The Tibetan Debt to Death

A service by Jaco B. ten Hove
May 7, 2000--Paint Branch UU Church, Adelphi, MD


Reading [found in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying]

"Autobiography in Five Chapters," by Portia Nelson…

Chapter 1
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost…I am hopeless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I'm in the same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in…it's a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is MY fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5
I walk down another street.
The Tibetan Debt to Death

As a part of this Western world, I often feel like a blind novice around death. We don't exactly embrace this subject with relish. And yet I realize that I also tend to be arrogantly certain about my beliefs regarding death. So, not too long ago I decided to explore some philosophical system that has a very different approach to death, to shake up the narrow experience of my Western mind.

Tibetan Buddhism seemed like a good candidate. And I sure got what I was looking for! The Tibetans have an astoundingly rich and complex culture —which I can only begin to describe here—and their religious relationship with death definitely shook up the narrow experience of my mind.

In this talk, I'll first offer a brief picture of my humble understanding of what Tibetans believe about death and then some personal reactions. And if any readers are at all experienced with Tibetan Buddhism, please forgive me if I appear clumsy in this portrayal. I am a mere student with little first hand experience.

In my study, I first read through a very thick, classic work called, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, translated to English in 1927—you may have heard of it. I also read a very contemporary work, just published in 1992, called The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. This is a modern interpretation of The Book of the Dead by renowned Tibetan Buddhist master, Sogyal Rinpoche, who is also well-versed in Western culture.

I don't recommend The Book of the Dead, unless you're up for some very dense, esoteric reading, but The Book of Living and Dying is quite well written and stimulating, covering some of the same ground only in more readable language, with more stories and personality. My investigations into these manuals hardly qualify me as an expert, but I did get some idea of how Tibetans view death.

It is a very relevant topic for them, nothing they hide from or avoid. In fact, "Death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected" (Rinpoche, pg. 11). It is an integral part of the wheel of life for Tibetans, and their belief in reincarnation is about much more than just being reborn. They have an elaborately delineated and time-tested system to understand what happens between the moments of death and rebirth.

Perhaps the best comparative image I found for what they believe is this: just as a baby wakes up and has to learn about being alive in this life, so does a dead person have to wake up and learn how to be dead in that realm. Of course, it isn't a "person" that wakes up dead, but rather what The Book of the Dead translation calls "the consciousness principle."

This "consciousness principle" is not a "soul" in the traditional Christian sense, because it does not remain the same, nor is its goal to be reborn, per se. In fact, the Tibetan's goal is liberation off the wheel of life-death-life-death, into enlightenment, or nirvana, also called Buddhahood. (The Buddha is the ultimate model and teacher for this process, but he is not a deity. One might strive to eventually join him in nirvana, but he is not god.)

Rebirth in the human world is actually a reminder to Tibetan Buddhists that they embody a consciousness principle still working out its karma, left over from previous lifetimes. The criterion they use to judge whether one has good or bad karma is quite straightforward: its currency is good will. The more good will, the more good karma, and vice versa.

The phrase often used to describe good will is something like, "compassion in service to all sentient beings." The more fully you live a life of complete compassion, the more good karma you accumulate and the closer you get to nirvana with each lifetime. Tibetans believe that this karma, good or bad, is what survives death. They speak of it not as reincarnation, per se, but more like transference, a transferring of "the consciousness principle," with its accumulated karma and good will (or lack thereof).

Another helpful metaphor is that of our existence as a long water pipe, with our "consciousness principle" flowing through it. The pipe may become broken and leaking from an interruption by death. The teachings in The Book of the Dead help one to repair the pipe, so that the essential water may be conducted across that break, and the flow continued. The merit from one's good deeds done in life will carry the consciousness principle forward, and maintain continuity, toward ultimate enlightenment.

The teachings in The Tibetan Book of the Dead form a practical, if demanding manual for what to expect and what to do during three distinct phases of life after death and before rebirth. These transitional phases are called "bardos." The teachings offer an explicit guide for how to escape the bardos at the proper moment, to attain Buddhahood. Until then, there is that cycle of life-death-life-death, with the death portion consisting of these three bardo phases.

The first bardo is right at the moment of death and immediately after it. This is a very short but critical time that offers great potential for liberation if one is prepared and cared for properly. This is why great attention is paid to Tibetan Buddhists who are close to death.

The second bardo is a long, intermediate state, dominated by apparitions and the sensation of wandering. The third bardo is the process of becoming again—the final movement toward rebirth into a new form. The average time elapsed during these three phases is 49 days, an important number because it is the square of seven, another important figure in Tibetan numerology.

The teachings in The Book of the Dead stress over and over again that what one experiences during these bardos occurs entirely within the "consciousness principle." There is no force from outside, despite a parade of illusions that appear real. There is only the consciousness and its karma. In fact, simply being able to recognize the illusions as illusions is a big step toward gaining nirvana. But this is much harder than it sounds.

The teachings encourage an absence of fear in the face of sometimes terrifying illusions, especially during the second bardo with its sensation of wandering. This fearlessness takes great discipline, cultivated through devoted meditation over the course of a lifetime and carried into the bardos almost subconsciously. After the body dies and the consciousness principle is loose, it no longer has the rootedness of the body, so it tends to be hard to control, and susceptible to illusions. By intensely training through meditation before death, the adherent learns how to resist succumbing to fearful inclinations while in the bardos.

The Book of the Dead is designed to be both studied in life and then read out loud to the deceased. That may sound strange to us, but the meditation practices of Buddhism train one to listen at a depth level with more than one's ears. This training makes it possible to "hear" the essential teachings after death, after one's physical ears have stopped working. This is when reminders are actually most helpful, as the consciousness principle finds its way among the vast symbolic and confusing repertoire of the bardos.

Here is a representative sample of the language and teachings of The Book of the Dead, as it was translated into English….

O nobly-born (that is how the deceased is usually addressed), …thine intellect, having no object on which to rest (i.e. a human body) will be like a feather tossed about by the wind, riding on the horse of breath. Ceaselessly and involuntarily wilt thou be wandering about…

O nobly-born, at about that time, the fierce wind of karma, terrific and hard to endure, will drive thee [onwards], from behind, in dreadful gusts. Fear it not. This is thine own illusion. Thick awesome darkness will appear in front of thee continually, from the midst of which there will come such terror-producing utterances as "Strike! Slay!" and similar threats. Fear these not…

When these sounds come one, being terrified, will flee before them in every direction, not caring whither one fleeth. But the way will be obstructed by three awful precipices—white, and black, and red. They will be terror-inspiring and deep, and one will feel as if one were about to fall down them. O nobly-born, they are not really precipices; they are Anger, Lust, and Stupidity.

On the journey through the bardos, there are many, many symbolic images to recognize and understand, which is why proper training and support are important. Some encounters in the bardos will be more pleasurable, others will be neutral. All the manifestations are of one's own karma, coming from nowhere but within. The Book spells out precisely what images to expect at each phase and how to counteract the illusions with prayers that focus the consciousness principle on its goal.

This goal in death is very much like the goal of Buddhists in life: non-attachment to illusions. By recognizing the bardo apparitions for what they are, one finds that true reality consists of a benign oneness with all life. Separation is the real illusion.

However, it's one thing to recognize a true, unifying connection with all life when one has a human body anchoring the consciousness principle. In the bardos of afterlife come the real tests. Can one hold fast to this understanding while wandering amid these bizarre and demanding apparitions?

If not—and this is likely the case—one will eventually end up going through the "door of the womb"—the third bardo— into life again, and The Book of the Dead fully describes the details of this activity. Gradually, over many lifetimes, one may get better at holding to the meditations and may eventually become a lama, or a yogi or any of a few different categories of increasingly more enlightened beings who have accumulated certain powers along the way.

One of the qualities exuded by advanced practitioners of this religion is an inspiring fearlessness about death. Actually, though, I'm told that most Tibetan Buddhists seem to have a clarity about death that is very much in contrast to our culture's approach. And that leads me into some of my own reflections, stimulated by this small encounter with an ancient but refreshing philosophy.

I find that we in the West often have a very cloudy and near-sighted relationship with death. It has to be the single largest antagonist in the drama of Life. Yet we can get so enthralled by our daily dramas, by building both symbolic and material monuments to ourselves, that we put death out of our minds, or think we do. It is not, for us, "a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected." Instead, death often means only pain, loss, emptiness, fear, and avoidance.

—Avoidance, that is, until inevitable encounters with it demand our attention. Then, so often, the monuments we have labored to construct come crashing down on us, and lose the meaning we thought they had, all because death is suddenly and surprisingly so real. I certainly do not deny or minimize the power of loss to painfully alter the landscapes of our lives; it always brings a difficult reorientation that deserves compassion and empathy.

But death does not sneak up on us. More often we avert our view and choose to believe that it isn't our lifelong partner. The self-monuments we erect are often built on sands of denial. This is not unlike children playing hide and seek, who hold their hands over their eyes and believe that they cannot be seen. The Tibetans have confirmed for me that death is a natural and even productive player in the whole of life, whether or not one believes in reincarnation.

I, myself, have always been a skeptic about afterlife scenarios. Raised as a Unitarian Universalist, I internalized early in my life a religious rationalism that made me highly suspicious of anything so speculative as reincarnation. I think I had it fixed in my mind that believing in rebirth was just a handy escape hatch to evade responsibility for this life, which seems to be all that we can really count on.

In my biased reliance upon modern scientific sophistication, I easily dismissed centuries of other testimonials and well-established understandings of death just because they were made by foreign cultures or fringe elements. I still feel that some "new age" inclinations toward the afterlife are on less than solid philosophical ground, and although the Christian or Hindu models have respectable traditions behind them, I am not at all drawn toward their notions of reincarnation.

But not only have I had difficulty finding intellectual holes in the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, I have, in fact, come to respect their wise and grace-full attitudes about life and death. The effect of their practice has great merit, I think, and I don't have to convert to their way of thinking to believe that much. This is no new age philosophy for feel-good spirituality. These folks have been working their religion for centuries, with impressive dedication and discipline. Their insights are worthy of respectful exploration.

One particular point jumped out at me from The Book of Living and Dying, and I must give this more thought, for it challenges the foundation of my philosophical resistance to reincarnation.

Author Sogyal Rinpoche explains that the Tibetan understanding of continual rebirth until liberation into nirvana means that one is intimately connected with the past and with the future. Whatever good will, whatever "compassion in service to all sentient beings" one manifests today will directly improve the world tomorrow. In this view, the life we live today is sacred because it is already part of the future. There is no separation between now and then, only a continuity of karma, which provides ultimate accountability.

He contrasts such an orientation with the materialistic view that this life is all there is. And then he asks: which belief is more likely to encourage a long-term vision of caring for the future welfare of the planet as a whole? He suggests that if people are myopically fixated on their immediate survival, with no conception of their karmic connection to future life, they are more likely to be blind to the effect of their plundering, or just not care. He notes, gently, that there seem to be great clouds of this attitude sweeping over the world these days, doing great damage.

But Tibetan Buddhists focus their behavior of non-attachment and their belief in an afterlife on the activity of "compassion in service of all sentient beings." (This, of course, includes beings of the present and the future, perhaps especially children.) Buddhists are less concerned with making great improvements in their material circumstances, because it doesn't make sense. This would be like elaborately redecorating every hotel room you ever stayed in. What really matters is good will and service and meditation on the true nature of reality which is oneness.

Ahem. Suddenly, my rational arrogance seems a bit threadbare. Are my skeptical beliefs part of the solution, or part of the problem? I know that the Earth—especially in spring— is a constant reminder of how life renews itself through death, carrying forward genetic and innate knowledge in wonderfully mysterious ways. Why should our particular genius of life—our consciousness—be excluded or exempt from this system?

I can accept that certain Eastern masters of meditation have great powers beyond the human norm. But I guess I've never considered that this might be because they've practiced consciously for more than one lifetime. It kind of makes sense, though, especially having experienced the instructions of The Book of the Dead.

This manual also never indicates the influence of any so-called "higher power." There is only the individual's intimate connection with all life. Everything stems from this. Both of the "Tibetan Books" I've mentioned operate from a very positive and empowering confidence in the abilities of any individual. They support and assist personal growth and development. They sponsor a benign morality and a fierce accountability.

The Tibetan Buddhist philosophy offers liberation not only in an ultimate sense, but also through smaller liberations, such as from material attachment and from the common grasping for permanence or so-called security. "Learning to live is learning to let go," says Sogyal Rinpoche. He reminds us that change and impermanence are the order of the universe, yet we resist this reality like we resist the truth of death.

He explains how we can know the "heartbeat of death" simply by observing the eternal dance of change all around us. There are great teachings there, available to us every moment, if we are able to see past our grasping for security and deepen our relationship with change. There is no security from death, he says, but there needn't be. Death is partner with life in continuity.

Well, all this stirs my soul (or my consciousness principle, or my spirit, or whatever). I certainly have a less secure feeling about my own, now more humble philosophy, after tasting some of this Tibetan medicine. Perhaps I am changing. Time will tell. But you know, I'm grateful that my religion allows me to explore the universe of ideas and be in process about my beliefs.

Sogyal Rinpoche says change is often not as hard as we might think it is. Take grasping, for instance. We believe we must grasp tightly with our hand to hold the coin of life, or it will drop from us. [Put coin in hand, hold clenched fist out, palm down, drop coin into other hand, then replace it in same fist.] But change can be as simple as letting go of grasping [turn hand over, palm up, open fingers, coin laying on palm.] AND holding ourselves in a different, more open posture, to still hold the coin and live more expansively.

I know my posture has been changed by studying this ancient religious system which is still very active today. (It seems that every time I see or hear the Dalai Lama, I learn something worthwhile. I suspect that if the Tibetan Buddhists still had their own country to live in and work from, maybe they would be an even larger player for world peace than they already are.)

When we change, when we "walk down another street," we embody the unifying truth that all things change all the time. This, to me is one of the meanings of life reflected in the mirror of death.

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