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Death and Dying in Tibet

Written by: Michelle Belanger

Death is something that is greatly feared throughout our Western civilization. For many, it is seen as the end of Self, the moment when the electric activity in our brains that we identify as “I” is snuffed out, never to exist again. And yet other cultures have had very different views on death and dying. The Tibetan Buddhists, of all religions, have devoted a great deal of thought and study to the notion of death. This article presents some of their findings.

The Process of Death
According to the Tibetan tradition, the body contains five main “rlungs” or “winds.” Rlung (pronounced lyoong) is comparable to the Sanskrit concept of prana and can also be translated as “vital-air,” “vital-force” or “psychic-force” (Evans-Wentz, 90). Each of these five winds are tied to an element, a chakra, and a physical sense in the Tibetan system. When death is imminent, these winds, their elements, and their corresponding energy centers begin to disintegrate and dissolve from the body. The stages through which these winds dissolve follow a set sequence, and the symptoms experienced at each stage allow one to judge the progression of the death process.

The first stage of death begins with the destruction of the navel chakra and is known to the Tibetans as “earth sinking into water.” At this stage in the death process, the body becomes heavy. The dying person feels as if he or she is being pressed down by a great weight. As the earth element dissipates, this gives way to a shaky, watery feeling in all the limbs. He or she can no longer digest solid food but can only take in liquids. The warmth of the body retreats from the limbs and remains only in the center, near the heart.

The outward signs of this stage that are visible to observers include a growing pallor that makes the skin take on a pasty or moldy appearance. The face becomes shrunken and hollow. The eyes, which once were bright, become lackluster. The eyes may tear and the nose runs uncontrollably.
As the dying person experiences the inner signs of this stage of the death-process, he or she begins to feel mentally heavy and sluggish. The body loses strength so the dying person can no longer hold things or stand on his or her own. The voice changes and talking becomes difficult. The sight begins to blur so that images become indistinct, and it seems as if one is gazing through water. The arrival of this water-like mirage is the secret sign that tells the skilled practitioner that this stage of the death-process has begun.

The second stage of the death-process is known as “water sinking into fire.” At this point, the dying person first feels clammy and then this cold, damp sensation gives way to an overpowering sensation of fevered heat. Everything in the body begins to feel dried out. The mouth and tongue become dry; it becomes hard to swallow, as there is almost no spittle. The lips become pale, white, and shrunken. The sensation of hearing becomes dim, so the dying person cannot perceive sounds or speech distinctly.

The inner signs at this stage involve a loss of mental clarity. The dying person becomes confused and bewildered. He or she hallucinates and may be lucid one moment, then recognize nothing of his or her surroundings in the next. The dying person also becomes anxious and fretful. As the ties to the body have begun to slip away, the body begins to grow unresponsive and numb.

The secret sign is one of smoke, and the dying person perceives that he or she is enveloped by this. The dissolution here is concerned with the heart-center, which in the Tibetan system is a merger of the heart and solar plexus chakras, situated about midway between these two. As the water-energy is released and consumed by the fire, this center begins to dissolve.

As fire gives way to wind, there is a sensation of lightness and rising, “as though the body were being blown to atoms” (Evans-Wentz, 93). This is the dissolution of the “downward-moving wind” tied to the sacral center (Nyima, 89). The dying person loses control over the bowels and bladder. He or she also loses the sense of smell. The feverish heat that beset the dying person in the previous stage is all burned away and the dying person begins to feel cold. Internally, the dying person finds it difficult to think, to hold onto any thought at all. If he or she is capable of perceiving the secret sign, it will seem to the dying person that he or she is surrounded by rising sparks, or fireflies.

The upward-moving wind, tied to the throat, then dissipates. This is that stage known as “wind to space.” Breathing becomes difficult. Exhalations are long and rattling while inhalations are short and come only with much strain. The dying person can no longer swallow either food or drink. Eventually, the breathing becomes very irregular and shallow, so the dying person takes short breaths in wheezing gasps. The sensation of taste is lost, as is the sense of the body. At this point, the dying person will feel as if he or she is at the center of a dying candleflame, which is about to go out.

After the dissipation of wind, the dying person may be, for all intents and purposes, clinically dead. But experiences continue, nevertheless. Although the physical breath has stopped, the internal circulation of energy continues. This pranic “breath” continues within the central nervous system for a span of time, during which the dying person experiences the rising of the white, the red, and the black.

The experiences of white, red, and black require a little of background explanation. The red and the white elements are “bindu” or seeds given to a child by its male and female parents at the moment of conception.

The female element is connected to the moon, luminosity, and whiteness. It is stored in the brain center and is associated with the quality of desire. The male element is connected to the sun, radiance, and redness. It is stored in the sacral center and is associated with the quality of aggression. After the dissipation of the wind, the white essence descends from the brain to the heart-center. At this point, the dying person internally perceives a glow like luminous moonlight in an expansively dark sky. After the descent of the white, the red essence ascends from the sacrel center to the heart. During this point, the dying person experiences a glow like the radiance of the setting sun. When the two drops merge at the heart-center, there is the experience of utter darkness or what Thurman describes as a “sky full of bright dark-light” (43). This is the experience of the black. At this point, the dying person loses consciousness.

After the darkness descends within, the dying person, if he or she is attentive, may then experience one final stage of dying. This is the stage of imminence to trascendency. The consciousnes expands to a pure, non-dualistic state, and the dying person perceives the pure light of transparency. In the West, this stage has been associated with the “light at the end of the tunnel” that is such a hallmark of near-death experiences. The Tibetans believe that at this point, the individual soul experiences itself as it truly is: immortal and undifferentiated from the totality of the Universe. If the dying person can hold onto this state of super-consciousness through the death-process, he or she can attain Buddhahood and gain release from and conscious control over the process of incarnation.

This experience of the pure light of transparency lasts for but a moment, and then what the Tibetans call the six-fold knot of the heart, the lynch-pin of the subtle and central nervous systems, unravels, and the dead person is propelled completely from his or her body. It is at this point that the physical death process is complete, and the deceased is now in the Bardo, or between-life state.