As a follow up to his Dying with Confidence: A Tibetan Buddhist Guide to Preparing for Death, Tibetan Buddhist teacher Anyen Rinpoche has written a day-to-day guidebook of teachings and practices related to death and dying called Living and Dying with Confidence. I recently spoke with Anyen Rinpoche and his coauthor Allison Choying Zangmo, who has studied with the master for 16 years and serves as his translator, about awareness of impermanence, cultivating positive qualities while alive, and whether one has to believe in reincarnation to benefit from Tibetan Buddhist teachings on death and dying.

How does reflecting on impermanence and the truth of our own mortality shape our lives?

Allison Choying: When I think about how attached I am to everything in my life, if I couldn’t reflect on the impermanent nature of it all then there would be no reason to practice the dharma. If I thought that my life was just going to continue the way it has up until now, why would I want to take up a practice that teaches me to give up that idea? Without cultivating certainty about impermanence the whole process of dharma doesn’t make any sense.

Anyen Rinpoche: I would add that if we can gain certainty about the impermanence of all the ordinary things we are really attached to—like our wealth, relationships, body, emotions, and identity—then maybe we can start to be more flexible about smaller things. We might start to see the world and life in a different way that can help us live peacefully and more compassionately.

Why would awareness of impermanence lead to living more compassionately?

Anyen Rinpoche: It can give us insight into the nature of suffering. That realization can help us connect with others because they are also experiencing suffering and pain. When we realize this we are naturally more compassionate and loving.

Related: Does Dying Need to Be Traumatic? 

Allison Choying: If we’re not reflecting on the impermanent nature of life, then there are a lot of unimportant things that seem important. Our jobs seem important. Money seems important. But if we’re really reflecting on impermanence then we can see that the important things are compassion and loving others—giving to others and taking care of others—because everything else becomes meaningless, in a sense.

We’re not going to take any of these unimportant things with us after we die. When we die the things that are going to accompany us are the good things that we’ve done in our life, the confidence that we’ve developed through our spiritual practice, and the loving quality of mind that we have. When we understand this, we start to prioritize our lives differently. We have more energy and more time to develop compassion or to connect with others because we think that it’s more important.

Photo of Allison Choying Zangmo
Allison Choying Zangmo

When you say that the only things that accompany us when we die are “the good things we’ve done in our life,” are you speaking strictly from within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that holds that the moment of death is important to rebirth? Is your book relevant for readers outside of the Tibetan tradition?

Allison Choying: Personally I think that coming to terms with the moment of death is important for every human being. Thinking about mortality is something that most of us avoid and fear, which impacts the way that we live. Even if you’re a person who doesn’t believe in reincarnation, finding peace with the fact that you’re going to die is incredibly important for everyone. Of course for Buddhists who do believe in reincarnation, it’s especially important because at the moment of death the course elements, afflicted emotions, and habitual tendencies have dissolved, and it’s a very special opportunity for practice. But I don’t think that it’s necessary for anyone to have any particular belief system to want to face death peacefully and courageously.

Anyen Rinpoche: I often tell people that I don’t think you have to believe in reincarnation in order to practice. We are preparing to live spiritually. If we live spiritually that will really help us die spiritually. Whether there is reincarnation or not, we’re going to think of everything in a wholesome way because we’re living spiritually. That’s something really important that everyone needs to learn, regardless of whether you’re Buddhist. The important thing is that we have a spiritual path so that we can practice living peacefully, joyfully, and meaningfully.

What strategies do you recommend for people to become more mindful of their mortality so that they can live more meaningfully?

Allison Choying: I’ve heard Rinpoche give teachings that have really been meaningful to me about seeing every moment as an opportunity to reflect on impermanence. For example, when you leave a room and shut the door you can think that that may have been the last time you are ever in that room. When I leave my house in the morning I can think to myself that I may never return to my house. If we have a meal, we can think, “I may never enjoy this food or place again”; when you see someone you can think, “I may never meet this person again.” It is a kind of mind training and a really intriguing way to develop mindfulness. It’s truly up to us to be creative enough to recognize how we can do it.

Anyen Rinpoche: Understanding impermanence is the essential thing for gaining confidence when we’re living and dying. To be able to really understand this, there are two things that are always necessary to practice: mindfulness and introspection.

We have to be mindful of almost every single moment of our actions, speech, mind, and emotions. We have to recognize whether an action is positive or negative so that we can understand where it will cause positive or negative results. If we want to live as happy human beings, developing positive qualities is necessary, but it is also very difficult. We have to make an effort and we have to have discipline and diligence. We have to have patience in order to develop skills that are necessary to live and die confidently.

[This story was first published in 2016]

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