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Death, Bardo and Rebirth

Lama Tubten Shenpen Rinpoche - Teaching in Ljubljana, part of a series of teachings on the Lam Rim.
(This teaching hasn't been verified by Rinpoche; it is published "as it is")
Death is obviously a very important topic, because everything born will die. In the West there is traditionally a taboo about death, there is fear and misunderstanding, which can be clarified by eastern philosophy and by Buddhism in term of understanding of what happens during the process of death.
One of our problems in the West is seeing one’s life as a unique segment from the birth of this body till the end of this body. Death is seen and interpreted as the end, as something which is closing the door forever, whatever we believe in after it, heaven or hell. In the West there is somehow no second chance concerning another life. But if we look at this topic from understanding of Buddhism, then the perception of it changes completely.
According to Buddhism, passing away could be compared to changing clothes. When one set of clothes get old and cannot be used any more, we just give it away and take another one. So the same person remains in the process of dying, only the aspect changes. Taking that example, death is not any more something radical or terrible; it is just another state, another door, a passage from a life to another life. Just this difference of perception – of a very short period of dying time or a much longer existence with changing of its aspect – changes a lot. It changes a lot when we arrive at the moment of leaving this life. The understanding of the process of dying and taking another rebirth is also a process, which has been described in detail in the Tibetan Buddhism.
This is also something, which decreases the fear of death. When a practitioner knows what will happen, he/she is able to train the mind to the process of dying during one’s life. Of course there might be some interrogation at the moment when death will come, and some questions and there will be fear, but at least much less, knowing much more what one has to meet, what will be the different visions, what will be the different feelings experienced by one’s consciousness during all that process of dying.
So, that way death is not something, which is far away, something unknown, a taboo – it is something that is integrated in life. Therefore we can include some understanding of the process of death during our life, our practice, our meditation, without any taboo about it, without any idea that this is something about which we should not talk or think about. By performing meditation, training our mind to think about the moment of death and to what will happen at this moment, we considerately reduce negative feeling, fear or stress that can arise at this moment.
What we also learn when we study this topic is a process not so unknown to each of us, because not only we have already gone numberless times through this process in the past, but also within this life: this is the process that we are floating with in many occasions. One of the most common occasion is when we fall asleep. Falling asleep process is very close to the dying process. Not only in the different vision that most of the time we do not perceive, because we are not aware and we do not pay attention, so we just fall asleep; but also during the sleep. In Buddhism we believe that our consciousness enters another state and we take another body, a dream body, and that all the process is very close to the dying process.
Death can be studied from two main approaches. The ordinary approach is to learn the process that one will have to go through, not to be afraid too much, not to be scared, but to be able to pass through the different stages without being too much destabilized. The other one is a spiritual process, which is a transformation of death into a spiritual experience. I don’t have time to go deep in the second aspect. It helps us to stop repeating something that we have repeated numberless times before, and to seek thorough this process an end to the cycle of conditioned rebirth in the Samsara. So, the death process can be also studied in one’s life as a spiritual path, as a way to approach a level of consciousness with which we commonly have not much contact.
If we take death from that approach, we can see that it is not any more a frightening subject or something that is strange to come close to. It becomes a normal spiritual topic and potentially a practice, which helps us to come closer to Enlightenment.
So we’ll try to see now the different stages of death, from the 1st moment of death until the next rebirth. We don’t have time to go in detail in each of those stages, but we will try to enumerate each of them.
People ask the question how is it possible to know all those different steps if we do not remember them. We can see different sources for getting such knowledge. The first are those high spiritual beings who do not go through deaths as an uncontrolled process but are able to meditate on each of the stages and they are able to remember them in the next rebirth. They were able to enumerate what they have personally gone through. The second source is all those spiritual beings who have the capacity to follow the consciousness of somebody dying. So, while the consciousness is dying, then that person remains in touch with the mind of the dying person and that way they can know exactly through which experience the consciousness is going. It is not only one being or two beings, but beings since Dharma exists, since many, many centuries; this results in a lot of facts. When we talk about a different visions that a consciousness experiences, the time that it takes and the length between one life and the another, these are not just theoretical numbers – it is really coming from the fact of what do exists and what is experienced.
If we take in consideration that our being is composed of different elements, namely earth, water, fire and air, during the process of dying we will see the dissolution of those elements. When we say dissolution of those elements, it means that each of these elements will loose its power and energy. Of course all those different steps do not happen suddenly, immediately one after another. It is a progressive process, when we talk about peaceful death, when one is dying in his bed, out of sickness, or of old age. Later on we will see other forms.
The all process of dying, from the first signals of death, the dissolution of the earth element, till the moment our consciousness will live our body, is described as taking the time of a meal. So, it depends on how quick or how slow we eat ;-), but usually we say it’s about 20-25 minutes. This concerns common beings. The practitioners, people who have more advanced knowledge or control over the death process, who can use it as a practice, will meditate much longer on this process. So, when I say 20 minutes, it means that it is common. 
The 1st element which will start to loose its power is the earth element. When it starts to loose strength, the body starts to loose its mobility, it starts to become stiff, consequently the vision starts to become blur and the forms become confuse and unclear. What we can see from outside, when we observe somebody who is going through this dissolution, is the immobility of the pupil. What is experienced from inside, is the vision of mirage. Mirage is something like when you look at the road in summertime and it is very hot, then at one point you get a feeling that the air above the road is like water; mirage is a water like vision.
The 2nd element, which will dissolve and loose its power, is the water element. From outside we can see that this process is going on by the lack of humidity of the tongue and the eyes of the dying person. And from inside, the vision experienced by the consciousness is like a cloud or fog. The sense which is connected to the dissolution of the water element, is the sense of audition. In the earth element it was the sense of vision, which disappeared; in the second element is the sense of audition. So we progressively do not hear well, we become very far, far, far, till only a low continuous sound remains. In the Tibetan text they mention it as a sound “Hur”. It’s the inner sound. When we put on earplugs, this sounds still remains, and when we focus on it, it fills our head. This is the sound of our blood circulating and all the different vibrations that still exist in our body. So, this is the last sound, which remains when all the other sounds disappear.
The next element, which will loose its power, is the fire element. From outside we notice it because of two main signs. The 1st is that the body starts to loose its heat. The second sign is the heart, which progressively starts to beat irregularly, weaker and weaker. From inside, from the point of view of the consciousness, first of all the different smells start to disappear, the sense of odor starts to disappear and the consciousness experiences a vision of sparks. For example, when you make fire out of wood, and you hit the wood, you get a lot of sparkling coming out like this. This is the vision experienced by the consciousness during the fire element dissolution.
If we thus follow the elements, the next element, which will loose its power, is the air element. During the dissolution of the air element the breath will start to loose its regularity, the expiration will sound much stronger than the inspiration. When we listen to somebody at this stage it sounds like a short taking of breath in and a long breath out. From inside, the mind starts to get really confused, it does not remember well what it has to do what it should not do. Until now it was physical senses which were disturbed, but the consciousness inside was rather clear. Even though it started to become disconnected to the outside, the mind remained clear. But from that moment on and further, it starts to get very much confused. The vision experienced by the consciousness is like the last moment of a candle, when the flame starts to go down and only a pale light remains.
From that moment on, the consciousness will not remember much and will not be able to think any more. All the different thoughts circulate within our body following some energy, but at this moment of the death we don’t have the majority of energy. During all the process of dissolution, all the energy of our body concentrates and withdraws toward the heart. We say that most conceptions disappear. So we are reaching the point, when the consciousness cannot feel, cannot discriminate, cannot judge or remember any duty. So to say, if somebody wanted to practice or to keep in mind some good visualization, the work has to be done till now. It seems that form now on, there is not much will to take place in the rest of the process.
In order to understand the following step of the death process, we have to make a little jump to several years before this moment, namely to the moment of conception. At this moment, there is the meeting of the three elements: between what we call the red cell, the white cell and the consciousness; the white cell being the male component, the red one being the mother component and the consciousness. When those three components join, the process of development starts. From the place where consciousness enters, first starts to develop the energy body of a being. Following the development of the energy body, cells develop. The first part of the body which develops is the central channel, the main channel, which divides our body in the middle. At the end of the development of the central channel remain a part of the white cell and a part of the red cell. The white part being at the top of the central channel, and the red part being around the part of the navel. Those two elements will not move during our common life, normally they will always remain there. Only at the moment of death they will start to move.
So when we have reached the moment of the dissolution, when everything, which has extended at the moment of conception, now at the moment of death withdraws towards inside, and when the end of the dissolution of the air element is reached, just the central canal remains. Then the two drops start to move, the first one being the white drop. While this white drop starts to come down from the top of our head, till our heart, we will experience what we call the white vision. Thus the white vision is the next experience in our consciousness. It is not a bright vision – it is a white vision. We will see a bit later the difference. Usually we describe this vision as being like the sky when there is a full moon without clouds, the sky is not black because of the light of the moon, but it seems to be whitish. Likewise seems to be this vision of white light, like a milky sky.
In the next step the red cell, the red element, will start to go up in the central channel in the direction of the heart, and during all the time this element is going up in the central channel, we will experience the red vision. The description usually given for this vision is the sun which is going down in the autumn and all the sky becomes red.
Now we have the two elements, the white element and the red element, which have reached the heart place, the heart chakra being the place where the consciousness is located. Once the two drops enclose the consciousness, then there is the experience which we call the black vision. This is not exactly a vision – it would be closer to loosing consciousness. For some time there is a feeling of falling into a black hole.
The next moment which will follow the black vision or black state, is what we call the Clear light. It is like we would have fainted, and at the moment we would open our eyes again, we will face a bright light, we will find ourselves in a very bright situation, environment. So, a light without any spot, without any obstacle would surround us. We would melt in this clear light. This is what we call the experience of the clear light.
That clear light is the most subtle state of our consciousness. As I said before – all the gross level of our consciousness disappeared and we have been going through a process of loosing all the normal perceptions, normal conceptions, normal ways to conceptualize. We reach at this moment a very subtle state of mind. It is a mind without ego. When we see the clear light, we are facing the most subtle aspect of ours. It is a state, which can serve a spiritual practitioner. Somebody who has trained enough during his life will reach that point without fear and will be able to meditate on that very subtle state of mind, will be able to deeply enjoy this spotless bright state of mind.
Usually we say that a practitioner, somebody who has trained in the process of dissolution of the mind, will remain about three days in meditation in front of the clear light. There are some cases of much longer meditation, one of the longest I heard, was about fifteen days of meditation in front of the clear light. Most of the time it is about three days. That is why we usually advise people not to bury or burn the body of somebody who has died before three days pass, because we do not always know who is an advanced practitioner or not. Sometimes an advanced practitioner can hide his spiritual state and at the moment of death he will remain in meditation in front of the clear light. So we do recommend, when somebody passes away, to remain three days without touching the body, without burying or destroying the physical body.
But for a usual being, that moment of facing the clear light is a scary moment, a fearful moment, because one is facing an egoless state of mind, a state of mind we are not used to. There is a very basic fear to disappear, to be annihilated. When we experience that clear light and we have the fear to disappear into it, that specific fear is the signal to live clear light and to enter what we call the intermediary state or the Bardo.
At the moment the consciousness is leaving the clear light, the consciousness as well leaves the body and enters into the bardo. Since the consciousness cannot stay without a body, it enters what we call the bardo body, which is in all points similar to a dream body. When you start to dream, it is not just a naked consciousness, you have a body in your dream. So in the same situation, when you enter the bardo, you enter it in a process of looking of the next rebirth with a subtle body.
What we can see from outside, after the consciousness has left – this sign is not always present – is a little red liquid leaving the nose or little whitish liquid leaving sexual organ. It is explained by the fact that the two cells, of which one is going down and one is going up, continue their way. The red cell will come up through the nose, and the white cell will leave the body through the sexual organ. So, these are two signs which can assure us, when we see them, that the consciousness has left the body.
So, now our consciousness is outside the body, it has entered the intermediary state, during which the next rebirth will be searched. It is not, as many people think, a voluntary process; it is not something that you will look for. It is something according to the Karma that you have created during your past life, which will push you in the direction of your next rebirth. So it is not you who decide at one point “I would like to take rebirth here or there”, it is according to the karma that you have created that you will be pushed in the direction of your next rebirth.
The length of life of a bardo body is of seven days. This means that after seven days, if somebody has not found yet the place where to get reborn, there would be a small death process, very quick, because there is no physical body to dissolve, and a quick process of taking another bardo body. During the time we are in the bardo, nothing can really stop the bardo body, the bardo body can pass the walls, it can pass anything, the only thing that the bardo body cannot do, is to enter the womb to which he has no karma to enter. But everything else does not serve as obstacle for subtle body.
The maximum of bardo bodies that one can take is also seven. This means that between the death and another rebirth, there will be the maximum of 49 days, which is seven times seven days of bardo. That contradicts a western theory, which says that there is more then 49 days between one life and another.
During all the time the consciousness is within the bardo, it is possible to access that consciousness. It means that people, who have certain clairvoyance, are able to enter in contact and to help the consciousness not to get afraid or to develop a positive mind and so on. So we usually perform a certain ritual or certain prayer after death of somebody in order to allow that consciousness to create a positive cause for the next rebirth.
After a certain amount of time, it can be some seconds, some minutes, some hours, some days, at maximum 49 days, the consciousness will arrive to the spot where the rebirth will take place. According to the state of rebirth in which we will come, the process of leaving the bardo and entering that realm will be slightly different. For example, if you are to take birth in the god realm, you are not going through a development process like embryo would develop in a womb – it’s a spontaneous birth. The process is slightly different also if you take rebirth as a spirit or a ghost or in a Hell realm – it will also be a spontaneous rebirth. Only in animal realm or in human realm it will be a period of gestation.
This is in brief all the process of dying, intermediary state and entering the next life. As I explained a little bit earlier, when the consciousness will enter the matrix of the next life, then the consciousness will start to develop at first the energy body, first the central channel will develop, then the collateral channels, and all the little channels will develop, and at the end, following the development of the energy body, the cells will start to develop and then the organs and then the senses. Till birth. In Buddhism we consider that the consciousness is present from the moment of conception. There are various ideas about this: people think that it is after one month, or six months, some people think that the consciousness enters with the first breath of the baby when it comes out, but in fact the body would not develop if there wouldn’t be already a consciousness, because that consciousness caries all the information about the development of the body.
The whole death process takes about 20 minutes. There are some situations in which it takes much shorter, specifically in accidents. The process remains the same, but it will be much faster then in case of a natural death.
Something to remember when we have to face the situation of accompanying somebody through the process of dying is also that once the consciousness has left the body, it does not hold the memory of the past life any more. So when it leaves the body, it can remain a certain amount of time around the body or in a room, without necessarily connecting to the dead body. When it comes out, it sees a dead body, it doesn’t connect necessarily, “Oh, this was me”. This is a concept, which was gone in the dissolution process. Nevertheless, when there is a very emotional environment: when there are people crying a lot, very emotionally, close to the body, naming the body, recalling his quality, who he was, what he was doing, how wonderful and so on, or the opposite, if somebody hates him, criticizes him, or does other negative things, then the consciousness which is around, which feels it, can recollect, because the whole memory of all our past life is somewhere in it. After the dissolution there is a kind of restarting the counter of our consciousness. But when there are a lot of emotions, it happens that the consciousness reconnects at this moment. And this is usually not auspicious, because in this case the consciousness will develop a very emotional reaction to what is perceived. Either a very strong attachment, if people are crying and are very sad and very emotionally disturbed, or can develop anger or jealousy according to what is the situation. And this is not good for the consciousness; it does not help it to go peacefully towards the next life.
So, one of the most important things to do when somebody is dying, is to maintain a peaceful and quiet atmosphere around the body. During all the process of dying and in the following three days after death when we keep the body at home, or as long as possible after the death we should not disturb the body – not leave the body in a place which is either too cold or too warm, and we shall not manifest strong emotions around the body.
I think I told you most of the things that I wanted to say about this topic. Do you have any questions about it?
Question: So, it means that we treat the dead people completely wrong: we move them, we clean them, we put them in a cold room…
Answer: It’s true that we do many things, which are against the liberation of the consciousness. I think it is due to the fact that we do not recognize death. During all their life people do not want to think about it, to hear about it, to face it any way. By rejecting anything connected to death, many people do not learn what is good or what would be good to do at the moment of death. And also, as I mentioned at the beginning, death is considered as catastrophic, as the end of everything. So we are usually not emotionally prepared to death – either our own, or the one of the people close to us.
We also include in such events our own personal ego. Actually, instead of seeing the death as the liberation of somebody, as a passage from one state to another state, it is often perceived very egoistically by the surrounding. Why do we move a lot the body after death? Usually because we want to put on some nice clothes, to clean it… But what is the use of it? Once the person is dead – the person is dead. Why is so important to make it nice? There is a complete denial of death. When we are dead, the skin looses its color, this is normal. But some people paint it to look fresh and nice and alive and of course in front of it people develop attachment and cry. But actually people are crying because of themselves. They are not crying because of the dead – the dead is dead, it’s gone – but they are crying because of the lack they start to experience towards the departure of the late one. I’m not criticizing people when they cry if somebody dies, it’s emotionally normal, but it is not the best way to accompany another being to the other life. The death of somebody else could be a wonderful experience for ourselves – a wonderful experience to work on our own emotions: what do we feel when somebody leaves, what do we experience? Those are the moments in which it is much easier to touch the ego – to touch the sense of I – the sense of need of that person, “I feel pain that that person is gone”, “I feel guilty”, “I feel jealous”, “I feel angry” and so on. The moment of the death is the moment when we could work on, instead of pouring a lot of fears in the situation.
Question: Would it be possible that the Western science would prove this process of dying?
Answer: Considering the consciousness – it is very difficult for the science to prove it. It is difficult for any scientific method to approach consciousness, because it is something very subtle. There are some experiences, which are done since many, many years like hypnosis used in scientific approach in order to bring somebody else to the past life. Putting some people in the hypnosis and regressing in past life, asking what a persons sees, what a person experiences and so on, and taking notes about it and then later on confirming them. There is for example an old experiment, more then 20 years old, made by person called De Rochas, who used hypnosis in a scientific way, with some people taking notes about everything that a person said: he lived in this century, his name was this, the name of the street was that, and so on – and then they went to check things to see if there was a street named like this, a person named like this, what he was doing and things like that. That was an interesting approach because in many cases they could confirm it.
There is also another experiment by American man, called Stevenson, the title of the book is “Where reincarnation and biology intersect”. He was studying children who remembered their past lives and who were claiming some strange things sometimes. He has focused on a birthmark such children can have. They are claiming that they were in India for example in this moment of the history, and it’s possible to find on their body some birth mark, and it was possible to make a correlation between a birth mark and the way the person in the past life has died. So there is number of cases like this through which we can prove it, so to say, but it is always possible to argue about the scientific approach. I do not see any other possibilities to really experience it scientifically.
Question: How does Buddhism perceive the Western science in general?
Answer: I think there has been some very interesting progress especially in the last years. I must say that before the sciences wanted to be too scientific and this way they were closing some ways of experiments and experiences instead of opening to it. Lately, namely through the study in the quantum studies, I think it goes in a very interesting way, because they discovered scientifically that the sciences are not so exact. If science is not as exact as it was thought before, it means that a lot of things might be interdependent. And if they are interdependent, then the mind has its place somewhere. By understanding that things are not exact, square and always the same, they approach the existence of unconsciousness. That is where somehow the deepening of the quantum science will start to be really interesting.


Words of Wisdom

"The purpose of meditation is not to reach nirvana and then disappear. If that was the case, it would be better that you manifested as a flower!"
- Lama Yeshe

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