Death, dying and bardo
Life is uncertain; death is certain.
Death carries off a man busy picking flowers with an besotted mind, like
great flood does a sleeping village.
There are those who do not realise
that one day we all must die.
But those who do realise this
settle their quarrels.
Here will I live in the rainy season, here in the autumn and in the summer: thus muses the fool. He realizes not the danger (of death).
Dhammapada v. 286
Human beings spend all their lives preparing, preparing, preparing. . . . Only to meet the next life unprepared.
In Buddhist terms, death is a natural event. The Buddha encouraged us to observe, to contemplate. Funerals in northeast Thailand where I lived were very meaningful because we actually contemplated what happened. We could see the body, and it wasn't made up to look beautiful. They didn't put lipstick and powder on it. It was just a dead human body, and we meditated on that. We made conscious the reality: the death of the body is like this. This was not depressing or traumatic for me. When Ajahn Chah held these funerals, I didn't faint. I found it a very powerful experience.
I had never had such opportunities in the United States to really bring death and loss into consciousness and to really look at a dead human corpse. We live in a society that wants to deny and cover it up. It's not polite to even say the word death in public. We use euphemisms that make it less stark, less shocking. But awareness includes the whole process—from birth to death, from the peak moments of life to the worst, the climb up and the slide down. By reflecting and observing, we free ourselves from the fears, the reactions and the projections that we create around the flow of our lives, around our own bodies, around the loss of our loved ones.
When my own mother died, I was with the feeling of loss and grief. It can be witnessed. I wasn't afraid or trying to ignore my feelings. They interested me. To have this ability to really accept my feelings, I had to train myself, because my conditioning was the reverse. On a cultural level, I'd been conditioned to suppress feelings, to deny or ignore them. It has taken intentional, deliberate effort to look, observe and allow feelings of loss or grief into consciousness. This doesn't mean a grasping of feelings or wallowing in emotions. It's seeing things in terms of Dhamma. It is what it is. The death of one's mother is like this.
Body lying flat on a last bed,
Voices whispering a few last words,
Mind watching a final memory glide past:
When will that drama come for you?
7th Dalai Lama
Planning for the future is like going fishing in a dry gulch;
Nothing ever works out as you wanted, so give up all your schemes and ambitions.
If you have got to think about something—
Make it the uncertainty of the hour of your death.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama
The process of dying begins with the dissolution of the elements within
the body. It has eight stages, beginning with the dissolution of the earth element,
then the water, fire and windelements. The color: appearance of a white vision,
increase of the red element, black near-attainment, and finally the clear light
There is no way to escape death, it is just like trying to escape by
four great mountains touching sky. There is no escape from these four mountains
of birth, old age, sickness and death.
Ageing destroys youth, sickness destroys health, degeneration of life
destroys all excellent qualities and death destroys life. Even if you are a
great runner, you cannot run away from death. you cannot stop death with your
wealth, through your magic performances or recitation of mantras or even medicines.
Therefore, it is wise to prepare for your death.
From a Buddhist point of view, the actual
experience of death is very important. Although how or where we
will be reborn is generally dependent on karmic forces, our state
of mind at the time of death can influence the quality of our
next rebirth. So at the moment of death, in spite of the great
variety of karmas we have accumulated, if we make a special effort
to generate a virtuous state of mind, we may strengthen and activate
a virtuous karma, and so bring about a happy rebirth.
Question: When people hear of luminosity
of clear light that dawns at the moment of death they ask
why it is called clear light. What has this got to do with
light as we know it?
Dalai Lama: "I don't think that in the term clear
light, light should be taken literally. It is sort of metaphoric.
This could have its roots in our terminology of mental will.
According to Buddhism, all consciousness or all cognitive
mental events are said to be in the nature of clarity and
luminosity. So it is from that point of view that the choice
of the term light is used. Clear light is the most subtle
level of mind, which can be seen as the basis or the source
from which eventual experience or realisation of Buddhahood,
Buddha's wisdom might come about, therefore it is called clear
light. Clear light is a state of mind which becomes fully
manifest only as a consequence of certain sequences or stages
of dissolution, where the mind becomes devoid of certain types
of obscurations, which are again metaphorically described
in terms of sun-like, moonlike and darkness. These refer to
the earlier three stages of dissolution which are technically
called, including the clear light stage, the four empties.
At the final stage of dissolution the mind is totally free
of all these factors of obscuration. Therefore it is called
clear light. Sort of a light. It is also possible to understand
the usage of the term clear light in terms of the nature of
mind itself. Mind or consciousness is a phenomena which lacks
any obstructive quality. It is non-obstructed.
Oct. 11-14, 1991 New York
City. Path of Compassion teaching preliminary to the Kalachakra initiation
...if we remain clinging to this life even for one day, we are misusing our
time. In this way, we can waste months and years on end. Because we don't know
when our lives will finish, we should remain mindful and well prepared. Then,
even if we die tonight, we will do so without regret. If we die tonight, the
purpose of being well prepared is borne out; if we don't die tonight, there
is no harm in being well prepared, because it will still benefit us.
But when we leave the world of humans, we do so without a protector or supporter
and the total responsibility falls on us. We only have our own intelligence
to rely on at that time, so we must expend our own effort in order to protect
ourselves. As the Buddha said, "I have shown you the path to liberation;
know that liberation depends on you." We must put strenuous effort into
gaining freedom from the lower migrations, liberation from samsara, freedom
from conventional existence and solitary salvation.
The body is compared to a guest house; it is a place to stay for just a short
time and not permanently. At present, the guest of consciousness is staying
in the guest house of the body, like renting a place to stay. When the day comes
for consciousness to leave, the guest house of the body must be left behind.
Not being attached to friends, the body, wealth and possessions is the practice
of the Bodhisattvas.
from "The Heart of Compassion: A Practical Approach to a Meaningful
As a Buddhist, I view death as a normal process, a reality that I accept will occur as long as I remain in this earthly existence. Knowing that I cannot escape it, I see no point in worrying about it. I tend to think of death as being like changing your clothes when they are old and worn out, rather than as some final end. Yet death is unpredictable: We do not know when or how it will take place. So it is only sensible to take certain precautions before it actually happens.
We cannot hope to die peacefully if our lives have been full of violence, or if our minds have mostly been agitated by emotions like anger, attachment, or fear. So if we wish to die well, we must learn how to live well: Hoping for a peaceful death, we must cultivate peace in our mind, and in our way of life.
In a cloudless night sky, the full moon,
“The Lord of Stars,” is about to rise . . .
The face of my compassionate lord, Padmasambhava,
Draws me on, radiating its tender welcome.
My delight in death is far, far greater than
The delight of traders at making vast fortunes at sea,
Or the lords of the gods who vaunt their victory in battle;
Or of those sages who have entered the rapture of perfect absorption.
So just as a traveler who sets out on the road when the time has come to go,
I will not remain in this world any longer,
But will go to dwell in the stronghold of the great bliss of deathlessness.
The Last Testament of Longchenpa
When you are strong and healthy,
You never think of sickness coming,
But it descends with sudden force
Like a stroke of lightning.
When involved in worldly things,
You never think of death’s approach;
Quick it comes like thunder
Crashing round your head.
In horror of death, I took to the mountains —
Again and again I meditated on the uncertainty of the hour of death,
Capturing the fortress of the deathless unending nature of mind.
Now all fear of death is over and done.
Men come and they go and they trot and they dance, and never a word about death.
All well and good. Yet when death does come—to them, their wives, their children,
their friends—catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion
overwhelm them, what cries, what fury, what despair! . . .
To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a
way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness,
let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in
mind than death. . . . We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait
for it everywhere.
To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die
has unlearned how to be a slave.
With mind far off, not thinking of death’s coming,
Performing these meaningless activities,
Returning empty-handed now would be complete confusion;
The need is recognition, the spiritual teachings,
So why not practice the path of wisdom at this very moment?
From the mouths of the saints come these words:
If you do not keep your master’s teaching in your heart
Will you not become your own deceiver?
Tibetan Book of the Dead
Buddhism was extremely helpful to me during the process of my sister's lingering death two years ago. She was forty-five years old and had very few spiritual aspirations. She was actually fearful and closed to any suggestions that she might find comfort in expanding her degree of awareness and understanding. At first I was extremely upset by her attitude, but then I realized it was not for me to decide what she should or should not do with the last few months of her life. I was with her for support and comfort and not to force her to view her life in a way which was foreign and threatening to her.
Enabling a person to accomplish a sense of having lived purposefully and with significance is a major goal of caregivers and loved ones. Being able to support someone during their dying trajectory, regardless of what they are thinking or feeling is probably one of the most valuable services one person can offer to another. But, it is difficult to stay close to someone who is dying. Not trying to evade an open encounter with the intense psychic pain that usually accompanies the recognition of impending death is one of the most valuable contributions that a nurse or any other caregiver or loved one can make to the patient who wishes to discuss his or her circumstances. Facing forthrightly the situation of dying, however, requires feeling comfortable with one's own feelings about death and the frailty of being human.
Buddhism has taught me that death need not be approached only as a tragedy; it is also an event from which a profound understanding can unfold.
Buddhism through American Women's Eyes (p.44) edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo BUAM2E
When those who have a little understanding of the teaching conclude that they
will die today or tomorrow, they see that friends and material possessions will
not accompany them, and so they stop craving them. Naturally they then wish
to take full advantage of their human birth through virtuous deeds such as giving
gifts. Just so, if you create an authentic mindfulness of death, you will see
that all toiling for worldly things such as goods, respect, and fame is as fruitless
as winnowing chaff, and is a source of deception. Then you will turn away from
wrongdoing. With constant and respectful effort you will accumulate good karma
by doing such virtuous deeds as going for refuge and maintaining ethical discipline.
You will thereby bring lasting significance to things, like the body, that would
not have had such significance. You will ascend to a sublime state and will
lead others there as well. What could be more meaningful?
Tsong Khapa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume
December 11, 2016