Death is an important issue to everyone as it is a reality that everyone is reluctant but has to face. To ordinary people, death represents a dark unknown filled with despair, mysteries, pain and sorrow. In the face of death, almost all of us are panic-stricken and terrified. It is really due to a misunderstanding of death itself. To know correctly what death is can thus eliminate fear of death and help us better prepared for it.

I. Wrong interpretation of death causes two extremes

There are multiple explanations of death. Some people think that everything ends after a person is dead, that all goes to dust at last; others think that a person becomes a ghost after death; still others believe a person either goes to heaven or to hell after life ends. These are just a few examples but none of them gives a clear explanation of what life truly is, nor any help in solving the question of life and death.

Based on these misconceptions on life and death, people are easily led astray by the two extreme views.

The first is fear of death, having only total despair but doing nothing about it beforehand, just waiting for it to come. At the same time, there is always great fear so much so that one does not want to hear or talk about it at all; even hearing the word “death” causes consternation.

Many scientists had no religious training in their youth or simply rejected it; nonetheless they slowly warm up to religion as they get older, even becoming very devoted believers. This is because the older one gets, the closer to death and the more lost one is, and the more urgent the need to rely on something to overcome fear of death and find a home for the mind. However, it is not easy to come upon a religion other than Buddhism that can truly explain death.

The view that everything ends after a person dies is a very simple, naïve and pessimistic take on life, drawing conclusion carelessly without knowing life at the deeper level. Think about this: We should all agree that it is impossible for the body to come from another place. But if we were to deny the existence of past and future life, we would have to first eliminate the possibility that consciousness or soul comes from another place. Since our sense organs do not see the coming and going of a soul, nor can any instrument make such observation, what evidence is there to prove that soul and consciousness also end when life ends?

Buddhists should be realistic and rational, not just echo the views of most people. Life and death are of course the most important events in life. As we are normally concerned even with minor ailments, there is no reason not to be serious when facing the lessons of life and death. There are many real examples from all over the world, both old and new, pointing to the existence of soul and rebirth. When solid proof for refutation is still lacking, acknowledging rather than rejecting their existence would be a sounder choice.

The other extreme is to believe everything ends when one is dead. At the time of birth, one is born with the body; there is no past life to speak of. When the body stops functioning, life ends, leaving no sense of joy or pain any more. As such, those holding this view have little inhibition to do unwholesome things when alive. Although not knowing what death is about, they pretend not to care nor to fear death, making no preparation at all for the imminent end of life. This is simply ignorance.

They are not afraid because deep down they think death is still too far away. Thus, their dismissal of fear is only temporary and unreal. Surely they will be very scared when actually facing natural disasters or their own illness, not to mention real death. So why are they not afraid of death? They are not afraid because they don’t know what death really is. That’s the only explanation.

As a Chinese saying goes, newborn calves are not intimidated by tigers. Similarly, children are not afraid of fire. It is not because calves and children are particularly brave but they are ignorant. It is a matter of not knowing what to be afraid of. Those who claim not to have fear of death are mostly in this category.

As Buddhists, we should avoid either of these two extremes. If we can understand death correctly and be well prepared for it, not only is death not frightening, but it can also be an opportunity for us to make progress.

II. Practitioners’ attitude toward death

There are three kinds of attitude:

Superior practitioners welcome death. As Milarepa sang, “Death is not death; yogi becomes a junior Buddha.” To such practitioners, death does not signify despair or termination of existence, which is the perception of ordinary people. As they go through death each time, they may not be able to attain Buddhahood right away, but they can gain higher realization every time. Accomplishment like this is akin to that of a junior Buddha.

Average practitioners do not reject or fear death because they know they have already achieved certain stability and have control over their practice that will enable them to face death when the time comes.

Inferior practitioners have no regrets when they die. Although they are not accomplished in their practice, they have not committed too much evil karma in their lifetime and have done their best to practice virtue. So they have no complaints or regrets, and are full of confidence at the end of their lives.

III. The nature of death

The term “thanatology” was first penned by an American surgeon, Dr. Roswell Park, in an essay published in 1912, which eventually became a field for interdisciplinary studies. The history of this field is only a little over one hundred years. The Tibetan Buddhist text of death, Bardo Tödröl or Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo, is over a thousand years old. And Buddhist texts that deal with the subject of death have been around for 2500 years. The process of dying is clearly laid out particularly in the Kālacakra Tantra which was expounded by Buddha Sakyamuni in the year before his parinirvana when he was 80 years old.

In regard to matter, many exciting breakthroughs have been achieved by science in the West. However, with respect to life itself, Western science has hardly broken any new grounds and thus failed to provide satisfactory answers to questions about life and death. Actually, the brain is analogous to the hardware and consciousness the software. Just like data in the software can be copied to different hardware, consciousness can be transplanted to another brain. That is to say, when a person’s physical body stops functioning, life still exists and can be transferred to another body, as the body is only a vehicle for the mind. This is the Buddhist view as well as that of Charles Scott Sherrington and John Carew Eccles, the two neurophysiologists and Nobel Laureates.

As a matter of fact, if there can be more tolerance and open-mindedness, we would not need to bother with expensive research because such views are common knowledge in Buddhism and free for all to use. Unfortunately, people tend to be quite arrogant some times, unwilling to accept unconventional views and rejecting all that is not seen or heard personally, or at variance with the conclusion derived directly from their own research. They will only accept a standpoint when others’ reasoning and their own are in agreement. Such obstinate and rigid attitude greatly restrains the intellectual progress of mankind.

Among all the books in the world, the one that offers the best explanation of death and method to face death is Bardo Tödröl. The book has since received recognition from scholars in the West. Having obtained the relevant empowerment, one can proceed to study the text, but not before then, as the proper order for learning the Secret Mantra still needs to be observed. Nonetheless, a part of the section on the method of facing death does not require prior empowerment so that it is available for everyone to read or learn more seriously.

Simply put, death is a kind of cyclic phenomenon of life. The cyclicality is represented by the fact that rebirth will come after death and birth will eventually end in death again. Our consciousness is like an engine which can turn life on and turn it off, but people in general don’t know how this is done. Be that as it may, life can never end, even at the time of attaining Buddhahood. Granted, that’s an unsurpassed state of existence. As our practice continues to improve, we can also advance to a higher level of existence. Naturally, the phenomena of life are not the inherent nature of life. The nature of life never changes; the phenomena of life, however, undergo an endless cycle of change.

In short, there are three cycles of life:

The first cycle – It starts before a life is formed. At this point, no sentient being of the six realms, no life exists at all. It is like the moment the Big Bang occurred, neither matter nor the concept of time and space existed. This period of absolute emptiness is the nature of our mind, also the Buddha nature, Tathāgatagarbha or the state of luminous clarity.

Then after the Big Bang, the fundamental particles were formed, and the agglomeration of these particles into electrons, atoms and molecules eventually formed the universe. Likewise, from Tathāgatagarbha and luminous clarity comes energy of life which subsequently forms life itself. More detailed descriptions of this process have been elucidated in the Vajrayana texts.

The moment a human egg and sperm unite, the consciousness of a bardo body enters the zygote. Although it is already a life at this point, there is no physical body. As the embryo continues to grow and becomes more mature, a full body will be formed at last. During the course of growing up, an attachment to this being will be developed, which immediately becomes the alaya consciousness, the base of consciousness. The fact that we still have breath, heartbeat, blood circulation and so forth when in deep sleep while other senses stop functioning indicates the existence of certain energy. This energy is the alaya consciousness.

The alaya consciousness, like the water deep down in the ocean, remains still at all times, no matter how violent the ocean swells. The water closer to the surface, however, will move depending on the force of the gale and its depth. The waves, the water that moves, refer to the five sense consciousnesses and the sixth consciousness.

On the basis of the alaya consciousness, manas, the seventh consciousness is formed. In Sanskrit, manas means attachment or self-grasping. Once there is self-grasping, a real being begins to take shape along with the development of the five sense organs.

In Refuting Signs Treatise, Bodhidharma referred to all eight consciousnesses as defiled mind and luminous clarity of tathāgatagarbha as pure mind. Pure mind exists at all times even before life begins.

The Big Bang spells the end of a universe. Similarly, after going through countless life and death to finally reach Buddhahood, returning to the state of primordial luminosity, it is back to Mother Nature in its truest sense, that is, back to the innate luminosity of mind.

We refer to mountains, rivers and land as nature, but they all change according to sets of cause and condition, hence not real nature. Bona fide nature is the Buddha nature in our minds, which is uncontrived and unchanging. We were born from Mother Nature and will be reborn innumerable times before going back eventually to the very origin when Buddhahood is attained. This is the longest life cycle. In this cycle, we complete a full samsaric journey—up to heaven, down to hell, travel through the six realms and finally back home to the luminous Buddha nature.

In this sense, attaining Buddhahood is also a kind of death—death of samsara.

The second cycle – It starts from the time of death, through the intermediate state, rebirth, to a whole lifetime until death. It is not countless cyclic existences but just one lifetime lasting a few decades or one hundred years at the most. This is the mid-length life cycle. As one cycle ends, the next one begins immediately.

The third cycle – This cycle completes in 24 hours. Those who are not stressed and have good quality of sleep can usually go into deep sleep soon after sleeping. Deep sleep means one loses all senses and has no dreams during this period. Although we still have our life, soul, attachment to self and alaya consciousness, because all senses are shut down— no seeing, no hearing, no thinking, no idea of the surroundings, it is also deemed a sort of death.

These three cycles are very similar in rationale and process. The only difference is how people feel about and how they refer to each cycle. Conventionally, only that of the mid-length cycle is called death. The one of the shortest cycle is called sleep and that of the longest cycle is liberation.

The difference between sleep and death is that during sleep, self-grasping and alaya consciousness still exist; whereas when entering the unconscious period in the intermediate state, all eight consciousnesses would stop at a certain point for a very brief instant, even the alaya consciousness would disappear at this moment.

If you want to get a whole picture of the cycles of life, other than the three mentioned here, you should know there is a cycle lasting just a second or even shorter. It happens at every moment of life.

The tsa lung practitioners of Vajrayana know how to make use of this cycle, allowing them to grasp the best time for their practice so that they are able to attain realization of emptiness speedily. You can learn about these specific methods after you begin the formal training in Secret Mantra.

IV. The mystery of death

In the West, death is generally determined either by brain death or irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions. But there are many cases of people coming back to life after showing these symptoms for some ten, twenty hours. Such is not a complete death.

In fact, at the highest level of concentrated meditation, the fourth jhāna, a practitioner, though still alive, may stop breathing temporarily. Therefore, cessation of breath cannot be the criterion of death.

In the Buddhist tradition, these symptoms only represent superficial death, not real death yet, as a person’s consciousness has not left the body at this point. At the time of superficial death, most people will enter into a coma-like condition, having no pain or any other sensation, like in a deep sleep, except those who have had the special Vajrayana training.

On further analysis, death is really not just a simple process. The process of dying whereby a person’s sense organs and consciousness gradually cease to function is both complex and specific.

When the coma-like period is over, that is, after real death has set in, one enters into the intermediate state. At this point, the deceased wakes up from the coma. Beings in the intermediate state can see their own dead body and the family members gathering around; they even have a little bit of supernatural power to know what these people are thinking, but most don’t know they themselves are already dead. Just like a dreamer, not knowing he or she is dreaming, who takes everything in the dream for real, an intermediate being upon seeing family and friends cry will go to them and console them by saying, “Don’t cry. Everything is fine with me. It’s all right.” But family and friends seem not to see or hear the deceased. Now the intermediate being starts to wonder, “Why can’t they hear me?” Slowly, it dawns on this being that he or she is already dead.

Why can’t the intermediate being know he or she is already dead even having some clairvoyance? Ordinary clairvoyance is somewhat limited and unable to discern everything. For example, some non-Buddhist practitioners who have gained powerful clairvoyance are able to foretell future events of the world, but they don’t know what self is. They think that self exists when in fact there is no self.

Most lives will stay in the intermediate state for forty nine days and then be reborn as animals, humans, or other sentient beings depending on their past causes and conditions. Hence, death itself is not to be feared the most. In death, all the pain and fear felt while alive are all gone, like being asleep or unconscious, so it is not worth worrying about. The most terrifying is, however, if evil karma is committed in this life, then rebirth in the three lower realms of animals, hungry ghosts and hell may be likely for the next life. Therefore, even for the sake of future life, one should make an effort now to hear, contemplate and meditate on the Dharma and accumulate merit.

V. The significance of death

During a very brief interval after death when all eight consciousnesses cease to function temporarily, anyone can grab this rare moment to recognize the innate Buddha nature whose presence is not obstructed or covered at this time. However, if one has not been trained in such practice, this brief period will just slip away. Only those who have had the requisite training over long period of time would know how to use this opportunity to realize the nature of mind and enter the state of luminosity. As mentioned before, to the superior practitioners, death is not death, as the word normally suggests, but a phase in the long journey of samsara wherein one shall attain junior Buddhahood, or perhaps even ultimate Buddhahood.

Why does Vajrayana place great emphasis on the practice of dream yoga? The reason is that, unlike the absolute quietness of death, when we are in deep sleep, even though alaya consciousness and self-grasping are still operating, all other consciousnesses have stopped. It is much easier to realize the nature of mind when undertaking practice during this period.

However, it is very hard for us to return to this state in real life as we have been conditioned to live in a world constructed by sense organs and consciousness, which makes it very difficult for us not to be dictated by our consciousness. For example, when we see something, the information of the object will be transmitted to the mind consciousness to be processed and analyzed, resulting in a conclusion of either good, bad, yes, or no, which will then determine our acceptance or rejection of this object. We hardly ever touch consciousness at the deepest level.

Science has proved that we use only five to ten percent of our brain capabilities with the remainder basically staying inactive. The main reason is due to the fact that very little of these capabilities are required in real life and hence the wisdom hidden deep within is not fully developed. To ordinary people, death is not so useful. But to Vajrayana practitioners, death presents them with a great opportunity to develop those latent and idled capabilities.

At death, all consciousnesses cease to function, even the alaya consciousness stops temporarily. What remains is just Buddha nature, the fundamental ground of reality. In the absolute stillness where all mental activities completely stop, Buddha nature will naturally reveal itself, making realization of the nature of mind much easier to attain. It’s like the blue sky can be seen once dark clouds are blown away by the wind.

The principle of hypnotism is similar. Through hypnosis, a person’s mental activities are reduced such that he or she enters into a half-awake, half-asleep state. Subsequently, the hypnotized subject’s memory of past life or the childhood of this life is recalled by way of hypnotic suggestion and subconscious communications. Things like what the teacher said, what parents said, what clothes one wore the first day in kindergarten and so on, those latent memories which are normally forgotten, will be uncovered with the help of hypnosis.

Actually, Buddhism offers a better way to reduce mental activities and develop inner potential, that is, concentrated meditation practice. In the stillness of samadhi meditation, body structure can be changed, memories of past life recalled and many inner capabilities such as divine eye developed. The so-called divine eye refers to the ability to see faraway people and objects or super fine substance that normally cannot be seen. This is also the method used to attain realization by the exoteric school of Buddhism. First, practice śamatha to slowly reduce discursive thoughts and then, abiding in this state, strive to attain realization of emptiness. Only when mind stays very still is realization of emptiness possible to attain.

The Tsa lung practice of subtle channels and wind in Vajrayana also uses the same rationale as the practice can produce the same effect as death. The practice of samadhi meditation is taking a very mild approach to gradually calm the mind, whereas Tsa lung practice aims to eliminate discursive thoughts by force. Either way, their purpose and effect are the same, that is, by removing rambling and negative thoughts, luminous clarity naturally reveals itself.

In short, deep sleep, death, Tsa lung practice and attaining the fourth dhyāna of meditation all have the same effect of calming the mind.

VI. The development stage of Vajrayana practice and the cycle of life

In Vajrayana, there is a yidam practice in the development stage that is based on the course of life. As not everyone has received the proper empowerment, I will only do a simple introduction.

First, visualize the seed syllable HRI ( ཧྲཱིཿ ) of Chenrezig becoming a lotus, a mala, or a dharma vessel which is held in the hand of Chenrezig. Then the object held in the hand dissolves into light and transforms into Chenrezig. From here on, the steps are omitted. After the completion of visualization, Chenrezig becoming light dissolves into the practitioner’s mind or space, and finally disappears completely.

When practicing the development stage, one must go through three phases: first, before visualizing the yidam, one must practice emptiness for a while and enter into the state of luminosity; second, after practicing loving-kindness and compassion to all sentient beings while in the state of emptiness, proceed to visualize the yidam, recite mantra and so on; third, the yidam dissolves into emptiness again.

All these practices must start with the practice of emptiness because, at death, the deceased will first go into a thoughtless state, like in a deep sleep, feeling nothing at all. Abiding in the total concentration of emptiness can purify the thoughtless state.

Once waking up from the thoughtless state, the intermediate state sets in. To practice loving-kindness and compassion can purify the intermediate state.

After the intermediate state comes rebirth. When being reborn, other than a few types of being that can form a fully developed body right at the moment of being born, such as birth from an egg or from moisture, most mammals are born from a womb wherein their bodies develop gradually over a period of time. In order to purify this period of body forming, visualization of the seed syllable, the dharma vessel and sometimes even a bindu (dot) should be done step by step. Only at the very end should the body of Chenrezig be visualized in full.

To visualize Chenrezig in full can purify all the life stages from birth to death, removing all that are impure like erasing wrong words or pictures with an eraser. The state of luminosity is like a piece of white paper while samsara the word or picture wrongly written or drawn.

Finally, visualize Chenrezig dissolving into light and vanishing in space, which can purify the process of gradually losing all senses at the time of death.

In order to purify the unconscious state after death, all practices in the development stage end with visualization of dissolving into dharmadhātu, the realm of absolute reality.

Although there is no difference between the final results attained by the exoteric or the esoteric school of Buddhism, esoteric Buddhism is a faster route because it offers a variety of practices that correspond to every stage of life. Generally speaking, the exoteric school offers no particular practice on death. Both the Great and the Lesser Vehicle of exoteric Buddhism start with practices of the four foundations of mindfulness; they have yet to incorporate the pure view of tathāgatagarbha. With the exoteric practice, it takes a very long time to reach the eighth bhumi of bodhisattva when pure phenomena arise naturally. Hence, achieving accomplishment via the exoteric Buddhist practice tends to come very slowly.

Vajrayana on the other hand offers many practices on death, but one must complete the preliminary practices and receive the requisite empowerment before setting out to practice them. Those wishing to learn further should do it in an orderly fashion, starting from the foundational practice to the more advanced step by step.