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 in Geneva, Switzerland, 1983. Photo: Ueli Minder.
Chapter 5. Understanding and Dealing with Death

Yesterday we were talking about the many confusing things that can occur during the death process. And as you know, from the Buddhist point of view, confusion and disease come from the three poisons: desire, hatred and ignorance. So all the hallucinated visions we experience at death come from these three poisons. If we were free from them we’d have no problems at the time of death. It would be blissful.

This is important to know. When we describe the death process, with the absorption of the four elements and the resultant confusion, we’re talking about people whose minds are occupied by the three poisons. The poisons are what cause imbalance of the body’s elements. Saying that the elements absorb means that the elements get out of balance.

As I also mentioned, when you listen to teachings on this topic you’ll hear things like “the elements absorb” or “earth sinks into water,” which is the kind of language found in Tibetan texts on this subject. This is just terminology. There’s no such thing as earth actually sinking into water, water sinking into fire and so forth. Scientifically speaking, one element deteriorates and disappears, causing bodily imbalance and mental confusion. Anyway, this deterioration and imbalance comes from the three poisons.

Those who have some familiarity with Tibetan medical terminology will have heard of rlung, usually in reference to a disturbance of the air element. When desire arises it produces strong air energy in your nervous system—the air doesn’t move smoothly and there can be hyperventilation. Jealousy and hatred disturb the bile. Hatred especially produces too much fire, an excess of the fire element. Ignorance produces an excess of water. So when one of the three poisons is strong it causes its corresponding element to get strong. This creates an imbalance among the elements, causes confusion within us and can even lead to death.

Our air element is supposed to preserve our life but if it gets out of balance we can die. It’s the same with our fire element: normally it sustains our life but if there’s an explosion of heat it can kill us. What about water? Water is necessary, but again, if there’s too much we can die. When our elements are correctly balanced, good things happen; when one gets way out of balance, we die. That’s our reality.

Some of you might have read the Bardo Thödrol [The Tibetan Book of the Dead]. In it there are descriptions of the horrible visions some people have when they’re dying, like being attacked by somebody with a knife and things like that. In one way, it looks kind of exaggerated: “How could that be?” It seems too much. Another way, however, I think it can be true, because we have accumulated so many layers of negativity—not just in this life but from beginningless previous lives, one piled on top of the other—that they ripen in this overwhelming way.

I heard on TV that there’s a singer who’s sold so many records that if you piled them up they would be higher than Mt. Everest. Our heavy blankets of confusion are just like that: if you piled them up they would be even higher than that . . . two or three times higher than Mt. Everest. So because of all these imprints of confusion it’s possible that during the death process all kinds of visions can appear.

For example, we see people in hospital with terminal cancer suffering greatly, going in and out of consciousness—for me, that’s like hell. When I see people in a cancer ward I don’t need any other explanation of hell. Of course, we have detailed explanations of hell, but for me, the cancer ward’s enough. It’s not usual suffering; it’s unusual, worse than animal suffering. Those patients are conscious, slip into unconsciousness and the death process, and then come to again. Have you seen people suffering like this? For me that’s a hellish experience. So I’m going to say that this kind of situation is absolutely the same as that which the Bardo Thödrol describes: exaggerated visions of yamas with horns coming to eat you and things like that.

I was in San Francisco a few years ago and went to see some cancer patients. That night I couldn’t sleep; seeing those people was too much for me. It was like hell.

That’s why it’s so important that you keep yourself clean clear all the time. Every day, keep yourself as clean clear as possible. Don’t create confused situations with your body, speech or mind. It’s simple. Then you’ll have no problems. You’ll be balanced both internally and externally and will also not be in danger of contracting a serious disease.

When you meditate and the negative forces of confusion enter your mind, recognize them for what they are: confusion, illusion and untruth. That will help you understand non-self-existence and nonduality when you’re dying. You’ll develop a more stable comprehension of reality and that will make a big difference as to whether or not you can cope with what’s happening at the time of death. If the illusions that appear shake you too much, you’ll have no control, but if, when the illusory appearances come, you have a strong mind, you’ll be able to maintain control.

If you’re seriously ill with advanced disease and tremendous confusion, you can’t cope; you can’t keep yourself clean clear because of the overwhelming power of your confusion. But if you die in a more normal way without tremendously heavy illness and confusion, you can cope with the death process by yourself and keep your consciousness clean clear. When the various stages of death occur you’ll be able to explain to yourself, “Now this is happening, now that will come . . .” and watch what’s going on almost as if were happening outside of yourself. What I’m saying is that being conscious and having control during the death process depends a lot on your mind’s being free of the three poisons. That’s the conclusion.

Perhaps you’re thinking how is it possible for craving desire to arise at the time of death? Craving desire arises on the basis of fantasy. Our normal, everyday, waking-state life’s craving desire is, of course, a fantasy, but even though when we are dying our eyes are closed and everything is shutting down, still, the experience of past fantasies can arise and cause us to grasp at our future coming life. This is similar to the way that craving desire can arise so strongly in our dreams that we ejaculate. Our dying body can be as cold as ice with no circulation but these kinds of things can be going on within our mind.

Fortunate people who die naturally, without heavy disease or confusion, have a very smooth death. The advantage they have is that of clean clear control. Even though some confusion might arise when their elements absorb, they can recognize the various appearances as hallucinations and understand that there’s no self-existent earth, water, fire and so forth, and therefore maintain control. Then, slowly, slowly, as more elements absorb, they naturally become clearer and clearer and approach non-self-existent, or nondual, unification and are slowly led to the completely clear light stage. Instead of causing confusion, the death process allows such fortunate people to touch reality. Death can bring good things or bad; here I’m talking about some good things that can happen.

However, you shouldn’t worry that death must be difficult and rebirth even worse; that you might be reborn in the lower realms as a tiger, a donkey, a monkey or something. I tell you, don’t worry. Even though we might not have great wisdom, we do have a certain degree of loving kindness, and if we die with loving kindness in our mind we’ll never have to worry about getting a bad rebirth. With loving kindness in your mind there’s no way you’ll be reborn in the lower realms.

The OM AH HUM meditation (continued)

Now we’re going to do another short meditation. Last time we purified our body; now we’re going to purify our speech. This means purifying our uncontrolled negative speech, such as that which harms others, telling lies, causing pain to others and so forth. That’s what I mean by negative speech.

Visualize a red AH at your throat chakra radiating red light energy, like the sun at sunset. Recognize this red AH as the pure speech of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Light radiates from the AH and your whole body is embraced by radiant red light energy, especially your throat chakra. At the same time, recite AAAHHH for a couple of minutes. Then stop, just as we did last time, and remain in a state of total intense awareness of your own consciousness. Stay there without any expectation or interpretation of anything. Just be intensively aware. Stay there.

[Everybody recites AAAHHH . . . .]

When you experience the non-self-existent I, or nothingness, zero, emptiness or space, understand that this is the truth, reality; this gives strength to your comprehension of nonduality. Comprehend this strongly. This experience is much more real than that of the waking fantasy sense world.

If uncontrollable distracted thoughts arise, think that not only you but all sentient beings as well are in the same uncontrolled situation and generate equilibrium and much loving-kindness toward all others. In this way your uncontrolled mind becomes a resource for you to generate loving kindness. Contemplate on feeling loving-kindness for others. When loving-kindness arises, exert intensive awareness on the mind of loving-kindness.

So there are two things you’re doing in this meditation. Either you’re remaining in intensive awareness on your consciousness or, when distracted, exerting intensive awareness of the loving-kindness within your own mind. Alternate between these two.

Next, your loving-kindness manifests as a full moon in your heart chakra. At the center of the full moon is a blue HUM radiating blue light and making the sound of HUM. Recognize this as the nondual wisdom energy of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Your heart feels cool, calm and fully opened by the radiant light of the moon and the infinite radiant blue light coming from the HUM.

All narrow thoughts disappear.

All indecisive minds disappear.

All obsessed minds disappear.

Much light radiates from the moon and the blue HUM filling your entire body with infinite light energy and a feeling of great bliss.

Because you are totally embraced by the infinite blue light, there’s no room for fanatical dualistic concepts.

Now for a couple of minutes we’re going to recite HUM together. Then feel that the infinite blue light pervades your consciousness and that your consciousness and intensive awareness embrace the entire scope of universal reality. Feel this, be this, without any expectation or superstition whatsoever.

(Everybody recites HUUUMMM together for two minutes.)

So, we need two experiences: wisdom and method. The first is the experience of penetrative wisdom, intensive awareness of the reality of your own consciousness. That’s the way to approach wisdom. Method comes in when you lose control over your mind and get completely distracted. That experience of distraction becomes a resource for you to generate loving-kindness. In other words, distraction does not become that much of a problem because you use it to generate loving-kindness. Once you’re free of distraction, return to abiding in wisdom. So your business is dual: wisdom and loving-kindness. No problem, go into wisdom; problem, loving-kindness. So, in addition to your day job, you have these two other orders of business.

Then, the OM AH HUM mantra is very useful. You people are very busy, so if you do not have time to recite long mantras you can simply recite OM AH HUM. It represents all mantras. Especially when you say OMMM, your intensive awareness consciousness is energized to awaken.

Recently somebody told me about some scientists who found in their experiments that sound is restorative for the brain. They discovered that mantra activates awakening in the brain, makes it function rather than sleep. Not so many people understand this, not even scientists. So when you say OMMM your entire nervous system is energized.

That’s what meditation means: awakening from sleep. Here it means you awaken to broad reality rather than your usual fanatic reality, you touch universal reality in a kind of way. That’s why mantra is very useful.


It seems that we’re out of time but I’m satisfied that I’ve dealt with the subject I was supposed to talk about adequately. The important thing is to convince yourself clean clear, not just intellectually but through your own experience of meditation, that you can to some
extent remain in intensive awareness of your own consciousness without distraction or sluggishness. That’s good enough. And the important thing here is that in Buddhism, intensive awareness of your own consciousness is like a nuclear missile—a missile to penetrate the nonduality of space. It’s very important that you understand this.

It means that there’s no “this way, that way.” When you focus completely on awareness of your own consciousness, I can guarantee that this internal nuclear missile will enter the space of nonduality and that’s what you’ll experience. At that time, when you experience nonduality, or emptiness, you need to build up the strength of your intensive awareness comprehending that this is reality and not allow any internal “that this” conversation. You need to strengthen your internal understanding that nonduality is what’s real.

Why is it necessary to strengthen your comprehension or awareness of the nonduality of your own consciousness? It’s because normally we think fantasy is real and grasp at it. Then, when we have an experience of nonduality, because it’s the opposite of what we’ve always believed to be real we tend to think, “Oh, this is not true.” Since our habit is to see fantasy as concrete, when we have an inner experience we think it’s not real. Therefore we need to strengthen our understanding that inner experiences are real.

I think that’s enough. I’m afraid I haven’t had time to go into the details of the intermediate state and how from there we proceed into the next life. It’s complicated and would take much time to explain.1 The main thing, however, is to gain inner experiences. Then you will see how it’s possible to go into the bardo and reincarnate and you won’t need to listen to my “blah, blah, blah” on these topics. You’ll discover the truth through your own experience.

I think we have time for a couple of questions, just to make sure I haven’t created too much difficulty or confusion for you.

Q. How can we help a dying person?

Lama. It depends on the person’s religious background, training and philosophy. Whatever it is, you need to do something to energize or wake the person up accordingly. The most important thing is not to irritate the person; leave him alone. When you feel he’s ready to go, leave him alone. Don’t say, “Take some medicine” or “Sign here”; don’t cry: “Oh . . . you’re going to die . . . .” That makes it very difficult.

For example, say I’m your father and I’m dying. You come in crying, “Oh, Daddy, you’re dying. How can I live without you?” I get terribly disturbed and can’t cope with the situation. So it’s better to just let go. Don’t make the dying person tremendously anxious or emotionally disturbed. Just leave him in peace. That’s very important.

Instead, try to give the person confidence. “OK, you’re dying, but everything’s all right. Be happy; don’t worry. Now is the perfect time to go.” Try to help in this way. Also, the environment is important. Make sure there’s nothing in it likely to increase the person’s attachment or hatred. Make sure the situation is very quiet and peaceful.

If the person’s a Christian you can say, “God will take care of you. You’re lucky, you’re going to heaven.” Be positive. It’s good, because at that moment, even if she wasn’t that much of a Christian during her life, inside, subconsciously, she’s looking for some opportunity at that moment. Because she has nothing, she’s looking for something to hang on to, to take refuge in. So when we mention God or Jesus, we touch the person’s subconscious. That’s very good. In my opinion, it’s possible. Many Europeans say that they have nothing to do with their country’s religion but still, it has had a lot to do with their life or mentality. Subconsciously, they’re Christian. On the conscious level they might say, “I don’t want to be a Christian” and when they get into a disastrous or critical situation they have nothing to hang on to. So if you mention God or Jesus, there’s something for them to grasp. That’s very useful. Then, of course, if the person’s a Buddhist you can mention the Buddha.

Q. What happens to a confused mental patient who’s always saying, “I’m going to hell,” and dies still saying it?

Lama. It can happen. In a way, some people can already be halfway to hell. They can see it coming. Intellectually, it’s very difficult to help such people; at that moment it’s a hopeless situation. It might be possible to help them medically, kind of slow them down and ease their confusion, but otherwise it’s very difficult.

Q. Zen Buddhism has koans to help us understand non-inherent existence. How does “What is the sound of one hand clapping,” for example, relate to shunyata? How would meditating on that help us realize shunyata?

Lama. Our fantasy concrete concepts hold things to be self-existent, like the self-existent husband and self-existent wife I mentioned before, or the Swiss government believing that only the self-existent Swiss franc can make a perfect self-existent Swiss society.

All this self-existent fantasy that we hold as real does not touch reality. To make a sound, your two hands have to touch each other. Similarly, to touch reality you first have to discover that holding on to all your fantasies, concepts and preconceptions is like trying to make sound by clapping with one hand and finding there’s no sound. Then the zero of the sound, the zero of the self-existent fantasy, disappears. This is the way to experience shunyata.

Also, here, OMMM . . . the sound OM is an interdependent phenomenon. It’s interdependent with my entire nervous system. There’s no self-existent OM sound, is there? There’s no self-existent sound at all. Sound depends on the voice box, space, energy and many other things. Every sound is completely interdependent—many factors have to cooperate together to produce sound. So sound itself demonstrates the nature of non-self-existence.

Buddhism often uses sound to explain non-self-existence or non-duality. One example is that of an echo, where you shout toward a rock cliff and the sound bounces back. That’s a good example. Sound is a perfect example of the character of interdependence. The factors in its production totally depend upon each other. Understanding the character of interdependence is evidence that there’s no concrete, self-existent I or self-existent anything else.

If you hold sound to be self-existent, then it would not be dependent on two hands striking each other. That’s the rational Buddhist scientific explanation. If sound were self-existent it would not depend on two hands coming together and would not be an interdependent phenomenon.

So I think we now have a good understanding of interdependent phenomena. Our gathering together here is also a non-self-existent phenomenon.

Thank you very much, everybody, especially those who invited me to Switzerland to conduct this seminar and put so much effort into making these excellent arrangements. I dedicate your hard work to be of benefit to all sentient beings, so let’s all dedicate like that together.

And since my talks have no doubt produced a lot of confusion, as long as I’m still here on earth, you know my address, so you can write me and I will answer. I’m responsible for what I’ve been talking about and for cleaning up my own garbage. So you can write me; I’m not going to disappear immediately.2


1  See The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume One, pp. 307–313.  [Return to text]

2  However, less than six months later Lama did, in fact, disappear from sight. This was his last teaching in the West and second-last ever. He passed away in Los Angeles on 3 March 1984.