The Buddha’s instructions for dealing with the hindrances at the approach of death make most sense when viewed in the context of his teaching about how those currents of the mind influence death and rebirth.
This teaching, in turn, is based on his explanation of kamma and rebirth: that skillful actions tend to lead to good results in this life and the next, while unskillful actions tend to lead to bad results in this life and the next. This means that doubt around accepting the truth of these teachings is the first hindrance you have to deal with.
(AN 4:184) lists doubt about the True Dhamma as one of the major causes for fear and terror at the time of death.
Now, there are many people who’ve never even heard of the True Dhamma, but even they will fear death if they’re unsure about what will happen at death and if they have no firm basis for knowing that their actions can have a positive impact on what they’ll experience before, during, and after their dying moment.
The only true cure for this type of doubt is to have practiced the Dhamma to the point of attaining the first level of awakening, called the arising of the Dhamma eye. That’s when your conviction in the Dhamma has genuinely been confirmed: There is a dimension of experience that isn’t touched by death, and it can be attained through human efforts.
But to practice to gain the Dhamma eye, you first have to have accepted the Buddha’s teachings on kamma and rebirth as working hypotheses on which you base your practice.
When trying to persuade his listeners to take on these hypotheses, the Buddha was very clear on the fact that he couldn’t provide any empirical proof for them, but he did offer pragmatic proofs. One is that you’re more likely to behave skillfully if you accept the fact that skillful actions give positive results. Another is that these teachings open the possibility for higher attainments—such as the deathless—based on skillful actions, which would be closed off if you didn’t accept them.
He also presented these hypotheses as wise wagers: If there is rebirth, and if it is influenced by your actions, you will have kept yourself safe if you’ve acted on these teachings. If there is no rebirth, or if there is rebirth but it’s not affected by your actions, you will at least have behaved honorably in a way that frees you from fear, hostility, and ill will in the present life.
To strengthen your conviction that his teachings on skillful action are true, the Buddha advised that you carefully observe skillful and unskillful mental states as they arise in the mind and influence your actions, noting the results that come from acting on them.
In particular, he recommended developing thoughts of unlimited goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity—the four brahma-vihāras—to observe how they have a good impact on your actions and on your life as a whole.
…the Buddha also recommended these four brahma-vihāras as antidotes to two other hindrances: anxiety over your past mistreatment of others, and any ill will you might have toward people who have been or are mistreating you.
When you’ve followed these instructions heedfully, the Buddha notes that there’s no reason to fear what will happen after death ( AN 4:116 ). This doesn’t totally overcome doubt about the True Dhamma, but it can give a measure of reassurance.
If you pursue the brahma-vihāras to the point of giving rise to strong concentration, that concentration can then become the basis for the development of insight leading to dispassion—and dispassion is what can lead to the arising of the Dhamma eye.
That will put an end to doubt about the True Dhamma once and for all.
This reflection by Ajahn Geoff is from the 2021 Miscellaneous Essays, “Unhindered at Death.”