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.

Lama Yeshe teaching at Royal Holloway College, UK, 1975. Photo: Dennis Heslop.
3. The Nature of the Mind

Each human being has a mind, and that mind has three divisions: gross, subtle and most subtle. Similarly, we have a body, and that too has three divisions: gross, subtle and most subtle.

The gross consciousness comprises the five sensory consciousnesses that we use every day. The subtle consciousness can include things like intuitive ego and intuitive superstition. They’re subtle in the sense that we can’t see or understand them clearly. The gross mind is so busy that it obscures the subtle. When the gross mind is no longer flashing, or functioning, the subtle mind then has a chance to arise. And that’s one of the functions of Tibetan Buddhist tantra: it eliminates the gross concepts, giving the subtle mind space to function. That’s the business of tantra.

Also, the gross mind has no strength, no power. Even though it understands certain things, it’s relatively weak. The subtle mind has much more power to penetrate and comprehend.

Meditation cuts the gross, busy mind and allows the subtle consciousness to function. In that way it performs a similar function to that of death. However, to do the kind of meditation that leads us through the death process, we need strong single-pointed concentration.

As you know, Buddhism explains emptiness [Skt: shunyata], the nature of universal reality. We experience emptiness when we have eliminated the gross, superficial, conventional mind, allowing it to manifest. Even people who have never heard of emptiness and have no idea what it is experience great emptiness in their mind during the death process when all their busy minds have dissolved. The moment your gross, crowded concepts stop, you feel some space, emptiness. There’s nothing you actually empty, but because your concepts are so crowded, because your mind is so full, when all that content disappears you experience emptiness.

Sometimes when Buddhist philosophers describe shunyata—“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah”—it sounds so complicated. And it’s true; Buddhist philosophy can be very sophisticated. Ordinary people don’t understand. “How can I possibly understand shunyata? Nagarjuna says, ‘Blah, blah, blah’; Chandrakirti says, ‘Blah, blah, blah.’” But when we really bring it back down to earth, all we’re saying is, when you cut your crowded superstitions, the experience will come; when you eliminate all your busy concepts, the experience of shunyata will arise, as it does in the death process.

At the moment we’re normally far from reality—from the reality of ourselves, the reality of all that exists—because we’re enveloped by a heavy blanket of superstition. One blanket of superstition; two blankets of superstition; three blankets of superstition . . . this blanket, that blanket, another blanket . . . . All these gross blankets, gross minds, completely built up, like Mt. Meru, like Mt. Everest—so heavy that you can’t shake them off.

Now, I don’t know what methods you normally use, but our business this weekend is to look at the Buddhist method of slowly, slowly removing these blankets one by one: meditation. And in order to do that, we have to understand the characteristic nature of our own mind.

First of all, the mind is not a material substance; it has no shape or color. It’s a kind of formless, colorless energy: the energy of thought or consciousness. Therefore its nature is clean clear and it takes the reflection of phenomena inside. Even thoughts you consider to be heavy and negative still have their own essence, their own clarity, in order to perceive reality or reflect projections.

Also, consciousness, or mind, is like space. The essence of space is its own nature, unmixed with pollution or clouds. The nature of clouds, or pollution, and the nature of space are different—even though pollution pervades space.

The reason why I’m mentioning the negative mind is that humans have a tendency to harbor preconceptions such as “I’m a bad person, my mind is bad, I’m too negative.” We always criticize ourselves in a dualistic way. Buddhism says that that’s wrong. The characteristic nature of space is not pollution; the nature of pollution is not space. Similarly, the nature of the consciousness is not negative. In fact, the Buddha himself said that buddha nature lies within each of us and its nature is pure, clean and clear. Also, Maitreya explained that if you put a diamond in kaka, its nature remains different from that of kaka and the nature of the kaka remains different from that of the diamond.

It’s important to know this. A clean clear mind exists within us; the fundamental nature of our consciousness is pure. But while our mind has its own essence of clarity, it’s covered by a contaminating heavy blanket of concepts. Nevertheless, its nature is still clean clear; our consciousness is clean clear. Therefore we have to recognize, “My nature, the essence of my consciousness, is not totally negative. The pure, clean clear nature of my mind exists within me right now.”

Actually, our consciousness has two characteristics, relative and absolute, and the nature of the relative is not negativity or superstition.

Christians might say that the human soul is pure, not negative. It is free of ego conflict, craving-desire, hatred and jealousy. Similarly, the relative human consciousness can go from whatever level it’s currently at all the way up to enlightenment. That doesn’t mean that ego conflict goes all the way to enlightenment; the dissatisfied, emotionally restless mind never goes through the first, second, third and other bodhisattva levels to the tenth and then enlightenment. That doesn’t happen.

The essence of the human consciousness or, we can say, the essence of the human soul, continuously goes up, up and up. The negative blanket of superstition never goes up. Each time we purify our negativities they just disappear, disappear, disappear . . . .

So, that’s the relative. With respect to the absolute nature of human consciousness, or soul, it is totally nondual. In the nonduality of the human mind there’s no mixed up confusion or emotional disturbance. No such thing exists; its nature is always clean clear. Therefore we should understand that the nuclear essence of each of us is our consciousness and that consciousness is not mixed with negativity. It has its own nature, both relative and absolute.

Sometimes we liken the mind to the ocean, where ego conflicts are like waves upon the surface. Concepts arise like waves, shake things up a bit and then subside back into the ocean of consciousness. So the consciousness of each of us is clean clear in nature and our craving desire, hatred and ignorance are like waves upon the surface. That means we have the capacity not to shake our consciousness; to some extent we can hold it without shaking. That’s what meditation does.

Now, with respect to motivation, negative motivation is also like a wave. It creates all the confusion, dissatisfaction, pain and misery we experience. All that comes from the negative motivation in our mind—that’s the root of all human problems. It’s most worthwhile to investigate this directly for yourself.

Still, we should understand that our own nature is not totally negative, not totally hopeless. We should respect our own nature, our own purity, our own characteristics. When we respect ourselves we respect others. If we interpret ourselves as a big hassle, selfish, totally hopeless and negative, we interpret others in the same way. That’s dangerous.

Meditation

When you meditate, it’s not your sense perception or sense consciousness that’s meditating. Western people sometimes get confused about this because they’re so used to the sense world being their only reality; out of habit, Western mentality is that reality is limited to what you can see, touch and so forth. But the sense consciousness is foolish. It does not have the intelligence to discriminate between right and wrong. That’s why as soon as we open our eyes we’re distracted by sense objects and the flashing of dualistic concepts. To avoid these foolish old habits of the senses I always recommend that you meditate with your eyes naturally closed.

You can see why. Your mind always wants to see beautiful things. It has already decided. Say you’re planning to go to the market. Before you leave home you start visualizing: “Apples are beautiful this time of year. Pears would be good too.” So when you get to the market and see the apples and pears, they appear beautiful because of your preconceptions.

Sense perception is like the Swiss population; consciousness is like the Swiss government. The Swiss government decides, “These people are good; those are bad.” The decision is made. The consciousness is like that. Our preconceptions decide ahead of time what objects are good or bad, so when the sense consciousness contacts those objects it sees them as good or bad. That’s why I say that sense perception is foolish—it doesn’t have its own strength and discrimination.

Moreover, sense perception sees only the gross reality. It has no way of understanding totality. Modern science tries to understand things by looking at them with ever more powerful microscopes but you can never penetrate their essence that way. Buddhism knows well that you can never understand emptiness like that.

So this afternoon we are going to meditate on our own consciousness. But don’t be afraid: “How can I meditate? I don’t know what my consciousness is. This monk’s telling me to meditate on my consciousness, but my problem is that I don’t know what it is. How can I meditate on it?”

Well, say, for example, you’re in a room where you can’t see the sun directly but you can see its rays coming in through the window. From seeing the rays, you can understand that the sun exists. Similarly, from experiencing your thoughts and motivations you can understand that your consciousness underlies them.

Looking at or simply being aware of your thoughts and motivations is good enough for you to be meditating on your own consciousness. Is that clear? I’ll say it again. One way of meditating on your consciousness is simply to be aware of your mind’s view. When you look at your own mind’s view, when you are aware of your own mind’s view, that’s good enough. I call that meditation on your consciousness.

Another way of doing this is to be aware of the essence of your own thoughts. You know the moment you close your eyes some kind of thought is going to arise—just be aware of its essence. I also call that meditation on your consciousness. Don’t worry whether your thoughts are good or bad—the essential aspect of both is clear, because both good thoughts and bad reflect phenomena.

When I say “meditation” I don’t mean that you should squeeze yourself. These days there are a lot of misconceptions about what meditation is, especially in the West. Some people think it means you should squeeze yourself tightly or even shake; others think it means you should just completely go loose. Both are wrong. With one, you’re completely distracted; with the other you’re completely sluggish.

Meditation is actually very simple. When you close your eyes, what happens is that your awareness begins to radiate, like a sensitive radar detector. A good radar detector picks up any kind of signal; it notices, it’s aware. Similarly, when you meditate your mind becomes aware; you become very sensitive or totally awake as to what’s going on. That’s what I call meditation—intensive conscious awareness. But I don’t mean that in the conversational sense: “Blah, blah, blah, oh, there’s a light, there’s something else.” It’s not like that.

However, I’d better explain what I mean by conversation. Let’s say we’re supposed to be meditating. We’re aware of what’s going on around us: a car goes by; there goes a truck . . . . We’re aware, but then what we should not do is start some kind of conversation about what we’ve noticed: “That must be a very nice truck. Perhaps it’s full of cheese or juice for sale.” Conversation. That’s what we should not do. We should be aware but in control and not start some kind of internal dialog.

In meditation you’re learning how to control and eventually eliminate the uncontrolled mind. Why are you out of control? It’s because your mind generates conversations: “He’s like this; she’s like that. He says this; I don’t like it. She says that; I like it.” All this kind of internal chatter is what I mean by conversation. The uncontrolled mind is constantly reacting but the controlled mind does not react at all. Somebody calls you a bad person but you don’t react, you don’t make conversation: “She said I’m bad. That hurt my ego, hurt my ego, hurt my ego, hurt my ego . . . .” That’s what I mean by reacting; that’s an uncontrolled mind, a mind obsessed.

The way I look at it, an obsessed mind has two objects: the beautiful object of craving desire or the repulsive object of aversion. And a mind obsessed with such objects cannot move away from them. That means you’re not free, not flexible. You’re always thinking, “This, this, this, this, this . . . .” That’s what obsessed means. And whether it’s an object of hatred or jealousy or craving desire, an obsessed mind is disturbed. Meditation teaches us to break the habit of reacting when an object of obsession appears.

Now, you may ask, what really is the benefit of awareness of your own consciousness as opposed to, say, awareness of a flower or a girlfriend or a boyfriend? There’s benefit in using the nature of your consciousness to generate awareness because, unlike boyfriends, girlfriends and flowers, consciousness doesn’t stimulate notions of concrete self-existence. Therefore, the beauty of watching, or being aware of, your own consciousness is that it leads to the breakdown of your heavy blanket, superstitious concepts and to the experience of great emptiness.

In order to solve our problems we need some experience. Intellectual “blah, blah” understanding is not enough. To break down concepts we need a way of gaining experience with our own mind, and when we’ve had such an experience we know that we’re really capable of solving our own problems. This encourages us: “I can do anything I want. I can really solve my problems.” From the Buddhist point of view, that’s the start of human liberation.

Normally we’re too intellectual. We’re constantly saying, “Good, bad, good, bad, good, bad.” When we meditate, we stop saying, “Good, bad, good, bad, good, bad.” The intellectual good-bad thinking gets stopped. Good-bad thinking is dualistic; it splits your mind. Just be aware; just be conscious.

We should be like the sun or the moon. They don’t think, “I’ll make people warm; I’ll give people light. How grateful they’ll be.” That’s not what they do and that’s how we should be: intensively aware without any intellectual good or bad. That’s very important.

Maitreya Buddha said that written texts and scriptures are like a bridge. In order to cross a river you need a reliable bridge. Once you’ve crossed the river you can say, “Bye-bye bridge.” If instead you start thinking, “Oh, this bridge is so kind, this bridge is so kind, this bible is so kind, this sutra is so kind,” if you get so attached to the scripture, it doesn’t make sense.

So what I’m saying is that from a certain point of view, intellectual good-bad is OK—it’s good to be able to discriminate between good and bad; that has some value—but always going “good, bad, good, bad, good, bad” doesn’t have much worth. You need some discriminating wisdom but at a certain point you have to go beyond it, leave it and just be.

Let go; just be

I said before that the experience of awareness of your own consciousness leads to the experience of nonduality. That might make you want to argue, “How can that lead to nonduality? There are two flowers there all the time; the sun and moon are both there all the time. There are crowds of people everywhere. How can I experience nonduality? Duality is always there.”

That’s true. However, although we experience duality is at the conventional level of reality, that doesn’t mean when we experience nonduality we become nihilists. It means we have a broad understanding of reality and the conventional world no longer sends vibrations through our mind.

That’s why you should not debate with yourself when you try to experience nonduality: “How can there be no duality? I can see two flowers.” At that time you have to put a stop to such debating minds. When meditating on nonduality you have to stop that kind of conversation. We’re trying to experience something, not destroy the flower. We’re trying to develop some kind of awareness and understand the totality of the flower. When you attain single-pointed concentration on the nonduality of the flower, at that moment of experience the flower disappears. The conventional flower disappears in the experience.

Similarly, when you’re experiencing the nonduality of yourself, there’s no concept of the hopeless you in that moment. That disappears. There’s no plaintive “Am I beautiful or ugly?” That kind of relative conversation disappears. At that moment there’s no thought of cosmetics; there’s no worry about not being beautiful enough. There are, however, fewer wrinkles—the less you worry the fewer your wrinkles!

Anyway, here I’m talking about the stage of conscious experience. But don’t worry, thinking, “I’m disappearing, everything’s disappearing; maybe I’m going to end up a nihilist.” Don’t worry about that. Just completely knock out all your wrong conceptions; destroy the entire kingdom of egotistic conceptions.

In this kind of meditation—intensive awareness of your own consciousness without interpretation, whether it’s good consciousness or bad—just be. And let go. Again, letting go doesn’t mean a spaced out letting go; it means intensive awareness. Intensive awareness is like the sun—the radiant consciousness is there; then just let go, just be, let go. That’s good enough.

Also, when you close your eyes, just relax your awareness. Sometimes different colors come; different visions come. Don’t make conversation with white color or anything else; just be.

In other words, whatever your experience of your consciousness, whatever that moment of experience, just remember that; just remember that one moment; stay with that memory. The continuity of the memory of awareness of your consciousness is good enough.

To conclude, what I’m trying to explain is that this weekend we’re simply trying to experience something. If you have a meditative experience of knocking out your blanket of superstition, this weekend course will have been worthwhile; if you don’t, it will not have been. That’s how I feel and it’s my human right to tell you.

Now, you don’t have to believe anything I say. There’s neither requirement nor obligation for you to do so. Simply try to experience. “This monk says that there’s an experience to be had. Is there or not?” That’s all you have to find out. But without meditation experience, you cannot be liberated. In that case, Buddhism cannot help.

Do you understand? It’s very simple. You don’t have to become a great meditator. Just relax and be conscious. Don’t use your sense perception’s good and bad; just be aware of your own consciousness without any interpretation. Just be. Even if bad thoughts come, don’t worry about them. And don’t reject them. The essence of bad thoughts is still the clean clear consciousness.

And don’t engage any objects that arise in conversation. Doing so is the worst enemy of meditation. [Lama picks up a huge mango from his side-table.] You’re supposed to be aware of your own consciousness but suddenly the thought of something else arises [Lama holds up the mango]. When it does, don’t reject it: “Oh, that’s a horrible thought.” Don’t get upset at the appearance of that thought. Just observe its essence within; just be aware at the subjective level. Don’t engage in any kind of conversation [examining mango closely]: “What’s this? Is it mine? Oh, it’s yellow; it’s so beautiful. Look at this; fantastic.” Don’t converse about the object.

It’s very important for meditators not to generate discursive thoughts of “this, this, this,” making some kind of normal conversation. Stop that. Just be conscious of the thought; just be aware of it. If you are, that thought can lead you beyond distraction to nonduality. Are you completely clean clear about this?

So, to conclude, when you meditate, first check your motivation. If you feel it’s a bit crazy, spend a little time doing breathing meditation. Breathe naturally and focus on your breath. After a while turn your attention to your own thought. That’s good enough. Thank you very much.

Next Chapter:

4. The Death Process »