This is an article I wrote for a Canadian magazine called Ascent:
Commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead
The third century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna said that if a person were to heap together the bones from the bodies of all their previous rebirths, the pile would be higher than Mt. Everest-and that, in the future, if one does not exert oneself on the path, they will have to discard even more skeletons than that!
This fixation on death is not something unique to Buddhism. Indeed, all cultures probe the subject, whether it be through folklore or literature. Plato has his Phaedo, Dante his Inferno. Homer and Virgil both describe trips to the netherworld. The Hindu Katha Upanishad describes a boy’s encounter with Yama, the god of death, and what he learned from him.
In Buddhism, the most famous piece of death literature is certainly The Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thödröl. Most people with any interest in Eastern mysticism have heard of it, but not all have read it. Few of us, involved as we are in the rush of life, care to look to such a morbid source for reading material. Generally it is a book that one reads upon experiencing the loss of a loved one, or during a period of fear about ones own mortality. At that time we pick the book up with grave curiosity. We want to know what exactly does happen when we die.
It would be difficult to read the book and not be in some measure effected. Essentially, it is a road map or guide for our inevitable voyage through the Bardos, or intermediate stages between death and rebirth, meant to be read to the dying person by his or her guru, who begins the ceremony by saying, “The factors which made up the person so and so are about to disperse!”
The first part of the death experience, when the respiration and the pulse stop, is described as one of great clarity, and agrees very well with present day accounts of “near death” experience. It is said to be blissful and like an empty, cloudless sky.
The text states that this state soon degenerates, and spirals into a series of increasingly ghastly situations. The descriptions we read of these conditions are often times chilling. They remind us of nightmares. The images are vivid, and described with an almost scientific precision.
“Whenever you try to rest, monstrous forms rise up before you. Some have animal heads on human bodies, others are gigantic birds with huge wings and claws. Their howlings and their whips drive you on, and then a hurricane carries you along with those demonic beings in hot pursuit.”
There is talk of smoke, lights of various shades, winds, channels and multitudes of both peaceful and wrathful deities, Dharma protectors and warrior deities, the latter decked in ornaments made from human bones, beating skull drums, waving flags of human skins and burning seared flesh incense. One deity is described as having three faces, six arms, and four legs, with ‘fangs that gleam like new copper.’ His body is adorned with black snakes and a freshly severed head garland. His consort offers him sips of blood from her skull bowl. The text goes on to describe ghouls of ever increasing morbid ferocity, and all the while admonishes us not to panic or be afraid of these visions as they are self created and do not actually objectively exist.
“Your form is voidness itself,” the text says, “so you have nothing to fear.The death deities are your own hallucinations and themselves are forms of the void . . . Voidness cannot harm voidness.”
Yet the whole thing is alarming. It can also all be rather confusing, especially when we consider how it pertains to our own selves. It reminds us, through every phrase we read, that we ourselves are going to die. It makes us think about this undeniable fact, a fact that is extremely hard to face, yet certainly beneficial. Sogyal Rinpoche says that by reflecting on death, realising you could die at any moment, life becomes very precious.
One important aspect of the text is the movement from death to rebirth. To be able to make a conscious choice in your rebirth is in fact a goal for much of tantric Buddhism.A person’s fate depends on their karma, and if one is not in control of the situation, it is said that one could be reborn in any state, even in that of a hungry ghost or an animal, a dog, pig or even a worm! The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes how Yama, the god of death, holds up before his victim the shining mirror of karma, in which all the person’s deeds are reflected. It then goes on to say that it is you yourself who pronounce your own judgement, which in turn determines your own rebirth. So really, the book is as much about birth, or rebirth, as it is about death.
Its message is both frightening and uplifting. It essentially says that we reap what we sow. The problem is of course, that very few of us are totally confident that we have planted nothing but virtuous seeds, and no one wants the result to be rebirth as a hungry ghost! However, according to Buddhism, through certain practices, one can be assured of a good rebirth. These practices revolve around the replication of the death process in the body. If you are familiar with the process, if you are used to it, then when the time comes for actual death you will have no problem in doing it well.
According to Sogyal Rinpoche, death is not something to be feared as a tragedy, but instead is an opportunity for transformation.
In Buddhism, there are many meditations surrounding death – from tantric practices of incredible complexity, to relatively simple meditations, such as visiting a cemetery or burial ground and contemplating on the certainty of death and that, due to the instability of life, it might strike at any time. The yogis of old India carried trumpets made of human thigh bones and cups made of human skulls for this very purpose – to always keep the thought of death before them. Gampopa, the disciple of the great yogi Milarepa, said that by reflecting on death and the impermanence of life, we are incited to live spiritually. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says that by contemplating our own death we will be inspired to use our life wisely by developing an inner refuge of spiritual realisations.
One of the most interesting death yoga practices is the yoga of transference of consciousness, or pho wa, of which a mention is made at the beginning of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Pho wa is one of the six yogas of Naropa, an Indian master of the tenth century. It is a method for circumventing the bardos and entails shooting the consciousness through the top of the head, and forwarding it to a Pure Land, or higher rebirth. There are two types of the yoga: one in which the practitioner, upon seeing the signs of approaching death, transfers his or her own consciousness to a Pure Land or higher rebirth and another wherein a lama performs pho wa on a dying person and transfers that person’s consciousness to a Pure Land or higher rebirth.
Most tantric practices are quite complicated and require initiations, intense discipline and training, and are therefore out of the immediate reach of most of us. Even so, we can all practice the relatively simple yoga of meditating on the impermanence of life.
In the Lam Rim tradition of Tsong Khapa, there is a yoga called The Nine Point Meditation on Death, which is relatively simple and excellent for anyone to practice. The points to meditate on are A) Death is definite: 1) everyone must die, 2) the span of our lives is constantly diminishing, 3) the amount of time we can devote to spiritual practice is very small. B) The time of death is uncertain: 4) the life-expectancy of a human being is uncertain, 5) there are numerous causes of death, 6) the human body is extremely fragile. C) Only spiritual insight can help us at the time of death: 7) our possessions and wealth cannot help us, 8 ) our family and friends cannot help us, 9) our bodies cannot help us.
Pabongka Rinpoche said that we should conduct ourselves like visitors who are about to return to their homeland. Such individuals avoid any of the activities that persons who are planning an extended stay might undertake.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is attributed to the great eighth century yogi Padmasambhava, who is said to have been miraculously born from a lotus that sprung up from Lake Danakosha, in Afghanistan. According to tradition, he hid the book on a mountain in Tibet where it was discovered some five hundred years later by the famous mystic Karma Lingpa. It is a book written specifically for practitioners of the Nyingma branch of Buddhism. It was not meant for casual reading, but to serve the specific purpose of providing death instructions for followers of their sect.
Though the book was not written for the uninitiated, it doesn’t mean that we cannot all gain something by reading it. True, it’s hard to make sense of much of it; but it does give us insight into the dying process. It shows us what we might expect when we die, and in that sense, the book is invaluable. It does, after all, shed light on one of the truly great mysteries.