Image 1: Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Photograph by Matthieu Ricard.
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Photograph by Matthieu Ricard.

“Even if death were to fall upon you today like lightning, you must be ready to die without sadness and regret, without any residue of clinging for what is left behind. Remaining in the recognition of the absolute view, you should leave this life like an eagle soaring up into the blue sky.”
—Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was born in 1910 in Eastern Tibet. Even as a little boy, Rinpoche manifested a strong desire to devote himself entirely to the religious life. Before his main teacher passed away, Khyentse Rinpoche promised him that he would unstintingly teach whoever asked him for dharma. He was then fifteen years old, and to prepare himself, he spent most of the next thirteen years in silent retreat. In remote hermitages and caves deep in the wilderness of wooded hills near his birthplace in the valley of Denkhok, he constantly meditated on love, compassion, and the wish to bring all sentient beings to freedom and enlightenment. The thought of death is considered by Buddhist practitioners to be a most effective encouragement to spiritual practice. While in retreat, Khyentse Rinpoche wrote:

In the midst of the clouds of
impermanence and illusion
Dances the lightning of life:
Can you say you won’t die tomorrow?
Practice the dharma.
Now is the time to conquer
the citadel of Great Bliss.

Once he said, “At first you should be driven by a fear of birth and death like a stag escaping from a trap. In the middle, you should have nothing to regret even if you die, like a farmer who has carefully worked his fields. In the end, you should feel relieved and happy, like a person who has just completed a formidable task.” After those thirteen years, Khyentse Rinpoche told his second teacher that he wished to spend the rest of his life in strict solitary meditation retreat. But his teacher said, “The time has come for you to teach and transmit to others all the countless precious teachings you have received.” Tibetans consider that such masters as Khyentse Rinpoche have truly gone beyond the limitations of birth and death. The great yogi Milarepa wrote:

Fearing death, I went to the mountains.
Over and over again I meditated on death’s unpredictable coming,
And took the stronghold of the deathless unchanging nature.

Image 2: Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, at age 80, traveling to Kham, Tibet, where he spent his boyhood. Photograph by Matthieu Ricard.
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, at age 80, traveling to Kham, Tibet, where he spent his boyhood. Photograph by Matthieu Ricard.

Now I am completely beyond all fear of dying!

Khyentse Rinpoche himself said, “When death finally comes you will welcome it like an old friend, aware of how dreamlike and impermanent the whole phenomenal world really is.” He was always acutely aware of impermanence and death, and whenever people would ask ‘ him to come and visit them or request him to come again, he would say, “If I am still alive, I shall come.” Even after he had turned eighty, Khyentse Rinpoche’s characteristic stamina seemed little affected. However, in early 1991, he began to show signs of ill health. He was losing weight and needed more and more rest. He passed much of the time in silent prayer and meditation, setting aside only a few hours of the day to meet those who most needed to see him. When he left Nepal for Bhutan, many close disciples secretly felt that they might not see him again. He spent three and a half months in retreat opposite the Tiger’s Nest, Paro Taktsang, in Bhutan, one of the most sacred places blessed by Padmasambhava, the master who brought Buddhism to Tibet. During that year, he indicated many times that he was going to leave this world soon. He would sometimes joke about it, saying things such as, “Shall I die now?”

Then a very old lama predicted that Khyentse Rinpoche was in danger of falling. Unfortunately, this actually happened. Khyentse Rinpoche hurt his leg and had to undergo minor surgery. Following this, he became weaker and thinner. Many ceremonies were offered for his long life. One day, a bright rainbow appeared on the tent that Khyentse Rinpoche used in the daytime. This was interpreted by other lamas as the time when the dakinis came to invite Khyentse Rinpoche to other Buddhafields. Once, at night, a woman was heard crying loudly around Khyentse Rinpoche’s hermitage, but there seemed to be no one there. Similarly, a rainbow shone in a passage below Guru Padmasambhava’s temple in Khyentse Rinpoche’s monastery in Nepal, in an unexplainable way. However, after his retreat Rinpoche seemed to be in better health. Bu t soon he again showed signs of illness, and for twelve days was almost completely unable to eat or drink. Three times he indicated that he would not live long. When Rabjam Rinpoche, his grandson and spiritual heir, and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the incarnation of one of his main teachers, requested him to live longer and offered him a statue, a book, and a stupa as symbols of enlightened body, speech, and mind, Khyentse Rinpoche took them and offered them back to the two incarnate lamas. Three days before passing away, he wrote on a piece of paper, “I shall go on the nineteenth.” His closest disciple and spiritual friend, Trulshik Rinpoche, arrived from Nepal, on September 26, 1991 and they had a happy meeting. On the next day, September 27—the nineteenth of the Tibetan month—at nightfall, he asked his attendants to help him sit in an upright position and went into a peaceful sleep.

In the early hours of the morning, his breathing ceased and his mind dissolved in the absolute expanse. Immediately after a great teacher passes away, the main practice to be done is “merging one’s mind with the guru’s mind,” also known as Guru Yoga. This practice is especially important and powerful when a great teacher dies and his mind is itself merging with the absolute expanse, the dharmadhatu. At this time, the absolute aspect of his mind, what one calls dharmakaya, becomes all-pervasive and merges with the wisdom mind of all the Buddhas, as water merging with water. To unite one’s mind with the teacher’s mind is to realize the absolute nature of the teacher’s mind, which is the same as the true nature of one’s own mind. As Lama Shabkar said:

In the beginning I took the teacher as teacher.
In the middle I took the scriptures as teacher.
In the end I took my own mind as teacher.

Image 3: A Tibetan woman tends the lamp offerings during Khyentse Rinpoche's funeral ceremonies in Bodhnath, Nepal. Photograph by Matthieu Ricard.
A Tibetan woman tends the lamp offerings during Khyentse Rinpoche’s funeral ceremonies in Bodhnath, Nepal. Photograph by Matthieu Ricard.

Image 4: Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, Khyentse Rinpoche's grandson, and other lamas stand during funeral ceremonies for Khyentse Rinpoche held at Shechen Monastery in Nepal. Photograph by Matthieu Ricard.
IShechen Rabjam Rinpoche, Khyentse Rinpoche’s grandson, and other lamas stand during funeral ceremonies for Khyentse Rinpoche held at Shechen Monastery in Nepal. Photograph by Matthieu Ricard.

Thirty-six hours after his teacher’s last breath, Trulshik Rinpoche decided that Khyentse Rinpoche’s last meditation was completed, and his body, or kudung, was enshrined and carried in procession by the tulkus to the main temple of Thimphu Dzong, where everyone, from the king and the royal family to the most humble people, came and paid homage. Within hours, and day after day, many masters from all schools converged in Bhutan to pay homage. At the request of disciples from Tibet and all over the world, so that they could come to pay a last homage to their teacher, Khyentse Rinpoche’s body was preserved for a year using traditional embalming methods. Every Friday (the day of his death) for the first seven weeks, one hundred thousand butter lamps were offered at the Bodhnath stupa near Shechen Monastery in Nepal. Finally, his remains were cremated near Paro inBhutan, in November 1992, at a three-day ceremony attended by over a hundred important lamas, the royal family and ministers of Bhutan, five hundred Western disciples and a huge crowd of some sixty thousand devotees, a gathering unprecedented in Bhutan’s history.

The pyre is visualized as a mandala and the guru’s body as the main deity of the mandala. At the time of the cremation, four main “fire offering” ceremonies, carried out by lamas of the four main lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, were conducted simultaneously in the four cardinal directions. Buddhist scriptures say that offerings made for the funeral of one’s spiritual teacher have immense benefits: they act as an antidote for one’s obscurations and swiftly perfect one’s merits; they cleanse all defects created through having had disrespect for one’s teacher; they ensure that one will meet one’s spiritual master in one’s next life and that one will soon gain freedom from samsara. One should make these offerings with one’s mind filled with the wish to bring all sentient beings to immediate happiness and to the ultimate bliss of Buddhahood, and with pure vision that sees the whole phenomenal world as a pure Buddhafield.

When the cremation was completed, the relics were gathered. Tibetan Buddhist practitioners consider that the relics of their guru’s body are like wish-fulfilling jewels, which can fulfill the aspirations of beings. Anything connected with the body-relic (such as the bones, the cloth that is used to wrap the body, the salt used to preserve it, the funeral ashes from the cremation, etc.) is said to have a great blessing power. But we should not feel that the teacher’s mind is lingering near his physical relic. His mind is not caught in the limited space of his body, as an individual entity would be; his wisdom mind is all­ pervading, beyond the concept of “one” and “many,” “here” and “there.”

It is also said that at the time of leaving his body and dissolving his mind in the Dharmakaya, the absolute nature, a highly realized teacher can liberate countless beings, bring them to a Buddhafield or lead them to a meaningful rebirth, in which they can continue to progress toward enlightenment. H. H. the Dalai Lama said on this occasion, “We all, his disciples, should repay his kindness with our practice, so that we become the good disciples of a good lama.” Like that of other masters, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s death was his last teaching, the teaching on impermanence. When he died, I felt personally as if the sun had disappeared from this world. At the same time, I knew that this was the nature of things, that his death was his last teaching on impermanence, and that his presence would never leave my heart one instant for the rest of my life. Although the teacher was now nowhere to be found in this world, he was everywhere, in all phenomena, in every one of our thoughts.

Image 5: Preparations for the cremation of Khyentse Rinpoche in Bhutan, 1992.
Preparations for the cremation of Khyentse Rinpoche in Bhutan, 1992.

We can thus continue to benefit from his blessing to progress on our spiritual path. I indeed feel sad for those who have never met this great being and will never meet him in reality. As for myself, having spent twelve years day and night near my teacher together with my spiritual companions, I received from him more teachings than I could ever wish for. So it is now entirely up to us to do the necessary effort to implement these teachings in our lives and integrate them in our beings. As he said: “Never forget how swiftly this life will be over, like a flash of summer lightning or the wave of a hand. Now that you have the opportunity to practice dharma, do not waste a single moment on anything else.