Why Study About Death and Dying?
Death is one of the most precious experiences in life — if we are prepared. The karma that brought us into this life is exhausted, leaving a temporarily clean slate, and the karma that will propel us into our next life has not yet crystallized. This leaves us in a unique “no man’s land,” a netherworld the Tibetans call “bardo,” where all kinds of miraculous possibilities can materialize. At this special time, with the help of skillful friends, we can make rapid spiritual progress and directly influence where we will take rebirth. We can even attain enlightenment.
Buddhist masters proclaim that because of this karmic gap, there are more opportunities for enlightenment in death than in life. Spiritual progress in life is like trying to move a big tree stump. It’s not easy. Progress after death is like placing that tree stump in a body of water. Movement is now much easier. The bardos are a highly fluid environment where rapid progress can be made.
Robert Thurman, who translated one rendering of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, says: “The time of the bardo is the best time to attempt consciously to affect the causal process of evolution for the better. Our evolutionary momentum is temporarily fluid during the bardo, so we can gain or lose a lot of ground during its crises.”
But even for spiritual practitioners, death often remains a dreaded event. We dread it because we don’t know about it. We do not look forward to death because we don’t know what to look forward to. For most of us, it’s still the great unknown. Death is the ultimate blackout, something to be avoided at all costs. With bardo yoga we can bring light into this blackness, see where we’re going, and go in a fruitful direction.
Death is not the time for hesitation or confusion. It is the time for confident and compassionate action. Lama Zopa Rinpoche says: “This is when people MUST do something for the person who has died; this is the most crucial time for the person.”The Tibetan Book of the Dead says:
“This is the dividing-line where buddhas and sentient beings are separated. It is said of this moment: In an instant, they are separated; in an instant, complete enlightenment.”
The moment of death, like that of birth, is our time of greatest need. The beginning and the end of life are characterized by vulnerability, bewilderment, and rich opportunity. In either case we are stepping into new territory—the world of the living or the world of the dead.
Tibetan Buddhism is not the only Buddhist tradition that teaches the bardos, but it is the most complete. Other faith traditions also have different views of what happens after death. For some of these views see How Different Religions View Death and Afterlife, edited by Christopher Jay Johnson, Ph.D, and Marsha G. McGee, Ph.D; and What Survives? Contemporary Explorations of Life After Death, edited by Gary Doore Ph.D. For different views within Buddhism, see Breaking the Circle; Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism, by Carl B. Becker.
The Importance of contemplating death
One of the most important things we can do to prepare for death is to think about it. Bring it into your life, and as Don Juan said, “Use death as an advisor.” What would you do if you had six months to live? What would you cut out of your life? What would you do if you had one month, one week, one day? The Indian master Atisha said: “If you do not contemplate death in the morning, the morning is wasted. If you do not contemplate death in the afternoon, the afternoon is wasted. If you do not contemplate death in the evening, the evening is wasted.”
One of the best ways to prepare for death is to acknowledge that we really are going to die. We are falling in the dark and have no idea when we will hit the ground. Buddhist scholar Anne Klein says: “Life is a party on death row. Recognizing mortality means we are willing to see what is true. Seeing what is true is grounding. It brings us into the present.”
We all know that we’re going to die. But we don’t know it in our guts. If we did, we would practice as if our hair was on fire. Trungpa Rinpoche said that until we take death to heart, our spiritual practice is dilettantish. Author Sam Harris wrote:
“While we try not to think about it, nearly the only thing we can be certain of in this life is that we will one day die and leave everything behind; and yet, paradoxically, it seems almost impossible to believe that this is so. Our felt sense of what is real seems not to include our own death. We doubt the one thing that is not open to any doubt at all.”
We see others dying all around us but somehow feel entitled to an exemption. In the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, the sage Yudisthira is asked, “Of all things in life, what is the most amazing?” Yudisthira answers, “That a man, seeing others die all around him, never thinks he will die.” If we acknowledge death and let it counsel us, it will prioritize our life, ignite our renunciation, and spur our meditation.
The Buddha said: “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is the deepest and most supreme. Of all contemplations, that of impermanence is the deepest and most supreme.”
Realize that life is like a candle flame in the wind. Visualize friends and family and say, “Uncle Joe is going to die, my sister Sarah is going to die, my friend Bill is going to die, I am going to die.” Put pictures of dead loved ones on your desk; put sticky notes with the word “death” or “I am going to die” inside drawers or cabinets to remind you; read an obituary every day; go to nursing homes, cemeteries, and funerals. The essence of spiritual practice is remembrance, whether it’s remembering to come back to the present moment, or recalling the truth of impermanence. Do whatever it takes to realize that time is running out and you really could die today. You are literally one breath away from death. Breathe out, don’t breathe in, and you’re dead.
The purpose of bardo yoga is to radically alter our relationship to death, and to embrace it for the opportunity it truly is. Sogyal Rinpoche sums it up: “For someone who has prepared and practiced, death comes not as a defeat but as a triumph, the crowning and most glorious moment of life.”