Is there a way to best support people who have died recently or in the distant past?
There’s a general instruction and there’s a specific instruction. The general instruction is that whatever positive thing you do which is dedicated to that person who has died, is helping that person. So, therefore, you can ask for prayers or you can ask for phowa from great masters just after somebody died or even up to forty-nine days you can ask for phowa. And then within that time or after, you can ask them (a master) to do something that is specific to Vajrayana Buddhism, that is, you can ask them to perform a name burning practice. Actually, whether you burn the name or not doesn’t matter, but in this practice you do a particular sadhana and then you attach to that a kind of empowerment and instruction to the deceased, to the dead person, describing the way to go to the higher realms, Dewachen. It can be short or long but it is a rather elaborate practice we call sang chod. This is something done Vajrayana way, it is an important practice and good to do on the first day and the third day after the person dies, then on every seventh day and then on the forty-ninth. It can be done other times also.
But then, one very important thing is that at the funeral of the person who died, their friends or family members can make a promise to do something, it could be something to help others but it could be something to help yourself like saying, “I’m not going to kill for a certain number of months or years, (not eat meat) or, I’m not going to take drugs, smoke, drink or I’m not going to do whatever”. You kind of give up a negative thing that you are doing which is bad for yourself or bad to others. To make that promise to the person who died is also said to be very good and very helpful.
But anything you do, any kind of prayers, or positive action: like saving lives, or freeing some animals which are about to be killed, or giving food or medicine for people who need them, according to the situation and the needs of the people and the situation in that country or that area. These can help if done in the name of a person who has died. Anything that you can do to help beings or especially those in a destitute state, or anything that’s done with compassion and good will, that is a positive deed and will help the person.
And also, for example, you can commit to do so many mantras for this person, or say “I’m going to do meditation for this person or I’m going to do something that’s really good or something that’s positive”, it’s a practice for myself that is said to be very useful and very good for the person who died. Then also I can do a pilgrimage. So, especially, any kind of practices, and also informing and requesting a good practitioner, or great master to pray for this person; from the Tibetan tradition, that is very, very important.
As soon as a person dies, usually most Tibetans would write a letter requesting prayers and then send it with a small donation. Then they send this to Dalai Lama, to Karmapa, to Sakya Trinzin and all great and good lamas; incarnate lamas, rinpoches, khenpos, monasteries, every monastery that you have good connection with or you have devotion or positive connection with. You give them all a donation because we can’t say exactly which lama has the right circumstance or connections or power to help this person who has died.
So, therefore, the more widely you request prayers the more the chance is that there may be someone who is very good at helping, some right connections, so we send a small donation. In India it is something like five rupees, ten rupees, two hundred rupees, five hundred rupees; if it is a very important lama and you have a very great connection then you send more and if not, send just a little bit, even if it is five rupees, and a scarf or something like that, this is one thing which the Tibetans do, especially where I come from. It is not which school or which sect or anything like that from this point of view – I would have no problem if Christians also pray for me, Muslims, or Jews or whoever, so I think it is good. Up to now in Tibet where there have been only Buddhists, but now where there are others also, I think it is not a bad idea that we request prayers from the Christian traditions, monks and nuns and, if there are other kind of spiritual traditions, why not ask them to pray as well, I think if anybody who prays with compassion and with devotion, and then it could help. So, therefore, there is nothing wrong, I think, to ask for prayers from other denominations or other religious or spiritual traditions as well, this is my understanding. This is not of course in the Buddhist instructions, but also Buddhist instructions do not say you should not ask anybody else either, so this I have to make it clear.
Ringu Tulku Rinpoche
Offerings for prayers – It is possible to request prayers in return for a small offering from designated monasteries and nunneries, as well as from individual Holinesses, Rinpoches, Khenpos, Lamas, Abbots etc. especially where you feel a personal connection. A certain amount of funding could be designated from your estate in your will. Friends can also make offerings for you if they wish.