DEATH AND DYING IN THE TIBETAN BUDDHIST TRADITION

Standaard

Compiled by:

Ven. Pende Hawter
The Karuna Hospice Service
P.O. Box 2020
Windsor 4030
Queensland, Australia
Contemplation and meditation on death and impermanence are
regarded as very important in Buddhism for two reasons : (1) it is
only by recognising how precious and how short life is that we are most
likely to make it meaningful and to live it fully and (2) by
understanding the death process and familiarizing ourself with it, we
can remove fear at the time of death and ensure a good rebirth.
Because the way in which we live our lives and our state of
mind at death directly influence our future lives, it is said that the
aim or mark of a spiritual practitioner is to have no fear or regrets
at the time of death. People who practice to the best of their
abilities will die, it is said, in a state of great bliss. The mediocre
practitioner will die happily. Even the initial practitioner will have
neither fear nor dread at the time of death. So one should aim at
achieving at least the smallest of these results.
There are two common meditations on death in the Tibetan
tradition. The first looks at the certainty and imminence of death
and what will be of benefit at the time of death, in order to motivate
us to make the best use of our lives. The second is a simulation or
rehearsal of the actual death process, which familiarizes us with death
and takes away the fear of the unknown, thus allowing us to die
skilfully. Traditionally, in Buddhist countries, one is also encouraged
to go to a cemetery or burial ground to contemplate on death and
become familiar with this inevitable event.

The first of these meditations is known as the nine-round death
meditation, in which we contemplate the 3 roots, the 9 reasonings, and
the 3 convictions, as described below:

A DEATH IS CERTAIN

1. There is no possible way to escape death.
No-one ever has, not even Jesus, Buddha, etc. Of the
current
world population of over 5 billion people, almost none
will be
alive in 100 years time.

2. Life has a definite, inflexible limit and each moment
brings us
closer to the finality of this life.
We are dying from the moment we are born.

3. Death comes in a moment and its time is unexpected.
All that separates us from the next life is one breath.

Conviction: To practise the spiritual path and ripen our inner
potential by
cultivating positive mental qualities and abandoning disturbing mental
qualities.
B THE TIME OF DEATH IS UNCERTAIN

4. The duration of our lifespan is uncertain.
The young can die before the old, the healthy before
the sick,
etc.
5. There are many causes and circumstances that lead to
death, but
few that favour the sustenance of life.
Even things that sustain life can kill us, for example
food, motor
vehicles, property.

6. The weakness and fragility of one’s physical body
contribute to life’s uncertainty.
The body can be easily destroyed by disease or
accident, for
example cancer, AIDS, vehicle accidents, other
disasters.

Conviction: To ripen our inner potential now, without delay.
C THE ONLY THING THAT CAN HELP US AT THE TIME OF DEATH IS
OUR MENTAL/SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT (because all that goes on to
the next life is our mind with its karmic (positive or
negative) imprints.)

7. Worldly possessions such as wealth, position, money
can’t help.

8. Relatives and friends can neither prevent death nor go
with us.

9. Even our own precious body is of no help to us.
We have to leave it behind like a shell, an empty husk,
an
overcoat.

Conviction: To ripen our inner potential purely, without staining our
efforts with attachment to worldly concerns.
The second meditation simulates or rehearses the actual death
process. Knowledge of this process is particularly important because
advanced practitioners can engage in a series of yogas that are
modelled on death, intermediate state (Tibetan: bar-do) and rebirth
until they gain such control over them that they are no longer subject
to ordinary uncontrolled death and rebirth.

It is therefore essential for the practitioner to know the
stages of death and the mind-body relationship behind them. The
description of this is based on a presentation of the winds, or
currents of energy, that serve as foundations for various levels of
consciousness, and the channels in which they flow. Upon the serial
collapse of the ability of these winds to serve as bases of
consciousness, the internal and external events of death unfold.
Through the power of meditation, the yogi makes the coarse winds
dissolve into the very subtle life-bearing wind at the heart. This yoga
mirrors the process that occurs at death and involves concentration on
the psychic channels and the channel-centres (chakras) inside the body.

At the channel-centres there are white and red drops, upon
which physical and mental health are based. The white is predominant
at the top of the head and the red at the solar plexus. These drops
have their origin in a white and red drop at the heart centre, and
this drop is the size of a small pea and has a white top and red
bottom. It is called the indestructible drop, since it lasts until
death. The very subtle life-bearing wind dwells inside it and, at
death, all winds ultimately dissolve into it, whereupon the clear
light vision of death dawns.

The physiology of death revolves around changes in the winds,
channels and drops. Psychologically, due to the fact that
consciousnesses of varying grossness and subtlety depend on the winds,
like a rider on a horse, their dissolving or loss of ability to serve
as bases of consciousness induces radical changes in conscious
experience.

Death begins with the sequential dissolution of the winds
associated with the four elements (earth, water, fire and air).
“Earth” refers to the hard factors of the body such as bone, and the
dissolution of the wind associated with it means that that wind is no
longer capable of serving as a mount or basis for consciousness. As a
consequence of its dissolution, the capacity of the wind associated
with “water” (the fluid factors of the body) to act as a mount for
consciousness becomes more manifest. The ceasing of this capacity in
one element and its greater manifestation in another is called
“dissolution” – it is not, therefore, a case of gross earth dissolving
into water.

Simultaneously with the dissolution of the earth element, four
other factors dissolve (see Chart 1), accompanied by external signs
(generally visible to others) and an internal sign (the inner
experience of the dying person). The same is repeated in serial order
for the other three elements (see Charts 2-4), with corresponding
external and internal signs.
CHART 1: FIRST CYCLE OF SIMULTANEOUS DISSOLUTION

Factor dissolving External sign
Internal sign

earth element body becomes very thin,
limbs loose; sense that
body is sinking under
the earth

aggregate of forms limbs become smaller,
body becomes weak
and powerless

basic mirror-like sight becomes unclear
appearance of
wisdom (our ordinary and dark mirages
consciousness that
clearly perceives many
objects simultaneously)

eye sense one cannot open or close
eyes

colours and shapes lustre of body diminishes;
one’s strength is consumed

CHART 2: SECOND CYCLE OF SIMULTANEOUS DISSOLUTION

Factor dissolving External sign
Internal sign

water element saliva, sweat, urine,
blood and regenerative
fluid dry greatly

aggregate of feelings body consciousness can
(pleasure, pain and no longer experience the
neutrality) three types of feelings
that accompany sense
consciousnesses

basic wisdom of equality one is no longer mindful
appearance of smoke
(our ordinary conscious- of the feelings accom-
ness mindful of pleasure, panying the mental
pain and neutral feelings consciousness
as feelings)

ear sense one no longer hears
external or internal
sounds

sounds ‘ur’ sound in ears no
longer arises
CHART 3: THIRD CYCLE OF SIMULTANEOUS DISSOLUTION

Factor dissolving External sign
Internal sign

fire element one cannot digest food or
drink

aggregate of discrimi- one is no longer mindful
nations of affairs of close
persons

basic wisdom of analysis one can no longer
(our ordinary conscious- remember the names
appearance of fireflies
ness mindful of the of close persons
or sparks within smoke
individual names, pur-
poses and so forth of
close persons)

nose sense inhalation weak, exhala-
tion strong and lengthy

odours one cannot smell
CHART 4: FOURTH CYCLE OF SIMULTANEOUS DISSOLUTION

Factor dissolving External sign
Internal sign

wind element the ten winds move to
heart; inhalation and
exhalation ceases

aggregate of composi- one cannot perform
tional factors physical actions

basic wisdom of achiev- one is no longer mindful
ing activities (our of external worldly
ordinary consciousness activities, purposes and
mindful of external so forth
appearance of a
activities, purposes
sputtering butter-lamp
and so forth) about to go out

tongue sense tongue becomes thick and
short; root of tongue
becomes blue

tastes one cannot experience
tastes

body sense and tangible one cannot experience
objects smoothness or roughness
CHART 5: FIFTH TO EIGHTH CYCLES OF DISSOLUTION

Factor dissolving Cause of appearance
Internal sign

FIFTH CYCLE

eighty conceptions winds in right and left
at first, burning
channels above heart
butter-lamp; then,
enter central channel at
clear vacuity filled
top of head
with white light

SIXTH CYCLE

mind of white winds in right and left
very clear vacuity
appearance channels below heart
filled with red light
enter central channel at
base of spine
SEVENTH CYCLE

mind of red increase upper and lower winds at
first, vacuity filled
gather at heart; then
with thick darkness;
winds enter drop at
then, as if swooning
heart
unconsciously
EIGHTH CYCLE

mind of black near- all winds dissolve into
very clear vacuity free
attainment the very subtle life-
of the white, red and
bearing wind in the
black appearances –
indestructible drop at
the mind of clear
the heart
light of death

(The above charts are taken from “Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth
in Tibetan Buddhism” by Lati Rinbochay and Jeffrey Hopkins)

Upon the inception of the fifth cycle the mind begins to
dissolve, in the sense that coarser types cease and subtler minds
become manifest. First, conceptuality ceases, dissolving into a mind of
white appearance. This subtler mind, to which only a vacuity filled by
white light appears, is free from coarse conceptuality. It, in turn,
dissolves into a heightened mind of red appearance, which then
dissolves into a mind of black appearance. At this point all that
appears is a vacuity filled by blackness, during which the person
eventually becomes unconscious. In time this is cleared away, leaving a
totally clear emptiness (the mind of clear light) free from the white,
red and black appearances (see Chart 5). This is the final vision of
death.

This description of the various internal visions correlates
closely with the literature on the near-death experience. People who
have had a near-death experience often describe moving from darkness
(for example a black tunnel) towards a brilliant, peaceful, loving
light. A comprehensive study comparing death and near-death experiences
of Tibetans and Euro-Americans has shown many similarities between the
two (Carr, 1993). Care must be taken though in such comparisons because
the near-death experience is not actual death, that is, the
consciousness permanently leaving the body.

Since the outer breath ceased some time before (in the fourth
cycle), from this point of view the point of actual death is related
not to the cessation of the outer breath but to the appearance of the
mind of clear light. A person can remain in this state of lucid
vacuity for up to three days, after which (if the body has not been
ravaged by illness) the external sign of drops of red or white liquid
emerging from the nose and sexual organ occur, indicating the departure
of consciousness.

Other signs of the consciousness leaving the body are 1) when
all heat has left the area of the heart centre (in the centre of the
chest), 2) the body starts to smell or decompose, 3) a subtle awareness
that the consciousness has left and the body has become like ‘an empty
shell’, 4) a slumping of the body in a practitioner who has been
sitting in meditation after the stopping of the breath. Buddhists
generally prefer that the body not be removed for disposal before one
or more of these signs occur, because until then the consciousness is
still in the body and any violent handling of it may disturb the end
processes of death. A Buddhist monk or nun or friend should ideally be
called in before the body is moved in order for the appropriate prayers
and procedures to be carried out.

When the clear light vision ceases, the consciousness leaves
the body and passes through the other seven stages of dissolution
(black near-attainment, red increase etc.) in reverse order. As soon as
this reverse process begins the person is reborn into an intermediate
state between lives, with a subtle body that can go instantly wherever
it likes, move through solid objects etc., in its journey to the next
place of rebirth.

The intermediate state can last from a moment to seven days,
depending on whether or not a suitable birthplace is found. If one is
not found the being undergoes a “small death”, experiencing the eight
signs of death as previously described (but very briefly). He/she then
again experiences the eight signs of the reverse process and is reborn
in a second intermediate state. This can happen for a total of seven
births in the intermediate state (making a total of forty-nine days)
during which a place of rebirth must be found.

The “small death” that occurs between intermediate states or
just prior to taking rebirth is compared to experiencing the eight
signs (from the mirage-like vision to the clear light) when going into
deep sleep or when coming out of a dream. Similarly also, when
entering a dream or when awakening from sleep the eight signs of the
reverse process are experienced.

These states of increasing subtlety during death and of
increasing grossness during rebirth are also experienced in fainting
and orgasm as well as before and after sleeping and dreaming, although
not in complete form. It is this great subtlety and clarity of the
mind during the death process that makes it so valuable to use for
advanced meditation practices, and why such emphasis is put on it in
Buddhism. Advanced practitioners will often stay in the clear light
meditation for several days after the breathing has stopped, engaging
in these advanced meditations, and can achieve liberation at this time.

The Buddhist view is that each living being has a continuity or
stream of consciousness that moves from one life to the next. Each
being has had countless previous lives and will continue to be reborn
again and again without control unless he/she develops his/her mind to
the point where, like the yogis mentioned above, he/she gains control
over this process. When the stream of consciousness or mind moves from
one life to the next it brings with it the karmic imprints or
potentialities from previous lives. Karma literally means “action”,
and all of the actions of body, speech and mind leave an imprint on the
mind-stream. These karmas can be negative, positive or neutral,
depending on the action. They can ripen at any time in the future,
whenever conditions are suitable. These karmic seeds or imprints are
never lost.

At the time of death (clear light stage) the consciousness
(very subtle mind) leaves the body and the person takes the body of an
intermediate state being. They are in the form that they will take in
their next life (some texts say the previous life), but in a subtle
rather than a gross form. As mentioned previously, it can take up to
forty-nine days to find a suitable place of rebirth. This rebirth is
propelled by karma and is uncontrolled. In effect the karma of the
intermediate state being matches that of its future parents. The
intermediate state being has the illusory appearance of its future
parents copulating. It is drawn to this place by the force of
attraction to its parent of the opposite sex, and it is this desire
that causes the consciousness of the intermediate state being to enter
the fertilized ovum. This happens at or near the time of conception and
the new life has begun.

One will not necessarily be reborn as a human being. Buddhists
describe six realms of existence that one can be reborn into, these
being the hell realms, the preta (hungry ghost) realm, the animal
realm, the human realm, the jealous god (asura) realm and the god
(sura) realms. One’s experience in these situations can range from
intense suffering in the hell realms to unimaginable pleasures in the
god realms. But all of these levels of existence are regarded as
unsatisfactory by the spiritual practitioner because no matter how
high one goes within this cyclic existence, one may one day fall down
again to the lower realms of existence. So the aim of the spiritual
practitioner is to develop his/her mind to the extent where a stop is
put to this uncontrolled rebirth, as mentioned previously. The
practitioner realises that all six levels of existence are ultimately
in the nature of suffering, so wishes to be free of them forever.

The state of mind at the time of death is regarded as extremely
important, because this plays a vital part in the situation one is
reborn into. This is one reason why suicide is regarded in Buddhism as
very unfortunate, because the state of mind of the person who commits
suicide is usually depressed and negative and is likely to throw them
into a lower rebirth. Also, it doesn’t end the suffering, it just
postpones it to another life.

When considering the spiritual care of the dying, it can be
helpful to divide people into several different categories, because
the category they are in will determine the most useful approach to
use. These categories are: 1) whether the person is conscious or
unconscious, and 2) whether they have a religious belief or not. In
terms of the first category, if the person is conscious they can do
the practices themselves or someone can assist them, but if they are
unconscious someone has to do the practices for them. For the second
category, if a person has specific religious beliefs, these can be
utilised to help them. If they do not, they still need to be
encouraged to have positive/virtuous thoughts at the time of death,
such as reminding them of positive things they have done during their
life.

For a spiritual practitioner, it is helpful to encourage them
to have thoughts such as love, compassion, remembering their spiritual
teacher. It is beneficial also to have an image in the room of Jesus,
Mary, Buddha, or some other spiritual figure that may have meaning for
the dying person. It may be helpful for those who are with the dying
person to say some prayers, recite mantras etc. – this could be silent
or aloud, whatever seems most appropriate.

However, one needs to be very sensitive to the needs of the
dying person. The most important thing is to keep the mind of the
person happy and calm. Nothing should be done (including certain
spiritual practices) if this causes the person to be annoyed or
irritated. There is a common conception that it is good to read “The
Tibetan Book of the Dead” to the dying person, but if he/she is not
familiar with the particular deities and practices contained in it,
then this is not likely to prove very beneficial.

Because the death process is so important, it is best not to
disturb the dying person with noise or shows of emotion. Expressing
attachment and clinging to the dying person can disturb the mind and
therefore the death process, so it is more helpful to mentally let the
person go, to encourage them to move on to the next life without fear.
It is important not to deny death or to push it away, just to be with
the dying person as fully and openly as possible, trying to have an
open and deep sharing of the person’s fear, pain, joy, love, etc.

As mentioned previously, when a person is dying, their mind
becomes much more subtle, and they are more open to receiving mental
messages from those people close to them. So silent communication and
prayer can be very helpful. It is not necessary to talk much. The
dying person can be encouraged to let go into the light, into God’s
love etc. (again, this can be verbal or mental).

It can be very helpful to encourage the dying person to use
breathing meditation – to let go of the thoughts and concentrate on
the movement of the breath. This can be helpful for developing
calmness, for pain control, for acceptance, for removing fear. It can
help the dying person to get in touch with their inner stillness and
peace and come to terms with their death. This breathing technique can
be especially useful when combined with a mantra, prayer, or
affirmation (i.e. half on the in-breath, half on the out-breath).

One of the Tibetan lamas, Sogyal Rinpoche, says that for up to
about twenty-one days after a person dies they are more connected to
the previous life than to the next one. So for this period in
particular the loved ones can be encouraged to continue their (silent)
communication with the deceased person – to say their good-byes, finish
any unfinished business, reassure the dead person, encourage them to
let go of their old life and to move on to the next one. It can be
reassuring even just to talk to the dead person and at some level to
know that they are probably receiving your message. The mind of the
deceased person at this stage can still be subtle and receptive.

For the more adept practitioners there is also the method of
transference of consciousness at the time of death (Tibetan: po-wa).
With training, at the time of death, the practitioner can project his
mind upwards from his heart centre through his crown directly to one
of the Buddha pure realms, or at least to a higher rebirth. Someone who
has perfected this training can also assist others at the time of
death to project their mind to a good rebirth.

It is believed that if the consciousness leaves the body of the
dead person through the crown or from a higher part of the body, it is
likely to result in a good type of rebirth. Conversely, if the
consciousness leaves from a lower part of the body this is likely to
result in rebirth in one of the lower realms. For this reason, when a
person dies it is believed that the first part of the body that should
be touched is the crown. The crown is located about eight finger widths
(of the person being measured) back from the (original) hairline. To
rub or tap this area or gently pull the crown hair after a person dies
is regarded as very beneficial and may well help the person to obtain
a higher rebirth. Their are special blessed pills (po-wa pills) that
can be placed on the crown after death which also facilitates this
process.

Once the consciousness has left the body (which, as mentioned
earlier, can take up to three days) it doesn’t matter how the body is
disposed of or handled (including the carrying out of a post-mortem
examination) because in effect it has just become an empty shell.
However, if the body is disposed of before the consciousness has left,
this will obviously be very disturbing for the person who is going
through the final stages of psychological dissolution.

This raises the question of whether or not it is advisable to
donate one’s organs after dying. The usual answer given by the Tibetan
lamas to this question is that if the wish to donate one’s organs is
done with the motivation of compassion, then any disturbance to the
death process that this causes is far outweighed by the positive karma
that one is creating by this act of giving. It is another way in which
one can die with a positive and compassionate mind.

A Tibetan tradition which is becoming more popular in the West
is to get part of the remains of the deceased (e.g. ashes, hair,
nails) blessed and then put into statues, tsa-tsas (Buddha images made
of clay or plaster) or stupas (reliquary monuments representing the
Buddha’s body, speech and mind). These stupas for instance could be
kept in the person’s home, larger ones could be erected in a memorial
garden. Making offerings to these or circumambulating them and so on
is regarded as highly meritorious, both for the person who has died
and for the loved ones.

There are also rituals for caring for the dead, for guiding the
dead person through the intermediate state into a good rebirth. Such a
ritual is “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”, more correctly titled
“Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo”.
– revised January 1995

REFERENCES
Carr, Christopher Death and Near-Death: A Comparison of Tibetan and
Euro- American Experiences, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1993,
Vol 25, No 1 pp 59-110

Fremantle, Francesca and Chogyam Trungpa The Tibetan Book of the Dead:
The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo, Shambhala, Boulder
and London, 1975
(or the excellent new translation by Robert A.F. Thurman,
Aquarian Press, London,1994)

Kapleau, Philip The Wheel of Life and Death, Doubleday, New York, 1989

Rinbochay, Lati and Jeffrey Hopkins Death, Intermediate State and
Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism, Rider & Co, London, 1979

Levine, Stephen Healing Into Life and Death, Anchor Press/Doubleday,
New York, 1987

Levine, Stephen Who Dies, Anchor Press/Doubleday, New York, 1982

Mackenzie, Vicki Reincarnation: The Boy Lama, Bloomsbury, London, 1988

Mackenzie, Vicki Reborn in the West: The Reincarnation Masters,
Bloomsbury, London, 1995

Mullin, Glenn H. Death and Dying: The Tibetan Tradition, Arkana,
London, 1986

Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Rider, London,
1992

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