A Buddhist Perspective on the Emotional and Spiritual Stages of the Process of Dying
Death is often a taboo subject and even those who hold strong beliefs may avoid talking about it. But death was once an integral part of family life. People died at home, surrounded by loved ones. Adults and children experienced death together, mourned together and comforted each other.
Today death is lonelier. Most people die in hospitals and nursing homes, where they receive the extensive nursing and medical care they need. Their loved ones have less opportunity to be with them and often miss sharing their last moments of life. The living have become isolated from the dying; consequently, death has taken on added mystery, and for some, fear.
Some of this mystery and fear may not be necessary because there are explicit Buddhist teachings that explain in some detail the processes of dying, death and rebirth. Even for those who do not believe in rebirth, understanding the stages a person goes through as they die can be helpful and illuminating.
Ven. Pende Hawter gives more explanatory detail and helps the reader to understand some of the technical jargon used in Buddhist psychology.
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 Death Process as Explained by Geshe Tashi Tsering Extracted from Dying Well, by Geshe Tashi Tsering, Chenrezig Institute, Queensland, transcribed and edited by Tom Vichta from a teaching to the Amitayus Hospice Service, Mullumbimby, NSW, in April 1995.
At the time of death, the winds associated with the four elements (earth, water, fire, air) deteriorate, until those elements can no longer act as a basis for consciousness. We are constituted of the five aggregates, the six sense powers and the four elements, and our remaining as beings depends on these twenty factors. At the time of death, these twenty factors undergo deterioration in a series of eight dissolutions. If one is aware of the death process and has studied and practised it, then over the course of this serial dissolution one is simply understanding that now earth is dissolving into water, water into fire and so on, and one is able to follow the process completely without fear.
The first dissolution is that of the aggregate of form, the element of earth and simultaneously, the deterioration of the eye sense power and its objects, visible forms and colours. One ceases to see clearly and one can no longer open or close one’s eyes. The external sign is that the body becomes very thin and loose. We are talking here about a natural death not a sudden death where the signs would be less clear. As the earth element dissolves there is an experience to the dying person of being buried under the earth or sinking under the earth. This is simply an inner experience – it is not happening externally. Then there is the dissolution of the aggregate of form in terms of body appearance. The external sign is that the lustre of the body is diminished and there is no longer a look of vitality to the body. At this point the water element starts to predominate, in terms of the experience to the dying person. The internal vision is a mirage-like vision, like water on a desert horizon.
The second dissolution is that of the aggregate of feelings. The internal experience is that of the body no longer being able to experience the three types of feelings – pleasure, pain and neutral. There is the simultaneous deterioration of the water element. An external sign is that the various bodily fluids begin to dry up – sweat, urine, saliva. The dying person may have difficulty swallowing and it may be beneficial to give them a trickle of water to drink. Next, the ear sense-power deteriorates and the person can no longer hear sounds. The internal vision to the dying person is the appearance of smoke puffing up into the air.
The third dissolution is that of the aggregate of perception or discrimination – the ability to recognize what objects are. The internal experience is that you would no longer be aware of who people like close family and friends were, you would forget their names. The fire element diminishes, with the external sign that the body begins to lose its warmth. The nose sense-power deteriorates and we can no longer smell odours. The external sign is that the inhalation is weak, the exhalation stronger. The rhythm of breathing speeds up, like panting. The internal vision is sparks – a fire funnelled up through a chimney with the sparks flying into the night sky.
The fourth dissolution includes the dissolution of the compositional factors. The mind loses its ability to remain upon its object. It is this which motivates us to act and directs the body to move. The internal experience is the loss of the ability of the body to perform physical actions or to be aware of external activities. The air element dissolves, with the external sign of a changing of the life-sustaining winds or energies of the body, and breathing stops. In worldly terms we would say this person is dead. No pulse is detectable. The tongue sense-power has deteriorated, it becomes thick and short and its object – taste – is lost. Objects of the body’s sense-power, touch, can no longer be experienced eg roughness, smoothness. The internal vision is of a sputtering flame, the red/blue flame of a candle burning out. After a time, we begin to regain consciousness as the extremely subtle wind-energy and mind combination is activated. The description is that the wind-energy element has dissolved into the aggregate of consciousness. The four physical elements have dissolved and are no longer able to function as a foundation for gross consciousness.
At the fifth dissolution, the gross forms of consciousness have ceased and the subtle forms are revealed. All gross conceptuality is left behind. The internal appearance is of radiant white sky. The white “drop” that has come from the father and has remained at the crown, begins to come down the central channel towards the heart centre. This is the vision of the radiant white sky, like a clear dawn sky pervaded by the whiteness of the moon.
Sixth dissolution: Now the red “drop” obtained from our mother, which has remained at about the level of the navel, begins to rise up the central channel towards the heart and one experiences the radiant red sky, like a clear sunset sky that is pervaded by the redness of the sun.
Seventh dissolution: The drops move towards the heart centre where the extremely subtle combination of wind-energy and consciousness resides and on reaching it, the drops enclose it between them. One then experiences the vision of the radiant black sky, complete blackness, and all thought stops.
Eighth dissolution: As one starts to become conscious again, the “clear light of death” manifests. This appears as a clear, luminous, vacuum-like, empty sky – a completely clear, open, radiant vacuity. For those who have trained in coming to an understanding of emptiness, it is at this moment that one uses this understanding, seeing this open vacuity not as empty space, but as the emptiness of the object of negation. It is at this time that one can gain a deep realization of emptiness and comprehend the true nature of reality. In the clear light experience, there is no sensation of colour. One is experiencing a very subtle object with an extremely subtle mind. Unless there is some disturbance to the corpse, like cremation, one can abide in that clear light state for two or three days or longer. Even if one knew nothing about emptiness, it is possible to abide in this state for some time.
But what in fact is the moment of death? After some time in the clear light, there will occur some movement of the wind-energies, due to the force of karma. The consciousness will become slightly coarser and a more gross wind-energy will be generated. It is at this moment that the consciousness leaves the body, and this is the actual death. An external sign is that the red drop continues to ascend and finally exits through the nostril. The white drop descends and exits through the genital opening. However, the drop of blood at the nose is not always evident, especially with the chronically ill. Even if it does not appear, unless the body is deteriorating it is good to wait, especially if the deceased is a loved one or a lama.
The course of rebirth is determined by the coarse consciousness of craving, grasping and becoming, and these consciousnesses will then activate a potency. We all have potencies within us to be reborn as one of the six types of migrating beings and it is one of these coarse consciousnesses that will activate one of these karmas. Whether you touch the body or not is not going to determine the direction of the rebirth. But keep in mind that others may suffer from your not respecting their superstitions. It probably doesn’t make any difference, so you should observe whatever their wishes may be. For myself and from my training as a monk, I rely very much on the process of reasoning to determine the course of action. Sometimes, for other people, their course of action is not mainly determined by reason, but by books they’ve read, traditions that they may have become accustomed to or what has become popular within their circle.
The intermediate state: After the actual moment of death, the consciousness will then enter into the intermediate state or bardo. The intermediate state being is not made of flesh and blood but is constituted of “wind energy” and already has the shape of the body the being will take and the five senses. The visions that occurred in the death process now occur in reverse order, and the various gross conceptual consciousnesses begin to develop, as well as objects of the senses and the five aggregates. The bardo being remains in this state until reborn.
Answers to Questions:
If one is going to take a lower rebirth, very strong, fearful appearances will appear to your mind during the dissolution of the four physical elements. Conversely, in a fortunate migration, more gentle appearances occur and there is a happiness in the mind. During the radiant white sky, red sky, etc, visions there are no particular fears because the coarse conceptions do not arise.
The process of dissolution may take one or two hours or one or two days depending on the individual, of what that they are dying, if they’re extremely ill, or the stage of their illness. For those who have a chronic illness, the external appearances could arise earlier but the actual death could take longer.
The way of dying affects your emotional state at the time of death and this determines which karmas are activated. For example, if someone was killing you, you might become angry, and this would activate a negative potency, a condition for a bad rebirth. It would require a very strong practice of tolerance not to get angry. In general, we should make efforts to help the sick, elderly and dying to generate a very healthy, positive state of mind before and during death. This, in turn, will benefit us, helping us to continue our work towards helping others.
The Death Process as Explained by Ven. Pende Hawter
Extract from: Death and Dying in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition Compiled by: Ven. Pende Hawter, Karuna Hospice Service, P.O. Box 2020 Windsor 4030 Queensland, Australia. It is 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 Table), 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 Table), with corresponding external and internal signs.
Table: The Eight Stages or Cycles of Dissolution in the Death Process
Cycle Factor dissolving External sign Internal sign
1 Earth element Body becomes very thin, limbs loose; sense that body is sinking under the earth
Aggregate of form Limbs become smaller, body becomes weak and powerless, sight becomes unclear and dark
Basic mirror-like wisdom
Eye sense One cannot open or close eyes
Colours and shapes Lustre of body diminishes; one’s strength is consumed
2 Water element Saliva, sweat, urine, blood and regenerative fluid dry greatly
Aggregate of feelings Body consciousness can no longer experience the three types of feelings accompanying he mental consciousness
Basic wisdom of equality One is no longer mindful of the three types of feelings accompanying he mental consciousness
Ear sense One no longer hears external or internal sounds
Sounds “Ur” sound in ears no longer arises
3 Fire element One cannot digest food and drink
Aggregate of discrimination One is no longer mindful of the affairs of close persons
Basic wisdom of analysis One can no longer remember the names of close persons
Nose sense Inhalation weak, exhalation strong and lengthy
Odours One cannot smell
4 Wind element The ten winds move to the heart; breathing ceases
Aggregate of compositional factors One cannot perform physical actions
Basic wisdom of achieving activities One is no longer mindful of external worldly activities, purposes and so forth
Tongue sense Tongue becomes thick and short, root of tongue becomes blue
Tastes One cannot experience tastes
Body sense and tangible objects One cannot experience smoothness and roughness
5 Eighty conceptions Winds in right and left channels above heart enter central channel at top of head
Clear vacuity filled with white light
6 Mind of white appearance Winds in right and left channels below heart enter central channel at base of spine
Very clear vacuity filled with red light
7 Mind of red increase Upper and lower winds gather at heart; then winds enter drop at heart
Vacuity filled with thick darkness; then, as if swooning unconsciously
8 Mind of black near-attainment All winds dissolve into the the very subtle life bearing wind in the indestructible drop at the heart
Very clear vacuity, the mind of the clear light of death
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 Table). 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.
The process of dying is explained in considerable detail in the different Tibetan teachings. Essentially it consists of two phases of dissolution: an outer dissolution, when the senses and elements dissolve, and an inner dissolution of the gross and subtle thought states and emotions. But first we need to understand the components of our mind, which disintegrate at death.
Our whole existence is determined by the elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. Through them our body is formed and maintained and when they dissolve, we die. We are familiar with the outer elements, which condition the way in which we live, but what is interesting is how these outer elements interact with the inner elements within our own physical body. And the potential and quality of these five elements also exist within our mind. Mind’s ability to serve as the ground for all experience is the quality of earth; its continuity and adaptability is water; its clarity and capacity to perceive is fire; and its unlimited emptiness is space.
The Tantric Buddhist tradition of Tibet offers an explanation of the body that is quite different from the one most of us are used to. This is of a psycho-physical system, which consists of a dynamic network of subtle channels, “winds” and essences. The human body is compared by the masters to a city, the channels to its roads, the winds to a horse and the mind to a rider. There are 72,000 subtle channels in the body, but three principal ones: the central channel, running parallel to the spine,, and the right and left channels, which run either side of it. The right and left channels coil around the central channel at a number of points to form a series of “knots”. Along the central channel are situated a number of “channel wheels”, the chakras or energy centres, from which channels branch off like the ribs of an umbrella.
Through these channels flow the winds. The winds that flow through all the channels except the central one are said to be impure and activate negative, dualistic thought patterns; the winds in the central channel are called “wisdom winds”. The essences are contained within the channels. There are red and white essences. The principal seat of the white essence is the crown of the head, and of the red essence at the navel.
Once we have a physical body, we have what are known as the five skandhas – the aggregates that compose our whole mental and physical existence. They are the constituents of our experience, the support for the grasping of ego, and also the basis for the suffering of samsara. They are: form, feeling (sensation), perception (recognition, discrimination), intellect (formation, compositional factors) and consciousness.
All of these components will dissolve when we die. The process of dying is a complex and interdependent one, in which groups of related aspects of our body and mind disintegrate simultaneously. The result is that each stage of the dissolution has its physical and psychological effect on the dying person, and is reflected by external, physical signs as well as inner experiences.
Lie down on the right side, taking the position of the “sleeping lion”, which is the posture in which the Buddha died. The left hand rests on the left thigh; the right hand is placed under the chin, closing the right nostril. The legs are stretched out and very slightly bent. On the right side of the body are certain channels that encourage the karmic wind of delusion. Lying on them and closing the right nostril blocks these channels and facilitates a person’s recognition of the luminosity when it dawns at death.
The first thing we may be aware of is when our senses cease to function. If people around our bed are talking there will come a point when we can hear the sound of their voices but cannot make out the words. This means that the ear consciousness has ceased to function. We look at an object in front of us, and we can only see its outline, not its details. This means that the eye consciousness has failed. And the same happens with our faculties of smell, taste and touch. When the senses are no longer fully experienced, it marks the first phase of the dissolution process. The next four phases follow the dissolution of the elements.
Our body begins to lose all its strength. We are drained of any energy. We cannot get up, stay upright, or hold anything. We can no longer support our head. We feel as though we are falling, sinking underground, or crushed underneath a great weight. We feel heavy and uncomfortable in any position. We may ask to be pulled up, to have the pillows made higher, or for the bed-covers to be taken off. Our complexion fades and a pallor sets in. Our cheeks sink, and dark stains appear on our teeth. It becomes harder to open and close our eyes. As the aggregate of form is dissolving, we become weak and frail. Our mind is agitated and delirious but then sinks into drowsiness. These are the signs that the earth element is withdrawing into the water element. The “secret sign” that appears in the mind is that of a shimmering mirage.
We begin to lose control of our bodily fluids. Our nose begins to run and we dribble. There can be a discharge from the eyes and maybe we become incontinent. We cannot move our tongue. Our eyes become dry in their sockets. Our lips are drawn and bloodless and our mouth and throat sticky and clogged. The nostrils cave in and we become very thirsty. We tremble and twitch. The smell of death begins to hang over us. As the aggregate of feeling is dissolving, bodily sensations dwindle, alternating between pain and pleasure, hot and cold. Our mind becomes hazy, frustrated, irritable and nervous. Some sources say that we feel as if we were drowning in an ocean or being swept away by a huge river. The water element is dissolving into fire, which is taking over in its ability to support consciousness. The secret sign is a vision of a haze with swirling wisps of smoke.
Our mouth and nose dry up completely. All the warmth of our body begins to seep away, usually from the feet and hands towards the heart. Our breath is cold as it passes through our mouth and nose. No longer can we drink or digest anything. The aggregate of perception is dissolving, and our mind swings alternately between clarity and confusion. We cannot remember the names of our family or friends, or even recognize who they are. It becomes more and more difficult to perceive anything outside of us as sound and sight are confused. Kalu Rinpoche writes, “For the dying individual, the inner experience is of being consumed in a flame, being in the middle of a roaring blaze or perhaps the whole world being consumed in a holocaust of fire.” The fire element is dissolving into air, and becoming less able to function as a base for consciousness, while the ability of the air element to do so is more apparent. So the secret sign is of shimmering red sparks dancing above an open fire, like fireflies.
It becomes harder and harder to breathe. The air seems to be escaping through our throat. We begin to rasp and pant. Our inbreaths become short and laboured and our outbreaths become longer. Our eyes roll upward and we are totally immobile. As the aggregate of intellect is dissolving, the mind becomes bewildered, unaware of the outside world. Everything becomes a blur. Our last feeling of contact with our physical environment is slipping away. We begin to hallucinate and have visions. If there has been a lot of negativity in our lives we may see terrifying forms. Haunting and dreadful moments of our lives are replayed and we may even try to cry out in terror. If we have led lives of kindness and compassion, we may experience blissful, heavenly visions, and meet loving friends or enlightened beings. For those who have led good lives, there is peace in death instead of fear. Kalu Rinpoche writes: “The internal experience for the dying individual is of a great wind sweeping away the entire world, including the dying person, an incredible maelstrom of wind, consuming the whole universe. What is happening is that the air element is dissolving into consciousness. The winds have all united in the “life supporting wind” in the heart. So the secret sign is described as a vision of a flaming torch or lamp, with a red glow. At this point blood gathers and enters the “Channel of Life” in the centre of our heart. Three drops of blood collect, one after the other, causing three long final outbreaths. Then, suddenly, our breathing ceases.
Just a slight warmth remains at our heart. All vital signs are gone, and this is the point where in a modern clinical situation we would be certified as “dead”. But Tibetan masters talk of an internal process that still continues. The time between the end of the breathing and the cessation of “inner respiration” is said to be about twenty minutes. But nothing is certain, and the whole process may take place very quickly.
In the inner dissolution, where the gross and subtle thought states and emotions dissolve, four increasingly subtle levels of consciousness are to be encountered. With the disappearance of the wind that holds it there, the white essence (“white and blissful”) inherited from our father descends from the crown of our head through the central channel towards the heart. As an outer sign, there is an experience of whiteness, like a “pure sky struck by moonlight.” As an inner sign, our awareness becomes extremely clear, and all the thought states resulting from anger, thirty-three of them in all, come to an end. This phase is known as “Appearance”.
Then our mother’s essence (“red and hot”) begins to rise through our central channel from just below the navel. The outer sign is an experience of redness, like a sun shining in a pure sky. As an inner sign, there arises a great experience of bliss, as all the thought states associated with desire, forty in all, cease to function. This stage is known as “Increase”.
When the red and white essences meet at the heart, consciousness is enclosed between them. As an outer sign, we experience blackness, like an empty sky shrouded in utter darkness. The inner experience is of a state of mind free of thoughts. The seven thought states resulting from ignorance and delusion are brought to an end. This is known as “Full Attainment”.
Then, as we become slightly conscious again, the Ground Luminosity dawns, like an immaculate sky, free of clouds, fog or mist. It is sometimes called “the mind of clear light of death”. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says: “This consciousness is the innermost subtle mind. We call it the buddha nature, the real source of all consciousness. The continuum of this mind lasts even through Buddhahood.”
What then is happening when we die? It is as if we are returning to our original state, everything dissolves, as body and mind are unravelled. The three “poisons” – ignorance, desire, anger – all die, which means that all the negative emotions, the root of samsara, actually cease, and then there is a gap. And where does this process take us? To the primordial ground of the nature of mind, in all its purity and natural simplicity. Now everything that obscured it is removed and our true nature is revealed.
The death process described above is a generalization and it can unfold differently according to the makeup of the individual. Variations can occur due to the particular illness of the dying person, and the state of the channels, winds and essences.
For practitioners there is a range of specialized practices to do at each stage of the dissolution. For example, you can transform the process of dying into the practice of guru yoga. With each stage of the outer dissolution, you generate devotion and pray to the master, visualizing him in the different energy centres. When the earth element dissolves and the sign of the mirage appears, you visualize your master at your heart centre. When the water element dissolves and the sign of smoke appears, you visualize the master in your navel centre. When the fire element dissolves and the sign of fireflies appears, you visualize the master in the forehead centre. And when the air element dissolves and the sign of the torch appears, you focus entirely on transferring your mind into the wisdom mind of the master.
Extract from: Introduction to Tantra: The Transformation of Desire by Lama Thubten Yeshe, edited by Jonathan Landaw, Wisdom Publications, 2001, pages 99-116. The Vajra Body. Just as the gross perishable physical body is pervaded by the ordinary nervous system, our subtle vajra body is pervaded by thousands of channels (nadi) through which flow the energy winds (prana) and drops (bindu) that are the source of the bliss so vital to highest tantric practice. Once we have made contact with this clear, conscious body of light through meditation our gross physical body will no longer be a problem for us as we will have transcended it. At that point, the attainment of the radiant light body of the deity becomes not just a visualized goal but a reality. The central channel runs in a straight line from the crown of our head to an area just in front of the base of our spine. Along it are several focal points called chakras or energy wheels.
The most important chakra is the one located at the level of our heart, for the heart chakra is the home of our very subtle mind. Together with its supporting energy wind, the continuum of this very subtle mind has been with us for lifetimes without beginning. As the fundamental consciousness abiding at our heart centre throughout this life, the very subtle mind is sometimes referred to as the resident mind. However, although it has flowed continuously from life to life it has rarely had the opportunity to function. What prevents it is the continual arising of our gross states of mind. These are like tourists, temporary visitors who come and go in constant movement and completely overwhelm our stationary resident mind.
The activity of all types of mind, both gross and subtle, depends upon their supporting winds and where these are travelling. As long as they flow through any of the channels other than the central channel, these winds activate the gross tourist minds that give rise to superstition and confusion, our ordinary life experiences. But when these winds enter, abide and dissolve into the central channel, as happens naturally at the time of death, the gross minds subside and the very subtle mind of clear light arises instead. This entire process happens automatically during death but very few people are trained to take advantage of it, or even recognize it. The tantric yogi and yogini can awaken this penetrating clear light of the very subtle mind in meditation.
Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth. The dissolution of the vajra body’s energy winds into the central channel is crucial to advanced tantric practice and because this dissolution takes place naturally when we die, we should become as familiar as possible now with the process of death. At the time of death all our emotional problems and all our anxiety end. As all the conflicting concepts of this and that naturally disappear into space, the way is open for us to experience extraordinary penetrative insight.
The sutra and tantra teachings diagnose the problems of cyclic existence in different ways and also offer different solutions to these problems. According to sutra, the root of samsaric suffering is ego-grasping: the wrong view that holds onto a mistaken belief in a self-existent ”I” or ego-identity. The antidote for this ignorant conception is the generation of a completely opposite view: the wisdom of emptiness. While the lightning path of tantra does not deny what sutra has to say, it offers a different, more radical approach to the problems of our life. By dying in an uncontrolled manner, we are forced to enter an uncontrolled intermediate state (bardo) and from there we experience uncontrolled rebirth leading to yet another uncontrolled life and death. In this way the wheel keeps spinning, dragging us from one unsatisfactory state of existence to another. The cure is a type of meditation in which we transform our ordinary experiences of death, bardo and rebirth into the enlightened experience of a buddha.
2. The enjoyment body or sambhogakaya, is a level on which the dharmakaya manifests itself in order to benefit others, and, the buddha’s spontaneous manifestation in a form to which only highly realized beings can relate.
3. The emanation body, or nirmanakaya, is also a level on which the dharmakaya manifests itself in order to benefit others, and, the buddha’s spontaneous manifestation in a form to which unenlightened beings can relate.
According to the sutra teachings, our present physical body is viewed largely as a hindrance. It is decaying moment by moment, prone to sickness, and it attracts misery in the way a magnet attracts pieces of iron. But the tantric teachings take the opposite view. The human body is regarded as most precious as it contains all the necessary equipment to reach enlightenment in one lifetime. It is made up of the four elements of earth, water, fire and air and the energies (prana) associated with them. And because it is born from the womb it contains the red and white drops – from the mother and father respectively – needed for arousing the blissful energy of the kundalini experience.
Death is the separation of the mind from the body. The body does not lose its ability to maintain consciousness all at once, but does so gradually with each element of the body losing its supportive ability in turn. First the earth element sinks, or dissolves, into the water element and then the water element sinks into the fire and fire into the air, and the air element into consciousness itself. Such a description is useful for meditation but should not be taken literally. For example, when it is said that the earth element sinks into the water element, this means that as the solid portions of the body are losing their ability to function and are becoming less intimately interconnected with the dying person’s mind, the liquid element appears stronger and more evident. As these various physical elements become stronger and weaker in turn, the dying person experiences certain external and internal signs associated with the dissolution process.
When ordinary people die they are out of control. Because they have not trained themselves during life, they are overwhelmed by the experience of death and bewildered as their bodily elements go out of balance and cease functioning harmoniously. It seems to them that they are in the middle of a violent earthquake and it is therefore very difficult, if not impossible, for them to remain calmly aware of what is happening. Yet for someone who is prepared, those same visions that cause panic in others can bring an extraordinary peace.
According to Buddhist psychology, whether an object brings satisfaction or not depends on a decision made beforehand by your consciousness. Even before you see a particular thing, your mind has already decided, “This will make me happy.” Then when you actually contact it with your eyesight, you think, “ Oh, this is very nice!” All the seemingly real good things that we like and bad things that we dislike are in fact creations of our own mind. During our lifetime we build up such a strong habit of believing that what appears to us as good or bad truly exists in this way, that at the time of death, when everything seems to be falling apart, we will be overwhelmed by great confusion. The solution is to learn to see all things as mere appearances to the mind, as lacking even one atom of self-existence.
Death and Dharmakaya. Let us consider what might happen to us if, totally untrained and unprepared, we were to die in a state of great anxiety and bewilderment. Desperately holding onto a supposedly solid sense of “I” for security, we panic as the basis for our ego-identity – our body itself – begins to disintegrate.
As the earth element of our body deteriorates and the water element grows stronger, our mind is filled with the hallucination of a shimmering silver-blue mirage. We feel trapped and suffocated, as if our body were buried by an avalanche. Then the water element sinks into the fire element and a vision of swirling smoke appears. As this is happening we may feel that we are drowning or being carried away by swirling currents of water. Next the fire element dissolves and our body gradually grows colder; we perceive a vision like that of sparks dancing over an open fire at night. During this process, some dying people cry out, thinking that their body is being consumed by flames. Finally, the air element dissolves and our breathing becomes very shallow, and we may feel that we are being blown about like a leaf in the wind. Along with this experience comes the vision of a dying flame in a darkened room. As is the case when a candle is about to go out, the flame suddenly grows brighter as if exploding in a final burst of energy. Our breathing, which has been getting more and more difficult, now comes to a complete halt. To the outside world we now seem to be dead.
But we are not dead yet. The four gross elements and the conceptual minds associated with them have ceased to function but there remain subtle levels of consciousness still to be absorbed. This happens as the subtle white drop received from our father at conception and located at the crown of our head during life and the red drop received from our mother and located at our navel come together at the level of our heart. As the white drop descends we perceive a vision of empty space pervaded by whiteness, and as the red drop rises we perceive a similar vision of space this time pervaded by redness. Finally the two drops meet, forming a sphere enclosing our very subtle, fundamental consciousness and its associated wind at our heart, and we experience the blackness of a completely darkened room. This darkness becomes blacker and blacker till we fall into total unconsciousness.
But still we are not dead. After some time – which can be as long as three days even for an untrained person – the sphere at our heart opens and our mind is illuminated. The very subtle mind awakens and nothing appears to it but the vision of empty space, clear and luminous. This clear light consciousness is the last and most subtle of all the states of mind appearing to us in this lifetime.
For an ordinary person, all these absorptions are uncontrolled. They happen one after the other but we are barely conscious of them; our mind is too confused and distracted. But those who have trained themselves well beforehand maintain clear awareness of everything that is happening during this process. They know which vision will come next and understand that everything that appears before them is merely an appearance to the dying mind, empty of all independent self-existence as something that is truly out there. Finally, with the arising of the clear light, their very subtle mind mixes indistinguishably with emptiness in an experience of inexpressible bliss.
Bardo and Sambhogakaya. For ordinary people, once the clear light is finished, the mind experiences the visions of the dharmakaya experience in reverse order, from the darkness of unconsciousness to the mirage-like vision. With the beginning of this reverse process, our mind departs from our body and death actually occurs. Immediately thereafter we enter the bardo state and here again our mind is completely out of control. With the speed of thought, we are propelled from one situation to another, as in a dream. But this dream is more often a nightmare. Because our insubstantial bardo body is made of nothing but subtle wind energy, it can pass through matter without any obstruction, and therefore we enter without hindrance whatever situation our fearful, craving mind throws us.
On the other hand, trained practitioners, well-versed in the practices of the rainbow-like illusory body, once the clear light of death comes to an end, assume a clear, radiant body of light instead of the deluded bardo body. In this way, they transform the ordinary bardo into the enlightened sambhogakaya, or enjoyment body, experience.
Rebirth and Nirmanakaya. We are eventually blown by the winds of our deluded actions (karma) to where our future parents lie in sexual embrace. There, with our mind experiencing a mixture of longing and repulsion we faint and are thereafter conceived in our mother’s womb. From this impure beginning, a life full of impurity and suffering follows. Our body – deriving from the sperm and egg of our parents – is subject to the miseries of birth, sickness, old age and death, while our mind – as a stream flowing from our previous life – continues under the compulsion of insecure craving, repulsion, and ignorance to create the causes for further dissatisfaction and suffering.
This ordinary rebirth experience can be transformed by the skilled practitioner. Well-trained followers of tantra can choose their rebirth consciously. They see their future parents as male and female deities and themselves as a deity as well. They may take rebirth in a pure land: a state of existence in which everything is conducive to the attainment of enlightenment. Even if they are born on this earth, they can choose a situation suitable to spiritual development. With such full awareness and full control over their next life, ordinary rebirth can be transformed into the enlightened experience of the nirmanakaya, or emanation body.
Some people might be confused when hearing that the proper practice of tantra can cut rebirth. “What is the point of this? Why should I give up the chance to return to the world? Is this what the path is leading me to: total non-existence? If so, I am not interested.” To avoid this confusion, we should realize that “cutting rebirth” has a very specific meaning: namely, to free ourselves from having to experience uncontrolled rebirth again and again. We can practice tantra successfully and still return to this world. In fact, our compassionate bodhicitta motivation makes it unthinkable that we would choose to do otherwise.