Part I: Preparing for Death
I am currently participating in an in-depth course on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. According to Robert Thurman, the title is a bit deceiving, as it is a book about living. There is no finality of death in this system, only various transitions known as the “between.” In class, we use a translation by Francesca Freemantle with commentary by Chogyam Trungpa. Trungpa’s commentary is interesting regarding its emphasis on a psychology of death and “between” states. This article, however, will draw from other translations, texts and notions of death as well.
The book emphasizes the need for a meditative practice of dissolution of the ordinary body (flesh and bones) while living. We need to suspend our materialistic views to dive below the surface into the unconscious mind, which is ordinarily inaccessible to the conscious mind, yet affects behavior and emotions. By diving below the surface, we get a glimpse of the post-death process or the state known as the “reality between.” The book describes the “between” states as being of utmost importance, and they are divided into six types of between states. I will not go into each between in this post, but one can find these defined in any translation of the book. Trungpa’s commentary notes that a “between” is a place of emotional and psychological uncertainty. In meditation, we can pause and sometimes experience “hanging out” in a between space. Navigating the post-death state is a journey fraught with challenging perceptions including danger and beauty. We are reminded in the text that is all a display of the mind and that we no longer have a material body capable of being hurt or killed. In dissolving ourselves during meditation, we get to hang our body temporarily on the clothesline, which helps us allow ourselves a chance to hang up our conventional view of our emotions and thoughts. In the ordinary material body, conscious ordinary thoughts and emotions pervade. In the subtle body, we get to experience the subtle mind more fully. In the practice of Vajrayana Buddhism, this subtle body is achieved by various methods, including healing mentor (deity) meditation. We do not dissolve into complete nothingness. Instead, we become “who we really are,” not identified with particular physical attributes or the materialistic self.
To journey below consciousness during meditation, we have to put on a special suit to navigate the post-death “between” state. As a deep sea diver needs a suit, goggles, and oxygen tank, we need something appropriate to plumb the depths of our consciousness. After the process of dissolving our ordinary materialistic body, we don a subtle and more powerful body. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead when dying, we go through this dissolution process naturally, and it is necessary for us to recognize this process via our living meditation practice. This body allows us to come to terms with the mind and its coded and symbolic phenomena. Dissolving the ordinary body puts us in touch with a deeper level of the mind that is always present but often unexplored. We then emerge as a body of light or encapsulated in a special suit or bubble that allows us the ability to transcend the limits of ourselves and connect with our innermost selves. Tibetan art depicts this as spheres of light or rainbow light encapsulating the body of deities. This light shines within to help cope with internal distress and encapsulates the body to deal with difficult external situations in life. We imagine ourselves in our subtle body so that we can explore representations of mental phenomena that are generated and not apparent to our surface consciousness. These phenomena or events may consist of colors, shapes sounds or embodiments and places that we may or may not recognize.
We practice this type of deep diving meditation whenever we are not doing concentration or loving kindness forms of meditation, though we may let go and get a glimpse of the between states in these meditations as well. Tibetan Buddhists have a formalized way to use the imagination to get below the surface quickly and efficiently. This conception of death is something possible for people of various religious beliefs and those with no religious belief system. The “between” state presents an encounter with whatever symbolizes problematic and overly attractive emotional states and thoughts for an individual. If one believes in reincarnation to a particular body or an ascension to another realm, this is a fascinating guidebook for the journey. For those who think that life ends, and we just cease to exist, this may be an imaginative means to cope with emotions and troubling encounters as experienced in this life.
I will present some basic practices for dissolving the ordinary body and moving into the subtle body to facilitate an understanding of the “between” state in a future post. I will also continue to explore this text regarding what is encountered in the between in part II.
References and Resouces of Interest:
The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing In The Bardo – Francesca Freemantle and Chogyam Trungpa
Innate Happiness: Realizing Compassion-Emptiness – Khenpo Drimed Dawa – A great book that makes the path of Tibetan Buddhism and it’s practices accessible to Westerners. Khenpo leads meditation groups and classes at the Awam Institute.