Death and Dying
A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal
The purpose of Buddhist teachings is not to create more Buddhists on the earth, but rather to create more good human beings on the Earth. Therefore, wherever I teach I do not encourage anybody to be a Buddhist. There is no purpose if you already know how to be a good human being. It takes time to know enough about Buddhism to decide if it’s useful in everyday life or if it’s just intellectually satisfying.
If you study carefully, you will see Buddhist teachings are aimed at disciplining one’s mind, to correct what went wrong in the mind, how our mind creates the harshness of the world. Without correcting the mind, there is no way to run away from the harshness of the world. Buddhism is meant to improve the quality of perceptions through which we see the reality of phenomena. Buddhism helps us understand how the mind influences how we want to see objects. We try to force the material world to perform the way we wish it to be. Reality and what we expect do not match.
It’s important in Buddhist spiritual practice to understand the meaning and usefulness of the human form, how precious it is. Because we are human our intellect allows us to engage in spiritual practice, to gain the highest form of human happiness, unconditional happiness, which is not subject to change by external circumstances.
There’s more to life than struggling for survival. When we’re born in a human form, it is a waste to spend all our time and energy on day-to-day survival.
If we don’t know how to live, we don’t know how to die. Why? Death is part of our life.
It’s very important to learn how to die because it’s part of life, the most critical moment of our life. When death comes upon us, no matter how financially well off we are, all becomes useless and hopeless.
When you reach the edge of death, doctors, healers, friends, relations give up hope. In front of you, they may say you’ll be okay; behind your back, they may be talking about your funeral, arguing who will get more.
At that moment, you are the only one who can handle the situation. You will experience four types of fear:
1. fear of separation from loved ones
2. fear of leaving your possessions behind
3. fear of not being able to remain part of this world
4. fear of losing yourself or the I
If you have some understanding and proper training at the time of death, you can recognize each fear. If you don’t recognize and identify your fears and separate from them, you become one with the fear and then lose hope.
According to Buddhism, death is a separation between mind and body; the intimate connection between mind and body collapses. Death is not when the brain and mind stop functioning.
Eight stages to natural dissolution
The meaning of dissolution: What connects the mind and body collapses. Each of the five elements in the body dissolves one by one into the other. There are externals signs visible to others and internal signs experienced only by the dying person.
1. Earth dissolves into water. The external sign: The dying person asks to be pulled up, asks for more pillows. This is because earth is dissolving into water, and that provides a sinking sensation. Eyesight also diminishes. The internal sign: The dying person experiences hallucinations.
2. Water dissolves into fire. The external sign: The mouth and nostrils become dry. The internal sign: Sight becomes hazy.
3. Fire dissolves into air. The external sign: The body temperature drops. The body cools from feet to chest or head to chest. The air breathed out is chilly, rather than warm. The internal sign: The dying person sees sparks, small and intense like fireflies.
4. Air dissolves into space. The external sign: The dying person’s inhalation and exhalation rate changes. Breathing becomes panting. Exhalations become longer than inhalations. The internal sign: The dying person sees a large flame.
5. Space dissolves into consciousness. The external sign: The dying person exhales, long exhalations, three times followed by three short inhalations. Then breathing stops. The internal sign: The dying person sees a transparent bluish light.
At this point, brain function has ceased, and the heart has stopped beating. This is clinical death.
The three states after clinical death include white radiant appearance, red increase and near black attainment. These will be explained in the next teaching.
Notes from teachings by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, January 19, 2001.
In Buddhism there is special emphasis on the process of death. Meditating on death helps the individual handle death when it comes.
In Yoga Tantra, there are two levels of practice: creation stage and completion stage. In creation stage, meditation techniques are used to consciously go through the stages of dissolution that lead to death. The practitioner learns to temporarily stop the gross functions of the body then remains at the seventh stage, experiencing clear light.
While an adept practitioner can experience the clear light of the mind, ninety-nine percent of us miss that opportunity. We only see the clear light manifest naturally at the last moment of death.
The last three stages of death are radiant white, in which a radiant white light is experienced; red increase, in which a red light is experienced; and near black attainment, in which the light becomes black.
In the sixth and seventh stages, essences that merged at conception now separate. During conception, the subtle consciousness enters the egg and the sperm as they unite. At that point, the new being’s heart forms. The bindu, or semen essence, then moves to the crown chakra. The rada, or blood or egg essence, then moves to the naval chakra.
But at death, subtle consciousness leaves the heart. In the sixth stage, radiant white, the bindu from the father, sinks from the crown to the heart. The dying person experiences a radiant white light similar to strong moonlight.
In the seventh stage, red increase, the essence of rada, or the red drop, from the mother moves toward the heart. The dying person experiences a radiant red light.
In the eighth stage, near black attainment, the two reunite at the heart chakra. The dying person then experiences a radiant blackness.
At this moment ordinary beings become unconscious; their subtle consciousness leaves the body. In Buddhism, this is considered the moment of death.
However, the highly realized meditator can remain in the blackness for many days. This is exactly what the eighth tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama did. He stayed in this stage for 21 days, and during that time his body did not decompose. Scientists who came to investigate recorded an intense heat around the heart.
In this state, the meditator’s awareness exists, but not through the five senses. Awareness exists through subtle mental consciousness. This technique is used to accelerate spiritual realization.
Subtle and gross consciousness
It is difficult to explain subtle consciousness at this point in your studies.
There are two types of consciousness. Gross mind or ordinary consciousness is based on the five senses and the functions of the body.
So, when the body stops functioning, so does gross consciousness. This kind of consciousness is like energy, so once the body ceases, this consciousness ceases.
In shamata meditation, you can experience subtle consciousness and differentiate it from gross consciousness. If you try doing this without enough skills, there’s a chance you might not come back. A thorough understanding of emptiness is necessary, so that you don’t experience the ordinary self or the "I" that must be dissolved.
When subtle consciousness leaves the body, but before it finds a new body, it resides in bardo. Bardo is the intermediate stage, the stage between death and rebirth. The moment subtle consciousness leaves the body, it exists in bardo.
During bardo, the subtle consciousness exists in subtle air or wind, not in a gross body. The only sense available is the sense of smell. (In the newborn, smell is the strongest of the five senses.) The nickname of the bardo being is "smell eater. Buddhists believe the body is nourished by food, smell, meditation and sleep. But the bardo being is nourished only by smell.
Bardo lasts a minimum of seven days and a maximum of forty-nine days. In this transitional place, the subtle consciousness experiences illusions and hallucinations. Bardo is a very busy, restless place; at every moment every effort is made to find a new life, a new body. Bardo is like the Atlanta airport: Everyone is trying to leave, but you don’t know others or where they are going.
Bardo beings are searching for rebirth, not reincarnation. In rebirth, you are forced to come back. It is out of your control. In reincarnation, you come back by choice.
Bardo beings may experience many "small deaths." If a bardo being doesn’t find a new life in the first week, it becomes unconscious again, experiencing a "small death," then begins another seven days in bardo.
These recurring small deaths, every seven days, are connected to the state of the mind of the dying person. A highly disturbed state of mind during death can lead to a lengthy stay in bardo. Ordinary people feel fear, anger and frustration at death. Four kinds of fear are common, the fear of leaving friends and family, the fear of separating from possessions, the fear of not remaining in the world and the fear of losing the self or "I." Each fear brings its own particular delusions.
If the bardo being will be reborn as human, it will hallucinate human beings and long to see them and play with them. At the moment a bardo being arrives at the site of two humans engaged in sexual intercourse, it focuses on their sexual organs, becomes upset, experiences another small death and is within the womb in conception.
Throughout this process, subtle consciousness remains. While subtle consciousness does not carry memories from one life to another, it does carry information, the good and bad deeds of past lives.
Notes from teachings by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, February 2, 2001.