In a past blog I looked at the value of contemplating death while we’re still very much alive. This blog focuses on the death process itself as presented by Tibetan Buddhism. Western medicine defines death as what happens when our heart stops beating and we stop breathing.
In Buddhism, death is described as a sequence of eight stages. The first four of these relate to the dissolution of all physical activity, taking us to the point where we would be defined as dead in Western terms.
But there are four further stages as our mental functioning becomes more and more subtle, and we are left with only the most subtle consciousness. During the course of this mental dissolution, a small amount of warmth may still be detected at the heart, the seat of consciousness (significantly, the Sanskrit word for mind, chitta, refers to both the mind and heart). It is only once the most subtle consciousness leaves the body that, in Tibetan Buddhist terms, a person is considered dead.
What is subtle consciousness and how does it differ from other forms of consciousness? In Buddhism, gross consciousness describes all sense perceptions and cognitive activity. It is where we spend most of our time. Our whole construct of reality including our memories, emotions, acquired personality and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world around us, falls into the category of gross consciousness. When we die, we leave that all behind.
Subtle consciousness can be accessed when we push aside the veil of cognition and experience the deepest levels of a mind free of agitation or dullness. Because this state of consciousness is non-conceptual, using concepts to describe it is as unsatisfactory as using words like ‘sweet’ and ‘yummy’ to describe eating chocolate – the words may be accurate, but they don’t begin to communicate the full experience of what it’s actually like. Subtle consciousness is variously described as a state of radiance, luminosity, blissfulness, non-duality, boundlessness, timelessness, oceanic benevolence, and pure great love. A great state of being! Through meditation we can evolve from catching glimpses of it, to being able to remain in the state for extended periods of time.
Evidence supporting the Buddhist version of the death process is provided by the fact highly accomplished meditators, familiar with abiding in a state of very subtle consciousness, do exactly this when they die. The result is that, even though they are dead in terms of Western medicine, they are not from a Buddhist perspective. Absorbed in a state of blissful timelessness, their bodies do not decompose, there is no loss of body fluids, their flesh remains soft and they appear as though asleep rather than dead. They may remain in this state for hours, days or even longer.
(For a TV documentary on a case in New Zealand go to:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRAfGkqw_cU
Tibetan Buddhism has long been known for its focus on thanatology, or the science of dying. While in the West, most of the past two thousand years of scientific exploration has focused on the outer world, in the East, this same period has been one of focus on the mind. This is why we find an evolved and nuanced understanding of consciousness in Buddhism.
What can ordinary Westerners take from this? Even if we are not highly accomplished meditators, it is considered very useful to become familiar with the subjective experience of the death process, and most Tibetan Buddhists rehearse their own death very regularly. This is not only because our familiarity will better prepare us for when the inevitable occurs. It is also because becoming familiar with our most subtle states of consciousness is the most wonderful experience we can have.
When we are able to let go of the waves of conceptuality, and abide in the oceanic tranquility of our subtle mind, the experience of most meditators is a powerful one of home-coming. Of authenticity, happiness and profound well-being. Even though leaving behind the construct of the ego may seem frightening, the truth is that free from this highly restrictive and changeable mask, we discover out nature to be of an altogether different quality, one that is boundless, benevolent and beyond death. From the perspective of subtle consciousness, one might say, death is merely a conceptual elaboration.
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