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    Modern version of the Eternal Knot by Charles Huttner
A View on Buddhism
Teksty w jezyku polskim     Deutsche Seiten


Indian Poem
Body and Mind
Bardo - Intermediate stage
The 'Realms' or Types of Existence
Precious Human Rebirth

"Health is merely the slowest possible rate at which one can die."
Source unknown


Auspicious knotWhy a page on death and rebirth? Well, how can we really understand life if we don't understand death? Buddhists do not have a morbid fascination with death, but, as Tibetan Master Drakpa Gyaltsen said:

"Humans prepare for the future all their lives, yet meet the next life totally unprepared."

And there is a very good reason to 'be prepared or death', as His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains:

"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."


"This day is a special day, it is yours.
Yesterday slipped away, it cannot be filled anymore with meaning.
About tomorrow nothing is known.
But this day, today, is yours, make use of it.
Today you can make someone happy.
Today you can help another.
This day is a special day, it is yours."


In Buddhism, the way to describe the body and mind, is to talk about the five aggregates. The first aggregate is form, which refers to the physical aspect or body of a sentient being, and the next four aggregates are aspects of the mind. All five are:

1. Form - the body
2. Feeling or sensation - this refers to the mental separation of sensations into pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.
3. Recognition, discrimination or distinguishing awareness - in many ways similar to the discriminating intellect
4. Primary Consciousness - the five sense consciousnesses (smell, touch, taste, seeing and hearing) and mental consciousness
5. Compositional Factors, volition - these are all other remaining mental processes, in general "thoughts".

Another essential distinction is made between the different levels of subtlety of body and mind. In the tantric teachings of Tibet, distinctions are made between:
Gross Body: our "normal" physical body of muscles, fat, bones etc.
Gross Mind: our "normal" observed continuation of thoughts and feelings etc.
Subtle Body: the "energy" within our body as it flows in our energy channels, similar to their description in Chinese acupuncture or Indian yoga.
Subtle Mind: the state of mind that we are normally unaware of, and which becomes noticeable during deep meditation. This is not really identical to our Western concept of sub-consciousness, although some aspects may overlap. It may be more similar to intuition and inner wisdom.
Most Subtle Body / Mind: this is the most essential and subtle part of a sentient being. This aspect of ourselves is extremely difficult to observe; body and mind at this level are inseparable and could be described as 'mental energy'.

The above levels of mind and body are sometimes compared to going to sleep:
Gross: when awake, we are aware of our gross body and mind.
Subtle: when we are dreaming, we have a very flexible body and ideas in our mind that we normally do not experience, similar to the subtle body and mind.
Very subtle: when we are in deep sleep, we are barely aware of both body and mind.

" There are those who look on death with a naive, thoughtless cheerfulness, thinking that for some unknown reason death will work out all right for them, and that it is nothing to worry about. When I think of them, I am reminded of what one Tibetan master says: “People often make the mistake of being frivolous about death and think, ‘Oh well, death happens to everybody. It’s not a big deal, it’s natural. I’ll be fine.’” That’s a nice theory until one is dying."
Sogyal Rinpoche from Death & Dying


In Tibetan Buddhism, often the so-called 'clear-light mind' is mentioned. This is the most subtle level of mind, which we are normally not even aware of. It appears to the very advanced meditator and during the death process. In the case of death, only advanced meditators will be able to notice it. It is a non-conceptual, 'primordial' state of mind.
From a talk given by HH Dalai Lama. Oct. 11-14, 1991 New York City. Path of Compassion teaching preliminary to Kalachakra:

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."

The great master Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye describes in The Treasury of Knowledge, Book Six, Part Four: Systems of Buddhist Tantra, The Indestructible Way of Secret Mantra:

"The indivisible nature of mind is said to possess a "mobile quality." This mobile quality is described as currents of energy which flow through the channels of various parts of the body, presiding over physical as well as mental functions, and pass through the nostrils as breathing. Such currents of energy, called "winds" (rlung, vayu), serve as the bridge between body and mind.
The winds are a blend of two types of energy, one associated with emotionality, called karmic or conditioned wind (las kyi rlung), and the other related to the original state of the individual, called pristine awareness wind (ye shes kyi rlung). Distinguished in terms of the three principles, darkness (tamas), mobility (rajas), and buoyancy (sattva), winds are of three types: wind of Rahu, solar wind, and lunar wind. Moreover, the winds are differentiated as the five root winds (rtsa ba'i rlung), the natures of the five elements, and five branch winds (yan lag gi rlung), produced through the five elemental transformations. The winds of the five elements, or five mandalas, flow back and forth through the right and left nostrils in the order of generation of the elements and of birth (first space, then wind, fire, water, earth) and in the order of dissolution of the elements and of death (first earth, then water, and so on), respectively. In one day, they are exhaled and inhaled 21,600 times, divided between the two nostrils, a time corresponding to eight periods or watches (thun). The outward movement of these energy currents as the breath diminishes the strength of the wind associated with pristine awareness. Therefore, when outward movement increases, there occur signs of death. If the winds are held inside, pristine awareness wind is strengthened. Hence, many extraordinary powers such as longevity are gained through breath control techniques for "holding the winds" in the central channel."


"No matter where you prepare your last bed,Walking Skeletons
No matter where the sword of death falls,
The terrifying messengers of death descend,
Horrid and giant; and glare with thirsty eyes.

Friends and family, weeping, surround you.
Eyeing your wealth and possessions,
They offer prayers and enshroud you.
Unprepared, you pass away;
Helpless and alone."
From 'Songs of spiritual change' by His Holiness the 7th Dalai Lama (transl. Glenn Mullin)

Death is in Tibetan Buddhism defined as 'the separation of the Most Subtle Body & Mind from the more gross aspects of the body and mind'. As this separation is a gradual process, death is not a point in time, like in Western thought, but it describes a period during which this separation occurs.

During the death process, the Tibetan traditions describe a sequence of experiences. What these will be exactly, how long they last and their exact order depends on the individual person and the death cause. Generally they are described as "visions", which appear when the experience of the various physical elements dissolves and sense awareness diminishes.

In common sequential order they are:
1. Mirage vision: vision become blurred, mirages and dark images appear, the sense of seeing dissolves.
Earth absorbs into Water: the body becomes weak and powerless, a feeling of sinking or falling.
2. Smoke vision: feeling absorbed in smoke, the sense of hearing dissolves. Feelings of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral cease.
Water absorbs into Fire: the bodily fluids dry up.
3. Fireflies: feeling surrounded by sparks or fireflies, the sense of smell dissolves. Memories of friends and enemies fade away.
Fire absorbs into Air: food and drinks are not digested anymore.
4. Butter-lamp: appearance of a dying flame, the sense of taste dissolves and the body cannot be moved anymore. No more thoughts of worldly activities or purpose etc.
Air absorbs into Consciousness: the breath ceases.
- Somewhere around here one would become "clinically dead" according to Western science -
5. White vision: appearance of a vacuum filled with white light.
6. Red vision: appearance of a vacuum filled with red light, like at dawn.
7. Black vision: appearance of darkness, slowly losing consciousness.
8. Clear light of death: appearance of an empty vacuum. Few people have a sufficiently trained awareness to experience this clearly.
As this state appears quite similar to the highly evolved state of the clear light mind of an enlightened Buddha, very advanced practitioners are able to remain in this state for weeks by the power of their meditation; clinically dead, but without decay of the body. In Tibet, many stories are told of masters who died in meditation position, and whose body would not decompose or even fall over for weeks.

A dedication by the Panchen Lama:

"When the doctor gives me up,
When rituals no longer work,
When friends have given up hope for my life,
When anything I do is futile,
May I be blessed to remember my guru's instructions."

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Following the death process, a similar process like the above visions is experienced in reverse order. After the mirage vision, one finds oneself in the intermediate state or bardo in Tibetan. The experiences in this state are described as being similar to dreaming. The "body" moves as fast as thought and - confused as most beings are by death - it can even take the aspect of a very long nightmare. Of course, nothing but our own karma is at work here, creating pleasant or unpleasant experiences.
Traditionally, it is explained that the maximum period that one can stay in bardo is 49 days. Within that period, all beings have been attracted to a new body to take rebirth. Every 7 days in bardo, a kind of 'small death and rebirth' occurs. Very advanced practitioners can use this period to make quick spiritual progress by realising the mental and karmic processes at work.


First a comment on the use of the word rebirth instead of reincarnation in Buddhism, from Damien Keown in the Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism.

Reincarnation: Term generally avoided by writers on Buddhism since it implies the existence of an immortal soul (atman) that is periodically incarnated in a fleshly host, a notion more proper to Hinduism. By contrast, Buddhism denies the existence of an immortal soul and does not accept the dualistic opposition between spirit and matter it presupposes. Accordingly, the English term preferred by Buddhist writers to designate the dynamic and constantly changing continuity of the individual from one life to the next is ‘rebirth’. Neither this term nor ‘reincarnation’ has a direct Sanskrit equivalent, and Indian sources speak instead of ‘rebecoming’ (Skt., punarbhava) or ‘repeated death’ (Skt., punarmrtyu).

In the bardo, one will be attracted to a copulating male and female. At this stage, a kind of small death from the bardo occurs. The reverse process as described above in the 'visions' is experienced while the most subtle body / mind is connecting to the fertilised egg. With this, contact to a subtle and gross body is established, and gradually the subtle and gross levels of mind will arise as well. If one is attracted to the female, one will be reborn as a male and vice versa.

"Ordinarily, it is difficult to remember one's past life. Such recollections seem to be more vivid when the child is very young, such as two or three, and in some cases even younger. ...When the present body is fully formed, the ability to recall past life seems to diminish.
The mental associations with this life become increasingly dominant. There is a close relationship during the first few years of one's life with the continuum of consciousness from the previous life. But as experiences of this life become more developed and elaborate, they dominate.
It is also possible within this lifetime to enhance the power of the mind, enabling one to reaccess memories from previous lives. Such recollection tends to be more accessible during meditative experiences in the dream state. Once one has accessed memories of previous lives in the dream state, one gradually recalls them in the waking state."
From Consciousness at the Crossroads: Conversations with The Dalai Lama on Brain Science and Buddhism


A short story from 'Zen flesh, Zen bones', called 'The Gates of Paradise':

A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin and asked: "Is there really a paradise and a hell?"
"Who are you?" inquired Hakuin.
"I am a samurai", the warrior replied.
"You, a soldier!" sneered Hakuin, "What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? You look like a beggar". Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: "So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably to dull to cut off my head."
As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked:"Here open the gates of hell!"
At these words the samurai, perceiving the master's discipline, put away his sword and bowed.
"Here open the gates of paradise", said Hakuin.

The concepts of the different realms in Buddhism can be seen as a direct consequence of the law of karma. When beings accumulate many negative actions, they can be expected to receive "hellish" experiences in return; similarly, many positive actions can give rise to a "heavenly" existence.

Quite a number of different realms are described in Buddhism (especially in the Abhidharma texts), which are categorized in three; the Desire Realms, the Form Realms and the Formless Realms.

Desire Realms

The reason that these realms are called "Desire Realms" is that desire (and other delusions) is in some way or another present in all of them.

The "realms" do not necessarily need to exist in different locations or dimensions. Basically, they are described in terms of the main type of experience that beings have. All these realms are all within "cyclic existence", meaning they are all temporary states within the cycles of death and birth.

According to Buddhism, we cannot only be born as human beings the next time, but also as animal, "god", "half-god", "hungry ghost" or even in "hell". Obviously, these words have specific connotations in most religions, and the expressions in Buddhism refer to somewhat different experiences than e.g. in Christianity. The main difference is that in Buddhism, a stay in none of the realms is permanent. After a life in "god-realm" we could be reborn in the "hell-realm"; it all just depends on our karma ripening.

A very brief description of the six desire realms:

1. Deva (god) realm: Life is experienced as happiness virtually without any problems whatsoever. The largest problem of this realm comes when the time is near to die, one begins to experience suffering as one can see the next rebirth coming up, which is usually much less pleasant. So a life as a deva or god definitely does not refer to anything like "God" in the Judeo-Christian-Moslim traditions; maybe they can be compared better to the gods in Greek mythology. These god-realms or heavens can be divided in many specific worlds.
2. Half-deva (demi god) realm: Quite a happy life is experienced, the main problems are caused by jealousy. The demi-gods can see the perfect life the gods are experiencing and become jealous, as the gods have somewhat better lives. They then want to fight the gods, but are always defeated.
3. Human realm: Life shifts between happiness and suffering. The biggest advantage of being born as a human is that one has the possibilities to change one's karma and do practices to become liberated from cyclic existence or even achieve Buddhahood; see below in Precious Human Rebirth, and at the same time one experiences enough problems to be motivated into action.
4. Animal realm: Life is ruled by ignorance. Happiness and suffering happen, but understanding it, or even controlling it, is barely possible in the darkened awareness of an animal.
5. Hungry ghost or Preta (Tib.) realm: Life is marked by suffering, especially from attachment and craving, without being able to satisfy one's needs. Life here is often described as a continuous suffering from hunger and thirst, but one cannot eat or drink.
6. Hell realm: Life is defined as suffering virtually without any happiness whatsoever. The only positive thing about the Buddhist hell realm is the fact that it is not eternal. After consuming up much of the negative karmic potential, one will die and has the chance to be reborn in a different (more pleasant) realm. Similar to the heavens, many different hells are also described (like hot and cold hells etc.).

Form and Formless Realms

Beyond these Desire Realms, but still within cyclic existence, there are the Form Realms and the Formless Realms. These are more like being in advanced stages of meditation, and are actually results of advanced meditation. Although desire is not really experienced in these states (they are sometimes called Desireless realms), apart from the desire to meditate, progress to enlightenment not possible here. Existence in these realms can be extremely long, but when one's karma runs out, rebirth into lower states of existence with apparent suffering will occur again:

  • Form Realm: is achieved when one has attained high levels of concentration with which one focuses on clarity and nonconceptual awareness.
    In the Form Realm, one does not experience the 'suffering of suffering' (direct pain and problems). Beings here have renounced the enjoyment of external sense objects but still have attachment to internal form (their own body and mind).
  • Formless Realm: The highest state within cyclic existence (samsara in Sanskrit), achieved when one has attained high levels of concentration with which one focuses on nonconceptual awareness. Beings here have renounced form and attachment to pleasures of form (physical) pleasures, and exist only within their mindstream. Their mind however, is still bound by subtle desire and attachment to mental states and their ego.

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The human rebirth is often called precious in Buddhism, as one has unique possibilities to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth. Simply said, in the 'lower realms', one is usually completely engulfed in misery (hell and hungry ghost realm) or simply unable to reason logically (animal realm). In the 'higher realms' like of the gods and demigods, one tends to indulge luxury and comfort, and barely realises the problems of rebirth until that life comes to an end.

In the Tibetan tradition, the factors making up the preciousness of human life are listed as the 8  leisures and 10 endowments (note that some of them actually are repeated twice with marginally different meanings):
The 8 leisures are freedom from: rebirth as hell-being, preta, animal, demigod or god, incomplete organs, having done the 5 heinous crimes, and having no views opposite to 3 jewels of refuge.
The 10 endowments are: being human, having one's organs intact, not having performed the 5 heinous crimes, no views opposite the 3 jewels of refuge, not being crazy, living in land where Dharma exists, not living in a barbarian country, living in a time when Dharma is available, having Dharma teachers/centers/practitioners around, and other people appreciate and help practitioners.

"In order to develop a fully qualified desire to take advantage of a life of leisure, you must reflect on its four elements, as follows:
1) The need to practice the teachings, because all living beings only want happiness and do not want suffering and because achieving happiness and alleviating suffering depend only on practicing the teachings;
2) the ability to practice, because you are endowed with the external condition, a teacher, and the internal conditions, leisure and opportunity;
3) the need to practice in this lifetime, because if you do not practice, it will be very difficult to obtain leisure and opportunity again for many lifetimes; and
4) the need to practice right now, because there is no certainty when you will die.
Among these, the third stops the laziness of giving up, which thinks, "I will practice the teaching in future lives." The fourth stops the laziness of disengagement, which thinks, "Although I should practice in this lifetime, it is enough to practice later on and not to practice in my early years, months, and days."
His Holiness the Dalai Lama


Impermanence in Buddhism is not necessarily a complicated issue to understand, the challenge however is that we normally barely live our lives according to this understanding. We know that we will die, but we chose to forget it can happen right here and now. We plan so many things for the future, but we have no idea if this future will ever be. It seems especially tempting to plan positive actions helping others in the future, but think 'I am too busy right now, I'll do it next week", but will our next week ever come in this life?

In Buddhist terminology, we lack the realization of impermanence (anicca in Sanskrit). Impermanence is one of the three Marks of Existence; suffering, non-self and impermanence. Even if we rationally understand these concepts, our view of life only really changes when we 'realize' them, or make them an integral part of our way of thinking. To do this, meditation is the method of choice.

In The Torch of Certainty, written by the nineteenth century Tibetan master Jamgon Kongtrul, a number of subjects are given to meditate on that can help one realize impermanence:

  • Nothing lasts - here today, gone tomorrow, including myself and everyone I know.
  • Everyone who died in the past lost their lives suddenly.
  • There are many causes of death, and many causes and conditions are required to stay alive from moment to moment.
  • The hour of death. Have I done the right things in my life? Who do I need to forgive still? With who do I still need to settle a disagreement? I have done so many negative, selfish acts towards others, what karma have I collected?
  • What will happen after death? Friends and possessions are lost. Have I done enough to ensure a good rebirth?

Dogen Zenji instructs:
"You are right about not relying on intelligence, talent, quick-wittedness, or sagacity in learning the Way. Still, it is wrong to encourage a person to become blind, deaf, or ignorant. Since studying the Way does not require having wide knowledge or talented abilities, you should not show disdain for anyone because of their inferior capacity. True practice of the Way must be easy. Nevertheless, even in the monasteries of great Sung China, there are only one or two people out of several hundred or thousands of practitioners who realize the dharma and attain the Way in the assembly of one teacher. . . . I believe this: it depends only on whether one's aspiration is firmly determined or not. A person who arouses true aspiration and studies as hard as his capacity allows will not fail to attain the Way.
To arouse such an aspiration, think deeply in your heart of the impermanence of the world. It is not a matter of meditating using some provisional method of contemplation. It is not a matter of fabricating in our heads that which does not really exist. Impermanence is truly the reality right in front of our eyes."


See here for a list of sample meditations, also on death and rebirth.
For a very nice traditional explanation of the realms on the web, using the "Wheel of Life", see Buddhanet.
A good article called Tulkus: Masters of Reincarnation, describing the controlled rebirth of teachers as is quite common in Tibetan Buddhism.
A beautiful contemporary impresion of the Buddhis universe at this exhibition page.
Intriguing 'evidence' on rebirth can be found via the website Children's Past Lives.
Much more detail on the entire subject of death and rebirth can be found in the popular book "Death and Dying" by Sogyal Rinpoche (the translations of the "Tibetan Book of the Dead" are very interesting, but can be very obscure for most people.

Just for fun:

Despite the high cost of living it remains a popular item.

I want nothing to do with natural foods. At my age I need all the preservatives I can get.
George Burns

I don't believe in an afterlife, so I don't have to spend my whole life fearing hell, or fearing heaven even more.
For whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse.
Isaac Asimov

We are born naked, wet, and hungry, and get slapped on our ass ... then things get worse.

Eat right.
Stay fit.
Die anyway.

The Emperor asked Master Gudo, "What happens to a man of enlightenment after death?"
"How should I know?" replied Gudo.
"Because you are a master," answered the Emperor.
"Yes sir," said Gudo, "but not a dead one."

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Last updated: March 1, 2011