Life, Death and After Death

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
London, 1982 and Geneva, 1983. (Archive #323 044)

The essence of this book is a weekend seminar on death, intermediate state and rebirth. The topic is particularly poignant as this was the last teaching Lama gave in the West; he passed away some five months later. But here he was his usual boisterous, punchy, direct, funny, loving and compassionate self, treating death in his incomparable light yet serious way.

These teachings are also available on DVD. You can watch video excerpts in Chapter TwoChapter Four and Chapter Six, or go to our YouTube channel.

2. Why We Should Understand the Death Process

Tonight I’m going to give a brief introduction to the Buddhist view of human reality, focusing on death, the intermediate state and so forth.1

Buddhism explains human beings’ higher qualities of intuition, intellect and intelligence; we maintain that human growth is very different from that of vegetables. Each of us has a long history; we’ve been developing a long time, especially our consciousness.

Buddhism also explains that the fundamental nature of human consciousness is pure and clear; that the nuclear essence of human beings is their mind, not this body of flesh and blood. Furthermore, we believe that recognizing our lives as pleasurable or miserable depends largely on how our mind interprets them. If you think your life is miserable, it becomes miserable.

Therefore, at their root, human problems are created by each individual’s mind, not by God or Buddha. But since we have the ability to mess up our own lives, we also have the ability to solve our own problems.

It’s a mistake to think that our mental problems are as vast as the universe, embracing space and sky, and therefore, “Until I destroy the sun and the moon I’ll never be able to solve my problems.” That’s just wrong. We simply need to recognize that we’re responsible for solving our own problems because we’re responsible for the actions of our body, speech and mind. We can’t blame others.

With respect to human problems, most are intellectually generated. Of course, there are problems at the deeper, intuitive level, but most problems, such as emotional disturbances and anxiety, come from the way we think.

When we were babies, we didn’t have political problems, did we? When we were babies, we didn’t have economic or societal problems. That’s because we were too immature for ego conflict or intellectualization. When we were babies we didn’t have religious conflict, religious dissatisfaction or philosophical or racial conflict; we didn’t have those kinds of intellectual problem.

But as we grow, we begin to intellectualize: “What is society? Who am I? How should I identify myself? What is my significant archetype?” Our ego wants some kind of identity, something to hold on to in a grasping way. It can’t be natural. That’s why we’re completely artificial, confused and dissatisfied.

You can see in the modern world most human problems come from conflicted relationships between people. Men have trouble with women; women have trouble with men. All this comes from intellectual games, not intuition.

Our intellectual concepts fabricate beliefs such as, “This object is the best for me to grasp at. If I can’t have it I’ll kill myself. Other things are not reality for me; this object is my only reality.” In this way we fix our intellectual concepts and finish up committing suicide. So you can see how human intellectual problems are unnatural, unrealistic and completely divorced from reality.

For example, your deluded mind describes an apple as “fantastic. It has a beautiful red color, I love it so much.” That’s the exaggerated way you describe anything you’re attached to and why you finish up with a sick mind. Fundamentally, it’s all fantasy; you project your fantasy onto objects and finish up miserable and dissatisfied. You don’t relate to the way an object actually exists, only to your fantasized projection of it.

However, from the Buddhist point of view, this gives you the ability to examine your own mind to see if your thinking is positive or negative; to see if your projection is a fantasy or not. You are capable of this.

Buddha is one who is totally developed. Each of us has the potential to develop in the same way; we can develop ourselves to the full and eradicate all polluted thought.

When we think about how to cope as a member of society, when we try to be intelligent, figure out how to take advantage of society, of the country and each other, basically, all such thinking comes out of intellectual, artificial, grasping desire. As a result, we end up miserable. This is especially true of modern society, where everybody’s trying to cope by intellectualizing and being as intelligent as they can be, but most people still become extreme, miserable and out of control. If you build up this huge fantasy of yourself and how things should be, you reach the point where you cannot cope with that situation. You drown in the ocean of your personal fantasy world. You make it very difficult for yourself.

My suggestion is, therefore, before you reach that state of tremendous confusion, just slowly, slowly try to eliminate the causes and conditions of your confusion. If you do, things will get better and better.

Question whether your intellectual life is good or bad. The Buddhist point of view is that you should question the way you think. Instead of allowing your intellect to rule you, use your discriminating wisdom to analyze whether what you think and do is worthwhile or not.

The reason that I say that our problems—global, societal and personal—are not natural is that they’ve been built up by our ego’s intellectualization. We can see this because when we were babies we didn’t have those problems. And when we die, we don’t have them either.

The Lens of Meditation

As you know, Tibetan Buddhism places a lot of emphasis on meditation. What meditation does is allow you to see clean clear what’s going on in your mind; through it you can see your conventional, superficial ego conflict. That’s the purpose of meditation. The moment you meditate you gain access to states of mind beyond your emotional ego conflict. In that way you’re able to view your mind as if you were looking at an external object, except here you’re seeing what’s going on within your mind.

All people have daily problems: ego conflict problems, emotional problems, various obsessions and so forth. We all have problems. But we’re also capable of seeing what lies in our mind beyond them. You shouldn’t think, “I’m pretty confused. My whole nature must be confusion. I have no hope of releasing my confusion or clearing it up.” That’s a wrong attitude; it devalues your fundamental human quality.

Buddhist psychology is sort of humanistic. Buddhism is essentially a scientific religion. It focuses on human problems and how to stop them. The emphasis is not on Buddha or God. Therefore, it’s worthwhile that we investigate the reality of our own consciousness rather than ignore our mind and place all our attention on our body. That’s unhealthy and unbalanced. True satisfaction does not come from the flesh-and-blood body but from the mind. Also, the nature of the mind is completely different from that of the brain.

The reality of our human life is that we are capable of solving our own problems. We should understand very strongly that “My problems are my baby; I have to take care of them myself.” By thinking in this way we develop deep self-confidence. How do we come to that understanding? It’s because all human beings have wisdom and intelligence. Don’t think that human nature is total ignorance. We all have wisdom, love and compassion. Abandon thoughts such as, “I’m a completely angry person; I’m full of hatred. I have no love, no wisdom, no compassion.” That’s a completely nihilistic view of your reality.

When you trust yourself and feel confident, when you’ve had some experience of your own wisdom and compassion, you become more natural and allow your intuition to develop, but when you’re too intellectual and egotistic you damage your intuition. You’re born with intuition intact; your original intuition is uninfluenced by philosophy, religion, teachers or the environment. It’s there but it has to be protected in such a way that it’s allowed to function without being shut down and suppressed.

As I said above, we should recognize that we humans create all our own problems. We cannot blame society, parents or friends. We create all our own problems and suffering; therefore, we can create our own liberation.

If we die a natural death, during the process, all our concepts—political, economic, societal, racial, capitalist, communist and so forth—naturally go into space and disappear. Anything we think about, any selfish attitude with which we take advantage of other people by thinking that we’re intelligent and they’re foolish, dissolves into space. And not only at the time of death—the process of going to sleep is similar to that of a natural death with respect to the absorption of the elements and concepts. In other words, every time we go to sleep, even then all our ego conflicts as well as the various concepts I mentioned before dissolve. That’s why it’s better just to go to sleep rather than get all emotional, stressed, agitated and angry. In sleep we go into a natural, fundamental state of consciousness in which our intellect no longer functions.

Therefore, in the Buddhist tradition, we prefer to meditate early in the morning because during the night all our polluted concepts have disappeared and our mind is a little clearer then than later in the day. During the day the energy of polluted concepts builds up; during sleep they subside. When we awaken they return slowly, but they’re usually hidden from our view. So, when we meditate early, our mind is more neutral than extreme and our concentration tends to be better than at later times, when it’s more sluggish and distracted.

Actually this doesn’t apply only to meditation. Even if you’re not a meditator, when you have something you want to think about clearly, you’re better off doing it early in the morning. Also, Buddhist meditation doesn’t mean only single-pointed concentration; we have analytical meditation on reality as well.

However, no matter who you are, it’s very important to know how your mind works in daily life, while you’re asleep and during the death process. It’s essential that you educate yourself in this. If you do, you’ll have no fear that dying is horrible, like falling into a black hole; that death’s a black hole that’s going to suck you in and eat you up.

From the moment we were born we’ve been destined for death. We think that dying is a big deal, worse than losing a job, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, husband or wife. That’s the wrong attitude. We think that dying is negative, but that’s just our projection.

Death is better than a flower, for example. A flower cannot give you tremendous peace and bliss. It can give you something, but not that. Death, however, can give you both: tremendous peace and tremendous bliss. Death is better than your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife because they give you very little bliss. They cannot truly solve your problems. They can alleviate emotional anxiety momentarily, perhaps, but not for long. At the moment of death, however, all anxiety and other emotional problems are totally cut off for a long period of time.

The process of a natural death is actually quite slow. Each of the four elements—earth, water, fire and air—deteriorates, or absorbs; the five aggregates—form, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors and consciousness—also absorb; and the dying person gradually goes through the experience of a series of internal hallucinatory visions.

Normally we think that looking at visual objects is a fantastic pleasure, a necessary sensation. We think it’s important and grasp at such objects as much as we can. The Buddhist idea is that we be as detached as possible from sense objects.

Loosening up

I’m sure you’ve heard of renunciation. Actually, it’s a most natural thing. Why? When you were a baby you didn’t have the kinds of problems that you do now; you didn’t have the societal attachment that you’ve now built up within yourself; you didn’t have all the sensory objects that you do now. When you were in your mother’s womb you’d already renounced everything; you had no external objects to grasp at. You didn’t have even one grape! You were naturally renounced.

Not being renounced means, for example, you have one car—that’s not enough. You have two cars—that’s not enough either; you need a boat. You have a boat but that’s not enough—you need a bigger one. Your wants are infinite; that’s the nature of dissatisfaction. But when you’re born you’re born with renunciation. What I mean is that at that time you don’t have much grasping, you don’t have so much to worry about. You arrive in the world relatively free. But then you build up your attachments and with them your worries. Then you die and again naturally renounce. So, be natural. Don’t think that the renunciation and detachment Eastern philosophy talks about are some kind of polluted Oriental ideas.

Satisfaction does not depend on material objects; satisfaction comes from simplicity. I’m not saying this because I’m jealous of people from rich economies; I’m not saying wealthy people are bad. Nevertheless, rich or poor, we all need simplicity to experience inner satisfaction. I’m not jealous of Westerners’ pleasures or wealth.

The question is, why are you dissatisfied? You always lay the blame outside—“This is not enough; that’s not sufficient.” That’s not true. Something’s missing inside of you. That’s what you have to recognize.

When I refer to detachment I don’t mean you need to totally renounce. Being detached means being a little more easy-going, not hanging on too tightly. It means making yourself a little bit loose instead of always being uptight. Loosen up.

Therefore, when I say that Swiss people should renounce I don’t mean that you have to give away all your money. You can lead a happy life with money as long as you enjoy it in a reasonable way with some kind of appreciation for life by looking at the lives of people in the Third World. If you just hoard your Swiss francs, you’ll become very unhappy with your objects of pleasure. Instead, you should appreciate your Swiss money and pleasures in a relaxed kind of way: “I should enjoy what I have and be satisfied.” Think like that. Otherwise, even if you have all the money in Switzerland you won’t be happy; all it will do is make you miserable.

According to Buddhist psychology, whether or not an object satisfies you depends on the decision made by your mind. If you’ve already decided, “This is nice; it makes me happy,” then whenever your eye contacts whatever it is, you think, “Oh, that’s nice.” If your mind has already decided, “He’s a very bad guy,” whenever you see him you automatically think, “Oh, he’s bad.”

Why does Tibetan Buddhism teach us to understand the death process and train us to deal with it? It’s so that when the time of crisis arrives and the various illusory visions arise, instead of being confused, we’ll know what’s going on and will recognize illusions as illusions, projections as projections and fantasies as fantasies.

After the four elements have dissolved and disappeared and the breathing has stopped, the subtle consciousness still remains. At this point Western doctors will say that the patient is dead and put him in the freezer but from the Buddhist point of view, even though the person’s not breathing, he’s still alive, with four visions yet to come: the white, red, black and clear light. These visions arise after the breathing has completely stopped. Accomplished meditators recognize these visions as they come and go and can remain for many days or even months in the blissful clear light state, in direct contact with universal reality, free of any polluted view.

Skeptical Westerners will say, “This is just the Buddhist faith; this monk’s just talking about what he believes; it has nothing to do with us,” but that’s not true. This is human experience, although it may not be yours.

Did you hear about the French man who was pronounced dead by his doctors but two hours later woke up and subsequently wrote about his experience of death? He wasn’t a religious man, a believer, he knew nothing about Buddhism, but still, he was thought to be dead for two hours and after that time awoke.

However, whether or not you believe what Buddhism says about the death process, an easy way to understand it is to become familiar with the process of going to sleep. That’s a good example of what happens at the time of death. I believe that now there’s even scientific equipment that can monitor the sleep process and the dissolution of concepts at that time, so by conducting this kind of analysis you can become familiar with the process without having to rely on the Buddhist explanation. If you understand this you can easily relate it to the death process.

We’ve run out of time and I don’t want to keep you too long, but in case what I’ve said has made you more confused I’d better take some questions.

Q. Humans only know things by comparison. For example, we only know hot because of cold and vice versa. Similarly, it seems necessary to have bad things in order to appreciate the good. In that case it is likely that imperfection is part of the perfection of the creation to which it permits movement. How do you consider it possible to eliminate the bad and keep only the good?

Lama. You don’t need to worry that there’ll be no good if there’s no bad. Miserable thinking is what’s bad. Of course, I agree that miserable and happy are interdependent conditions, but you can see that you can eliminate a certain degree of misery and generate more happiness. You can experience that for yourself.

Q. Can you talk about possible conflicts that might arise for a Christian who wants to use Buddhist methods?

Lama. That’s no problem. Again, Buddhism and Christianity come from the intellect. Why? There may be some slight philosophical differences between them but philosophy is a bit like clothing. Swiss people wear suits; Tibetans wear chubas. On the other hand, some Swiss like yak butter and I like Swiss cheese and chocolate. So what?

I have many elderly lady students in Indiana, America, who are Christian, but we teach them Buddhism, how to meditate, the meaning of life. We are dealing with life every day and Buddhism can help with that. Buddhism is not against God; Buddhism is not against Buddha. Buddhism simply talks about the daily problems humans face. These old ladies—some of them are around eighty years old— told me that Buddhism enhances their understanding of the Bible: “I didn’t really understand the Bible before, but Buddhism has helped me do so.” They’ve really told me that. This is my anthropological research!

Let’s take problems for example. Buddhism says the mind is the creator of problems; Christianity says that God created everything. For me, there’s no contradiction. The Christian doctrine of God as the creator of everything is good for the Western mind because otherwise the Western ego thinks, “I made everything.” Western individualism is so powerful. Westerners think they are the creator or the principal force, so that when they hear, “God is the creator, not you,” they slow down. The Buddhist explanation is also good: when we hear that the creator of our problems is our own mind, we don’t blame Lord Buddha.

So I definitely agree. Of course, I’m not well educated in the Christian Bible, but still, I have studied it to a certain extent and I’ve studied a little Buddhism, so from my point of view the essence of Christianity and the essence of Buddhism go together without contradiction.

For example, let’s say European Buddhist people think, “Buddhism has meditation; I like that. Christianity has no meditation.” That’s a wrong conception. European Buddhists think, “I’ve found Buddhism; Buddhism is very good. I can meditate every day; I can even meditate in the bathroom. I don’t need to go to church. Christianity has no meditation.” Their egos are proud to have found Buddhism. That’s just wrong because they don’t understand that in fact Christianity does have meditation. Unfortunately they’re simply ignorant of their own country’s religion.

Q. Why is a baby crying when he’s hungry if he’s completely detached?

Lama. Oh, good debate. A baby cries because it’s hungry. But a baby doesn’t cry because he lost his wife or girlfriend. And a baby doesn’t cry for chocolate like we do. Do you think babies have political problems? Not enough wages? Can’t find a job? OK, I think that’s clear.

Q. Many people have had experiences similar to death while on drugs. What do you think?

Lama. I think that’s a good example. That’s human experience. I think it helps them understand that the human being is not only the body, that besides the body there’s the consciousness, which is actually the nuclear essence of the human being. But drugs can also make you lose your memory, for example. So taking drugs has an up side and a down. However, once you’ve had a drug experience you’re better off not doing it again. It’s like once you’ve had a bad experience with a girlfriend you should avoid that in future too.

Q. I thought that the consciousness of the dream state was gross but you said that the intellect disappears when we dream. I would like to understand this better.

Lama. First you go to sleep, then, when all four elements have dissolved and so forth you reach the clear light. At that point you manifest a dream body, which is like being in a nightclub! But sleep and dream are different. From sleep you have to manifest a dream body, then the dream mind can function. When you awaken, the process goes in reverse: the elements of the dream body absorb, you return to sleep and then gradually wake up. What I want you to understand is that the states of sleep and dream are different.

Q. Does the dream state produce karma? Do we create karma as we dream?

Lama. Yes, we do. In tantra we say that death is like going to sleep, and passing from death into the intermediate state [Tib: bardo] is like dreaming because there’s a certain similarity in the experiences.

When we die, the elements of the gross body absorb. Similarly, when we go to sleep, our gross body and concepts absorb. Then, when we’re asleep we enter a kind of clear light experience and then manifest a subtle body, the dream state body, which is similar in nature to the bardo body and acts in a way similar to the bardo.

The dream state body is more subtle than our normal body; the dream state mind is more subtle than the waking state mind. Buddhist meditators have much experience of the dream state mind being far more clean clear than the waking state mind when it comes to seeing into the future and things like that. Also, we say that whatever expresses itself in your dreams, whatever pictures you get, totally relate to what’s going on in your waking state life, and we don’t say that what you experience in your waking state has greater reality than what happens in your dreams. Both experiences are equally real.

Q. Since all of us have the capacity to go beyond problems, can we say that beings can be unhappy only when they can think, use their intellect, cry or just say whatever they like?

Lama. Well, your question isn’t all that clear to me but in a way, I agree. If people do not have discriminating wisdom as to what they should think and what they should not, then whatever garbage thoughts come into their mind just gush out verbally and manifest physically as well. Everything comes out and this can create very heavy karma. But humans have the ability to change their thought patterns. If the thought of insulting somebody arises we have to control it; we should not just say whatever comes into our head. That’s wrong.

Westerners have the misconception that they should do whatever their mind tells them; say whatever they want. This is totally extreme. Your mind is like a mad elephant; what kind of damage will that do if you let it run wild? Since you realize that you have an egotistic mad elephant mind, be careful. Doing what it wants, saying whatever you think, doesn’t mean that you’re open. That’s mistaken openness from my point of view—if you open your accumulated garbage, it stinks! If you release your nuclear missile, watch out!

Our thoughts have a long history. They don’t come out of nowhere, just like that. Thoughts are like clouds. Clouds require many conditions to come together: moisture, wind and so forth. Thoughts are like that; they need cooperative conditions, interdependent ideas and then they come. So when you see certain undesirable thoughts starting to form, you can cut them off before they develop.

Thank you very much. I hope I have not created more confusion for you. We’re all working together for peace and liberation, so I’m very happy about that.


1  This first talk of this series was presented as a Friday night public lecture in a large auditorium. The rest of the seminar took place in a smaller facility to fewer people. [Return to text]