DEATH AND REBIRTH
"Health is merely the slowest possible rate
at which one can die."
Why 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."
And as Sogyal Rinpoche mentions in 'Glimpse of the Day':
"Looking into death needn't be frightening
or morbid. Why not reflect on death when you are really inspired,
relaxed, and comfortable, lying in bed, or on vacation, or listening
to music that particularly delights you? Why not reflect on it
when you are happy, in good health, confident, and full of well-being?
Don't you notice that there are particular moments when you are
naturally inspired to introspection? Work with them gently, for
these are the moments when you can go through a powerful experience,
and your whole worldview can change quickly. These are the moments
when former beliefs crumble on their own, and you can find yourself
"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."
BODY AND MIND
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,
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
"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
"No matter where you prepare your last bed,
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
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
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
6. Red vision: appearance of a vacuum filled with red light,
like at dawn.
7. Black vision: appearance of darkness, slowly losing
8. Clear light of death: appearance of an empty vacuum.
Few people have a sufficiently trained awareness to experience
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."
^Top of Page
INTERMEDIATE STATE - BARDO
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
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."
at the Crossroads: Conversations with The Dalai Lama on
Brain Science and Buddhism
THE REALMS OR TYPES OF EXISTENCE
A short story from 'Zen flesh, Zen bones', called 'The Gates
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
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.
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
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
- 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.
PRECIOUS HUMAN REBIRTH
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
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
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
- 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
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
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.
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.
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.
We are born naked, wet, and hungry, and get slapped on our ass
... then things get worse.
The Emperor asked Master Gudo, "What happens to a man of enlightenment
"How should I know?" replied Gudo.
"Because you are a master," answered the Emperor.
"Yes sir," said Gudo, "but not a dead one."
March 1, 2011