Death & Dying
We are alive, therefore we will die. This is the simplest, most obvious truth of our existence, and yet very few of us have really come to terms with it.
This inspiring website gives unparalled Buddhist insight into death and dying, helping us to develop an awareness of our own mortality in a way that will totally enrich and transform our life. Mastery of these topics will enable us to meet our death with grace, clarity, and fearlessness, and experience happiness in all our future lives.
Causes of Death
There are three principal causes of death: the ending of the karmically determined life span, exhaustion of merit, and loss of power of the life force.
As a result of having kept moral discipline in a previous life and having engaged in other virtuous actions such as saving others’ lives, we have now obtained a human rebirth with the average life span of, say, seventy years. Although we have created the cause for a life of this length it is possible to die earlier or to live longer. Severe negative actions done in this life can shorten our life span, while virtuous actions such as refraining from killing, and caring for the sick, can lengthen it.
Some people die due to lack of merit even though their life span has not ended. They are unable to find the necessities to sustain life, such as food or the right medicine. The few remaining years of their life are then `carried over’ into a future human rebirth, which will probably be short and characterized by misfortune. Other people rich in merit can find excellent conditions and thereby manage to live a few years longer than their karmically determined life span.
The third cause of death is loss of power of the life force. The life force is the power of our life-supporting wind. This inner wind, which abides at our heart, functions to maintain the connection between our mind and body. When its strength diminishes, the connection is broken and we die. Illness, spirits, accidents, or a negative and unhealthy life style can all weaken our life force.
If our life span, merit, and life force are all exhausted we shall definitely die, but if one or two of these causes of life remain it is possible to renew the others. For example, if our life span and life force are still intact but our merit has run out, we can create more merit by performing virtuous actions. If our life force is damaged, then, provided we have merit or life span, we can restore it by engaging in practices such as vase breathing at our heart. This is one of the best methods to increase the power of our life-supporting wind. To do this we gather the inner winds from the upper and lower parts of our body at our heart, imagining that they dissolve into our life-supporting wind. Then we hold our winds and mind at the heart, remaining concentrated there for as long as we can.
Our life force is our most precious possession and so we need to stabilize and increase it. Once it is destroyed the damage cannot be repaired. If we lose any other possession our loss can be restored, but once our life span finishes we cannot borrow any more time to complete the tasks of this life. Therefore, if we are wasting our vitality in meaningless pursuits we should feel this as the greatest loss. If our life is short or we squander it we cannot complete our spiritual practice.
Signs of Death
The signs of death are of two kinds: distant and close. The distant signs can be experienced even when we are not suffering from any particular illness. They are experienced between six and three months before we die, and are of three kinds: bodily signs, mental signs, and dream signs. They do not necessarily indicate that we shall soon die, but if they persist this means that death is probably imminent. If we know what these distant signs of death are, we shall know when we are experiencing them, and so we shall be warned to make preparations that will benefit our future life. We shall know that it is time to make sure that we are engaging in pure Dharma practice and to apply any methods we have learnt for extending our life span, such as the practices of Amitayus and White Tara. If these are not successful we should definitely apply the practice of powa.
Distant Signs of Death
Some of the distant bodily signs of death are the following: while we are passing urine or excrement we continuously hiccup; we can no longer hear the buzzing sound of our inner ear when we block our ears; when we apply pressure against our fingernails and then release it the blood does not quickly return; during sexual intercourse, if we are a woman we release white drops instead of red and if we are a man we release red drops instead of white; for no reason we cannot taste things; for no reason we cannot smell things; our exhaled breath is cold – when we blow on our hand it feels cold instead of warm; our tongue shrinks and feels rolled or swollen, and when we poke it out we can no longer see its tip; in the dark when we press the top of our eyeball with our finger so that the eyeball protrudes a little we can no longer see colourful shapes and patterns; we hallucinate a sun at night; when we sit in the sun in the morning we can no longer see in our shadow streams of energy flowing from the crown of our head; saliva no longer forms in our mouth; the end of our nose becomes pinched; black marks appear on our teeth; our eyeballs sink further into the hollows of our eyes.
Distant mental signs of death include: a change in our usual temperament – for example, we become aggressive when we are usually kind and gentle, or we become gentle when we are usually aggressive and ill-tempered; for no reason we begin to dislike the place where we live, our friends, or other objects of attachment; we feel sad for no reason; our wisdom and intelligence become less clear and less powerful.
Distant dream signs include repeated dreams that we are falling from a high mountain, that we are naked, or that we are travelling south on our own across a desert.
Minds of Death
The minds we have when we are dying are of two types, gross and subtle. Whereas the gross minds of death can be virtuous, non-virtuous, or neutral, for ordinary beings the subtle minds of death are only neutral. When we are dying, if our last gross mind is virtuous it will cause the good potentialities carried in our mind to ripen as a virtuous mental action that will lead us directly to higher rebirth as a human or a god. A virtuous mind at death is like water – it nourishes the virtuous potentialities that remain like dry seeds within our field-like consciousness. If two kinds of seed, barley seeds and wheat seeds, are sown in a field, but only the wheat seeds are watered, these will be certain to ripen first. In a similar way, while we still carry both virtuous and non-virtuous potentialities within our mind, a virtuous mind at the time of death will ensure that our virtuous potentialities are the ones that will ripen. This holds even if we have led an immoral life and committed many non-virtuous actions. However, we do not thereby escape the effects of all our non-virtuous deeds. If we take a human rebirth our life may be afflicted with great suffering or our life span may be short. If we do not purify our negative karma we shall eventually experience the fully ripened effect of our actions by taking rebirth in the lower realms.
Effects of Actions
Sometimes people who have no interest in spiritual practice and who lead careless, immoral lives enjoy better conditions and greater worldly success than people who are practising Dharma. Observing this, we may sometimes feel discouraged and think `What is the point of practising Dharma? Other people are not even trying to lead good lives but good things just fall into their laps, whereas although I practise diligently I seem to experience only hardship for all my pains.’ If we start to think like this it is because we are viewing only the present situation and have not fully understood how actions and their effects follow in succession. If we are now experiencing difficulties, these are the effects of our past actions. They are not the effects of our present spiritual practice, for the effects of our present spiritual practice will be happiness in the future. In the same way, the good fortune of people who are not interested in spiritual practice is the effect of merit they created in the past and is not a result of their present life style. Whatever harmful actions they commit in this life will bring hardships in the future.
Our Last Mind
When we die, if our last gross mind is non-virtuous it will cause the bad potentialities we carry in our mind to ripen as a non-virtuous mental action, and this will lead us directly to a lower rebirth. From this we can see how important it is to develop a happy and virtuous state of mind at the time of death. We can also see how we can be of great benefit to others when they are dying, by encouraging them to develop a positive mind and creating for them conditions that will help them to generate good thoughts. In this way we can bring measureless benefit to our friends and relatives, even if they have no interest in Dharma. One of the greatest acts of kindness that we can show someone else is to help them to die peacefully and with a virtuous mind, for if in this way they attain a happy rebirth they will have attained the same result as someone who has successfully practised powa.
When the gross minds of death have ceased and the mind becomes the subtle mind of death, there are no gross feelings – pleasant, painful, or neutral – and no gross discriminations. Since for ordinary beings the subtle minds of death are neutral, these are powerless to induce virtuous minds.
The Stages of Death
When we have experienced the distant signs of death, the close signs of death will occur. First the earth element of the body dissolves. The external sign of this dissolution is that the body becomes thin; and the internal sign is a mirage-like appearance to the mind. Next, the water element dissolves. The external sign is that the mouth and tongue become very dry, and the liquids of the body, such as urine, blood, and sperm, decrease; and the internal sign is a smoke-like appearance to the mind. Next the fire element dissolves. The external sign of this dissolution is reduced warmth of the body and coldness in the area around the navel, the centre of the body’s heat; and the internal sign is a sparkling-fireflies-like appearance. Next the wind element dissolves. The external sign is reduced power of movement due to the decreasing power of the winds that flow through the channels of the body and cause us to generate gross minds; and the internal sign is a candle-flame-like appearance. The mind perceiving this appearance is the last gross mind of death.
Subtle Minds of Death
The first subtle mind of death is the mind perceiving a white appearance. When this appearance ceases, the mind has become more subtle and perceives a red appearance. This mind again becomes more subtle and transforms into the mind of black near-attainment, to which only black appears. At this stage it is as if the dying person has no memory. Since there is no physical movement, no heartbeat, and no movement in the channels, some people think that this is the end of dying; but in fact the consciousness has not yet left the body. The mind of black near-attainment transforms into the most subtle mind perceiving the clear light of death, a clear bright appearance like the light of dawn. This is the sign that the most subtle mind that resides within the indestructible drop at the heart has manifested and all other minds have ceased to manifest. Then the indestructible drop opens, and its white and red parts separate, releasing the consciousness, which immediately departs from the body. The white drop descends through the central channel to emerge through the tip of the sex organ, and the red drop ascends through the central channel to emerge through the nostrils. When this happens it is the sign that the consciousness has left the body and the process of dying has ended.
Understanding the Intermediate State
The intermediate state, or bardo, is so called because it is the state between death and the next rebirth. Beings who wander in this state are known as `bardo beings’. The easiest way to gain conviction of the existence of the bardo is by considering the analogy of the dream state, which closely resembles the bardo. Both the dream body and the bardo body arise in dependence upon subtle energy winds. Both lack flesh, bones, blood, and inner organs, but both have complete sense powers. Just as the dream body develops from the clear light of sleep, so the bardo body develops from the clear light of death; and just as the dream body is known only to the dreamer, so the bardo being is seen only by other bardo beings and not by ordinary beings who do not have eye clairvoyance. The location of the dream body quickly shifts and changes, and acquaintances made in our dream are fleeting. Similarly, the location of the bardo being easily shifts and changes, and acquaintances made in the bardo are short-lived.
As we fall asleep the gross winds gather into our heart and we experience the same signs as the close internal signs of death, from the mirage-like appearance to the clear light. Yogis and some meditators who have developed their mindfulness can be aware of these signs as they fall asleep, but for most people these signs are not clearly perceived because we lack mindfulness during sleep. After the clear light of sleep we do not immediately wake up but we enter the dream state and develop a dream body. In a similar way, as we die, the gross winds gather into our heart and we perceive the internal signs of death. From the clear light of death we do not immediately reawaken into a new life but we enter the bardo and develop a dream-like bardo body.
Characteristics of Bardo Beings
Bardo beings have five characteristics: (1) they take the shape of their next rebirth – for example, if a human is going to take rebirth as a dog his bardo body will be the shape of a dog, and if a dog is going to take rebirth as a human its bardo body will be the shape of a human; (2) they arise instantaneously with fully formed limbs, sense powers, and so forth; (3) they have contaminated miracle powers – their bodies are not impeded by solid matter so they can, for example, travel through walls and mountains, and they possess contaminated clairvoyance; (4) their vision is not impeded by material things – they can see through physical objects such as houses, and they can see things at a great distance; (5) only bardo beings can perceive other bardo beings – ordinary humans, except some with limited powers of clairvoyance, are unable to see them. Immediately after our death we shall take the form of a bardo being with these five characteristics.
`Rebirth’ in this context means uncontrolled rebirth, the nature of which is suffering. Human beings experience human suffering because they have taken human rebirth, animals experience animal suffering because they have taken animal rebirth, and so on. Samsaric rebirth is the basis from which all the sufferings of the six realms arise.
The main causes of taking rebirth are our own actions, our accumulated throwing karma. The secondary, or co-operative, causes of rebirth – the conditions of rebirth – are of two kinds, distant and close. The distant condition is the karma of our parents to have us as their child. Examples of close conditions are our parents having sexual intercourse, and the sperm and ovum joining in our mother’s womb. All these causes and conditions must come together for there to be rebirth.
If a bardo being is to take a human rebirth it circles closer and closer to the place of rebirth like a fly circling around meat. It comes closer to the home of its new parents, to the room, to the bed. When the bardo being sees its new parents copulating it develops a strong desire to join in. If it is to be female it tries to embrace the father, and if it is to be male it tries to embrace the mother; but its desire is frustrated and so it dies in anger. As it dies, the bardo being experiences all the signs of death very rapidly; and when the clear light of death ceases, its consciousness enters the union of the sperm and ovum inside the mother’s womb. It enters by passing through the mouth of the father, descending to the sex organ, and then emerging through the sex organ into the mother’s womb. The first moment after con- ception only black appears to the mind of the new human being, and then all the remaining signs of dying are experienced in reverse order as the consciousness becomes more and more gross. At first, the body in the mother’s womb is liquid, like reddish-coloured yoghurt. It gradually hardens, and after a few weeks it resembles a fish. A few weeks later it resembles a turtle, and then a lion. Eventually, the body resembles a human being. After nine months and ten days the baby is born.
Analogy of Falling Asleep
Buddha said that every action we perform leaves an imprint on our very subtle mind, and each imprint eventually gives rise to its own effect. Our mind is like a field, and performing actions is like sowing seeds in that field. Virtuous, or positive, actions sow seeds of future happiness and non-virtuous, or negative, actions sow seeds of future suffering. The seeds we have sown in the past remain dormant until the conditions necessary for their ripening come together. In some cases this can be many lifetimes after the original action was performed.
The seeds that ripen when we die are very important because they determine what kind of rebirth we shall take. Which particular seed ripens at death depends upon the state of mind in which we die. If we die with a peaceful mind, this will stimulate a virtuous seed and we shall experience a fortunate rebirth; but if we die with a disturbed mind, in a state of anger, say, this will stimulate a non-virtuous seed and we shall experience an unfortunate rebirth. This is similar to the way in which nightmares arise from our being in an agitated state just before falling asleep.
The analogy of falling asleep is not accidental, for the process of sleep, dreaming, and waking closely resembles the process of death, intermediate state, and rebirth. As we fall asleep, the inner energy winds that support our gross minds gather and dissolve inwards. As a result our mind becomes progressively more and more subtle until it transforms into the very subtle mind of the clear light of sleep. While the clear light of sleep is manifest we experience deep sleep, and to others we resemble a person who has died. When it ends, our mind becomes gradually more and more gross and we pass through the various levels of the dream state. Finally, our normal powers of memory and mental control are restored and we wake up. When this happens our dream world disappears and the ordinary world of our waking state appears.
A very similar process occurs when we die. As we die, our energy winds dissolve inwards and our mind becomes progressively more and more subtle until the very subtle mind of the clear light of death manifests. The experience of the clear light of death is very similar to the experience of deep sleep. After the clear light of death has ceased we experience the stages of the intermediate state, or `bardo’ in Tibetan, which is a dream-like state that occurs between death and rebirth. After a few days or weeks the intermediate state ends and we take rebirth. Just as when we wake from sleep the dream world disappears and we perceive the world of the waking state, so when we take rebirth the appearances of the intermediate state cease and the world of our next life appears.
The only significant difference between the process of sleep, dreaming, and waking and the process of death, intermediate state, and rebirth is that after the clear light of sleep has ceased the connection between our mind and our present body remains intact, whereas after the clear light of death this is broken.
Benefiting Those Who are About to Die
First we generate compassion by contemplating their suffering and how they have no choice over their next rebirth. Immediately after death they will experience the fears and suffering of the bardo.
If they then take rebirth as a human being they will have to experience all the various human sufferings, if they are reborn as an animal they will have to experience the sufferings of an animal, and so forth. Contemplating their suffering, from the depths of our hearts we pray:
“How wonderful it would be if this person were free from samsaric rebirth. I myself will make this happen.”
Helping The Dying
Generally, when someone is close to death it is very important not to touch any part of their body other than the crown. By touching their crown we shall cause the door of their crown chakra to open, and this will enable their consciousness to leave the body through the crown, thereby leading it to a higher rebirth. If the consciousness leaves through any of the lower doors of the body it will take rebirth in one of the lower realms. Understanding this is very important.
Also, while the dying person is still able to hear and understand what we are saying it is very important to keep their mind calm and peaceful, to encourage them, and to prevent them from becoming upset or unhappy. In this way they will die peacefully, without any disturbance.
If the dying person is a spiritual practitioner we can remind them of their daily practice, or at least recite or chant their daily prayers and mantras for them. We can also remind them of their Spiritual Guide in whom they have faith.