The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Peering into Life after Death
Our culture is changing at a staggering rate, nearly outpacing our imaginative capacity to predict what lies ahead for the future of humanity and of the Earth. Modern technology has brought about immense transformations, some arguably favorable- others quite disastrous. This has impacted the psychological orientation of individuals, the lifestyles of societies, and the very fabric of the vital ecological systems of this strange yet beautiful blue planet. There will undoubtedly be periods of tragic unrest in the human sphere as a result of the impending projected trajectories of trends human-born but now no longer within our species’ control. The biosphere at large will also experience upheavals of all sorts. This list seems to grow by the day and includes the unfortunate loss of biodiversity ushering in what scientists’ term the sixth mass extinction event the Earth has witnessed since its inception. This sudden drop in biodiversity is connected to the exploitation of natural resources that spawns worldwide pollution and inequity- a process driven by the demands of a voracious globalized consumer culture. Also we have the wildcard that is runaway population explosion, exacerbating an already compounded problem. These forces are largely environmental factors caused in part or entirely by human action; they can in turn cause profound problems for our species. The dwindling supply of fresh water, arable land, clean air and accessible fuels will likely increase ethno-national conflict, untimely death due to resource scarcity and disease, lowering the overall quality of life for all beings on Earth. The burden our global capitalist economy is placing upon the fragile ecological systems could even undermine the entire foundation of modern civilization as we know it.
The future seems bleak to an honest eye; as humanity is wholly dependent upon the vitality of the planet itself, the degradation of our mother will inevitably bring about our own species’ demise for we have so ruthlessly broken the sacred bonds with nature, speaking of both the wider ecology and our own inner nature. The story of humanity in the modern period is surely one of triumphant progress, although in actuality it was a victory celebrated in haste. The full implications of our ‘progress’ were utterly unknown to the pioneers who believed they were playing their part in an unfolding manifest destiny that swept over the face of Earth like a relentless wildfire. We failed to ask ourselves a crucial question: what exactly are we progressing towards? It is a story which illustrates a profound principle in Tibetan Buddhism- the indisputable law of karma. In what manner will our present actions, both collective and individual in respect to the environment at large, affect the course of our future lives? The greed, the callousness that has been conditioned in modern man and the disregard for the planet, each sow their own unique seeds. Greed breeds wealth at the expense of others causing despicable injustice; in the pursuit for transient human playthings and pleasures other creatures are trampled over without the least bit of remorse; the fact that the Earth is eroding beneath our feet hardly causes the common human eye to blink for our collective focus appears to be fixated on mindless superficialities. In addition to the way the existing human predicament predicated upon ecological disharmony demonstrates the law of karma, the central epiphany of Buddhist philosophy- that suffering pervades conditioned existence, is made plain through the reality of our disheartening socio-ecological situation.
The effects of humanity’s sinister presence are becoming visible, to the point of being categorically undeniable, on this plane of existence but one might surmise what may befall our species in the succeeding plane. Are we spared the consequences of our actions once the death of our physical being occurs or do we continue to experience the consequences in the supposed life thereafter? The question may appear unknowable for in Western culture one finds an ambiguity as to the state of existence after death, at least for those who have since renounced a Judeo-Christian tradition whereby God’s judgment is paramount to the souls’ dual recourse. In contrast, the cosmology of Tibetan Buddhism provides rich material for understanding what may be knocking on the other side of deaths’ door. The various impending difficulties of the present world, principally environmental ruin provoked by human action and animated by anthropocentrism, are relative to this historical period of time although other conundrums exist which occur irrespective to the current time period. Death is perhaps the most universal existential crisis that all beings face; the heightened consciousness of humanity predisposes our species to yearn to reconcile this inescapable fate and develop various means to console the living and provide solace in death.
Within Tibetan Buddhism there are philosophical features which can be viewed as a means of predicting the future course of one’s life. One such teaching is that of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, composed by the great Indian sage Padma Sambhava, who initially introduced Buddhism into Tibet. In this monumental piece, also known traditionally as The Great Book of Natural Liberation through Understanding in the Between (Bardo Thodol in Tibetan), the author sheds light on the future of all living beings: the inevitability of death and the experience that comes after this lifetime. It is an affirmation of the post-death continuity of consciousness. Although it is imperative to note that the emphasis within Buddhism and specifically within the Tibetan Book of the Dead is placed upon the realization of enlightenment- liberation from samsaric existence. “Samsara refers to transmigration, birth-and-death, or rebirth, the condition of constantly moving about, and its notion means one’s going through one life after another (Hoyu 152)”. Essentially samsara is unenlightened existence and so long as we are ignorant of our true nature we will perpetually meander through the six realms of existence: hell, ‘hungry-ghost’, animal, human, anti-god, and god realms. Hell-beings are incarnations of hate, ‘hungry-ghosts’ are the result of greed, animal life is a product of accumulated ignorance, anti-gods the consequence of jealousy, and beings in the god realm are an outcome of pride. The procurement of the human form allows the most freedom and potential for spiritual growth, being a byproduct of all the various conflicting passions of hate, greed, ignorance, jealousy, and pride as well as the converse virtues of the three lower realms, generosity, patience, and intelligent sensitivity (Thurman 30). Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche offers a more comprehensive understanding of the six realms of cyclic existence:
Each realm can be thought of as a continuum of experience. The hell realm, for instance, ranges from the internal emotional experience of anger and hatred, to behaviors rooted in anger such as fighting and wars, to institutions, prejudices, and biases built on hatred such as armies, racial hatred, and intolerance, to the actual realm in which beings exist (Rinpoche).
Through an intellectual dissection the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I aspire to reinterpret the principle of karma and the role it plays in the reincarnation of our soul in light of the modern environmental holocaust occurring on this planet while also highlighting relevant truths suffused in the teachings that will be of benefit in this period of ecological upheaval and in our own spiritual transformations.
The teaching contained in the Tibetan Book of the Dead is designed to help guide souls through the death process in an effort to actualize their Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is the capacity to awaken to the ultimate reality of the universe and to ones own true nature. A theory of reincarnation is employed which is fundamental to the premise of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Seen from the Tibetan perspective, death marks the beginning of another phase of an individual’s life continuum, which is comprised of six ‘bardos’, which can be conceptualized as states of existence. The phase is aptly termed between as it is the period between the moment of death and the moment of rebirth into another realm. This teaching is an explication of the between period with a detailed narrative of what happens perceptually to the person undergoing the process of death and their experiences before they are reborn. Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche, author of A Modern Commentary on Karma Lingpa’s Zhi-Khro: teachings on the peaceful and wrathful deities, explains the six bardo realms:
“The first bardo of birth and life lasts from the time you are conceived in mother’s womb until your last breath, when consciousness leaves the body at death. This is called the shi-nay bardo. The second is the mi-lam or dream bardo and is considered a subdivision of the first bardo. Third is the sam-ten bardo of meditation. The meditation bardo is also considered a subdivision of the bardo of birth and living. The fourth is the chik-khai bardo of the moment of death. It begins when the outer and inner signs indicate that death is approaching, and continues through the dissolution of the elements until the moment after the last breath. The fifth is the chö-nyid bardo of the luminosity of the true nature which begins right after the last breath. The sixth, or sid-pai bardo, is known as the bardo of becoming or transmigration (Sherab 5-6)”.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead primarily refers to the fourth and fifth bardos, the death-point and the bardo which occurs between the moment of death and rebirth, respectively. According to Tibetan Buddhism the future of each individual, in terms of what comes after the end of this life, is none other than death, followed by this fifth bardo, also named the ‘reality-between’. It enables a broadening of the idea of our existence; our lifetime is composed of our consciousness incarnated in human form while our ‘deathtime’ is just as fluid a process however our consciousness is disembodied and formless. Although the process of the soul moving through the different bardo realms is universal, the contents of the experience are uniquely individual and this phenomenon can be attributed to the personal natures and inclinations of the being. The state of the soul during the between bardo is especially vulnerable to the law of karma, in the sense that the conscious or unconscious volitions are exceptionally influential in the further evolution of the individual. Robert Thurman in reference to this vulnerability states: “The [reality] between is after all a time of crisis after death, when the soul (the very subtle mind-body) is in its most highly fluid state (Thurman 80)”. All our aspirations, effort, and spiritual practices cultivated during the breadth of our incarnated life on Earth culminate in the moment of death and the succeeding reality-between bardo. This momentary magnification of karmic causation, at least in respect to the quickness of karmic fruition, seems to be correlated to the incorporeal and subtle state of the soul and the utter malleability of mind. Thurman continues in his description of the soul during the between state, detailing the extraordinary abilities now exhibited:
The between voyager has temporarily an immensely heightened intelligence, extraordinary powers of concentration, special abilities of clairvoyance and teleportation, flexibility to become whatever can be imagined, and the openness to be radically transformed by a thought, vision, or an instruction (Thurman 80).
These remarkable faculties conventionally unknown to us in ordinary existence behave as a double-edge sword, beneficial if our inclinations are positive and resulting enlightenment or a rebirth into conditions conducive to liberation, detrimental if otherwise. The subtlety and fluidity characteristic of the reality-between being enables the potential for spontaneous awakening, or ‘natural liberation’ as conceived in the original title of the Tibetan text. Likewise, a mentality steeped in fear, greed, hatred or another motivation rooted in attachment and craving can serve as cause for a lower rebirth with unfavorable circumstances for the actualization of enlightenment, let alone happiness. The urgency and necessity of the teachings contained within the Tibetan Book of the Dead is exemplified by this quality of the soul’s sheer impressionability at this juncture in one’s life-continuum.
To understand what happens when death occurs it is helpful to first look at what comprises a human being. Tibetan Buddhism has a detailed conception of the body-mind complex which for our purposes is analogous to the human being. The body-mind complex is broken down into three levels: gross, subtle, and extremely subtle. Gross in this sense refers to the corporeal and more easily perceptible aspects of the body and mind. The gross body is comprised of flesh, blood, bone and other material that is comparable to the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space (Thurman 35). In association with this body is the gross mind, which includes six sense-consciousnesses; “the five that correspond to the physical senses of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body, and the sixth, mental sense-consciousness that operates within the central nervous system coordinating all the input from the senses with concepts, thoughts, images, and volitions (Thurman 36)”. Moving down from the gross we find the subtle body, which can be thought of as the nervous system. It includes the nerve channels and fibers that radiate outward from wheels that punctuate the main nerve channel that outline the spine; these wheels are perhaps a Tibetan correlate to the chakras of the yogic spiritual systems of India. Also, the nerve signals that course through these pathways make up part of the subtle body. The subtle mind is the various states of consciousness that arise in response to the perceptions of the six senses; this subjectivity is three-tiered consisting of subtle states of consciousness referred to as luminance, radiance, and imminence. Along with these three are the more familiar subconscious drives, desires, aspirations and a nearly infinite array of different mental states that can be subjectively experienced. Finally we have the extremely subtle body which is termed the indestructible drop and it exists, during the incarnated lifetime, at the center of the heart wheel. The extremely subtle mind is the intuition of clear light, known as transparency, and at this point the duality of mind and body dissolves as the indestructible drop is one with the intuition of clear light. Although a central tenet of Buddhism is the belief of non-self- that being the fallacy of our separate, unconditioned existence- this extremely subtle body-mind transparency for a lack of a better word is the Buddhist soul. It is what creates the continuity of existence through the bardo realms; this extremely subtle energy is what transmigrates and reincarnates and contains the imprint of one’s personal karma (Thurman 36).
With this understanding of the human being we can now proceed to the stages of the death process. In crafting the sublime art of dying, Tibetan Buddhists developed a model known as the eight stages of the dissolution process. The stages of dissolution represent a succession of subjective experiences. The first stage is when the element of earth in the gross body-mind complex dissolves into water and the dying person feels a sense of weakness and frailty; the visual field becomes distorted, forms look like mere mirages and the eyes lose its ability to see clearly. The water element then dissolves into fire causing one to experience a feeling of being enveloped by smoke. At this stage the auditory sensations of the physical body fade and one can no longer hear sounds of the external world with their ears. Then the fire element dissolves into wind, thereby engendering a feeling of coldness with the loss of the olfactory sensation and this stage is accompanied by the experience of sparks flickering. At this point the wind aspect of the body-mind complex folds into pure space, halting the breath which causes the energy of the subtle body to be withdrawn into the central nervous system; textures and tastes are lost and the feeling of being surrounded by a candle flame on the verge of extinguishing occurs. This marks the end of the gross body-mind complex, comparable to our Western culture as the indication of clinical death.
The succeeding stage occurs when gross consciousness dissolves into luminance with the resultant subjective experience of a clear moonlit sky. Luminance is melts into the consciousness of radiance with the feeling of a clear sunlit sky. Radiance dissolves into imminence and finally imminence to translucency with the experience of clear pitch-darkness and the clear light of predawn sky respectively. During the subtle and extremely subtle dissolution process, the white male essence descends from the energetic wheel located in the brain through the central channel to the heart wheel, followed by the red female essence which rises from the genital wheel again to the heart wheel. The two complimentary aspects of the individual join at the heart wheel and ordinary consciousness is lost. As one progresses to the clear light of translucency a non-dualistic consciousness emerges in concurrence with the unraveling of the ‘six-fold knot’ in the heart wheel, the knot is the enabling factor for incarnated existence on this plane of experience.
When it unravels totally, our extremely subtle consciousness flies out of its location, driven by our evolutionary orientation. This is the real moment of death; this is the death-point between. It is the subtlest state possible for a being. […] It is a state so transparent that one unprepared for it will see right through it and not even notice it. […] The whole science and art of navigating the between-state bears down on this moment, assisting the person to use the transition between habitual lives to enter this extremely subtle awareness that is naturally at one with blissful freedom, total intelligence, boundless sensitivity- that is, perfect enlightenment (Thurman 43-4).
For most people this state is experienced unconsciously but the Tibetan Book of the Dead is presupposed on the belief that it is indeed possible, and quite advantageous, to remain conscious during this crucial juncture between the realms of life and death as one is better prepared to avoid an unfavorable rebirth and progress spiritually on the path of enlightenment.
This moment of transition is understandably traumatic and for one who is still caught up in egotistic instincts, fear and terror predominate. Liberation though possible is unlikely if one is spiritually immature. The deceased wander through this bardo between lives and eventually reincarnate through the eight dissolutions in reverse order, coming to identify themselves once again with the elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space and the gross manifestations of consciousness upon rebirth through a womb (or lotus, egg, moist cavity if the next incarnation is non-placental). In this state before rebirth, the consciousness is embodied in an ethereal bardo-body made of subtle energies strewn from the mind, much like the bodily self that is experienced during dreams. This state is the fifth bardo, the reality-between and is said to last up 14 days consisting of a prolonged conscious state afflicted by hallucinations of deities mild and fierce (Thurman 34). The crucial advice implored by this teaching is that we are not necessarily passive in the process of rebirth; there are methods recommended to sharpen our awareness so that during the moment of death and the reality following it we are better equipped to realize what is occurring. By becoming more conscious during this vulnerable point in an individual’s life-continuum it is possible to attain enlightenment or in the very least achieve a positive rebirth where the conditions conducive to spiritual practice are present.
Turning our attention to the karma created from living in this world and its effect on the next stage of an individual’s journey, what are the possible ramifications of living unsustainably, negligent and unaccountable to the limits of Earth’s biosphere? The near insatiable desire for material acquisition that is touted as a healthy drive for rational economic human automatons can be viewed as a symptom of greed mired in the ignorance of what our genuine needs are as ecological organisms. According to Tibetan philosophy when greed is the predominant emotion in ones’ experience a rebirth as a ‘hungry-ghost’ is likely, a being depicted as plagued by immense thirst and hunger but relentlessly unable to find relief (Rinpoche 38). With all belief systems a common question is whether the teachings should be taken literally or metaphorically. I think when understood within the frame of mind of the original crafters of the philosophy the distinction is nonsensical. From my own interpretation, Buddhism sees this concrete reality as illusory as a dream from the perspective of absolute truth so whether a proclivity towards greed crafts your current self or a future one into a ‘hungry-ghost’ is beside the point; the crux instead is the certainty that our actions-mental, verbal, or physical, create karma in our mind-stream, the consequences of which are sure to come to fruition at the appropriate time.
Proceeding forward though with a more literal reading, accepting the Buddhist cosmology as veritable as well as the corresponding processes operating within this paradigm- reincarnation, interdependence, suffering, and enlightenment, I wish to examine other possible consequences for human actions which impress a deep footprint on this planet. Take for instance the industry of animal agriculture, whereby the industrialized production of animals reared solely for food facilitates the consumption of flesh by human beings. The factory farms are hidden away in rural communities, conveniently out of sight from the people whose demand for butchered animal flesh ensures the economic viability of the supply line. There is an apparent disconnect between production and consumption, as well as a near instinctual denial of the way one’s own action in the form of personal demand is implicated in the detrimental effects that the production of flesh foods has upon the local, regional and global environment. Eating the flesh of an animal, a sentient creature possessing the capacity for pleasure and pain, contributes to the effects the production of such flesh has on the ecosystem it depends on. Aside from the externalities of the industry, the act of slaughtering is unavoidable in the routine manufacture of commodities out of living beings and being unconscious of this fact does not remove one from the merciless violence that is the severed backbone of the industry, nor spare one from the consequences of their contribution to such violence. We all know the old axiom: you are what you eat; what if we were to extrapolate that saying to suggest you will become what you eat? Perhaps the ignorance presupposing one to consume the flesh of pigs for instance, despite the ghastly health implications and environmental effects- from water pollution to greenhouse gas emissions, serves as the karmic ground for being reborn in the (non-human) animal realm as a domestic pig slated for slaughter in a factory farm. A factory farm is as close to hell on Earth that one can imagine and the hatred ensuing rebirth in a hell realm is conceivably latent in the denial of animal sentience used to rationalize the consumption of flesh.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead emphasizes the incredible opportunity we are afforded at the moment of death, when our ability to shape the further development of our existence is heightened beyond belief. To shatter through the illusion of samsara at the death-point requires a sharp consciousness undeterred by the frightening manifestations of the mind and detached from all that was held dear in the irretrievable life left behind. Certain preparations for death are extolled by Tibetan Buddhism; they operate as means to increase the potential for liberation now and at the moment of death. Included among these preparations are ethical guidelines for living which purify the mind-stream of entrenched karma such as cultivating the virtues of generosity, compassion, and wisdom (Thurman 53). Also incorporated are detailed practices such as Tibetan sleep yoga and dream yoga whereby one develops awareness of the process of sleep and lucidity in dreams, better preparing one to remain conscious during the process of death and realizing the between-bardo state, respectively. If as evolutionary beings guided by our karma past and present aspire to experience positive states of existence currently and in the future, than what naturally follows is an acknowledgement that essentially morality matters. It is therefore in our best interest, assuming we want to gravitate towards happiness and away from suffering, to act in an ecologically sensible manner in the greatest capacity our creativity permits us. Having compassion for all Earth’s inhabitants would logically be necessary if we wish to avoid the karmic retribution for heartlessness; this empathetic connection with other living creatures may manifest itself as abstaining from consuming flesh foods or simply reducing as much as is possible our consumption admitting the deeply-rooted nature of our habits. Treading lightly on this earthly plane out of a respect for and reverence of the interdependence of Earth’s biosphere is evident of the type of awareness that is crucial to attaining liberation at the moment of death, in the reality-between, or in this very lifetime. Padma Sambhava, in speaking to the fate of every incarnated individual instructs us as such:
Hey, noble one! Now you have arrived at what is called ‘death’. You are going from this world to the beyond. You are not alone; it happens to everyone. You must not indulge in attachment and insistence on this life. […] Whatever terrifying visions of the reality-between may dawn upon you, you should not forget the following words (Thurman 132).
What proceeds is a summation of the entire teaching of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, spoken in a manner to give voice to our own innate awakened nature:
Hey! Now when the reality-between dawns upon me,
I will let go of the hallucinations of instinctive terror,
Enter the recognition of all objects as my mind’s own visions,
And understand this as the pattern of perception in the between;
Come to this moment, arrived at this most critical cessation,
I will not fear my own visions of deities mild and fierce! (Thurman 132)
At this point the soul traverses the death-point and enters the reality-between, going on to wander in samsara for as long as ignorance clouds ones conduct. In each fleeting moment we can recognize the phenomena we perceive as representative of our mental state. If in this world we perceive environmental degradation, shall we look to our own minds to see if our own moral foundation has been eroded and overridden by unchecked desires? The surface of the Earth is most certainly a manufactured landscape, etched and reflected from our mindscape. If our thoughts and motives are contaminated with the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance- the binding forces trapping one in samsara, then what follows is a polluted planet as our actions grow from that quality of consciousness and affect the environment in like manner. On the other hand if we preserve the virtues of generosity, compassion, and wisdom that are the fabric of our basic nature, as implicit in Buddhism, we can create a harmonious world that takes into consideration the wellbeing of every living creature. Through understanding interdependence, the aspiration to live an ecologically- responsible lifestyle naturally follows.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is an invaluable instruction for our individual souls for the travail after death, but the teaching can be expanded in an effort to advance an optimistic vision of the world in light of our modern desolate situation. The environment is subject to our minds’ apparitions, as has been clearly demonstrated by the demons of greed and hatred and the violated biosphere that we perceive to be our reality. We do not have to wait for our death to hope for a better existence, we can use this present opportunity to work towards equality and harmony, manifesting in this reality an enriched environment restored by our recovered ideals.
Rinpoche, Tenzin Wangyal. The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep. Snow Lion Publications, 1998.
Sambhava, Padma. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between. Translated by Robert A.F. Thurman. New York, N.Y. Bantam Books,1994.
Shugchang, Padma (editor); Sherab, Khenchen Palden & Dongyal, Khenpo Tse Wang A Modern Commentary on Karma Lingpa’s Zhi-Khro: teachings on the peaceful and wrathful deities. Padma Gochen Ling. 2000