Death and Rebirth
These teachings and meditations, by Dr Nicholas Ribush, can help you understand life, death and rebirth and the nature of the mind. You can discover how to use the certainty and imminence of death to enhance your quality of life. See how the entire path to enlightenment hangs together as a cohesive whole and where the teachings on impermanence and death, the first and last that the Buddha gave, fit in. The meditations included here guide you in the practice of analytical and placement meditation on these topics.
Meditation on the breath
Sit comfortably for meditation and again focus all your attention on your breath. Remain in this state of concentration for a few minutes while you clear and stabilize your mind. Press the pause button on your CD player and meditate for as long as you like. When you are ready to resume, press the play button.
Now generate the right motivation for your study and practice. Think, “The purpose of my life is to lead all sentient beings from suffering into enlightenment. In order to do this I must first reach enlightenment myself. Reaching enlightenment depends upon my completing the path to enlightenment, and that requires my studying and practicing all the teachings on the path to enlightenment. Therefore, I’m going to study the teachings on death and rebirth.”
Having set your bodhicitta motivation in this way, your study and practice of the material in this session becomes a very powerful cause for reaching enlightenment for the sake of all mother sentient beings.
In the last session, we studied a short passage by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the importance of preparing for death and understanding the mind and the death process. We also talked about the actual way of remembering death by meditating on the aspects of death, in particular the exoteric way, where we visualized ourselves lying on our death bed and imaging that we were actually dying. We also talked about the five forces and gaining favorable conditions at the time of death through these five forces; about how we die and are reborn; and briefly mentioned the intermediate state.
How meditation on death leads us to seek refuge
I want to start this session by reading few verses from Shantideva’s wonderful Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, where he expresses a few thoughts on death.47
How shall I escape it? Rescue me quickly! May death not soon creep up upon me before my vices have vanished.
Death does not differentiate between tasks done and undone. This traitor is not to be trusted by the healthy or the ill, for it is like an unexpected, great thunderbolt.
I have committed various vices for the sake of friends and enemies. This I have not recognized: “Leaving everyone behind, I must pass away.”
My enemies will not remain, nor will my friends remain. I shall not remain. Nothing will remain.
Whatever is experienced will fade to a memory. Like an experience in a dream, everything that has passed will not be seen again.
Even in this life, as I have stood by, many friends and enemies have passed away, but terrible sin induced by them, remains ahead of me.
Thus, I have not considered that I am ephemeral. Due to delusion, attachment and hatred, I have sinned in many ways.
Day and night, a lifespan unceasingly diminishes, and there is no adding onto it. Shall I not die then?
Although lying here on a bed and relying on relatives, I alone have to bear the feeling of being cut off from my vitality.
For a person seized by the messengers of Death, what good is a relative and what good is a friend? At that time, merit alone is a protection, and I have not applied myself to it.
O protectors, I, negligent and unaware of this danger, have acquired many vices out of attachment to this transient life.
One completely languishes while being led today to have the limbs of one’s body amputated. Parched with thirst, and with pitiable eyes, one sees the world differently.
How much more is one overpowered by the horrifying appearances of the messengers of Death as one is consumed by the fever of terror and smeared with a mass of excrement?
With distressed glances, I seek protection in the four directions. Which good person will be my protection from this great fear?
Seeing the four directions devoid of protection, I return to confusion. What shall I do in that state of great fear?
Shantideva then goes on to talk about refuge, and this is the place of meditation on death in the lam-rim, in the teachings of the small scope. Remember, the umbrella outline for this particular section is generating the mind that sees future lives as more important than this one, so the meditation on death is followed by meditation on the three lower realms, because that’s where we are most likely to go since our mind is full of causes for lower rebirth and practically devoid of causes for upper rebirth. Thus, this meditation is supposed to generate within us an incredible sense of urgency.
The meditation preceding this one, remember, is that on the preciousness of this human life, so now we realize: it’s going to finish, it’s finishing quickly, it could finish at any moment, and if it does, we are certain to be reborn in the terrifying suffering of the three lower realms.
Having generated the mind that sees it more important to benefit our future lives than this one, we look for the method, and the method is taking refuge. We go to the Buddha, his teachings and the Sangha—the ordained community or those who have realized emptiness—we turn to the Three Jewels of Refuge for protection. And once we’ve taken refuge, it’s our obligation to practice Dharma, to observe the law of karma; to purify the negative karma we’ve created, to abstain from creating more negative karma, to enhance the positive qualities that we have within us, and to acquire those that we do not.
As the Buddha said, “I don’t guide you by removing your sufferings by hand, by washing away your negativities with holy water or by transplanting my realizations into your mind. I guide by showing you the path, and once I’ve done so, it’s up to you to follow it.”
This meditation on death, therefore, is to shake us into the reality of our situation, and once we’ve woken up to the terrible danger that we’re in, the teachings then show us how to take responsibility for not just our own welfare but for the welfare of all sentient beings. And that is the bottom line. We’re studying and practicing these teachings in order to benefit others; the welfare of others is more important than our own. And the fact is, the more we dedicate ourselves to the welfare of others, the more we benefit ourselves.
Realizing the teachings
Think about these points made by the great bodhisattva Shantideva and try to integrate them into your very being. Of course, while it’s very important to study and meditate on these teachings on the steps of the path, in order to realize them, in order to integrate them into our very being, our mind needs to be fertile and receptive. So, as important as it is to study these teachings, it’s equally if not more important to prepare our mind for meditating on them as we prepare a field before planting a crop. Thus, we have to purify our mind of obstacles, of hindrances that prevent the teachings from taking root, and fertilize, or enrich, our mind with merit, with positive energy, so that the intellectual understanding that we gain through study can blossom into deep realization, where the teachings and our mind become inseparably one; where the ignorance that we’re so full of becomes completely displaced by the wisdom of Dharma.
Therefore, it’s not enough just to study and meditate on these teachings. We have to purify our mind and create a great deal of merit, and as we become more familiar with the path of Tibetan Buddhism, we’ll understand that we have to rely on our spiritual teacher and see that our teacher is actually the Buddha manifesting in a form according to our karma; manifesting in an appropriate manner to guide us out of suffering and into happiness. All these practices have to be done together; this is the only way to make real progress on the path.
How to listen to teachings
Also, when we listen to teachings, we shouldn’t just listen to them as some kind of lecture but rather we should use the teaching that we’re listening to as an object for analytical meditation. When we read Dharma books, as Lama Zopa Rinpoche often says, don’t just read, read, read from cover to cover, but read a sentence or a paragraph and stop and think; analyze it. Do analytical meditation as you’re reading, as you’re listening.
As our lamas always tell us, Dharma teachings are like a mirror; we should see ourselves reflected in the teachings. When the teachings explain about negative minds, we should look to see if those negative minds are present in our mental continuum. Just as we look into a mirror to see if we have dirt on our face and if we have, we remove it through an appropriate means, like washing with soap and water, similarly, when the teachings explain about negative minds and we see that those negative minds are in fact within us, we should remove those mental stains through appropriate methods of purification.
When the teachings talk about positive minds, if we don’t have them, we should do whatever we can to acquire them. If we have those positive minds within us to a certain extent, we should do whatever we can to enhance them, to develop them to their full potential. If we find that we have positive minds within us already at their full potential, we should rejoice and feel extremely happy that we’ve accomplished at least that.
Sometimes people think, “I don’t want to go to that teaching because I’ve already heard it; I already know that subject,” but that’s not the point. Intellectual knowledge is not the point. What we have to check is do we have the realization or not? The great lamas go to lam-rim teachings hundreds of times and never get bored, because when they listen to a teaching and find that they don’t have the realization, they know that they have more work to do and feel happy to discover where their understanding of the Dharma is incomplete. In that way, they know what they should be practicing. If they find that they do have the realization, they rejoice and feel blissfully happy to have completed that knowledge. We should be like that and never feel too proud to go to any teaching through feeling, “I know that.” Mere intellectual knowledge is not the point.
The actual way of remembering death: esoteric meditation on the aspects of death
Now I’m going to go on to the next topic, which is the actual way of remembering death, the esoteric way of understanding the process of dissolution and how to meditate on it.
Normally we think that death has occurred when a person’s heart has stopped, breathing has ceased and there’s no longer any electrical activity in the brain, but these are only the signs of clinical death as defined by modern medicine. From the Dharma point of view, death occurs when the mind leaves the body, and even after the signs of clinical death have appeared, the mind can still be in the body. In a death that is neither sudden nor traumatic, the mind can take two or three days to separate from the body. As it does, various changes occur in the mind-body complex. Some of these are visible and manifest in what we call external signs that can be seen by an outside observer; others are internal and experienced only by the dying person. This is what we call the process of dissolution.
The mind that arises at the moment of death is the very subtle mind, the mind of clear light. Do you remember this from the first talk, when I quoted His Holiness the Dalai Lama to introduce to you the three levels of consciousness: gross, subtle and very subtle? At that time I said we’d go into this topic more in the last talk; now the time has come.
The very subtle is the most refined level of mind within us. What the yogi, the experienced meditator trained in these practices, tries to do, is to catch hold of that mind of clear light and use it to meditate on emptiness, on ultimate reality, using it to enhance his or her realization of emptiness at that time. Since that is the most refined state of mind, the least obscured mind, it is easier to realize emptiness with that mind…but catching hold of it is extremely difficult.
To practice the esoteric technique of meditating on the aspects of death in full requires initiation into Highest Yoga Tantra and is usually done in what’s called taking the three holy bodies as the path, the three kayas as the path.
An enlightened being has two holy bodies, dharmakaya, or enlightened holy body of wisdom, and rupakaya, or enlightened holy body of form. The rupakaya has two divisions, the sambhogakaya, or enjoyment body, and the nirmanakaya, or transformation, or manifestation, body. Sometimes the Dharma path is divided into two: method and wisdom.48 The rupakaya is the result of the perfect and complete accumulation of merit; the dharmakaya is the result of the perfect and complete accumulation of wisdom.
Sutra tells us that we’re still in samsara because we’re still under the influence of delusion and karma; Highest Yoga Tantra tells us that it’s because we haven’t put an end to the cycle of ordinary death, intermediate state and rebirth. When we do the practice of taking the three kayas as the path, we purify ordinary death with the dharmakaya, ordinary intermediate state with the sambhogakaya, and ordinary rebirth with the nirmanakaya, or, putting this another way, we are taking ordinary death as the path to the dharmakaya, ordinary intermediate state as the path to the sambhogakaya and ordinary rebirth as the path to the nirmanakaya. These are extremely advanced practices and quite beyond the scope of our present discussion. If you want to learn more about them you should first complete your studies of the general lam-rim and then go on to the higher study of tantra.
Having said that, however, even at this point in our studies we can practice what tantra teaches us about the death process in order to develop some familiarity with it before it actually happens, as it certainly will.
During the death process there are twenty-five gross objects that dissolve, weaken, or lose power, and as one weakens, the next strongest becomes more predominant. When I use the word “dissolve” here, I’m not using it in the sense of salt dissolving in water. It’s a process where, in general, grosser elements lose their ability to serve as a support for consciousness, and as their ability to do so degenerates, subtler elements become more manifest.
These twenty-five gross objects are:49
1. The five aggregates, or skandhas: form, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors and consciousness.
2. The five basic wisdoms: the basic mirror-like wisdom, the basic wisdom of equality, the basic wisdom of analysis, the basic wisdom of achieving activities and the basic wisdom of the nature of phenomena.
3. The four elements: earth (the hard substance of the body), water (fluids), fire (heat) and wind (energy, movement).
4. The six sources: the eye sense, ear sense, nose sense, tongue sense, body sense and mental sense.
5. The five objects: colors and shapes, sounds, odors, tastes and touches.
These twenty-five gross objects undergo dissolution in eight stages. I’m going to describe this process quite briefly, but if you want to study them in more detail—and, in fact, you absolutely must study them in more detail—I strongly recommend that you refer to Lati Rinpoche’s book Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism and His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s book Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life.50
Now let me run through these cycles of simultaneous dissolution.51 These are simultaneous dissolutions because many different things are happening all at once. There are different factors dissolving; different external signs, which largely can be seen by others; and with each group an internal sign, which is a mental appearance that can be seen only by the dying person.
In the first cycle of simultaneous dissolution
1. As the earth element dissolves, the external sign is that the body becomes very thin, the limbs become loose and there’s a sense that the body is sinking under a great weight of earth.
2. As the aggregate of form dissolves, the external sign is that the limbs become smaller and the body becomes weak and powerless.
3. As the basic mirror-like wisdom dissolves, the sight becomes unclear and dark.
4. As the eye sense dissolves, one can no longer open or close the eyes.
5. As colors and shapes dissolve, the body’s luster diminishes and one’s strength is consumed.
6. The internal sign that accompanies all this is the mirage-like appearance.
In the second cycle of simultaneous dissolution
1. As the water element dissolves, the external sign is that to a great extent saliva, sweat, urine, blood and regenerative fluids dry up.
2. As the aggregate of feeling dissolves, the body consciousness can no longer experience the three types of feeling that accompany sense consciousnesses: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.
3. As the basic wisdom of equality dissolves, one is no longer mindful of the feelings accompanying the mental consciousness.
4. As the ear sense dissolves, one can no longer hear external or internal sounds.
5. As sounds dissolve, the internal buzzing in the ears no longer arises.
6. The internal sign that accompanies all this is the appearance of smoke.
In the third cycle of simultaneous dissolution
1. As the fire element dissolves, the external sign is that one cannot digest food or drink.
2. As the aggregate of discrimination dissolves, one is no longer mindful of affairs of close persons.
3. As the basic wisdom of analysis dissolves, one can no longer remember the names of close persons.
4. As the nose sense dissolves, inhalation becomes weak and exhalation strong and lengthy.
5. As odors dissolve, one can no longer smell.
6. The internal sign that accompanies all this is the appearance of fireflies or sparks of fire.
In the fourth cycle of simultaneous dissolution
1. As the wind element dissolves, the external sign is that the ten winds52 move to the heart and inhalation and exhalation cease. (This could be the moment of clinical death but as you can see, there is still long way to go in the evolution of the death process.)
2. As the aggregate of compositional factors dissolves, one can no longer perform physical actions.
3. As the basic wisdom of achieving activities dissolves, one is no longer mindful of external worldly activities, purposes and so forth.
4. As the tongue sense dissolves, the tongue becomes thick and short and its root turns blue.
5. As tastes dissolve, one can no longer experience taste, and as the body sense and tangible objects dissolve, one can no longer experience smoothness or roughness.
6. The internal sign that accompanies all this is the appearance of a sputtering butter lamp or the last flickering of a candle.
Upon the inception of the fifth cycle, the mind begins to dissolve, in the sense that coarser types cease and subtler ones become manifest. First, conceptuality ceases—dissolving, so to speak, into a mind of white appearance. This subtler mind, to which only a vacuity filled by white light appears, is free from coarse conceptuality but, nevertheless, slightly dualistic. It, in turn, dissolves into a heightened mind of red appearance, which then dissolves into a mind of black appearance. At this point all that appears is a vacuity filled by blackness, during which the person eventually becomes unconscious; in time this is cleared away, leaving a totally non-dualistic vacuity—the mind of clear light—free from the white, red and black appearances. This is death.
The dissolution of the eighty gross conceptions is caused by the winds in the right and the left channels above the heart entering the central channel at the top of the head. What are these channels? Our consciousness circulates through our body riding on the wind, and the wind travels through psychic channels, which are subtle and not made of gross matter. So you won’t find them by dissecting the physical body; they are visible only to the mind. In total there are some 72,000 of these channels branching like a capillary network throughout the body. Here we are talking about the three main ones, the central channel and the right and left ones. Again, you can research this topic in more advanced tantric texts.
The internal sign for the fifth cycle of dissolution is at first a burning butter-lamp appearance, followed by a clear vacuity filled with white light.
In the sixth cycle of dissolution the mind of white appearance dissolves. This is caused by the winds in the right and left channels below the heart entering the central channel at the base of the spine. The internal sign is a very clear vacuity filled with red light.
In the seventh cycle of dissolution the mind of red increase dissolves. This is caused by the upper and lower winds gathering at the heart and then entering the drop at the heart.55 The internal sign is a vacuity filled with thick darkness.
In the eighth cycle of dissolution the mind of black near attainment dissolves. This is caused by all the winds dissolving into the very subtle life-bearing wind in the indestructible drop at the heart. The internal sign is a very clear vacuity free of the white, red and black appearances; this is the mind of the clear light of death.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says,56
When the actual process of dying begins, you pass through eight phases [as outlined above]. The first four involve collapse of the four elements. The last four involve the collapse of consciousness into the innermost level of mind, called the mind of clear light. Remember, the presentation of the phases of death is a mapping of the deeper states of mind that occur throughout daily life and usually go unnoticed. These eight phases proceed in forward order when dying, going to sleep, ending a dream, sneezing, fainting and during orgasm, and in reverse order after the process of death completely ends, as well as when waking from sleep, when beginning a dream, and when sneezing, fainting and orgasm end.
It’s extremely important to become very familiar with this process in life so that when we actually start going through it at the time of death, we won’t encounter any nasty surprises; we’ll be fully aware of what it is that we’re going through. When the earth element start to dissolve and we feel as if we’re being buried under a big pile of earth, we’ll know that the first cycle of simultaneous dissolution has begun and will be able to say to ourselves, “Now I’m going to experience the mirage-like vision, and what’s coming next is the dissolution of my water element etc., when I’ll experience the vision of smoke.” Then when the vision of smoke appears, we’ll know that the next thing we’re going to experience is the dissolution of the fire element and so forth, and the next internal sign will be that of the appearance of sparks of fire. In other words, we’ll be fully aware of what’s going on and as we get closer and closer to the clear light of death we’ll be able to meditate through the whole process.
Then, if we’ve been able to develop our power of concentration, if we’ve practiced meditation and developed the ability to single-pointedly concentrate our mind on an object at will, perhaps we’ll be able to use the most subtle mind that arises at the clear light of death and focus single-pointedly on emptiness and perhaps even realize it at that time.
In fact, some great lamas who were unable to attain enlightenment during their lifetime have even become enlightened during the death process in this way. Therefore, we should practice this meditation and, if possible, do it in the context of meditating on the three kayas. To do that, of course, we need to receive initiation into Highest Yoga Tantra and practice under the close supervision of a fully qualified vajra master, and in that way become more and more familiar with the death process. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that he practices this meditation several times every day, so you can see how important it is.
What the great yogis do when they’re dying, then, is wait for the clear light vision to arise and meditate in it for as long as they can, or as long as they want to. Once you’ve reached a certain level of mind, you have a great deal of choice in such matters. For us, at the stage that we’re at, we don’t have any choice whatsoever. We have no control over the death process and are completely at the mercy of our delusions and karma.
When a lama meditates in the clear light of death, his body doesn’t decompose. Months, or even years, ahead, many lamas know from various signs when they are going to die,57 so before their bodies become weak or ravaged by disease, they can consciously go into meditation and begin the death process, sitting up in meditation with full control. When you go into the room of a lama who has decided to leave his body like this and is meditating in the clear light, instead of the smell of a rotting corpse, a very sweet smell fills the room and the lama’s body appears fresh and radiant, and remains in that state until he decides to finish his meditation. At that time, when his consciousness has left his body, the sign that it has done so—which also happens to ordinary people—is that a small trickle of blood comes from his nose and a clear fluid trickles out of the sex organ. Whenever you see that, you know that the person’s mind has left his or her body and that it can be cremated or otherwise disposed of according to that person’s wishes.
In Tibet, dead bodies were often disposed of by sky burial. I’m not sure that’s what Tibetans call it, but I’ve seen it done. In Tibet, the ground is often frozen or otherwise too hard to dig and the rivers and lakes are very pure, so it’s difficult to bury people and environmentally unfriendly to chuck corpses into the water. Also, firewood is scarce, so it’s considered somewhat wasteful to cremate people. Furthermore, since the mind of the deceased has gone to the next life, the body’s no longer needed, so in what becomes the person’s final act of charity, his or her body is fed to the birds.
The corpse is taken to a big rock and cut up into small pieces. The bones are pulverized and mixed with roasted barley flour, tsampa; the flesh, the filet mignon of the person, is separated and wrapped in cloth; and the organs and everything else is chopped up and scattered about on the top of the big rock. While this is going on, the vultures and the crows begin to gather on the surrounding hilltops, like something out of Alfred Hitchcock, waiting for the call. When everything’s ready, the butcher, or whatever he’s called, cries out and they come swooping down, grabbing and gobbling up what they can, vultures pulling on long pieces of small intestine like contestants in a tug-of-war. Once all the offal and everything else is gone, the flesh, which has been kept until last to make sure that everything gets eaten, is unwrapped and quickly disappears. What’s left by the vultures is taken by the crows, and in the end, nothing remains. I’m not sure that we could get away with sky burial in the West. Not enough vultures, for a start.
So, that was slightly by the way, and it’s not the way that the bodies of high lamas are disposed of. They are usually cremated and interred in stupas, reliquary objects that then become objects of devotion. One of my teachers, His Holiness Ling Rinpoche, who meditated in the clear light for thirteen days, was embalmed and prepared in a special way and now remains as a kind of statue. The previous Panchen Lama was also preserved in a similar way. What such high lamas do with their mind is something else.
They meditate in the clear light, waiting for a suitable body into which they can be reborn in order to continue with their own practice or their Dharma work, continue teaching their disciples, continue benefiting the sentient beings with whom they have a karmic connection in whatever way they feel to be appropriate. They consciously direct their mind into a newly fertilized egg, thus beginning a new human life. These are the lamas we call rinpoche, or tulku; incarnate lamas. That’s how the process of conscious reincarnation occurs.
Transference of consciousness
I now want to say just a few words about the practice of po-wa, transference of consciousness. Lama Yeshe says 58 that this practice is for those who feel they can’t get enlightened in their lifetime, and what such people do is accomplish the practice of consciousness transfer in life so that at the time of death, or when death is approaching, they are able to shoot their consciousness out through the crown of their head into the pure land of a deity. A pure land is the product of the prayers and compassion of an enlightened being and there are many different pure lands that we can try to go to, such as Tushita, the pure land of Maitreya Buddha (and I mentioned earlier the story of the monk who was prevented from transferring his consciousness to Tushita because of his attachment to butter tea), or the pure land of such deities as Vajrayogini or Amitabha. There are different deities who have created a pure land in which bodhisattvas can complete their practice Dharma. A pure land results from the enlightened energy of a particular buddha and the karma of the practitioners who are born there.
We tend to feel that this world, this Earth that we inhabit, is very real and solid, truly existent, created from out there, and poor little us are placed in the middle of it just like that, without much say, without that much connection with it. Actually, this earth is simply the creation of our mind and the minds of all the other sentient beings that inhabit it. The environment we inhabit is a collective karmic creation.
In a pure land, even the word “suffering” does not exist. Everything is pure, blissful and Dharma, and it’s very quick and easy to become enlightened in order to benefit others, which is why we go to a pure land in the first place; for the sake of others.
In order to be able to successfully transfer your consciousness to a pure land at the time of death, you need to do the practice during life, and I strongly recommend that you read Lama Yeshe’s teaching on the transference of consciousness to get a clear idea of the practice. It’s a tantric practice; therefore, you need an excellent understanding of the three principal aspects of the path: renunciation, bodhicitta and right view. You also need to find a fully qualified tantric teacher to give you the right vows, initiation and teaching, and from your side, the right motivation—the determination to reach enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings as quickly as possible—is indispensable.
The greatest hindrance to successful transference of consciousness at the time of death is attachment, therefore, in order to do the practice successfully, not only do you need strong compassion but you also need impeccable renunciation of all of cyclic existence, not just the suffering of suffering.
If you can accomplish this practice it has great benefit for your life, because you know that no matter how bad things get, you always have the option of getting out of here by transferring your consciousness to a pure land. Of course, you’re not supposed to do it until you’re close to death or certain that things are so bad that it’s the best option. For example, when Tibet was taken over by the Chinese, many lamas decided that their opportunity to practice Dharma had ended and they transferred their consciousness to a pure land to be able to complete their practice there.
I’m not going to go into the details of the practice here, but Lama Yeshe says that of the gross, subtle and very subtle levels of mind, when we practice the po-wa visualization in preparation for death, we utilize our gross consciousness, but when the time comes for us actually to transfer our consciousness, we activate our very subtle mind. At the time of our conception, our mother’s egg and our father’s sperm contained certain delicate clear, essential drops of energy. That subtle, essential energy present at the time of conception still exists at our heart center, sitting within the central channel, and our very subtle mind is located in this very subtle drop of energy in our heart. This is the drop I mentioned when talking about the death process just before. When the time comes to transfer our consciousness, it’s this very subtle energy together with our very subtle mind that’s propelled up our central channel, out of the crown of our head and into the pure land.
As I said before, if we accomplish the practice of po-wa, we can be very confident of having a technique that can help us if things in our life get really bad, but Lama Yeshe also says that the actual po-wa is bodhicitta, because if we have bodhicitta, there is absolutely no way that we can be reborn in the three lower realms. His Holiness the Dalai Lama also said something similar, that the best protection at the time of death, the best thought to have at that time, is compassion for others.
Thus, Lama Yeshe says that if when we’re dying we can pray to be reborn wherever it’s most beneficial for other sentient beings, even if that means being reborn in hell it doesn’t matter—“May I reborn wherever it’s most beneficial for others”—then actually, it’s extremely unlikely that we will be reborn in the lower realms and more likely that we’ll be reborn where we can continue our Dharma practice.
Now you can go to Meditation 4 and practice meditating on the esoteric aspects of death, going through the dissolutions and experiencing the visions that lead up to the clear light of death. It also contains Lama Yeshe’s OM AH HUM meditation, which helps prepare our mind for meditation during the death process.
Well, there are many more things that I could have said about death and rebirth but perhaps this is enough for this brief course, and I would just like to remind you of the purpose of this practice, this meditation, by offering a quotation from Lama Tsongkhapa, who says,59
Since it is certain that you will die soon…you cannot remain in this life. As you do not cease to exist after death, you will be reborn. Furthermore, you will reborn in either a happy or a miserable realm, because there is no birthplace other than among these two types of beings. Since you are controlled by your karma and cannot choose where you will be born, you will be reborn in the manner in which your virtuous and non-virtuous karma impel you to be reborn. This being the case, contemplate the suffering of the miserable realms, thinking, “How it would it be if I were born in a miserable realm?”
This entire subject is taught to protect us from suffering, not to make us depressed, and we should use it in the spirit in which the Buddha taught it. However, our wish to escape from suffering should not be simply for our own benefit but we should see our freedom from suffering as a place from which we can benefit others, as a place where we can practice Dharma and reach enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings.
There’s another whole area that I’ve not gone into, and that is how, in practical terms, we can help the dying, even in this life. For that, I strongly recommend that you get hold of the FPMT resource entitled Practices and Advice for Death and Dying for the Benefit of Self and Others. This invaluable collection contains general advice from Lama Zopa about caring for a dying person, an overview of how death is understood in the Tibetan tradition, the various practices to do for the dead and dying, including mantras that can be put on the body, a practice call jang-wa, which is a ceremony to free the dead person’s consciousness from the lower realms, and there are other references to help you in this area. So that’s a great resource.
Thank you very much for plowing through this course with me. I’m not sure that it’s really going to be of any benefit to you, but it’s certainly helped me clarify my thoughts on the subject of impermanence, death and rebirth, and I’m very grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to do this, so again, thank you very much, thank you.
Now let’s conclude by dedicating our merit together one more time, and since we don’t have a lot of time, let’s do it in a brief way. More extensive dedications can be found in the FPMT Prayer Book, and you should learn how to do it that way.
“Because of the merit we have created in this session and by doing this course, may our teachers live long and healthy lives, may the Dharma spread in all directions throughout infinite space, and may all sentient beings quickly reach enlightenment.”
Thank you very much.
47 Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, 2:32-46, pp. 27-8. [Return to text]
48 See Liberation, pp. 760-1, for the lineages of these two streams of teaching. [Return to text]
49 Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth, p. 33. [Return to text]
50 See also Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun, pp. 54-58. [Return to text]
51 Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun, pp. 16-18. [Return to text]
52 The five main winds are the life-bearing, upward-moving, pervasive, fire-dwelling and downward-voiding. See Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth, p. 14. The others are the five parts of the life-bearing wind associated with the five senses and are therefore included in the five main ones. [Return to text]
53 These are enumerated in Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth, pp. 38-42. [Return to text]
54 Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth, p. 18 [Return to text]
55 Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth, p. 15, for an explanation of the drops. [Return to text]
56 Advice on Dying, p. 119. [Return to text]
57 Advice on Dying, pp. 118-9. [Return to text]
58 See his Transference of Consciousness at the Time of Death in the required reading for this module. [Return to text]
59 Great Treatise, p. 161. [Return to text]
Sources for these publications can be found on the References page.