Having witnessed passings in the West and his native Tibet, Rinpoche believes the end is "the most important thing in your life."
While many of his countrymen die bravely, he has seen unnecessary anxiety among other cultural groups.
"We believe our body can last about 100 years and then generally our job is finished," he said. "Secondly, we believe the planet is not our home. The planet is a hotel."
Rinpoche, the eight incarnation of the Nyentse Lama, who took his title at the age of 13, was on personal retreat in Austria when he paused for a YogaCity NYC interview with Ann Votaw. Born in 1976, the lama appeared youthful and smiley as he talked about his upcoming visit and one of the world's darkest topics.
Ann Votaw: Why are you interested in fearless death?
Rinpoche: A long time ago I went to Switzerland and saw a hospice where people were dying. There I discovered that many Westerners were not ready to die. This made me interested to talk more about death because mostly people come to fear death. They're afraid of losing all that they have. A second reason is they're going somewhere they don't know. That's the reason I try to talk about it.
Votaw: What was the hospice in Switzerland like?
Rinpoche: The people had one week or two weeks to live. Stressful. They were not ready. It is a really, really unacceptable situation in the 21st century with very educated people. They're born in a free country. Free thought. Free speech. All possibilities but they're not ready, and therefore, that makes me interested to talk so much about fearless death, yes? [laughing]
Votaw: Yes. Do you know anyone who has had a fearless death?
Rinpoche: Many Tibetans, not only masters, just normal people, they are much less afraid to die. I don't know if they have 100% no fear, but they're really less fearful. More ready. More calm. More peaceful. They live with whole families and see dying people and suffering loved ones. Therefore, mostly when older people in Tibet die, I always say their dying looks like a lion. They really know what's happening.
Votaw: Can Americans have a fearless death?
Rinpoche: Very possible. Enlightenment is a way to be free of the birth and the death. Many changes in our life. Nobody have freedom from change. Change is just happening. In Enlightenment, we become free of the change of identity .
The problem with the West is we need two things for Enlightenment. One, we need to use our faith. Two, we need to use our intelligence. But mostly in the West, I don't say everybody, but somehow they don't have faith. I'm born in Tibet where everyone believes in some kind of Buddhism. Nobody need ask you if you believe in Buddhism or not. We build this kind of faith very, very young. Some people in the West don't like to say, "I have a faith." That's the general philosophy of people in the Western World. They need to hide. If you have a status position and have an education, you never say, "I have faith."
Votaw: Describe faith versus intelligence?
Rinpoche: People in the West, in general, are suffering between faith and intelligence. As a result, their end looks like a highway. Everybody drive on the highway. Good people. Bad people, and you have all kind of things happening and then I think you are less calm.
Faith is an emotion. Intelligence has perfect eyes, but emotion has power. Therefore, if we have both, it is best, but we at least need one, either faith or intelligence. Intelligence must come with questions. Faith comes with the answer. You're not satisfied with my answer? No problem. But then you don't have a question with your intelligence. Most of the people are afraid to die because they don't know what to ask. "Don't know" is a really, really painful reason.
In Buddhism, death means not losing. Death means changing. I think we need to make a friend of losing and changing. How you sleep is exactly the same as how you die. How you dream, exactly the same after dead. How you wake up, exactly the same as your birth. Therefore, each 24 hours, we have a small death or small change.
Votaw: Can you make recommendations for New Yorkers seeking fearless death?
Rinpoche: Yes. Yes. Yes. [laughing] Always the people who live in the big cities forget everything. They sometimes forget to eat. They sometimes forget to sleep. They forget everything they do because there is so much rush. Therefore, they forget the most important things. New York is one of the big cities of the world, and I think it is very important to hear about the fearless death because death is one of the most important things that happen in your life. Because death is guaranteed to happen. Death is one big, big question. Death is not happening after your life. Death is happening in your life. And the death is the most important question. Therefore, you must have an answer and hear it many, many times.