A Proper View of Death


Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
mkathryn's picture

thank you Andrew Holecek
I found the first talk very helpful. Of course, when you suddenly are thrust into the formless state there is a sense of panic. You know there is no real threat, but your state of mind creates the experience of something external and frightening. A peaceful death without fear is the best we can hope for.

Andrew H's picture

If we can relate to that formless state properlly, it leads to enlightenment. Trungpa Rinpoche once said that space is the Buddhist version of God. Most of us are afraid of that god, that formlessness, eoglessness, emptiness, space. So we contract in fear, and in that moment of contraction samsara is born.
The panic only arises from ego's perspective, because it's a flash of ego's non-existence. Use the panic to clue you in that now's the time to relax. Open . . . spacious . . . relaxed.

diana.powell's picture

I love that description of God as space. thank you, Andrew.

toonteo's picture

Dear Andrew Holecek
Thank you so much about your meaningful remark about faith & devotion .Yes I must decide it with dignity & try to have first person experience
I am grateful for your teachings
Toonteo farid

Andrew H's picture

Devotion is a big deal. It harnesses the most powerful force in the universe -- love -- for the purpose of awakening. Thanks for your participation.

toonteo's picture

Thank you so so much for these beautiful description of dead & dying .it seems to me this process also taking place moment by moment,and in our meditation we become familiar with that & we gradually prepare for the Death.
You even mention about scientific studies about some of this process,but I have a question,now a days we are at the grip of science & science need objective experience ,at the same time these teaching seem to be subjective doctrine that could not be proved,& you have too accept it by your heart or if you are pessimist a kind of blind fate like any other systematic religious belief.Please tell me how can I free myself from these doubts: what if all of these only a kind of superstition or reasoning that compensate for our shortcomings in our life,I am apologize if my question provocative,but from the early years when I have started to study dharma & spiritual training always this doubt bothers me.
Thank You So much

Andrew H's picture

Moment-to-moment, day-to-day, and life-to-life, part of what Sogyal Rinpoche calls the Universal Process.
Yes, the problem of proof, a big one here. And how to remove doubt. So much to say, first of all traditional 3rd person science doesn't have much to say about 1st person experience, so don't look for science to prove the bardos. We can infer a few things from science, as I talk about later when I briefly mention the studies happening around tukdam. But we can talk about first person science, and therefore have to step into the arena of direct valid cognition. Too much to talk about here, so maybe google it, in particular yogic direct valid cognition. There's also what's called "proof of hidden meaning," which Thrangu Rinpoche talks about in his marvelous book on the bardos, "Journey of the Mind." You can also gain some intimation of the validity of these teachings by engaging in completion stage practices, which are designed to purify death. You can actually witness, for yourself, while you are still alive, the inner and secret signs of the 8 stages of dissolution as the winds enter the central channel. You can also enter the 49 day dark retreat (not recommended, it's very advanced) and see how the visions of the second phase of the luminous bardo of dharmata appear to you in a concordant fashion. But also trust your heart, your intuition, and see if these teachings speak to you. Faith is an "f" word in the West, and that's too bad. Faith, and especially devotion, have a huge role in Buddhism. Do these teachings make sense? If so, take them to heart. If not, throw them away.

giankar's picture

Well, I can't explain really, but ever since the age of 7 when my father died, I knew these teachings (maybe before), I knew also there was no "God" (or he would be an arsehole), yet there was life before I was born, and there will be after I die…

dwolfl's picture

I am a long time practitioner of meditation and have always wanted to learn about Buddha's views on death. I find your teachings to be both comforting and fear-inducing, in the way that it can be fearful to face our physical selves (emotions, thoughts, beliefs). I am comforted by your statement that we can prepare for physical death by doing our work, now, to face non self and basically get some good practice in on doing so. Thank you Andrew for your teaching, and I look forward to the next ones.

lilawheel's picture

The painful bardo of dying appears simply physically uncomfortable and demanding due to the breakup of the body and faculties, many indignities and helplessness to take care of ourselves. I don't know if the dissolution of the body is within the scope of our sincere intention to let go! I recently watched my father die and his inner composure and calm were amazing. Yet the body's struggle for breath was excruciating to watch. Though it's said the dying person doesn't feel as much of those death throes as it seems, I found it hard to believe this was not a genuine hardship for my dad--that he was experiencing suffering on some level. I was told by family members who have observed many other deaths that his was unusually easeful. He was surrounded by loving people, at home, the process was gradual, he had a clear and lucid mind until the last 24 hours, good medical care and outer comfort so on. So many people pass on without these supports! Yet -- again -- among many things I was surprised to learn is that most of us have a final struggle for breath that tends to go on for 24 to 48 hours. (From reading adventure, war and cowboy books as a girl, I imagined the 'death rattle' was like that of a rattlesnake's tail.) Now--the difficulty I saw within his experience motivates me to practice more powerfully; my dad's reconciliation, acceptance, dignity, and deep flowering of love were a teaching, a model, and an indication of something to look forward to. I don't know precisely where I got this but ever since his death I sense that karma carries us along, and see there's some unique possibility available within the process of dying itself that naturally inclines the heart to release 'this life' clingings. But the manner of dying is unpredictable and may affect this. I may die in an accident or demented, and need to rely on the power of my karma. Comments appreciated, I enjoyed the discussions above.

dkoster1955's picture

Wait! I want to let my ego join the discussion!
Here's what I think - let me quote for you. ;-)
"Whoever honors his own sect and condemns other sects ... injures his own more gravely." King Ashoka

"Personally, I think I'll just decide right now to stay in the second phase existing in compassion and be a "being for good", rather than to move on to the 3rd Bardo, " said her ego on this side (sambhogakaya) trying very hard to look pious. (hahahaha!!)

Whew! Got that off my chest. Thanks.
Very interesting to see all the discussion.

Morann's picture

I never knew death could be so complicated.

Andrew H's picture

Quite the irony, it seems. Death is extremely simple, the one thing we don't have to do. But all the issues that circumambulate death is a different story. If we just got out of the way, death would take care of itself -- and we'd have a good death.

mlemon's picture

Ah, but what is a good death?
It seems to me sometimes that the living day -to-day is ok. The coming and going - birth and death - is the difficult bit.
Maybe a female point of view.

Andrew H's picture

A good death is just relaxing into it, letting it happen without resistance. Not easy, because it hurts to let go. So we practice letting go (dying) now. In so many ways, the spiritual path is death in slow motion -- letting go on our terms.

dana3's picture

When is the second lecture?

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi dana3,

Yes, the second lecture comes out next Monday, 1/13.

Emma V.

Andrew H's picture

I believe they come out each week.

Barbra's picture

Well done, explaining Tibetan concepts that I long to know more clearly, thank you so much. I understand your teaching and am comforted by it.

Andrew H's picture

You are welcome, thanks for your participation.

finnie's picture

In the Zen and Tibetan teachings I have received, it is posited that the Buddha's main departure from Hindu philosophy is his refutation of atman [an inherent self or soul] that is present in this existence and reborn in future lives.

Rather, his teachings revolve around the core truth of no-self [anatman or anatta in Pali]. One need not look any further than the Heart Sutra for an affirmation of this.

Believe what you will, no matter. This forum is intended to help us how to live a better life in preparation for the death that inevitably comes for each and every one of us, and that's where my focus remains.

giankar's picture

I think what makes it difficult to get to the Hinayana-oriented people is the illusory body. The idea that you have to develop something that is nothing yet eternal, is anathema to those who believe that by being vegan, non drinking and non smoking, or morally obsessed, and feeling that they are better than the rest, it's enough…

Danny's picture

Finnie, I really appreciate this comment--I think your first paragraph nails it.

Andrew H's picture

Your last paragraph nails it. As the Dalai Lama says, "If you find what I say helpful, take it to heart. If you do not, throw it out the window."

The problem of proof is formidable at any level of spirituality, and off the charts when it comes to the bardos. But it can be addressed, and I attempt do so in the companion volume to the book that inspired this online course -- so stay tuned. (See "The Problem of Proof," in "Eye to Eye," by Ken Wilber for a helpful introduction to this topic.)

Because of the potent and potentially contentious nature of these teachings, my research -- and meditation -- into this arena was exhaustive. I attempt to be as comprehensive and accurate as possible, and to represent the Tibetan tradition as best I can. I am fully aware of how charged this all is. This material is mostly emphasized in the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and the descriptions of the after death states were principally described by the tantric Buddha, Padmasambhava. But thousands of other masters have taught and written extensively on this topic, not as a metaphysical parlor game, but, out of their compassion, to help others. If you find it helps you, then take it to heart. If not . . . .

While it is fruitful to debate any doctrine, it is not fruitful to start doctrinal civil wars -- as some are inclined to do. Suffice it say that there are indeed other schools besides Vajrayana Buddhism that deal with this topic. One simply has to do the homework. For only one example, see Volume Two of the Abhidharmakosabhasyam.

Thanks for your thoughtful participation in this course.

giankar's picture

I think what makes it difficult to get to the Hinayana-oriented people is the illusory body. The idea that you have to develop something that is nothing yet eternal, is anathema to those who believe that by being vegan, non drinking and non smoking, or morally obsessed, and feeling that they are better than the rest, it's enough…

marginal person's picture

Thanks for your insightful and wise comments.
It seems to me the things we call complicated (doctrines, dogmas, ideologies) are challenging intellectually but don't really require much from us.
Whereas the simple things, (generosity, kindness, openheartedness) are easy to understand but difficult to practice.

Andrew H's picture

I think so. Simplicity is very powerful. When you get down to it, complexity doesn't stand a chance against simplicity. Simplicity disarms complexity. Really, the irreducible instruction on the spiritual path, that also applies directly to death, is simply this: relax. Relax into your basic awakened nature. So simple we don't trust it; so easy we don't believe it.

wrongsizeglasstheory's picture

Thank you for this forum. This was very deep and confusing to me as a "newbie "
Perhaps you could speak to those with less experience.

Andrew H's picture

Thanks for your participation. Feel free to ask your questions, and I'll do my best.

Kevin K.'s picture

Unless Mr. Holecek has personal, direct knowledge of what happens after death this talk is simply sharing of pure speculation and conjecture from a small part of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It has no counterpart in the teachings of the actual Buddha, nor in any other school of Buddhism.

Moreover, as Donald Lopez shows in his excellent "The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography," these are really a miss-mash of pre-Buddhist Bön shamanism with pre-Buddhist tantra and a bunch of other stuff. They are not mainstream teachings even witihin the Tibetan tradition, but became so due to W.Y. Evans-Wentz, Madame Blavatsky and the overall Western fascination with the occult.

Far more useful, in my view - and I say this as a student of both Tibetan and Theravadin Buddhism for nearly 4 decades - is a book like Larry Rosenberg's "Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive," which in the tradition of the Buddha himself doesn't speculate on what happens after death but rather teaches death awareness as a way to invigorate our lives, and to develop a mind that is ready for whatever comes next. What's being presented here, meanwhile, has more in common with a Harry Potter novel than it does with the teachings of the Buddha.

waltsh's picture

Finally, a voice of reason. Thank you, Kevin,

GURUDRU's picture

I was quite intrigued by you comments, having read them prior to watching the video. But now I find myself puzzled by your remarks.
Having a background similar to your own (40 years of involvement with both Theravadin and Tibetan Traditions) I cannot relate at all to your critique. Mr.Holeceks approach seems in keeping with every Tibetan tradition with which I am familiar.
I would recommend to you:
Mind of Clear Light-H.H. Dalai Lama
Advise on Dying-H.H. Dalai Lama
Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully-Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
Mind Beyond Death- Dzogchen Ponlop
Let's keep an open mind and see how things progress

Andrew H's picture

Openness is a synonym for emptiness, and that is a good thing.

Kevin K.'s picture

Somehow you missed the key point of my comments, which is precisely that the teachings on what happens after death in the Tibetan tradition have nothing to do with the Buddha's own teachings on death, have no counterparts in any other tradition of Buddhism, and are not in fact Buddhist but are rooted in native shamanism (again, see the Donald Lopez book).

In the spirit of inquiry that the Buddha himself so strongly recommended anyone who offers these teachings as "this is what happens after death" needs to be asked "how do you know; and do you know for sure"?

There is much more to say, but I will just point out that the Buddha's teaching on not-self means that there is no solid self now, in the past or in the future. There is no entity, essence or consciousness to be reborn. Nagapriya's "Exploring Karma & Rebirth" goes into the subtleties of the Buddha's teachings on this quite beautifully. What we see in the Tibetan tradition, as in most mainstream Mahayana elsewhere, is a recasting of Buddhism in theistic terms, with an 'atman" or consciousness moving from body to body over many lifetimes, an eternal consciousness (brahman cum rigpa), etc. It's human nature to cling to self, to continuity and to some sort of personal existence or continuity after death - and the Buddha spent 45 years trying to free us from such clinging!

zhiwa.woodbury's picture

Kevin: Agree about the absence of self period, let alone from life to life, but how to posit karma without a mindstream? And if there is no consciousness whatsoever moving from life to life, then what is the cause of the first mind-moment? It sounds to me like you are going to the other extreme of either nihilism (nirvana as non-existence) or scientific materialism (consciousness emerging from matter). Can you please clarify your meaning?

mahakala's picture

This is wrong. The buddha did not teach one way or the other, but addressed both sides of the philosophical debate. You are putting the cart before the horse when referring to lack of any "rebirth" at all - as if saying that it simply doesnt happen and that people do not create their own suffering by endlessly generating their own identity - which they do, right now, in this life - and which is the reason for the eightfold path to begin with. If there was no problem, then there would be no path. It may be much more intellectually satisfying to circumvent tireless extended practice of the method by conceptually short-circuiting into symbolic abstraction alone... but that is not actual "unbinding".. its just an idea with no applicable basis in reality.

“‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance one acquires.

“‘But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease—free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance one acquires.

“‘If evil is done through acting, still I have willed no evil for anyone. Having done no evil action, from where will suffering touch me?’ This is the third assurance one acquires.

“‘But if no evil is done through acting, then I can assume myself pure in both respects.’ This is the fourth assurance one acquires.” — AN 3:65

Kevin K.'s picture

I didn't say there's no rebirth, I said there's no solid self to be reborn. Karma, which is intention, is vitally important.

The quotes you provide from the Anguttara Nikaya are excellent, and are essentially the Buddha's own version of what is known as Pascal's wager. He's saying that regardless of what does or doesn't happen after death, virtue is quite literally its own reward, in this life and in any possible other. Nothing to argue with there!

I am only being a bit of a gadfly here because the ONLY teachings on death, dying and rebirth we see in Tricyle and most other places are from the Tibetan tantric tradition. As others have already commented elsewhere on this thread, stories of peaceful and wrathful deities, 49 days in the bardo, p'howa and all the rest scare and confuse at least as many people as they console.

If anyone reading this is interested in other views they are out there, but require some digging. Gil Fronsdal shares the Theravada view, which unlike the Tibetan stuff is at least based on the teachings of the actual historical Buddha, here: http://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/articles/CareOfDyingAndDead.pdf

zhiwa.woodbury's picture

The "actual historical Buddha" who existed from his own side? Who wrote everything down before he died so we would have an "actual historical" account? THAT Buddha? Versus the Buddha Nagarjuna? Or the Buddha Padmasambhava? Or has only one human being actually, historically awakened to reality as it is? The one who pointed the way, and cautioned all who followed to question everything he said and decide for ourselves. That Tibetan "stuff" may not be dogmatic and written down in stone permanently for all time, but it is based upon experience following the historical Buddha's astounding revelations of reason, and then debated rigorously for about a thousand years. Just sayin' ; )

Kevin K.'s picture

Great stuff! I applaud your questioning, and I think one could go even further and ask "is it possible that any number of great yogis in Tibet achieved levels of realization much greater than that of the historical Buddha, and as a result were able to share teachings such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra, the Bardo teachings, Six Yogas of Naropa, and so on?" Some would call such questions heretical, but I don't think they are.

On the other hand, (and this is something Rita Gross has written and spoken about eloquently here on Tricycle) the party line in Tibetan Buddhism is that the (historical) Buddha himself taught the Mahayana sutras, Vajrayana, etc., that there are unbroken lineages going back to the time of the Buddha, etc. - which is simply untrue. As the famous Daniel Patrick Moynihan quote says, "everyone's entitled to their own opinion - but not their own facts."

The fact that the vast majority of Buddhist teachings, including all of Mahayana and Vajrayana, aren't teachings of the historical Buddha is no problem as far as I'm concerned. They are all skillful means devised by brilliant beings and are worthy of being put to the test through practice as the Buddha specified for his own teachings.

Andrew H's picture

IMO, you're just sayin' it very well.

mahakala's picture

Yes, but the point I was making is that taking a philosophical side either for or against reincarnation is not inherently "buddhist", but rather the immediate practice is. The path is what is most important, above and beyond philosophical or metaphysical speculations which fall on any side of the question regarding what happens after death.

In essence, saying "there is no reincarnation" is the same as saying "there is reincarnation" in terms of the incurred "fault" or "error". That is the point. Because unless there is first hand experience, it is nothing but speculation and conjecture. And even if there is first hand experience, what is the point of it?

To illustrate further:

"But for one who doesn't love craving, who isn't fond of craving, who doesn't cherish craving, who knows & sees, as it actually is present, the cessation of craving, the thought, 'The Tathagata exists after death' or 'The Tathagata does not exist after death' or 'The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death' or 'The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death' doesn't occur.

"This, too, is a line of reasoning in line with which that has not been declared by the Blessed One."

"But, my friend, would there another line of reasoning, in line with which that has not been declared by the Blessed One?"

"Now, what more do you want, friend Kotthita? When a monk has been freed from the classification of craving, there exists no cycle for describing him." - SN 44.6

trotters5's picture

"What we see in the Tibetan tradition, as in most mainstream Mahayana elsewhere, is a recasting of Buddhism in theistic terms with an 'atman" or consciousness moving from body to body"

I'm sorry but that's not correct. Mahayana is a lot more intricate then you think. If you read some of Chandrakirti (one of Nagajuna's students) then you will understand that this subtle body is not an atman/essence but rather the disintegration of karma, a "mere-I" that exists conventionally. Try "Faith through Reasoning" by HH Dalai Lama if you really want to dive into Mahayana theology.

To me it seems best to understand Mahayana as an extensive elucidation of the logical conclusions of Buddha's teachings on dependent origination rather than an esoteric addition to Buddha's teachings (perhaps the remnants of the 60s love of all things occult).

Andrew H's picture

Thanks for this. Isn't it fascinating, this propensity to fixate and reify? Have you read "The End of Faith," by Sam Harris?

If we're careful, we can assert that the Mahayana transcends yet includes the Hinayana, and that the Vajrayana does the same to both. They honor and integrate previous truths, while trying to develop beyond. Where is doctrine if it doesn't evolve? It turns into dogma, and that turns a teaching into a corpse.

We always have to remember the emptiness of emptiness -- and our insatiable urge to freeze that groundless space -- which, indeed, is the very impulse that results in birth.

marginal person's picture

Isn't it ironic that people take Buddha's observation that there is never any solid ground on which to stand (metaphorically) and reify it into " The Law ". This is when I find a sense of humor helps.

Andrew H's picture

If there's an original -- and ongoing -- sin in Buddhism, it has to be reification. It's what ego defaults into, because ego is the archetype of reification. We (as ego) unwittingly project the qualities of ego onto everything, and like King Midas transform reality into our (ego's) version of gold -- which is to see everything as solid, lasting, and independent, the very definition of reification.
And seriously, humor is very important. It comes from a word that means "liquid," and implies a quality of fluidity, which points in the direction of emptiness. The whole thing really is one bad joke . . .

marginal person's picture

It seems language itself reinforces our tendency to concretize abstract concepts. We remove these concepts from the matrix in which they exist and treat them as if they possess an independent existence.
I notice it especially when we use concept of mind.
Years ago i read the statement `Show me the mind that wanders ` and it comes up for me when people speak of `calming the mind, or `taming the mind` and all the other ways we reify mind.
It seems extremely difficult for people to realize that mind is like everything else, impermanent, contingent and unnecessary.
Thanks for your generosity in sharing your insights.

Andrew H's picture

Re your comments on language: exactly right. The map is never the territory. In this case, the map (language) is exactly what ego wants. Something relatively stable. But it's not in resonance with reality, the territory, which is highly unstable. Whitehead's teachings on the fallacy of misplaced concreteness apply directly to language.
We, ego, basically reify everything. That's ego's job description. Mind is no exception, emptiness is no exception. That's why we always need to remember things like the emptiness of emptiness. Our proficiency and proclivity to reify goes very very deep, and hence so does our suffering.

mahakala's picture

When its wrong to be right, thats when its right to be wrong. This is the most important thing of all. Also, winning. Being a winner is important too, but you have to prove it to everyone otherwise it doesnt count. Its just like Muhammad Ali said... "I'm the greatest!"

buddhajazz's picture

Thank you. Not having the extensive background in Buddhism as many here, I am on a greater learning curve and show up to winnow and discover what is beneath. It makes me uncomfortable to read critical views (as the one you just responded to) which seem mean-spirited, boastful and certainly not on the middle/nondualistic path that is the integrity of this practice.

Andrew H's picture

Thanks for your participation in this course. Rejoice in your beginner's mind, and never lose that spirit. It's an open mind, and quite beautiful.