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Checklist for Travelers: Notes on the Transition from Life to Death

Compiled by and reprinted with permission of Lama John Ross

Version 1.0, May 2021.

The Cycle of the Four Intermediate States - four or six.

  • the natural intermediate state of this life (includes dream and meditation)

  • the painful intermediate state of dying

  • the intermediate state of the luminosity of the actual nature

  • the karmic intermediate state of becoming


This Life - The way we live and practice every day during our life is the most important factor determining what is going to happen at our death. 

  • habit

  • merit

  • skillful means

  • death is a really difficult time for everyone involved, train and be prepared

  • practical life choices

  • spiritual practice


Planning for the logistical and worldly aspects of dying.

  • financial and legal

  • will, trust, power of attorney

  • funds to sponsor practices while dying or after you die

  • medical wishes

  • advance health directive and power of attorney

  • emergency care

  • pain management

  • family and friends

  • are they going to help you or make problems?

  • is there a way to make the process positive for them?

  • discussions

  • written directives


Environment - create a pleasant place free from disturbances.

  • alone in room

  • certain people with you

  • bodily remains, make arrangements in advance

  • where will your body be kept and for how long?

  • who will be in charge?

  • what will they do?

  • cremation arrangements?


Planning and training for the spiritual aspects of dying.

  • what are you going to do?

  • mind training

  • guru yoga

  • yidam

  • transference, which kind?

  • the essence: dzogchen or mahamudra


Will you have people on hand to help you, and what will they do?

  • practice with you

  • practice for you

  • will you sponsor practices to be done on your behalf?

  • where? how will you know what to do?

  • how will the practices be paid for?


Beginning the Process of Dying - At this point you want to be finished planning. This is a difficult time for everyone involved. Maybe long or short. The timing is uncertain. The difficulty is uncertain.

Paltrul Rinpoche: “May I have the strength to die like an old dog!”


Worldly aspects - your helpers should be taking care of the worldly aspects at this point.

  • Spiritual practices for oneself and one’s helpers - give up everything else and focus on this.

  • Spiritual practices done for others can be present or at a distance - this is not to be taken lightly.

  • Train in advance until you have so much confidence and skill in the practice that you could sit down in the middle of a battlefield and do it without distraction.

  • Be familiar with the stages of dissolution of the elements.

  • Be familiar with the progression of appearances as you move through the intermediate states.


Basic Practices - Forgive! everyone, including yourself.

  • Tonglen / Giving and Taking [Tib: stongs len]

  • Mani

  • Tara

  • Vajrasattva

  • Amitabha

  • Guru Siddhi

  • confession prayers

  • aspiration prayers


Practices to Extend Life - These will also benefit during the dying process.


  • You may want to check divinations or astrology, or get advice from a Lama.

  • These may be done by oneself or with friends.

  • Saving lives: fish, crickets, goats, bait worms, etc.

  • The Mountain Purification Offering, RIWO SANG CHOD, [Tib: ri bo bsangs mchod]

  • longevity practice

  • pilgrimage - sponsored - usually according to divinations or astrology, or advice of a Lama

  • praises to Tara

  • longevity sutra

  • ransoming rituals

  • (obstacle) averting rituals 


Practices for the Time Before Death and While Dying

Now you have to let go. The train is leaving the station. To whatever extent you hold on to this life, to that extent you will suffer. Forgive everyone, including yourself.


  • What is your heart practice, your deepest inspiration and place of trust? Do what you have trained in.

  • guru yoga

  • yidam/mantra

  • confession prayers

  • aspiration prayers

  • train in the transference


Practice done by others for you who share your practice.

Practice done by others for you if you are incapacitated.

  • Practice by others in other places, perhaps by divination or advice of a lama.

  • These could be very simple practices or very elaborate.


The Moment of Death

  • Planning should be completed.

  • Worldly aspects should not intrude.

  • If possible, notify the Lama or the monastery in advance that the person is dying and

    to be ready.

  • If there is a Lama prepared to do the transference at a distance, notify them at the

    moment the breath stops, or better yet just as the breath is weakening and beginning to fail.

Practice for oneself - it is best if you have instructions from your root guru.

  • guru yoga

  • transference [p'howa] The best time to do the transference for oneself is just before the breath stops.

  • the essence


Practice by others for oneself - discuss in advance

• guru yoga
• transference [p'howa]
• the essence

• put mendrup or blessed substances on tongue before breath stops


Practice for others

  • Do you have genuine experience and confidence?

  • Is it appropriate for that individual?

  • basic practices

  • give appropriate commentary to dying person

  • Place mendrup (blessed Tibetan medicine) or blessed substances on the tongue before breathing stops.

  • Near the end (before or just after the breath stops) touch the crown of the dying person's head.

  • transference [p'howa]

  • The best time to do the transference for others is just as the breath stops or immediately after.

  • severance, CHOD


Note the time of death - This should be someone’s job, decided in advance.

  • Send a text with a photo of the deceased, name and time of death to one's lama or a chosen practictioner.

  • Acquire a death certificate from a mortuary or morgue.

  • Determine astrology if this is a possibility.

  • Decide how long the body will be left in state.

  • Decide when to cremate.

  • Decide what practices should be done for the deceased.

  • Decide what and whether practices should be done for close family left behind.

  • Determine the “sign of birth”? (thangka or statue)

Sacred Grace, THUK DAM, [Tib: thugs dam]

This is something rare and extraordinary.

  • Immediately contact and get help from a Lama.

  • Don’t disturb the body or the environment, no loud noises, strong smells, etc.

  • Such a person will have the confidence to have a plan in place already.


Dealing with the Body

  • Obtain a liberating talismans, ie: TAK DROL. [Tib: rtags sgrol]

  • Cause minimal disturbance.

  • Determine where will the body lay in state.

  • Manage the eventuality of fluids and smells.

  • Anticipate eventual rigor mortis.

  • Place the corpse in a suitable position: either lay flat or in the lion’s position and close the eyes.

  • Wash the body with fragrant water, amrita or relics; replace TAK DROL and secure in place.

  • Drape a shroud over the body and tie it in place.

  • Protect oneselt from obscurations, ie: DRIP [Tib: sgrib], which can affect both the living and the dead.

  • Purification of filth, NOL SANG, [Tib: mnol bsangs]

  • Purification of obscuration, DRIP SANG, [Tib: sgrib bsangs]

  • Ablution (cleansing ritual), THRU CHOK, [Tib: khrus chog]

  • Purification pills

  • Stack of Moles, MEWA TZEGPA, [Tib: sme ba btsegs pa]

  • All-Suppressing Vajra, DORJE NAM JOM, [Tib: rdo rje rnams ‘joms]

  • Swirling Elixir, DUDTSI KYILWA, [Tib: brdud rtsi kyil ba, amṛitakuṇḍalīn]

  • purifying incense (made by a lama)

  • bone cleansing rituals, RU CHOK, [Tib: ru chog]

  • Obtain excerpts from Dudjom Lingpa’s lineage tradition, or another.


After Death - the timing is uncertain, according to karma and training of the deceased.

  • The three visions and the luminosity of death.

  • The intermediate state of the actual nature

  • The intermediate state of becoming

  • The consciousness can go anywhere and becomes somewhat clairvoyant

  • Be careful of what you think and say (around the body.)

  • Be careful of what you do (around the body.)


Worldly aspects - someone should be taking care of this so the people focusing on spiritual service to the deceased don’t have to worry about it. Also, planning these aspects in advance will avoid conflict during this sensitive time.

  • Spiritual practices for oneself, ie: the intermediate state of the actual nature - are you ready?

  • Maintain awareness of experience of the sound of a hundred thousand dragons roaring

  • Maintain awareness of the light of a hundred thousand suns.

The intermediate state of becoming - If your prior training and samaya bond during life is strong, you will practice and meet your teacher and be liberated. Guru yoga contains all practices and pith instructions.


Spiritual practices for others:

  • near the body or at a distance

  • sponsored

  • by the community


The 49 Days (following death) - understand what practices are done during:

  • the first three days

  • the seven weekly cycles and nodes

  • the first three weeks

  • daily practice


Practices done during "The First Three Days" and "Guiding the Deceased on the Fourth Day":

ZHAG SUM NAY DREN - [Tib: zhag gsum gnas ‘dren]

  • Liberation by Hearing, BARDO THO DROL, [Tib: bar do thos grol] - and similar texts

  • prayers and aspirations

  • lamp offerings

  • smoke offerings, KAR SUR, [Tib: kar gsur]

  • Guiding the Deceased,

    NAY DREN or NAY BAR or LAM TON, [Tib: gnas ‘dren, gnas bar, lam ston]

  • severance, CHOD, [Tib: gcod]

    Cremation - according to circumstances

  • sacrificial fire offering, JIN SREK, [Tib: sbyin sreg]

  • prayers and aspirations

  • The King of Confessions that Dredges the Depths of the Hells, SHAG PA’I GYAL PO

    NA RAK DONG DRUK [Tib: bshags pa’i rgyal po na rak dong sprug]

    The Seven Weekly Nodes - DUN TSIG, [Tib: bdun tshigs]

  • Guiding the Deceased, or any meritorious practice

The First Three Weeks

This is the most critical time when the deceased is closest to associations from the previous life. This is the best opportunity to be of benefit. After this, the consciousness of the deceased begins to focus on the karmic appearances of the next life.


Daily Practice for 49 Days

  • prayers and aspirations

  • lamp offerings

  • smoke offerings, KAR SUR, [Tib: kar gsur]

For example, a daily practice during the 49 days might include:

  • The King of Confessions that Dredges the Depths of the Hells, SHAG PA’I GYAL PO NA RAK DONG DRUK, [Tib: bshags pa’i rgyal po na rak dong sprug]

  • The Extremely Powerful Aspiration of Total Goodness, KUN TU ZANG PO’I MON LAM TOB PO CHE, [Tib: kun tu bzang po’i smon lam stobs po che]

  • The King of Aspirations to the Deeds of the Excellent, ZANG PO’I CHOD PA’I MON LAM GYI GYAL PO, [Tib: bzang poi spyod pa’i mon lam gyi rgyal po]

  • Aspiration to be Born in the Copper Colored Mountain, ZANG DOG PEL RI MON LAM, [Tib: zangs mdog dpal ri’i smon lam.] For example:

    • Dudjom Rinpoche, Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje,

         • Jigme Lingpa

         • Dudjom Lingpa

  • Aspiration to be Born in the Pure Realm of Bliss, DE WA CHEN MON LAM, [Tib: bde ba can smon lam.] For example:

    • short one by Migyur Dorje
    • very long one by Karma Chagme 

         • short one by Dudjom Lingpa

  • smoke offerings, KAR SUR, [Tib: kar gsur]

  • or simply MANI mantra


During the 49 Days

  • bone cleansing rituals, RU CHOK [Tib: ru chog]

  • earth-molds, SA TSA [Tib: sa’tstsha]

  • any meritorious activities



  • feast offerings, TSOG, [Tib: tshogs]

  • lamp offerings

  • aspiration prayers


Any Time

• dharani mantra of Akshobya, MI TRUK PA’I ZUNG [Tib: mi ‘khrug pa’i gzungs]

These brief notes on both the worldly and spiritual aspects of navigating the end of life were compiled by Lama John Ross with the aspiration that they become a support for those with faith in the Buddha’s teaching in general, and the vehicle of Secret Mantra in particular, to meet death with confidence and skill, and to benefit both themselves and others. May it be virtuous!

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