Death and the Great Transformation: Three Buddhist Versions of Dying

Dying is a mystery, and many of us fear it. But, much like the thrill of discovering self love, death and our relationship to those hours slipping towards darkness (or as is more famously known as, ‘out towards the light’,) becoming familiar with and meditating on how we feel about our own deaths can be a huge release.

It’s like coming face to face with ourselves and finally giving ourselves the permission to let go. Think of how powerful this could be; meditating on dying and experiencing that release, (hopefully) decades before the actual events arrives.

Think of the things we might accomplish! The extra love we might give. As with self love, understanding death and embracing it everyday is to embrace life.

Here are three Buddhist versions of Dying

What happens when we die …and to help begin that process.


Extracts from Dying Well, by Geshe Tashi Tsering, Chenrezig Institute, Queensland, transcribed and edited by Tom Vichta from a teaching to the Amitayus Hospice Service, Mullumbimby, NSW, in April 1995.

“At the time of death, the winds associated with the four elements (earth, water, fire, air) deteriorate, until those elements can no longer act as a basis for consciousness.”

So the first element to fade is the element of air affecting the eyesight which begins to fail and giving the dying the sense of sinking beneath the earth.

Secondly, as the water element begins to take over, the person stops exhibiting signs of water such as saliva and sweat, their inner visions taking the shape of mirage-like water on a desert horizon. Their ears begin to fail and they are no longer able to hear sounds, their inner visions of ‘smoke puffing up into the air.’ As the fire element begins to diminish the person is unable to discern who is around them as the body loses its warmth as the breath weakens and the sense of smell diminishes.

The body then loses its ability to move and as the air element fades, the person stops breathing – meaning, in ‘earth’ terms, that that person is dead. The sense of taste is lost. The person is able to regain consciousness as the wind-energy and mind power linger, but if the spirit decide to leave, the four elements dissolve entirely and the body is no longer able to function.

As the white ‘drop’ that came from the father when the body was conceived travels down from the crown chakra, the inner vision is that of radiant white light. Then comes the red ‘drop’ from the mother, ascending towards the heart chakra. Both drops reach the heart chakra where the wind energy resides and the person experiences radiant blackness, when all thought forms finally cease.345a4393d4bd1f8a414766695752d514

“As one starts to become conscious again, the “clear light of death” manifests. This appears as a clear, luminous, vacuum-like, empty sky – a completely clear, open, radiant vacuity.”

At this time, the person has the opportunity to comprehend emptiness and the true nature of reality and is able to stay in the clear light for two to three days, even longer as long as the body is not disturbed.

It’s not until some time after the clear light that the actual moment of death occurs, when the red drop exits as blood through the nose, and the white drop exit through the genital opening. The degree of grasping, craving and becoming determines the karmic pattern of the person and where they will be reborn.

Dying According to Sogyal Rinpoche

“When the red and white essences meet at the heart, consciousness is enclosed between them. As an outer sign, we experience blackness, like an empty sky shrouded in utter darkness. The inner experience is of a state of mind free of thoughts. The seven thought states resulting from ignorance and delusion are brought to an end. This is known as “Full Attainment”.

When the person becomes slightly conscious again, the ‘clear luminosity’ dawns – or the true nature of mind – otherwise known as Buddha nature. Next comes the luminous bardo of dharmata, or landscape of light. You take on a body of light, with sound, light and colour shimmering all around you.

7641169bd512568754599343c26f8a34If you are unable to recognize these for what they are, they will collapse into mandalas of peaceful and wrathful deities which can be quite scary – but as with each stage of this ‘bardo’, or transitionary stage of death, it holds within it an opportunity for enlightenment.

Apparently there are forty-two peaceful deities and fifty-eight wrathful ones in the original Tibetan Book of the Dead, and ‘unfold over a period of days.’

The next phase is called ‘union dissolving into wisdom.’ A brilliant display of light surrounds you. This is the manifestation of the five wisdoms, the fifth (a green light) only attainable when you have reached enlightenment according to Tibetan Buddhism.

If you don’t attain liberation here, the lights dissolve into an array of something similar to peacock feathers, and you move on to the next phase.

Now comes ‘wisdom dissolving into spontaneous presence,’ perhaps likened to that of the Akashic records and the soul’s access to them, including the six realms of samsaric existence and the deities. The lure of your previous lives in the samsara are likely to be what (habitually) draws you back in to the patterns of karma, and again wrap you in delusion, determining where you will be reborn.

According to Sogyal Rinpoche, writing on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it is our belief at this point that we are separate to these realms as we simultaneously view them that causes us to miss liberation, and that actually, if we saw our own true radiance as one with them and a part of theirs, free from the illusion of duality, then we might be able to break free from the swirls of karma and rejoin our own intrinsic radiance once and for all.

Extract from: Introduction to Tantra: The Transformation of Desire by Lama Thubten Yeshe, edited by Jonathan Landaw, Wisdom Publications, 2001, pages 99-116.

The Vajra Body

Just as the gross perishable physical body is pervaded by the ordinary nervous system, our subtle vajra body is pervaded by thousands of channels (nadi) through which flow the energy winds (prana) and drops (bindu) that are the source of the bliss so vital to highest tantric practice. Once we have made contact with this clear, conscious body of light through meditation our gross physical body will no longer be a problem for us as we will have transcended it.”

At that point, the attainment of a light body deity becomes a reality, and a central line opens up, breathing the wind from the crown, all the way to the base chakra and throughout each energy wheels that runs along our spine.

TOsho-on-life-and-death-spiritual-quotes-thought-for-the-dayhe fundamental consciousness present in our heart chakras, although the multitude of ‘temporary’ or ‘tourist’ thoughts, present in our many lives interrupts and confuses the intrinsic and beautiful purity of the continuous mind or soul.

When our channels open up during death, we have the opportunity to experience the continuous mind free from the interfering ones, yet many people do not take advantage of this. A life spent practicing meditation can aid in recognizing and taking full advantage of this beautiful experience.

At the time of our death, all physical problems, anxieties and mind patterns end, like a feeling of running through some bramble-laden woods in the middle of the night, only to break from of the brambles and be lifted into the sky where a shining and never-ending light resides.

If we make the most of this, we can obtain ‘extraordinary penetrative insight.’ The wisdom of emptiness obtained during meditation and the opposition of the ego, or illusion of separation, gives rise to the free channeling of the subtle mind and pure winds through our energy channels during life.

This is much like what occurs when we also practice tantra. Tantra is the practice of exercising the life force, sutra is the ego-centric ‘I’ view concerned with duality and separation.

In short, the more we meditate and practice tantra, or the visitation of this pure and subtle mind that honours emptiness in life, the better prepared we will be to have a ‘controlled’ death or passage through the bardo where we are able to then be reborn in the place we want, or better yet redirect our passage into that very emptiness.

To have an ‘uncontrolled’ death is to suffer extreme confusion during the process of death and therefore have an uncontrolled choice of where one wishes to be reborn and the cycle of karma never ends.

Discovering Buddhism Module 5 - Death and Rebirth

Image & References

Stages of the Process of Dying
The body
Death Art

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Lauren Simpson-Green, who has had quite a few life-affirming spiritual experiences already, now passes her days trying to master one of the most challenging and rewarding spiritual experiences of all; being a mother to two children. Based in Devon, UK, she spends the rest of her time working on a children's book, practising yoga and making wool fairies and gnomes for her daughter's school fayres.
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