Death: Transforming Obstacle into Opportunity

“If we are duly prepared, I can promise that the moment of death will be an experience of rejoicing. If we are not prepared, it will surely be a time of fear and regret.”

— Anyen Rinpoche

Excerpted from Preparing to Die: Practical Advice and Spiritual Wisdom from the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition

Death is one of the most precious experiences in life. It is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The habits (karma) that brought us into this life are exhausted, leaving a temporarily clean slate, and the habits that will propel us into our next life have not yet crystallized. This leaves us in a unique “no man’s land,” a netherworld the Tibetans call “bardo,” where all kinds of miraculous possibilities can materialize.1 At this special time, with the help of skillful friends, we can make rapid spiritual progress and directly influence where we will take rebirth. We can even attain enlightenment. 

Buddhist masters proclaim that because of this karmic gap, there are more opportunities for enlightenment in death than in life. Robert Thurman, who translated The Tibetan Book of the Dead, says: “The time of the bardo is the best time to attempt consciously to affect the causal process of evolution for the better. Our evolutionary momentum is temporarily fluid during the bardo, so we can gain or lose a lot of ground during its crises.”

But even for spiritual practitioners, death remains a dreaded event. We dread it because we don’t know about it. We do not look forward to death because we don’t know what to look forward to. For most of us, it’s still the great unknown. Death is the ultimate blackout, something to be avoided at all costs.2 So we have a choice. We can either curse the darkness, or turn on the light.

Death is not the time for hesitation or confusion. It is the time for confident and compassionate action. Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, “This is when people MUST do something for the person who has died; this is the most crucial time for the person.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead says, “This is the dividing-line where buddhas and sentient beings are separated. It is said of this moment: In an instant, they are separated; in an instant, complete enlightenment.”3

The moment of death, like that of birth, is our time of greatest need. The beginning and the end of life are characterized by vulnerability, bewilderment, and rich opportunity. In either case we are stepping into new territory—the world of the living or the world of the dead. The person who is dying, and their caretakers, should do whatever is necessary to create the conditions to appreciate this priceless event. 

While all these guidelines are helpful, they are not meant to restrict the sacred experience of death. The map is never the territory. Even though death and rebirth are described in extraordinary detail by the Tibetans, dying is never as tidy as the written word.4 It is important for the dying, and their caregivers, to study and prepare. But preparation only goes so far. Fixating on the idea of a “good death” can paradoxically prevent one. If we think that our death will follow a prescribed order, and that perfect preparation leads to a perfect death, we will constrict the wonder of a mysterious process.

Surrender is more important than control. A good death is defined by a complete openness to whatever arises. So don’t measure your death against any other, and don’t feel you have to die a certain way. Let your life, and your death, be your own. There are certain things in life that we just do our own way.

The vast literature about conscious dying is therefore a blessing and a curse. At a certain point we have to leap into death with a beginner’s mind and a spirit of adventure. Visions of the perfect death create expectations, a model that we feel we have to match. If experience doesn’t match expectation, we might panic. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” “I didn’t plan on it ending this way.” Death is about letting go. That includes letting go of any expectations. The danger in learning too much about death is that we end up pre-packaging the experience, forcing reality into the straightjacket of our concepts.

The best approach is that of the middle way. Learn as much as you can. Study, practice, and prepare. Then drop everything and let this natural process occur naturally. Throw away the map and fearlessly enter the territory. It’s like preparing for a big trip. We want to pack properly, review our checklists, and ensure we have enough money and gas. But when the trip starts we just enjoy it. We don’t worry about doing it perfectly. Some of our greatest travel adventures happen when we take a wrong turn or get lost. Having thoroughly prepared, we relax in knowing we have everything we need.

Getting out of the way and letting death take its natural course is often the best thing to do. Death will always take care of itself. As a friend once told me, “Dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.” But there are times when it helps to step in and act with confidence. Death is an emotional time, and confusion is a common companion. Appropriate guidance can be of great benefit. It is the aspiration of this book to help provide that guidance. Refer to it; then, as with death itself, let it go.

Tibetan Buddhism is not the only Buddhist tradition that teaches the bardos, but it is probably the most complete. Other faith traditions have different views of what happens after death. Even within Buddhism, the views differ from one school to the next.5

The central orienting view in the Tibetan world is that of the three death bardos: the painful bardo of dying, the luminous bardo of dharmata, and the karmic bardo of becoming. The painful bardo of dying begins with the onset of a disease or condition that ends in death. In the case of sudden death, this bardo occurs in a flash. It is called “painful” because it hurts to let go. The luminous bardo of dharmata begins at the end of the bardo of dying. For most of us it passes by unrecognized. “Dharmata” means “suchness,” and refers to the nature of reality, the enlightened state. It’s fantastically brilliant, hence “luminous.” It’s so bright that it blinds us and we faint. We then wake up dazed in the karmic bardo of becoming. Suchness is gone, and confusion re-arises as karma returns to blow us into our next life. According to the Tibetans, the entire process takes about forty-nine days.

Not everyone goes through the bardos the same way. Only a few teachers assert that the journey is universal and that everyone will, for example, experience the deities of the bardo of dharmata in a similar way. Most teachers say that cultural differences and personal idiosyncrasies generate a variety of experiences.6 Why would a Christian or Muslim, with very different beliefs, experience death the same way as a Buddhist?

The journey through the bardos is a journey through the mind. In the Buddhist view, the essence of mind is the same for all sentient beings. But the surface structures that cover that essence are different. Hence the journey through the surface structures (bardo of dying), into the essence of mind (bardo of dharmata), and then out of it (bardo of becoming), is not the same. But the general pattern of this three-stage process is universal, at least according to the Buddhist view.

While the Tibetans have breathtaking resources that easily translate from their tradition into our own, modern masters admit to instances of cultural insularity and peculiarity. For example, the ancient texts state that it’s best not to cry out in distress when someone is nearing death, as this can adversely affect the mind of the dying person. Tibetan teachers familiar with our Western ways realize this instruction doesn’t apply as readily to us. Tibetans are emotionally reserved. They don’t express themselves like we do. For us, not only is emotion permissible, it’s expected. So while it’s not so good to grasp frantically after the dying person, as we will discuss, it’s also not healthy to completely repress our feelings.

The issue of universal truth vs. cultural vicissitude is present anytime teachings migrate from an ancient and foreign culture into a modern one. This is something each reader has to wrestle with as they plunge into the bardo literature.7 Even the Tibetans didn’t categorically accept Indian Buddhism without adapting it to their culture. For example, the “hot hells” of Indian Buddhism (where it gets hot as hell) were supplemented with the “cold hells” of Tibetan Buddhism (where it gets cold as hell). Buddhist scholar Carl Becker writes: “The important point here is that the Tibetans, like the Chinese before them, did not adopt Buddhism in its entirety merely out of political or aesthetic considerations. They accepted Buddhism insofar as it clarified processes that they already knew and as it illustrated new truths that they had not yet verbalized.”8

If one is unprepared, dealing with the details and intensity of death—the emotional impact, preparing for the funeral, handling friends and loved ones, dealing with medical and legal issues—is like preparing for a big wedding in one day. It’s overwhelming. The Renaissance statesman Montaigne wrote:

Men come and they go and they trot and they dance, and never a word about death. All well and good. Yet when death does come—to them, their wives, their children, their friends— catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion overwhelm them, what cries, what fury, what despair!

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death… We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere.

To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.9

If you deal with some of the details now you can relax at the time of death, and relaxation is the best instruction for how to die. Relaxation is born from familiarity with the upcoming journey now.


Footnotes

  1. “Bardo” is translated as “gap, interval, intermediate state, transitional process, or in between.”
  2. Death is therefore viewed as the greatest obstacle in life for it is the termination of it. If we can relate to death properly, however, this greatest obstacle transforms into the greatest opportunity. There are four classic obstacles in Buddhism, four maras. Mara, sometimes called the Buddhist “devil,” means “murder, destruction,” and is the embodiment of death. Mara represents anything that interferes with the spiritual path, and as mrtyu-mara (The Lord of Death) is the second of the four maras: skandha-mara; mrtyu-mara; klesa-mara; and devaputra-mara. If approached properly, however, death doesn’t interfere with the path. It becomes the path.
  3. “This” refers to distraction. “This” can also refer to the bardo altogether. Relating to the bardos without distraction is the dividing line that separates buddhas from sentient beings.
  4. Philosopher Evan Thompson writes, “It would be a mistake . . . to think that the Tibetan Buddhist account of death must be either literally true or false. Instead we can see it as a script for enacting certain states of consciousness as one dies. In this way, it is more performative and prescriptive than descriptive. . . . the Tibetan Buddhism account of death strikes me as a “ritualized phenomenology”. . . [it] doesn’t so much present a phenomenological description of death as rehearse and enact a phenomenology of death as a ritual performance.”
  5. For views of other ancient and modern traditions, see How Different Religions View Death and Afterlife, edited by Christopher Jay Johnson, Ph.D, and Marsha G. McGee, Ph.D; and see What Survives? Contemporary Explorations of Life After Death, edited by Gary Doore Ph.D. For different views within Buddhism, see Breaking the Circle; Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism, by Carl B. Becker.
    Thrangu Rinpoche was once asked why Buddhism talks so much about pain, suffering, and death, which the questioner found depressing. He asked Rinpoche why Buddhism couldn’t be like other religions, or even New Age schools, who paint a more cheerful picture of life and the beyond. After listening to the young man complain about this dark side of Buddhism, Rinpoche simply replied, “Suffering, pain, and death are not Buddhist inventions.”
  6. Carl Becker writes: “ . . . the heavens, judgments, and ghostly scenarios described by other religious traditions have equal claims to validity; the afterlife is culturally relative insofar as its imagery is projected by the perceiver, and the perceiver has been conditioned by the culture in which he was educated.” The religious scholar Huston Smith says, “Everything we experience in the Bardos is a reflection of our own mental machinations.”
  7. For a study on cultural translation, see Rebel Buddha; On the Road to Freedom, by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.
  8. Carl B. Becker. Breaking the Circle; Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press (1993: 87)
  9. Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne: Complete Essays. Ed. & Trans. by M. Screech, London, UK: Allen Lane (1991: 95).