Three and half years ago my sister died, suddenly and tragically. The day of her death, before I received the news, I had felt an unaccountable heaviness of heart. During the days and nights that followed, I experienced unusual physical and mental sensations. When I described them to a friend, in amazement she said I had to hear a certain lecture given by Kalu Rinpoche on the process of dying. “It describes exactly what you have been feeling.”
The following excerpts from that lecture, given on August 23, 1982, graphically detail the outer signs and inner experiences of death. Although my experiences did seem to match these descriptions, they occurred over the course of days. We generally think of death happening all at once, but the nature of time and experience is undoubtedly other than what our linear habits of thinking can conceive. I don’t know if what I experienced was actually part of the process of my sister’s dying or not, but it certainly was connected with her death.
The description here is not a pleasant one, but we offer it in hopes that it might be of value to you in working with the dying—and perhaps as a preparation for your own death. The purpose of such teachings is to familiarize us with experiences we may encounter in the process of dying so that the mind might be prepared to meet them with balance and equanimity and thus be able to take advantage of the potential for enlightenment inherent in dying.
His Eminence Karma Ranjung Kunchab Kalu Rinpoche was the senior meditation master of the Karma Kagyu and Shangpa Kagyu sects. He died at age eighty-four in May 1989.
In Tibetan, bardo means the interval between two points. According to the teachings, there are six basic bardos:
1. The Bardo of Taking Birth: The period of time between the initial conception of a child in the womb of the mother, through pregnancy and up to the moment of physical birth.
2. The Lifetime Bardo: The bardo of waking consciousness between birth and death.
3. The Bardo of Dreaming: The dream state occurs during the Lifetime Bardo.
4. The Bardo of the Dying Process: From the moment when the particular cause of death sets in to the point where respiration stops and the body dies. Considered a time of great potential for realization.
5. The Bardo of Dharmata, or ultimate nature of reality: A period of unconsciousness, said to last for about three and a half days, when the mind is separated from the body and encounters the great light. A prime opportunity for spiritual attainment.
6. The Bardo of Becoming: After awareness reemerges, the period of active consciousness before physical rebirth; the period of encountering the hallucinations and projections of the mind dealt with in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Manner of birth takes place based on one’s karma.
From a lecture given by Kalu Rinpoche, August 23, 1982.
We could think of all of the teachings which the Buddha gave as providing ways to best utilize the various states of bardo for spiritual development so we can gradually progress along the path to liberation. The techniques which form the real pith of the vajrayana path are those specifically designed to transform one’s waking state of consciousness in the bardo or interval between birth and death.
However, unless one has unwavering conviction in these techniques and unflagging zeal for diligence in using them, it’s going to be difficult to affect this complete transformation within a single lifetime. And so there also exist techniques to provide for the fact that one possibly will not attain enlightenment within this lifetime. The process of death and the after-death experience provide opportunities for spiritual realization as well.
Now, usually the death process is the traumatic dissolving or dissolution of one’s being, and the final trauma of death plunges the mind into the state of unconsciousness known as the Dharmata or ultimate nature of reality. The techniques known as the Radiant Light teachings are to give one the ability to maintain awareness through the death process and the moment of death in order to make use of the potential of that state of experience rather than simply having the mind being subject to the shock of it.
Now, if the practitioner is not able to make use of the death process and the experience of death but is forced to experience the after-death state that we normally think of when we say bardo, there are the techniques known as “bardo teachings.” If properly practiced, they give one the ability to transform that state of experience so that the mind can actually attain states of realization, of complete enlightenment, while in the after-death state before physical rebirth occurs.
The physical body that we now experience is composed of five elements or five elemental qualities: earth, water, fire, air or wind, and space. Perhaps these seem like something very real or solid, but they are actually just projections of the mind, nothing real in and of themselves, ultimately speaking.
Regardless of whether we are thinking of them as something ultimately real or not, to a great extent our experience while in the physical body is due to the interaction of these elements. When there is a disturbance in the balance or harmony between the elements, there is a blockage of the flow of energy in the various channels in the body. This results in what we think of as sickness on the physical level, or depression or unhappiness on the mental level.
Just how these five elemental qualities manifest in the physical body would be explained as follows. The earth element is the solidity of the body, the flesh and bones, the solid parts of the body. The water element is all of the blood, urine, bodily fluids, all of the liquid parts which make up the physical body. The fire element is the biological warmth of the organism. The air element or wind element is the respiratory process which maintains the organism. And the space element is the orifice and cavities of the body, and also the spatial differentiation between the organs.
At a certain point, of course, this composite system is going to start to break down. The body begins to die. When this happens there is a dissolution of these elemental qualities, one into the other, from the grossest to the more subtle. So the process of this dissolution is earth element into water, water into fire, fire into air, air into space, space into consciousness and consciousness into voidness or emptiness. Now, this dissolution process is attended at each one of its stages by various experiences for the dying person. These may, in the case of someone who has a great deal of positive karma, be fairly pleasant experiences; for someone who has negative karma due to all kinds of harmful actions, this can be a very frightening and traumatic experience.
In describing this death process, the texts speak of both outer signs and inner signs of this dissolution. So in the first case, when we speak of this solid element, the earth element of the body, dissolving into the water element, the external sign connected with the physical body itself is that of the body being extremely heavy. One simply is unable to lift a finger without someone else’s help or to lift one’s head. The body is completely heavy, and the person who is dying is unable to move the body. The inner experience is of being actually crushed, as though a huge mountain were being pressed down upon one and one were being squashed underneath it.
When the water element dissolves into fire, the external sign is that fluids begin to leak from the body. One begins to drool. Even from the eyes there is discharge. One loses urine and feces without being able to retain them at will. One simply loses control over the body fluids. The inner sign or inner experience is of drowning in an ocean or being swept away by a huge river.
The next stage is the dissolution of fire into the element of air. The external sign which is perceptible to others is the gradual disappearance of warmth. The feet and hands begin to become cold, and from the extremities in towards the center of the body, heat is lost from the body. For the individual dying, the inner experience is of being consumed in a flame, of being in the middle of a roaring blaze or perhaps the whole world being consumed by a holocaust of fire.
The next stage is that of the element of air dissolving into space. The perceptible exterior sign is difficulty in respiration. The dying person begins to have difficulty perhaps breathing in, or breathing out once an inhalation has taken place. Or perhaps the person is panting rapidly or breathing very, very slowly or irregularly. These are the external signs that this particular stage has been reached. The internal sign for the dying individual is of a great wind sweeping away the whole world, including the dying person, an incredible maelstrom of wind consuming the entire universe.
The next stage of the process is a more subtle stage of dissolution which takes into account that at the moment of conception the physical form is imbued with a kind of polarity of energy which is derived from the father and the mother. These are referred to technically as the white and red bindhu, two forces in the physical body that are part and parcel of the psychophysical organism.
At this next stage of dissolution, then, there is first the experience of what we might call the “masculine force,” the force which derives from the male parent, located in the forehead and experienced as dropping from this point to the heart region. This is connected with an experience of a beam or shaft of white light, as if one were watching the moon rising. It is also connected with the arresting of all thoughts due to anger or aversion. It becomes impossible for the mind to experience anger. The texts state that even if an individual in this state of experience saw someone murdering their father in front of their eyes, they could not give rise to anger or resentment, or any such emotion.
The next stage involves the red bindhu which is the feminine force, or the force received from the female parent, which is located in the subnavel or genital region, and experienced as rising from this region to the heart. The visual experience is of a shaft or beam of red light shining forth very clearly, and all thoughts due to desire and attachment are completely arrested. At this stage, even if the individual were confronted with the hallucination of a god or goddess, an incredibly beautiful being, there would be no thought of attachment or desire for that being.
With the meeting of these two forces in the heart region, the experience is as if the consciousness were being squeezed or crushed between them. This particular stage is connected with complete and utter darkness and the arresting of any thoughts or conscious expressions of stupidity or mental apathy.
When the process reaches this point, it is the final moment of death. The conscious activity of the mind is arrested completely. The pulses and respiration, all of the signs of vital activity in the body cease. The person is effectively dead. It is at this point that the period of roughly three and a half days begins during which time there is not an instant of conscious mental activity but rather a state of total unconsciousness, total mental blankness.
Following this period, there is a gradual stirring of conscious activity again in the mind in this disembodied state. The texts speak of the appearance at this point of various mandalas of divinities both peaceful and wrathful which are held to be manifestations of forces inherent in the mind itself. The purpose of teachings such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, known in Tibetan as the “Liberation Through Hearing,” is to prepare one to recognize what is actually taking place at this point—to recognize the appearance of these mandalas of divinities as projections of one’s own mind, and to realize the inherent emptiness of the experience rather than be overwhelmed by the radiance or glory or awesome nature of it. Through skillful practice, one can prepare oneself and hence take advantage of this opportunity for liberation.
Should one not be able to make use of this opportunity, the mind immediately begins experiencing the state we refer to as the Bardo of Becoming.
May the element of space not rise up as an enemy, may I see the realm of the blue buddha.
May the element of water not rise up as enemy, may I see the realm of the white buddha.
May the element of earth not rise up as an enemy, may I see the realm of the yellow buddha.
May the element of fire not rise up as an enemy, may I see the realm of the red buddha.
May the element of air not rise up as an enemy, may I see the realm of the green buddha.
May the rainbow of the elements not rise up as enemies, may I see the realms of all the buddhas.
May the sounds, lights and rays not rise up as enemies, may I see the infinite realms of the Peaceful and Wrathful Ones.
May I know all the sounds as my own sound, may I know all the lights as my own light, may I know all the rays as my own ray.
May I spontaneously know the bardo as myself, may you attain the realms of the three kayas.