There are lots of different phowa practices. Mostly they are Amitabha sadhanas. I received one from the Nyingma lineage and also there is one from Naropa's lineage. Amitabha is the special deity that helps in the transfer of consciousness at the time of death. If you don't have any doubt then there aren't many obstacles to being reborn in Amitabha's realm. But even if you are born there, you aren't enlightened. But in Amitabha's realm you can practice. Our realm sometimes has dharma teachings and sometimes does not. But in Amitabha's realm the dharma teaching is continuous. There you don't need to work, things come just by wishing.
King Trisong Deutsen built Samye monastery. He had a minister named Nyima who was a great practitioner of the dharma. One day he took a candle and looked in the basement for something and for his candle lit some dried grass, which burnt down his house and killed all his family except him. Then King Trisong Deutsen, unable to bear the sufferings of his minister, asked Padmasambhava for a practice to overcome his minister's sufferings. So Padmasambhava asked Amitabha for the phowa teachings. He told Yeshe Tsogyal to go to the king and tell him that he had a teaching to help, but he was giving this teaching only to the minister because at this time it would not be beneficial to reveal it to others. The minister was spending his time crying and sleeping and was crippled from inactivity. The minister practiced phowa for seven days and became a realized yogi. He realized that his family that was killed in the house would become his disciples in the future. He had achieved the level of one taste, or the eighth bhumi. The king asked for the phowa teaching for himself, but Padmasambhava told him you already have the teachings to attain enlightenment if you practice them.
So Padmasambhava put the teachings in a golden box and hid them on Peaceful mountain in a lake. He prophesied that In the future a great practitioner also named Nyima will take the teachings from the lake. A famous terton named Nyima brought the teaching from the lake and taught many beings. Nagas live in lakes and are guardians of the teachings, but I don't know which naga lived in that lake. The lineage of that terma spread down through the Drikungpa lineage. The phowa practice is only taught once every twelve years and will be taught next year in Lumbini.
Phowa is the special practice to be used at the time of death. But you cannot do phowa for others until you reach the path of seeing. Maybe you can help a little, but there will be no great benefit. We do not know what the dead person is thinking, so our practice may cause them anger. You can talk to people who are dying about their experience. When fire dissolves into wind, you lose your warmth. When wind dissolves into mind, you cannot breathe. Practice phowa and realize it. After you do this just think about it, until the time of death.
You need to begin any practice with refuge and bodhicitta. The beginning practitioner needs to think of the three jewels as external to themselves. Some say that the main refuge is the Buddha. but he can't take us by the hand to enlightenment. It's necessary for us to practice the dharma. But without Buddha we cannot understand the dharma, because he taught it. Then we practice it and it protects us from samsara. We need the sangha because Buddha passed away 2500 years ago. In Tantra there are three additional refuges: the lama, yidam, and protector as refuge. The lama embodies the three jewels. Where he teaches is the pure land. Marpa manifested a mandala of Chakrasamvara in the sky and asked Naropa if he should prostrate to the deity or the lama. Naropa prostrated to the deity and then dissolved the deity into his heart and said that there was no difference. Tantra is also the quicker path than the sutra, because in Tantra the result is taken as the path. You become the deity and the world becomes the pure land. Bodhicitta combines the mind of compassion and wisdom. The bodhisattva's compassion embodies all who suffer and not just our friends. Thus it is great compassion. The bodhisattva practices for the sake of enlightenment and not the benefit of this life or the next. That is wisdom. That is taking dharma as the path. Whoever has wisdom and compassion is a bodhisattva and a child of the Buddha.
If you have devotion it is not difficult to realize mahamudra. Someone asked me if Tibetan Buddhism has yoga and I said yes, mental yoga. There is also physical yoga, but it is not taught to everyone. You need to understand emptiness. Emptiness is different than nothingness. Here we mean the nature of phenomena is like a dream. It is a little bit difficult to understand. This is called a table but it cannot be found among its parts. Chandrakirti used the example of a chariot. It cannot be found among its parts. It's the same with a car. Emptiness is also interdependence. If we understand cause and result, we understand emptiness. A child cannot exist without parents or the parents without the child. Parent cannot be the cause of the child because they do not arise before the child, but the parents are not parents before there is a child.
If we realize our mind we will see our mind is no different from Buddha. But we have ignorance. Drugpa Kunley was a great crazy yogi. One time he heard someone had died and was asked to carry a corpse to the vultures. He hit the corpse and it walked to the burial ground. Once he was asked for a mantra to chant and he told the person to chant some swear words. But the person chanted faithfully and when he died, he attained the rainbow body. He once prostrated himself before the statue in the Jokhang and said at one point we were the same. But you practiced concentration and attained enlightenment. So I prostrate to the deity who is concentration. The Jewel Ornament says nirvana and samsara have the same nature, but different fruits. We hear that high lamas are incarnations of Buddhas. And we think we cannot do as they do. But they practiced and attained this state. So if we practice we will also be a reincarnation of higher beings. The real three jewels are in us. But we can't see this so we need outer jewels.
If we have love and compassion no obstacles can stop us. Whoever has great virtue cannot be stopped. A Muslim army came and destroyed a Buddhist monastery in India. All the monks fled, and one saw Mahakala fleeing with them. When asked why he was fleeing when he was a protector, Mahakala said now is not the time to protect. Only when we have virtue will we have protection. If we have virtue nothing can stop us. If we do confession, we can reduce karma but there will still be a small stain. Like Angulimala, who became an arhat but was still pelted with stones by common people. So bodhicitta is the best protection. If you meditate on emptiness that is also good protection. That's why we chant the Heart Sutra every morning. The gods in the god realm don't want anyone to be higher than them, so they place obstacles in their path, as Mara did. Any practice has refuge and bodhicitta. If you take them you are on the path to enlightenment. If you practice bodhicitta, you are on the path to Buddhahood.
When you dream, you don't realize it. Right now it's like we are in a dream and don't see the nature of phenomena. They are unborn and will not perish. Any form will be born, abide, and perish. But if they are not born, they will not abide and perish. That is how things are. Great compassion and appearance-emptiness are the two aspects of bodhicitta. The Buddhas have realized nirvana, but because of their compassion they manifest as sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya. Shakyamuni is a nirmanakaya, but he had realized the dharmakaya. Arhats see the truth, but remain in cessation for aeons. Buddhas do not remain thee, because suffering beings are like their children. If you have good karma and faith, you can see Buddha. Lots of people think Dalai Lama is special, but a few think he is no good. When I was in Lama Samten's center in San Diego, a person said you aren't seeing the negative things about the Dalai Lama. Every being has some negative. Our mind projects our own qualities on others. To see the sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya, we need good karma.
In the Amitabha sadhana you manifest on a lotus, sun and moon seat as four armed Avalokiteshvara. The four arms symbolize the four immeasurables of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. The form is not solid, but like light. In front of us in the sky a peacock throne with a lotus and moon seat. The moon symbolizes the cooling of the heat of desire. A red syllable HRI is on the moon disk. The light goes out to all being and when it returns, manifests as Amitabha. He holds a bowl filled with wisdom nectar. He is wearing the three robes of a monk. These three robes are the lower, upper under robe and upper outer robe. The Buddha allowed his monks to wear blue, red, and yellow clothes. Vajrapani and Avalokiteshvara stand on either side of Amitabha. They are further surrounded by a crowd of bodhisattvas and arhats. You say the mantra DZA HUNG BAM HO. DZA is a hook, HUNG is a noose, it is said to bring the deities down. If you have trouble visualizing a deity, just visualize their seed syllables. The samaya being is what we visualize. The wisdom being is what we invite from the Pure Land. In Amitabha's heart is a tiny HRI surrounded by his mantra OM AMI DEWA HRI. Visualizing this world as a pure land during the practice is very important. A woman I knew in Tibet who was blind got her eyesight back from reciting this mantra. When you repeat a mantra, sing it if you become sleepy and recite it when you become too agitated. At the conclusion of the mantra, all beings dissolve into the Amitabha in front of us. Then four lights radiate from Amitabha into our four centers, of forehead (white, body, nirmanakaya), throat (red, speech, sambhogakaya), heart (blue, mind, dharmakaya), and navel (yellow, all three, but subtle, svabhavikaya). EH MA HO is happy astonishment. It is realizing the qualities of the lama and then becoming nondual.