DEATH AND REBIRTH
In Buddhism it is very important to engage in any activity with the correct motivation. By adapting a different intention and motivation, we can change the way we see things.
All the traditions use prayer as an instrument for the development of this valid motivation. In Buddhism prayer is understood as the process of familiarisation with the correct motivation. Prayer does not necessarily have to be something which is verbally recited, but it is more of an attitude coming from the heart. This is the most important type of prayer. From a Buddhist point of view, the mind is the principal key that allows us to transform the other elements we are made of, mainly body and awareness. Especially in the beginning, it is very important for Dharma practitioners to place the emphasis on their mental activity. All the chants, rituals and ceremonies we may assist are secondary instruments of development and transformation of the mind.
The mind in a transformed state is the element that enables us to modify our intention in regards to any kind of activity we want to entertain in daily life. By changing our intention and motivation we can change the course of our present life and the course of all the lives to come.
The topics of the teachings are based on the Four Noble Truths. Today we will go into a different subject: the concept of living and dying according to the Vajrayana vehicle. The concept of living and dying is very important and should be brought into our practises. In fact, our lives can be regarded as the result of small deaths we endure every day. I very much believe in this lack of certainties and when I go to sleep at night, I am not sure whether I am going to wake up the next morning. The basic process we run through in order to achieve the phase of deep sleep is, in a way, similar to the process we go through when we die. Deep sleep is the result of many small deaths. The topic of death is a very interesting one and also a simpler subject than one would think it to be. We must not see death as something scary and difficult to face.
The fact of being alive brings us joy thanks to our special abilities such as mindfulness and the capacity of acting, but in fact, being alive in and of itself would not be possible if it were not resulting from the phase of death we have been talking about before. We can say, for instance, that a good day is the result of a good rest we had during the night. In fact, when we fall asleep we lose contact to a certain reality and remain in a semi-unconscious state. This state is necessary in order to be able to accumulate energy and through that to be more active during the day. Therefore, a good nights’ sleep is necessary in order to have a positive and active day. But the opposite is also true. When we spent a pleasant day, rich of satisfactory and well concluded activities, the results of this day will lead us to get good quality sleep. Therefore, we see a certain interdependence between a good sleep and an active and positive day, between a boring day and bad quality sleep. It is very difficult to talk about techniques and methods that allow the development of good quality sleep. The Buddhist tradition holds a view about “methods” that enable us to decide what type of sleep we want to get, or even to decide at what time we want to wake up the next morning. One can get acquainted with these topics through mental activity. What I am trying to explain is the relationship between the nocturnal cycle during which we sleep and the active cycle of our day. One influences the other and vice versa. Generally speaking, when we sleep we attain a phase of relaxation during which we cannot do particular activities. In the Vajrayana vehicle it is affirmed that there are some practitioners who manage to practise the Dharma better while they are asleep than in the awake state. This means that one can also use sleep as an instrument for the practise of Dharma. It follows that a high level practitioner can actually practise Dharma twenty-four hours a day. By practising the Dharma we intend the correct development of intentions, correct mindfulness and the correct development of all our qualities. A person who looks at life as an instrument for practising the Dharma will inevitably regard death as another moment to use for the practise of Dharma. From a Vajrayana practitioner’s point of view, death is an event that occurs only once in life and is an irretrievable chance to increase and let their own realisations grow. Death represents a great treasure and a precious opportunity to develop amazing qualities for a great practitioner Going trough this experience offers the possibility to expand and increase our own realisations. According to the Vajrayana tradition, the moment of death of us ordinary beings is the only moment, in which the so called “innate mind” appears. When this innate mind manifests in the moment of death and we manage to keep a mindful state and to recognise this appearance, we can then utilise the innate mind to ripen our experience and increase our realisations. In the moment of death we come into contact with the innate nature of the mind and we are given the possibility to deepen the truths expressed in the Dharma. If we do not manage to develop this mindfulness and limit ourselves to a conventional and superficial type of knowledge about the truth, which we have developed during our lives, the perception of everything we will encounter, will be the one of ordinary beings with a gross level of mind.
In order to recognise the manifestation of the innate mind, it is necessary to mainly get acquainted with the process of disintegration of the five aggregates, which is the process we will have to go through when we die. The “I” is composed of five aggregates. During the process of death, these five aggregates dissolve by following an elaborated process of different phases, which takes place more or less in the same way for everybody. The dissolution of the five aggregates is linked to the four elements. The five aggregates are composed of the four elements. Consequently, the disintegration of the first ones leads to the dissolution of the others. These four elements are: earth, water, fire and air (winds). The order in which the four elements are aligned, is the same in which they dissolve: the first one to dissolve is the earth element, water is the second element, the third one is the fire element and the last one to dissolve in the last stadium of consciousness is the air element (winds). When the dissolution of the earth element occurs, specific internal experiences happen within the dying person. The manifestation of internal experiences specific to this phase will also take place when the water element dissolves. The same occurs during the process of dissolution of the fire and wind elements. This last element produces particular signs within our consciousness. This process of disintegration is connected to our five senses, so that when the disintegration of the four elements progresses, our five senses disintegrate and dissolve too. While we sleep parts of these elements dissolve as well. This explains why the five senses do not function and are not active. Practitioners therefore try to follow the process of death but also the moment of changeover from the awake state to dormancy. Going to sleep is an excellent opportunity for great practitioners to try and recognise these signs. Therefore, if we go to sleep very late and are tired out from our daily work, we cannot engage in this type of practise. It would therefore be accurate to go to sleep with a bit of physical and mental energy left to be able to engage in this practise. After the dissolution of the four elements our external senses are completely blocked. This is when we are declared clinically dead. The Vajrayana tradition though does not define it as death, as it is considered that there are four more phases to be passed, before the dissolution of the consciousness is completed.
Our consciousness can be observed from two main levels. The first level, which is gross and superficial, consists of afflictive emotions. The second level of mind is more subtle. When we talk about the gross level of consciousness, we refer to three emotions: attachment, aversion and ignorance. These three afflictive emotions are dissolved in the order we have enunciated before. Once all of the three afflictive emotions have dissolved, what is known as the “clear light” appears to us. The “clear light” could be defined as the innate nature of the mind. Trying to explain the concept of “clear light” in an easily understandable language, I would say that it is the essence of our deepest level of mind. In this phase, when we refer to attachment, aversion and ignorance, we do not talk about their practical expression, but we actually mean the signs that the expression of these three afflictive emotions can generate. When these three types of signs dissolve, four internal signs appear within us. The moment when the innate nature of mind, the essence of our mind, emerges following the dissolution of the three afflictive emotions, is the moment when we can implement our whole knowledge accumulated during our existence and through that yield results. This is a very important phase as it represents the moment when we place the emphasis on the flow of our awareness.
Great practitioners (yogis) are able to make use of this innate mind, to use it for meditation, practise and for the implementation of all the realisations they have gained during their life.
I can testify for the existence of great lamas, who in fact are clinically dead and are still able to remain in a state of meditation. On a physical level they do not seem to be dead, but when they end their meditation, their body collapses and falls. In this case, when I mention great Lamas, I do not mean people to whom great position and honour have been bestowed, but very simple people who have practised the Dharma for a long time. When this meditation ends, they separate the mind from the body by using the innate mind, and at the same time migrate into the intermediate state called “Bardo”.
All these words to define life, death and the various phases occurring between one and the other are important. Though, not as important as our willingness to get acquainted with these events through our daily practise and familiarisation. In short, it is about having constant mindfulness of all our experiences during our daily life.
According to what the historical Buddha stated in the Sutras, good practitioners are able to be mindful of all the phases in their life: when they are awake, when they eat, when they sleep……and they are also able to remember in an intuitive way any moment of their life because they try to remain in a constant state of good and correct mindfulness. Consequently, if we do not maintain this mindfulness in daily life, during all our activities, it will be impossible to remember our experiences as something spirited that must be used when we go to sleep or in the moment of our death. The same Buddha also said that frequent introspection and attention is necessary to be able to maintain a good level of mindfulness every day. This mindfulness, which is the capacity to take a moment before doing an action, allows us to value if the action we are about to do is correct or not. The capacity of taking time before jumping into an activity is the actual practise of mindfulness. This practise is the only one that allows us to lead a virtuous life. In the Vajrayana vehicle, the practise of mindfulness is neglected in some verses as it is taken for granted that mindfulness is part of other practises. Therefore it is not specifically studied. In the Theravadan tradition the word mindfulness comes up more frequently. When we ask a Theravadan master which type of practise he would suggest we engage in when the moment of death occurs, he will certainly reply that we should die by trying to keep our mindfulness. If, on the other hand, we ask a Vajrayana teacher, he will give us a line-up of complicated subjects like the four elements, all the processes of dissolution and eventually we will not be able to remember any of that. The connection between these two traditions consists in the common aim of wanting to die with a positive mental attitude, with a virtuous mind. As we are the lucky ones to live in the Western world, where many Buddhist traditions have met, we should try and apply both methods. We must have done a good practise of mindfulness, in order to be able to take cognisance of the moment of death, even if we do not know all the details of the dissolution process. Therefore, we must focus on our ability to maintain a positive mental attitude and a virtuous mind.
Since I have been in the West, I have had the opportunity to come across many different traditions: apart from Chan/Zen and Theravada, which were not part of the Tibetan context, I got to know other lineages like Kagyu and Nyingma. I did not know much about them when I studied in my monastery, and obviously I also got acquainted with Christianity. We can draw from all these beautiful traditions, in order to further add to our knowledge. This is one of the advantages that our Western culture offers. The advantage of living in a multicultural and democratic environment that allows us to get to know various things without that mental closure that leads us to think: “What I do is better than what others do.” This attitude is wrong and shows the ignorance which is the root of all our problems. Destroying this attitude and opening ourselves to others is one of the objectives of the practise of Dharma. When we open ourselves to others, we have the opportunity to receive much and to carry further our personal spiritual growth.
The word “ignorance” in Buddhist terms could be explained in many ways and with different levels of introspection. In this context, we interpret it as mental closure. Accepting or considering something as positive only because it is mine, is a symptom of mental closure and selfishness. According to a Tibetan definition, this attitude can be translated as “self-grasping”. The root phrase to define this wrong mental attitude reads: “This is good because it belongs to me”. In order to define this concept, students of philosophical schools study piles of books to describe in a deeper way what we are saying here. Ignorance can be described as small-mindedness and grasping to the self. That is how we clarify the relation between ignorance and self-grasping. One of the aims is to destroy these wrong mental attitudes because they are perceived as the root and the origin of all our problems. It is also true that many Buddhist practitioners show great ignorance. Sometimes there are people who are considered to be great practitioners with a deep level of knowledge about Buddhism, who also show great ignorance as their mind seems to be closed. In some cases, to possess an exclusive knowledge of Buddhism without knowing anything else, can be the reason for small-mindedness. Even if this opinion of mine may be regarded as wrong.
Living and dying, both have to be part of our existence and be experienced with mindfulness. Living with mindfulness and dying with mindfulness is the advice given in the Theravadan tradition, which from my point of view captures the essence of the Dharma in the most straightforward way.
Question: what happens to a person in the course of an accidental death?
Answer: it is a more difficult kind of death. If ones lapses into a coma due to an illness and one gets there gradually, this process of dissolution can take longer. Those dying of an illness that gradually takes them to the moment of death are more fortunate because this process in stages allows them more time to bring all their experiences to their mind and to make the most of this opportunity. It is a good opportunity to reflect in a slow and gradual way. Good practitioners, whether they die from an accident or a violent event of any kind, possess the ability to bring all their experience to their mind in no time into that very particular moment. But in order to be able to achieve this, it is necessary to be gifted with extraordinary mindfulness. In the moment of his death, after he had been shot, Gandhi managed to invoke the name “Ram”, the equivalent to God. The deadly attempt on his life was not an event that would disturb him to the point of losing his mental stillness. Gandhi was able to keep his peaceful state of mind intact….. great mindfulness.
Question: does the way we die influence our rebirth?
Answer: the kind of future rebirth will be determined by the imprint given to the innate mind in that particular moment. Death is a unique opportunity. In a certain sense we practise all our life to prepare for that particular moment. If we influence the moment of death by giving it an imprint marked by feelings of anger, this can be the cause of a reincarnation in the lower realms. It is like writing an e-mail, we can type so many messages on our computer, but if we make a mistake with the address of the receiver, we lose all the work….. a lifetime’s work. It is one of the secrets of Buddhism.