Death is not the end of life, as there is still rebirth after death. We have experienced death countless times, but cannot recall any of them today. To people who seek ultimate liberation, it is highly important to face up to the matter of life and death. Not only do we need to know how to face death, but also how to take rebirth.
In some of the exoteric Buddhist texts, there are descriptions of the after-death states and the course of rebirth, but not how to turn death into a way of practice nor how to take rebirth. Whereas in Bardo Tödröl, the whole process from death to rebirth and the way to guide the deceased to liberation from the intermediate state are all elucidated in details; even when liberation is beyond reach, instructions on how to choose a better rebirth are offered as well. It can be said that Bardo Tödröl completely fills a gap left in the exoteric scriptures.
However, Bardo Tödröl is a Vajrayana text, and particular attention is placed on adhering to the proper order of learning and practicing Vajrayana. The designated order of first completing the preliminary practice, receiving empowerment, then learning and practicing tantric teachings is not to be overlooked or violated. If one disregards this sequence of learning the teachings, no benefit can be gained; instead, it is considered an act of stealing the Dharma. Therefore, it is better not to learn the whole content of Bardo Tödröl before receiving proper empowerment. To those who have not received empowerment, the discussion here will present some of the contingency measures prescribed in the book when death is near, which are available for common use.
I. The Vagrant Intermediate State
After waking up from the unconscious state (refer to What Life Truly Is for details), one enters the intermediate state.
The deceased in the intermediate state can go to many places and also see many of his or her relatives and friends. But at the beginning, the deceased is usually not aware that he or she is already dead. So how would one know that one is already dead after waking up from the unconscious state? It is said in Bardo Tödröl that when the deceased cannot see his/her own image in a mirror or in a pool of water nor any footprints left when walking on a beach, or when the deceased feels surrounded, like in a large concert hall, by very loud and strong music coming from all directions, or hears the sound of raging thunder or that of many people talking and singing in a strange way, he/she should immediately come to the realization: ‘Now I’m already dead. These sounds are all that of the intermediate state. I must not be afraid but face the situation as I have been trained to do.’
It is said in the scriptures that because intermediate beings have no physical body, they tend to be very unstable and restless, unable to sit or stand still, just drifting aimlessly, like bodies in a dream. As intermediate beings long for a body of their own, many try to return to their old bodies. However, body and consciousness have separated and the old body is already a past. As the relationship between the body and consciousness has ended, there is no way the intermediate beings can ever go back to their previous bodies. At this point, the deceased who has lost that sense of belonging will feel very sad and distressed. Afterward, the deceased will enter one of the six bardo states, chönyi bardo or the luminous bardo of dharmata.
When entering chönyi bardo, many people will encounter blinding light and frightening thunder-like sound along with numerous Buddha images, mandalas and so forth. Many near-death-experience accounts in the West have also reported similar situations. However, these are mere illusions in the view of scientists. The fact is that these phenomena are not illusions at all but memories beyond the brain.
II. The process of taking rebirth
In the exoteric scripture The Sutra of Conception and the Dzogchen tantras, Buddha Sakyamuni elucidated the process of human conception. After taking rebirth, consciousness enters the zygote and a life is formed, but not yet with a physical body. First, the cleavage of the zygote begins about one week after the conception and then combine again. A few days after combining, the cell division begins again, and the process repeats itself. The shape of the embryo after each division is clearly described in the scriptures, which completely matches that of modern medicine.
It is said in the scripture that, in the intermediate state, beings don’t really know they are going to take rebirth, nor do they know what lies in store for them or how to take rebirth. It goes on to elaborate further: In general, if the intermediate being is going to be reborn in the hell realm, it will feel like going into a dark tunnel or on a dark road; if it is to be reborn in the human realm, it will feel like entering a park or a beautiful palace, so on and so forth. In my book The Stories of Transmigration, there is a story about a person recalling the process of his own rebirth:
There was a person named Tian San-niu in Shanxi Province, China. Once, a pouring rain destroyed his cave house and he was crushed to death. When he came around and regained consciousness, he had no idea that he was already dead, thinking only that he struggled to crawl out from a mudslide. He then went home excitedly to his wife and said, “I almost died today, but luckily I didn’t.” But his wife ignored him. He went to his son but was given a blank look. He got so furious with their indifference and decided to leave home. As he came to town and walked by the gate of a park, he suddenly felt like going into the park and sitting for a while. However, he found the gate was closed. When he felt the gate was pushed open by him, he was born.
He was completely at a loss as to how he passed the nine months from death to rebirth. It seemed to him that he had only stayed in town for a short while.
He could speak right after he was born. Thinking this is a bad omen, his relatives were ready to throw him into the poop pit, if not for his mother’s insistence on keeping him. He recalled many details about his past life; scenes after decades passed were still vividly remembered. This is not hearsay as people in the vicinity all knew about this.
At that time, Bardo Tödröl was only available in Tibetan language. There was no way that Tian and his relatives could have read this book, but the process they described was exactly the same as that presented in Bardo Tödröl. It just proves that transmigration does exist, and the process of dying as given in the Buddhist scriptures is valid and believable.
III. Pith instruction on liberation in the intermediate state
If the deceased received empowerment in his or her lifetime and was a serious practitioner, the guru or dharma friends can guide the deceased to liberation now by following the instructions contained in Bardo Tödröl. If liberation is not attained at this stage, the deceased will face rebirth next.
When rebirth is about to take place, the bardo being will encounter a man and a woman in sexual intercourse. If the being is to be reborn as a male, it will feel anger and jealousy toward the man but desire for the woman; if the being is to be born as a female, it will harbor anger and jealousy toward the woman but desire for the man. As long as desire and anger are both present, rebirth will take place immediately. The first few months after taking rebirth, one remains unconscious. Because this period of unconsciousness lasts a long time, one forgets everything that happened in the last life after being born.
Upon seeing sexual union between a male and a female in the intermediate state, do not feel jealous or angry but know right away this is not real, that it just signifies the time for taking rebirth is near. If one wishes to gain liberation at this point, take one of the three following measures:
1. For realized practitioners, abide in emptiness and pure awareness to finally attain enlightenment.
2. Immediately visualize oneself as the yidam, such as Chenrezig, Manjusri, Ksitigarbha, Vajrakilaya, Buddha Sakyamuni, etc. If one does not have a particular yidam, just visualize Chenrezig, because the great compassion of Chenrezig is the most helpful for beings in the intermediate state. Subsequently, visualize Chenrezig slowly dissolving from the edges into a ball of light and finally disappearing into emptiness.
For those who do not normally practice, such visualization would be kind of hard to do. So quickly take up your practice now, starting with the preliminary practices, then the generation stage and yidam practices afterwards. To follow this sequence is very important. Of the five inner preliminary practices, the Vajrasattva and Guru Yoga practices are of the generation stage practice. If the bardo being was proficient in practice when alive, there is a chance that liberation can be attained directly through pure awareness or yidam in the intermediate state, thus taking no rebirth. Even failing this, one can still use this method to choose one’s direction and innate gifts in the next life. However, if this still fails to work and the image of a man and a woman in sexual union continues to appear, and desire and anger cannot be kept under control, the third option should be employed.
3. Not to visualize oneself as the yidam but visualize the couple having intercourse as Guru Rinpoche and his consort Yeshe Tsogyal, i.e., the same visualization as in the practice of Guru Yoga. Then visualize receiving empowerment from Guru Rinpoche and his consort. Based on the teaching of Guru Yoga, when receiving empowerment, visualize the guru dissolving into light and merging with one’s own body so that one’s obstacles are all removed and one attains the same perfect accomplishment in body, speech and mind as Guru Rinpoche. This is to receive empowerment. Afterwards, pray to Guru Rinpoche with pure faith to take one to Sukhāvatī or the Copper-Colored Mountain, or to be reborn as a human with leisure and endowments in order to continue practicing the Dharma. If one can practice sufficiently well at this time, one will not encounter phenomena of the intermediate state anymore and go directly to Sukhāvatī or other buddha field.
It is also stated in Bardo Tödröl that there are high, medium and low levels of instructions, altogether up to 30 of them, on gaining liberation in the bardo or taking rebirth. There are corresponding instructions for every stage. If practitioners fail to succeed at any one stage, there will be other opportunities to gain liberation in the subsequent stages. Therefore, if one can concentrate and follow the guidance of the master and dharma friends, liberation can surely be attained within 49 days. However, this is based on the premise that one learned and repeatedly practiced the teachings while still alive. Just like dancing, one must learn the basic steps first and practice diligently over a long period of time before going on the stage to perform. Be sure to remember all the key teachings of this practice.
If not even the third method can effectively control the feeling of desire and jealousy that one has when seeing the sexual act, it means the quality of one’s practice is not up to standard. In this case, liberation can no longer be attained in the intermediate state; one has no choice but to take rebirth.
IV. Pith Instructions on How to Take Rebirth
Unless grave misdeeds such as the Five Hellish Deeds are committed, which will lead directly to rebirth in Avici, the lowest hell realm, sentient beings who have accumulated countless karma for the realms of animals, hungry ghosts and hell since time immemorial can still eliminate the cause of falling into the evil realms and change the direction of rebirth during the intermediate state.
There are two choices when taking rebirth: 1. to be reborn in Sukhāvatī or other buddha fields; 2. to be reborn in human households which are already practicing members of the Buddha family or positively inclined to practice the Dharma.
1. To be reborn in Sukhāvatī
There is no need to visualize anything when taking rebirth, just pray earnestly to Amitabha, generate strong faith and aspiration to take rebirth in Sukhāvatī and rely on Amitabha wholeheartedly to take one to the pure land of Amitabha. However, this is a very difficult route.
In my book The Stories of Transmigration, there is a story about a great terton who via certain practice was able to converse with his dead brother in the intermediate state. But we should be careful not to mistake this communication for mediumship in the Western sense—the practice of mediums bringing back the spirit of the dead and communicating with it. According to the Buddhist view, this is impossible as the deceased will normally take rebirth quickly. By the time the mediums try to call the spirit back, the deceased could either be a human or an animal. How can the same person be brought back?
Perhaps some may ask, “How come the mediums can tell the details of the deceased’s life?”
A sutra in the Mahayana Tripitaka clearly explains this:
Once, a respectable elder of the Sakya clan died. His family and friends, wishing to bury him with the highest honor accorded to a chief, prepared the finest clothes and food as offering. Kneeling before the deceased, they cried, “These are our offering to you… Please enjoy.”
A disciple asked Buddha Sakyamuni, “Can the deceased actually eat the food and use the objects so offered?”
The Buddha replied, “A person will take rebirth very quickly after death and may already be in the realm of animals, hungry ghosts or celestial beings, so there is no possibility for the deceased to eat or use whatever is offered. The only time that the dead and the living can possibly meet is in dreams. The deceased cannot come back under any other circumstances except this. Therefore, making offering to the dead is just a superstitious practice; it gives no real benefit to the deceased.”
The disciple asked again, “Then why does it sometimes appear that the deceased is brought back to carry a conversation or tell the details of his or her previous life?”
The Buddha answered, “This is not really the deceased who is talking but a being of the hungry ghost realm possessing some supernatural power, who knows the past life of the dead and pretends to be the deceased in order to partake of the offering.”
According to the Vajrayana teachings, there are ways to bring back the bardo being before rebirth takes place. Bardo being, the deceased who is in the intermediate state, is able to enjoy the offerings only through the blessing of samadhi, one-pointedness of mind or the sadhana of Vajaryana practice. The most important is to guide the deceased to Sukhāvatī by the power of meditative concentration.
The previously mentioned great terton used just this method to see his dead brother. His brother said to him, “I only had little more than thirty years to live, hardly long enough to enjoy the good times in life. I really don’t want to go to Sukhāvatī.” His brother also acknowledged this is karmic obstruction. It shows that when karmic obstructions are so great, even Amitabha’s pure land is made less enticing.
Therefore, it is important to train well while still alive as wrong thoughts may inadvertently turn up at the crucial moment otherwise. Only those who have been trained in these practices over a long period of time can maintain the right view at all times. After death, by praying to Amitabha, they can successfully take rebirth in Sukhāvatī.
It is said in the scripture that ten persons cannot move a heavy log on the ground, but one person can easily pull the log if it’s thrown in the water. Similarly, it is very difficult for sentient beings to go to Sukhāvatī when alive, but much easier while in the intermediate state. It is because beings in the intermediate state, the bardo beings, have no actual body, only mental body—body created by consciousness. Just like in the outer space where there is zero gravity, a little push can point a body to a different direction; mental body can be led to Sukhāvatī with just a little guidance. Of course, one can also choose to be reborn in the pure realms of Maitreya or Padmasambhava, but Sukhāvatī is the most ideal and the easiest to go to, and one will never go back to samsara again from Sukhāvatī. At the same time, we must also take note that if there is any negative condition at this point such as the arising of an evil thought, it will be equally easy to fall into the lower realms.
In case of failing to take rebirth in Sukhāvatī, one can only resort to the second method.
2. To be reborn as human with leisure and endowments
The most important element of being reborn in the human realm is aspiration. One should think this way: Now it looks like I can only take rebirth in the human realm. Even so, I must choose to be born in a Buddhist-friendly family. Throughout this life, I will spread Buddhadharma and help sentient beings to be free from all suffering. It is also mentioned in the sutras that one should take rebirth in a family neither too wealthy nor too poor. A very rich family can make it hard for me to give up the family wealth. And I will likely be forced to form my own family to continue and protect the family heritage; learning the Dharma and leading a monastic life would be out of the question. But being born into a poor family will leave no chance for Dharma practice as most of my time and energy will be spent on making ends meet. Therefore, there is an aspiration prayer in the Theravada precept, which is often recited by followers of other schools as well. The prayer goes, “May I be reborn in a middle-class family, not too rich, not too poor; afterwards, may I have the chance to be a monastic and practice Dharma.” Although this is a Theravada aspiration, Mahayana and Vajrayana practitioners should have the same aspiration. Such aspiration represents a kind of power of induction which is very effective. After generating the aspiration, one should also pray to the buddhas and bodhisattvas for blessings to make the wish come true. Then one takes rebirth after this prayer is done.
In addition, a Vajrayana method can help one determine one’s innate gifts, awareness and temperament after taking rebirth. For example, if one wishes to be very wise, one should visualize mind as the seed syllable “དྷཱི༔” of Manjusri before taking rebirth. If one wishes to have great compassion, mind should be visualized as the seed syllable “ཧྲཱིཿ” of Chenrezig before taking rebirth. Thus the wish will surely come true.
By using the method mentioned above to take rebirth, one cannot be free from cyclic existence, but there is chance to be a human again with leisure and endowments, to encounter Buddhadharma and be able to attain accomplishment more quickly by undertaking to practice once again. However, this is just a measure of expediency when there is no other option.
It is stated in both the exoteric and esoteric texts that when rebirth is about to take place, one may be chased by many people or animals, or encounter snow, hail or heavy rainstorm. In order to find a shelter, one may go into a dark room or tunnel. Unbeknown to many, this actually signifies taking rebirth. Only bodhisattvas of the first bhumi or higher and arhats really understand the significance of such things.
It is important to note at this time that either the chase or the stormy weather is just a sign of rebirth; no one is really chasing from behind. In this situation, make sure not to go into any dark tunnel, dark roads, or dirty caves. Instead, choose to enter a palace or a nice room, as this would indicate taking rebirth in the higher realms. To choose any other places would represent taking rebirth in one of the three lower realms.
V. Help the deceased, help self as well
1. Do not covet the deceased’s money and property
The family and friends of the deceased must pay attention to the 49-day period after death. Although there have been cases of rebirth taking several months, a couple of years or even decades after a person died, the intermediate state of most people lasts no more than 49 days in general. Therefore, it is particularly effective and beneficial to offer transference ritual and perform virtuous deeds on behalf of the deceased.
It is also clearly stated in the Vajrayana texts as well as in the Collection of Mahayana Abhidharma that if parents die, one should use part of their savings to do transference ritual in a monastery and the rest on virtuous deeds such as releasing live beings, building temples or stupas, helping the needed or disaster relief, etc. One should never use the money for one’s own purpose. Garments of the deceased can be given away as it would be a waste to just burn them. In case the deceased left no savings, it would also be good that his or her offspring use their own money to do the same.
A special note to those sons and daughters who are Buddhists, it is imperative to keep in mind not to take over the deceased’s possessions inappropriately, resulting in bitter family feud. As Buddhists, we should never ignore the principle of cause and effect.
Normally, after taking rebirth, the deceased will not remember his or her previous life, but will know the thoughts of family members and close friends while in the intermediate state. If the deceased happens to understand karma and realizes his/her children are reluctant to use the money to do good deeds on behalf of him/her but divide the money among themselves instead, the deceased may feel sad and angry. Do remember not to do anything that may offend the deceased or arouse the deceased to anger. If anger or hatred is developed in the intermediate state, even the most innocent person can end up in the hell realm.
Similarly, if you realize you are about to die, you should make arrangement for all your possessions in advance—what to donate, what to give to the children, etc. Leave nothing at all behind. It is absolutely necessary to severe all attachment to belongings before dying to avoid any problem in the intermediate state.
In the time of the Buddha, the monastics were allowed to have only one bowl and three sets of clothes; to own more than three sets was deemed violating the precept, the reason being that the Buddha knew attachment impedes liberation.
There was a monk who was so attached to his bowl that he could not even let it go on his deathbed. As a result, he was reborn as a snake living in this bowl. The Buddha told the disciples that over-attachment to any object, valuable or not, would become a hindrance to liberation. The rich will not be hindered by their wealth to attain liberation if they can properly allocate their assets before death without any reservation and attachment. Conversely, if one cannot forsake attachment to personal belongings, however few and worthless, it will be an obstacle to liberation.
2. To help guide the deceased to safe passage
a. To those facing death who know nothing about Buddhism nor have any religious belief, we should say to them, “You are about to leave this world. In a short while, you will encounter many terrifying phenomena. Don’t be scared by the sounds or images appear to you; just face them bravely. At the same time, take refuge, generate bodichitta and rely on the power of the Three Jewels to overcome fear. Keep in mind that you no longer have a physical body at this point. What you have is only an illusory body like the one in a dream. So, nothing can really hurt you except your own fear. You must pray to the Three Jewels and trust their power.”
b. To those who have taken refuge in the Three Jewels but have not learned and practiced the Dharma, when facing death we can only help them pray to the Three Jewels and the guru and ask for help. At the same time, also recite the bardo prayers such as Prayer for Deliverance from the Perilous Straits of the Bardo. It would be best to read the prayers everyday and memorize them while still alive. Then, in the intermediate state, if one can recite the prayers and arouse strong faith in the Three Jewels, one will not be reborn in the three lower realms but be born as a human again with leisure and endowments so as to learn and practice Buddhadharma once more, or be born in the realm of celestial beings. This is officially stated in the sutras.
Thus, we should know just how precious and rare to be humans with leisure and endowments in this life, as human form is not possible without cause and condition but the result of gathering and accumulating merit over many lifetimes in the past. Therefore, we must cherish this life and the opportunity to learn all the precious teachings such as Bardo Tödröl, and practice diligently so as to attain liberation in the shortest possible time.