Life, Death and After Death
The essence of this book is a weekend seminar on death, intermediate state and rebirth. The topic is particularly poignant as this was the last teaching Lama gave in the West; he passed away some five months later. But here he was his usual boisterous, punchy, direct, funny, loving and compassionate self, treating death in his incomparable light yet serious way.
Tonight I’m supposed to talk about the Himalayan yogic experience of transference of consciousness [Tib: po-wa]. Well, as it happens, the last time I was in the Himalayas I interviewed a mountain yogi about his experiences of this practice . . . .
No, actually, this method of transferring the consciousness comes from the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. It’s not the fabrication of some Tibetan monks. It was given by Shakyamuni, passed down through the oral transmission lineage, came to Tibet, and is now part of the Tibetan tradition.
Who has to practice the transference of consciousness and what are its benefits?
First of all, from the Buddhist point of view, human life and death are equally important events. There’s no reason to think that life is important and death is bad, unimportant. You should not think that way. Both are important.
Of course, those who have attained enlightenment in their lifetime don’t need to transfer their consciousness, but those who have not and have to take another life do need to do so. Certain overwhelming conditions, such as serious disease or wrong thinking, grasping and attachment, create a disastrous situation at the time of death and can prevent yogis from dying a perfect death, so yogis practice the methods for transferring the consciousness before such conditions arise.
Because of karma, the life force or whatever other reason, we seem to be stuck in our sense gravitation attachment body with no way out, but yogis train in such a way that they facilitate the transfer of their consciousness out of their sense gravitation body and free themselves from fear and a disastrous death. So when they feel they are free, that the time is right for them to transfer their consciousness, they can do it by applying the appropriate technical meditation.
I’m not just talking philosophy here. Many Tibetan monks and meditators have utilized these techniques when the time has been right. For example, I heard that after the Chinese conquered Tibet in 1959, many ordinary monks employed these methods to happily leave this life because they felt they no longer had the right to exercise their religious faith. This is a true fact. Therefore it’s very useful to have this kind of experience.
It’s important for Westerners to know about this because up until now you’ve largely neglected conscious phenomena and the ability to use your mind meaningfully and instead have busied yourselves with material things. So it’s a good thing to introduce the idea that you have the power to eliminate disastrous life situations by eradicating the fear of death, fear of life and sense gravitation attachment. Anybody can do this because all people have buddha potential. It exists within all of us, so we should not feel that we’re stuck and can’t do anything about it. We have the ability to free ourselves from all confusion and suffering.
It’s important to recognize that the primary resource of all happiness, misery, fear and confusion is the mind, not the physical body, but to fully understand our mind we need to investigate it. Understanding the nature of our mind is also the path to freedom from all fear.
We have to choose the right time to transfer our consciousness; we’re not allowed to do it at the wrong time because that becomes suicide. So we have specific times and scientifically determined signals of impending death that indicate when it’s appropriate to engage in po-wa; there are detailed explanations of the internal and external signs that arise to show that death may be near. But it’s also possible to change that situation.
We already know that to a certain extent we can change any circumstance, including a shortage of life energy. Life is an energy force; when it dwindles we can reactivate it in our nervous system. We have methods for extending life and postponing the onset of death but I’m not going to detail them here; this is simply an introductory talk.
So why transfer the consciousness? Death is coming; natural transference of consciousness is coming anyway, so why employ these methods? The reason is that we usually die because of illness, and if it’s too advanced it overwhelms us and we can’t cope. So before our disease has progressed to that point, while we’re still in relatively good condition, we transfer our consciousness at that time. Otherwise it’s like committing suicide. So we should not practice po-wa without a proper understanding of the signs and signals of impending death, but when we reach a certain point where we’re clean clear still in control, we use it then.
What’s the way to do po-wa? Basically it’s a matter of putting our concentration and energy into the right channel and preventing it from going the wrong way. Of course, there’s extremely detailed technical information about how to do this.
What I mean by going the wrong way is the consciousness leaving the body via the wrong orifice, like the mouth, nose, navel or lower orifices. The Buddha’s teachings explain in great detail the different kinds of rebirth we get if our mind leaves the body through one of those doors.
The point is, therefore, to have our consciousness leave through the crown of our head. If we can open this door and consciously, deliberately, mindfully separate our mind from our body through it, we give ourselves the ability to choose our next rebirth the best way and then continuously go from happy life to happy life. That’s the main point.
One important thing to note is that even though you might have been a good, kind, loving person your whole life, if, at the time of death, you can’t cope and perhaps die angry, you destroy everything positive you did your whole life.
That’s why we call transference of consciousness a super method. Even a person who has done incredibly negative things—for example, Hitler, who killed millions of human beings and created unbelievably negative karma—can say goodbye to all his negativity if he uses this method perfectly at the time of death and dies with a clean clear mind. Since death really is a kind of final destination, we have to make sure we’re clean clear at that time. If we can, that’s our insurance for a perfect next life.
However, Himalayan practitioners have to prepare before they engage in po-wa. They practice the techniques and also make sure that they have no attachment to even a single material atom, that there’s not one single object they grasp at. That’s the most important thing.
What interferes with a good death, what makes you fearful, is the grasping mind. Any object that causes grasping attachment to arise while you’re dying becomes a source of confusion and leads to a bad next life.
Some Westerners don’t like to hear about rebirth but most people feel that something happens after death, whether you call it rebirth or not. That’s good enough. Whether you say rebirth exists or not, as long as you feel from your heart or even intellectually that something continues beyond this life, that’s good enough.
Traditionally, Tibetans who are going to die soon give all their possessions away so that at the time of death they own nothing. That’s fantastic. When I was a young, inexperienced monk, seeing the older ones give everything away and die perfectly helped me a lot. It gave me confidence. Of course, we can all understand this intellectually, but to actually see others doing it makes you feel you can do it yourself. That’s very important.
Also, we say that we transfer our consciousness to a pure land. From the Buddhist point of view, a pure land is not some place out there waiting for you. Pure means it’s a reflection of your own pure thought, you own pure, clean clear mind. That’s what we mean by pure land. Any environmental manifestation, good or bad, comes from the mind; it does not truly exist externally, from its own side, out there.
Normally, as we know, we like to project good things, but somehow, uncontrollably, bad projections come. Check it out. To project good things it’s important to be positive and happy, but not in an overestimated way. You can have good projections of other human beings in a realistic way. This is important. People appear the way you want them to. If you want to see them in a bad light, that’s how they’ll appear to you. Visions of good and bad come from you, not external objects.
This means that, with respect to our visions and concepts, we have a choice. We also have the capacity to augment that view, whether it’s positive or negative. Since we have a choice, we should always choose the good one.
However, we have technical meditations to retain and increase the life-force energy that leaves our body through the various orifices at the time of death. These meditations help us keep that energy in and thus extend our lifespan. Remember, life depends on the movement of the breath.
What we do is examine our breathing. If the breath is uneven, coming out more strongly from one nostril than the other, that can be a sign of approaching death. Those are warning signals, if you’re aware. If you investigate and notice this imbalance you can change the rhythm of your breath and extend your life through meditation.
Also, transference of consciousness isn’t done by the mind alone. When training ourselves to transfer our consciousness we also use the energy force of the movement of the physical breath by using certain techniques of meditating on the breath. Practicing these meditations also involves concentration on the chakras, such as those at the heart and navel. Meditating at these points brings different realizations and experiences. In other words, Tibetan Buddhism employs physical resources, not just mental ones.
Recent scientific research has mentioned pleasure centers and chemicals in the brain. Similarly, Tibetan Buddhist tantra also talks about a bliss, or happiness, center. If we concentrate there we activate its energy and produce a blissful experience. For that reason, when we meditate on transference of consciousness, the technique focuses on different chakras. And success in this produces various signs, such as the generation of heat, improved digestion and so forth. Also, you feel as if you are no longer stuck in sense gravitation attachment and that somehow you have transcended mundane life. We should develop our life, enjoy our life. That means utilizing our innate resources to go beyond our normal bondage and inertia.
Of course, many people are scared of death because first, they think it’s going to be a disaster, with much difficulty and suffering, and second, they believe that after death they’re going into great misery. Their projection and presumption is that this is what’s going to happen. In order to stop that worry—even if you can’t transfer your consciousness—if you can lessen your self-cherishing and attachment to your own body and position and increase your loving-kindness for others, that’s absolutely good enough to alleviate fear of death and the next life and guarantee yourself a good rebirth. A dedicated attitude itself is peaceful, so this is the way to ensure a good death and freedom from worry of a bad rebirth—even if you can’t transfer your consciousness.
Not only can your consciousness transfer to a pure land; it can also go into another body. The mind is really powerful. Through meditation and concentration you can heat or move objects. Through the power of your mind you can also eliminate emotional disturbance—attachment, confusion and so forth, which is actually the main point of practicing Dharma. In other words, you can completely change your mind; you can change your misery into happiness.
However, the question is, do you really want to or not? Are you truly seeking or not? If you are a true seeker, you know intuitively that you can do something. That’s the power of the human mind. Don’t make limited judgments of yourself. We all have good thoughts, positive thoughts, which can be developed infinitely. That’s the beauty of human consciousness; it has limitless potential. We all have a little loving-kindness—that small amount of loving-kindness can be developed into infinite loving-kindness.
The nature of loving-kindness is peace and happiness. The nature of self-cherishing and attachment is misery and confusion. So, to have an easygoing and happy life you have to be willing to correct your attitude, believe that you can indeed do it, and be prepared to put in the effort required. A weak mind eliminates all potentiality.
The reason we feel trapped is because we’re so attached to our body. We pretty much identify our body as “me.” The true fact, however, is that your body is not you. Your bones are not you. Your real essence is your consciousness, which has neither shape nor color. It’s a materialistic attitude that thinks, “I’m the body.” That’s fundamentally wrong thinking. “I am my body” becomes “My body is nice, so I’m nice; my body is ugly, so I’m ugly; my body is happy, so I’m happy.” That’s the wrong attitude. Somebody can be slicing chunks of flesh off your body but your mind can be blissful, peaceful and tranquil. It’s possible. That’s the point. Your body can be sick but your mind can be completely radiant and blissful. So my point is that you should abandon all concepts of “My body is me.”
Most Westerners don’t understand the difference between the body and the mind. You need to. That’s why you find it difficult to see that there’s life after death. Believing that your body is you, when your body gives out you’re left thinking, “How can I go on? Where am I?”
The thing is that Buddhism is not saying that you exist permanently or that the you of this life goes on unchanged to the next. When Buddhism talks about rebirth it’s saying that your consciousness changes shape, takes another body. Why? Because anyway, you’re constantly grasping at something, so when your relationship with this body finishes you naturally grasp at something else. At that point your consciousness takes another body and that’s the reason Buddhism calls it rebirth. Rebirth doesn’t mean taking this body into your next life.
The basic understanding is that after you die your consciousness continues and carries your experiences with you. If you understand this, you can relax. You don’t have to make yourself completely busy: “This twentieth century life, I have to do everything; I have to experience everything in this life.” There are so many trips on this earth that you can take. “I want to do this, I want to do that . . . I want to do the monkey trip, I want to do the chicken trip, I want to do the pig trip . . . I have to do them now, otherwise I’ll miss out. I have only one life.” That’s not true—you’ll have many future lives, so there’s no need to rush.
By understanding the power of the mind you find a way to satisfy yourself. That’s very important for all of us. We have to find a way of satisfying ourselves, of making our life content, rather than living with the feeling that life is empty and worthless. You should feel that your life is the most precious thing, more precious than all the money in the world.
So, knowing the characteristic nature of your own consciousness is how you bring peace into yourself and the world in general, because it comes to you through your own experience. Peace is your own experience, not something external. The beauty of peace is something that has to be experienced, and with peace comes satisfaction. It has to be generated within you and once it has, you can give it to others. Then you can truly bring peace to the world. Before bringing peace to others and the world, you first have to experience it yourself. The opposite of peace is grasping; the grasping mind is the opposite of peace. You can see this within yourself and in the world around you.
However, rather than continuing to talk it might be better if I were to answer some questions.
Q. What should we do in the case of sudden death, such as in an accident?
Lama. That’s difficult to say. It depends on time and space. If there’s no time or space to set up your mind, then you just have to let go. That’s just the way it is. But if there is time and space, like you know the accident’s going to happen, you can set your mind up in the right way. Instead of being afraid you can concentrate your mind, or if you have time to transfer your consciousness you can do that. It depends on time and space.
Lama. If you’re unconscious, let go. You can’t change that, unless it’s a situation where a drug will restore consciousness. If one can’t communicate with a dying person’s intellect, there’s not much can be done.
Lama. Consciousness is a kind of clear energy that takes the reflection of all existent phenomena, even though it doesn’t have form or color itself. Ego-consciousness is consciousness but has to be eradicated. From the Buddhist point of view, ego-consciousness is negative, a negative aspect of consciousness that gradually has to be abandoned. But you don’t need to get rid of the general consciousness, which continues from life to life. Within it are both positive and negative consciousnesses. The positive continues and doesn’t need to be abandoned. It’s the negative, or ego-consciousness, that has to be eradicated, because it is the source of all conflict and confusion; the ego has to be abandoned.
Lama. If you know the dying person’s history—lifestyle, faith, religion, beliefs and so forth—you can try to bring it into the process. That’s a good way to help. But whether the person’s religious or not, you must make sure that the environment is peaceful and tranquil and not make the person angry or agitated. Leave the person alone; don’t show “You’re dying; I’m in pain.” Let the person go happily. That’s very important.
Lama. It’s possible to choose your rebirth, to have a choice. Somehow you think about the kind of perfect view and concepts you would like, maintain the continuity of that perfect view, and eventually it leads you to that kind of situation. Does that make sense?
First of all, you should understand that because of the continuity of consciousness, there’s actually never either death or rebirth. What we call “death” and “rebirth” are artificial—momentary, relative changes of shape, that’s all. You simply change your conventional form but your real mind—that which you’ve had from the time you were born and will continue after you die—goes on without a break.
In other words, you take your experiences with you. From the Buddhist point of view, your mind contains not only this life’s experiences—you carry with you countless lives’ experiences. That’s what we call karma. And since grasping at something to hang on to is inherent within you—it’s in the nature of the ego to grasp; it can’t exist without grasping at something—after the death of this life, when the force connecting your mind to your body disappears, you still seek something to hang on to. That’s the reason rebirth occurs: because of grasping.
But if you’re clean clear and die in a liberated way, you don’t need to worry; you can choose to have perfect happiness in your next life. There’s nothing to worry about. But if at the time of death you’re confused and tremendously fearful, that will bring you a different kind of life. It’s decided at the time of death.
Lama. Bodhisattvas are dedicated more to the safety, happiness and liberation of others than their own. Their duty is to lead others to perfection and not be concerned with their own liberation. A dying bodhisattva prays to realize bodhicitta in her next life, not to quickly gain personal liberation and go somewhere pleasant herself. That would be selfish, wouldn’t it? Anyway, seeking your own liberation can sometimes bring much misery and disappointment. Dedicating yourself to others gives you time and space so that you don’t suffocate. Sometimes people who meditate for their own liberation become very uptight.
Lama. That depends. Having a human relationship doesn’t necessarily mean building up attachment and grasping. If you have that kind of relationship then yes, it does become an obstacle to freeing your mind.
Q. Why is there such suffering in relationships between men and women these days? What is the meaning of this? And what will help us face and live with this?
Lama. It’s simple. First of all, twentieth century people have too much superstition, too much freedom to exercise their ego, and this spills over into their relationships, which tend to be too strong, too extreme and too superficial, the result of which is conflict and dissatisfaction. So that’s my answer: if human relationships are superficial and extreme, the result is conflict. They’re not realistic. You can’t make the vase and flowers one. Intellectually, people in extreme relationships want to make two people one; there’s too much expectation of making two into one—it’s not possible. In other words, you can’t make two egos one. You need to make time and space for another ego. Also, from the Buddhist point of view, we each have our own individual concepts and elements of mind, so we need to allow the freedom for these to be exercised. Even though you feel this person is your dear friend, he or she can’t become one with you—unless you both discover the absolute truth.
Lama. That question’s just an excuse! What you’re saying is, “I’m unhappy and dissatisfied because so many other people are unhappy and dissatisfied.” That’s not logical. You’re responsible for your own happiness; you’re responsible for your own satisfaction; you’re responsible for your own misery.
Of course, you can’t be careless of others’ suffering. You have to be sympathetic. But a mind that has sympathy for others brings more satisfaction than misery. I want you to understand this. Some people have the misconception “How can I be satisfied while so many others are hungry and dissatisfied?” That’s wrong thinking. If you have sympathy, love and compassion for all these people, that will bring you more satisfaction, but normally we react to others’ suffering with emotion; we get emotionally disturbed. That’s not really compassion; that’s just an emotional reaction based on a misunderstanding of the situation. A correct understanding of the situation produces loving-kindness and the result of that is more happiness and joy, rather than misery.
So your question indicates faulty logic. Many people ask this kind of thing; I think it’s wrong thinking. For example, you can say, “How can people in the world live in peace while there’s war, killing and bloodshed in the Middle-East?” In my opinion, that’s the wrong question.
Of course, we can say, “How can I be happy while there’s so much misery in the world?” Relatively speaking you can ask this question, but scientifically, it’s wrong. You can be satisfied and content even though others aren’t. For example, Shakyamuni Buddha renounced the confusion of samsara, acted appropriately and achieved the enlightened experience. That was due to his own great effort in personal development. In the meantime, we’re still here with our limited compassion and limited thinking. So it’s completely up to the individual. If you act for peace, you get peace; if you put yourself onto the path to misery, you end up miserable.
Q. You said that peace is the opposite of grasping. Would it be accurate to say that peace is being content with what occurs? Just accepting pain or pleasure or whatever happens with patience and equilibrium? Is this what brings peace and security?
Lama. I’m not sure about that. Acceptance is OK but it depends on how you accept. If you have the attitude, “Whatever comes, comes; I can’t do anything,” that’s the wrong attitude. That’s weak, because you then accept anything that comes along.
Wise acceptance is like, say you’ve broken your nose: it’s already broken, the situation is there, so it’s better to accept it. But it’s wrong to decide to accept everything that comes along no matter what.
Actually, you do have the capacity to change the situation and direct it in whichever way you want it to go. Since you have the free will to change things, you should also have the discriminating wisdom that can judge, “I’ll accept certain things that come along but others, I have to change.” I think so.
You see, some religious people tend to believe too much: “God gives me my experiences; I have to accept everything”; “Everything comes from karma; I can’t change anything”; “Today I’m hungry; I have to accept my hunger.” That’s all wrong. You can change the situation. That’s the beauty of our lives. I tell you, you can definitely change any situation. That’s the power of the human being. You can call it buddha nature, human nature or whatever.
So it’s very important that we all recognize that we can deal with, transform, any difficult thought that arises. That’s the power of the human being and that’s why we say human life is so great. Animals can’t do these things. We’re not more fortunate than animals because we can accumulate much wealth. That’s wrong. Some animals can be richer than human beings.
Lama. Well, I think Jesus was very practical. He taught us to be less self-cherishing, love others and be more dedicated to their happiness than our own. If you’re always mean and angry, irritating your family and colleagues, uptight with no love around you, saying things like, “I love everybody in the world, I’m dedicated to everybody in the world” but when a thirsty person asks you for a drink of water, you say “Go away and leave me alone,” that makes no sense.
That’s why I say Jesus was very practical. Loving-kindness means we have to start with those around us. Actually, we have to start with ourselves. First we have to love and value ourselves. From there, from seeing our own good qualities, we can slowly, slowly develop love for others. If you’re angry with yourself, for sure you’re going to be angry with others. That’s just scientific psychology. For that reason, be practical too. Surround yourself with love. That’s so practical.
This is a very important question, actually. You can see, if companions—husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend—don’t love each other yet have to stay together, it’s a real disaster. Because you lose faith in each other you lose faith in other human beings. You disrespect your companion, you have a bad opinion of yourself, you have a bad opinion of your companion—how can you have a good opinion of others? You lose your inner dignity.
So, when practicing loving-kindness, it’s best to start wherever you are, close to yourself. In that way it’s realistic. You can’t go to Africa every day, saying, “I love African people; I want to serve them.” You can’t bring breakfast to all Africans. You’re better off making breakfast for your husband or your wife.
Lama. From the Buddhist point of view, your parents have taken care of you for all the years since you were in your mother’s womb, and when you think about that kindness you create space to love them. Don’t you find any parental kindness to think about? Don’t you feel your parents’ kindness in your life? If not, that’s wrong. First of all, you say you have parents, so there must have been a period of time when they took care of you and held you dear. Also, look at how the many parents we see around us take care of their children. It’s incredible.
When I see how parents take care of their children twenty-four hours a day I feel like such a selfish monk! Mothers don’t get a good night’s sleep, not just for a day or two but for months, even years. That’s too much.
So if you think about the situation positively you can always find much kindness in what your parents did for you. But, as I said before, if you generate a negative projection, everything, the whole world, appears negative to you. So if you think about your parents negatively, of course they will appear negative to you.
People who hate their parents are very peculiar. Their parents cared for them for years and they hate them but they can profess love for somebody they’ve met only recently and have known for just a few days. They think this new boyfriend or girlfriend is very kind but don’t care about the people who took care of them for years and to whom they’re very strongly karmically linked. Scientifically speaking, that’s just wrong. You say “I love you” to somebody you’ve just met and to whom you’re momentarily attracted and whose touch you crave, but you reject your parents, who have shown you love for many years. That’s unreasonable—psychologically sick and scientifically incorrect. Unfortunately.
Also, it’s dangerous. It shows that you don’t understand your own life. It diminishes loving-kindness in the world. Anyway, whatever pleasure you experience comes from other people. Your body comes from your father and mother, your clothes come from the people who made them, your food derives from the effort of others . . . every pleasure comes from other people. Therefore, people are the kindest of beings. Since any pleasure you can think of comes from others, you should always dedicate to others.
Lama. Anybody can learn this technique. It’s quite easy. You don’t have to go into a cave. Also, this kind of training is not just meditation. It has a scientific basis. We also use some physical force. Therefore it’s something everybody can understand and utilize. But tonight, let’s not transfer our consciousness but enjoy ourselves here instead!
Lama. It’s definitely negative but still not certain. It depends on what the mother’s situation becomes if she has the child. If going ahead with the pregnancy leads both of them to great suffering—for example, they both die—then it might be sensible to have an abortion. But if the child is aborted out of self-cherishing, that’s heavy karma.
Nevertheless, heavy karma can still be completely purified; you can change it. It’s not something absolutely unchangeable. That’s the beauty of it. You can obliterate any kind of negative energy. You should not think, “I created bad karma; my life is over. The rest of my life’s going to be a disaster.” That’s wrong. You do good things and bad things in your life—the good and the bad are more or less equal. That’s OK. It’s all just energy. Whatever actions you do, good or bad, it’s all just energy. What matters is which is stronger, the positive or the negative. As your positive energy increases, your negative energy automatically decreases; if your negative energy increases too much, the positive has no power. However, you can increase your karmic energy or you can get rid of it altogether. This is the way it works; it’s a natural thing.
Negativities are conventional reality: relative, changeable, transitory. That’s their beauty. It doesn’t matter what negativities you’ve created, you have the potential to overcome them. There’s no need to go around thinking, “I created bad karma; I should feel guilty the rest of my life.” That’s wrong thinking. It means you’re holding a permanent concept of negativity. There’s no such thing as permanently existent negativity.
Remember the four noble truths? The first is true suffering and the first characteristic of that is impermanence. True suffering, any kind of suffering, is transitory and impermanent and its nature is empty, nondual. But if you then conceptualize, “This suffering situation is the worst thing in my life; I’m always going to suffer but I deserve it,” if you beat yourself up like that, that’s completely wrong. Of course, it could be like that if there were no solution but everything has a solution. Every negative action has an antidote that can make it vanish. Therefore you should not hold a permanent conception of any negativity. That’s the basis of the method the Buddha taught: you can enter the spiritual path in this life and in this life attain enlightenment—in this life, in one life. That shows that you have the power or capacity to eliminate all negative energy and be free from all ego concepts and dualistic thought.
So, if there are no more questions, I’d like to thank you so much. I’m sorry tonight was rather general but I don’t think this is the right time or place to detail the meditation techniques for transferring the consciousness. However, the reason I chose this topic to speak on is that somehow Westerners need to understand these concepts and in that way you can do something with your life. That’s my main point.
It doesn’t mean that you’re going to become a great yogi or a great meditator. I don’t care about that. But you can do something with your life, something with your mind, to keep your mind happy throughout your life. That’s the most important thing for all of us. We all want to be happy for the rest of our life. We all want to be liberated from miserable situations and be able to deal with whatever comes up from moment to moment in our life. Buddhism teaches us how to do it.