There is a natural tendency in people to shy away from the reality of death. Yet this refusal to acknowledge the impermanence of our earthly existence creates a deep anxiety that inhibits a person’s spiritual progress. Put another way, if we are to progress on the spiritual path, it is necessary to fully accept the impermanence of life and the certainty of death.
The ego is terrified by the thought of death, since it knows that it will cease to exist when that time comes. As a self-aware living entity, the ego wants more life; it seeks to survive this threat. But the ego knows, deep down, that there is no avoiding death, so the it deals with the inevitability of death by avoiding the issue.
By facing the reality of death, we are addressing the root fear of all fears. By ridding ourselves of that fear, we are able to live fearlessly without the normal requirement for security and permanence that holds most people firmly in its thrall.
The Buddha left detailed teachings on what happens to a person when they die. This is tremendously helpful for a person seeking liberation from the fear of death.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
More correctly known as the Bardo Thodol (or Liberation through Hearing), the Tibetan Book of the Dead in the Buddhist tradition is a detailed description of what one’s consciousness experiences in the period between death and rebirth.
The Bardo Thodol is an excellent guide to what happens to your consciousness after your physical body dies. Remarkable for its clarity, the Bardo Thodol has been used to good effect in Buddhism for many centuries since its inception in the 8th Century BCE. You can use it to help overcome your fear of death, and to prepare yourself for that inevitability.
The book is divided into three Bardos, or distinct stages:
Chikai Bardo (concerning the moment of death) in which a person is suddenly conscious of the luminous splendour of the colourless light of emptiness. This light is who you are at the core of your microcosmic self, and it is the same light that permeates the entire macrocosm. If you are not too attached to worldly things, your essence will naturally seek to merge back with the greater whole. In popular culture it is “The Light” that that is spoken of by people returning from near death experiences.
Chonyid Bardo (concerning the experience of reality) in which a person encounters various manifestations of the Holy Ones (Buddha, or Christ or other divine icon). The form these take is determined by your cultural background.
Sidpa Bardo (concerning the experience of rebirth) in which the sensual attachments that a person is most given to in life impels them to seek more of the same (sex, food, drink etc) in a new physical body. Liberation from rebirth requires that you rid yourself of these attachments before you die, since you will not be ready and able if you wait until after.
What happens when I die?
The Tibetan Book of the Dead in modern English
Publication date: 20/04/2011
Description of the soul's experiences when physical life has ended
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