In the past few weeks I have blogged about the death process according to Tibetan Buddhism. I have been very encouraged by the number of readers showing an interest in what I believe is such an important subject. This blog is about the Tibetan Buddhist approach to after-death bardo states and rebirth. For the sake of brevity, I’ll take the previous blogs as read. If you haven’t seen them yet, you’ll find links at the end of this blog.
People who have prepared well for their death are able to use it as an opportunity to break free of the endless cycle of birth, ageing, death and rebirth. Experiencing the most subtle states of consciousness, they are able to identify with the boundless nature of their own primordial mind, rather than suffering from existential self-grasping.
Many of us are not like that. Even in our most subtle state, such is the strength of our habitual clinging to a me, myself and I, that we continue to do so, thereby unknowingly directing our consciousness towards embodiment. The process we go through, sometimes known as a bardo state, can see our subtle consciousness have all manner of experiences, lasting from just a few moments to up to 49 days.
Just as there is no ‘standard’ experience of life, there is also no standard experience of the bardo. But as Tulku Thondop says in Peaceful Death Joyful Rebirth – a book I’d highly recommend if you’d like to explore this subject further – ‘If the awareness of peace, joy, and openness has become part of our mental character while we were alive, then in the bardo all our mental states and the phenomena around us will arise as positive appearances and experiences.’
The opposite is also true. Whether our experience of bardo is like a pleasant dream or a hideous nightmare is entirely dependent on our mental conditioning. Without the physical anchor of our body, our consciousness is capable of traversing all manner of experiences with the same levels of intensity we have when dreaming. It’s important to note that our experiences, positive or negative, are a projection of our own minds, just as they are when we dream.
In the bardo seeking self-existence, our conditioning propels us towards beings and places with whom we share a strong connection. I sometimes hear people confidently say that we all consciously choose to be born in a particular place, or choose to go through certain experiences/relationships in any particular lifetime. This is not the view of Buddhism. It certainly doesn’t explain why the majority of beings choose to be born as insects, fish and other animals, whose opportunity for personal growth – and, one imagines, happiness – is limited.
The Buddhist view is that the force of conditioning is what propels us into future lives, and also what predisposes us to be drawn to our future parents. At some point we make a connection, entering a fertilised egg, thereby setting the parameters of the next lifetime’s experience of reality.
As Westerners, when we first encounter Buddhist teachings on death, they can seem weird and/or daunting. I guess the basic questions we all need to answer for ourselves are: what is the nature of consciousness and where does it come from?
The Buddhist view that subtle consciousness has an energetic quality is something that resonates with me personally. While energy may change form, it is never destroyed. It also makes sense to me that that causality applies to our experience of reality. Looking around at people who represent extreme cases of misery or optimism, it’s easy to see how one’s world view is shaped far more by what goes on in one’s mind than by anything external to it.
What we take from all this is that even if we are unable to free ourselves from our own, self-grasping instincts when we abide in clear light at the end of this lifetime, if we strive to live in a positive, altruistic way, we are creating the causes for future positive experiences. Whether we find inspiration in Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha or Richard Dawkins – or none of the above – a life of generosity, ethics, patience and mind-training can only yield the sweetest fruits.
Buddha once summarised his own teachings as ‘Abandon harmfulness. Cultivate goodness. Subdue your mind.’ One thing that excites me about the increasing weight of contemporary research on wellbeing is that these same principles also underpin the basis of happiness and fulfilment in this life. So if there are some aspects of the Buddhist view of death and rebirth you can’t get your head around, or disagree with, then no problem. If you believe that consciousness is purely a brain function, that’s okay too. Seeking well-being and inner peace in this lifetime by leading a positive and wholesome life, you are also optimising your future experiences of reality.
Now there’s a happy coincidence!
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