Noble Living, Noble Caring, Noble Dying

Conversation: What’s Happening at Death?

Our Samye Insitute team continued the conversation at Gomde Cooperstown about the process of death. Here, Tulku Migmar discusses the signs of death—the actual physical dissolution of the body as it is explained in the Tibetan tradition.

Spiritual Practitioners Sometimes Sense Their Own Approaching Death

Tulku notes that the texts are very complicated, but there are a few signs we can know will occur during the dying process. Before dying, it is definitely very important to see the doctor. However, sometimes, when Tibetan people have a very bad sickness, sometimes they know that they are going to die. These are mostly quite good practitioners and some are the very best practitioners. They can see for themselves when they are going to die and often this kind of person doesn’t want to go to see a doctor. Perhaps their relatives will try to take them to see the doctor but they do not want to see one. Usually within one or two hours, they pass very peacefully. Tulku mentions that he has personally seen many such signs in lay people and even in sangha practitioners.

Physical Signs That Death Is Approaching

In the case of ordinary people, mostly when they get sick, they have to go to hospital and see the doctor. The doctor will try to save them, as much as possible. He will try to treat the person. Perhaps he will tell the patient that he has a few days or a few months left to live. This is the scientific way of doing things. Mostly people follow this approach. In some circumstances, there may not be a doctor. The person may not be a good practitioner but perhaps their relatives or children will want to know what the signs of dying are.

So, we can mention a few signs. Usually when a person is sick and in a very critical condition, most of the time the person’s mind wanders when he talks. He will ask his children, grandsons and granddaughters to come. If the grandfather, for example, is in a very bad condition, he will keep on asking every relative to come. This is one sign. He will do this for perhaps three or four days or a week and this is definitely one sign that he is going to leave.

Another physical sign is that the person’s lips become very dry. And sometimes the person will develop a lung infection such as pneumonia. Mostly the person cannot talk and they cannot swallow their saliva. This is another sign. But, of course, when a normal person has one of these symptoms, that is not a sign that they will die. However, in a sick person who is in a very bad condition, this is one of the signs.

Another sign appears when the person is lying in bed and is going to die, he never looks down—his eyes always look up. When we are OK, we generally look all around us. But, when the person is dying, he has this sign—he only looks up and never looks down. Additionally, sometimes when a thought arises, his hands will point to something. And he or she may do some quite weird things. Sometimes, if relatives don’t know about this, they will feel sad about what is happening.

In Tibetan villages, when the worse starts happening and people think that the person’s spirit is going, they start doing lots of prayers. They call the monks—someone whom they think can help. they do this when they think that the signs indicate that the person is going.

Dissolution of the Four Elements

How does the body of the dying person change? The body contains the four elements (earth, water, fire, and wind) and each of the elements starts decreasing or dissolving into the external elements. The water element dissolves into the external water elements and the person becomes totally dry. Then the fire temperature dissolves into the external fire elements, after which there is not much heat in the body – the body itself becomes very cold. When your elements start dissolving externally, you become very cold. If you touch such a person, only his heart is warm. There is no heat in the rest of the body—it is very cold when you touch it.

Similarly, the breathing changes—the person cannot breathe properly because the wind elements dissolve into the outside elements.

Why does this happen? When you start getting older, your body becomes like a very old cup—a 70 or 100 year old cup with a small hole in it. Then when you pour water into it, the cup keeps leaking. Similarly, our physical body becomes weak. And the elements cannot stay and they drop out. These are the signs of how the elements dissolve back into the external elements. And then, when the outside elements dissolve, there is the external death which means that the gross level of the body has actually died.

Internal Elements or Essences

At the same time, internally, Tibetan medicine speaks of the father and mother essences. And between those essences we speak of the life force—the air or wind. These are called our internal elements. We live based on the outside elements that support the body and this is why they are very strong. We call this life. Now suddenly the outside becomes very fragile and dissolves. This means that the inside is now very fragile as there is no external support. Then suddenly—boom—like a balloon being popped with a needle—the father essence and mother essence drop down and join. Internally, the breath ceases. In this shutdown, everything becomes pitch black—and this is called the real death—total death. During that period, the dying person feels totally lost. It is so dark. Before this, it was bright from the sun and moon.

Experienced Meditators and Tukdam

In Tibet, Nepal, and elsewhere, sometimes a strong practitioner enters the state we refer to as tukdam (thugs dam). This happens when, after the external elements have dissolved and only the inner elements remain, the person tries to maintain consciousness. He or she meditates and after the two drops—the father and mother essence—have merged, only the consciousness is left. There is no support. At first, the consciousness is supported by the subtle body and the subtle body is supported by the gross body. There are so many supports for the consciousness. But in this case, the outside support has dissolved and the inside essences have already merged and so there is no longer any support. All that is now left is consciousness.

When the person was alive, if he did not train his consciousness well on how to be independent and free, then he may be lost again because he does not know how to control, calm or be at peace. At this time, you are just left with your karma—whatever you have done in the past, during your lifetime. Then the karmic winds blow you and you have no control over what happens because whatever happens is based on your karma.

Meditating During the Death Process

But, if someone practiced meditation regularly sometimes, when such a person dies, he will be lying down and can still meditate. This happens to some people. How do you check the dead person? Some people check the heart. In Tibet, traditionally they put a small piece of butter on the heart. And if the heart is still warm, the butter will melt and this means that the person is still maintaining his meditation. He has already physically passed away. There is no longer any breathing but he is still warm. This means that he is meditating.

If the person continues to meditate then nobody will touch him. Because, if you touch the body, it will be a distraction and can disturb the meditation. It creates a very serious non-virtue when you disturb the body. If a meditator is meditating and you disturb her, then you accumulate so much negative karma because you are disturbing her meditation. This is a huge negative karma.

The Time of Death Is Not Certain

Tulku mentions that there are also many other small signs that a person is about to die. But we can’t predict everything exactly. Sometimes, there are some signs that occur three days, seven days, one month and three months before the death. We witness different signs that the person is leaving but of course they are not fixed. Some physical signs occur earlier, some later.

And sometimes, the person’s time has not come yet but he dies. We refer to this as an untimely death. This can also happen—sometimes it happens in an accident. Sometimes, a person can be sick in hospital and the doctor says he has six months to live but can dies within one or two months. At other times, it may take eight months before he dies.

No Fixed Time

Tulku explains this uncertainty of time often to families. When someone has cancer or something else, someone will always come to see Tulku. The person explains that his mother, brother or sister has cancer and the doctor says they have five or six months to live. But Tulku says that he always asks the person to think about is whether the doctor made their father, mother or brother. If the doctor created the person , then perhaps the doctor will know when he will die. However, the doctor didn’t create the person, did he? He was made as a result of his own karma and conditions. When the right conditions come together, we have a physical body. A doctor did not construct our bodies or give us life, so why does one believe everything that the doctor says? Of course the doctor says what he knows from the physical signs, but we do not need to listen to only what the doctor says.

Karma

Here is where we can think about karma. And Tulku reminds families that if the sick person has a sickness, he has it in his karma. But it is not unchangeable—the person should then create some good virtues by chanting Vajrasattva, doing some purification and accumulating some merit. If he or she cannot do this, then family and friends and sangha members can do so on behalf of him or her. Sometimes, when somebody has really done some prayers, later on he may hear that the cancer is better and he will live longer. We cannot actually say that the time of death is fixed.

Conditions Change

There are conditions that you can change. You can even change the karma of someone—anything is possible. It means that the time of death does not only depend on the doctor. It also depends on other things such as prayers. Moreover, it depends on causes and conditions and these effect the results of our karma. Therefore you have to try to know that when the time comes—whether there is or is not a doctor—that if you are very spiritual, you need to talk to someone who is spiritual. If not, maybe it will benefit you to talk with someone who knows ayurvedic medicine. There are many ways to do something. You can—and why not—perhaps save the person.

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Suggested Reading

Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, trans. and ed. by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991), vol. 1, pages 468–474.

Ngawang Zangpo, Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2002.

Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, trans. Richard Barron (Junction City: Padma Publishing, 2005), pages 41–48.

Padmasambhava, Legend of the Great Stupa, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1973

Padmasambhava & Jamgön Kongtrul, The Light of Wisdom, trans. by Erik Pema Kunsang (Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1986-1999), pages 43-47 & Appendix 5.

Taranatha, The Life of Padmasambhava, Shang Shung Edizioni, 2005

Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Shambhala, 1996.

Yeshe Tsogyal, Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, translated by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays (Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1978, republished 2008).

Yeshe Tsogyal, Lotus Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004.

‘The Life of Guru Padmasambhava’ in A Great Treasure of Blessings, The Tertön Sogyal Trust, 2004.