Olivier Lejus with part two of his exploration of Buddhism's approach to death
In last month's column, I explored the contrast between the Western and the Buddhist approach to the reality of death. I asserted that there was a refusal and an inability in our culture to accept the simple fact that we will all die one day. As a result, when the end comes near, we are often fearful and woefully unprepared to face the unescapable ending.
In contrast, in Buddhism, there is a constant reflection on the impermanence of life and the awareness that each moment of our existence needs to be enjoyed to the full.
In Tibet, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is often used as a reference manual to guide the followers through the six stages as we move from one life into another. These steps are called bardo (meaning in-between, or transition). Our entire life can be viewed as a never ending accumulation of these in-between states. These include the moment between breathing in and breathing out, or between falling asleep and waking up, even the micro moments that occur between one thought and another. We could also use a musical analogy and consider that a melody is the result of the space, or interval, between one note and another.
There is a precise relation between the bardo states, and the level of consciousness we experience through the cycle of life and death. In Buddhist training, the followers are prepared through meditation to enter these variable degrees of awareness.
It is considered that these six bardo states provide unique opportunities for changes within us. The first three of these states occur when we are still alive. The first covers the entire period of our life from the period of our first breath to our death. Another bardo refers to our state during meditation, while the bardo of dreaming refers to the period when we are sleeping, which is regarded as an opportune time to train our brain. The other three stages cover the period of our death to our rebirth into a next life.
In the bardo of death, the process of dying is regarded as a means of purification. According to this spiritual guide, at the moment of our death, a clear light will envelop our body for a short time. This is a unique period of enlightened wakefulness called Rigpa. If at this moment we can recognise this great luminosity we will attain liberation.
However only those who have prepared with spiritual practice will be able to take advantage of this temporary occasion. The untrained mind, being still connected to old habits and behavioural patterns established in life, will be reluctant to make a leap of faith to embrace this period of change, and this brief opportunity will be often missed.
This is important, since only those who have been liberated at the moment of their death will be liberated in this lifetime and not in the bardo states later on.
Each of the bardos has its unique set of instructions and meditation practice. By following the advanced training practices prescribed, one can experience these levels of consciousness while we are still alive.
The foundation of this training lies in the practice of mindfulness. It teaches us how to live in the present at all times, and be fully attentive to every moment in our life. All too often our emotional energy is spent worrying about what happened in the past, or what might happen in the future.
We have to learn to wake up to the present moment, and the truth of what it is. The Buddha described the four foundations of mindfulness as: being aware of our bodies, being aware of our feelings and emotions, being aware of our thoughts, and being aware of events as they occur moment by moment.
Living in the present allows us to observe the transient nature of the entire universe. By looking at the myriad transformations that occur in nature every day, one realises that everything is temporary. Even if one does not believe in afterlife, or reincarnation, this awareness of our role in the macrocosm creates an expansive and liberating attitude towards death.
We can begin by becoming more aware of single bodily activities, such as walking or breathing. In the first instance, we break each step into multiple micro components such as lifting our foot, moving it forward, and putting it down. In breathing meditation, we concentrate on the sensation and location of our breath as it enters our nostrils.
The Buddhist author Lama Surya Das in his book Awakening the Buddha Within eloquently describes how, as we begin to be mindful, concentrating our attention to the smallest fraction of the present moment, something extraordinary takes place. We begin to relinquish our fascination with both the past and the future. As we learn to let go, we discover that all our energy that was wasted in nurturing fantasy, bitterness and regret is returned to us. For those of us who have spent entire lifetimes fixated on what was, or what could have been, this often brings a feeling of peace and liberation which is well worth the training.
Olivier Lejus MHSc (TCM), BHSc (Acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney