Note: The following excerpt is written from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. Yet, insights may be gleaned that are in harmony with other faith traditions.
We may have our vision of a perfect death, but life doesn’t always cooperate.
One out of ten people will die suddenly and unexpectedly.
What should we do if we’re about to die in an accident?
The instruction is simple: bring your awareness to the top of your head, and recite the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM.
Bringing awareness to the top of your head is a form of emergency phowa.
Reciting the mantra of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion, closes the doors to the six realms of samsara. It also invokes his blessing. If compassion has a sound, it is OM MANI PADME HUM.
By bringing your awareness to the top of your head, you open the door to rebirth in the pure realms.
This can be done by visualizing your guru or a deity directly above you, or by merely turning your gaze upward.
If you panic and can’t remember what to do, then cry out to your teacher or a spiritual being for help.
Instead of having “Oh shit!” on your mind when you’re about to die, it’s better to have your teacher or Amitabha on your mind and to be reborn in his pure land.
The way to practice for sudden death is to recite the mantra, or visualize the deity, whenever you receive sudden bad news or are somehow shocked.
Any experience that throws you into a feeling of groundlessness is an opportunity to practice for sudden death.
It’s like appending “Bless you!” after someone sneezes. For most people this polite habit is automatic, but it didn’t happen automatically. You had to practice it.
When your lover tells you he or she is leaving you, have the presence of mind to say to yourself, OM MANI PADME HUM. Or a friend just died, OM MANI PADME HUM. You just got fired, OM MANI PADME HUM.
Small sudden deaths happen all the time and give us opportunities to practice for the big one.
I started practicing this whenever I read about a violent death in the paper or heard about it on the news. A suicide bomber blew up twenty people, OM MANI PADME HUM; a teenager was killed in a car accident, OM MANI PADME HUM; a tornado destroyed an entire town, OM MANI PADME HUM.
My usual response had been to close down around such news. It was too painful. But this “bless you” mantra showed me how to keep my heart open, and to connect to the suffering of others.
After a few weeks of mindful effort, this good habit took root. With this preliminary practice directed to others, I was then able to extend it to my own daily deaths.
If you’re trained in phowa, then the instructions for sudden death may vary depending on your training.
But, the essential practice is simple, which is what we need in a time of crisis. Gauge your readiness for sudden death by looking at how you react to critical situations. When you wake up sweating from a nightmare, do you respond with practice or don’t you? When a car cuts you off and almost sends you into the ditch, what happens to your mind? Use any heart-pounding situation both to assess your readiness, and to practice for, any heart-stopping accidents.
Source: Holecek, Andrew. Preparing to Die. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.