What is death from the perspective of your tradition?
As with many questions about death and dying from the Buddhist tradition, this question is addressed from the absolute and relative levels. From an absolute perspective, death is an illusion. The great contribution of Tibetan thanatology is the death of death. Death only occurs in the realm of form. If one can discover the formless dimensions of being, of who we truly are, “Nothing happens” at the moment of death, as His Holiness the 16th Karmapa proclaimed a few days before he died. Formless means deathless. The goal of the bardo teachings (the Tibetan approach that deals with death) is this: to discover that which cannot die because it was never born. In this regard, death is a homecoming, a return to the unborn and undying source.
From a relative perspective, death is only the end if you think the story is about you. So what dies is that narrative, that sad story, embodied in the script that is the ego. Ego is exclusive identification with form, and form (body) does come to an end when we die. In technical terms, death is the exhaustion of karma, our bad habits, and the worst habit that ego maintains is the habit for existence itself, the habit of reification, the mis-take of believing that form, and therefore ego, truly exists. In this sense, death is a wrathful form of liberation (because it’s uncompromising and non-negotiable) from this mistaken story.
What transmigrates, if anything, from the perspective of your tradition?
From a relative perspective, what transmigrates are your bad habits, your karma, as embodied in the storehouse consciousness (the eighth consciousness in the Yogachara tradition, alaya vijnana in Sanskrit). The storehouse consciousness is not something separate from its contents, but a “stem cell” consciousness that is pre-temporal and pre-spatial, and therefore pre-human. Just like a stem cell, this consciousness can take on virtually any form as it transmigrates, depending on the environment in which it is placed.
In inner yogic language, “wind” (prana in Sanskrit, lung in Tibetan) is what blows us from one life to the next, so momentum is what transmigrates. Wind is space in motion, and “space” here refers to space-awareness. Space-awareness in motion then shapes the other archetypal elements (earth, water, fire) into mental form, and then further into reified physical form.
From an absolute perspective, no-thing transmigrates, where no-thingness (not nothingness) is a synonym for emptiness. An inner rendering of the Karmapa’s cryptic statement, “Nothing happens,” is that “emptiness happens” at death. When all form disintegrates as we die, emptiness is dis-covered. This is the “indestructible continuum” (machigpa tigle in Tibetan) that skips merrily into eternity, without beginning or end.
What key text, verse, or poem offers insight or clarity around the experience of death?
The classic Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the three death bardos (the painful bardo of dying, the luminous bardo of dharmata, the karmic bardo of becoming) in exquisite detail. These three bardos articulate the entirety of the journey of the mind after death. Countless commentaries have elaborated on this masterpiece, including The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche; and Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Francesca Fremantle. The most elegant personal text is In Love With the World: A Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying, by Mingyur Rinpoche.
How has an experience of death in your life informed your teaching?
I have been around the death of many people, from intimate family, to friends, to strangers. The most impactful experiences were around the death of my parents. I held my father as he took his last breath, and it was one of the most profound experiences of my life. His breathing had been labored for twenty-four hours, which was difficult to witness (the wind element was dissolving back into space, the fourth of five stages in the Tibetan view of the “outer dissolution” of the body). He had been holding on until his beloved granddaughter finally had the courage to visit him and tell him it was okay to die. As she left the room in tears, I walked in and noticed a dramatic change in my father. His breathing was radically altered, and I could tell that death was imminent. He was now ready to go. I gently held him, told him we’d miss him dearly, that his life had been tremendously rich, and that it was okay to go. He looked at me with glazed eyes, took one last breath . . . then . . . utter silence. The silence was thunderous in its impact on the moment, and on my life.
It brought home how we’re literally just one breath away from death. Breathe out, don’t breathe in, and you’re dead. It showed me how grasping—on the side of the person dying, and on the side of those left behind—can lead to unnecessary suffering. And it revealed how natural the entire process of death is if we just get out of the way and let it happen.
What is a practice that directly addresses our relationship with death?
Buddhism has a number of practices that directly prepare you for death. In many ways, the entire path is death in slow motion, where “letting go” in meditation is a euphemism for death. “If you die before you die, then when you die you will not die,” is a maxim that summarizes the role of meditation in preparing for death. If you let go of false levels of identification during life, before you are forced to do so at the moment of death, then at the moment of death you will not die—because you are “already dead.” You have already died to superficial levels of identification (all based on form, where ego is exclusive identification with form), and transitioned your identity to the formless, and therefore deathless, dimensions of your being.
A number of additional meditations supplement this general practice, including dream yoga and sleep yoga, which came about principally as ways to prepare for death. In Buddhism, deep dreamless sleep is a concordant experience of the moment of death, and the dream state is a concordant experience of the after-death experience. These practices are so central that death is often referred to as “the dream at the end of time.” Lucid dreaming is a subset of dream yoga, and both practices are about becoming aware of the fact that you’re dreaming while you’re dreaming. This proficiency is asserted to extend into “the dream at the end of time,” and allows the practitioner to take control of a post-death process that is otherwise entirely dictated by unconscious (non-lucid) processes.
A central teaching in The Tibetan Book of the Dead is that “recognition and liberation are simultaneous.” If you can attain lucidity in the post-death experience, and recognize that you are in the dream at the end of time, that lucidity (“lucidity” is a code word for awareness) will set you free. Just like in a lucid dream, a lucid death experience gives you the ability to gain control and make conscious decisions, instead of being buffeted around by unconscious (karmic/habitual) impulses. A dream and death yogi can choose where and when they will take rebirth, who their parents will be, and therefore control the circumstances for their next life.
Unlike some other traditions, in Buddhism, the point is not to get out of rebirth. The point is to get out of involuntary rebirth. Instead of being driven back into form out of ignorance—unconsciously, non-lucidly, and therefore involuntarily—the practitioner elects to take on form out of wisdom and compassion—consciously, lucidly, and therefore voluntarily.
Two additional sets of meditations come into play here. Completion stage meditations (sampannakrama in Sanskrit; dzogrim in Tibetan) are designed to purify death; and generation stage meditations (utpattikrama in Sanskrit; kyerim in Tibetan) are designed to purify birth. Purifying death means recognizing our nature as formless awareness when we die, which then allows us to shape that formless awareness consciously into form—our next life. Purifying birth means one takes on birth, or generates form, voluntarily, as a way to help others in one’s next life.
Sleep yoga, which is when one trains to attain lucidity, or awareness, even in the deep dreamless state, is a form of completion stage practice; and dream yoga is a form of generation stage practice. With dream yoga, you learn how to shape your mind into any form you want, which is a way to practice rebirth at this microcosmic level.
These practices are game-changers. Instead of dreading death, you look forward to it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The Buddhist tradition is unequivocal: with preparation, there are more opportunities for spiritual development in death than there are in life because the post-death environment is so much more fluid. The greatest obstacle is transformed into the greatest opportunity.