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Signs of Death

Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaches at the annual Kopan November course in the newly rebuilt Chenrezig Gompa. – Kopan Monastery, Kathmandu, Nepal; Photographer: Neal Patrick; 2019

Red and white drops at the time of death

I want to explain more about the signs of death. As you know from the death evolution—the twenty-five absorptions and so forth—the last thing is that the red drop received in continuity from the mother goes up from the navel and the bodhichitta, or white seed, goes down from the head in the central artery. The two drops then meet at the heart. (Here heart refers to the place at the midpoint between the two breasts; the place from where anger, fear or compassion arises.) That is why the dark vision happens and then, due to that, the clear light.

Afterwards, the drops split, and for men, blood comes out through the nose and bodhichitta comes down and out through the penis. When you see one of these signs, though not necessarily both, in a person who is in meditation, their meditation is over. 

Though I have seen a few dead bodies, I haven’t yet personally seen blood come from the nose. But I did see it in a documentary about the death of someone in Ladakh. In the documentary, the head man of a village had died, and a lama was invited to the room where the body was to do powa, transference of the consciousness to a pure land. I think he must be a very good lama. He did the practice in a very short time, maybe five minutes. The lama sat down near the dead body and put a blob of butter about the size of a small finger on the head. I didn’t see very clearly, but maybe the butter contained special substances. Usually, it would contain a powa pill, which is supposed to have the ashes of high lamas mixed with magnetic iron and burnt conch shell. It seems that a powa pill has the power to hook the consciousness from the heart through the crown. 

So, the lama put the butter on the dead person’s head and did powa in a very short time. After the lama left, the person who was helping the family with the rituals, turned the dead person’s head, which had been facing the other side, to face this side. When he did this, much blood came out through the nose. This means that the consciousness left the body. I think the lama did very effective powa; he must have had very good concentration. Otherwise, this would not necessarily happen if the lama didn’t have good concentration or good qualities, such as pure morality and so forth. Perhaps the lama had good experience of the tantric path, knowing the generation and completion stages. 

For a man, the white bodhichitta comes down below, and red blood comes from the nose, but so far I myself haven’t seen that. For a woman the bodhichitta, the white liquid, comes from the nose and blood, the red liquid, comes from the female sex organ. That’s what is said in the texts. I have seen a dead female body in the West, but I didn’t get to check the body. Somebody has to put their hand underneath the clothes and check whether or not blood has come from the sex organ. But Western people don’t know about and wouldn’t do that.

So, that is something that also needs to be checked. But it is not necessarily that both liquids come from everyone who dies. When somebody has been sick for a long time, due to the condition of the body, one seed may come out but not the other. It’s not necessarily that both come out. That’s an important point to know. 

Rinpoche’s first dead body

The very first dead body I saw was in Solu Khumbu, in Rolwaling, where I lived for seven years. The wife of the head of the meditators in the Rowlaling area died. (He was a lay tantric practitioner, not a monk, and he had a house down below the house of my teacher, Gen Ngawang Gedun.) The first time I saw a dead body was at the wife’s funeral. They opened the sheepskin blanket in which her body was wrapped, and the whole body was exposed. I don’t know how old I was, but I was very scared, terribly scared, for three days. Then I forgot about it…. 

They put a mandala, placed the body on that and then put firewood on top. They were probably visualizing her as a deity. They then did a puja, but I didn’t know what puja it was. 

Gen Jampa Wangdu’s death

When my teacher, Gen Jampa Wangdu, passed away, he passed away after about three days in meditation. Kelsang Yeshe, the head or secretary of the Tibetan religious office, came at that time—he may have been sent by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but I’m not sure. (He had been a monk before, at Drepung Loseling, and expert in debating Pramanavartika and so forth.) His Holiness’s advice was to take the body to the place to be burnt in just a very simple way, not publicly with many people in a procession. 

The body was burned at Tushita Retreat Centre, above the Tushita kitchen. Not in a pot in the kitchen—in a field above the kitchen. Even at that time there was no change in the body; it looked strong and not like it was dead. One of Gen Jampa Wangdu’s disciples, a Lower Tantric College monk, was very worried that Gen Jampa Wangdu was being burned before he had passed away. But Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche, who was a close friend of Gen Jampa Wangdu, had come to the house and confirmed that he was dead. Rinpoche, holding incense in his hand, came to the door of the house. I asked Rinpoche to come in, but Rinpoche just looked from outside, without touching Gen Jampa Wangdu, and said, “Meditation is over.” Of course, since Rinpoche has omniscience, he could see this. 

The monk from the Upper Tantric College who offered service to His Holiness Ling Rinpoche when Rinpoche was doing rituals (at that time Kyabje Ling Rinpoche had not yet passed away) put his hand down below to check Gen Jampa Wangdu’s secret place and discovered that bodhichitta had already come out. But we didn’t see anything come from Gen-la’s nose. 

I think that our Lama Gyupa from Tushita, the one who did a three-year Guhyasamaja retreat, may also have put his hand underneath Gen-la’s robes and checked. I have a memory of something like that happening. 

Ribur Rinpoche’s death

Another death I saw is that of Kyabje Ribur Rinpoche, who passed away in his own house in Sera Monastery. After a few days, or maybe one week (I’m not sure about the time), Rinpoche’s face had changed a little. I think Rinpoche’s meditation had been over for quite some time. So I invited there the Gen-la who had offered service to Lama Yeshe’s and my root guru, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s junior tutor. Because there was some thought that Rinpoche might still be meditating, he put his hand down below to check and found that bodhichitta had come out. But I didn’t see any red blood come out through the nose. 

When signs like that have happened, it is definite that the meditation is over and the consciousness has already left. 

Om Mani Padme Hung’s death

I didn’t get to mention it before, but I must mention this additional point: this is the normal thing. It happened even with Om Mani Padme Hung, the first dog that we had in Aptos. Roger thought that we should have a dog. One girl had rescued a dog from being killed. Nobody wanted the dog, so she took it. But when she had to go to Mexico, she heard at Vajrapani Institute that we wanted a dog, so she brought the dog to us. That dog was a little bit violent. You couldn’t go near her, especially at the beginning. Even during the time we had her, she bit Geshe Ngawang Drakpa, Massimo and a few other people. If someone tried to pat her, she might suddenly bite them. 

Since we were keeping a dog, since the dog was in the hands of Buddhists, I thought we should help her not to go to the lower realms and build a stupa behind the house. A student called Brian, who was a monk at that time, built a reasonable sized stupa for the amount of land available, but not in the Tibetan style, more in the shape of Borobudur. On that we put a large Kadampa stupa (though not the largest one), with many smaller Kadampa stupas around it. We filled up the space with many stupas. We made the largest Kadampa stupa after John Schwartz, a student and long-time director of Vajrapani Institute, passed away, for his good rebirth and for him to meet the Dharma. It is at Land of Medicine Buddha. We did have a mold for that stupa, but it’s now broken. 

I thought that every day a different person in the house could take Om Mani Padme Hung outside to circumambulate the stupa. That isn’t exactly what happened. Anet, the Swiss nun who is the cook there, probably took the dog around the most. I did take the dog around quite a few times from time to time, and so did others, but it was mostly Anet who took her around the stupa. So, she would have purified so much negative karma collected during beginningless rebirths. 

I wasn’t there when Om Mani Padme Hung died, but Holly said it was like she was sleeping. Her body was left there for three days, then bodhichitta came out through her nose and blood came from her sex organ (it might be the same for female animals as for female humans). Maybe her face then changed, but for three days there was no change, and she looked as if she were sleeping. It means that the consciousness was there for three days. So, it is like that even for animals. I think she probably received a higher rebirth. She should definitely have a good rebirth after going round the stupa so many times. 

The name of the dog we have now is Uma. I don’t think that he has bitten anybody—even before he came to us. 

Lama Yeshe’s death

The other story is about Lama Yeshe. In 1983, when I was going to Nepal for the Kopan Course, I asked Lama to come. Lama came and gave the bodhisattva vows. I had eaten some cherries from a container, and that night Lama ate the leftover cherries. Later that same night, around 1:30, Lama stopped breathing. Lama Lhundrup was there next to Lama. I was in my small room in the old gompa trying to do chod (that was my time of being excited about chod). Lama was in his bigger room. Lama said that when he heard the sound of the damaru, he felt a little better. 

The next day, Lama vomited and then left to go to a hospital in Delhi. Karuna took the main responsibility for escorting him there. Lama was in hospital for two weeks, then Mummy Max arranged for him to go to a farmhouse outside Delhi, where he stayed for one or two weeks. Lama called us, so Lama Lhundrup and I then went to Delhi. Lama had already changed, his face a little dark, and he was using oxygen. The first day Lama put on a show of being able to eat, as if he’d got better. Lama Lhundrup stayed a few days and then left. I stayed on. 

Because in the hospital the nurses had pushed Lama to take many medicines and hadn’t treated him respectfully, Lama asked me to do chab thrue. Chab thrue, which involves blessing vase water, is a practice you normally do for sick people to purify them. So, I tried to do that. I’m sure the reason Lama asked me to do it was for me to create good karma. In the evening I then had to do trukchuma, the wrathful Kalarupa puja in which you hook evil spirits into a torma. I asked Lama to do the trukchuma, but Lama said that doing it made his heart stop. (That might be a sign that Lama, who had actualized the subtle mind of clear light, had good concentration.) 

I then asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama to do a mo about whether or not it would be good to do an operation. Since His Holiness said it would be good to do it, we then went to America. Because Mummy Max was taking care of Lama, she had no time at all for her business, which she’d originally started to help Kopan. We were then in Aptos at the house near the beach that Lama had bought so that after six months touring in the West, we could then return there to rest or do retreat. Through the windows you could see the whole ocean, but while it was a nice house for the Western mind, it had terrible feng shui.  

At that time Lama also took the aspect of having a small stroke. I was still doing the chab thrue purification practice, as requested by Lama. I invited His Holiness Song Rinpoche to come to California, and we did Hayagriva puja. Lama soon got better, though his holy mouth remained a little bit crooked. Lama was moved from the Presbyterian Hospital in San Francisco to Los Angeles for the operation; the doctors said that he must be in a good hospital. The doctor in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles said that Lama was too old for the operation, but that they would use a new method to check his heart, in which they made a hole in the groin. They didn’t allow us to come in during that procedure. And when Lama came out, he said it had almost caused him to pass away. 

Early the next morning, the morning of the Tibetan new year, around 5 o’clock, Lama passed away. 

The last letter Lama saw was one from Geshe Wangchen from London, a card with a picture of White Umbrella Deity. 

Mummy Max wasn’t there because Lama had asked her to go away. Otherwise, it might have been difficult; she might have cried with the passing away. 

The next morning we invited Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen to come and did Medicine Buddha puja—the extensive one, I think. They allowed us to keep one room. They took Lama’s holy body and put it in an animal skin coffin. I don’t know why—it was a very strange idea! I don’t think even people in Solu Khumbu or Tibetan nomads would do that. It was very strange, totally strange. 

They first took the holy body to a place down below where they put it on ice so that it wouldn’t start to smell. Actually, Lama didn’t need that. But at that time I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea. 

Lama’s holy body was then brought back there to the room, where we were allowed to keep it for some hours. I asked His Holiness Song Rinpoche what to do. He advised from Switzerland to request Lama to finish his meditation. So, I did that. I rang a bell and recited the prayer requesting to be born in the Vajrayogini pure land. There was no need to pull Lama’s hair at the crown, but I did do that. 

There was a candle in the room, and at that time one old student, Doren Harper, the main Western person at Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen’s center, saw a second light come from the candle. He said the light came up and then disappeared. 

Lama’s holy body was then taken to Geshe Gyeltsen’s center, and then from there, by Volkswagen, to Vajrapani Institute. I then invited His Holiness Song Rinpoche to do puja. Lama’s holy body was not in the gompa but in a small room at the back of the gompa. We did Vajrayogini self-initiation and Heruka Body Mandala self-initiation. Lama’s holy body was then taken into the gompa, and His Holiness Song Rinpoche did the jangwa purification there. 

I think it might have been after three days, but definitely after at least two, that we offered fire to Lama’s holy body on top of the hill at Vajrapani Institute. The holy body was brought up in a procession. An ex-monk from the Kyirong Samten Ling monastery in Tibet, which was founded by Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsen, later informed His Holiness Song Rinpoche that he was very surprised that Lama’s holy body was soft. He and John Jackson, an old Vajrapani student who is now a monk, and one other person—perhaps John McKay—prepared Lama’s holy body in the Tibetan way. This means that they tied the legs in position, put the vajra and bell in the hands and dressed Lama in deity’s costume with the crown and so forth. The ex-monk said that when he was doing this, he was surprised that Lama’s limbs and the rest of the holy body were soft. The body of a dead person can be very hard, but he said they were like the limbs of a living person, not a dead one. 

It was only when this monk was pulling Lama’s legs up, that the white bodhichitta came out. He said, “There was such a terrible smell!” (Maybe he didn’t have much previous experience of working with dead bodies.) He was very surprised that the body was so soft, not like that of a dead person, and that it was only at that time that the bodhichitta came out. Before that, the bodhichitta hadn’t come out. This is what he told His Holiness Song Rinpoche. In reality, Lama had been in meditation, and it was at that time that Lama’s meditation finished and the consciousness left. 

When Lama was in Tushita in Dharamsala before coming to Kopan for the last time, he told an old student, Piero, who at that time was a monk, Claudio, Jampa Chokyi and maybe Jacie Keeley that when he passed away, all the students should gather in the room and do a one-year Vajrasattva retreat. Lama said that he would stay in meditation for one year. He told them this many times. I was there at that time, but Lama particularly told them, not me. 

At that time I told His Holiness Song Rinpoche what Lama had said. Perhaps my speech wasn’t clear, but His Holiness Song Rinpoche didn’t give permission for this to happen. His Holiness said that a body is kept only rarely, such as in the case of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s gurus or other high lamas. His Holiness said that it’s a very rare thing to and that he might even be criticized by other people if he did it. Jacie was very worried because she knew what Lama had said. 

It appeared to many people, even Tibetans, that Lama was a business person. Even many Tibetan people didn’t think that Lama was a great meditator, a great practitioner, because he manifested taking life very easily, always joking and being very humorous. He didn’t appear to them to be very learned. Many Tibetans, even monks, didn’t know that Lama was a great meditator, a great practitioner. 

Of course, it was our karmic obstacle. His Holiness Song Rinpoche, of course, has omniscient mind, knowing everything directly, but that’s how it happened. 

I went back to Kopan, but it took some time, because I first went to Switzerland and Dharamsala. Even though it probably wasn’t necessary, I brought all Lama’s bones to be blessed by Kyabje Song Rinpoche. I then divided the bones among the centers. I then went to Dharamsala to offer 10,000 rupees to His Holiness as an offering because Lama had passed away. His Holiness was giving the oral transmission of the eight lam-rims, perhaps with some commentary. I reached Dharamsala in the middle of the teachings. 

From Dharamsala I then went to Kopan, where I saw on a table Lama’s notes about how Shantideva was in meditation for one year when he was passing away. The last time Lama was in Dharamsala, at Tushita, in the week before he left, he looked in many texts at how other lamas had passed away. 

In the hospital, several hours before Lama passed away, he was looking at maps, and it seemed to be in regard to two of Lama’s old students, Randy and Robbie Solick, the ones who did Vajrasattva retreat for the first time in Nepal. Among all the initiations Lama gave Vajrasattva initiation first, and he gave it to Jan Willis and this couple, at Kopan, in a small room in the house the Nepalese king built for his astrologer. The three of them then did Vajrasattva retreat in the nearby village, probably in Ram’s house. (Ram worked for us, cooking food and doing other things, for many years.) The family lived downstairs and they did Vajrasattva retreat upstairs, which was full of smoke because the family made a fire downstairs. 

So, maybe Lama was thinking to be born in their family. Robbie has been with the Kagyu or Nyingma for a long time now. I met him in recent times in America, probably in the Aptos area. Both Robbie and Randy, his wife, were very close to Lama, and I think that Lama was thinking to be born to them. He was looking very much at the map. But, even though they were very close to Lama, maybe they didn’t have the karma. Maria and Paco were Lama’s students and served Lama for twenty years at the center in Spain. 

The sandalwood statue 

Another story I wanted to mention is about the precious sandalwood Buddha statue that was made during Buddha’s time by a special artist, who was a transformation. It seems that sandalwood statue was the very first statue of Buddha. I heard that when the artist came to see and draw Buddha, Buddha’s holy body was so magnificent that he could not look at it. So Buddha sent a reflection into water, and the artist then copied the image from the water. There are some statues of Buddha where from Buddha’s holy neck all the way down the robes, there are patterns of water; the robes are covered with water ripples. I remember we once had a small copy of that sandalwood statue at Kopan. 

Later, Buddha went to Tushita or the Thirty-three Realm to benefit his mother, who had been born there, and abided there in the summer retreat for three months. Buddha then descended near the holy place of Sravasti, in India. Buddha spent twenty-five years in that area: twenty years in Sravasti itself and five years in a nearby village. Buddha descended there, near that place, where there is not exactly a hill but a small heap of earth. I heard that there is now a village situated above a monastery that is under the ground. 

So, when Buddha descended, the sandalwood Buddha statue took seven steps in space, without touching the ground, then bent his holy body down three times to greet Buddha. Buddha also greeted the statue. 

It seems that sandalwood statue was in Peking, but the Mongolians say that it was stolen from there and is now in Russia, in Buryatia. Because I heard that when Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche was in Buryatia, he went to see the statue and meditated and did prayers in front of it, I thought to go to see the statue, but I couldn’t get a visa to go to Russia at that time. 

However, when I saw a picture of that statue, I totally lost the feeling to go to see it. From the hand mudras and artwork, I thought that rather than an ancient statue it’s quite a modern one. Also, the abbot of Gaden Monastery, the largest monastery in Mongolia, who is like the Gaden Tripa in Mongolia, told me that he thinks the statue is made of copper and was probably made in China. I was going to go to see the statue, but when I saw the picture, I lost the inspiration. It didn’t look like the actual sandalwood statue.

Well, that is just a side talk….

The Buryat lama’s death

But I also heard the other story about the highest lama in Buryatia, who passed away in meditation. I think he was an abbot, before Russia took over Buryatia, and might have been very learned. 

Before he passed away, this abbot predicted when the Russian Communists would take over Buryatia and said that he should be buried in the ground at that time. He also said that when the Russians had left, after sixty or seventy years, they would take his body out and put it in the monastery. So, that is what happened. This lama said all this before Russia took over Buryatia—he predicted everything. 

The body still looks as if it’s not dead. I saw a picture of it, and the lama looked kind of fat, not skinny or just bones. After so many years, there should be only bones left, but the body is still kind of full and sitting up. There is a bandage on his nose—maybe they cut his nose with a shovel when they were digging the body out of the ground. It was so many years ago, but the lama is still in meditation.

I heard that each year the Mongolian abbot and many other monks and abbots from Russian and Mongolian monasteries go to see this high lama who passed away in meditation. The first time the abbots went to see the body many Russian scientists and maybe scientists from other countries also came to check and asked questions about it. The Gaden abbot was the only one who could explain that there’s a great meditation dealing with death, utilizing ordinary death, intermediate state and rebirth in the path to the three kayas. The scientists had no answer as to why it is possible; for them it was like they’d discovered something impossible. 

After the body was back in the monastery, when they did Palden Lhamo protector puja, they say that some sweat came on his face, on his forehead. That’s what I heard.

The Gaden abbot also said that this has happened even in Mongolia. Under the road at Gaden Monastery, there’s still a meditator in meditation like that, but it has been kept secret. It seems they’re also planning to dig up that body. 

So, there could be buddhas, bodhisattvas and arhats in equipoise meditation—you can never tell. Arhats can be in meditation for a long time, even for eons. 

I can’t say whether or not such people are high tantric practitioners, but it’s possible there could be those who are practitioners of not only Mahayana but also Mahayana Secret Mantra. There are probably also Theravadin practitioners like this in Burma or Sri Lanka. I have some memory of having heard something like that. 

These kinds of thing are unknown in the West because the West hasn’t yet discovered this mind power, this mental development through meditation. We all have the same power to achieve this, to be free from not only gross but subtle obscurations and to attain complete realization. We have the same potential to be buddha, to have omniscient mind. With development, it can happen. The point is that our human life is so precious. Our human life, our human body, gives us an unbelievable opportunity to develop our mind. Since it is so precious, we should not waste our life; we should practice Dharma. 

I’m telling these stories generally for students to learn and understand about death, and particularly for Sangha members to help each other. Whenever a monk or nun dies, all our FPMT Sangha must do prayers for them, whatever prayers you know. Even if you can’t do all the practices that I have said to do for the forty-nine days, at least do some prayers. There are so many prayers you can do. You can do Vajrasattva practice. At your heart you visualize a lotus and a moon disc with all sentient beings, and you think of that Sangha member. You then do Vajrasattva purification, not only of yourself but of all sentient beings, and particularly that Sangha member. Or if you recite OM MANI PADME HUNG a lot, you can visualize that Sangha member and purify their negative karma. You can also recite Vajra-Cutter Sutra or other sutras. You can also do Medicine Buddha puja, the extensive, intermediate or very short one. There are many things you can do. So, that would be very good.

When you die, other Sangha members will also help you. There is then brotherhood, sisterhood. You feel very close, like you’re one good family. You’re not enemies to each other. 

Thank you very much. 

This teaching, from two audio files recorded by Ven. Thubten Kunsang in Russia on June 27 and in The Netherlands on July 8, 2015, was transcribed, compiled and edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron. This advice was for a sangha member who was close to dying and advice to her.

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