Gross Mind, Subtle Mind, and Very Subtle Mind

A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

If we don’t know the nature of the mind or subtle consciousness, it’s very difficult to understand the possibility of life after death. The material body ends with death, but the very subtle consciousness continues, from past to present, present to future. The mind is divided into the gross mind, the subtle mind, and the very subtle mind. The gross mind depends on the body. As soon as body functions stop, gross mind stops.

The subtle mind, which underpins the five senses, provides information to the very subtle mind. Neither the gross mind nor the subtle mind goes from past to present, present to future, carrying information from life to life.

To understand karma and how karma works, to understand where the karmic imprint is stored, you must understand the very subtle mind. It will be discussed in more detail in your second year of the Lam Rim.

Four reasons prove the possibility of rebirth and reincarnation. Let us consider one of the four: In the very last moment of consciousness of a dying person, conceptual thoughts have ceased because the brain, heart, breath have stopped. So the gross mind has stopped. What’s left is a neutral mind, an unbiased mind. It continues. This consciousness has mere knowing, mere clarity, and mere experience.

When we are dying, no matter who we are we experience four types of fear: fear of losing the self, fear of separating from loved ones, fear of leaving possessions behind, and fear of not remaining in the world.

These fears intensify our attraction to the world, our desire to remain part of it. This attraction or desire controls our subtle consciousness and forces contact with the world. The connection is through the gross body.

The subtle consciousness is attracted to the gross body, and the moment subtle consciousness makes contact with a gross body, rebirth occurs.

Realms and Their Beings

If there is a life after death, where will we be reborn and what form will we take?

In the Buddhist cosmology there are three realms and six kinds of beings that are living and sentient or conscious. The realms of existence are the desire realm, raga dhatu; the form realm, rupa dhatu; and the formless realm, which is purely mental, arupa dhatu. Raga dhatu is the gross material world. Rupa dhatu is the subtle material world. And arupa dhatu is an immaterial world.

In Buddhist cosmology, Mount Meru is the very center of the universe. Mount Meru is a very large mountain, half in the ocean, half given over to rupa dhatu. Of four continents and four subcontinents, our world is in the South, zambhu beapa. The living beings on each continent cannot contact each other, unless meditation or telepathy is employed. In raga dhatu, happiness is closely related to material well being. Everyone is crazy for material comforts. Experiences are intense, including intense attractions to gross material objects and gross sensory pleasures, such as sex.

Six types of living beings reside in rupa dhatu: human beings, jealous shapeshifters, animals, hungry ghosts, hell-beings and celestial beings. Jealous shapeshifters have some sort of magical quality or power. They can manifest in many different forms, including the human form. Their birth is not from the womb, egg, heat or moisture, but spontaneous, and they are born full-size They do not depend on external light; they have a light in their body. Their food is subtle. They have one big problem; they are very jealous. They constantly have problems with celestial beings because of their jealousy of celestial beings’ happiness and prosperity. Consequently, they fight their entire lives with celestial beings for the wish-fulfilling tree atop Mount Meru. The root belongs to the jealous shapeshifters, but the fruit, which is like ambrosia, belongs to the celestial beings. Jealous shapeshifters have to take care of the root, but have no right to eat the fruit. Celestial beings can eat the fruit, but don’t have to care for the root. That’s funny, huh. This is not an issue about sharing, but karma. Jealous shapeshifters don’t have access to the fruit because of karmic obscuration.

People can become hungry ghosts, according to Buddhist understanding, at the time of death. If, at the last moment, we are deeply attached to any special object (a person or a thing), when the subtle consciousness leaves the gross body, it may stick with the object. Then, the subtle consciousness cannot find a new body.

Because of karmic imprints, the subtle body of hungry ghosts can appear to certain beings. But the moment the hungry ghost appears to the mind, it’s already gone. It disappears like a rainbow and, like a rainbow, it could appear again.

A ghost story: In 1994, the monks of the Mystical Arts of Tibet tour stayed in a haunted house in Santa Barbara. It was 11:30 p.m., and the lights went off, and a window began shaking. The hostess, Rinpoche, and the chant master, all three saw in the same spot a big guy who immediately disappeared. A hungry ghost can be harmful or benign, but it’s stuck to protect an object.

Question: How can it get unstuck?

Answer: Call the police, I guess. [laughing]

Question: Ghostbusters?

Answer: A hungry ghost can’t get out until its karmic force is exhausted. Fifty of our human years equals one day for a hungry ghost, so, in general, a hungry ghost is stuck 500 years.

Question: Are there millions and billions of hungry ghosts then?

Answer: Yes, but it will never get crowded. [laughing]

Question: Why don’t we see more?

Answer: There must be a personal connection, a karmic or spiritual connection.

Question: Why could the Rinpoche see?

Answer: Through meditation we can gain extra-sensory perception or power and perceive the immaterial without a karmic or spiritual connection.

Question: What about battlefields?

Answer: The atmosphere is not in harmony. You may notice a strange feeling, a pressing sensation where soldiers have been killed. If you’re near where an earthquake happened, you might think you see someone making a fire far away, but when you go there, you’ll find nothing. According to Buddhism, it’s very important to be prepared at the time of death. The last minutes of the mind determine the quality of the next life.

Question: What about a sudden death, like a car wreck? How does it work? Are you out of luck? You spend your life trying to improve yourself, and suddenly something happens?

Answer: For the practitioner, this is a great obstacle. The best way to die is in the natural process, slowly. You prepare, but the external circumstances are stronger.

Question: Is there a lower birth then?

Answer: No, not necessarily.

Question: Is a sudden death karma?

Answer: You can’t blame everything on karma.

A return to the types of beings

We all know what an animal is. Hell-beings cannot be perceived by the ordinary senses. There are two types, hot and cold. They belong to the material world, but only to a specific location, 9,000 meters deep into the earth. Hot hell-beings always have a problem with heat. Cold hell-beings always have a problem with the cold. This we won’t talk about; it’s very depressing.

Essentially, all life in raga dhatu is confusing and frustrating. Beings are caught in the cycle of birth and death. Life is ever-changing, with no guarantees of name, fame, reputation, relationships. We are simply living with hope. And life is full of dissatisfaction. We think if I obtain this object of desire, I will be happy. This is a very mistaken way of thinking. In reality, the moment we achieve the object of our desire, we’re already dissatisfied. The more we get, the more we want. And this confusing, frustrating life is repeated endlessly.

Rupa dhatu and arupa dhatu

The beings in rupa dhatu and arupa dhatu are celestial or divine. In these realms there is no gross samsaric pain. The celestial beings are always blissful and are completely consumed by the bliss.

A story

The historic Buddha had a disciple named Shariputra. When Shariputra’s mother died, he used his clairvoyance to see where his mother was reborn and could not see her at all. He went to Buddha and asked. The Buddha looked and said, "Your mother is born in rupa dhatu." Through magic Shariputra traveled there and found his mother, but he could not make contact because she was completely consumed by bliss. So he gave up and came back.

In rupa dhatu everyone experiences the highest bliss. They are always laughing and smiling. They don’t need sexual intercourse to experience bliss. Everyone is very attractive, so there’s no need for make-up. The body produces perfume and a radiant light. There isn’t any aging, any wrinkles, any face lists. I’m serious!

The average life span is 900 to 1,000 of their years. Their day equals 100 of our years. They know when they’re going to die and where they’re going to be reborn and in which form.

The main problem occurs at the time of death. Unbearable pain is experienced for seven days of their days before death. During death, they lose their light and their perfume. They sweat. Everything comes undone; wrinkles appear.

When friends and relatives see the signs of death, they abandon them. Ninety-nine percent of beings in rupa dhatu go down to become hungry ghosts or hell-beings.

Question: Why?

Answer: Because they were so consumed by bliss, they had no time to accumulate positive merit. What merit is acquired is completely exhausted by the bliss.

Question: Is Mt. Meru a real place or a metaphor?

Answer: His Holiness the Dalai Lama has discussed this with physicists. His Holiness says it’s a really, physical, material mountain, but it is not visible to us.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, March 16, 2001.