September 27, 2011

What happens when I die?

Photography by Jack Watson


Today we know that several minutes after your heart has stopped beating, a mini-electrocardiogram can still be recorded by probing for signals from inside the cardiac cavity. Three hours later, your pupils will still contract violently in reaction to pilocarpine drops as they would in life. Your muscles will still shorten if someone taps them repeatedly. Cellular death can be long delayed. Electrical activity in the brain continues four minutes or more after the heart stops. Revival after hours and even days during which there was no discernible breathing or heartbeat is a possibility in some cases. Until the corpse begins to putrefy due to bacteriological action, it seems that we cannot be absolutely sure of death.

Basically, Western science has discovered what Tibetans seem to have known for centuries—Death is not an event, but a process.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead (more properly translated as “the Book of the Great Liberation”) seems to have been written toward the end of the eighth century C.E.  The book remained hidden for close to five hundred years before it was rediscovered in the spiritual renaissance of the fourteenth century. A book that records Tibetan Buddhism knowledge about Death.

According to these ancient doctrines, this is what we experience when we die:

First, you will feel weakness and sinking, followed by a melting sensation as your body seems to shrivel. Shapes become indistinct as your vision blurs. As is your were looking at the world under water. All becomes fluid and unclear.

Next, as your body begins to desiccate, you will start to feel numb. A general loss of sensation begins. Sights and sounds fade. You feel yourself to be surrounded by whirling smoke (fog). You begin to feel cold.

At this point the first change in your mental processes becomes evident. You find your thoughts are beginning to dim. You are no longer interested, or even aware, of what is happening to you. Your breathing weakens and your sense of smell fades away.  Sparks seem to surround you.

Now your breathing stops altogether. Your tongue seems to thicken and taste disappears. The sense of touch has gone.

In Western terms, you are now clinically dead. Heartbeat has stopped, blood circulation ceased, and the brain flat-lined.

But unsuspected by the Western science, you still retain consciousness, and there is still activity in the subtle rtsa channels. According to Tibetan medicine, an embryo evolves a complex energy system during its initial eight weeks in the womb. Three main channels (rtsa) of life energy are fist to develop. The central channel (dbu-ma) originates on the top of the head just beneath the soft spot on the skull and runs down through the spine to a space located four fingers-widths below the navel. The right channel (ro-ma) branches off from the center just above the eyebrows. then runs parallel to it about an inch or so away until it rejoins the center just below the navel. The left channel (rkyang-ma) exactly mirrors the right on the other side of the midline. The two side channels intertwine with the central at certain important points along their courses, which we know as Chakras, a series of subtle vortices in the human aura through which the universal life force is received, transformed, and distributed throughout the body. High-frequency energy discharge is experienced at the chakra locations along the spine and a spin of energy vibration happens here.

After the moment you are considered clinically death in Western standards, the  chatter of your thoughts has dimmed and you have lost sensory perception of the physical world, but according to Tibetan view you retain an awareness of a vast sky illuminated first by moonlight, then by a bright-orange sunlight, which are your respective interpretations of a pearl-drop of masculine energy sliding down the midline from the crown chakra into the heart, and a red drop of feminine energy rising from the genital chakra to lodge in the heart chakra as well. As these two drops meet, they envelop the consciousness itself and create and awareness unlike anything you experienced during your lifetime, a sort of luminous darkness. At this point you lose consciousness altogether, which feels like passing out or falling asleep.

Consciousness not exactly fades away, instead it undergoes a change. Your awareness passes into what the Tibetans refer to as the “clear light”, all-embracing consciousness. Tibetans understand the two side channels as forming a sort of knot to hold the chakras in place. The knot of your heart chakra was tied at the moment of your conception and firmly maintained throughout your entire life. Now it begins to unravel. Your consciousness finally departs from your body. From the Tibetan perspective, this is the real moment of death.

But this is not the end, and yes, what happens next depends on your level of spiritual evolution.

This knowledge of death dynamics, makes me  hope that my understanding of the true nature of reality has develop enough to withstand the experience so I am able to recognize and abide in the “clear light”, so when I finally rest without my physical body and energy system, and become the quintessence of consciousness one with the Mind of God that manifests the Universe, I can pass beyond the need to reincarnate, achieve the enlightenment of Buddhahood and reach nirvana. Because this is what happens next,

Most of us pass beyond this transcendental experience since our level of consciousness is so subtle that we don’t recognize it and are ignorant of its importance. Some see the “clear light” for what it is but pull away from it, fearing the dissolution of the old structures and habit patterns that an acceptance of this level of consciousness entails, and awaken to an awareness of darkness without even realizing what has just been lost, then begin to rebuild the structures required to take place once again in the phenomenal world.

Now your innermost self has built a new body, but it is a tenuous, immaterial body like that of a spirit or a dream. Your senses return so you can now see and hear those gathered around your deathbed, but you cannot communicate with them. You have forgotten the sensations of your dissolution as if you had a brief period of unconsciousness before emerging from your body like a ghost. Here, if you have a strong attachment to the circumstances of your last life you become earthbound at this stage, and wander trying vainly to influence events in the physical world. You become a haunting for those left behind, more often drifting into the dreams of a relative or loved one.

Until now you still have an opportunity to go to the light.

According to Tibetan doctrine, who believe in the wheel of reincarnation, this is the experience of a dream and both the heavens and the hells of your immediate afterlife are self-created, as are the deities and demons encountered there. The Tibetan texts chart a period of seven days during which dreams of the deceased are concerned largely with mild, benevolent deities and a further five when the deities become wrathful. The Tibetans knew that these visions have no objective reality, but represent unconscious projections of the our hopes and fears. Again, they are self-created.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is essentially a guide to liberation while in the between-lives state and reiterates again and again that the bardos are illusions projected from the deep mind.  During their manifestation you can still accept this insight and escape the dream so you can return to the “clear light”. Enlightenment is believed to be easier there than it ever is while in incarnation.

Though beware that as the bardo (between-lives) experience continues, liberation becomes progressively more difficult sine the visions of the final five days are driven by negative patterns and the chain of lifetimes that preceded it. The tendency is to run from them in terror, as many of us do when face our imperfections during life, and more than anything else, is this flight that ensures a rebirth governed by a process known as karma.

Important is to understand that Karma is not a process that operates in nature. It is a process that operates in the human mind. It is not a system of “punishment” and “reward”. It is not “Judgement system”. Karma is a reaction. Your reaction to any experience, internal or external, driven by aversion or desire, leaves a trace on your mind. That mental trace conditions your subsequent reactions, which in turn leave more mental traces, which determine future reactions, and so on. Since your reactions govern your actions, the karmic process, if left unchecked, will determine the course of your life. Cause and effect. It is our reaction to circumstances and not the circumstance themselves that produce the karmic trace. Whatever your reaction, it creates a corresponding karmic residue. That residue is neither good nor bad in itself. It is simply a reinforced tendency to react with the same reaction and it becomes more likely that you will find yourself in situations where your reaction can be expressed. From a Western psychology observation it is seen as an unconscious searching out of matching situations. As much as the individual feels control and power over others to get their own way, as much as he/she starts cultivating that specific reaction, but unfortunately the karmic traces that negative reactions, such as anger, create bring us increasingly face-to-face with situations in which that same response becomes necessary. As a result we lose friends and suffer increasing emotional isolation.

The Tibetan teachings tell us that in the process of reincarnation the action of karma is most evident. For those who miss the “clear light” and get locked into the bardo dream world, rebirth is inevitable and the circumstances of the next life are determined by the karmic traces we ourselves create. They also teach that there are six possible “realms” into which you could be born, each one the result of your predominant karmic trace: Hell Realm, Hungry Ghost Realm, Animal Realm, Human Realm, Demi-God Realm, God Realm.

In the Hell Realm there are nine hot and nine cold hells in which you are endlessly tortured to death, revived, then tortured to death again. The root emotion of the Hell Realm is anger, which leads to the loss of self-control and eventually even self-awareness. My suggestion? Don’t become trapped by your anger.

In the Hungry Ghost Realm the root emotion is greed, defined as a level of desire that can never be satisfied. Greed is characterized by the habit of looking outward to satisfy our needs, something that can only be achieved by looking inward. If your karmic traces are left by a  lack generosity you can end up being a hungry ghost wandering a cruel world without any hope of satisfaction, with an enormous stomach, but a tiny mouth and throat so you can never get enough to eat, living in a waterless desert.  A tip? Practice thankfulness. Your generosity will grow.

The Animal Realm is dominated by ignorance. Reincarnation in the body of a beast, wild or domestic, that lives a life of instinct, deprivation , and fear. It is seeded in a failure to look beyond the level of immediate appearances to find the reality of your own nature and the world around you.

Pride characterizes the Demi-God Realm. An asura lives a life of abundance an ease, but frequently involved in war. Almost always fighting, loosing to the Gods, which generates hurt pride and leads to more wars, more defeats, more hurt pride, more wars, more defeat, and the cycle goes on and on forever.

The God Realm might seem as a great place to end up, since to be born there is to lead a long, long life in which all your needs and desires are fulfilled. But bear in mind that the karma root of the God Realm is the trace left when you allow yourself to be distracted from what is really important by your pursuit of pleasure, which though attractive is is essentially meaningless. Ending up a God, you are too distracted by your pleasures to seek enlightenment and are thus condemned like the rest of us to the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Rebirth in the Human Realm (rooted in the karmic trace of jealousy according to Tibetan teachings) is a matter o personal experience.

In those last 5 days in the process of dying as you reach the final stages of your dream encounters with the wrathful deities who personify the negative (karmic) aspects of your character, your chances of achieving liberation continue to diminish. Your consciousness moves farther away from its essence as the subtle body you are building grows stronger. Your thoughts, almost inevitably, turn toward the pleasures of physical existence. Although your personal obsessions are karmically determined, there is an underlying drive that is common to all humanity – the libidinous promptings of the life force. Your memories of life in a physical body generate a desire that draws you back into the world of matter. Your fantasies of sexual pleasure ensure your consciousness wanders into the proximity of love-making couples. When the spirit drifts too close to an act of conception, it is drawn into the womb to begin its next life.

Then you deal with life as we know it until you die again, repeating the process.

If I haven’t lost you yet…Aren’t you happy you learned how to practice meditation? And if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? After knowing all this,  I can’t imagine you would want to die unprepared, would you?

www.yeyeorganicpop.com ~ Planetary Moods ~



The Tibetan Book of the Death by Padma Sambhava

Occutl Tibet by J.H. Brennan

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