Face to Face with Death

On this Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—it is the perfect time to pull out and begin re-reading the beautiful and inspiring Tibetan Book of the Dead, something I’ve been wanting to do again for a while now anyway.

The following is the opening chapter of my favorite translation by Gyurme Dorje, edited by Graham Coleman with Thupten Jinpa:


The Tibetan Book of the DeadO, Alas! Alas! Fortunate Child of Buddha Nature,
Do not be oppressed by the forces of ignorance and delusion!
But rise up now with resolve and courage!
Entranced by ignorance, from beginningless time until now,
You have had [more than] enough time to sleep.
So do not slumber any longer, but strive after virtue with body, speech and mind!

Are you oblivious to the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death?
There is no guarantee that you will survive, even past this very day!
The time has come [for you] to develop perseverance in [your] practice.
For, at this singular opportunity, you could attain the everlasting bliss [of nirvana].
So now is [certainly] not the time to sit idly,
But, starting with [the reflection on] death, you should bring your practice to completion!

The moments of our life are not expendable,
And the [possible] circumstances of death are beyond imagination.
If you do not achieve an undaunted confident security now,
What point is there in your being alive, O living creature?

All phenomena are [ultimately] selfless, empty, and free from conceptual elaboration.
In their dynamic they resemble an illusion, mirage, dream, or reflected image,
A celestial city, an echo, a reflection of the moon in water, a bubble, an optical illusion, or an intangible emanation.
You should know that all things of cyclic existence and nirvana
Accord [in nature] with these ten similes of illusory phenomena.

All phenomena are naturally uncreated.
They neither abide nor cease, neither come nor go.
They are without objective referent, signless, ineffable, and free from thought.
The time has come for this truth to be realised!

Homage to the spiritual teachers!
Homage to the meditational deities!
Homage to the dakinis!

O, Alas! Alas! How needing of compassion are those living beings tortured by their past actions,
[Who are drowning] in this deep chasm, the engulfing ocean of their past actions!
Such is the nature of fluctuating cyclic existence!
Grant your blessing, so that this ocean of sufferings may run dry!

How needing of compassion are those who are skill-less
Those who are tortured by ignorance and past actions,
Those who indulge in actions conducive to suffering—
Even though they desire happiness!
Grant your blessing, so that the obscuration of dissonant mental states and past actions may be purified!

How needing of compassion are the ignorant and the deluded,
[Bound] in this confining dungeon of egotistical attachments and the subject-object dichotomy,
Who, like wild game, are trapped in this snare time after time!
Grant your blessing so that cyclic existence may be stirred to its depths!

How needing of compassion are those beings who endlessly revolve [in the cycle of existence],
As if [circling] perpetually [on] the rim of a water-wheel,
In this six-dimensional city of imprisoning past actions!
Grant your blessing, so that the womb entrances to the six classes of existence may be barred!

We who are fearless and hard-hearted, despite having seen so many sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death,
Are wasting our human lives, endowed with freedom and opportunity, on the paths of distraction.
Grant your blessing, so that we may [continuously] remember impermanence and death!

Since we do not recognise that impermanent [things] are unreliable,
Still, even now, we remain attached, clinging to this cycle of existence.
Wishing for happiness, we pass our human lives in suffering.
Grant your blessing, so that attachment to cyclic existence may be reversed!

Our impermanent environment will be destroyed by fire and water,
The impermanent sentient beings within it will endure the severing of body and mind.
The seasons of the year: summer, winter, autumn, and spring, themselves [exemplify] impermanence.
Grant your blessing, so that disillusionment [with conditioned existence] may arise from the depths [of our hearts]!

Last year, this year, the waxing and waning moons,
The days, nights, and indivisible time moments are all impermanent.
If we reflect carefully, we too are face to face with death.
Grant your blessing, so that we may become resolute in our practice!

Though this [body] endowed with freedom and opportunity is extremely hard to find,
When the Lord of Death approaches in the semblance of disease,
How needing of compassion are those who, bereft of the [sacred] teachings,
Return empty-handed [from this life]!
Grant your blessings so that [a recognition of] urgency may grow in our minds!

Alas! Alas! O Precious Jewel, embodiment of compassion!
Since you, the Conqueror, are endowed with a loving heart,
Grant your blessing, so that we and the six classes of beings
May be liberated, right now, from the sufferings of cyclic existence!