Like a Hair Pulled Out of Butter

Teachings on the Great Matter by Dilgo Khyentse RinpocheDilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Not long ago, your consciousness was wandering alone.
Swept along by karma, it took this present birth.
Soon, like a hair pulled out of butter,
Leaving everything behind, you'll go on again alone.


Be careful—a powerful enemy is approaching. Not an ordinary enemy, but an invincible one: death. No plea, however eloquent, can persuade death to hold off for a few years—or even for a second. Not even the most powerful warrior, at the head of all the armies of the earth, can make death turn a hair. Death cannot be bribed by wealth, however vast, nor stirred by even the most enchanting beauty.

The best approach, you might think, would be to spend about ten years trying to get somewhere in the world, so that you would then be set up to spend another ten practicing the Dharma. But who can say with certainty that he will live twenty more years? Who can say that he will definitely see tomorrow's sunrise? Who can even be sure that he will draw his next breath? As you light the fire in your mountain retreat, think to yourself, "I wonder if I'll be lighting this fire tomorrow?" Some people die while sleeping, some while walking, some while eating, and some at war; some die young and some die old. Any circumstances of life may turn out to be the cause of death. In a hundred years' time, how many of all the people now living on earth will still be alive?

We were born alone and we will die alone. Yet even while alone we still have our shadow with us; and alone after death, our consciousness will still have with it the shadow of our actions, good and bad.

Today you are alive and well in a place where you are free to cultivate the Dharma. No one is telling you that your religion is forbidden, or that you are not allowed to recite the mani, the six-syllable mantra of Chenrezig [the bodhisattva of compassion]. So now is the time to prepare for death. In general, we are always worried about the future. We make strenuous efforts to ensure that in the future we will not run out of money, run out of food, or be without clothes. But of all future events, isn't death the most crucial?

We came into the world without husband, wife, friend, or companion. We may have many friends and acquaintances at the moment, and perhaps many enemies too, but as soon as death falls upon us we shall leave all of them behind, like a hair pulled out of a slab of butter. Not one of our friends and enemies will be able to help us; we have no choice but to face death all alone. This body of ours, which finds even the pain of a pinprick or a tiny spark of fire really hard to bear, is going to experience death. This body of ours, which we cherish so dearly, will turn into a corpse that our friends and relatives will only want to dispose of as quickly as possible.

There's no time, no time! There's no time to rest!
When suddenly death is upon you, what will you do?
Now you'd better start practicing the sublime Dharma
right away;
Now, quick, hurry—recite the six-syllable mantra.

Never forget how swiftly this life will be over, like a flash of summer lightning or the wave of a hand. Now that you have the opportunity to practice Dharma, do not waste a single moment on anything else, but with all your energy and effort recite the six-syllable mantra.

H. H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991) was a highly revered meditation master, eminent teacher, and scholar of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. These excerpts are reprinted with permission from The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones (Shambhala, 1992).

Image: Cittipitti, the protectors of the female Buddha, Vajradakini. Tibetan thangka, 19th century. Courtesy Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation/Moke Mokotoff

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