I want to remind all of you who are presently sick or dying to think about what I have to say and try to change or go on diligently with your practice. The Buddha spoke of “death-proximate karma” (asanna karma). This kind of karma is really powerful. It can lead us to a better or worse realm after we die. If death-proximate karma is good, it will lead a dying person to a good realm, and vice versa.

If, at the moment of dying, you get angry or become attached to people or things, these reactions will have a negative effect on your next rebirth despite your good habitual karma (accina karma). On the contrary, if you think of wholesome or good things at the moment of dying, you could benefit from a good rebirth in spite of your bad habitual karma. Therefore, at the dying moment, make sure that you stay alert, calm, and clear-minded, and especially do not let impure thoughts arise.

Death-proximate karma can help redirect us from a bad rebirth. A story from the sutras tells of a deity who foresaw his next rebirths. He saw that when he died, he would reincarnate as a son of a rich brahmin in the human realm, and after this rebirth he would go straight to hell. Stricken by this knowledge, he cried out for help. A deva came and told him that the only one who could help him was the Buddha, who was then staying at the Bamboo Grove. The deity then kneeled down, directed his mind toward the Buddha, and vowed to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Then he died.

The deity did reincarnate as a son of a brahmin. One day, he saw the Buddha taking his alms and immediately decided to become a monk. Later, in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching, he worked diligently and became an arhat, a fully enlightened disciple, free from birth and death. Thus his condemnation to hell was annihilated. This story helps us understand that death-proximate karma is quite important: it can lead us to a better rebirth and give us a second chance to walk on the right path.

Here are some instructions for the dying:

Do not get angry. Pay attention to the dying moment, take care of your death. At this critical moment, if you are angry or mad, you will be reborn in a lower realm.

Forgive and forget. Do not think of your enemies or vengeance, because you will reincarnate and take vengeance at each other endlessly. When this occurs, you accumulate more negative deeds and cannot go on with the right practice.

Do not become attached to loved ones or wealth, and so on. This attachment will lead you to a lower realm (such as the animal realms).

At the dying moment, think of good deeds. First, think of helping poor people the best way you can. Secondly, as a Buddhist, think of offering to the Three Jewels—the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; or as a non-Buddhist, think of taking refuge in the Three Jewels in order to cultivate a true spiritual path. Third, think of freeing all captured animals and save them from being killed. By practicing good deeds, we gradually walk on the right path, and these are good thoughts that we should have at our dying moment.

The Buddhist should apply the dharma at this crucial moment. First, for a Buddhist who recites Amitabha Buddha’s name, when confined in bed because of illness, please remember to recite Buddha’s name continually, thinking of neither beloved ones nor property. Following this practice properly, one will surely go to the Buddha’s realm.

Secondly, for people who do not recite Buddha’s name but are used to reading sutras, remember at least one stanza and repeat it to yourself.

Thirdly, for people who meditate, remember to stay with your awareness; do not run after your thoughts. Remember that in the deterioration of the body, there is something else that never deteriorates. Thinking like that, you will not be frightened but will stay with your buddhanature, your pure awareness. That is the only thing which is timeless and deathless, and that is the good thought you should keep in mind at the dying moment.

For the three different situations mentioned above, people who recite Buddha’s name should only think of Buddha’s name. Forget everything else. People who read sutras should remember a stanza. People who meditate should stay with “pure awareness.” Do not be afraid, do not be worried, just let go.

Get Daily Dharma in your email

Start your day with a fresh perspective

a photo of a Buddhist meditating
Explore timeless teachings through modern methods.

With Stephen Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg, Andrew Olendzki, and more

See Our Courses

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.