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Essential Phowa Practice

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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By Christine Longaker

Essential Phowa practice


Phowa practice

Practicing for others

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Phowa is considered the most valuable and effective practice for death. The word phowa means the transference or ejection of consciousness into the state of truth. Its success relies on invoking the presence of a buddha (a fully enlightened being), combined with our receptivity and devotion, and the familiarity which comes from having done the practice repeatedly throughout our life.

Sogyal Rinpoche has taught an Essential Phowa practice which is not just for the moment of death. It also helps to purify our regrets, harm and negativity, and it can be used to assist in emotional or physical healing. The Essential Phowa is a practice for our whole life as well as for the time of dying, and it is the principal practice we rely on to offer spiritual support to others at the moment of death, and afterward.

If we practice the Essential Phowa again and again, our compassionate motivation and our confident devotion will grow even deeper, increasingly becoming part of our "flesh and bones." As we begin to embody the practice, our heart and mind are opened, made more free and limitless. If we prepare for our own death with this depth of familiarity, devotion and trust, we'll reap other rewards. For instance, our fear of death will diminish. And, even if we should be in a sudden accident, facing death without warning, we'll know how to let go in the best way, because this profound practice has become like a reflex.

Also, by practicing the Essential Phowa regularly and as strongly as possible, we'll find that when a loved one is in great distress or is dying, we can respond with all our love and compassion and offer this rich spiritual practice for him or her. When we hear of a great tragedy or natural disaster we will realize that we can counter our feelings of helplessness by offering a practice to spiritually benefit those who are suffering.

A powerful practice for the moment of death

If the dying person is interested, you can share the Essential Phowa practice with them, finding ways to adapt it to their own spiritual beliefs. Even though you can do the Essential Phowa throughout life, its special power becomes apparent when you practice it just at the moment of death. You may want to practice the Essential Phowa each time you visit the dying person. The most important time to practice is right at the moment of death, or as soon as you are informed of the person's death. If you cannot be physically present when your loved one dies, then visualize yourself practicing by their side at the place of their death.

As people come very near death, I have observed that their mind and heart becomes less contained by their body and more atmospheric; it feels as if their mind is filling the entire room. Thus any strong thoughts or emotions we bring into the space surrounding a dying person have a powerful effect on their state of mind, for better or worse. Thus, it is clear that if we have inspired ourselves with meditation before entering a dying person's room, or if we have strongly invoked the presence of a buddha or Divine Being to whom we continue to pray, this can have a tremendously positive influence on the dying person's state of mind.

When I first learned the Essential Phowa, I questioned whether a beginner could effectively do the practice for a dying person. How could I possibly offer spiritual support for another person? What if I did it wrong? Sogyal Rinpoche responded to my doubts with these valuable insights:

First, just at the moment of death, after the consciousness of the dying person "faints into darkness," he or she will awaken into the luminous expanse of the truth. Thus our practice of Essential Phowa for the dying person is simply a skillful guidance to help them unite with the true nature of mind which will be dawning in their awareness at that time.

Second, in doing the phowa, we are invoking and relying on the limitless enlightened qualities of a buddha, a fully awakened being, which include an unbiased, boundless compassion and love, and the unlimited power to benefit and help all beings by responding to their needs, especially in the direst of circumstances. As soon as we invoke the presence of God, Christ, the Buddha, Padmasambhava, or another saint or Divine Being, their blessings and presence are spontaneously there. They will be present with the dying person in his or her hour of need, and they will know what to do!

Nothing we do is ever lost

If done repeatedly, with strong compassion and devotion, the Essential Phowa practice can help the dying on their journey toward liberation. Any practice or prayers we do for the dying will help, at the very least, to purify their negative karma or release them from the suffering and turmoil of their death and enable them to die peacefully. Even if you are not an advanced practitioner, your practicing the Essential Phowa cannot in any way harm an ill or dying person. On a spiritual level, it will help them, even if you can't see or measure the benefit tangibly. I encourage those of you who are professional caregivers to do the Essential Phowa when your patients are dying, and observe the results for yourself. Sometimes after doing the practice, I have had a sense or a sign that the phowa has truly benefited the dying person, and I allow this to inspire my confidence that the practice does bring spiritual support, even on occasions when I don't perceive an immediate result. Remember, nothing we do is ever lost.

The Practice of Essential Phowa

First sit quietly and settle yourself, bringing all the energies of your mind and body back home. As far as possible, relax into the deep presence and spacious awareness of your being. Before you begin, arouse a strong compassionate aspiration such as that described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead: "By means of this death, I will adopt only the attitude of the enlightened state of mind, loving kindness, and compassion, and attain perfect enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings who are as limitless as space."


With all your heart, invoke in the sky before you the presence of a buddha or a Divine Being for whom you feel a devotion. See the form of this Presence, not as flesh and blood, but as radiant light. Recognize that this being's qualities of perfect wisdom, boundless compassion, and limitless power to benefit beings are no different from the qualities of your own wisdom nature.

Consider this Divine Presence you have invoked is actually present--alive, breathing, and gazing toward you with kindness and love. If you cannot clearly visualize a buddha or Divine Being, then simply imagine that a brilliant and loving Presence, who is the embodiment of truth, is in the sky in front of you, in the form of light. Allow yourself to relax deeply and establish a personal connection with this Presence you have invoked.

Calling out

Open yourself now, and acknowledge the aspects of your being that need purification, forgiveness, and blessing. Acknowledge any regrets, harm, negativity, or destructive emotions that you want to release and purify. Become aware of any places in your body where there is disease, weakness, or even a fear of illness. And recognize any doubts, fears, or old wounds in your heart that need healing and love. Then call out sincerely to the Divine Presence in front of you and ask for help.

Receiving the blessing

Immediately this buddha or Divine Presence responds, sending love and compassion from his or her heart in a stream of tremendous rays of light directly into your being. Allow these powerful rays to penetrate you and purify you--filling you with forgiveness, healing energy, confidence and unconditional love. Consider that these brilliant light rays of compassion and love dissolve all of your fears and defenses, so that you are totally immersed in light. To make yourself more receptive, you may want to recite a short prayer or mantra during this part of the practice.

Visualize that this profound blessing streaming towards you purifies and transforms every aspect of your body and mind--even your painful memories, part harm and regrets. Then, after some time, consider that the purification has been completely effected, so much so that your whole being--body and mind--is entirely transformed into light. Now your being in the form of light rises up and dissolves into the heart of this Divine Presence--completely mixing with it, like light mixing with light.

Remain in this peaceful state as long as you can. This nondual, natural simplicity and inspired openness is your being. If thoughts rise, or a "sense of self" begins to form, simply allow them to dissolve back into emptiness. Letting go, naturally remain.

At the conclusion, consider that your awareness is once again centered within your body. Resolve to continue the presence of pure, clear awareness as you enter into daily activities. And when you notice that you have lost it, gently bring your mind home to its true nature, again and again.

Dedicate your practice

Dedicate your practice as you conclude, sharing the merit of blessings and wisdom with all beings, praying that, in whatever ways you can, you may be able to relieve their suffering, bring them happiness, and, ultimately, help them to realize the abiding peace of their deathless, true nature of mind.

Essential Phowa for others

You can do the Essential Phowa for someone who is ill or dying, in exactly the same way as for yourself, except that you visualize a buddha or Divine Presence above the head of the other person. Call out on behalf of your friend, and visualize the Presence pouring down rays of light onto him or her, purifying and transforming their whole being. Then visualize that the other person, now fully purified, dissolves into light and merges indistinguishably with the enlightened Presence.

Essential Phowa in a sudden death

When someone has just died suddenly and you do not have much time, such as at the scene of an accident, then you can do an abbreviated form of the Essential Phowa. As you stay by his or her side, invoke strongly the radiant presence of a buddha or Divine Being. Visualize the compassionate radiance emanating from this Presence filling the space surrounding both of you with protection and blessings.

Consider that the consciousness of the newly deceased person takes the form of a small sphere of light, and visualize it quickly flying out from his or her body, like a shooting star, and dissolving into the heart of the Divine Presence. In dedicating the practice, pray that the person may be free from any of the sufferings or turmoil of their death, and released into the luminosity and all-pervading space of the true nature of their mind, in order to benefit all beings, especially those he or she is leaving behind. Afterward, you can do the complete Essential Phowa practice again for the person over the following days and weeks.