The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Translated by Robert A.F. Thurman
8th or 9th century
What did I think The Tibetan Book of the Dead would be like? Well, not like what it is, that’s for sure. Yet if I had to say in a general way what I thought before reading it I guess I expected it to disclose some secrets or insights about what happens when we die, and it definitely does do that. According to The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between, as it is known in Tibet, dying is extremely weird, scary, and dangerous. Unlike in Christianity, where it’s what you do before you die that determines what will happen in the in-between (and if you’re Protestant, like I was, then there are only two possibilities) in Tibetan Buddhism the real work of deciding the fate for your next life begins after you’re physical body is dead. That’s not to say that what you do before you die doesn’t matter; it does, but mostly because it either prepares you, or leaves you dangerously unprepared, for what comes after.
Though Tibetan Buddhists believe that life is “boundless,” and that, since we do not come from nothing and therefore cannot become nothing, our lives must go on in some form, they are nonetheless quite worried about dying. Indeed, because the in-between stage, when a being passes from one life to another, is so fraught with choices, Tibetans are probably even more concerned about death than we are. Thurman tells us, “But the core of Buddha’s discovery was the essential reality of freedom – that underlying the lived reality of existence is the immediacy of total freedom, especially freedom from suffering, from bondage, from ignorance. This essential freedom can be realized by the human mind as its own deepest and most true condition. This realization makes it possible for freedom to prevail over the habitual suffering of personal experience. So the realized individual is thenceforth held apart from suffering; not held in anything, but held out of binding patterns” (14). The death point is one of the opportunities to separate oneself from suffering, but it is also a time and place where “binding patterns” are more comforting and tempting than ever before. Enlightenment realization doesn’t just happen. One has to condition herself in order for non-suffering to become reality. How to do that?
The Great Book of Natural Liberation has a few suggestions. The first, naturally, is to prepare for death during your life. This means, among other things, practicing personal mind control. “In order to create something, first you have to imagine it. And imagination can be extremely powerful in life-between reality,” as well as in this life (14). If one is practiced in imaginative meditation, then he will be better able to deal with the powerful images his mind presents to him in the in-between, and be more prepared to fend them off with calculated ideations of his own.
The second part of the book is the readings and prayers that the living read to the deceased person in order to help them navigate through the six realms of the in-between and make the best choices possible. “For at the death point every being, especially a human being, has the ideal opportunity to discover real freedom from addictive habits, delusive perceptions, and misleading conceptions. Therefore, in Tibetan culture it is considered important to help a loved one through the actual process of death, to avoid distracting and frightening places such as hospital emergency rooms, and to arrange circumstances where the assistants can stay with the body at least for some hours” (120). Though in our culture crying and showing our sadness over death is expected, in Tibetan and other Buddhist societies this type of behavior, at least around the dead person, is frowned upon because it distracts the deceased from the crucial work of navigating the in-between, and may make them cling to the life they’ve left, which is counter-productive in the quest for enlightenment or, if complete freedom cannot be attained, then the best possible rebirth in this or another realm.
The deceased needs her full concentration at the death point because as she traverses the in-between realms beautiful and terrifying images of deities, light, and demons will appear to her. What the prayers in the Book of Natural Liberation remind us is that all of these – pleasant and terrifying – are emanations of our own mind, and it is our reaction to them that will determine our next phase of being. One thing I found really interesting about the translation I read was that while the author described the images of the Buddhist deities and figures in precise detail, he also mentioned again and again that if one was from a different religious background then they should practice becoming comfortable with the gods, angels, and demons from their own tradition, as the images that will appear to you are those that are already in your mind. So if you’re Christian you will want to spend time visualizing and becoming comfortable with the distressing imagery in the book of Revelations, as well as with the comforting spirit of Jesus Christ as, according to Thurman, these figures can help you find your way to a place of peace and liberation rather than fear, aversion, and clinging when you realize that they are merely images from inside you, and not real in any other way.
I’m very glad I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I feel I have a stronger understanding of Buddhism itself, and have plenty of new ideas about death to process. But I also recommend the book because its central message is one that is useful well before we die, and can be summed up in a single question which I would like to remember to ask myself, and answer honestly, when my mind begins to attack me in my waking, daily life: Is this (problem, image, fear, worry) real, or is it all in my head?