The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is one of the most widely read books about Buddhism, having sold more than three million copies since its publication in 1992. Since then, the reputation of the book’s author Sogyal Rinpoche, has fallen into ill repute through various allegations of sexual and physical abuse. However, the wisdom of the book itself, which charts Tibetan attitudes towards life and death and offers a simple rendition of Buddhist teachings in the face of death, has been enduring. This passage comes down on the shortcomings of western society when it comes to the spiritual aspect of palliative care, and opens up a different way of confronting and living with death, to appease our fears and to make our lives more dynamic in the present moment.
I first came to the west at the beginning of the 1970s, and what disturbed me deeply, and has continued to disturb me, is the almost complete lack of spiritual help for the dying that exists in modern culture. In Tibet, as I have shown, everyone had some knowledge of the higher truths of Buddhism and some relationship with a master. No one died without being cared for, in both superficial and profound ways, by the community. I have been told many stories of people dying alone and in great distress and disillusion in the West without any spiritual help, and one of my main motivations in writing this book is to extend the healing wisdom of the world I was brought up in to all men and women. Do we not all have a right, as we are dying, not only to have our bodies treated with respect, but also, and perhaps even more important, our spirits? Shouldn’t one of the main rights of any civilized society, extended to everyone in that society, be the right to die surrounded by the best spiritual care? Can we really call ourselves a “civilization” until this becomes an accepted norm? What does it really mean to have the technology to send people to the moon, when we do not know how to help our fellow humans die with dignity and hope?
Spiritual care is not a luxury for a few; it is the essential right of every human being, as essential as political liberty, medical assistance, and equality of opportunity. A real democratic ideal would include knowledgeable spiritual care for everyone as one of its most essential truths.
Wherever I go in the West, I am struck by the great mental suffering that arises from the fear of dying, whether or not this fear is acknowledged. How reassuring it would be for people if they knew that when they lay dying they would be cared for with loving insight! As it is, our culture is so heartless in its expediency and its denial of any real spiritual value that people, when faced with terminal illness, feel terrified that they are simply going to be thrown away like useless goods. In Tibet it was a natural response to pray for the dying and to give them spiritual care; in the West the only spiritual attention that the majority pay to the dying is to go to their funeral.
At the moment of their greatest vulnerability, then, people in our world are abandoned and left almost totally without support or insight. This is a tragic and humiliating state of affairs, which must change. All of the modern world’s pretensions to power and success will ring hollow until everyone can die in this culture with some measure of true peace, and until at least some effort is made to ensure this is possible.