Yet to merge the ancient wisdom of Tibet with modern research into death and dying is rather like trying to blend Donne's Devotions 'upon emergent occasions in my sickness' with the processes of a life-support machine or, at best, the counselling of such thanatologists as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Granted, Buddhism can be a more than usually fluid and hospitable religion. In his introduction to the 1927 English version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup suggested that the work conformed with physiological and psychological experience and is therefore 'in the main, scientific'. Perhaps the claim is unwise; the mystical and the medical are both perfectly legitimate, but in forced assimilation one of them is likely to get damaged or devalued.
The advice on awakening compassion may strike us as contrived. A lonely old woman carrying heavy bags, a boy on crutches trying to cross a busy road - we mustn't waste the love and grief that these sights inspire, but 'use that quick, bright uprush of compassion', and develop and deepen it. Nothing is actually said about helping the unfortunates. The only specific references to intervention are starkly emblematic: the saint licking maggots off a dog with his tongue so as not to hurt them, and the Buddha, in a previous life, yielding his body to a starving tigress and her cubs (said to have been reborn as his first disciples). Conceivably karma, the law of cause and effect, conflicts with efforts to improve the well-earned lot of others. Yet wouldn't such efforts rightfully enhance the benefactor's next incarnation?
'Death is neither depressing nor exciting; it is simply a fact of life.' Karma understandably plays no part in the recommended practices for helping the dying or consoling the bereaved - indeed, the Dalai Lama has warned that if the dying are not Buddhists the Tibetan Book of the Dead could agitate their minds and do harm - although Rinpoche proposes that hospital staff should spare the patient from attempts at resuscitation and subsequently leave the body undisturbed for as long as possible. 'The quality of the atmosphere around us when we die is crucial'; cf Samuel Johnson: 'It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives.'
Rinpoche is humane, eloquent and well versed in European writing. What his book suffers from is repetition, excess of explanation and of case histories and near-death experiences. It runs to 360 pages as against the 110 of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in its English avatar; and that the latter makes few concessions renders it more readily comprehensible, by capturing the imagination rather than engaging the reason. It may be that the pleasure the West takes in Zen anecdotes is specious or misconceived, but where Rinpoche scores is in deflatory stories like the one about the master who sat on a pin, yelled 'Ouch]', and jumped in the air. His disciple, hitherto reverent if nave, thereupon lost all faith in him and departed. 'Alas, poor man]' said the master: 'If only he had known that in reality neither me, nor the pin, nor the 'ouch' really existed.'