Tibetan Buddhist Perspective of Death & Dying


Buddhism teaches that nothing is permanent – life is a continual flow of interconnected moments; the nature of each moment is determined by what has gone before, just as your next birth is determined by your actions during your lifetime; so that we can say that life and death are actually both taking place at every instant.

Being able to accept and integrate this understanding is very helpful in overcoming fear of death and being less attached to the things of this life. In the Tibetan tradition, we are advised to think of our existence in this life as similar to a traveler who stays a night or two in a hotel—we can enjoy our room and the hotel, but not become overly attached because we don’t think that it’s our place, we know that we will be moving on.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead charts the basic experiences one has at the time of death and points out the signposts leading to the different realms. At death, as in dreams, we inhabit a world composed of mental images. It is critical to understand that these realms are creations of the mind, and as soon as you realize this you are liberated from the visions.  In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is said that “death can be an opportunity to gain insight into the true nature of ourselves and all things, an insight that will enable us to become free from all suffering.”

Preparing for Death

As death is certain and the time of death is uncertain; we don’t know the time of our death and so we need to prepare now – just as we don’t embark on a journey to a distant place without proper preparation. How we live our life affects the way that we die. We can live our lives cultivating generosity and kindness, and not causing harm to others.

In the period leading up to death it is important for the dying person to have love and affection, as well as unconditional acceptance, to find meaning, and to have appropriate spiritual guidance.

The true nature of mind is often described as a clear light. In the Tibetan Buddhist view, the clear light of mind is a thread of continuity that streams through life and continues on after death. When we die, our mind separates from our body and goes on to take a new life.

Process of Dying – the Dissolution

At the time of death, the body and mind go through a process of the dissolution as the elements of earth air fire, water and ether (space) gradually absorb and lose their ability to function. This process of dissolution is associated with external and internal signs, and this process continues even after the breathing ceases.  Each element makes up different aspects of consciousness.  During this process the mind becomes more and more subtle and clear, until it eventually reaches the point of the “clear light of death”, where it is said to be approximately nine times more clear than in the normal waking state. At this point the mind separates from the body, taking with it all the subtle imprints from that life and previous ones.

The element of earth is the flesh, the element of water is the blood, the element of fire is the warmth and the element of air is the respiration. These begin to dissolve, one into the other.  The element of earth dissolves into the element of water, the element of water dissolves into the element of fire, the element of fire dissolves into the element of air the element of air dissolves into the emptiness of everything. Many different subjective experiences arise as you’re dying, but actually they are just the projections of your mind, not happening externally. Then, the white element in the crown of your head (which you receive from your father at your conception), and the red element in your sub-navel region (which you receive from your mother) collide in your heart centre.  As the white element moves downward, your mind perceives a field of white light; as the red element rises, your mind perceives a field of red light. Once they have collided, for an instant they separate slightly and the ground luminosity arises. This is the true luminosity that is already within you, unstained.

Crucial in this whole process is the state of mind at the time of death.

The Buddhist view is that it is important for anyone close to a dying person to remain peaceful, calm and respectful.

After Death

Immediately after death it is important to keep the atmosphere around the deceased simple and peaceful. If possible, do not disturb or touch the body immediately after death, as the inner subtle process continues. If the body must be touched, do so very gently.

Prayers are said for the liberation of the deceased.  Often sacred texts are read and rituals are performed.

The most powerful time to do prayers for the dead is within 49 days of the death, but the best time to concentrate your practice is in the first thre weeks.  The person’s association with this life is stronger in the first three weeks, so it is easier to help.  After that, they are becoming more associated with the next life.

We can dedicate positive, life-affirming actions to our loved one.  By helping others in trouble, visiting the sick, imprisoned or dying, offering food, clothing or shelter, saving the lives of animals about to be killed, making a retreat or donating for a worthy cause  – these positive actions we can dedicate for the deceased.

A beautiful traditional practice for the dead in all major religions is the offering of light.  In the Buddhist tradition, as we dedicate the lighting of many candles we pray: “May this light guide my loved one to the luminous nature of their mind”.

By generating deeper levels of compassion, extending forgiveness toward ourselves and others, and engaging in positive actions and spiritual practice after a loved one dies, we will find that our bereavement can set us firmly on a spiritual path and enable us to connect more confidently and deeply with the innermost essence of our being – that fundamental goodness which illuminates and pervades our entire life.  Experiencing loss in this way can purify and transform our entire relationship to life.

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