Phowa Practice

(from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche)

The Essential Phowa Practice

The most valuable and powerful of all practices I have found in caring for the dying, one which I have seen an astonishing number of people take to with enthusiasm, is a practice from the Tibetan tradition called phowa (pronounced "po-wa"), which means the transference of consciousness.

Phowa for dying people has been performed by friends, relatives, or masters, quite simply and naturally, all over the modern world--in Australia, America, and Europe. Thousands of people have been given the chance to die serenely because of its power. It gives me joy to make the heart of the phowa practice now available to anyone who wishes to use it.

I want to emphasize that this is a practice that anyone at all can do. It is simple, but it is also the most essential practice we can do to prepare for our own death, and it is the main practice I teach my students for helping their dying friends and relatives, and their loved ones who have already died.

Practice One

First make sure you are comfortable, and assume the meditative posture. If you are doing this practice as you are coming close to death, just sit as comfortably as you are able, or practice lying down.

Then bring your mind home, release, and relax completely.

  1. In the sky in front of you, invoke the embodiment of whatever truth you believe in, in the form of radiant light.
    Choose whichever divine being or saint you feel close to. If you are a Buddhist, invoke a buddha with whom you feel an intimate connection. If you are a practicing Christian, feel with all your heart the vivid, immediate presence of God, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, or the Virgin Mary. If you don't feel linked with any particular spiritual figure, simply imagine a form of pure golden light in the sky before you.
    The important point is that you consider the being you are visualizing or whose presence you feel is the embodiment of the truth, wisdom, and compassion of all the buddhas, saints, masters, and enlightened beings. Don't worry if you cannot visualize them very clearly, just fill your heart with their presence and trust that they are there.

  2. Then focus your mind, heart, and soul on the presence you have invoked, and pray:
    Through your blessing, grace, and guidance, through the power of the light that streams from you:
    May all my negative karma, destructive emotions, obscurations, and blockages be purified and removed,
    May I know myself forgiven for all the harm I may have thought and done,
    May I accomplish this profound practice of phowa, and die a good and peaceful death,
    And through the triumph of my death, may I be able to benefit all other beings, living or dead.

  3. Now imagine that the presence of light you have invoked is so moved by your sincere and heartfelt prayer that he or she responds with a loving smile and sends out love and compassion in a stream of rays of light from his or her heart. As these touch and penetrate you, they cleanse and purify all your negative karma, destructive emotions, and obscurations, which are the causes of suffering. You see and feel that you are totally immersed in light.

  4. You are now completely purified and completely healed by the light streaming from the presence. Consider that your very body, itself created by karma, now dissolves completely into light.

  5. The body of light you now are soars up into the sky and merges, inseparably, with the blissful presence of light.

  6. Remain in that state of oneness with the presence for as long as possible.

Practice Two

  1. To do this practice even more simply, begin as before by resting quietly, and then invoke the presence of the embodiment of truth.

  2. Imagine your consciousness as a sphere of light at your heart, which flashes out from you like a shooting star, and flies into the heart of the presence in front of you.

  3. It dissolves and merges with the presence.
    Through this practice you are investing your mind in the wisdom mind of the Buddha or enlightened being, which is the same as surrendering your soul into the nature of God. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche says this is like casting a pebble into a lake; think of it plummeting down into the water, deeper and deeper. Imagine that through the blessing your mind is transformed into the wisdom mind of this enlightened presence.

Practice Three

The most essential way to do the practice is this: Simply merge your mind with the wisdom mind of the pure presence. Consider: "My mind and the mind of the Buddha are one."

Choose whichever one of these version of the phowa feels more comfortable, or has most appeal for you at any particular moment. Sometimes the most powerful practices can be the most simple. But whichever one you choose, remember that it is essential to take the time now to become familiar with this practice. How else will you have the confidence to do it for yourself or others at the moment of death? My master Jamyang Khyentse wrote, "If you meditate and practice in this manner always, at the moment of death it will come easier."

In fact you should be so familiar with the practice of phowa that it becomes a natural reflex, your second nature. If you have seen the film Gandhi, you will know that when he was shot, his immediate response was to call out: "Ram...Ram!" which is, in the Hindu tradition, the sacred name of God. Remember that we never know how we will die, or if we will be given the time to recall any kind of practice at all. What time will we have, for example, if we smash our car into a truck at 100 mph on the freeway? There won't be a second then to think about how to do phowa, or to check the instructions in this book. Either we are familiar with the phowa or we are not. There is a simple way to gauge this: Just look at your reactions when you are in a critical situation or in a moment of crisis, such as an earthquake, or in a nightmare. Do you respond with the practice or don't you? And if you do, how stable and confident is your practice?

I remember a student of mine in America who went out riding one day. The horse threw her; her foot got stuck in the stirrup, and she was dragged along the ground. Her mind went blank. She tried desperately to recall some practice, but nothing at all would come. She grew terrified. What was good about that terror was that it made her realize that her practice had to become her second nature. This was the lesson she had to learn; it is the lesson, in fact, we all have to learn. Practice phowa as intensively as you can, until you can be sure you will react with it to any unforeseen event. This will make certain that whenever death comes, you will be as ready as you can be.

Using the Essential Phowa Practice to Help the Dying

How can we use this practice to help someone who is dying?

The principle and the sequence of the practice are exactly the same; the only difference is that you visualize the Buddha or spiritual figure above the head of the dying person.

Imagine that the rays of light pour down onto the dying person, purifying his or her whole being, and then he or she dissolves into light and merges with the spiritual presence.

Do this practice throughout your loved one's illness, and especially (and most important) when the person is breathing their last breath, or as soon as possible after breathing stops and before the body is touched or disturbed in any way. If the dying person knows you are going to do this practice for them, and knows what it is, it can be a great source of inspiration and comfort.

Sit quietly with the dying person, and offer a candle or light in front of a picture or statue of Buddha or Christ or the Virgin Mary. Then do the practice for them. You can be doing the practice quietly, and the person need not even know about it; on the other hand, if he or she is open to it, as sometimes dying people are, share the practice and explain how to do it.

Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1992), pp. 214-218.

For more about Sogyal Rinpoche and his works, visit Rigpa.

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Last modified on February 7, 2005 by Kay Keys (