Creating Your Dharma Vision through Contemplation
Adapted excerpt from Awake at the Bedside
There are many traditional meditations on death and impermanence. We can think about how the seasons change and how the elements of the world around us transform; we can look at how our bodies have changed from the time we were born until now; we can contemplate how our minds are constantly transforming. Reflecting on impermanence is the best way to prepare ourselves for the moment of death; please take some time to reflect on the contemplations below.
It would be best to set aside a personal retreat day or weekend without interruptions for these practices, or to do this with your entrusted Dharma friends in a group retreat. You may want a journal to write down insights and ideas that arise as you do these practices. Some students have also found journaling helpful in tracking their progress in meditation and conduct over a period of a month or so, and they use that as a basis for further reflection. You should decide what tools will help you the most in making this assessment of your Dharma practice.
When you’ve thoroughly explored each of the contemplations below, you can begin to incorporate what you have learned about yourself as a practitioner into your Dharma Vision. Even if you have been practicing for a long time, you may be surprised at what you find lacking in your practice when you have taken an honest look. Many of my students find great inspiration in this process to increase their diligence and focus on areas needing attention. Don’t forget to practice compassion for yourself. Appreciate the past efforts you have already made and include the efforts you are willing to make to become the excellent practitioner youh ave envisioned.
Regardless of how we regard our talent for writing, we can all compose an aspiration prayer for the time of our death and include it at the end of the Dharma Vision. We can read this aspiration prayer before sleep each night so its meaning fully enters our hearts. Then, as we are dying, an entrusted Dharma friend can read this to us to remind us of what we are trying to accomplish and of our bodhichitta. A copy of this prayer can be kept in our Dharma Box and buried or burned with us after we die.
Ideas to Contemplate
Contemplate Impermanence from the Outer Point of View
Reflect on how your outer environment has changed during the past year. Recall how the seasons changed: how the plants, flowers, and trees transformed over time; how the daylight increased and decreased. Think about it both in your own personal living environment and throughout the globe as well. Think about the natural catastrophes that occurred around the world. Reflect on all the births and deaths of people, animals, and insects. Allow the enormity of these changes to reach you on a deep level until you feel with certainty that not even one thing remained the same.
Contemplate Impermanence from the Inner Point of View
Imagine yourself as a small baby. See the physical changes you have gone through until now. Sometimes looking at photos of yourself from childhood to the present can be a poignant way to examine your own physical impermanence. Look at the transformation that has occurred in you physically. Then think about your physical being from last year until now, from last month until now, from yesterday until today. See that your body is changing even from moment to moment.
Contemplate Impermanence from the Secret Point of View
Reflect on the wild nature of your own mind. Remember yourself as a child and how your intelligence developed over time. Look at how your mind changes moment by moment as it fills with entertaining distractions or follows after different sensory experiences. Contemplate how you are constantly transforming mentally and how the mind is also impermanent.
Contemplate Your Spiritual Practice
Reflect on your daily practice. Are you practicing regularly and for as long as you would like? Are you able to incorporate all the practices you wish to master into your daily practice?
Reflect deeply on what type of practitioner you really want to be. What are the obstacles that stand in your way? Think about any tendencies you have that prevent you from practicing in this way. What is the main cause? Identify the things that cause you to put off practicing.
Contemplate the Impermanence of Things to Which You Are Attached
If you are attached to material objects in the world around you, reflect on their changing nature. If you are attached to a person, reflect on him or her growing old and dying. Actually envision his or her physical and mental changes. If you are attached to your own life, as we all are, go through your body from the ends of the hair on your head to the tips of your toes and try to find anything that is lasting or permanent in your body. Do a very thorough examination, looking from outside to inside to see if you can find anything that is unchanging. Do this until you are confident that you, too, are actually going to die, and that you cannot hold on to this life forever.
Contemplate the Six Paramitas, or Transcendent Actions, Starting with this Past Month’s Practice of Generosity
Look at how you practiced during the past month and how you have integrated practice into your daily life by examining how you have expressed generosity. Were you able to give love, emotional support, or material goods without attachment? Was your heart open unconditionally? If you compare this month to the previous month, was your generosity different or the same? If you compare last year to this year, have you been more generous? Less generous? The same? If you are the same, what will you do to increase your expression of generosity? If you have been less generous, reflect on why you have changed.
Contemplate this Past Month’s Spiritual Practice in Terms of the Remaining Paramitas
In the same way, examine your progress in virtue and morality; patience and tolerance; diligence and enthusiastic effort; meditative concentration; and wisdom. Take time to look at each quality and how you express it in your daily life. If you find yourself lacking in the expression of these enlightened qualities, make a plan to work on them. For example, make an effort to stay mindful of one quality over the next month and look for ways to enhance it. You will find many opportunities. Over time you can become habituated to remaining mindful and increasing the practice of each quality. You will find your daily practice improving greatly.
Contemplate this Past Month’s Spiritual Practice in Terms of Anger
It is very important to similarly contemplate your recent expressions of anger and resentment. These are the hardest to purify. Compare your expressions of anger and resentment in the past to how you feel currently. As a general trend, is it becoming easier to let go of them and generate compassion? If not, how will you work on this?
Again, focus on anger or resentment by remaining mindful as these emotions arise. Work with any methods you have been given to cut through afflictive emotions. If this is difficult for you, ask your spiritual friend for advice.
Contemplate this Past Month’s Spiritual Practice in Terms of the View
If you have received instructions from your lama on abiding in the view, or the nature of mind, assess your progress during the past month. Were you able to remember to abide in the view one hundred times a day? Twenty-one times a day? Three times? Have you increased the number of times you remembered to practice? Has it become easier? If not, how will you improve your practice?
Contemplate the Importance of Mastering the Mind
Your mind must deal with every experience. Think about how attaining mastery over the mind will enable you to lose any fear of death. Come to the certainty that you must master your mind in order to die with confidence.
Contemplate the Death of a Pet or Animal You Love
Imagine that an animal you love very much is ill and close to dying. Or, considering what is happening in our world today, think that the last of an entire species you love is about to die. Recognize that animals have no way to take care of themselves spiritually or mentally in this situation. It is not that they do not want to; they are simply incapable of doing so. With compassion for their suffering, also reflect on your good fortune in being born as a human being who can take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually at the time of death.
Contemplate the Death of a Person You Love
You may have already experienced the death of someone to whom you were very close. Perhaps they did not have all the spiritual support they needed to die without fear or regret. If so, recall the experience of their death and again reflect on the good fortune that you are able to prepare well for your own death. If you have not had someone close to you die, imagine the death of someone you love and reflect deeply on your wish that they will experience no suffering and have all the support they need to die mindfully.
Contemplate the Causes and Conditions that Led to Your Birth and Will Lead to Your Death
Recognize the long chain of positive and negative actions that brings you to this very moment. Search for a deep understanding of karma, causes and conditions, and how you can affect your spiritual path with mindful actions from now until death. Then consider the type of practitioner you wish to be at your death and what kind of spiritual support you will want from others. Take time to imagine yourself in the dying process. Do you have the confidence to die well? Are you ready?
Also, reflect on the idea that you may die suddenly, or during an accident. How can you be spiritually prepared for that experience?
Contemplate Difficulties with Your Death
As you imagine yourself dying, do any obstacles arise in your mind that would prevent you from having the kind of death you wish? What are they and what can you do to remove them?
Contemplate Your Ideal Death
What will your mind be like? What qualities will you have developed? What practice will be most important for you to do or hear at that time? Who do you want to be there to help you stay focused on your practice as you are dying?
Contemplate Your Level of Practice
What changes do you need to make in your daily practice to best ensure you become the type of practitioner you want to be?
Contemplate Your Relationship with a Spiritual Friend
If you have had the good fortune to meet and make a strong connection to a lama or spiritual teacher, reflect on this relationship and what it is like now. Have you developed the kind of relationship you envision? If not, what can you do to develop this relationship further?
Revising Your Dharma Vision
The Dharma Vision is a living and evolving meditation. We are always changing and growing in our understanding. I recommend that each year, perhaps at the new year or on your birthday, you commit to reviewing your vision as a Dharma practitioner, assessing your progress, and seeing if there is anything new you want to add. You may want to again return to the contemplations above. If you have done any of this work in a group retreat, it would be fruitful for everyone to meet again to review and share both your progress and your obstacles. Support each other with kindness and appreciate the efforts everyone has made. Your sangha and entrusted Dharma friends are most precious!
Adapted from Awake at the Bedside: Contemplative Teachings on Palliative and End-of-Life Care edited by Koshin Paley Ellison and Matt Weingast. Reprinted with permission.