When Mordy Levine, a longtime practitioner of Buddhist meditation, turned 60 five years ago, he found himself struggling with the inevitability of death. As he searched for a teacher to guide him on understanding the Buddhist perspective on death, Levine connected with Lama Lhanang Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who was born and raised in Tibet and now lives and teaches in Southern California. Levine and Lama Lhanang Rinpoche are now president and director, respectively, of Jigme Lingpa Center in San Diego. Together they investigated the classic text known in English as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, believed to date to the 8th century. They spoke to PW about their new book, The Tibetan Book of the Dead for Beginners: A Guide to Living and Dying (June 27), the relationship between death and joy, and the peace of being prepared for death. Publisher Sounds True is launching it with a 35,000-copy announced first printing.

Why is this book “for beginners"?

Levine: Unless you have been studying Buddhism, specifically Tibetan Buddhism, for many years, it's going to be very difficult to understand an English translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. What it has to offer is priceless, invaluable, but not accessible. We wanted to take the core themes from the book, and bring that to your everyday person, regardless of whether they're Buddhist or not.

You devote the first chapter of your book to the Eastern religious concept of karma. What is karma, and why is it misunderstood in the West?

Levine: To most Americans, karma is like, if I have something bad to eat, two hours from now, my stomach hurts. We call it the law of cause and effect. But karma is actually based upon motivation and intention. If my motivation to do something is self-centered, that creates negative karma. If my motivation is to help someone else, that creates good karma. Most people don't understand that (if they were motivated by good intentions) the world would be a much more beautiful, pleasant place to live.

What does Tibetan Buddhism teach about the relationship between joy and death?

Lama Lhanang Rinpoche: If you really enjoy your life fully, with joy, then the moment of death comes to you like, "I'm going to die, but I'm so happy. I'm ready.” There's a happiness of appreciating your life, your joy, and peace in your journey of death.

Levine: Let's say I'm really angry right now. Well, guess what? In a minute or two, I'm probably still going to be angry. Now, I'm very happy. If I train my mind to be in this moment, chances are that in the next moment, I'll also be happy. The same is true at the moment of death. If we live a happy life, we'll go into the next moment being happy and joyful as well. If we walk around angry, anxious, upset, or jealous, then when the moment of death comes, then that's how our state of mind is going to be at that moment as well. It's not like [life and death] are two different things. It's a continuum that we're living from moment to moment, even as we walk through the doors between life and death.