Article looks at how Tibetan culture and religious tradition approaches the existential fact of our mortality.
Death is an inevitable part of life. We begin to die as soon as we are born. We can choose to ignore this unpleasant fact, busying ourselves with the tasks of present day life—focusing on making money, succeeding in our career or profession, distracting ourselves with entertainments like films, video games, pop music, and TV—until death inevitably come to us. Or we can face our our inevitable fate and prepare ourselves for it now in our present life.
With the decline of conventional religion and of religious values during the last three hundred years in the West and with the triumph of materialistic science and its marvelous technology, people have tended to push the existential fact of death out of their daily consciousness, as if they would live forever. Increasingly, old people and the dying are hidden from view—ware-housing them in old people’s retirement homes or in sanitized hospital wards.
Yes, violence and death are relentless depicted in films, on TV, and in video games, but these events no longer feel real and we have become desensitized to them. They are more like events depicted in cartoons. They do not touch us at the existential level. We repress the thought of our own mortality, that death will come to us personally, until it is too late, whether death from accident or from a terminal illness. Yet, the inevitability of our own death is real and actual and ever-present. No amount of wishful thinking or distraction with entertainments will make it go away. In denying to ourselves that we will eventually die, we deny part of ourselves, our shadow side. Death’s inevitability is ever a part of our life here and now and it will follow us as relentlessly as the shadow follows the body. Our modern secular society and scientific rationalistic culture does not prepare us for death. We have lost touch with the ars moriendi, the art of dying.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Now, with the advent of this new millennium, at a time of globalization and intercultural encounters and the general spreading of the modern world-view throughout the populations of our planet, we may look at how other cultures and religious traditions approach the existential fact of our mortality. Since 1927, translations of the famous Tibetan Book of the Dead have appeared in various Western languages. This text especially attracted the attention of the great Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung who wrote his own commentary to it. Since that time a number of more accurate translations have appeared. But this fourteenth century text, known is Tibetan as the Bardo Thodol, “the Liberation through Hearing while in the Bardo”, is only one among a large number of Tibetan texts dealing with dying and the after-death experience known as the Bardo. The guided meditation presented here was inspired by the meditation practice presented by the eighteenth century Tibetan master Jigmed Lingpa in his famous meditation instruction manual entitled the Triyik Yeshe Lama. This meditation was extracted by German psychotherapist and health practitioner Dorothea Mihm from my larger work, “The Bardo Project: Meditations for Dying, After-death, and Rebirth,” and recorded by her in German and English on CD. Ms. Mihm is well known in Frankfurt for her work with the dying.
The meditation draws on a number of different source texts. Basically, in the Tibetan tradition there are two approaches to the process of dying and the after-death experience. First, there is the system found in the Buddhist Tantras, in particular the Guhyasamaja Tantra. And second, there is the system found in the texts dealing with Dzogchen meditation, which represents the basic approach of the two older Tibetan schools, the Nyingmapa and the Bonpo. However, the differences are more a matter of emphasis than substance. There is no fundamental contradiction. Both systems are combined here in this meditation practice serving as a preparation for the process of dying.
The description of the process of dying and the after-death experience differ somewhat from the usual accounts of Western near-death experiences. But near-death experiences and out-of-the-body experiences are not exactly the same as dying, despite certain apparent similarities. The Tibetan also have numerous accounts of near-death experiences known as Delok, “passing away and returning,” but these descriptions, usually written by Tibetan women, are substantially different from the usual Western descriptions. Here we should take into account cultural differences in terms of dying and after-death. This is not surprising since the deceased consciousness, loosing its physical embodiment and external senses, finds itself inhabiting the landscape of its own psyche. The shallower depths of this psyche are much shaped by the individual’s personal history and cultural milieu.
We could say that the Bardo experience is part of the collective psyche of humanity and is located within the atmosphere of psychic energy surrounded our planet earth. This realm of the unconscious psyche, is not simply filled with white lights and angels. The shadows are also there. The shadows we deny in ourselves and push out of sight will most surely meet us face to face in the Bardo, as much as our relatives and spiritual guides.
Our Attitudes Toward Death
You should understand that your physical death does not mean the end of your conscious existence. You have lived before in countless previous lives in countless other bodies in this beginningless cycle of existence called Samsara. Whatever actions you have done consciously in these past lives, whether positive or negative, are deposited in the dark unconscious depths of your stream of existence as karmic traces. When the appropriate circumstances arise in some future life, these karmic seeds become activated, germinate, and bring their karmic fruits. Thus, the situation in your present life, even your present physical body, is the result of your past karma. But, in the same way, with each choice of your actions you make in this present life, you create new karma, whether positive or negative, that will determine the course of your next life. So, the situation is far from hopeless. At this present moment, you are actually creating your future lives through your thoughts and actions. All of us carry the seeds of our future karma with us, lifetime after lifetime.
Each of us is like a mighty river, without any beginning in time, which flows through many different and varied landscapes. Each landscape is a lifetime. Know that your individual stream of consciousness is like this mighty river. It is a river whose waters change from moment to moment, so that it is never the same, and yet it is the same river. In the past you have been many people, in the future you will be many more. In each of these lifetimes, we have a lesson to be learned. Know that you are called “nobly born” because you now possess a precious human existence. Such an existence is precious because it takes an exceedingly large accumulation of meritorious karma, accrued over many lifetimes, in order to realize a human rebirth. This is a unique opportunity that should not be wasted. On this planet earth, it is in such a human existence that the opportunities for spiritual evolution are at their maximum. There are many other possibilities of rebirth, both higher and lower, and there is no guarantee of another human existence, except through your actions here and now in this present life.
Yes, for the time you have being this precious human body. But all things are impermanent; all great monuments will eventually crumble into dust. Even the great mountains over millions of years will be washed away by the rains and even the great ocean will eventually dry up in the fires of the sun. Eventually the sun itself will fade, grow cold, and die. All things are impermanent, including this physical human body you now possess. It is certain that you will die eventually. Even though the hour of your death is uncertain, it is certain and sure that it will come, unwelcome and unannounced, for old age, sickness, and death follow all of us relentlessly like the shadow follows the body. You cannot flee your shadow, you cannot escape the inevitability of your death. You can only face it by discovering who you really are.
This frail body of yours, produced from many past karmic causes and conditions, is unreliable and fragile, like the flickering of the flame of a candle left outdoors in a violent wind storm. Certainly, it will not endure long. Nowhere will you find a physical body that is not a vessel for death. No one knows when the Lord of Death will come, for he is unannounced and unexpected, but it is certain that he will come. Therefore, you should always be mindful of the signs of approaching death, whether these be external, internal, or secret, and you should exert yourself on the spiritual path.
Truly, we human beings face two kinds of death: Death by untimely accidental conditions and death caused by the exhaustion of our life-force. Before the conclusion of our natural span of life, untimely death may be turned away by means of the methods of long life practice. But where the cause of death is the exhaustion of our natural span of life, then these methods will be of little value. Our situation is like that of a oil lamp empty of its fuel. In that case, there is little hope, save that the flame will soon be extinguished.
The time for the death of your physical body has come upon you, as it must come sometime to all mortal beings. What you are experiencing at this time is the Bardo of Dying, which began with your present terminal illness. You now lie on your death bed, your final resting place. Although the time for your death has come, fear not, for this is not the end. Even as you drawn your last breaths, your stream of conscious experience will continue. What is most important now is for you to keep your mind peaceful and calm, but fully alert. There is nothing more to be done in this life. Now is the time to let everything go.
The Approach of Death
The time has now come for you to seek the path of light to the other shore, beyond this present life and beyond the portals of death. This is the beginning of your journey through the gateway into a new existence. So, there is nothing to fear. You have made this same journey countless times before. You will not become lost because the Guide will point the way. Yes, you must leave this present life behind, with all its joys and sorrows. You must leave behind all of your wealth and possessions, all of your friends and kin and family, all of your lovers and your enemies; you must leave behind even your present physical body to which you are so inordinately attached. But the death of your physical body is not the end– it is a transition, a new beginning, a resurrection. The continuum of your consciousness does not cease with the death of your physical body and your material brain. Even without a physical body, your consciousness continues in space, because it is the nature of space and light. Your beginningless stream of consciousness continues to flow onward toward an unknown destiny, even after your physical death. It is like a current of warm tropical water flowing through the great ocean– ever changing, yet ever the same current. Your karma cannot be fully exhausted in this present lifetime alone, and so karma propels your stream of consciousness into new lives and new existences. Death is not the end.
At the Time of Dying
That which is called death has finally come upon you. Therefore, you should consider matters carefully: You have arrived at the time of your death and so now, by means of this experience of death, you should adopt the attitude of the enlightened state of mind, thinking of all other living beings, whose numbers are as vast as the sky itself, with boundless thoughts of friendliness and compassion. For the sake of these living beings, at the moment of death, you should come to recognize the Clear Light of Reality as the very Nature of your own Mind. And coming to the supreme realization of who you really are, you will act only for the good of others. But if you do not attain this realization at present, then recognize the Bardo for what it is, the intermediate state between death and rebirth, and recognize all the visions seen in the lights of the Bardo to be the visible manifestations of the energy of the your own Nature of Mind. This you must remember above all else.
The Bardo of Dying and the Dissolution of the Elements
In this guided meditation you will be taken through three phases of your inevitable future, which is known as the Bardo, the intermediate state between your death and your rebirth into a new body and a new life. Traditionally, we speak here of three Bardos. First, you will contract a terminal illness and thereupon the various signs of impending death will appear for you and be visible to others. Then you will enter into the process of dying. This is characterized by experiencing the progressive dissolution of the elements of your body. These elements are the modes in which your psychic energy manifests itself and traditionally they are reckoned as five. They are called earth, water, fire, air, and ether or space. These elements correspond in your physical body to the psychic energy contained in your flesh and bones, your blood and bodily fluids, your heat and digestion, your breathing and nervous system, and your consciousness and aura, respectively. Thus, in succession, earth will dissolve into water, water into fire, fire into air, and air into space. During the course of this process of dissolution of your energies, you will have many experiences and visions. Moreover, there will occur external physical signs observable to others in your presence and internal experiences of which only you are aware. Finally, your respiration, or outer breathing, will cease and all those around you will think that you are dead. But you are not yet dead and can even be revived and resuscitated because for sometime your inner breathing, that is to say, the circulation of your psychic energy, will continue. During this time, you will have further interior experiences, such as the inner dissolution of your psyche or emotions and your mind or thought process. Although to outsiders you may appear cold, inert, and surely dead, your consciousness still remains in your body, dwelling secretly in your heart center, where a slight warmth may be detected. Finally, even your inner breathing will also come to cease as your remaining psychic energies gather in your heart center and are absorbed there.
At this time, when both your outer and your inner breathing have ceased, although your consciousness has not yet exited your old physical body, you will find yourself in a vast dark space like the sky at midnight devoid of stars. You are not really unconscious, but simply suspended in the darkness of space, as if some one has turned out the light and you find yourself in a totally dark room. How long this experience of total darkness remains depends on individual karma. But then the dawn of the Clear Light of Awareness will come inevitably upon you because now your body and your mind have all been stripped from you and you find yourself completely naked. But you have not ceased to exist. The space all about you will appear to become like the vast open cloudless sky in the east at dawn. This light grows brighter and brighter, as when the sun still invisible approaches the horizon from below. If at this time you recognize this Clear Light of Awareness to be the self-manifestation of the Nature of your own Mind, you will then merge into this light. Becoming one with it, you be delivered from the delusions of cyclical existence and from the necessity for future rebirths in the lower realms of Samsara. You will have ascended beyond the stars and returned home. And there will be no further need for you to enter into and experience the Bardo, for you have now passed beyond the beginningless cycle of death and rebirth.
But if you fail to recognize this Clear Light of dawn as your own face reflected in the mirror of empty space, you will fall away from it in confusion and in fear of loosing yourself in its radiance. You will seek to avoid it and flee from its clear brilliance. You will faint away into unconsciousness and fall back into the outer darkness. Having fled from the dawn of your own Awareness, you will descend again into the darkness of night, and you will experience a period of unconsciousness. Only at the end of this time, extending from a few minutes to three and a half days, will your consciousness leave your body and finally separate from it. Therefore, during this time, your body should not be disturbed unnecessarily nor disposed of for burial or cremation. Finally, your consciousness, as a small speck of light, being composed of both subtle mind and very subtle psychic energy, exits your body into the surrounding space through one of its orifices, such as the crown of your head, the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth, and so on. This period of time, from the contracting of your terminal illness until your consciousness leaves your dead body behind, is known as the First Bardo, the Bardo of Dying.
Out-of-the-Body Experience in the Bardo
Next, you will enter into the after-death experience proper known as the intermediate state between death and rebirth. When your outer and your inner breathing have ceased, your consciousness exits your old physical body, discarding it like an old suit of clothes. However, during this time of unconsciousness, which lasts for an uncertain period of time, your memories and your past karma will begin to reawaken, like the dreams that come upon you in the night when you fall asleep. Your mind and your psyche begin to function and operate again with thoughts and emotions. Then, when you awaken from your state of unconsciousness, you will find yourself in the Bardo. You will discover yourself inhabiting a subtle body composed of psychic energy, with your mind and your sense faculties functioning intact. This mind-made body, this subtle energy structure that embodies and encompasses your consciousness, which is created for you by your memories and your past karma, is not something physical, but an immaterial spirit body. Now you are truly dead and departed this world. This spirit-body resembles in almost every way, including its clothes, your previous physical body that you possessed before you died. However, it is free of all diseases, feels no pain and suffers no infirmities or absence of limbs. At first, finding yourself in this body, you wander about your old haunts and familiar scenes. You may not even realize that you are dead. You try to speak to your friends and relatives, but they cannot see or hear you. Suddenly you see your previous body lying dead and awaiting burial or disposal. Now, indeed, you realize that you are dead. Failing in all your futile attempts to re-enter your old inert corpse, you now set out, seeking a new body and birthplace.
Visions in the Bardo of Reality
Gradually the familiar scenes begin to fade away and you find your mind increasingly distracted. You wander through many strange and alien landscapes, always searching for something, but never quite knowing what that might be. Eventually the sky opens up before you, becoming a deep blue in color. During successive cycles, you may come to experience five lesser clear lights in five extraordinary primary colors in succession– white, blue, yellow, red, and green. Then these bright clear lights may become as big as mountains and even come to fill the entire sky before you. In these lights you may see visions of the celestial hierarchies that span the heavens. You may see whatever gods you worship, sitting on their thrones, surrounded by choirs of angels, coming to you from the heights of heaven. But failing to recognize these secondary clear lights and these peaceful serene images as the self-manifestations of your own energy of Mind, you again attempt to flee from them in fear of being overwhelmed. Thereupon, during the successive cycles you may see more vibrant and darker images of the infernal hierarchies. Again failing to recognize these archetypal images and symbols, both beautiful and terrifying, as self-manifestations of your own energy of Mind, you again attempt to flee from them in fear of being overwhelmed. But these archetypal images are only manifestations of your own purified consciousness. They come from within you, but are projected out into space. Yet, not recognizing them and fearing them in your ignorance, in terror you flee from them and therefore fall once more from the fullness of Reality into deprivation.
Once again, you will faint and find yourself in a state of unconsciousness for what may seem like many days. However, if in your present life you have been a practitioner of meditation and have experienced these clear light visions in your practice, you will greet them as old friends. Even if you do not recognize them in the Bardo to be the projections of your own Mind, they will remain before your consciousness in all their radiant splendor. But if you are not a practitioner, these clear lights will flash by you in less than a moment, like distant flashes of lightening on the dark horizon at midnight. Thus, this Second Bardo, the Bardo of the Clear Light of Reality, will pass you by. You return from the archetypal world to the world of formation that is the domain of your own personal karma.
The Bardo of Rebirth and the Confrontation with Conscience
Next, you will then awaken in the Third Bardo, the Bardo of the Process of Rebirth. You will find yourself once more inhabiting a subtle body composed of psychic energy, with your mind and sense faculties totally intact, but, nevertheless, this is still just an immaterial spirit body. This body will also resemble the body you possessed in your previous life. At first you may seek out again your old haunts and familiar scenes, although your mind and your vision is far less clear and focused than it was in the previous Bardo. There is much more confusion here. It is like you find yourself in a dream, where the scenes change about you with increasing rapidity and instability. You may try to speak to your friends and relatives, but they can neither see nor hear you as they go about there daily lives in your absence. Failing even to find your old body, you now enter into the process of rebirth and now set out once again seeking a new birthplace, but with a greater feeling of desperation. You may encounter many different spirit beings like yourself who are also searching, but these encounters will be fleeting and give little comfort. You will see many visions of colored lights and hear strange and frightening sounds like thunder; you will experience many varied landscapes like you are in a dream, for you now come to experience your personal karma in a very visible form. But if you fail to recognize these as karmic visions created by your own Mind, the winds of your karma will drive you relentlessly onward, like a frail leaf blown about to and fro by the autumn winds. At last you will come to stand before the gates of hell itself and there you will see the great court of justice. Entering within this awesome structure, you find yourself in the presence of the Judge of the Dead who is stern and terrifying in appearance and who holds the mirror of karma in which you see the face of your own soul reflected as it really is. The good and the evil that you have done during your life are weighed before you in the full view of the court. If you recognize that the dark and solemn form of the judge is actually your own conscience manifesting in visible form before you, even here, in the court of karma, you can obtain liberation. If not, the dull lights that are the pathways to future rebirth in Samsara manifest before you. And you must take one of these roads. You are irresistibly drawn to one of them and the winds of karma become like a hurricane.
In this dull light the form of your old body from your previous life begins to fade away and now you will come more and more to resemble the body you will have in your future rebirth. Impulsively, you search for a place of rebirth in accordance with the unconscious propensities of your karma. Finally, you will see your future parents mating and you will feel attracted to them. Depending on whether you will be reborn in a male or a female body, you will feel sexual attraction toward one parent and aggression and jealousy toward the other parent. At the moment of conception, when the white element, the sperm of your father, unites with the red element, the egg of your mother, you will be irresistibly drawn into the womb of your future mother. You are now about to embark on a new life in a new body.