One never knows when one will die. That is one of the first four practices of the Nyingma tradition in Buddhism — the first of the four major schools in Tibetan Buddhism. When I studied in this tradition as a young adult, we first meditated upon the Outer Preliminaries which are 1) The benefits of a human birth; 2) The realization of impermanence; 3) The law of karma; and 4) the dukkha of Samsara (Rinpoche). It is all four of these, and especially the first, that allowed me to understand my mortality. It was difficult at first, since I was young and arrogant. But as I aged, and people I cared about died, I suddenly realized that death would one day take me as well. That is when my yogic practices became so much more important. I allowed myself to succumb to the realization that this body will one day pass away. Now, the time has come for this life to end. Regardless, I have prepared for this moment for a long time.
Now, I must first explain something, or this essay may become confusing. I am a delok. As a delok, I have died and returned to discuss my travels through the Bardos. Bryan J. Cuevas writes that the delok are “simple, ordinary people, either women or men, who die, tour the netherworld, and return to report their afterlife experiences” (Travels in the Netherworld 4). It is interesting that this normally occurs to laypeople. I cannot consider myself ordinary in this respect, since I have been practicing advanced tantric techniques for so long. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that it happened to me and I am now back in my body.
Initially, I thought that I was going to die. I had fallen ill, a pain in my belly, and after three weeks — where I attempted every ritual and medicine —I became so ill, that I started to say my goodbyes to friends and family. I asked my friend, Lama Djorge Palmung, to prepare for my inevitable death, which he did with great care. Lama, translated into English, means “Soul (or consciousness) Mother” (Klass and Goss 381). This description is definitely true for my friend. He prepared me for death, and watched as I passed away from my body. At that time, he began the 49 day reading of the Bardo Thodol. What are the bardos? Please, read my entire paper and I will guide you through them. As a delok, I now intimately know the land of the dead and have returned with greater knowledge than I can ever have imagined. Rebirth is absolutely true and I need to tell my story as quickly as possible. I now know how fickle and precious a human life is, and I will dedicate even more of my life to becoming as aware as possible until I reach the highest stages of the Bodhisattva.
As you read this essay, remember that I did die and return. Therefore, I have written this paper to provide an outline, not only of the Bardos of the netherworld, but also of my thoughts as I moved towards death. Please do not be confused as you read this work. This is me saying goodbye and returning.
I did not expect to die so young. I am only in my early 50’s (I can’t remember my exact age, I do not count). I am grateful enough that it did not happen as an accident. Some people have asked me “are you not afraid of death”? And I respond that through the understanding of impermanence, one realizes one’s mortality. Just as Milarepa — after killing his enemies with black magic and then and then realizing that his own death was imminent — I too am inspired as I prepare to take my last breath. My work as an amchi taught me that none of us live forever. My many years of yogic practice trained me to look inward and realize that this physical body which I have cared and groomed for so long must be left behind, and become nothing more than food for the continuing cycle of nature. I am reminded by the sayings of the Kadampa “if one does not meditate on death in the morning, the whole morning is wasted, if one does not meditate on death at noon, the afternoon is wasted, and if one does not meditate on death at night, the evening is wasted” (Powers 95). I am grateful that I did not waste my time on this planet, but rather welcomed my inevitable demise. So often I worried about the future — will this work out? Will that not happen? — but really, it is only the anxiety of death which I have faced that was the most important future to concern myself about, that and the development of my sila (ethics), samadhi (meditative discipline) and prajna (wisdom). By practicing sila, I have ensured that all moral issues have been dealt with at the time they occurred in my life. This has allowed those issues to complete themselves and they no longer disturb my mind, allowing me to develop samadhi. Samadhi is the ability to find a state of peace in my mind, which I then used to explore the rLung pathways in my body, allow the rLung to move and manifest itself in and through the chakra system within and those that connect outwards. This in turn developed prajna to realize the truth (Lama 108–111).
My death was not only about myself and the travels I make towards my next life, but it was similarly about my community. Being both a doctor and a yogi, I have become close to many people in my community. As I lay dying, I received more and more visitors who have come to pay their respects and say goodbye. I cannot say how touched I was by all of this, because my feelings evade any translation into language. As I died, I felt that my life was spent fulfilled, there was no regret in my past which would have hindered my passage forward through the bardos.
Many people discussed their fears at length with me, and that Yama and Chamunda, the Tibetan God of Death and his assistant, would not have hindered my path towards another human birth, or total freedom. Many Tibetans are afraid that these Gods, at the time of their death, will carry them to the hell realms (Klass and Goss 379). The moment of death is fraught with danger, at any moment one’s pure, clear awareness can be overwhelmed as it moves along the bardos and is carried by karma. I listened to their fears and concerns. At the same time, I reminded myself of these inevitabilities and felt the fear, and rested my attention on the teachings of the mind of clear light (Lama 160).
Many people also came to discuss regrets and parts of our relationships which they felt were unresolved. I too, went to certain people’s homes when I first realized my near death- until I felt that my body was losing its ability to support me — and discussed with them issues I felt were unresolved between us (Klass and Goss 383). The moment of death is heartbreaking. There are so many tears. At the same time, it is deeply enlightening. One resolves their issues and later realizes that it was not much of an issue at all. Life is strange that way.
We Tibetans are no stranger to grief. Death is a continual part of living in our community in the mountains, and there is often one or more funerals happening concurrently. Thus, we learn to understand and accept that death of a friend or family member will bring up feelings of sadness. We are not afraid of those feelings, but acknowledge and accept them. This may sound strange to the West, especially since I recently heard that medication will be given to those who grieve for too long. For us, we have the Lamas, Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas to support our communities. Tears, strong emotional outbursts and the like are important. We do not attempt to hinder or hide our feelings. Rather, when we see someone feeling their emotions strongly in public, we hope that we can have the resolve to express ourselves just as strongly when the time comes. Those feelings then help us along our personal spiritual path to allow for samadhi, prajna, and the inevitable rebirth which follows (Klass and Goss 388). A rebirth into a human body or freedom in nirvana.
Similarly, it is not me, but my community, which would dispose of the body afterwards. I understand that to a western mind, using the term dispose for the body may seem harsh. But in Tibetan culture, we realize that the body, while respected, must return to the earth, either through a sky burial, cremation, a burial into the earth, or a water burial. The reasons for each one are different; Sky burial is practiced by cutting up the body up and feeding it to the vultures. Cremation is meant for Lamas or yogis— or for when winter is upon us and there are no animals to feed on the body. Water burial, like sky burial, also means that the body is cut into pieces and thrown into the river. Ground burial is very rarely practiced. Firstly, because there is not much ground to bury a body into. Secondly, it is normally reserved for those who have died from severe illness. The body therefore will have slow reintegration into the food web (384). Because it is currently winter in my community, I will most likely be cremated. Some have asked me what burial I would prefer, but it does not matter to me, since the change of the body from birth to birth is similar to when I change clothes which have become too old.
At the time of what I thought was my death, my friend Lama Djorge Palmung, will begin reading from the book we call the Bardo Thodol or in English, The Tibetan book of the Dead. In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, the book is read to the body as close as possible to the moment of death. Three days after death, the body must be buried. Regardless, the soul remains within earshot of the speaker. Thus, the book is read out loud for forty six more days, making a total of forty nine. When I did die, I was able to anchor on to the sounds of reading which reminded me of my yogic lessons. The lessons of preparation of what to experience at the time of death and throughout the experience of the bardos.
I wish now to share my death and awakening experience as a delok. It was easiest for me to write it in the present tense to be reminded of all the details. I hope that it inspires you:
I can feel that I am nearing death. My legs are becoming cold while my body and head are still warm. My dearest friends who are near me are crying. I can still share their sadness, even though I cannot communicate with them. My breath is short and raspy. My body is weak.
I realize that I have not yet spoken about the Bardos themselves. A bardo, in one sense, can be “interpreted as the transition between sleeping and waking, one thought and another or between death and rebirth” (Wootton 1).
The great Tilopa described the Bardos as
“The yogin at the time of death, brings the sense-powers and the elements together, gathering the winds of the sun and moon at the heart, giving rise to a variety of yogic concentrations. When consciousness is directed to external objects, they appear like objects in a dream. The visions of death appear for seven, seven-times-seven days, then surely there will be rebirth.” (The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead 43)
What I learn from this, is that death is merely movement from one moment to another. In this case, it is movement from one human life to another. Tilopa’s words provide strength in helping my realization that death is a inevitable passage for all human beings, one that has been passed by many masters who have returned with their wisdom. Thus, I can either choose to explore the moment with the help of their wisdom or ignore their advice and focus on fear.
Let me now enter into meditation and explore my death. I am ready. I can feel my body coming to an end. The life force which has kept me warm is beginning to creep away from my body. I first feel the dissolution of the earth element. My body becomes weaker, I lose control of my eyelids, and my limbs weaken and ultimately fail me. I do not feel that I have control any longer over my body (Lama 121). I suddenly feel a wash of fear arising from my ego’s fear of loss of bodily control. I watch it arise for a moment, then let it occur in the background of my awareness, while I continue to watch the earth element leaving my body. I cannot see clearly either, my breath can barely enter or leave my body. This is the time for the appearance of mirages.
It is now the water element which begins to degenerate and weaken within me. Pleasure, pain, mucous, and generally liquidity in my body begin to dry up. I no longer produce fluids or work to change the water already in my body to blood or bile. In my vision is smoke, or fog, as if it is currently filling the room (122).
Fire element is what disappears next. It is said that death follows the same path as an orgasm, or sneezing, or fainting, or sleeping to dreaming, and I must agree (Lama 123). Although while the movements of the elements are similar, the end result is extremely different. Now, just as the other elements emerged strongly then weakened, fire is now beginning to do the same. My muscles are no longer useful, my stomach has stopped working. This is an auspicious sign, meaning that I will have a healthy rebirth.
The wind element is the next to leave. Those around me are fading, I can barely breathe. Each breath of mine is so difficult and short. My body is cooling down (123). I notice as well that my lower limbs are becoming cold, but my heart and head remain warm. I can understand that if one does not practice properly when one is living that they would be scared of these experiences. Death is not a simple walk to the park. My disinterest with the permanence of the body is helping me greatly at this moment. My practice is strong.
Yet, my practice is not strong enough to hold back the hallucinations which would come. My lama friend told me that the hallucinations were “the natural glow of your own mind” (Travels in the Netherworld 26). Since these experiences are the product of my own mind moving from life to death, there is nothing to fear. The demons I experienced, the horrible sounds I heard, were all products of the mind settling within its karma. The storehouse consciousness which carries the karmic seeds were only expressing themselves in their multifarious ways. Ways I cannot understand. From here, suddenly I see a clear light, clear as day, and infusing every aspect of my being. I am calmed by its presence. I am its presence.
Suddenly, I reappeared as myself floating in the room I was dying in. I had my body, but it was not the mortal body that I knew. I watched as something lay dying below me, it looked as if it was a dog (Travels in the Netherworld 27). Strangely, that was where my body was meant to be. The Lama reading the Bardo Thodol was nearby, still reading the text. Abruptly, I was in the mountains. There was no one around me. No sounds, except for a waterfall somewhere in the distance. The colours of the sky and earth were muted. I was alone and I had never been here before. I began walking along what seemed like a path below me. As I continued on, I felt a terrible pain in my chest. I saw a dark valley up ahead and did not want to walk further. I turned left and saw a bejeweled mountain. The front of the mountain was made of iron. Looking at this made my heart leap, so I walked towards the mountain. There resided Yama, the Lord of the Dead. It was here that I was told of the numbers of hell realms, such as the Plain of Hot Embers, the Swamp of Rotting Corpses, and the Howling Hell (Travels in the Netherworld 69). The hell realms were told to me, but were not meant for me. I was an explorer and this provided me the idea that I was not going to die. I was here instead to study and to know, perhaps to tell my community back home. At this realization, I then turned and walked away without difficulty.
As I turned away, I felt a sudden rush of sound in my ears which overwhelmed all my other senses. When I awoke, I was back in my body. I opened my eyes and the Lama was above me with a startled look in his eyes. I had travelled through the bardos, the Hell realms and returned. Now I consider myself amongst the delok, and my return as lucky. I was prepared for death, but I did not die. I am more grateful than ever now for the life I had, and at the same time, prepared for the inevitable death ahead of me. I will now use my life to teach others not to fear death.
Thank you for reading my blog all these years. But now I must put an end this blog and enter more deeply into my communities, in Tibet and in the world. It is time that I leave my cave and begin teaching. I finally feel the importance of living the life of the Boddhisattva. Be well all, I wish you much joy in your lives.
Cuevas, Bryan J. The Hidden History of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.
Cuevas, Bryan J. Travels in the Netherworld: Buddhist Popular Narratives of Death and the Afterlife in Tibet: Buddhist Popular Narratives of Death and the Afterlife in Tibet. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Klass, Robert E., Goss, Dennis. “Tibetan Buddhism and the resolution of grief: The Bardo- Thodol for the dying and the grieving.” Death Studies 21.4 (1997): 377–395.
Lama, HH Dalai. Mind of Clear Light: Advice on Living Well and Dying Consciously. Atria Books, 2004.
Powers, John. A Concise Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion Publications, 2009.
Rinpoche, Third Dzogchen. Great Perfection: Outer and Inner Preliminaries. Shambhala Publications, 2014.
Wootton, Paul. “The Bardo: a Tibetan view.” Middle Way, Nov. 2011: 237+. Academic OneFile. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. URL:http://go.galegroup.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA2750 37875&v=2.1&u=utoronto_main&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=acd84cde5113050ceea7 dc267d2c5395