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Vajrayana Cremation - Advice from Lama Sonam Tsering Rinpoche
for TLC Transitional Life Care

On three occasions during 2016, TLC was very fortunate to host Lama Sonam Rinpoche of Vajrayana Foundation who taught 'Caring for the Body After Death and Instructions for Cremation' Parts 1 and 2, translated by Ila Reitz and Joshua Duncan, respectively. Rinpoche guided the participants with personal instructions and anecdotes regarding how to care for people in the process of dying and afterward, including an example of how to wrap the body after death in preparation for Vajrayana cremation. Read excerpts, and see the video, below.

About Lama Sonam Tsering Rinpoche

Lama Sonam Tsering has long been a Nyingma ritual master of Tibetan Buddhism in the Nyingma tradition. At a very young age Lama Sonam began learning the scriptures, and in 1959 his family settled in His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche’s Tibetan refuge camp in India where he thoroughly trained in the Dudjom Tersar lineage. He received empowerments and instructions from many great Nyingma lamas and also served as a Ritual Master (chopen) for many years. Lama Sonam completed his extensive Buddhist education under the guidance of His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche.  


In 1984 Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche invited Lama Sonam to the United States. For many years he served as a resident lama at Chagdud Gonpa’s Dechen Ling Buddhist Center in Cottage Grove, Oregon. In 1999, Dungse Thinley Norbu Rinpoche and Lama Tharchin Rinpoche both entrusted Lama Sonam to oversee and guide the Vajrayana Foundation at Pema Osel Ling in the Santa Cruz mountains, where he’s currently a resident teacher and spiritual guide. Lama Sonam Rinpoche is a very learned and humble practitioner with boundless energy for the dharma which he joyfully and generously offers for everyone's benefit. TLC was honored to host his teachings, at which time he authorized our Director to offer end of life instruction, in addition to the authorization and blessings of Venerable Gyatrul Rinpoche. 

To view the video 'Caring for the Body Before Cremation' CLICK HERE.

Excerpts and Notes from  'Caring for the Body After Death and Instructions for Cremation'

taught by Lama Sonam Tsering Rinpoche

Notes by Julie Rogers [Parentheses indicate additional comments by J.R.]


SOURCE TEXT: The teaching given for TLC's "Caring for the Body and Cremation" educational program is from a text composed by HH Dudjom Rinpoche, particularly for westerners.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about end-of-life care in the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, see 'Instructions for the Transitional State - A Concise Guide for Family and Friends of Vajrayana Buddhists', available via TLC here, published by Vimala.



“Practice before you die. This is most important. When the consciousness has died, once it’s left the body, it wanders in the bardo... It’s not so simple as asking a lama to do phowa.” [The transference of consciousness practice.]


"First, when you’re in the position of caring for a dying person, cultivate a mind of loving kindness and compassion. This is essential. If you have loving kindness you’ll have the power to benefit others”.


"If a dying person hasn’t studied and practiced well, it’s like being lost in a large, empty space with no idea where to go, so they need someone to lead them [through the bardo experiences.]"


“We need to help them before the breath has stopped.”




1. Be calm and relaxed before death comes, undisturbed by strong emotions, otherwise beings will end up in the lower realms [due to the "five poisons" of attachment, aversion, anger, jealousy or avarice, and pride.]


2. Have faith and confidence in one's spiritual understanding, whatever it may be, and support the dying person in whatever their personal tradition or belief system is – including but not limited to the aspiration to be reborn in heaven, the pure realm, and/or supported by whatever buddha, deity, god, supreme being, or savior is involved with these beliefs.


3. Learn the person’s religion and help them focus on this. For instance, don’t discuss Buddhist ways with a Christian [or force one’s way of thinking onto someone else.]


4. Various methods and images are possible to use as a support for people who are dying. It’s essential to die without fear and to connect with wisdom, the form it takes isn’t so important.

5. Don’t talk too much to the dying person – speak directly and simply. Only mention brief, key points, remind the person of their practice and deity [their object of refuge], but keep it brief.

6. People often wait to die until friends and loved ones have left the room. [Please do not be offended, concerned, or hurt by this. When the dying person is alone, their consciousness is less distracted and it can be easier to leave the body.]




Phowa is a powerful but dangerous practice. If not done at the correct time, it can have negative consequences if performed too early [before the karma for living has been naturally exhausted], or too late.


To perform phowa, [an authorized] lama or practitioner must have some kind of “ordinary” psychic ability, wherein they can perceive the dying person’s consciousness. One with omniscience would be the ultimate being to perform phowa, but a lama with some degree of developed psychic ability is necessary to determine the exact timing for the rite, as well as for the strength of their practice. Without having omniscient wisdom or ordinary psychic abilities, one must rely on the strength of their own phowa accomplishment. One must have practiced [and become skilled.]


To ascertain one’s ability, one must be able to practice with such strength that if you pushed a needle into the ground before you start the session, it would pop out on its own accord. [Certain phowa practices have no signs such as this.]


The correct TIMING is when the outer breath has ceased but the inner breath has “almost” ceased. [An ordinary person without developed faculties does not know this.] If the timing is correct it can be extremely beneficial.



[Follow the instructions of a qualified lama throughout this process, if you are able to contact one. The Bardo Thodal, or 'Tibetan Book of the Dead', as well as other prayers, can be read for up to 49 days, if desired. Click here for prayers.]


DO NOT touch the lower part of the body at death. [If a lama doesn’t guide you to do otherwise] touch or tap the top of the head at the crown to draw the attention there. The consciousness needs to exit from there because exiting from the lower orifices causes rebirth in the lower realms.


Write the seed syllable of the dying person’s deity on their heart center (with a marker or something similar.)


Place the Liberation Through Hearing Mandala, “the Takdrol” on the body’s heart center, with the image facing toward the body. The Takdrol should remain on the heart center through the cremation [attached w/tape is okay].



  • Chenrezig: Om Mani Padme Hung

  • Guru Rinpoche – Om Ah Hung Benzar Guru Padme Siddhi Hung

  • Vajrasattva – the 100 Syllable Mantra

  • OR any peaceful deity, such as Tara, etc.

  • If appropriate, blow your breath with the mantra onto the person while you’re reciting the mantra.



  • Amitabha’s Prayer to be Reborn in Dewachen

  • Guru Rinpoche’s Prayer to be Reborn in the Copper Colored Mountain

  • Liberation Through Hearing

  • Choying Dzod

  • Additional prayers one may sponsor can be found by clicking here.

Cultivate heartfelt compassion, loving kindness, and faith in the 3 Jewels. [Continue performing these practices for three days, five days or up to a week following the death. They may also be done every seventh day for 49 days.]




It’s best and essential that someone qualified determine when the consciousness has left the body. Generally, one can wash the body an hour or two after the final breath. If a lama or qualified practitioner is performing phowa immediately, this could be done sooner. There are no explicit instructions regarding timing, since each person’s death is different and the consciousness’s departure from the body depends on various factors, including the state of mind in which the person died, whether they are assisted by a lama, and their practice ability. [In ordinary circumstances, the consciousness will eject after an hour, a few hours, or a day.]


First, prepare the saffron water that will be used by adding loose saffron to boiling water. If you have them, add [small amounts of] camphor and sandalwood. [NOTE: if possible, do this ahead of time so the water has time to cool. See TLC's manual, 'Instructions for the Transitional State' for more guidance. Click here for more information.]


If you are able to,  bless this water by performing the ‘Blessing of the Vase’ ritual – this can be found in the **Vajrasattva text [see below.] There are rituals to assist the practitioner with this – Dudsti Kyilwa or Mesek – and Vajrasattva’s “Blessing the Vase.” The body is viewed as a vase that is being blessed, as for any Vajrayana ritual when practitioners bless the bumpa (vase) in order to then bless the offering substances. Alternatively, add water from a Vajrayana bumpa (vase) that has already been blessed to a larger amount of saffron water. [If one doesn’t have the appropriate text, simply chant the Vajrasattva mantra. You may also simply use saffron water if additional substances are not available.]


Wash the body with this saffron water, put dudtsi [mendrup/blessed Tibetan medicine] in the mouth, seal the eyes with tape or something similar. If you have it on hand, rub a mixture of powdered camphor and dudtsi on the body.


Place and wrap the body in a large, white cloth [see the video above]. Two large cloths can be placed over and beneath the body if this is easier. [Try not to move the body much - gently roll, lift, or move it back & forth to place the cloth beneath it.]


Then place a pure white scarf (without any colors) under the body. This symbolizes peaceful activity for purification – a sign that negative forces, obstacles, and negative karma are purified.


Place the body in either the Sleeping Buddha posture – on the corpse’s right side – naked, wrapped in the white cloth.


OR place the body in the crossed vajra posture (sitting upright, arms and legs crossed), then wrap with the white cloth. If you have one, place a Five Families Crown on the head and dress the deceased in the garb of Vajrasattva, Vairochana, *Sangye Chenma, or *Nyima Karpo (*consorts).


**Also see ‘Vajrasattva Meditation Ritual, Ritual to Guide the Dead, and Additional Practices’ by HH Dudjom Rinpoche, available from Bero Jeyden Publications throughVajrayana Foundation. [The consecration text is available here.]



A cardboard box or a coffin [expensive and unnecessary] are both fine.


Cremation substances will also be placed in the box or coffin [see the Cremation Substances section in TLC's Transitional Toolbox]. This can also include pictures of deities, offering substances of various kinds and those used for a peaceful fire ceremony, such as yamshig (carved sticks), a large amount of black and white sesame seeds, and personal effects [consult a lama about this]. Place these substances on either side, above and below the corpse. 


Most mortuaries will accommodate these requests. If you contact and explain your aspirations ahead of time, there should not be a problem. You can often rent extra time in the cremation room and, with permission, set up an altar or shrine there with water bowls, etc. Often you can perform rituals in an adjoining room [try to set this up in advance if it’s not a sudden death.] Most mortuaries will work with you.


THE RITUAL - see TLC's manual 'Instructions for the Transitional State'.



Car wrecks, war, murder, [suicide], etc.


It would be best. if a Dur ritual or other appropriate rituals can be done [by a qualified lama.] This benefits the deceased, their family, and the surrounding area, and can help stop recurring negative circumstances and causes for this sort of accident. These rituals are very elaborate and can take from a day up to one week or longer (up to three weeks) to perform. Investigate sponsorship here.




  • Accomplished practitioners often die when no one is around and wait for attendants (and family) to leave the room

  • Do not touch the body after death

  • Keep the room quiet where the body is in state

  • Leave everything alone – don’t rearrange things, etc.




  • A rock will stay warm if lodged in the person’s armpit

  • The body doesn’t dehydrate and stays flexible (delayed rigor mortis)

  • Sweat beads on nose, cheeks and forehead

  • The heart center remains warm and the cheeks pink


Accomplished lamas and practitioners [spiritual adepts] may remain in upright postures of meditation for long periods of time. This is known as remaining in "tukdam". [See TLC's video, 'Understanding Tukdam', taught by Lama Lakshey Zangpo Rinpoche in Feb. 2024.] These beings don’t enter the bardo. If the head "drops" [leans to the side] it’s permissible to straighten it up after 2 or 3 days.


WHEN TUKDOM IS FINISHED and the consciousness has ejected by way of the lama’s own practice, liquid will come from the nose. Mendrup [Tibetan medicine] is put on the tongue. Practitioners may then perform the chod cycle’s Red Feast of Pure Vision or another ritual [request guidance from a qualified lama] before the body is removed for cremation.

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