Contemplation and meditation on death and impermanence are regarded as very important in Buddhism for two reasons : (1) it is only by recognising how precious and how short life is that we are most likely to make it meaningful and to live it fully and (2) by understanding the death process and familiarizing ourself with it, we can remove fear at the time of death and ensure a good rebirth.
Because the way in which we live our lives and our state of mind at death directly influence our future lives, it is said that the aim or mark of a spiritual practitioner is to have no fear or regrets at the time of death. People who practice to the best of their abilities will die, it is said, in a state of great bliss. The mediocre practitioner will die happily. Even the initial practitioner will have neither fear nor dread at the time of death. So one should aim at achieving at least the smallest of these results.
There are two common meditations on death in the Tibetan tradition. The first looks at the certainty and imminence of death and what will be of benefit at the time of death, in order to motivate us to make the best use of our lives. The second is a simulation or rehearsal of the actual death process, which familiarizes us with death and takes away the fear of the unknown, thus allowing us to die skilfully. Traditionally, in Buddhist countries, one is also encouraged to go to a cemetery or burial ground to contemplate on death and become familiar with this inevitable event.
The first of these meditations is known as the nine-round death meditation, in which we contemplate the three roots, the nine reasonings, and the three convictions, as described below:
A. DEATH IS CERTAIN
1. There is no possible way to escape death. No-one ever has, not even Jesus, Buddha, etc. Of the current world population of over 5 billion people, almost none will be alive in 100 years time.
2. Life has a definite, inflexible limit and each moment brings us closer to the finality of this life. We are dying from the moment we are born.
3. Death comes in a moment and its time is unexpected. All that separates us from the next life is one breath.
Conviction: To practise the spiritual path and ripen our inner potential by cultivating positive mental qualities and abandoning disturbing mental qualities.
B. THE TIME OF DEATH IS UNCERTAIN
4. The duration of our lifespan is uncertain. The young can die before the old, the healthy before the sick, etc.
5. There are many causes and circumstances that lead to death, but few that favour the sustenance of life.
Even things that sustain life can kill us, for example food, motor vehicles, property.
6. The weakness and fragility of one’s physical body contribute to life’s uncertainty.
The body can be easily destroyed by disease or accident, for example cancer, AIDS, vehicle accidents, other disasters.
Conviction: To ripen our inner potential now, without delay.
C. THE ONLY THING THAT CAN HELP US AT THE TIME OF DEATH IS OUR MENTAL/SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT
(because all that goes on to the next life is our mind with its karmic (positive or negative) imprints.)
7. Worldly possessions such as wealth, position, money can’t help
8. Relatives and friends can neither prevent death nor go with us.
9. Even our own precious body is of no help to us. We have to leave it behind like a shell, an empty husk, an overcoat.
Conviction: To ripen our inner potential purely, without staining our efforts with attachment to worldly concerns.
The second meditation simulates or rehearses the actual death process. Knowledge of this process is particularly important because advanced practitioners can engage in a series of yogas that are modelled on death, intermediate state (Tibetan: bar-do) and rebirth until they gain such control over them that they are no longer subject to ordinary uncontrolled death and rebirth.
It is therefore essential for the practitioner to know the stages of death and the mind-body relationship behind them. The description of this is based on a presentation of the winds, or currents of energy, that serve as foundations for various levels of consciousness, and the channels in which they flow. Upon the serial collapse of the ability of these winds to serve as bases of consciousness, the internal and external events of death unfold. Through the power of meditation, the yogi makes the coarse winds dissolve into the very subtle life-bearing wind at the heart. This yoga mirrors the process that occurs at death and involves concentration on the psychic channels and the channel-centres (chakras) inside the body.
At the channel-centres there are white and red drops, upon which physical and mental health are based. The white is predominant at the top of the head and the red at the solar plexus. These drops have their origin in a white and red drop at the heart centre, and this drop is the size of a small pea and has a white top and red bottom. It is called the indestructible drop, since it lasts until death. The very subtle life-bearing wind dwells inside it and, at death, all winds ultimately dissolve into it, whereupon the clear light vision of death dawns.
The physiology of death revolves around changes in the winds, channels and drops. Psychologically, due to the fact that consciousnesses of varying grossness and subtlety depend on the winds, like a rider on a horse, their dissolving or loss of ability to serve as bases of consciousness induces radical changes in conscious experience.
Death begins with the sequential dissolution of the winds associated with the four elements (earth, water, fire and air). “Earth” refers to the hard factors of the body such as bone, and the dissolution of the wind associated with it means that that wind is no longer capable of serving as a mount or basis for consciousness. As a consequence of its dissolution, the capacity of the wind associated with “water” (the fluid factors of the body) to act as a mount for consciousness becomes more manifest. The ceasing of this capacity in one element and its greater manifestation in another is called “dissolution” – it is not, therefore, a case of gross earth dissolving into water.
Simultaneously with the dissolution of the earth element, four other factors dissolve (see Chart 1), accompanied by external signs (generally visible to others) and an internal sign (the inner experience of the dying person). The same is repeated in serial order for the other three elements (see Charts 2-4), with corresponding external and internal signs.
CHART 1: FIRST CYCLE OF SIMULTANEOUS DISSOLUTION
body becomes very thin, limbs loose; sense that body is sinking under the earth
aggregate of forms
limbs become smaller, body becomes weak and powerless
basic mirror-like wisdom (our ordinary consciousness that clearly perceives many objects simultaneously)
sight becomes unclear and dark
appearance of mirages
one cannot open or close eyes
colours and shapes
lustre of body diminishes; one’s strength is consumed
CHART 2: SECOND CYCLE OF SIMULTANEOUS DISSOLUTION
saliva, sweat, urine, blood and regenerative fluid dry greatly
aggregate of feelings (pleasure, pain and neutrality)
body consciousness can no longer experience the three types of feelings that accompany sense consciousnesses
basic wisdom of equality (our ordinary consciousness mindful of pleasure, pain and neutral feelings as feelings)
one is no longer mindful of the feelings accompanying the mental consciousness
appearance of smoke
one no longer hears external or internal sounds
‘ur’ sound in ears no longer arises
CHART 3: THIRD CYCLE OF SIMULTANEOUS DISSOLUTION
one cannot digest food or drink
aggregate of discrimination
one is no longer mindful of affairs of close persons
basic wisdom of analysis (our ordinary consciousness mindful of the individual names, purposes and so forth of close persons)
one can no longer remember the names of close persons
appearance of fireflies or sparks within smoke
inhalation weak, exhalation strong and lengthy
one cannot smell
CHART 4: FOURTH CYCLE OF SIMULTANEOUS DISSOLUTION
the ten winds move to heart; inhalation and exhalation ceases
aggregate of compositional factors
one cannot perform physical actions
basic wisdom of achieving activities (our ordinary consciousness mindful of external activities, purposes and so forth)
one is no longer mindful of external worldly activities, purposes and so forth
appearance of a sputtering butter-lamp about to go out
tongue becomes thick and short; root of tongue becomes blue
one cannot experience tastes
body sense and tangible objects
one cannot experience smoothness or roughness
CHART 5: FIFTH TO EIGTH CYCLES OF DISSOLUTION
Cause of appearance
winds in right and left channels above heart enter central channel at top of head
at first, burning butter-lamp; then, clear vacuity filled with white light
mind of white appearance
winds in right and left channels below heart enter central channel at base of spine
very clear vacuity filled with red light
mind of red increase
upper and lower winds gather at heart; then winds enter drop at heart
at first, vacuity filled with thick darkness; then as if swooning unconsciously
mind of black near-attainment
all winds dissolve into the very subtle life-bearing wind in the indestructible drop at the heart
very clear vacuity free of the white, red and black appearances – the mind of clear light of death
(The above charts are taken from “Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism” by Lati Rinbochay and Jeffrey Hopkins)
Upon the inception of the fifth cycle the mind begins to dissolve, in the sense that coarser types cease and subtler minds become manifest. First, conceptuality ceases, dissolving into a mind of white appearance. This subtler mind, to which only a vacuity filled by white light appears, is free from coarse conceptuality. It, in turn, dissolves into a heightened mind of red appearance, which then dissolves into a mind of black appearance. At this point all that appears is a vacuity filled by blackness, during which the person eventually becomes unconscious. In time this is cleared away, leaving a totally clear emptiness (the mind of clear light) free from the white, red and black appearances (see Chart 5). This is the final vision of death.
This description of the various internal visions correlates closely with the literature on the near-death experience. People who have had a near-death experience often describe leaving darkness (for example a black tunnel) and going towards a brilliant, peaceful, loving light. A comprehensive study comparing death and near-death experiences of Tibetans and Euro-Americans has shown many similarities between the two (Carr, 1993). Care must be taken though in such comparisons because the near-death experience is not actual death, that is, the consciousness permanently leaving the body.
Since the outer breath ceased some time before (in the fourth cycle), from this point of view the point of actual death is related not to the cessation of the outer breath but to the appearance of the mind of clear light. A person can remain in this state of lucid vacuity for up to three days, after which (if the body has not been ravaged by illness) the external sign of drops of red or white liquid emerging from the nose and sexual organ occur, indicating the departure of consciousness.
Other signs of the consciousness leaving the body are 1) when all heat has left the area of the heart centre (in the centre of the chest), 2) the body starts to smell or decompose, 3) a subtle awareness that the consciousness has left and the body has become like ‘an empty shell’, 4) a slumping of the body in a practitioner who has been sitting in meditation after the stopping of the breath. Buddhists generally prefer that the body not be removed for disposal before one or more of these signs occur, because until then the consciousness is still in the body and any violent handling of it may disturb the end processes of death. A Buddhist monk or nun or friend should ideally be called in before the body is moved in order for the appropriate prayers and procedures to be carried out.
When the clear light vision ceases, the consciousness leaves the body and passes through the other seven stages of dissolution (black near-attainment, red increase etc.) in reverse order. As soon as this reverse process begins the person is reborn into an intermediate state between lives, with a subtle body that can go instantly wherever it likes, move through solid objects etc., in its journey to the next place of rebirth.
The intermediate state can last from a moment to seven days, depending on whether or not a suitable birthplace is found. If one is not found the being undergoes a “small death”, experiencing the eight signs of death as previously described (but very briefly). He/she then again experiences the eight signs of the reverse process and is reborn in a second intermediate state. This can happen for a total of seven births in the intermediate state (making a total of forty-nine days) during which a place of rebirth must be found.
The “small death” that occurs between intermediate states or just prior to taking rebirth is compared to experiencing the eight signs (from the mirage-like vision to the clear light) when going into deep sleep or when coming out of a dream. Similarly also, when entering a dream or when awakening from sleep the eight signs of the reverse process are experienced.
These states of increasing subtlety during death and of increasing grossness during rebirth are also experienced in fainting and orgasm as well as before and after sleeping and dreaming, although not in complete form. It is this great subtlety and clarity of the mind during the death process that makes it so valuable to use for advanced meditation practices, and why such emphasis is put on it in Buddhism. Advanced practitioners will often stay in the clear light meditation for several days after the breathing has stopped, engaging in these advanced meditations, and can achieve liberation at this time.
The Buddhist view is that each living being has a continuity or stream of consciousness that moves from one life to the next. Each being has had countless previous lives and will continue to be reborn again and again without control unless he/she develops his/her mind to the point where, like the yogis mentioned above, he/she gains control over this process. When the stream of consciousness or mind moves from one life to the next it brings with it the karmic imprints or potentialities from previous lives. Karma literally means “action”, and all of the actions of body, speech and mind leave an imprint on the mind-stream. These karmas can be negative, positive or neutral, depending on the action. They can ripen at any time in the future, whenever conditions are suitable. These karmic seeds or imprints are never lost.
At the time of death (clear light stage) the consciousness (very subtle mind) leaves the body and the person takes the body of an intermediate state being. They are in the form that they will take in their next life (some texts say the previous life), but in a subtle rather than a gross form. As mentioned previously, it can take up to forty-nine days to find a suitable place of rebirth. This rebirth is propelled by karma and is uncontrolled. In effect the karma of the intermediate state being matches that of its future parents. The intermediate state being has the illusory appearance of its future parents copulating. It is drawn to this place by the force of attraction to its parent of the opposite sex, and it is this desire that causes the consciousness of the intermediate state being to enter the fertilized ovum. This happens at or near the time of conception and the new life has begun.
One will not necessarily be reborn as a human being. Buddhists describe six realms of existence that one can be reborn into, these being the hell realms, the preta (hungry ghost) realm, the animal realm, the human realm, the jealous god (asura) realm and the god (sura) realms. One’s experience in these situations can range from intense suffering in the hell realms to unimaginable pleasures in the god realms. But all of these levels of existence are regarded as unsatisfactory by the spiritual practitioner because no matter how high one goes within this cyclic existence, one may one day fall down again to the lower realms of existence. So the aim of the spiritual practitioner is to develop his/her mind to the extent where a stop is put to this uncontrolled rebirth, as mentioned previously. The practitioner realises that all six levels of existence are ultimately in the nature of suffering, so wishes to be free of them forever.
The state of mind at the time of death is regarded as extremely important, because this plays a vital part in the situation one is reborn into. This is one reason why suicide is regarded in Buddhism as very unfortunate, because the state of mind of the person who commits suicide is usually depressed and negative and is likely to throw them into a lower rebirth. Also, it doesn’t end the suffering, it just postpones it to another life.
When considering the spiritual care of the dying, it can be helpful to divide people into several different categories, because the category they are in will determine the most useful approach to use. These categories are: 1) whether the person is conscious or unconscious, and 2) whether they have a religious belief or not. In terms of the first category, if the person is conscious they can do the practices themselves or someone can assist them, but if they are unconscious someone has to do the practices for them. For the second category, if a person has specific religious beliefs, these can be utilised to help them. If they do not, they still need to be encouraged to have positive/virtuous thoughts at the time of death, such as reminding them of positive things they have done during their life.
For a spiritual practitioner, it is helpful to encourage them to have thoughts such as love, compassion, remembering their spiritual teacher. It is beneficial also to have an image in the room of Jesus, Mary, Buddha, or some other spiritual figure that may have meaning for the dying person. It may be helpful for those who are with the dying person to say some prayers, recite mantras etc. – this could be silent or aloud, whatever seems most appropriate.
However, one needs to be very sensitive to the needs of the dying person. The most important thing is to keep the mind of the person happy and calm. Nothing should be done (including certain spiritual practices) if this causes the person to be annoyed or irritated. There is a common conception that it is good to read “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” to the dying person, but if he/she is not familiar with the particular deities and practices contained in it, then this is not likely to prove very beneficial.
Because the death process is so important, it is best not to disturb the dying person with noise or shows of emotion. Expressing attachment and clinging to the dying person can disturb the mind and therefore the death process, so it is more helpful to mentally let the person go, to encourage them to move on to the next life without fear. It is important not to deny death or to push it away, just to be with the dying person as fully and openly as possible, trying to have an open and deep sharing of the person’s fear, pain, joy, love, etc.
As mentioned previously, when a person is dying, their mind becomes much more subtle, and they are more open to receiving mental messages from those people close to them. So silent communication and prayer can be very helpful. It is not necessary to talk much. The dying person can be encouraged to let go into the light, into God’s love etc. (again, this can be verbal or mental).
It can be very helpful to encourage the dying person to use breathing meditation – to let go of the thoughts and concentrate on the movement of the breath. This can be helpful for developing calmness, for pain control, for acceptance, for removing fear. It can help the dying person to get in touch with their inner stillness and peace and come to terms with their death. This breathing technique can be especially useful when combined with a mantra, prayer, or affirmation (i.e. half on the in-breath, half on the out-breath).
One of the Tibetan lamas, Sogyal Rinpoche, says that for up to about twenty-one days after a person dies they are more connected to the previous life than to the next one. So for this period in particular the loved ones can be encouraged to continue their (silent) communication with the deceased person – to say their good-byes, finish any unfinished business, reassure the dead person, encourage them to let go of their old life and to move on to the next one. It can be reassuring even just to talk to the dead person and at some level to know that they are probably receiving your message. The mind of the deceased person at this stage can still be subtle and receptive.
For the more adept practitioners there is also the method of transference of consciousness at the time of death (Tibetan: po-wa). With training, at the time of death, the practitioner can project his mind upwards from his heart centre through his crown directly to one of the Buddha pure realms, or at least to a higher rebirth. Someone who has perfected this training can also assist others at the time of death to project their mind to a good rebirth.
It is believed that if the consciousness leaves the body of the dead person through the crown or from a higher part of the body, it is likely to result in a good type of rebirth. Conversely, if the consciousness leaves from a lower part of the body this is likely to result in rebirth in one of the lower realms. For this reason, when a person dies it is believed that the first part of the body that should be touched is the crown. The crown is located about eight finger widths (of the person being measured) back from the (original) hairline. To rub or tap this area or gently pull the crown hair after a person dies is regarded as very beneficial and may well help the person to obtain a higher rebirth. Their are special blessed pills (po-wa pills) that can be placed on the crown after death which also facilitates this process.
Once the consciousness has left the body (which, as mentioned earlier, can take up to three days) it doesn’t matter how the body is disposed of or handled (including the carrying out of a post-mortem examination) because in effect it has just become an empty shell. However, if the body is disposed of before the consciousness has left, this will obviously be very disturbing for the person who is going through the final stages of psychological dissolution.
This raises the question of whether or not it is advisable to donate one’s organs after dying. The usual answer given by the Tibetan lamas to this question is that if the wish to donate one’s organs is done with the motivation of compassion, then any disturbance to the death process that this causes is far outweighed by the positive karma that one is creating by this act of giving. It is another way in which one can die with a positive and compassionate mind.
A Tibetan tradition which is becoming more popular in the West is to get part of the remains of the deceased (e.g. ashes, hair, nails) blessed and then put into statues, tsa-tsas (Buddha images made of clay or plaster) or stupas (reliquary monuments representing the Buddha’s body, speech and mind). These stupas for instance could be kept in the person’s home, larger ones could be erected in a memorial garden. Making offerings to these or circumambulating them and so on is regarded as highly meritorious, both for the person who has died and for the loved ones.
There are also rituals for caring for the dead, for guiding the dead person through the intermediate state into a good rebirth. Such a ritual is “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”, more correctly titled “Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo”.
(Revised January 1995)
Carr, Christopher Death and Near-Death: A Comparison of Tibetan and Euro-American Experiences, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1993, Vol 25, No 1 pp 59-110
Fremantle, Francesca and Chogyam Trungpa The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo, Shambhala, Boulder and London, 1975
(or the excellent new translation by Robert A.F. Thurman, Aquarian Press, London,1994)
Kapleau, Philip The Wheel of Life and Death, Doubleday, New York, 1989
Rinbochay, Lati and Jeffrey Hopkins Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism, Rider & Co, London, 1979
Levine, Stephen Healing Into Life and Death, Anchor Press/Doubleday, New York, 1987
Levine, Stephen Who Dies, Anchor Press/Doubleday, New York, 1982
Mackenzie, Vicki Reincarnation: The Boy Lama, Bloomsbury, London, 1988
Mackenzie, Vicki Reborn in the West: The Reincarnation Masters, Bloomsbury, London, 1995
Mullin, Glenn H. Death and Dying: The Tibetan Tradition, Arkana, London, 1986
Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Rider, London, 1992