A Buddhist perspective on the emotional, spiritual and practical aspects of preparing for your own death
Prepared by Wheel of Life Palliative Care Support Group, Hayagriva Buddhist Centre, 64 Banksia Terrace, Kensington WA 6151, phone (08) 9367 4817, contact us
- Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche on Preparing for Death
- Impermanence (Ven. Thubten Dondrub)
- The Disadvantages of Not Thinking About Death (Ven. Thubten Dondrub)
- The Nine-Part Meditation on Death (Ven. Thubten Dondrub)
- Life, Death and After Death (Lama Thubten Yeshe)
- Om Ah Hung Meditation on the Consciousness (Lama Thubten Yeshe)
- How to Make Your Life Meaningful (Ven. Choden Rinpoche)
- Notes from the Book Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life by His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Preparing to Die; Meditating While Dying; The Eight Phases of the Dissolution; Channels, Winds & Essential Drops; the Clear Light of Death; the Intermediate State; Taking a Positive Rebirth
- The Four Tasks of Living and Dying (Kathleen McDonald)
Kathleen McDonald (Ven. Sangye Khadro) in her 2003 booklet Preparing For Death and Helping the Dying – A Buddhist Perspective gives this wonderful introduction to why we need to prepare now for our own death: Death is a subject that most people do not like to hear about, talk about, or even think about. Why is this? After all, whether we like it or not, each and every one of us will have to die one day. And even before we have to face our own death, we will most probably have to face the deaths of other people—our family members, friends, colleagues, and so forth. Death is a reality, a fact of life, so wouldn’t it be better to approach it with openness and acceptance, rather than fear and denial?
Perhaps the discomfort we have towards death is because we think it will be a terrible, painful and depressing experience. However, it doesn’t have to be so. Dying can be a time of learning and growth; a time of deepening our love, our awareness of what is important in life, and our faith and commitment to spiritual beliefs and practices. Death can even be an opportunity to gain insight into the true nature of ourselves and all things, an insight that will enable us to become free from all suffering.
Let’s take the example of Inta McKimm, the director of a Buddhist centre in Brisbane, Australia. Inta died of lung cancer in August, 1997. Two months before her death she wrote in a letter to her Spiritual Teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche: “Although I am dying, this is the happiest time of my life!…. For a long time life seemed so hard, so difficult. But when really recognizing death it turned into the greatest happiness. I wouldn’t want anyone to miss out on their own death, the great happiness that comes with having recognized impermanence and death. This is quite surprising and unexpected, and extremely joyful. It is the greatest happiness of my whole life, the greatest adventure and the greatest party!”
Inta spent the last few months of her life dedicating herself to spiritual practice. At the time of her death her mind was peaceful, and she was surrounded by family and friends praying for her. There are many similar stories of Lamas, monks, nuns and spiritual practitioners who are able to face death with serenity and dignity, and in some cases are even able to remain in a state of meditation during and after their death. With the proper training and preparation, a peaceful and positive death is possible for each and every one of us.
If you would like to discuss these topics with others in an informal atmosphere, consult the Latest News webpage of Wheel of Life for the dates and times of upcoming Wheel of Life Palliative Care Support Group workshops at the Hayagriva Buddhist Centre.
Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche on Preparing for Death
As we are told again and again to be prepared for any eventuality, I would like to share the following story with you. While we were in Israel, and after some five days of diarrhea, Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche was not feeling well and it became obvious that we had to go the hospital to run some more serious tests. While undergoing various checks and answering general medical questions, we noticed that there was a commotion and everybody seamed to be glued to the TV screen that was reporting some sort of news bulletin. We could see from peoples’ faces that something serious was happening so I asked someone to translate the news to me. I was told that within the last 6 hours Israeli airplanes had started bombing the southern suburbs of Beirut and in effect war was declared between Israel and Lebanon.
I started wondering whether I should let Rinpoche and Alak know straight away, given Rinpoche’s delicate condition, or whether I should wait until all tests were completed and then find a proper time to discuss the news. The situation was developing rapidly because we were very close to the border and the hospital was put on high alert. At the same time the doctor told us that the blood tests indicated that there was something more serious than diarrhea and we were advised to have more tests done. I quickly made the decision to inform Rinpoche and Alak straight away and then made the recommendation that we try to do these tests in a hospital further down the south, putting some distance between us and the Lebanese border. Within the next 24 hours, Rinpoche was told that he had a large tumor in his liver and that southern Beirut was almost destroyed.
A couple of days later Rinpoche said this to Alak and myself: “You should always be prepared. You never know where you will be in the next 6 hours. These Israeli pilots who were asked to bomb Beirut at such short notice were only able to do it because of their previous training. As Buddhists, we have to be prepared for death. Look at my case for example: I thought I came to the hospital to treat a simple case of diarrhea and now I am told that I have advanced liver cancer. Like an Israeli pilot, I do not know where I will be in the next 6 hours. But if I am prepared, then I can go anywhere. It is very important to train and prepare yourself for the time of your own death. Then, it will be easy to go at short notice.”
Delhi, 18 October 2006 (extracts from FPMTs Mandala magazine)
If you would like to discuss these topics with others in an informal atmosphere, consult the Latest News webpage of Wheel of Life for the dates and times of upcoming Wheel of Life Palliative Care Support Group workshops at the Hayagriva Buddhist Centre.
From notes taken at Ven.Thubten Dondrub’s teachings of 24 July 2003 and 10 Feb 2006 at Hayagriva Buddhist Centre
Impermanence: The worldly view is that thinking about death will make you miserable. But thinking about death from the Buddhist point of view is extremely beneficial.
To be aware, to experience, to feel that all things are impermanent is very liberating. Impermanence is a truth. To deny that all things are impermanent is a source of suffering. We know intellectually that we will die, but we don’t experience this deeply, emotionally. I cannot say absolutely that I will reach home tonight before I die. But it is definite that I will die. To live every moment with this awareness of death is very liberating.
Thinking about impermanence and death is an antidote to the disturbing thoughts. Everything we experience is impermanent. Realizing this helps us to liberate us from our obsession with the things of this life. We wouldn’t get so angry, as what upsets us will pass. We wouldn’t get so attached to beautiful things as they will change and decay.
Attachment: The Buddhist meaning is that attachment exaggerates the quality of a thing, sees the thing as permanent and self-existent. Ignorance gives rise to attachment which in turn gives rise to anger. Attachment must be eradicated to achieve enlightenment. Meditating on impermanence helps to conquer attachment.
Permanent: In Buddhism, it means not changing moment by moment.
Impermanence means changing, and decaying, moment by moment. “Gross impermanence” is seen in growing old, rusting away, flowers wilting and dying, fermentation. “Space”, where space is the absence of obstruction, is permanent as is shunyata. Everything else is impermanent, including pain, jealousy, anger, pride, etc. The basis for gross impermanence is “subtle impermanence” the moment by moment change (and decay) of things. There is no magic cure. The magic is in accepting this and using the mind to deal with it.
All the things that display gross impermanence have come into existence due to causes and conditions. Everything that arises dependent on causes and conditions is impermanent. The reason things decay is causes and conditions, the same reason they came into existence. The decay is irreversible. Although we may understand this at an intellectual level, we deny it at an emotional level. Buddhists use the terms “compounded phenomena”, “other-powered phenomena” and “products” to describe things created by causes and conditions. Nothing has the power to remain the same from its own side. All the power for its survival comes from things other than itself, other causes and conditions. Things exist due the power of other things, the things that created it.
The fact that something is born, created or produced is the reason it will die. The mere fact that we build a wall is the reason it will fall down. Ven. Dondrub used the example of striking a gong. Things decay because they were produced by causes and conditions. There is no other reason. There is no need for another reason.
We can be attached to things past, to the memories of a loved one. This can be a source of suffering. It is natural to die and to die at any time. Therefore, we need to prepare ourselves right now. What is the use of getting attached to something that will decay? You can enjoy it, but you can’t make it stay like it is forever.
If you would like to discuss these topics with others in an informal atmosphere, consult the Latest News webpage of Wheel of Life for the dates and times of upcoming Wheel of Life Palliative Care Support Group workshops at the Hayagriva Buddhist Centre.
The Disadvantages of Not Thinking About Death
From notes taken at Ven. Thubten Dondrub’s teaching of 17 July 2003 and 3 Feb 06 at Hayagriva Buddhist Centre
The worldly view is that thinking about death will make you miserable. But thinking about death from the Buddhist point of view is extremely beneficial.
To be aware, to experience, to feel that all things are impermanent is very liberating. Impermanence is a truth. To deny that all things are impermanent is a source of suffering. We know intellectually that we will die, but we don’t experience this deeply, emotionally. I cannot say absolutely that I will reach home tonight before I die. But it is definite that I will die. To live every moment with this awareness of death is very liberating.
By having not just an awareness but also a deep realization of death, we can change our whole perspective of how we view ourselves and the world. The reason for teaching about death is to turn our mind towards virtuous things, the Dharma, and to stop wasting our lives doing ordinary things that won’t make us happy. Thinking about death should develop a kind of “fear” of death, a wise fear, a positive fear that will cause us to do positive things and so stop wasting this life. Most people who have had a near-death experience become more compassionate, more loving, less interested in worldly things. Even if we are suffering now, the Dharma allows us to make sense of our suffering. What we should be frightened of is dying without leading a meaningful life.
We should want to be able to face death courageously and to achieve a good rebirth. The last moment of waking consciousness of this life is a key determinant of our rebirth, because in the next moment there is the next life. If the last moment is virtuous, it is a condition for good karma to ripen, leading to a good rebirth. But only you can control your mind at the time of your death.
There is continuity from the last moment of this life to the first moment of the next. The way we live is normally the way we die. And the way we die is the way we will be reborn. Therefore, the best course of action is to live a virtuous life, from moment to moment, and to ready for death. It is unlikely that you will change on your deathbed.
Everything arises from our mind. Once our mind leaves our body, we no longer have any experience of this world. We tend to think that suffering impinges on us from outside, that it is other people, or the government or the weather that cause us to suffer. But the root cause is our own mind. If this is true, the main thing to do is to change our mind. To do that we need a reliable, pure, perfect, unbetrayable method. Mind is formless; it is not physical, but like “space” in that it is real but insubstantial. Therefore, it cannot be destroyed but goes on and on. So we can go on forever in suffering, or we can change our mind so that we experience more and more happiness. When we chase after external stuff we disturb the mind, we agitate it. Taking care of our mind is the most important thing in life – and at the time of death.
What is a “peaceful death”? No one really knows whether the dying person’s mind was peaceful, especially if drugs were used to relieve pain. What happens in a sudden accident? If we practise diligently, the chances of dying in an accident decrease.
We have this amazingly precious human rebirth which it would be a tragedy to waste. It is so rare. We weren’t born to do limited things like watching football. We have the optimum conditions to take control of our life and to get a good rebirth.
The Six Disadvantages of Not Thinking About Death
1. We waste this life doing ordinary things. Eating expensive, gourmet meals has no more ultimate significance than a cow eating grass. The food goes in one end and the residue comes out the other. The worldly mind embellishes the ritual of eating taking it to ridiculous lengths e.g. the New York restaurant that only serves caviar from gold knives. We pretend this is meaningful, but in the context of dying any moment, it is a waste. If we spend so much time on food and eating, we don’t have time to practice the dharma. Because of the prevailing mentality of “easy-happy-now” we don’t like confronting what is difficult, not immediately satisfying or comes to fruition in the future. We fear the immediate suffering of pain, but not the causes of that suffering. We seek gratification in the outside world. Ven. Dondrub was in a train in Italy where every passenger was using a mobile phone, except one lady who was holding two mobile phones, one in each hand, waiting for a call, waiting for happiness to ring.
2. We procrastinate, we find something more interesting and important than the dharma. But if we really believed our lives would come to an end at any moment, we would not procrastinate.
3. Even if we do practice the dharma, we mix it too much with the eight worldly concerns (Like and dislike, gaining and losing, praise and blame, fame and disgrace). We have to give up the mind that is attached to the idea that fame, winning, praise and wealth are really meaningful. The more we have the mindset of getting “stuff” (a better job, a new car, an iPod etc) the more we fear what others think of our stuff, the more time we waste using it, the more we are afraid of losing it. At the time of death, everything we love and have will be taken from us in one instant. We are the ones who die.
4. When we have problems, we run away from them.
5. We ignore the effects of negative karma in future lives because we don’t think about death.
6. When the time of death comes, it will come as a shock, it may be painful and we will die with regret. Even from a worldly point of view, if you believe in only one life, we should want to die well. From a Buddhist point of view, dying well is critical. If we think about death deeply and sincerely, it will automatically lead to other good practices, to love and compassion.
The one meditation that is an antidote to all the delusions is that on death and impermanence. It is said that if you don’t think about death in the morning, the morning is wasted (you will devote yourself to this life); that if you don’t think about death in the afternoon, the afternoon is wasted (you will devote yourself to this life); that if you don’t think about death in the evening, the night is wasted (you will devote yourself to this life). If you devote yourself to this life, whatever you do will not be Dharma.
The Six Advantages of Remembering Death
1. Most beneficial: You will practise the Dharma faultlessly when you recall death. Recollection of death will lead you through the whole lam-rim, through the three scopes to unification.
2. Most powerful: If you recollect death and impermanence, you will destroy attachment and anger. You will have great power behind you in completing the accumulation.
3. Important in the beginning – causes you to embark on the Dharma
4. Important in the meantime – a condition to work hard on the Dharma
5. Important at the end – brings your Dharma practice to completion
6. You will die happily & gladly – “I have practised the Dharma well; it will be easy for me to die now.”
The Nine-Part Meditation on Death
From notes taken at Ven. Thubten Dondrub’s Teaching of 31 July 2003 and 16 Feb 2006 at Hayagriva Buddhist Centre
The nine points are described as follows in How to Meditate by Kathleen McDonald, Wisdom Publications 1984, p. 70:
1. The inevitability of death
1.1 Everyone has to die
1.2 Your lifespan is decreasing continuously (life is ebbing away)
1.3 The amount of time spent during your life to develop your mind is very small (there is so little time left to practise the dharma)
2. The uncertainty of the time of death
2.1 Human life expectancy is uncertain
2.2 There are many causes of death
2.3 The human body is so fragile
3. The fact that only spiritual insight can help you at the time of death
3.1 Your possessions and enjoyments cannot help
3.2 Your loved ones cannot help
3.3 Your own body cannot help
Another way of stating the points the nine parts is given in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand by Pabongka Rinpoche, Wisdom Publications 1997 p. 343:
1. Thinking about the inevitability of death
1.1 The Lord of Death will inevitably come, and no circumstance at all can prevent this
1.2 Thinking how nothing is being added to your lifespan and it is always being subtracted from
1.3 Thinking about how you will definitely die before you get around to practising Dharma
2. Thinking about the uncertainty of when you will die
2.1 The lifespan of people from the southern continent is not fixed and this is especially so of people in these degenerate times
2.2 When you will die is uncertain because there are many factors contributing towards your death and few towards your life
2.3 When you will die is uncertain because your body is quite insignificant
3. Thinking of how nothing can help you when you die except Dharma
3.1 Wealth cannot help you
3.2 Friends and relatives cannot help you
3.3 Even your body cannot help you
Notes from the teaching by Ven.Thubten Dondrub:
1. The first root: Thinking about the inevitability of death.
1.1 The first reason: Nothing can prevent death; there is no power that will allow our body to remain alive indefinitely.
Death is a conscious experience; it is known by the mind. We will know death is going on. Death is breathing out and never again breathing in. Death is when the most subtle consciousness leaves the body. If you are a yogi, this may not happen until three days after you have stopped breathing. During that time you neither decay nor smell.
If I go through many intellectual arguments, I can see that I will die. Why then, don’t I feel as if I am going to die? If you do, and it’s depressing, try contemplating the precious human rebirth.
“The Instruction Given to the King Sutra” says:
“Great king, the four great terrors are coming; they cannot be stopped by force, by fleeing, by wealth, by substances, mantras or medicines. What are these four? Old age, sickness, decay and death. Great king, old age will come and destroy your maturity. Sickness will come and destroy your health. Decay will come and destroy all your splendour. Death will come and destroy your life-force. These four will not be pacified by fleeing, by force, by wealth, by substances, mantras or medicines.”
1.2 The second reason: Nothing can be added to our lifespan; in fact, it is continuously decreasing.
We have the illusion that we have control over our life and can extend it by eating the right food, doing the right exercise, breathing the freshest air. It may seem like that from day to day but it is not so. Some people who eat unhealthy food do live long and some don’t. The causes of this life were created in previous lives. Those seeds are now blossoming. We can’t change those causes. They give the energy for our life span. We can play around with the conditions.
Our life is like a film projected on a screen. It may seem that it is real and that it will last forever but it comes to an end determined by the length of the strip of film being projected. That film was shot several years ago. It determines the length of the film on the screen. The actors have moved on, the crew disbanded. We can’t change the film.
You breathe in, you breathe out. But that out-breath has gone forever. And you have moved one breath closer to death.
We are like a prisoner condemned to death. What he does, what he eats, the standard of his cell, cannot prevent his death.
We are like a fish caught in a net. You might be the last fish to die but you will die. You see other fish die but you still don’t believe it will happen to you.
How can you enjoy eating or sleeping when you are in the jaws of the Lord of Death?
1.3 The third reason: There is so little time left to practice Dharma.
It is more difficult to have a sense of your own mortality when you are young. There are many things we do that we don’t have to do. We may have to work, but we don’t have to work such long hours.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche: If you could experience the life of a dog for just one day, you would never sleep again. And Lama Zopa doesn’t sleep!
In the Sakya tradition the third reason is given that the body is impermanent.
Conclusion: Since I am definitely going to die, I must practice the Dharma. With purification, I can increase the chances of not having a lower rebirth.
2. The second root: Thinking about the uncertainty of when you will die
2.1 The first reason: Our lifespan is not fixed. This is true – not just Buddhist philosophy! Buddhism is about reality, although it may not seem like that. At this moment, we are not at some magical age when no one dies. We can die in the middle of what we are planning. Nagarjuna said: “With breath coming and going it is the greatest wonder that ever awaken from sleep.” We are one breath away from death.
Our life is like one of a row of candles in the wind. Some go out quickly, some last longer. One may miraculously remain. But we don’t know which candle.
2.2 The second reason: There are many factors that lead to death. but there are few that lead to life. Write down all the ways to die. Then, realize that you will die in one of those ways. If I don’t die from this, I could die from that. Go through them all. This is not to cause paranoia, but to cut through the concrete conceptions that we will die far into the future. Many people who die start a normal day, doing normal things, not expecting to die.
Disease (there are many diseases, some old ones are coming back, there are new ones all the time)
Murder, war, terrorism
Fire, flood, tempest, lightning
Dangerous animals (spiders, snakes, crocodiles, sharks etc)
Accident (something that wasn’t meant to happen, but millions happen every day)
Political arrest, torture, death
Eating (King Farouk II choked to death on his dinner), food poisoning
2.3 The third reason: Our body is extremely frail. It is easily damaged by disease etc. The “four elements” of the body are rarely in balance, and we therefore get sick. What can I do if I might die at any moment? Practise bodhicitta.
Conclusion: I must practice the dharma now! I have to change my mind for the better. My situation at this moment, no matter how bad it seems, may be the best I ever have. Most people think they are “permanent” even a moment before their death. But we usually postpone our practice every day because something more important crops up.
3. The third root: Thinking of how nothing can help you when you die except Dharma
3.1 The first reason: At the time of death, my attachment to wealth and possessions will not help; in fact, it will obstruct and cause problems. Most of us have no idea how much attachment we have to things and stuff. We will only find out at the time of death. Lama Zopa said that the amount of pain you experience at death depends on the amount of attachment you have and the negative karma you’ve created. It’s not going to be easy to die, even though we may be Buddhist and have studied hard. But as ordinary people, we can at least make this experience bearable. Very few people these days die a “natural death” and go through the stages of the death process in an orderly manner.
3.2 The second reason: Friends and relatives cannot help you
3.3 The third reason: Even your body cannot help you. “Easy, happy, now” is the dominant theme of our society and if we don’t get what we want now then we blame someone else. What will help at the time of death is a calm, peaceful mind imbued with virtue eg with faith in the Triple Gem (not just in the words but in their meaning). Even thinking with faith of a simple monk or nun will prevent a lower rebirth. Thinking of one’s guru is the best.
Conclusion: I must practice the dharma, purely, not mixed with the eight worldly concerns.
Life, Death and After Death
From Life, Death and After Death by Lama Thubten Yeshe (A weekend seminar given in Geneva, Sep 1983, FPMT Wisdom Transcript Series)
According to the Buddhist view, the process of human growth is different from that of a vegetable: each human being has a long history, a long period of development, especially of the individual human consciousness. In Buddhism we explain that the fundamental nature of human consciousness is pure and clear. It is the consciousness that is the nucleus of a human being, not the body.
Whether we have a happy or a miserable life depends on the interpretation of our own consciousness: if you think your life is miserable it becomes miserable. Since we are capable of making a mess of our lives we are also capable of solving our own problems. The root of most of the problems in our lives, emotional disturbance and anxiety, is the intellect. We are intellectualizing all the time and that is our big problem. “Who is this?’ “Who am I?” “How should I identify?” Your ego wants some way to identify, something to hold on to, to grasp. You cannot be natural. That is why we are completely artificial and therefore confused and dissatisfied.
Because we are deluded, when we describe an apple we say, “It has this and that quality, it’s fantastic, good colour, great, that’s why I like it.” We describe these things in such an exaggerated way that we end up sick, with a sick mind, because fundamentally it’s all fantasy. You impose your own fantasy projection on this apple and that makes you miserable and dissatisfied with the real object.
In Buddhism we believe that all human beings have problems, every day. We have problems of ego-conflict, we have emotional problems, we become obsessed. We have all these problems but we also have the ability – access – to go beyond them and to see. Meditation gives you this access. The more you meditate, the more access you have to go beyond emotion and ego-conflict and see what is actually going on in your mind.
Sometimes too much intellectualising and egotism damages intuition. Intuition is inborn, and instead of remaining trapped inside, it has to be protected in such a way that it is allowed to function.
At the time of death, during the death process, all these concepts – your political concepts, your economic concepts, your concepts of society, your racist concepts, capitalist concepts, communist concepts – all these just naturally disappear into space. Think about it; any selfish attitude, any thought you may have had to take advantage of other people, disappears. This does not happen only when you die but also when you fall asleep. When you sleep you enter a natural state, a state of fundamental consciousness without the intellect. When you sleep, all the energies that have been building up disappear for a little while, then when you wake up, slowly, slowly they come back again. That is why in the Buddhist tradition people meditate in the morning.
We think that dying is always negative – that is just your projection. Dying is actually better than this flower, because this flower does not give you the tremendous bliss and peace that the death experience can give you. At the moment of death, all anxiety ends, all emotion ends. When we die naturally, each of our four elements deteriorates and slowly, slowly leads to internal and external hallucinatory visions. Also, the five aggregates – form, feeling, discrimination, compounded phenomena and consciousness – all sink or dissolve.
Normally, we think that seeing form is fantastic, a pleasure. We also feel that experiencing sensations is important and we grasp onto them as much as possible. In Buddhism, however, there is the idea of remaining detached from sensory objects. This is called renunciation. When you are in your mother’s womb, you have already renounced everything. You do not have anything, you do not have any grasping. Now, you have one car…that is not good enough. You have two cars…that is not good enough, you need a boat. And so it goes on to infinity. That is dissatisfaction. After building up so much worry, you die, naturally renounced. When I say detached, it means more easy-going, more relaxed, loosen your grip.
Your consciousness makes the decision that ”this makes me happy, this is nice” before you even see the object, then, when you see it with your eyes you think: “Oh, this is nice.”
If you understand the death process, you can recognize illusions as illusions, projections as projections and fantasies as fantasies. After the sinking of the four elements, even though there is no breathing, the subtle consciousness remains. The person will experience four visions: the white vision, the red vision, the black vision and then the clear light vision. Meditators can stay in the clear light vision for days, in touch with universal reality.
When you sleep, first the four elements sink as in the death process, and you reach the clear light. From there you manifest the dream body. The dream body is manifested when the dream mind is functioning. Then you come back to the sleeping stage and then the awakening stage.
The Buddhist/Christian problem is just intellectual. Different philosophies are like different clothes. Elderly Christian ladies have said to me, ”Buddhism gave me a much better understanding of the bible; before I didn’t really understand it.” The Christian doctrine that everything is created by God is good for the Western mind because the Western ego thinks, “I make everything.” Westerners think they are the creation principle, so when you say, “God is creator, not you” they slow down. Buddhism is also good; it says that your mind creates all your own problems, you cannot blame Buddha. From my point of view, the essence of Christianity and the essence of Buddhism go together without contradiction.
The mind has three divisions: gross, subtle and extremely subtle. Also, we have gross, subtle and extremely subtle bodies. The gross consciousness contains the five sensory consciousnesses. The subtle consciousness can be called the intuition ego. The gross mind is so busy that the subtle mind is obscured. When the gross mind is no longer functioning, the subtle mind has a chance to arise. The subtle mind has more power to penetrate and comprehend. Meditation, and the process of death, cut the gross, busy mind and allow the subtle mind to function.
Buddhism explains universal reality as emptiness or sunyata. By stopping the gross, crowded concepts, the moment you feel space, something empty, when the crowdedness disappears, you then have the sunyata experience.
Mind is not substance, or matter. It is a kind of thought-energy, conscious energy. It does not have its own colour or its own form. It is formless, colourless energy. Its nature is clean-clear; it reflects inner phenomena. Mind is like space. It is not mixed up with cloudy pollutions. The characteristic of space is different. A clean clear mind is existent. A pure nature or consciousness is existent. Its own essence and clarity is existent. But our concepts, all these heavy blankets, are contaminating and covering our senses. Our consciousness has two characteristics: relative and absolute. The relative characteristic is not negative. It is free of ego-conflict, craving, desire, hatred and jealousy. It can go up from the first to the tenth levels (bhumis), but the ego-conflict does not go all the way up. The absolute characteristic of the human consciousness is that it is non-dual.
When you meditate, your sense perception or sense consciousness, is not the meditator. Sometimes people think, because they are so accustomed to using the five senses, that the only reality is sensory. Actually, sensory consciousness is a like a fool. It does not have the intelligence to discriminate between right and wrong.
This afternoon we are going to meditate on our own consciousness. One should not be afraid, thinking, “How am I supposed to meditate when I don’t even know what my own consciousness is?” We know from our own experience (inferential cognition) that our thought and motivation are related to our consciousness. Now the view of your thought, the awareness of the view of your thought, and the awareness of your own thought and motivation is sufficient for meditating on your own consciousness. When you look at your own mind, when you are aware of your own mind’s view, that I call meditating on your own consciousness.
Meditation is very simple. Close your eyes. What is happening? Your awareness radiates like a sensitive machine. It is like radar. If there is any kind of signal or vibration, you notice it. You are sensitive, totally awake, aware of what is going on. That is what I call meditation on consciousness. Meditation does not mean, “Oh there is light, there is blah, blah, blah.” We are not having a conversation. You do not make a conversation, saying, “These trucks I hear must be very nice trucks, full of cheese or juice, on their way to market.” You need to be in control and eliminate the uncontrolled mind. Stop constantly reacting. “She’s like that; he says that, I like, I don’t like.” If somebody says, “You are a bad guy,” you do not react and say, “He called me a bad guy; my ego is hurt.” This is an uncontrolled mind, an obsessed mind. The obsessed mind has either an object of beauty or an object of hate. Obsessed means you cannot get away from thinking about the object. You are not free or peaceful. The mind of hatred, jealousy or craving-desire is too obsessive and disturbed. That is why meditation teaches you the habit of not reacting when the obsessed object arises.
The benefit of directing your awareness towards your consciousness is that there is some energy taking place when you are aware. It leads you to break down concepts and to experience great emptiness. Then you know you are capable and you get encouraged, thinking, “Oh, I can do anything. If I want to solve my problems, I can.” In Buddhism, this is the way for a human being to become liberated.
Normally, we are very intellectual. We are always judging “good/bad, good/bad”. This is dualistic. When you meditate, you stop saying good/bad. Just be aware, be conscious. Maitreya Buddha said that books, scriptures, bibles etc are like bridges. In order to cross a river you need a reliable bridge. After you cross, you can say, “goodbye, bridge”. But it does not make sense to think, “This bridge is so kind.” That only shows that you are attached to that scripture.
Now it makes sense to discriminate intelligently between good and bad. That has value. But always ”good/bad, good/bad”, that does not have much value. So, although you need discriminating wisdom, sometimes you have to go beyond that. How is it possible that awareness of your consciousness can lead to a non-duality experience? Duality is the conventional level of reality. When we have experienced the non-dual it does not mean that we are nihilists; but rather, it means that we understand the broad view of reality, and the conventional no longer makes vibrations in your mind. When you reach one-pointed concentration of the non-duality of yourself, there are no concepts of yourself – they all disappear. There is no sort of sentimental, “Am I ugly or am I beautiful?” Those kind of relative conversations disappear. At that moment of experience there is no worry about not enough beauty, too many wrinkles. When you are less worried, there are fewer wrinkles!
During our lifetime we have built up such hallucinated experience, that at the death time we produce reactions of even more confusion. This is because when you are old, the four elements absorb internally, creating much confused energy. When you get older, your sensory organs do not function well; the four elements already begin to absorb. One has trouble seeing, experiences double vision, and the sense organs create confusion. When we say, “The earth element sinks” we mean that the body deteriorates, and this in fact begins at an early age.
Not only do the sense organs deteriorate, the five aggregates also weaken, bringing confusion and hallucinated visions. Even sense enjoyments deteriorate, no longer giving pleasure. When you have a heavy disease or illness, the food, form, colour that used to give you pleasure no longer do so. The flower is there, but you do not get any pleasure from it.
The deterioration of the elements causes internal experiences, like the mirage and then the smoke and fire. Some sick people say, “Please take away the fire.” Inside they experience a burning fire passing through them. They feel the presence of the true nature of fire, so their experience of consciousness is only confused. Normally, your ego grasps certain objects. But at the time of disintegration of the elements, these outer objects disappear. You are losing your grasp and you are scared. The ideas that you have been holding on to for a lifetime begin to disappear, you lose your identity and are scared, so scared. Normally, my identity is my companion; it makes me feel so secure. By training through meditation, you educate yourself in such a way that at the time of the death experience, you recognize the sort of conditions that make you hallucinate. Realizing that the hallucinated visions are not self-existent, and not identifying with the hallucinated object, helps you to understand sunyata better.
In the West, there are many different meanings of the term “to lose the self”. When Christians describe the soul, they create a self, thinking, “This is who I am, that way, this is the me.” When a man identifies himself by saying “I am such and such a lady’s husband,” he is presenting the notion of identifying himself as a self-existent husband. Since he considers himself to be a concrete and self-existent husband, he immediately also projects such an image onto his wife. He presents himself in such a way and in turn believes “my wife is also a concrete, self-existent wife.” Consequently, this preconception leads to misery. He becomes the impossible husband because the situation, himself, and his wife, are impermanent, transitory, changing every day. He is exaggerating the reality.
When the four elements absorb at the time of death, all the gross concepts about yourself, your pleasure, your environment, your friends, your security, your love and compassion, all disappear. That is why we say that when the air element absorbs into our consciousness, the eighty superstitious egos disappear. Internally your consciousness experiences great emptiness, like blue sky. At the time of death, the energies are naturally integrated into the shushuma so you experience great peace, great emptiness. That is why tantra emphasizes activating the energies into the shushuma. After the four elements absorb, the breathing stops functioning. Then the four visions arise: the white, red, black and clear light visions. In the clear light vision you experience a complete gigantic empty space, into which is a clean-clear light impression. During that moment of clear light experience, your consciousness does not experience sensory objects at all. But you are clean-clear and experience a light in front of you. In fact you will always experience such a light if you are in the clean-clear and pure state of mind. If you are confused and impure, a polluted projection appears in your mind or front of you. Even if you go outside and the sun is shining, you have some kind of polluted projection.
Now from a practical point of view, we have to build up the sunyata experience, little by little. Your concepts become less concrete. At the end of the clear-light experience, you experience black vision, and then the other stages of dissolution but in reverse order. So, your ego is built up again. There is a similar process to the death process during fainting, sleep and orgasm. If you are conscious and sensitive, intensely aware of all your actions, you can notice this death process occurring in your life. It has already been experienced. But we do not comprehend our own experience.
All confusion, delusion and disease come from the three poisons of desire, jealousy/hatred and ignorance. If you do not have the three poisons, then you will have no problems during the dying process. Dying will then be blissful. When desire arises, the air element is not smooth and breathing becomes heavy. Craving-desire produces strong air, which affects the nervous system. Hatred produces too much bile, affecting the fire element. Ignorance produces TB. A predominance of one of the elements creates imbalance, which can kill us. All hallucinated visions, such as the terrifying visions that can occur in the bardo state, come from the three poisons. If an illusion comes and you have the conscious strength to deal with it, then you can control the situation. But people with a serious illness, tremendous disease or confusion, cannot cope. In other words, the degree of control and awareness we have during the death process depends on the weight of the three poisons.
You might ask how it is possible to have craving-desire at the time of death. Craving-desire comes from fantasy, grasping at a future life. Craving-desire is so strong that even when the body is cold and there is no more circulation, the three poisons are still functioning inside. Lucky people die naturally without serious disease or confusion. But anyone who has loving kindness at the time of death will not be reborn in the lower realms.
Q. “How can one help the dying?”
A. It depends on the dying person’s background, knowledge, religious training and philosophy. But whatever the person’s background you need to use something to energize the person, to wake them up. The important thing is not to irritate the dying. When they are ready to go, leave them alone. Do not keep saying “take medicine” or “sign here”. It also makes it difficult for the dying if you cry, “Oh, you are going to die.” A quiet, peaceful environment is also important. If he is a Christian tell him, “Okay, God will take care of you. You’re lucky – you will go to heaven.” This is good even if he is not too much of a Christian, because inside his unconscious is still looking for something to hang on to, to take refuge in.
Om Ah Hung Meditation on the Consciousness
From Life, Death and After Death by Lama Thubten Yeshe (A weekend seminar given in Geneva, Sep 1983, FPMT Wisdom Transcript Series)
Try to visualize a white OM in the centre of your brain. Recognize that the white OM is the pure energy of the divine body of the Buddha. After making the sound “OM”, from the OM much white light energy enters the body, through the shushuma, permeating your body. All conceptions and impure energy of the body are cleansed and purified. Your entire body from the feet up to the top of the head is filled with white radiating blissful energy. Make the sound of “OM” for two minutes while you are meditating and purifying the body. At the moment of stopping the OM sound mantra, just be aware, not concerned with good or bad, not reacting, not making conversation. Just place all your attention on the light consciousness at the centre of your brain. Be there. Be intensely aware and let go, without sluggishness, without distraction. Intense awareness leads to the experience of zero, of egolessness. Empty. Nothing. Comprehend this intense awareness and let go.
Think of a red AH at your throat chakra. Radiate red light energy from the AH. Recognize that the red AH is the pure speech of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Purification means that the uncontrolled mind and speech are interdependently operating with each other. Negativities of speech mean harming and giving pain to others through lying and slander. Having a clean-clear mind and controlled speech is the way to purify impure and uncontrolled speech. So visualize a red AH radiating from your throat chakra. Your entire body is embraced by the blissful radiating light energy. At the same time, repeat the sound “AH” and again, as before, just be in the state of intense awareness on your own consciousness. Stay there without any expectation or interpretation.
Comprehend your experience of the non-dual, non-self-existent I, nothingness, empty space as truth, as reality. This strengthens your energy for comprehending. This experience is much more real than your waking fantasy sensory world. If an uncontrollable distracting thought comes, recognize the control in the bardo, seeing that not only you, but also all other sentient beings, are in this situation. Cultivate equilibrium and much loving kindness for all others. The uncontrolled, distracted mind is the resource to energize loving kindness. When loving kindness arises again, direct intense awareness of loving kindness energy towards your consciousness.
So, two things: either direct intense awareness on your own consciousness, or, when distractions arise, direct intense awareness of loving kindness on your own consciousness. Alternate these two.
Next, your loving kindness energy manifests in your shushuma at your heart like a full moon. Visualize at your heart, on a moon disc, a blue radiating HUNG. Recognize the non-dual wisdom energy of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Your heart is pure, cool, calm, opened by the radiating light of the moon and the blue HUNG. Infinite blue radiating light emanates from the HUNG. All narrow thoughts are disappearing. All indecisive minds are disappearing. All obsessed minds are disappearing. Blue light fills your entire body. Your entire body feels blissful. Being embraced by the infinite blue light leaves no room for fantastic dualistic concepts.
At the same time make the sound “HUNG” for two minutes. Then feel infinite blue light, like your consciousness, embracing the entire universal reality. Feel and be, without any expectation or superstition.
So, we need two experiences; wisdom and method. Wisdom experience is intense awareness of your own conscious reality. Method is when you again become out of control, distracted. That distracted experience is a big resource to generate loving kindness again. Reciting the OM AH HUNG mantra is very useful. It represents all mantras. Especially when you say ”OM”, something awakens; intense awareness awakens and energizes the consciousness.
How to Make Your Life Meaningful
From notes taken at a Public Talk by Ven. Choden Rinpoche, 31 Jan 2008 at Hayagriva Buddhist Centre
To make our lives meaningful, we need a spiritual practice, First I will give advice to those not following any spiritual path, then to others who are.
The purpose of our life is to help others; if not, at least not to harm them. In terms of your daily work, go about it honestly, with integrity. If you do it with a degree of deception, you will not be able to take the essential meaning from this life. We need to stop and think about what it is that makes our life meaningful. Just having a human life is so beneficial. We are here to help others, help society and thus benefit our country. If one is born as a human and accomplishes these purposes, one’s life as a human is meaningful.
We can say that in order to make our life meaningful, we are trying to develop kindness and good-heartedness. But we need the causes and conditions behind these qualities. If we have a negative mind, we do not cherish others. To establish kindness in a person’s mind, the role of parents and teachers is important from the beginning. From this perspective, parents have an important responsibility. Fights between parents will affect their children. If parents show ethics and kindness, so will their children. Also, when children play, they should not mix with those who are a negative influence. As the children grow up, they will influence others in the neighbourhood by their sincerity and kindness. This leads to a more peaceful country. There are historical examples to back this up.
It would not be sufficient just to be kind-hearted and to benefit others. Children need to study in order to make a living in society. Thus, study plus kindness gives a stable environment. If one is brought up with good ethics and studies well, one is less likely to generate negative actions such as killing and stealing. However, it’s not enough just to avoid negative actions. One has to have the belief that such actions are wrong. A belief like that comes from inside you. The process of checking up to see what is virtuous and what is not is a spiritual practice whether one calls it that or not. The great Nagarjuna says that if you practice good morality then a favourable future existence is not far away, whether you label yourself spiritual or not.
In essence, when we engage with others we should ask “Am I helping them or harming them?” If making a profit means harming others, then don’t do it. If you can make a profit without harming, that’s OK. It’s also the case that if one works for a company or the government, if one thinks, “I will work hard to benefit my employer,” the that’s good, but if one thinks in addition, “I am going to do this to benefit others,” then it becomes a spiritual practice. When you engage in work or projects, don’t set your aims too high. Because if you don’t achieve them, you will become anxious and frustrated. Be content and humble and don’t expect too much.
Now some advice for spiritual practitioners.
We spend our lives acquiring house, wealth and goods, but these are not stable or that important. We leave them all behind at the time of death. So don’t place too much importance on them. In fact, if one has much wealth and servants then at the time of death these might generate much harm. We often create negative actions in order to get rich. When we die all we take with us are the negativities created. More wealth means more attachment, which brings more negativity.
At the time of death what will benefit us? With the mind that wishes to benefit others and not to harm them, one can die peacefully.
Every day you come closer to death. So you need some motivation each morning to keep going. Normally, we wake and our first thoughts are our plan for the day’s activities. Instead, generate a positive attitude, a positive motivation to spend the day well, helping others. Many great yogis generate joy at having woken up: “It’s some kind of miracle that I didn’t die last night, so I will make this day meaningful by practising spiritually as far as I can.” In this sense, yogis break their day into six periods. On waking, yogis would bless their speech, so that neutral speech would become virtuous. They bless their prayer beads so that the value of the mantras is increased many-fold. Having set their motivation, they bless their body so that prostrations to the Buddha are done in a clean state. If we have faith that the Buddha is there, prostrations have great effect. One then makes offerings of fruit, flowers etc to the spiritual merit field and sets out the seven bowls of water imagining they are nectar and become fit for divine beings. One then sits in the meditation posture and generates the correct motivation. The greatest motivation is the wish to liberate all beings. Knowing that the guru is the foundation of the path, be grateful to your guru. Make the determination to take advantage of these fortunate conditions for the rest of your life.
To create positive spiritual energy, engage in purification and collecting merit. Make tsa tsas, fill statues with mantras etc. If you know that you will step on insects, you can say a mantra and blow on the soles of your feet in order to benefit the insects greatly. There is a class of spirits called hungry ghosts. You can say mantras for hungry ghosts and dedicate so that what you excrete will serve as food for them. Say Om Mani Padme Hum and dedicate. One can also make offerings to the Dharma protectors so that harmful spirits won’t interfere with your practice.
Obstacles are created by grasping onto things as permanent. Meditate on impermanence. If one doesn’t think about impermanence, and one only thinks about this life, obstacles to Dharma practice are created. Even if you do remember to practise, but don’t think about death, your practices are then only for this life and don’t become pure dharma. Strive to remove this taint. It becomes the cause for your downfall, if you engage in killing, stealing and so on to gain benefits in this life. You need to reflect on death. Otherwise, at death, you will regret not having practised. Even if you don’t believe in future lives, you can still die well, without regret.
If one does think about death, the exact opposites of not thinking will accrue. Then you will enter the door to Dharma practices. There are many stories that support the benefits of reflecting on death. In Mongolia a shepherd was killing sheep and put his knife on a rock. Suddenly one of the remaining sheep threw itself on the knife, shit itself and lay there with his stomach cut open. The shepherd had to search through the entrails and shit for his knife. The shepherd saw that the sheep knew that the shepherd would kill the other sheep and he tried to save them by sacrificing himself. That shepherd cried and generated great compassion and later became a monk. He generated such strong renunciation that he became a lama and the reincarnations of that lama exist to this day. This story shows the power of the motivation generated from thinking on impermanence and death.
The great Kadampa geshes said that if you don’t reflect on death in the morning, the morning is wasted. If you don’t think about death in the afternoon, then the afternoon is wasted. And if you don’t reflect at night, the night is wasted. In this way, they Dharma practices extremely meaningful. We need a continuous sense of impermanence and death in order to sustain our Dharma practice. Otherwise you will give up easily. Reflecting on death gives power to reversing any negative actions, to purifying negativities. If one is able to recall impermanence and death, one won’t engage in stealing or fighting. Answering back to abuse is a sign that you are not reflecting on death. Instead, you can soften and accept the abuse in order to avoid creating negativities that might ripen as you die. Reflecting on death makes one’s roots of virtue powerful and one may die peacefully, without regret or fear.
For the “great practitioner” death is like changing one’s clothes. For the “middling practitioner”, one passes away with ease. For the “lower practitioners” one can die without regret. “I’ve done my best.” One famous old geshe in Rinpoche’s class wanted to meet His Holiness. But the geshe’s student was worried that he was too frail to make the journey. The geshe said, “I will be at ease when I die. I’ve done the best I can.”
We know we will die but we but we don’t know when. There are more causes for dying than for living. When you try to heal a disease it requires a huge effort. Yet a mere infected finger can lead to death. Also, the conditions that sustain life can become the conditions for death. For example, our house our car can cause our death, even though we take care from our side. On waking, we should think, “How wonderful it would be if I don’t die today. I must make today meaningful.”
We need to discriminate between this life and future lives. A focus on future lives enables one to be content with this life. A focus on this life creates the conditions, for example, to be jealous of your neighbours, thus creating negativities. Instead we should rejoice – how wonderful that they have got what they want! Let go. Don’t be jealous. If you lose your wealth, you won’t worry so much, because your focus is on future lives.
What is Dharma practice? Saying mantras and so on is spiritual practice to an extent. But the real Dharma practice is guarding one’s mind from negative emotions.
The Three Types of Persons
1. The person of smaller capacity: Avoid the 10 non-virtues and take refuge in order to attain a good rebirth.
2. The person of middling capacity: Try to rid yourself of all obscurations to liberation in order to free yourself from cyclic existence.
3. The person of higher capacity: Others want to be happy and to avoid suffering, so I will strive to make others completely happy ie to attain buddhahood. Since only a buddha can do this, I need the qualities of a buddha, therefore I will become a buddha.
Start by trying to reduce your strongest affliction, whether it be swearing, abusing others, excessive desire, etc. On waking, resolve to avoid that affliction on that day. Review your progress at the end of the day. Eventually, you can reverse these negative emotions. This is what it means to be a true spiritual practitioner.
The Two Activities
There are two activities: one at the beginning and one at the end. At the beginning you set your intention or motivation and at the end you review your success in achieving your intention. In daily work, you set goals and measure achievements. It is the same with spiritual practice. If you were successful, rejoice. If not, apply a method to purify the karmic imprints. If you say mantras, you must believe at the end that your negativities have been purified. Faith is needed. When you go to sleep, you should set a virtuous motivation. If you go to sleep with bodhicitta, your sleep will become positive. Harmful thoughts on falling asleep mean negative sleep. Also, regret may be positive or negative. If you help someone and later regret having helped them, that is negative regret.
Notes from the Book Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life
By His Holiness the Dalai Lama, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Rider, 2002
Awareness of Death (Pages 39-55)
It is crucial to be mindful of death – to contemplate that you will not remain long in this life. If you are not aware of death, you will fail to take advantage of this special human life that you have already attained. It is meaningful because, based on it, important effects can be accomplished.
Analysis of death is not to become fearful but to appreciate this precious human lifetime during which you can perform many important practices. Rather than being frightened, you should reflect that when death comes you will lose this good opportunity for practice. In this way contemplation of death will bring more energy to your practice.
You need to accept that death comes in the normal course of life. As Buddha said:
A place to stay untouched by death
Does not exist.
It does not exist in space, it does not exist in the ocean,
Nor if you stay in the middle of a mountain.
If you accept that death is part of life, then when it does come, you may face it more easily.
When people know deep inside that death will come but deliberately avoid thinking about it, that does not fit the situation and is counterproductive. The same is true when old age is not accepted as part of life but taken to be unwanted and deliberately avoided in thought. This leads to be being mentally unprepared; then when old age inevitably occurs, it can be very difficult.
Many people are physically old, but pretend they are young. Sometimes when I meet with longtime friends like certain senators in countries like the US, I greet them with, “My old friend,” meaning that we have known one another for a long period, not necessarily physically old. But when I say this some of them emphatically correct me, saying, “We are not old! We are longtime friends.” Actually, they ARE old – with hairy ears, a sign of old age – but they are uncomfortable with being old. That is foolish.
I usually think of the maximum duration of a human life as one hundred years, which, compared to the life of the planet, is very short. This brief existence should be used in such a way that it does not create pain for others. It should be committed not to destructive work but to more constructive activities – at least to not harming others or to creating trouble for them. In this way our brief existence as a tourist on this planet will be meaningful.
To make life meaningful, acceptance of old age and death as parts of our life is crucial. Feeling that death is almost impossible just creates more greediness and trouble – sometimes even deliberate harm to others. When we take a good look at how supposedly great personages – emperors, monarchs, and so forth – built huge dwelling places and walls, we see that deep inside their minds was an idea that they would stay in this life forever. This self-deception results in more pain and more trouble for many people.
Because persons, minds, and all other caused phenomena change moment by moment, this creates the possibility for positive development. If situations did not change, they would retain forever the nature of suffering. Once you know things are always changing, even if you are passing through a very difficult period, you can find comfort from knowing that the situation will not remain that way forever. So, there is no need for frustration.
Good fortune is also not permanent; consequently, there is no use for too much attachment when things are going well. An outlook of permanence ruins us: Even if you accept that there are future lives, the present becomes your preoccupation, and the future takes on little import. This ruins a good opportunity when your life is endowed with the leisure and facilities to engage in productive practices. An outlook of impermanence helps.
Being aware of impermanence calls for discipline – taming the mind – but this does not mean punishment or control from the outside. Discipline does not mean prohibition; rather it means that when there is a contradiction between long-term and short-term interests, you sacrifice the short-term for the long-term benefit. This is SELF-discipline, which stems from ascertaining the cause and effect of karma.
Liberation from Fear (Pages 57-78)
There are three levels of spiritual practice – for the most highly trained, the middling and the least. You need to adopt an appropriate level of practice for the remainder of your life so that at the time of dying you will move successfully through the stages of dying, intermediate state and rebirth. When death actually comes, if you are not used to this practice, it will be very difficult to succeed at any beneficial reflection.
If now, when the senses are still clear and mindfulness has not degenerated, your mind is not made serviceable to and familiar with the teachings and the way of virtue, it will be difficult – when dying – for the mind to proceed of its own accord on a strange path. When dying, you may be physically weak from illness and mentally depressed from terrible fear. Therefore, it is necessary to become intimate with the practices related to dying. There is no substitute. There is no pill.
The effort it takes to apprehend these practices depends upon the motivation arising from the conviction that experiences of pleasure and pain arise from your own previous virtuous and non virtuous actions of body, speech and mind. Actions performed by the mind are the most important, so the root of Buddhist practice is the transformation of the mind.
Taking Refuge: Within an attitude of self-help, Buddhists go for refuge to the Buddha as the teacher , to Buddha’s Doctrine (states of realization and teachings of them) as the actual refuge and to the Spiritual Community as guides to that refuge.They develop the conviction that internalizing the doctrine can offer protection from suffering. Without refuge, it is difficult for other practices to be successful.
Consider, for example, the practice of reciting the mantra of the Buddha of Compassion, “om mani padme hum” and dedicating the merit generated to others. There is no possibility of obtaining enlightenment just by reciting om mani padme hum, but if your practice is conjoined with real altruism, it can serve as a CAUSE for attaining Buddhahood. Another example is touching, seeing or listening to a qualified guru – though something is required fro the guru’s side, any blessing is obtained mainly from the side of the disciple and his or her motivation,openness and convictions.
Preparing to Die (Pages 79-98)
Poem by the First Panchen Lama, Stanza Two:
May we extract the meaningful essence of this life support
Without being distracted by the senseless affairs of this life.
Since this good foundation, hard to find and easy to disintegrate,
Presents an opportunity of choice between profit an loss, comfort and misery.
You need both internal and external favorable conditions for the consummation of successful practice, and you already have these. For example, as humans, we have a body and mind that supports our understanding of the teachings. Thus, we have met the most important internal condition. Externally, you need both transmission of the practices and the freedom to practise. If, possessing these circumstances, you exert yourself, you are guaranteed success. However, if you do not exert yourself, it is a tremendous waste. You should value these conditions, this “precious human rebirth.”
It is very difficult for other beings, such as animals, who do not have our excellent foundation, to achieve virtues through their own power. There are rare cases of them doing something virtuous given the right external conditions, but it is difficult for them to think. When animals act out of lust or hatred, they do so temporarily or superficially; they are incapable of bad physical and verbal actions in great strength and in many varieties. However, humans can think from a great many points of view. Because our intelligence is more effective, humans can achieve good and bad on a grand scale.
If this human endowment is used for good, it can be very powerful. If you take care and work at good actions, the aims of this life and future lives can be achieved.
It is a firm rule of cause and effect that, in the long term, good causes produce good results and bad causes produce bad results. With regard to our human physical nature, or life support, it was necessary for us in former lives to have accumulated the manifold powerful causes and conditions that individually produced the shape, color, clarity of senses and other qualities of this body. It was very difficult to obtain and since it is very rare you must take care to use it well, making sure that it is not wasted. If it was nor rare, not difficult to obtain, you would not have to take care, but this is not the case.
Good actions arise from a tamed mind. In addition, when your mind is peaceful, relaxed and happy, external pleasures such as good food, clothing and conversation make things even better, but their absence does not overpower you. If your mind is not peaceful and tamed, no matter how marvelous the external circumstances are, you will be burdened by frights, hopes and fears. With a tamed mind, you will enjoy wealth OR poverty, health OR sickness; you can even die happily.
Poem by the First Panchen Lama, Stanza Three:
May we realize that there is no time to waste,
Death being definite, but the time of death indefinite.
What has been gathered will separate, what has been accumulated will be consumed without residue,
At the end of a rising comes a descent, the finality of birth is death.
From beginningless time we have been under the influence of permanence, so we think there is always lots of time. This puts us in great danger of wasting our lives in procrastination. To counter this tendency, it is important to meditate on impermanence, on the fact that death might come at any moment.
Even though there is no certainty that you WILL die tonight, when you cultivate an awareness of death, you realize that you COULD die tonight. With this attitude, if there is something you can do that will help both this life and the next, you will give it precedence over something that will just help this life in a superficial way. hen whether you live a day, a month, a week or a year, that time will be meaningful; your thoughts and actions will be based on what is beneficial in the long run, and the longer you live the more beneficial they will be. You must make preparations so that if you did die tonight, you would have no regrets. In addition to separating from family and friends, the wealth and resources that accumulate over time – no matter how marvellous they are – eventually become unusable. No matter how high your rank or position, you must eventually fall.
Sometimes even patients suffering terminal diseases like cancer or AIDS avoid using the words “die” or “death”. I find it almost impossible to speak to them about their impending death; they resist hearing about it. But for one who cannot now face the WORD death, let alone the REALITY of it, the actual arrival of death is likely to bring with it great fear and discomfort. On the other hand, when I meet a practitioner who is near death, it is possible for us to reflect on the imminence of death. There is no need to hide anything, for that person is prepared to face death with no regret. A practitioner who, early on, thinks about impermanence and death is much more courageous and happy while dying. Reflecting on the uncertainty of the time of death develops a mind that is peaceful, disciplined and virtuous, because it is dwelling on more than the superficial stuff of this short lifetime.
Removing obstacles to a favorable death (Pages 99-106)
Begin as early as possible in your life to gain familiarity with virtuous states of mind. When this capacity is established it will be possible to direct the mind towards virtue even when dying. However, when dying you could be overwhelmed by pain from an incapacitating illness, you may suffer an untimely death in an accident or from an attack, or you may not be able to finish your lifespan due to exhaustion of merit. Suffering itself could generate so much fight that virtuous contemplation becomes impossible. Therefore, it is important to make wishes now to be free from such overwhelming pain and fear and to die in a relaxed way.
The time of death is very important, for it marks the end of one life and the beginning of another. If at this crucial time your body remained with you, you could put your trust in it, but at this important time it deceives you. Your body, sustained so dearly with food, clothing, shelter, medicine and even ill deeds, abandons you. When the process if death becomes manifest and the frightful aspects of impermanence show themselves, some people respond with strong attachment to their possessions, relatives, friends and body, while others evince hatred for their enemies and their unbearable suffering. We all generate a strong belief in our own inherent existence.
At death it is important to be free of medicines that would make you unable to think properly. For a religious practitioner, mind-dulling drugs are to be avoided, so that you may reflect on impermanence, generate faith, feel compassion or meditate on selflessness. However, there are some medicines that may relieve overwhelming pain to some degree without dulling the mind.
Meditating While Dying:
The First Four Stages of Dissolution of the Elements (Pages 117-134)
May we generate a powerful mind of virtue
When the four elements – earth, water, fire and wind – dissolve in stages
And physical strength is lost, the mouth and nose dry and pucker,
Warmth withdraws, breaths are gasped, and rattling sounds emerge.
The description of death in terms of the gradual dissolution of body and mind and of the four elements is unique to Highest Yoga Tantra. At death, there is a dissolution from grosser to subtler. The phenomena that dissolve consist of the four elements – earth (the hard substance of the body), water (fluids), fire (heat), and wind (energy, movement).
Whether you live out your lifespan or not, the process of death involves many phases. In a sudden death, you pass through these phases very quickly, with little chance of noticing them; for those who die more gradually, it is possible to recognize and make use of these different stages. Portents of death, such as a change in the way the breath moves in the nostrils, dreams, and physical signs, … usually occur within a year or two before dying. Portents of death include becoming disgusted with your surroundings, home, friends, and so forth, resulting in a wish to go elsewhere. Or, you may develop lust for these exceeding what you had before. You may switch from being harsh to being cooperative, or the other way around. Your enthusiasm might markedly increase or wane. There may be a change in your physical luster or your style of behavior. The nature of your conversation may become very rough – swearing and so forth – or you might talk repeatedly about death.
When the actual process of dying begins, you pass through eight phases. The first four involve the collapse of the four elements. The last four involve the collapse of consciousness into the innermost level of mind, called the mind of the clear light of death. Remember, the presentation of the phases of death is a mapping of deeper states of mind that occur throughout daily life and usually go unnoticed. These eight phases proceed in a forward order when dying, going to sleep, ending a dream, sneezing, fainting, and during orgasm. The eight stages are identified by way of visual content although not seen with the eyes:
4. Flame of a lamp
5. Vivid white mind-sky
6. Vivid red-orange mind-sky
7. Black mind-sky
8. The mind of the clear light of death
In general, the grosser elements dissolve into the subtler. As the capacity of the former to support consciousness degenerates, the latter becomes more manifest.
The earth element degenerates and dissolves into the water element. The solid aspects of the body, such as bone, are no longer able to serve as a mount, or foundation, of consciousness; the capacty of the solid aspects to do so dissolves into, or is transferred to, the fluids of the body, such as blood and phlegm. Now the capacity of the water element to act as a base of consciousness becomes more manifest. Your body becomes dramatically thinner and your limbs loosen. You lose physical strength – the vitality and luster of the body radically diminishes, leaving it worn out. Your sight becomes dark and unclear; you can no longer open and close your eyes.. You may have a sense of sinking into the earth or under mud, and you may even call out “Hold me up!” or attempt to struggle upward, but it is important not to fight; remain calm with a virtuous attitude. What you see in your mind looks like a mirage.
The capacity of the water element degenerates into the fire element – the warmth that maintains the body – and the fire element’s capacity to serve as a basis for consciousness is enhanced. You no longer experience feelings of pleasure and pain, or even neutral feelings, associated with the senses and the mental consciousness. Your mouth tongue and throat dry due to loss of saliva, and scum forms on the teeth. Other fluids, such as urine, blood, regenerative fluid, and sweat, dry up. You can no longer hear sounds, and the usual hum in the ears stops. What you see in your mind looks like puffs of smoke, or thin smoke throughout a room, or smoke billowing from a chimney.
The capacity of the fire element degenerates and dissolves into the wind element – the currents of air, or energy, that direct various bodily functions such as inhalation, exhalation, burping, spitting, speaking, swallowing, flexing the joints, stretching and contracting the limbs, opening and closing the mouth, and eyelids, digestion, urination, defecation, menstruation and ejaculation. The warmth of the body diminishes, resulting in an inability to digest food. … The ability to smell ceases. You can no longer pay attention to activities and wishes of friends and relatives around you or even remember their names. You experience difficulty breathing, exhalations becoming longer and longer and inhalations shorter and shorter.; your throat emits rattling or gasping sounds. What you see in your mind looks like fireflies, perhaps inside smoke, or like sparks in soot on the bottom of a metal pan.
The capacity of the coarser wind element degenerates and dissolves into consciousness. The tongue becomes thick and short, its root turning bluish. Experiencing physical touch is impossible, as is physical action. The breath through the nostrils ceases, but there are subtler levels of breath, or wind, so the cessation of breath through the nose does not indicate the end of the death process. What you see in your mind is like the flame of a butter lamp or candle (or like the flickering light above). At first the light flickers as if the wax were almost consumed. Then, when the winds upon which the mental conceptions ride begin to collapse, the flame’s appearance becomes steady.
During these stages you need an unobstructed virtuous attitude, which is the wish expressed in this stanza of the Panchen Lama’s poem. We ordinary sentient beings under the influence of birth and death definitely have predispositions established over lifetimes of good and bad actions, the fruits of which have not yet manifested. Every moment that we engage in actions motivated by ignorance contribute to living in cyclic existence. Very strong actions can propel not just one but many lifetimes in cyclic existence. Near the time of death, one of these many wholesome and unwholesome karmic predispositions is nourished and serves as the foundation for the whole next lifetime; many other karmas establish the qualities of life such as health, resources and intelligence. Consequently, your thoughts, your mental state, near the time of death are very important.
Even if most of your life you practised virtuous attitudes, a strong nonvirtuous tendency near the time of death can nourish the nonvirtuous predispositions we all have; this is a very dangerous time. Even from an annoying noise made by someone setting down an object too hard, irritation and anger can develop. Conversely, a person not usually accustomed to much virtue can generate a strong virtuous mind near death, activating karmic predispositions for virtue and resulting in a good rebirth. Therefore, you must take great care near the time of death, and generate whatever type of virtuous attitude you are capable of manifesting. It is very important that those attending the dying know that the dying person’s mind is in a very delicate state; they should be careful not to make disturbances – speaking loudly, crying, and roughly handling articles – and, instead, create a peaceful environment.
May we realize the deathless mode of being
When various mistaken appearances frightful and horrible
And in particular mirage, smoke, and fireflies appear
And the mounts of the eighty indicative conceptions cease.
When the four elements dissolve, various appearances occur. Sometimes, even before the eye and ear cease to function, unusual sights and sounds appear to the mental consciousness. For example, some who have suffered from a debilitating disease might see terrible fire, causing great fear. Others experience pleasant and even amazing visions and remain relaxed. Differences like this come from karmic predispositions established by virtuous and nonvirtuous actions in this and previous lives. These differences signal the type and quality of the rebirth about to occur, the way the quality of light in the sky before sunrise foretells the day’s weather.
May we generate strong mindfulness and introspection
When the wind constituent begins to dissolve into consciousness
And the external continuum of breath ceases, coarse dualistic appearances dissolve,
And an appearance like a burning butter lamp dawns.
Consciousness is defined as that which is luminous and knowing. It is luminous in the double sense that it is clear and that it illuminates, or reveals, like a lamp that dispels darkness so that objects may be seen. Consciousness also knows objects in the sense that it at least apprehends them, even when it does not know them properly.
Consciousness is composed of moments instead of cells, atoms or particles. In this way, consciousness and matter have basically different natures, and therefore, they have different substantial causes. material things have other material things as their substantial causes (so called because they produce the substance, or basic entity, of the effect), because there must be an agreement in basic nature between substantial cause and substantial effect. Clay for example is the substantial cause of a clay pot.
The substantial cause of mind must itself be something that is luminous and knowing – a previous moment of mind. Any moment of consciousness, therefore, requires a preceding moment of consciousness as its substantial cause, which means there must be a beginningless continuum of mind. This is how a beginningless round of rebirth is established through reasoning.
In addition, if there is just one accurate memory of rebirth, that is sufficient indication – not everyone has to remember. The absence of former and future lives has never been directly perceived, whereas there are attested cases of clear memory of former lives.Despite the fact that the body depends on conditions for its increase and decrease, the body is endowed with life, and when that life force ceases, it quickly rots and becomes a corpse. No matter how handsome or beautiful it has been, it turns into a corpse. If you analyze this life force that keeps the body from rotting, you will see that it is the mind. The fact that flesh is conjoined with consciousness keeps it from decomposing. The continuum of this mind is what proceeds to the next life.
The difference in nature between mind and matter requires that their substantial causes be different, but this does not mean that mind and matter do not interact, for they do so in many ways. matter can be a cooperative condition of mind, such as when the subtle matter inside the orb of the eye acts as a cooperative condition for visual consciousness, or when a color or shape acts as a cooperative condition of visual consciousness, or when your own body acts as a support, or base, of consciousness itself.
Similarly, consciousness shapes matter, since it is our actions, or karmas, motivated by consciousness, that structure the environment. The pooled influence of the karmas of many beings shape the very world system we inhabit.Also, according to Highest Yoga Tantra, consciousness rides on a wind that is physical, though in its subtlest forms, wind is not composed of particles. because of this close association between mind amd wind, such that they are one undifferentiable entity, an enlightened being can manifest a body with subtle wind as its substantial cause, such as in the case of the Buddha’s Complete Enjoyment Body in a Pure Land.
Applying this doctrine of substantial causes and cooperative conditions to conception, we can see that the substances of father and mother – sperm and ovum – act as substantial cause of the body of the child and act as cooperating conditions of the mind. The last moment of that child’s consciousness in its previous life acts as the substantial cause of the consciousness at the moment of conception and as a cooperating condition of the body.
When the wind, or the energy on which the various levels of consciousness ride, becomes very weak, and dissolves more fully into consciousness, subtler and subtler levels of mind manifest. At the beginning of the fourth phase, when the winds that serve as the mounts for the many attitudes dissolve, there appears to the mind an image like the flame of a butter lamp, flickering at first and then steady. The outer breath ceases. The world generally considers this to be the moment of death, though it is actually later. At this stage, grosser levels of the appearance of subject and object as distant and cut off into separate entities dissolve, the eye does not see forms, the ear does not hear sounds, the the nose does not smell odors, the tongue does not experience tastes, and the body does not feel tangible objects. The luminous and knowing nature of the mind emerges nakedly.
THE INNER STRUCTURE (AND THE FINAL FOUR PHASES OF DEATH) Pages 135-158
May we know our own nature ourselves
Through the yoga realizing cyclic existence and nirvana as empty
When appearance, increase, and near-attainment dissolve – the earlier into the later –
And appearances like pervasive moonlight, sunlight and darkness dawn.
To get a picture of the final four phases of death, it is essential to understand the levels of consciousness as well as the structure of channels, winds and drops of essential fluid inside the body. This is important Tantra physiology and psychology.
Levels of Consciousness
HYT divides consciousness into gross, subtle and very subtle levels. The gross levels of consciousness include the five sense consciousnesses – The eye consciousness that apprehends colors and shapes; the ear consciousness for sounds; the nose consciousness for odors; the tongue consciousness for tastes; the body consciousness for tactile experience. These are individual consciousnesses with specific spheres of activity.
More subtle than these but still on the gross level is the consciousness with which we think. It is grouped into three classes, corresponding to three types of wind – strong, middling, and weak – on which the three classes of consciousness ride. The first class involves a strong movement of wind to its objects and includes the thirty-three conceptual experiences, such as fear, attachment, hunger, thirst, compassion, acquisitiveness, and jealousy. The second group s composed of conceptual consciousnesses that involve a medium movement of wind to their objects – forty conceptions, such as joy, amazement, generosity, desiring to kiss, heroism, non-gentleness, and crookedness. The third group involves a weak movement of wind to its objects – seven conceptions, which are forgetfulness, mistakenness, as in apprehending water in a mirage, catatonia, depression, laziness, doubt, and equal desire and hatred.
These three categories of conceptual experiences are reflections, so to speak, of the deeper levels of consciousness that have less and less dualistic perception. They are imprints of three subtle levels of mind that manifest at periods when the three grosser levels of consciousness cease, either intentionally – as in profound states of meditation – or naturally, as in the process of death, or when going to sleep.
When the winds on which all eighty of these conceptions ride, collapse, the conceptions also dissolve. This allows three subtle levels of consciousness to manifest in this order: minds of vivid white appearance, vivid red-orange appearance, and vivid black appearance. These lead finally to the very subtle level of consciousness, the mind of the clear light of death, which, if utilized in the spiritual path, is most powerful.
Structure of Channels in the Body
In the body there are seventy-two thousand channels – arteries, veins, ducts, nerves, and manifest and unmanifest pathways – that start growing soon after conception at what will become the heart. The three most important channels [these are psychic channels] run from the point between he eyebrows up to the crown of the head then down along the front of the backbone to the base of the spine, finally extending to the end of the sexual organ. This description is a way to imagine the central, right and left channels in meditation.
At vital places in these channels are channel-wheels, with differing numbers of spokes, or channel-petals:
1. The wheel of great bliss resides inside the top of the head. At its centre is the drop of white essential fluid that is the foundation of bliss.
2. The wheel of enjoyment dwells in the middle of the throat.This is where tastes are experienced.
3. The wheel of phenomena is found at the heart. It is the residence of the very subtle wind and mind that are the root of all phenomena.
4. The wheel of emanation is located at the solar plexus. The inner fire, ignited by yoga training, and the means of generating rest bliss, dwells there.
5. The wheel of sustaining bliss is at the base the spine. The deepest level of bliss is sustained from here.
6. The wheel in the middle of the jewel is at the tip of the sexual organ.
7. The wheel between the eye brows.
At the heart, the right and left channels wrap around the central channel three times (each channel also looping over itself) and then proceed downward. This results in a six-fold constriction at the heart, which prevents the passage of wind in the central channel. Since this constriction is severe, the heart is a dangerous focus of meditation, which could result in a nervous breakdown if proper techniques of meditation are not utilized.
At each of these wheels or centres [or chakras], the right and left channels wrap around the central channel making two constrictions. The right and left channels are inflated with wind and constrict the central channel such that wind cannot move in it; these constrictions are called “knots”. These descriptions are meant for practice and may vary from person to person.
Structure of Winds in the Body
When the mind pays attention to an object, it does so through the movement of the wind, or energy. The mind rides on wind like a rider on a horse. According to HYT, our psycho-physical structure involves five primary and five secondary winds:
1. Life-bearing wind. Its main seat is in the set of channels at the heart, and its function is to maintain life.It also gives rise to the five secondary winds, which govern sensory operation and attention.
2. Downward-voiding wind. Its main seat is the set of channels in the lower abdomen, and it moves about in the wind or the seminal vesicle, in the urinary bladder, in the thighs and so on. It stops and starts urination, defecation and menstruation.
3. Fire-dwelling wind. Its main seat is in the set of channels in the solar plexus. This wind causes digestion, separating refined and unrefined parts and so forth.
4. Upward-moving wind. Its main seat is in the set of channels in the throat. Operating throughout the mouth and throat, this wind causes speech, the tasting of food, swallowing, burping, spitting and so on.
5. Pervasive wind. Its man seat is in the joints, causing limber movement, stretching and contracting the limbs, and opening and closing the mouth and eyelids.
As you can see, wind drives physical and mental functions. Good health requires free movement of the winds; blockage causes problems. During the last four phases of dying, the winds that serve as the foundations of consciousness enter into the right and left channels and dissolve there. In turn, the winds in the right and left channels enter into and dissolve into the central channel. The deflation of the right and left channels loosens the channel knots; When the right and left channels become deflated, the central channel is freed, thereby allowing movement of wind inside it. This movement induces the manifestation of subtle minds, which yogis seek to use in the spiritual path; the winds on which a deeply blissful mind rides are withdrawn from moving to objects, and such a mind is particularly powerful in realizing reality.
Drops of Essential Fluid in the Body
At the center of the channel-wheels are drops, white on the top and red on the bottom, upon which physical and mental health are based. At the top of the head, the white element predominates, whereas at the solar plexus the red element predominates. These drops originate from the most basic drop at the heart, which is the size of a large mustard seed or small pea, and, like the others, has a white top and a red bottom.Since it lasts until death this drop at the heart is called the “indestructible drop”. The very subtle life-bearing wind resides inside this drop; at death, all winds ultimately dissolve into it, at which point the clear light of death dawns.
Unfolding of the Final Four Phases of Death
The final four phases of death begin with three levels of subtle mind and conclude with one phase of the very subtle mind. The gross levels of consciousness having ceased, three levels of subtle mind emerge.
When all eighty conceptions of the gross consciousness dissolve, the first of the three subtler levels of mind emerges, a vivid white appearance that dawns of its own accord. This is a luminous openness, like an autumn sky suffused by white light. Nothing else appears to this mind. The first of the three subtler states is called “appearance’ because an appearance like moonlight dawns, but there is no such light shining from outside.
On a physical level, although it takes place outside what the dying person is experiencing, this is what happens in the fifth phase: The winds in the right and left channels above the heart enter the central channel through its opening at the top of the head. Due to this, the knot of channels at the top of the head is loosened. This in turn causes the white drop that dwells at the top of the head and has the nature of water to move downwards; when it arrives at the knot at the heart, the vivid white appearance dawns.
When the mind of white appearance and its wind dissolve into the mind of increase-of-appearance, a vivid red-orange appearance dawns of its own accord.This is an even brighter openness, like an autumn sky free from dust and clouds pervaded by red-orange light. Physically, the winds in the right and left channels below the heart enter the central channel at its opening at the base of the spine or sexual organ. Due to this the knots of the channel-wheels at the sexual organ and the navel loosen. This cause the red drop (shaped like a small vertical line) at the navel to move upwards. As it moves to just below the knot at the heart, the red-orange increase-of-appearance dawns.
When the mind of red-orange increase-of-appearance and its wind dissolve into the mind of near-attainment, a vivid black appearance dawns of its own accord. Now it is like an autumn sky pervaded by the thick darkness that falls right after dusk. During the first part of the mind of black near-attainment, you are still aware, but in the latter part you become unconscious in a very thick darkness like fainting. Physically, the upper and lower winds inside the central channel gather at the heart, loosening the six-fold knot of the right and left channels. At this point, the white drop originating at the crown further descends, and the red drop originating at the navel ascends further, with both entering into the indestructible drop at the heart. When these two meet, the vivd black appearance dawns.
The mind becomes even more subtle than it is during the unconscious second part of the mind of black near-attainment; the movement of wind becomes weaker, and the state of the subtlest wind arrives. At this point, unconsciousness is cleared away, and the mind of clear light, subtlest of all minds, nonconceptual and totally nondualistic, is manifest. At this juncture, all conceptual activity has ceased. A very clear openness dawns. Like an autumn sky at dawn, before sunrise, free from any sullying factors, nothing else appears.This deepest consciousness is called the “fundamental innate mind of clear light”. Physically, the white and red drops dissolve into the repective white and red parts of the indestructible drop at the heart. Thereupon, the winds in the central channel dissolve into the very subtle life-bearing wind. This causes the very subtle wind and the mind of clear light to manifest.
For most people, death occurs when the subtlest level of mind manifests. But the most subtle consciousness may remain in the body for three days or more, and for a capable practitioner, this is a valuable opportunity for practice. The mind of clear light can even be used to realize the truth of the emptiness of inherent existence of all phenomena.
Understanding the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness is crucial to living and dying with realism and without fear. Buddha frequently said that because all phenomena are dependently arisen, they are relative, meaning their existence depends on causes and conditions and on their own parts. Your body, for example, does not exist independently; rather it depends on a great many causes such as ovum and sperm and food and water. It also depends upon its own parts – legs, arms, torso and head.
Examine whether your body, appearing as if it exists in its own right, is the same or different from your arms, legs, torso and head. If it does exist the way it appears, so concretely present, it should become clearer and clearer under the light of analyzing whether the body is any of its individual parts, or whether it is their sum, or whether it is something altogether different. The closer you look, the more it is not found in any of these ways. This is the case for all phenomena. The fact that you cannot find them under such analysis means that they do not exist under their own power; they are not self-established. They do not inherently exist, despite all appearances to the contrary.
All phenomena – causes and effects, agents and actions, good and bad – merely exist conventionally; they are dependent-arisings. Because phenomena depend upon other things for their existence, they are not independent. This absence of independence – or emptiness of inherent existence – is their ultimate truth. Comprehending this is wisdom.
Realizing that you do not inherently exist through using the reason that you are neither one nor many, singular nor plural, does undermine – a little – the ignorance conceiving inherent existence. However the realization does not completely overcome the conception of inherent existence, which remains with respect to yourself. Why? Because a conventional, inherently existent “I” remains to that consciousness. As soon as the “I” appears, along with it the inherent existence to be refuted appears, so what you need is the realization that the “I” that appears upon observing body and mind does not exist.
Here in the stages of dying you seek to take this ultimate nature of phenomena, the emptiness of inherent existence, as an object of the subtler, more powerful minds and concentrate one-pointedly on it.
The clear light of death (pages 159-181)
According to Highest Yoga Tantra, there is no mind more subtle than the mind of clear light; it serves as the basis for all appearances of cyclic existence and nirvana. The mind of clear light has existed continuously since beginningless cyclic existence. Since it is not temporary, it is called fundamental mind, whereas the minds of black near-attainment, red-orange increase-of-appearance and white appearance, and so on, are newly produced and are bound to cease through the power of conditions and thus are temporary and adventitious. This all-empty, fundamental innate mind of clear light is the innermost mind.
From this perspective, the “city of erroneous conceptions” of subject and object can refer to those phenomena that are produced from actions (karma), which themselves arise out of the coarse conceptuality of grosser levels of consciousness. When you are capable of abiding forever in the innate mind of clear light without regressing through coarser levels, there is no opportunity for the accumulation of karma. However, to remain constantly in the mind of clear light you must remove the obstructions to omniscience, which are the defilements of the erroneous appearance of subject and object as if they inherently exist. When you are able to remain in the mind of clear light, conceptual consciousnesses cease. Until then, you are under the sway of a grosser level of consciousness, of temporary conceptuality, and you accumulate karma.
In the final phase of dying, when all coarse consciousnesses dissolve into the all-empty, the myriad objects of the world as well as concepts such as the sameness and difference have been pacified in this subtlest mind. All appearances of environments and beings have withdrawn of their own accord. If you are able to transform the clear light mind of death into a fully qualified spiritual consciousness, the mind recognizes its own face, its own nature: the entity of the fundamental mind.
For a non-practitioner, coarse appearances also withdraw. This withdrawal of conventional appearances, however, is not due to a perception of realty attained through meditation. In these final four phases of dying the winds that serve as the mounts of consciousness become increasingly subtle. When, in the last phase, the temporary winds that carry consciousness have all dissolved, the mind becomes as if undifferentiated, and an immaculate openness dawns.
But as a practitioner, you seek to go beyond this ordinary emptiness, this mere absence of conventional appearances. When the clear light mind dawns, seek to realize the extraordinary emptiness of inherent existence with the mind of clear light itself. This will not come about because of exertion at the time of the clear light, but arises from the force of familiarity gained prior to the phases of dissolution, and from the strong mindfulness of emptiness during the dawning of the three minds of white, red and black appearance. This confirms the importance of continual training.
The cornerstone of my own practice is reflection on the four basic teachings of impermanence, suffering, emptiness and selflessness. In addition, as a part of eight different daily ritual practices, I meditate of the stages of dying. Thus, at the time of death, these steps will supposedly be familiar. But whether I will succeed or not, I do not know.
Someone who practises Highest Yoga Tantra daily imagines the appearance of the eight signs of death – mirage, smoke, fireflies, flame of a butter lamp, vivid white appearance, vivid red-orange increase-of-appearance, vivid black near-attainment and clear light – in conjunction with reflection on emptiness. This is done with a threefold mindfulness: You identify the sign that is presently appearing, then identify the previous sign, and then identify the next sign. For instance, “Fireflies are appearing. Smoke just passed. A flame is about to appear.” Although the eight signs do not actually appear in meditation except for advanced yogis, you maintain the three mindfulnesses in your imagination for the sake of developing familiarity with these signs. In full-fledged practice, when you reach the level of actual cultivation, you remain in meditative concentration on emptiness and the signs appear of their own accord.
In Tantra practice, imagination is used to accelerate spiritual development. Deity yoga requires you:
1. To imagine that your mind (even though ordinarily bothered by afflictive emotions) is a mind of pure wisdom motivated by compassion
2. To substitute the appearance of your ordinary body (composed of flesh, blood, and bone) with a body risen out of compassionately motivated wisdom
3. To develop a sense of a pure self based on a purely appearing mind and body in an ideal environment, fully involved in helping others.
In these ways, you visualize yourself as having the Buddha’s body, activities, resources, and surroundings. Imagination is the key. In meditating on yourself in this ideal condition, you begin with reflection on emptiness, developing as much awareness of the emptiness of inherent existence as you can. It is from that awareness that the deity appears.
In Highest Yoga Tantra, practitioners similarly first reflect on emptiness, but then they conjoin whatever level of understanding they have of emptiness with the gradual unfolding of the eight signs of death. As a final step, they use the mind of clear light realizing emptiness – or a consciousness mimicking such a state of mind – as the basis out of which they appear in ideal, compassionate form as a deity.
At the end of the period during which the subtlest mind remains in the body, there is a slight movement of the wind on which the mind of clear light rides, and the most subtle wind and most subtle consciousness leave the opened drop of white and red constituents at the heart and exit the body. A small mount of blood emerges from the nose and a small amount of essential white fluid emerges from the sexual organ. At this point the body begins to rot and smell.
At the end of an ordinary death, i.e. not the death of a yogi but of an ordinary person, three events occur simultaneously: 1. the clear light ceases, 2. you rise from the clear light of death into the vivid black near-attainment, 3. the intermediate state begins, after which the remaining six reverse steps occur. Ordinary people pass into an ordinary intermediate state through the force of karma. If this happens, you should immediately recognize and understand your situation.
Just as when you go to sleep you re-emerge with a dream-body, so in the intermediate state you suddenly have a body shaped like that in which you will be reborn. This body is often like your future body at around the age of five or six. Like a dream-body, it is made from a wind-mind combination. The wind on which the mind of clear light rides is the substantial cause of that body, but it is also a cooperative condition contributing to the mind of the intermediate state. The mind of clear light, conversely, is the substantial cause of the mind of the intermediate state and the cooperative condition contributing to the body. You have all five senses, but your body is clear like a rainbow, casting no shadow, and you do not leave footprints. By the magical force of karma you are endowed with the ability to travel in a very short time around or through this world system, unimpeded by earth, rock, mountains and buildings; nevertheless, once you have entered your new mother’s womb, you cannot leave. Although you speak to your relatives, friends and so on, they do not hear you, and thus do not answer in return. You have limited clairvoyance.
If you find that you show signs of being in this state, you should think, “I have died and am now dwelling in the intermediate state.” Use the power of mindfulness to realize that pleasant and unpleasant experiences during the intermediate state are the creations of a mistaken mind, and use mindfulness to understand that there is no point in being attached to the pleasant or angered by the unpleasant. Know that these appearances are due to former actions (karma), which do not inherently exist. Instead, imagine everything as limitlessly pure, and detach yourself from any dislike of the ugly or attraction to the beautiful.
While you are alive, all winds and conceptions are sunk in ordinary patterns and are not under your control. During the intermediate state, the winds, or energies, associated with the four elements reverse their usual patterns, and frightful sounds emerge from this reversal. When the earth-wind collapses, a sound like mountains crumbling loudly rumbles. When the water-wind collapses, a sound like an ocean in uproar crashes. When the fire-wind collapses, a sound like a fire blazing in a heavy forest rages. Due to the collapse of the wind-wind, a sound like a horrendous whirling hurricane howls. There are also frightful appearances of hell-beings, hungry ghosts and animals that are projections of your own karma. Some appear as Lords of Death, brandishing their weapons and shouting, “Strike! Kill!” and you are frightened.
Your place, reliance, behavior, food, friends, and feelings are completely uncertain. Three frightful ravines appear, depending on whether you are dominated by lust, ignorance or hatred. There are also four paths, indicating your next life. If wherever you go there is a path of yellow light, your next life will be as a human or an animal. The direction of your movement, too, reflects your rebirth. Hell-beings, hungry ghosts and animals proceed downward headfirst. Humans go straight forward.
The intermediate state could be as short as an instant, especially if your virtuous karma is particularly strong, as would be the case if you had developed powerful love and compassion, or developed a powerful wish to be born in a Pure Land, or when your your intention to be reborn for the benefit of others is powerful. The intermediate state could also be as short as an instant if your non-virtuous karma is particularly strong, from, for example, killing a parent. Otherwise, driven by karma in varying degrees of darkness and light, you will rush about seeking a situation for rebirth. If it is not found within seven days, the intermediate being dies. In this small death, you quickly pass through the eight stages of death in forward order, but you re-emerge into a new intermediate state – again through the reverse order. At the most, this process can continue through seven such rebirths in the intermediate state, making forty nine days.
In the midst of these various appearances, you are seeking to remain calm, and to cause:
1. your external environments to appear as wondrous
2. internal beings to appear as deities
3. your own awareness and thoughts to appear as the concentrated meditation of bliss realizing emptiness.
This will yield rebirth in a place where you can continue your practice toward deeper spiritual realizations.
TAKING A POSITIVE REBIRTH (pages 201-207)
Connecting to the next life while in the intermediate state is a process of attraction and repulsion. Both animals that are born from eggs outside the body and beings born from wombs either see their parents actually in the process of sex, or an image of this, and then generate desire for the parent of opposite sex and repulsion for the parent of the same sex. When the intermediate being is about to embrace the one it desires, suddenly all it sees is that person’s sexual organ, and so it gets angry. In this way, attraction and repulsion finally bring about the death of the intermediate state being.
We have to say that this is the way the intermediate state sometimes ends, since in vitro fertilization contradicts what some of our texts say has to be case – specifically, that the parents have to be lying together under a condition of strong sexual arousal. Nowadays, the father’s semen may be kept in a laboratory and inserted into the mother’s womb without any sexual arousal. This procedure contradicting certain scriptures is now a reality, and we must accept it. During the death of the intermediate state the being passes through the eight phases in forward order. At the moment of conception, the being passes through the remaining seven in reverse order.
The very subtle wind and mind of the being enters the material (egg and sperm) contributed by the parents. In the fetus, which by this time is the size of a large mustard seed, the central channel forms with the left and right channels circling it three times. Then the upward-moving wind and the downward-voiding wind move in their respective directions and the three channels become extended. The body gradually develops and eventually emerges from the womb.
By continually sustaining an advanced spiritual practice you can be reborn with a special physical body supporting a life in which you will be capable of finishing the remaining Tantra paths that lead to full enlightenment. The attainment of Buddhahood allows you to help a vast number of sentient beings through myriad means.
The Four Tasks of Living and Dying
Selected extracts from Kathleen McDonald (Ven. Sangye Khadro) in her 2003 booklet Preparing For Death and Helping the Dying – A Buddhist Perspective
THE FOUR TASKS OF LIVING AND DYING
Christine Longaker, an American woman with over 20 years’ experience working with the dying, has formulated four tasks which will help us to prepare for death, as well as to live our lives fully and meaningfully. The four are:
Understanding and transforming suffering. Basically this means coming to an acceptance of the various problems, difficulties and painful experiences which are an inevitable part of life, and learning to cope with them. If we can learn to cope with the smaller sufferings that we encounter as we go through life, we will be better able to cope with the bigger sufferings that we will face when we die.
We can ask ourselves: how do I react when problems, physical or mental, happen to me? Is my way of reacting healthy and satisfying, or could it be improved? What are some ways I can learn to cope better with problems?
Suggested practices from the Tibetan tradition include patience, thinking about karma, compassion, and tonglen (“taking and giving”). An explanation of these practices can be found in Transforming Problems into Happiness by Lama Zopa Rinpoche (Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1993).
Making a connection, healing relationships and letting go. This task refers to our relationships with others, particularly family and friends. The main points here are to learn to communicate honestly, compassionately and unselfishly, and to resolve any unresolved problems we may have with others.
Think about your relationships with your family, friends, people you work with, etc. Are there any unresolved problems? How can you start working towards resolving these?
Suggestions: Forgiveness meditation, resolving problems.
Preparing spiritually for death. Christine writes: “Every religious tradition emphasizes that to prepare spiritually for death it is vital that we establish right now a daily spiritual practice, a practice so deeply ingrained that it becomes part of our flesh and bones, our reflexive response to every situation in life, including our experiences of suffering.” A list of recommended spiritual practices from the Buddhist tradition can be found below.
Check: try to imagine yourself at the time of death—what thoughts and feelings would come up in your mind at that time? Are there any spiritual ideas or practices you have learned or experienced that would give you comfort and peace at that time?
Finding meaning in life. Many of us go through life without a clear idea as to what is the purpose and meaning of our existence. This lack of clarity can become a problem as we become older and closer to death because we become less capable and more dependent upon others. So it is important to explore such questions as “What is the purpose of my life? Why am I here? What is important and not important?”
These four tasks are fully explained in Facing Death and Finding Hope by Christine Longaker (NY: Doubleday, and London: Century, 1997) pps. 37-157.
Painful or frightening experiences that occur at the time of death and afterwards
are the result of negative actions, or karma. To prevent such experiences, we need to refrain from negative actions and do as many positive actions as we can. For example, we can do our best to avoid the ten non-virtuous actions (killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, harsh speech, lying, slander, gossip, covetousness, ill-will and wrong views) and to practice the ten virtues (consciously refraining from killing, etc. and doing actions opposite to the ten non-virtues). It’s also good to take vows or precepts, and do purification practices on a daily basis.
Another aspect of Buddhist ethics is working on our minds to reduce the very causes of negative actions: delusions, or disturbing emotions, such as anger, greed, pride, and so forth. And awareness of death itself is one of the most effective antidotes for delusions.
To illustrate this point: I heard the story of a woman who had an argument with her son just before the son left home with his father to go on a fishing trip. The son was killed on the trip. You can imagine the pain the mother must have suffered—not only did she lose her son, but the last words she spoke to him were angry ones.
There is no way of knowing when death will happen, to ourself or to another. Each time we part from someone, even for a short time, there’s no certainty that we will meet them again. Realizing this can help us to avoid hanging on to negative feelings, and to resolve our conflicts with others as quickly as possible. That will ensure that we do not die with those burdens on our minds, or that we live with painful regret if the person we had a problem with were to die before we had a chance to apologize and clear up the problem.
Also, as we approach death, it’s good to start giving away our possessions, or at least make a will. Doing that will help reduce attachment and worry (“What will happen to all my things?” “Who will get what?”) at the time of death.
STUDY SPIRITUAL TEACHINGS
Learning spiritual teachings such as those given by the Buddha will help us to overcome delusions and negative behaviour, and will help us become more wise and compassionate. Also, the more we understand reality or truth — the nature of our life, the universe, karma, our capacity for spiritual development and how to bring it about — the less we will be afraid of death.
CULTIVATE A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
As we are dying, we may find ourselves experiencing physical discomfort and pain. In addition to this, we may also experience disturbing thoughts and emotions, such as regrets about the past, fears about the future, sadness about having to separate from our loved ones and possessions, and anger about the misfortunes that are happening to us. As mentioned above, it is very important to keep our mind free from such negative thoughts, and instead to have positive thoughts at the time of death. Examples of positive thoughts could include:
1 keeping in mind an object of our faith such as Buddha or God,
2 calm acceptance of our death and the problems associated with it,
3 non-attachment to our loved ones and possessions,
4 feeling positive about the way we have lived our life, remembering good things we have done,
5 feeling loving-kindness and compassion for others.
In order to be able to invoke such thoughts or attitudes at the time of death, we need to be familiar with them. Familiarity with positive states of mind depends upon putting time and effort into spiritual practice while we are alive. And the best time to start is now, since we have no way of knowing when death will happen.
Some recommended practices from the Buddhist tradition include:
In Buddhism, taking refuge is an attitude of feeling faith in and relying upon the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, accompanied by a sincere effort to learn and practice the Buddhist teachings in our life. It is said in the Buddhist teachings that taking refuge at the time of death will ensure that we will obtain a fortunate rebirth and avoid an unfortunate one in our next lifetime. Faith in one’s personal spiritual teachers, or in a specific Buddha or Bodhisattva such as Amitabha or Kuan Yin, will also have the same result and will bring great comfort to the mind at the time of death.
Pure Land practice
A popular practice, particularly in the Mahayana tradition, is to pray for rebirth in a Pure Land, such as the Pure Land of Bliss (Sukhavati) of Amitabha Buddha. Pure Lands are manifested by the Buddhas to aid those who wish to continue their spiritual practice in the next life, free of the distractions, hassles and interferences of the ordinary world.
Bokar Rinpoche mentions four essential conditions that need to be cultivated in order to take birth in Amitabha’s Pure Land: 1) making ourselves familiar with the image of the Pure Land and meditating upon it, 2) having a sincere wish to be born there, and making regular prayers for such a rebirth, 3) purifying our negative actions and accumulating positive actions, and dedicating these to be born in the Pure Land, and 4) having the motivation of bodhicitta—the aspiration to attain enlightenment (Buddhahood) to be able to help all beings – as the reason for wishing to be in the Pure Land.
Mindfulness is a meditative practice that involves being aware of whatever is happening in our body and mind accompanied by equanimity, free of attachment to what is pleasant and aversion to what is unpleasant. Strong familiarity with this practice gives one the ability to cope with pain and discomfort, keep the mind free from disturbing emotions, and remain peaceful while dying. Several books on mindfulness and meditation are mentioned in the reading list.
This practice involves cultivating feelings of care, concern and kindness towards all other beings. When we face difficulties or pain, our strong attachment to ‘I’ augments our suffering, whereas being less concerned with ourselves and more concerned for others diminishes our suffering. At the time of death, thinking of other beings and wishing them to be happy and free from suffering would bring great peace to our mind. Lama Zopa Rinpoche says that these are the best thoughts and feelings that we could have in our mind before and during death. Not only do they help us have a more peaceful death, but they also purify our negativities and accumulate positive potential, or merit, which ensures a good rebirth in the next life.
More information on how to cultivate loving-kindness can be found in Sharon Salzburg’s book, LovingKindness-The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.