Geshe Sonam Answers Questions on Death & the Intermediate State (the Bardo)
Geshe Sonam’s Teaching at Wheel of Life Workshop 17 May 2014
Questions on Dying, Death and the Bardo
Question: How does knowledge of the bardo help us prepare for death and help others who are dying?
Geshe-la’s Answer: According to the Wheel of Life, or the Twelve Links of Interdependent Existence, the time of dying is the time of the three links of ‘Craving’, ‘Grasping’ and ‘Existence’. If we can help others have a positive mind at this time, that is one of the best things we can do.
The link of craving is when we desire strongly something from this life that we think will make us happy, and then seeing that as real, we grasp at it. The result is that we precipitate the link of becoming, that is, the start of a new existence in samsara. We have thousands of latencies or karmic imprints on our mind, both positive and negative. We should try to foster positive latencies especially at the last breath. Otherwise we face the possibility of an unhappy rebirth.
Lord Buddha said that the most powerful karmic imprints will ripen first; then what has been most habituated in our mind will ripen; finally the most recent imprints will ripen. When we encourage positive thoughts at death, we are relying on the third most likely ripening, that of the most recent imprints.
For most people, the store of negative imprints far exceeds the store of positive latencies. We are more habituated to negative actions, as we have had countless lives acting on negative impulses. So now it only takes the slightest of external conditions to activate afflicted desire and anger. Attached to loved ones, our minds are disturbed; averse to foes, we generate hatred.
On the other hand, to develop positive qualities like gratitude, patience or compassion requires great effort. We must apply this effort especially at death, in order to generate positive states of mind. If we are too weak to do it ourselves, we rely on others encouraging us and praying on our behalf. Reflect on loving kindness, or compassion, your spiritual master, the Three Jewels, the six paramitas or other qualities. Then you can count on rebirth into the higher realms.
To help others at this time, be gentle of voice, be kind, have pictures of the buddhas, their teacher or guru. Attend to their requests such as “Move me to the left; to the right; help me sit up; lie down.” Foster the conditions for them to generate a positive mental state.
When the breathing stops, the first of the four gross stages of dissolution are complete. Then begins the four subtle stages of dissolution, at the end of which the consciousness leaves the body, and enters the bardo state. The consciousness immediately assumes the ‘body’ of a being of the realm to which they are destined by their karma. Vasubandhu (Pali tradition) says that now it is too late to change the realm into which the being will be born. But Asanga (Sanskrit tradition) says it is possible to change the final destination of the bardo being. For the benefit of a change from a lower to a higher realm to take place, one must make sincere offerings, for example of water bowls, to the Triple Gem, to charity, and to the buddhas. You must foster your connection to your guru. One is relying on a strong karmic connection with the person offering the prayers, whether that be a relative, a Dharma friend, or a special friend.
Question: Are the hallucinations experienced by a mentally ill person like the hallucinations experienced in the bardo?
Answer: Hallucinations come from non-virtue, whether you are mentally ill or in the bardo. During the process of dying, some people will have negative karma ripening, and will experience terrible sounds and visions. These are activated by the disturbing emotions. Bardo beings may experience being pulled down to the lower realms by horrible demons. Such visions seem more real and more powerful than those of psychotic persons in the human realm. Here, you may not be hallucinating all the time, there are breaks of lucidity, temporary respite, but not so for bardo beings.
To develop positive qualities like patience and compassion, we must first hear about these qualities again and again. The mind will never become satiated with them. However, our hearing must be broad and vast, not just an accumulation of knowledge. The purpose of hearing is to change the mind, so one must reflect again and again on what one has heard. Eventually the quality becomes part of your mind. In single-pointed concentration on that quality, you can then achieve a ‘realization’ of that quality. It becomes spontaneous, uncontrived. Thus, meditation on the quality is essential too.
Question: What is the most beneficial thing to do for someone who has died recently or a long time ago?
Answer: If they have died recently, you can do one or more of the following:
- Make sincere prayers on their behalf. It is best to back up the prayers with a material offering.
- Request a high lama, with offerings, to make prayers on their behalf
- Make offerings to the Triple Gem on their behalf
- Save the lives of animals on their behalf
- If you can do these activities conjoined with the six paramitas (a mind of generosity, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom) it will be of great benefit
If they died a long time ago, you can pray that they quickly attain a perfect human rebirth and back up your prayers with material offerings to the buddhas, to charity, to your Dharma Centre and so on.
Geshe Sonam’s Teaching at Wheel of Life Workshop 15 March 2014
Dying, Death and the Bardo (Notes taken by Len Warren)
Liberation from cyclic existence means going beyond the Six Realms, going beyond being powerless to be conceived and reborn. We become free of being bound by our karma and afflictive desires.
How do we experience cyclic existence? We exist in one of three ‘realms’: desire, form or formless realms. Beings in these realms experience uncontrolled birth and death. There are Six Types of Beings who inhabit these three realms: gods, anti-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings. These are the sentient beings that transmigrate from one realm to another. There are four types of birth: by womb, heat, egg or miracle.
Under the control of karma and delusions we give up the old body and take a new one. How does this happen? the explanation is given by the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination (‘Wheel of Life’). There are six causes and six effects. The three projecting causes are ignorance, karmic formations, and consciousness. The three accomplishing causes are craving, grasping and becoming. The six results are name & form, six senses, contact, feelings, birth, old age & death. It is important to be able to recognise the first link of ignorance or ego-grasping, the innate notion of the self that is the cause of all our problems. We grasp at a false notion of an I that does not depend of the five aggregates of form, feelings, discrimination, compositional factors and consciousness. But in fact the I is an other-dependent thing. Powerful ego-grasping over many lives becomes innate. We develop an attachment to I and mine and an aversion to others. This sets in motion karmic actions that cause us to cycle in samsara in an uncontrolled manner.
Thus, karma is created out of ignorance. This is a consciousness called karmic formations (second link), that acts for a split second and then becomes an imprint or latency on the mind. The mind or consciousness that the karma is imprinted on is the third link of ‘consciousness’. These first three links are what throw us into samsara.
At the time of death, the links of craving, grasping and becoming are activated. We don’t want to let go of our present body, and crave to hold onto it. At some point, you know that you will die soon, and this causes us to grasp at a future existence. If positive karmic seeds manifest at this point, they become a positive new existence, and vice versa for negative seeds.
Let’s consider a ‘normal death’; this gives us the opportunity to be aware of the four outer and four inner signs of dissolution. We won’t see these signs in sudden deaths or accidents. Our bodies are made up of ‘earth, water, fire and air’ (figuratively rather than literally). We see the signs of each of these elements decaying or dissolving. The earth element loses its power to sustain us and dissolves into the water element. We lose our vigour and bodily strength. The eyes shrink into the head and the mouth shrinks. It is difficult to move our limbs; we feel as though we are sinking into the earth. Then the water element loses its power and dissolves into the fire element. Saliva in the moth dries up. Lips recede to reveal the teeth. As the fire element dissolves into the air or wind element, our body loses its heat. If the heat is lost from the head first and the body cools towards the feet, this is said to be the sign of a bad rebirth. If the feet cool first and the head last, this is a sign of a good rebirth, a sign that you tried to help others and refrained from non-virtue.
As the air dissolves into the consciousness, there are long out-breaths and short in-breaths. Then the gross breathing ceases. This is the time of ‘clinical death’. From the Buddhist point of view, we want to utilize this experience. The Panchen Lama said that it is so important to be able to recognise these signs, and to be able to recall positive states such as gratitude and compassion. The four internal signs that are concomitant with the outward signs listed above are: visions in the mind of a mirage, smoke, fireflies and a sole butter lamp.
As the breath ceases, the normal ‘gross’ mind that we use 24/7 dissolves into more subtle states of mind. The 80 conceptual thoughts dissolve. All 72,000 physic channels and their ‘winds’ dissolve into the three central channels, and then the left and right channels dissolve into the central channel. We experience a ‘clear white appearance’ as the white male drop at the crown descends toward the heart chakra in the central channel. This is followed by the ‘radiant red increase’ as the red female drop at the navel ascends. Abiding at your heart is your ‘subtle mind’. The two drops encase this when they meet at the heart. Then you experience the ‘black near attainment’. This continues for up to an hour when you swoon and the ‘clear light mind of death’ dawns. The clear light mind is like lucid space. It is the true nature of your mind, the ‘fundamental clear light mind’, the basis for samsara and nirvana. At this stage, one should try to focus on the nature of reality.
These things will happen; they are not just stories. Yogis become thoroughly familiar with the stages of dying. Then at the actual death time, they have a practice to follow which gives hope. The clear light mind of death is called the ‘Mother’ because we all have it. Yogis can use such a mind at death to understand emptiness, which is called the ‘Child’. With the union of the mother and the child, the yogi no longer has to cycle uncontrolled in samsara.
For us ordinary beings who are not yogis, what is actualised is the bardo state or the intermediate state between death and rebirth. We will all experience the white, red and black appearances and the clear light mind, called the ‘Four Empties’, when we stop breathing. The process of death is not complete just because we stop breathing. Not until the subtle mind exits the heart is the person ‘dead’. At that moment, the bardo being is established. If the person is going to be reborn as a human, the bardo being will have the shape of a human, with a body the size of an eight year-old.
During the next seven days, the mind is constantly looking for a place to be reborn. If it can’t find a place it ‘dies’ and is ‘reborn’ again as a bardo being. The maximum time you can remain in the bardo is seven cycles of seven days i. e. 49 days. By then you will have found a rebirth.
Once the bardo being is established can you change the realm of its rebirth? For instance, can you prevent it being reborn as a dog? The Theravadin tradition says no, you can’t change anything now. But the Mahayana tradition says that you can. The family and others with strong karmic connections to the bardo being, can by virtuous actions, change its journey. The bardo being can pass through nearly all solid objects except the future mother’s womb, Bodhgaya, and stupas. If they speak, their relatives cant hear them. They don’t see the sun, stars or moon. They don’t leave footprints or a shadow. They have a type of clairvoyance. In a sense, the bardo being is a miraculous rebirth.