early as 1969 he made clear that the Tibetan people should decide whether reincarnations should continue.

He has previously stated that he would not reincarnate in Tibet if it were not free, and he has mused that the Tibetan people should select their religious leaders democratically.

To that effect, he has already divested the political power of his role to an elected official, based in India.

In September, the Dalai Lama stepped up his rhetoric on this point, raising the suggestion that he might be the last of his line. “If a weak Dalai Lama comes along, it will just disgrace the Dalai Lama,” he told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag. 

What do Chinese authorities say? 

After the Dalai Lama’s statement in September, the Chinese government issued a firm rebuttal. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, “The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government.” China, which is officially atheist, will follow “set religious procedure and historic custom” to select a successor, she said.

Other officials have followed suit.

“Only the central government can decide on keeping, or getting rid of, the Dalai Lama’s lineage, and the 14th Dalai Lama does not have the final say,” Zhu Weiqun, chairman of the ethnic and religious affairs committee of a high-ranking advisory body to China’s parliament, told the state-run Global Times newspaper this week. “All [the Dalai Lama] can do is use his religious title to write about the continuation or not of the Dalai Lama to get eyeballs overseas.”

What happens next?

It’s unclear what will happen when the Dalai Lama dies, but the decision is a sensitive one that will put pressure on the Chinese government.

If the Chinese government does select a successor, its choice could be rejected by Tibetans, and that could exacerbate strained relations.

But the Dalai Lama has made nonviolence a key tenet of his teachings, and losing him – and any reincarnation – could also be risky.

Wu Chuke, a professor of social science at Beijing’s Ethnic Studies University, said that if the position is left empty, “many of the Tibetan Buddhists in China will feel that the not being able to be reincarnated will be due to restrictions from the government and will further damage the relationship between them. This will put new pressure on the Chinese government in how they will deal with this problem.”

Silbert is a special correspondent.

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Exclusive: Dalai Lama contemplates Chinese gambit after his death

The Dalai Lama on death

DHARAMSHALA, India (Reuters) – The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, said on Monday it was possible that once he dies his incarnation could be found in India, where he has lived in exile for 60 years, and warned that any other successor named by China would not be respected.

Sat in an office next to a temple ringed by green hills and snow-capped mountains, the 14th Dalai Lama spoke to Reuters a day after Tibetans in the northern Indian town of Dharamshala marked the anniversary of his escape from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, disguised as a soldier.

He fled to India in early 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, and has since worked to draw global support for linguistic and cultural autonomy in his remote and mountainous homeland.

China, which took control of Tibet in 1950, brands the 83-year-old Nobel peace laureate a dangerous separatist.

Pondering what might happen after his death, the Dalai Lama anticipated some attempt by Beijing to foist a successor on Tibetan Buddhists.

“China considers Dalai Lama’s reincarnation as something very important. They have more concern about the next Dalai Lama than me,” said the Dalai Lama, swathed in his traditional red robes and yellow scarf.

“In future, in case you see two Dalai Lamas come, one from here, in free country, one chosen by Chinese, then nobody will trust, nobody will respect (the one chosen by China). So that’s an additional problem for the Chinese! It’s possible, it can happen,” he added, laughing.

China has said its leaders have the right to approve the Dalai Lama’s successor, as a legacy inherited from China’s emperors.

But many Tibetans – whose tradition holds that the soul of a senior Buddhist monk is reincarnated in the body of a child on his death – suspect any Chinese role as a ploy to exert influence on the community.

Born in 1935, the current Dalai Lama was identified as the reincarnation of his predecessor when he was two years old.

Speaking in Beijing at a daily news briefing on Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the 14th Dalai Lama himself was chosen by following centuries-old religious rituals and history, which were “respected and protected” in rules and ordinances regulating religion.

“Therefore reincarnations, including that of the Dalai Lama, should observe the country’s laws and regulations and follow the rituals and history of religion,” Geng said.


Many of China’s more than 6 million Tibetans still venerate the Dalai Lama despite government prohibitions on displays of his picture or any public display of devotion.

The Dalai Lama said contact between Tibetans living in their homeland and in exile was increasing, but that no formal meetings have happened between Chinese and his officials since 2010.

Informally, however, some retired Chinese officials and businessman with connections to Beijing do visit him from time to time, he added.

He said the role of the Dalai Lama after his death, including whether to keep it, could be discussed during a meeting of Tibetan Buddhists in India later this year.

He, however, added that though there was no reincarnation of Buddha, his teachings have remained.

“If the majority of (Tibetan people) really want to keep this institution, then this institution will remain,” he said. “Then comes the question of the reincarnation of the 15th Dalai Lama.”

If there is one, he would still have “ no political responsibility”, said the Dalai Lama, who gave up his political duties in 2001, developing a democratic system for the up to 100,000 Tibetans living in India.


During the interview, the Dalai Lama spoke passionately about his love for cosmology, neurobiology, quantum physics and psychology.

If he was ever allowed to visit his homeland, he said he’d to speak about those subjects in a Chinese university.

But he wasn’t expecting to go while China remained under Communist rule.

“China – great nation, ancient nation – but it’s political system is totalitarian system, no freedom. So therefore I prefer to remain here, in this country.”

FILE PHOTO: Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, Patron of Children in Crossfire, speaks during a press conference in Londonderry, Northern Ireland September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

The Dalai Lama was born to a family of farmers in Taktser, a village on the northeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, in China’s Qinghai province.

During a recent Reuters visit to Taktser, police armed with automatic weapons blocked the road. Police and more than a dozen plain-clothed officials said the village was not open to non-locals.

“Our strength, our power is truth. Chinese power gun,” the Dalai Lama said. “So for short term, gun is much more decisive, but long term truth is more powerful.”

Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Additional reporting by Philip Wen in BEIJING; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Preparing to Die

The Dalai Lama on death
Just as when weaving
One reaches the end
With fine threads woven throughout ,
So is the life of humans .

It is in the nature of cyclic existence that what has gathered will eventually disperse — parents, children, brothers, sisters, and friends. No matter how much friends each other , eventually they must separate.

Gurus and students, parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and friends — no matter who they are — must eventually separate . While my senior tutor, Ling Rinpochay, was healthy, it was almost impossible, unbearable, for me to think about his death. For me, he was always a very solid rock on which I could rely. I wondered how I could survive without him.

But when he suffered a stroke, after which there was a second, very serious stroke, eventually the situation allowed part of my mind to think, ” Now it would be better for him to go.” Sometimes I have even thought that he deliberately took on that illness, so that when he did actually pass away, I would be ready to handle the next task — to search for his reincarnation .

In addition to separating from all of our friends, the wealth and resources that accumulate over time — no matter how marvelous they are — eventually become unusable. No matter how high your rank or position, you must eventually fall.

To remind myself of this, when I ascend the high platform from which I teach, just as I am sitting down, I recite to myself the words of the Diamond Cutter Sutra about impermanence:

View things compounded from causes
To be twinkling stars, figments seen with an eye disease ,
The flickering light of a butter lamp, magical illusions,
Dew, bubbles, dreams, lightning, and clouds .

I reflect on the fragility of caused phenomena, and then snap my fingers, the brief sound symbolizing impermanence. This is how I remind myself that I will soon be descending from the high throne. Any living being — no matter how long he or she lives — must eventually die. There is no other way.

Once you dwell within cyclic existence,  you cannot live outside of its nature. No matter how marvelous things may be, it is built into their very nature that they and you, who take joy in them , must degenerate in the end. Not only must you die in the end, but you do not know when the end will come. If you did, you could put off preparing for the future.

Even if you show signs of living to a ripe old age, you cannot say with one hundred percent certainty that today you will not die. You must not procrastinate. Rather, you should make preparations so that even if you did die tonight, you would have no regrets.

If you develop an appreciation for the uncertainty and imminence of death, your sense of the importance of using your time wisely will get stronger and stronger. As the Tibetan scholar-yogi Tsongkhapa says:

When the difficulty of finding this human body is understood ,
there is no way to stay doing nothing.

When its great meaning is seen , passing the time

senselessly is a cause of sorrow.

When death is contemplated , preparation to go

to the next life is made.

When actions and their effects are contemplated ,

sources of non-conscientiousness are turned away.

When in this way these four roots have become firm,

Other virtuous practices easily grow.

Thinking about death not only serves as a preparation for dying and prompts actions that benefit future lives, but it also dramatically affects your mental perspective.

For instance, when people are not accustomed to this practice of being mindful about the certainty of death, then even when it is obvious that they are old and will soon pass away, their friends and family feel they cannot be realistic with them, and even feel the need to compliment them on their physical appearance. Both parties know it is a lie.

It is ridiculous! Sometimes even patients suffering from terminal diseases such as cancer avoid using the words 'die' or 'death'. I find it almost impossible to speak with them about their impending death; they resist hearing about it.

But for one who cannot now face even the word ' death', never mind the reality of it, the actual arrival of death is ly to bring with it great discomfort and fear . On the other hand, when I meet with a practitioner who appears to be near death , I do not hesitate to say, ' Whether you die or recover, you need preparation for both.

' It is possible for us to reflect together on the imminence of death. There is no need to hide anything, for that person is prepared to face death with no regret. A practitioner who, early on, thinks about impermanence is much more courageous and happy while dying. Reflecting on the uncertainty of the time of death develops a mind that is peaceful, disciplined, and virtuous, because it is dwelling on more than the superficial stuff of this short lifetime .

Summary Advice

  1. If you cultivate a sense of the uncertainty of the time of death, you will make better use of your time.
  2. To prevent procrastination with regard to spiritual practice, take care not to come under the influence of the illusion of permanence.
  3. Realize that no matter how wonderful a situation may be, its nature is such that it must end.
  4. Do not think that there will be time later.
  5. Be frank about facing your own death. Skillfully encourage others to be frank about their deaths .

    Do not deceive each other with compliments when the time of death is near. Honesty will foster courage and joy.

Advice on Dying : And Living a Better Life, Chapter 3 : Preparing to Die : pages 94 • 98, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Translated & Edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Atria Books • 2002 • New York

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