Compiled by:
 Ven. Pende Hawter 
 The Karuna Hospice Service
 P.O. Box 2020 
 Windsor  4030
 Queensland, Australia
 Tel. (07) 3857 8555
         Contemplation and meditation on death and impermanence are
 regarded as very important in Buddhism for two reasons : (1) it  is
 only by recognising how precious and how short life is that we are most
 likely to make it meaningful and to live it fully and (2)  by
 understanding the death process and familiarizing ourself with it, we
 can remove fear at the time of death and ensure a good  rebirth.
         Because the way in which we live our lives and our state of
 mind at death directly influence our future lives, it is said  that the
 aim or mark of a spiritual practitioner is to have no fear or regrets
 at the time of death.  People who practice to the  best of their
 abilities will die, it is said, in a state of great bliss. The mediocre
 practitioner will die happily. Even the  initial practitioner will have
 neither fear nor dread at the time of death.  So one should aim at
 achieving at least the smallest of  these results.
         There are two common meditations on death in the Tibetan
 tradition.  The first looks at the certainty and imminence of  death
 and what will be of benefit at the time of death, in order to motivate
 us to make the best use of our lives. The second is a  simulation or
 rehearsal of the actual death process, which familiarizes us with death
 and takes away the fear of the unknown, thus  allowing us to die
 skilfully. Traditionally, in Buddhist countries, one is also encouraged
 to go to a cemetery or burial ground to  contemplate on death and
 become familiar with this inevitable event.
         The first of these meditations is known as the nine-round death
 meditation, in which we contemplate the 3 roots, the 9  reasonings, and
 the 3 convictions, as described below:
         1.      There is no possible way to escape death.  
                 No-one ever has, not even Jesus, Buddha, etc. Of the
                 world population of over 5 billion people, almost none
 will be 
                 alive in 100 years time.
         2.      Life has a definite, inflexible limit and each moment
 brings us
                 closer to the finality of this life.  
                 We are dying from the moment we are born.
         3.      Death comes in a moment and its time is unexpected.
                 All that separates us from the next life is one breath.
 Conviction:  To practise the spiritual path and ripen our inner
 potential by
 cultivating positive mental qualities and abandoning disturbing mental
         4.      The duration of our lifespan is uncertain.  
                 The young can die before the old, the healthy before
 the sick, 
         5.      There are many causes and circumstances that lead to
 death, but
                 few that favour the sustenance of life.  
                 Even things that sustain life can kill us, for example
 food, motor 
                 vehicles, property.
         6.      The weakness and fragility of one's physical body
 contribute to life's   uncertainty.  
                 The body can be easily destroyed by disease or
 accident, for 
                 example cancer, AIDS, vehicle accidents, other
 Conviction:  To ripen our inner potential now, without delay.
         OUR MENTAL/SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT (because all that goes on to
         the next life is our mind with its karmic (positive or
 negative) imprints.)
         7.      Worldly possessions such as wealth, position, money
 can't help.
         8.      Relatives and friends can neither prevent death nor go
 with us.
         9.      Even our own precious body is of no help to us.  
                 We have to leave it behind like a shell, an empty husk,
 Conviction:  To ripen our inner potential purely, without staining our 
 efforts with attachment to worldly concerns.
         The second meditation simulates or rehearses the actual death
 process. Knowledge of this process is particularly important  because
 advanced practitioners can engage in a series of yogas that are
 modelled on death, intermediate state (Tibetan: bar-do) and  rebirth
 until they gain such control over them that they are no longer subject
 to ordinary uncontrolled death and rebirth.
         It is therefore essential for the practitioner to know the
 stages of death and the mind-body relationship behind them. The 
 description of this is based on a presentation of the winds, or
 currents of energy, that serve as foundations for various levels of 
 consciousness, and the channels in which they flow. Upon the serial
 collapse of the ability of these winds to serve as bases of 
 consciousness, the internal and external events of death unfold. 
 Through the power of meditation, the yogi makes the coarse winds 
 dissolve into the very subtle life-bearing wind at the heart. This yoga
 mirrors the process that occurs at death and involves  concentration on
 the psychic channels and the channel-centres (chakras) inside the body.
         At the channel-centres there are white and red drops, upon
 which physical and mental health are based. The white is  predominant
 at the top of the head and the red at the solar plexus. These drops
 have their origin in a white and red drop at the  heart centre, and
 this drop is the size of a small pea and has a white top and red
 bottom. It is called the indestructible drop,  since it lasts until
 death. The very subtle life-bearing wind dwells inside it and, at
 death, all winds ultimately dissolve into it,  whereupon the clear
 light vision of death dawns.
         The physiology of death revolves around changes in the winds,
 channels and drops. Psychologically, due to the fact that 
 consciousnesses of varying grossness and subtlety depend on the winds,
 like a rider on a horse, their dissolving or loss of ability  to serve
 as bases of consciousness induces radical changes in conscious
         Death begins with the sequential dissolution of the winds
 associated with the four elements (earth, water, fire and air). 
 "Earth" refers to the hard factors of the body such as bone, and the
 dissolution of the wind associated with it means that that wind  is no
 longer capable of serving as a mount or basis for consciousness. As a
 consequence of its dissolution, the capacity of the wind  associated
 with "water" (the fluid factors of the body) to act as a mount for
 consciousness becomes more manifest. The ceasing of  this capacity in
 one element and its greater manifestation in another is called
 "dissolution" - it is not, therefore, a case of  gross earth dissolving
 into water.
         Simultaneously with the dissolution of the earth element, four
 other factors dissolve (see Chart 1), accompanied by  external signs
 (generally visible to others) and an internal sign (the inner
 experience of the dying person). The same is repeated  in serial order
 for the other three elements (see Charts 2-4), with corresponding
 external and internal signs.
 Factor dissolving                       External sign                
 Internal sign             
 earth element                           body becomes very thin, 
                                         limbs loose; sense that 
                                         body is sinking under 
                                         the earth
 aggregate of forms                      limbs become smaller, 
                                         body becomes weak 
                                         and powerless
 basic mirror-like                       sight becomes unclear       
 appearance of 
 wisdom (our ordinary                    and dark mirages
 consciousness that
 clearly perceives many
 objects simultaneously)
 eye sense                               one cannot open or close
 colours and shapes                      lustre of body diminishes;
                                         one's strength is consumed
 Factor dissolving                       External sign                
 Internal sign
 water element                           saliva, sweat, urine, 
                                         blood and regenerative 
                                         fluid dry greatly 
 aggregate of feelings                   body consciousness can 
 (pleasure, pain and                     no longer experience the
 neutrality)                             three types of feelings 
                                         that accompany sense                          
 basic wisdom of equality        one is no longer mindful        
 appearance of smoke
 (our ordinary conscious-        of the feelings accom-
 ness mindful of pleasure,       panying the mental           
 pain and neutral feelings       consciousness
 as feelings)
 ear sense                               one no longer hears        
                                         external or internal
 sounds                                  'ur' sound in ears no 
                                         longer arises
 Factor dissolving                       External sign                
 Internal sign
 fire element                            one cannot digest food or 
 aggregate of discrimi-                  one is no longer mindful
 nations                                 of affairs of close 
 basic wisdom of analysis        one can no longer 
 (our ordinary conscious-        remember the names              
 appearance of fireflies
 ness mindful of the                     of close persons             
 or sparks within smoke 
 individual names, pur-                                
 poses and so forth of
 close persons)
 nose sense                              inhalation weak, exhala-
                                         tion strong and lengthy
 odours                                  one cannot smell
 Factor dissolving                       External sign                
 Internal sign
 wind element                            the ten winds move to 
                                         heart; inhalation and
                                         exhalation ceases
 aggregate of composi-           one cannot perform 
 tional factors                          physical actions
 basic wisdom of achiev-         one is no longer mindful 
 ing activities (our                     of external worldly 
 ordinary consciousness          activities, purposes and 
 mindful of external                     so forth                     
 appearance of a 
 activities, purposes                                             
 sputtering butter-lamp
 and so forth)                  about to go out
 tongue sense                            tongue becomes thick and
                                         short; root of tongue
                                                 becomes blue
 tastes                                  one cannot experience
 body sense and tangible         one cannot experience
 objects                                 smoothness or roughness
 Factor dissolving                       Cause of appearance         
 Internal sign
 eighty conceptions                      winds in right and left
 at first, burning
                                         channels above heart        
 butter-lamp; then,
                                         enter central channel at    
 clear vacuity filled
                                         top of head                  
 with white light
 mind of white                           winds in right and left     
 very clear vacuity
 appearance                              channels below heart        
 filled with red light
                                         enter central channel at
                                         base of spine
 mind of red increase                    upper and lower winds        at
 first, vacuity filled
                                         gather at heart; then        
 with thick darkness;
                                         winds enter drop at         
 then, as if swooning
 mind of black near-                     all winds dissolve into     
 very clear vacuity free
 attainment                              the very subtle life-        
 of the white, red and
                                         bearing wind in the         
 black appearances -
                                                 indestructible drop at      
 the mind of clear
                                         the heart                    
 light of death
 (The above charts are taken from "Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth
 in Tibetan Buddhism" by Lati Rinbochay and Jeffrey Hopkins)
         Upon the inception of the fifth cycle the mind begins to
 dissolve, in the sense that coarser types cease and subtler minds 
 become manifest. First, conceptuality ceases, dissolving into a mind of
 white appearance. This subtler mind, to which only a vacuity  filled by
 white light appears, is free from coarse conceptuality. It, in turn,
 dissolves into a heightened mind of red appearance,  which then
 dissolves into a mind of black appearance. At this point all that
 appears is a vacuity filled by blackness, during which  the person
 eventually becomes unconscious. In time this is cleared away, leaving a
 totally clear emptiness (the mind of clear light)  free from the white,
 red and black appearances (see Chart 5). This is the final vision of
         This description of the various internal visions correlates
 closely with the literature on the near-death experience.  People who
 have had a near-death experience often describe moving from darkness
 (for example a black tunnel) towards a brilliant,  peaceful, loving
 light. A comprehensive study comparing death and near-death experiences
 of Tibetans and Euro-Americans has shown  many similarities between the
 two (Carr, 1993). Care must be taken though in such comparisons because
 the near-death experience is  not actual death, that is, the
 consciousness permanently leaving the body.  
         Since the outer breath ceased some time before (in the fourth
 cycle), from this point of view the point of actual death is  related
 not to the cessation of the outer breath but to the appearance of the
 mind of clear light. A person can remain in this state  of lucid
 vacuity for up to three days, after which (if the body has not been
 ravaged by illness) the external sign of drops of red  or white liquid
 emerging from the nose and sexual organ occur, indicating the departure
 of consciousness. 
         Other signs of the consciousness leaving the body are 1) when
 all heat has left the area of the heart centre (in the  centre of the
 chest), 2) the body starts to smell or decompose, 3) a subtle awareness
 that the consciousness has left and the body  has become like 'an empty
 shell', 4) a slumping of the body in a practitioner who has been
 sitting in meditation after the stopping  of the breath. Buddhists
 generally prefer that the body not be removed for disposal before one
 or more of these signs occur, because  until then the consciousness is
 still in the body and any violent handling of it may disturb the end
 processes of death. A Buddhist  monk or nun or friend should ideally be
 called in before the body is moved in order for the appropriate prayers
 and procedures to be  carried out.
         When the clear light vision ceases, the consciousness leaves
 the body and passes through the other seven stages of  dissolution
 (black near-attainment, red increase etc.) in reverse order. As soon as
 this reverse process begins the person is reborn  into an intermediate
 state between lives, with a subtle body that can go instantly wherever
 it likes, move through solid objects  etc., in its journey to the next
 place of rebirth.
         The intermediate state can last from a moment to seven days,
 depending on whether or not a suitable birthplace is found.  If one is
 not found the being undergoes a "small death", experiencing the eight
 signs of death as previously described (but very  briefly). He/she then
 again experiences the eight signs of the reverse process and is reborn
 in a second intermediate state. This  can happen for a total of seven
 births in the intermediate state (making a total of forty-nine days)
 during which a place of rebirth  must be found.
         The "small death" that occurs between intermediate states or
 just prior to taking rebirth is compared to experiencing the  eight
 signs (from the mirage-like vision to the clear light) when going into
 deep sleep or when coming out of a dream. Similarly  also, when
 entering a dream or when awakening from sleep the eight signs of the
 reverse process are experienced.
         These states of increasing subtlety during death and of
 increasing grossness during rebirth are also experienced in  fainting
 and orgasm as well as before and after sleeping and dreaming, although
 not in complete form. It is this great subtlety and  clarity of the
 mind during the death process that makes it so valuable to use for
 advanced meditation practices, and why such  emphasis is put on it in
 Buddhism. Advanced practitioners will often stay in the clear light
 meditation for several days after the  breathing has stopped, engaging
 in these advanced meditations, and can achieve liberation at this time.
         The Buddhist view is that each living being has a continuity or
 stream of consciousness that moves from one life to the  next. Each
 being has had countless previous lives and will continue to be reborn
 again and again without control unless he/she  develops his/her mind to
 the point where, like the yogis mentioned above, he/she gains control
 over this process. When the stream of  consciousness or mind moves from
 one life to the next it brings with it the karmic imprints or
 potentialities from  previous lives.  Karma literally means "action",
 and all of the actions of body, speech and mind leave an imprint on the
 mind-stream. These karmas  can be negative, positive or neutral,
 depending on the action. They can ripen at any time in the future,
 whenever conditions are  suitable. These karmic seeds or imprints are
 never lost.
         At the time of death (clear light stage) the consciousness
 (very subtle mind) leaves the body and the person takes the  body of an
 intermediate state being. They are in the form that they will take in
 their next life (some texts say the previous life),  but in a subtle
 rather than a gross form. As mentioned previously, it can take up to
 forty-nine days to find a suitable place of  rebirth. This rebirth is
 propelled by karma and is uncontrolled. In effect the karma of the
 intermediate state being matches that of  its future parents. The
 intermediate state being has the illusory appearance of its future
 parents copulating. It is drawn to this  place by the force of
 attraction to its parent of the opposite sex, and it is this desire
 that causes the consciousness of the  intermediate state being to enter
 the fertilized ovum. This happens at or near the time of conception and
 the new life has begun.
         One will not necessarily be reborn as a human being. Buddhists
 describe six realms of existence that one can be reborn  into, these
 being the hell realms, the preta (hungry ghost) realm, the animal
 realm, the human realm, the jealous god (asura) realm  and the god
 (sura) realms. One's experience in these situations can range from
 intense suffering in the hell realms to unimaginable  pleasures in the
 god realms. But all of these levels of existence are regarded as
 unsatisfactory by the spiritual practitioner  because no matter how
 high one goes within this cyclic existence, one may one day fall down
 again to the lower realms of existence.  So the aim of the spiritual
 practitioner is to develop his/her mind to the extent where a stop is
 put to this uncontrolled rebirth,  as mentioned previously. The
 practitioner realises that all six levels of existence are ultimately
 in the nature of suffering, so  wishes to be free of them forever.
         The state of mind at the time of death is regarded as extremely
 important, because this plays a vital part in the  situation one is
 reborn into. This is one reason why suicide is regarded in Buddhism as
 very unfortunate, because the state of mind  of the person who commits
 suicide is usually depressed and negative and is likely to throw them
 into a lower rebirth. Also, it  doesn't end the suffering, it just
 postpones it to another life.
         When considering the spiritual care of the dying, it can be
 helpful to divide people into several different categories,  because
 the category they are in will determine the most useful approach to
 use. These categories are: 1) whether the person is  conscious or
 unconscious, and 2) whether they have a religious belief or not. In
 terms of the first category, if the person is  conscious they can do
 the practices themselves or someone can assist them, but if they are
 unconscious someone has to do the  practices for them. For the second
 category, if a person has specific religious beliefs, these can be
 utilised to help them. If they  do not, they still need to be
 encouraged to have positive/virtuous thoughts at the time of death,
 such as reminding them of positive  things they have done during their
         For a spiritual practitioner, it is helpful to encourage them
 to have thoughts such as love, compassion, remembering their  spiritual
 teacher. It is beneficial also to have an image in the room of Jesus,
 Mary, Buddha, or some other spiritual figure that  may have meaning for
 the dying person. It may be helpful for those who are with the dying
 person to say some prayers, recite mantras  etc. - this could be silent
 or aloud, whatever seems most appropriate.
         However, one needs to be very sensitive to the needs of the
 dying person. The most important thing is to keep the mind of  the
 person happy and calm. Nothing should be done (including certain
 spiritual practices) if this causes the person to be annoyed or 
 irritated. There is a common conception that it is good to read "The
 Tibetan Book of the Dead" to the dying person, but if he/she   is not
 familiar with the particular deities and practices contained in it,
 then this is not likely to prove very beneficial.
         Because the death process is so important, it is best not to
 disturb the dying person with noise or shows of emotion.  Expressing
 attachment and clinging to the dying person can disturb the mind and
 therefore the death process, so it is more helpful  to mentally let the
 person go, to encourage them to move on to the next life without fear.
 It is important not to deny death or to  push it away, just to be with
 the dying person as fully and openly as possible, trying to have an
 open and deep sharing of the  person's fear, pain, joy, love, etc.
         As mentioned previously, when a person is dying, their mind
 becomes much more subtle, and they are more open to receiving  mental
 messages from those people close to them. So silent communication and
 prayer can be very helpful. It is not necessary to talk  much. The
 dying person can be encouraged to let go into the light, into God's
 love etc. (again, this can be verbal or mental).
         It can be very helpful to encourage the dying person to use
 breathing meditation -  to let go of the thoughts and  concentrate on
 the movement of the breath. This can be helpful for developing
 calmness, for pain control, for acceptance, for  removing fear. It can
 help the dying person to get in touch with their inner stillness and
 peace and come to terms with their death.  This breathing technique can
 be especially useful when combined with a mantra, prayer, or
 affirmation (i.e. half on the in-breath,  half on the out-breath).
         One of the Tibetan lamas, Sogyal Rinpoche, says that for up to
 about twenty-one days after a person dies they are more  connected to
 the previous life than to the next one. So for this period in
 particular the loved ones can be encouraged to continue  their (silent)
 communication with the deceased person - to say their good-byes, finish
 any unfinished business, reassure the dead  person, encourage them to
 let go of their old life and to move on to the next one. It can be
 reassuring even just to talk to the  dead person and at some level to
 know that they are probably receiving your message. The mind of the
 deceased person at this stage  can still be subtle and receptive.
         For the more adept practitioners there is also the method of
 transference of consciousness at the time of death (Tibetan:  po-wa).
 With training, at the time of death, the practitioner can project his
 mind upwards from his heart centre through his crown  directly to one
 of the Buddha pure realms, or at least to a higher rebirth. Someone who
 has perfected this training can also assist  others at the time of
 death to project their mind to a good rebirth. 
         It is believed that if the consciousness leaves the body of the
 dead person through the crown or from a higher part of the  body, it is
 likely to result in a good type of rebirth. Conversely, if the
 consciousness leaves from a lower part of the body this  is likely to
 result in rebirth in one of the lower realms. For this reason, when a
 person dies it is believed that the first part of  the body that should
 be touched is the crown. The crown is located about eight finger widths
 (of the person being measured) back  from the (original) hairline. To
 rub or tap this area or gently pull the crown hair after a person dies
 is regarded as very  beneficial and may well help the person to obtain
 a higher rebirth. Their are special blessed pills (po-wa pills) that
 can be placed  on the crown after death which also facilitates this
         Once the consciousness has left the body (which, as mentioned
 earlier, can take up to three days) it doesn't matter how  the body is
 disposed of or handled (including the carrying out of a post-mortem
 examination) because in effect it has just become an  empty shell.
 However, if the body is disposed of before the consciousness has left,
 this will obviously be very disturbing for the  person who is going
 through the final stages of psychological dissolution. 
         This raises the question of whether or not it is advisable to
 donate one's organs after dying. The usual answer given by  the Tibetan
 lamas to this question is that if the wish to donate one's organs is
 done with the motivation of compassion, then any  disturbance to the
 death process that this causes is far outweighed by the positive karma
 that one is creating by this act of  giving. It is another way in which
 one can die with a positive and compassionate mind.  
         A Tibetan tradition which is becoming more popular in the West
 is to get part of the remains of the deceased (e.g. ashes,  hair,
 nails) blessed and then put into statues, tsa-tsas (Buddha images made
 of clay or plaster) or stupas (reliquary monuments  representing the
 Buddha's body, speech and mind). These stupas for instance could be
 kept in the person's home, larger ones could be  erected in a memorial
 garden.  Making offerings to these or circumambulating them and so on
 is regarded as highly meritorious, both  for the person who has died
 and for the loved ones.
         There are also rituals for caring for the dead, for guiding the
 dead person through the intermediate state into a good  rebirth. Such a
 ritual is "The Tibetan Book of the Dead", more correctly titled
 "Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo".
                   - revised January 1995       
 Carr, Christopher  Death and Near-Death: A Comparison of Tibetan and
 Euro- American Experiences, Journal of Transpersonal  Psychology, 1993,
 Vol 25,  No 1 pp 59-110
 Fremantle, Francesca and Chogyam Trungpa  The Tibetan Book of the Dead:
 The  Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo,  Shambhala, Boulder
 and  London, 1975 
         (or the excellent new translation by Robert A.F. Thurman,
 Aquarian Press,  London,1994)
 Kapleau, Philip The Wheel of Life and Death, Doubleday, New York, 1989
 Rinbochay, Lati and Jeffrey Hopkins  Death, Intermediate State and
 Rebirth in Tibetan  Buddhism, Rider & Co, London, 1979
 Levine, Stephen  Healing Into Life and Death, Anchor Press/Doubleday,
 New York,  1987   
 Levine, Stephen  Who Dies, Anchor Press/Doubleday, New York, 1982
 Mackenzie, Vicki  Reincarnation: The Boy Lama, Bloomsbury, London, 1988
 Mackenzie, Vicki  Reborn in the West: The Reincarnation Masters,
 Bloomsbury,   London, 1995
 Mullin, Glenn H. Death and Dying: The Tibetan Tradition, Arkana,
 London, 1986
 Sogyal Rinpoche,  The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,  Rider, London,