Death and Rebirth

By Nicholas Ribush

These teachings and meditations, by Dr Nicholas Ribush, can help you understand life, death and rebirth and the nature of the mind. You can discover how to use the certainty and imminence of death to enhance your quality of life. See how the entire path to enlightenment hangs together as a cohesive whole and where the teachings on impermanence and death, the first and last that the Buddha gave, fit in. The meditations included here guide you in the practice of analytical and placement meditation on these topics. 

Session One of Six

In his text The Foundation of All Good Qualities, the great Tibetan yogi and scholar, Lama Je Tsongkhapa said,

This life is as impermanent as a water bubble;
Remember how quickly it decays and death comes.
After death, just like a shadow follows the body,
The results of black and white karma ensue.

Finding firm and definite conviction in this,
Please bless me always to be careful
To abandon even the slightest of negativities
And to accomplish only virtuous deeds.

In this module we are going to see if we can get a better understanding of the meaning of these words.

Meditation on the breath

Now, before we begin the actual subject matter, we’re going to do a short meditation on the breath. I’m not going to give too much explanation of this because it’s fully covered in the module on How to Meditate and most people should be familiar with that by now. However, this meditation on the breath is often done prior to any meditation or teaching session, and it’s extremely useful for calming, clearing and settling the mind.

Sit comfortably on your meditation cushion, cross-legged, or in a chair, and adopt the seven-point meditation posture. Make the strong determination, “Now I’m going to focus fully on my breath, without allowing myself to become distracted by anything whatsoever, internal or external.” Then, bring all your attention to your breath as it enters and exits your nostrils; focus on that point, the entrance of your nostrils, and don’t change your breathing pattern in any way. Breathe naturally, but concentrate fully on your breath.

You can do this meditation for two or three minutes, five or, actually, as long as you like. Press the pause button on your CD player, and when you’re ready to resume, press the play button.


Now that your mind is a lot calmer and clearer, the next thing you should do is generate positive motivation.

In his book Making Life Meaningful, Lama Zopa Rinpoche talks a lot about the importance of motivation and, in fact, motivation is the most important factor in determining whether an action becomes positive or negative, in other words, whether the action will be the cause of happiness or the cause of suffering. Since we always want to experience happiness and never want to experience suffering, the most important thing for us to know is how to motivate.

If we don’t make a conscious effort to generate positive motivation, if we just go along as we normally do, it’s almost certain that our actions are going to be negative. We’ve been just going along, following our mind without understanding how it works, since beginningless time, which is why we’re still in cyclic existence, why we are still subject to death and rebirth, why without choice we have to experience all kinds of suffering that we don’t want, and why it’s very hard for us to find any satisfaction or lasting happiness. Pretty much it can be all boiled down to not knowing how to motivate.

In this book, Lama Zopa says,1

It is extremely important for us to know how best to live our daily lives. This depends upon our knowing what is a spiritual action and what is not, the difference between what is Dharma and what is not Dharma. The benefits of having this knowledge are incredible, infinite.

If we don’t make an effort to generate positive motivation, more likely than not, we are going to be acting under the influence of one of the three poisonous minds—ignorance, attachment and aversion—not probably, definitely—we’re going to be acting under the influence of one of these three principal negative minds. Most often, on basis of ignorance, it will be attachment, where we are attached to simply the happiness, the comfort, of this life. Actions done out of ignorance, attachment and aversion leave negative imprints on our consciousness, and sooner or later, in this life, the next, or in some subsequent future life, these imprints ripen into the experience of suffering.

Therefore, we need to cultivate one of the three levels of positive motivation. Again, I don’t want to spend too much time on this because it’s covered in other courses, but the three levels of positive motivation are:

  1. The lowest level of motivation, the simplest form of Dharma practice, doing things with the motivation of avoiding rebirth in the three lower realms; doing things to experience happiness within the realms of cyclic existence, principally attaining a higher rebirth and experiencing the various forms of happiness that are experienced in the three upper realms.
  2. The second, or intermediate, level of positive motivation is that where we do things in order to attain liberation from all of cyclic existence, to escape from delusion and karma, to put a final end to uncontrolled death and rebirth, to attain nirvana, or individual liberation, a state of everlasting blissful peace, becoming an arhat, for ourselves alone. This is done by practicing morality, developing perfect concentration and cultivating insight into the nature of the mind whereby we transcend our ego. But the main beneficiary, almost the sole beneficiary, of this is ourselves alone. This might be enough for some people, this might be enough for many people, but the Mahayana tradition teaches that it’s not enough, and our teachers, in fact all Tibetan Buddhist teachers, emphasize that it’s more important to be motivated by seeking the happiness of others than that of oneself alone.
  3. Therefore, the highest level of positive motivation is that where we seek enlightenment, not for our own benefit but as a tool, or an instrument, that we can use to bring other sentient beings, all other sentient beings, to enlightenment, the highest state of mental development, the same level of mind attained by the Buddha, the level of mind beyond which there is no higher level, the greatest possible experience of happiness. That is what we should set our sights upon, and this motivation is bodhicitta.

So, try to set your motivation for this doing this death and rebirth module, this entire Discovering Buddhism program, at the highest level by thinking, “I am doing this program, I am doing this course, I am studying these teachings on death and rebirth in order to reach enlightenment for the sole purpose of enlightening all mother sentient beings.”


I mentioned before some of the other modules in the Discovering Buddhism program and before going on, I just want to say that I think it’s important that, if you want to get a complete picture of Tibetan Buddhism, a complete understanding of the path to enlightenment, you do study all the modules in this program. Also, I’m going to assume that people listening to this course on death and rebirth have studied one or more of the preceding modules: Mind and its Potential, How to Meditate, The Spiritual Teacher and Presenting the Path. The path to enlightenment, which is called lamrim in Tibetan, really does hang together and actually, it’s a beautiful thing.

Sometimes people talk about miracles. Personally, I think it’s a miracle that there exists such a thing as the lamrim, this path to enlightenment. If you look at the outline of the path to enlightenment, with all the hundreds and thousands of steps laid out in their logical order, it constitutes nothing less than a roadmap to enlightenment, a roadmap to spiritual perfection—to put it loosely, and in probably non-Buddhist terms, a roadmap to becoming one with God, one with the supreme state of being. It’s something that we can all achieve, and here’s a map of how to get there. I think that’s a miracle.

This formulation of the Buddha’s teachings, the lamrim, the steps of the path to enlightenment, is pretty much unique to Tibetan Buddhism, and this system of arranging the Buddha’s teachings was first formulated in Tibet about a thousand years ago by the great Atisha. He was invited to Tibet to restore Buddhism to its original purity after a period of degeneration. At this time, unscrupulous teachers were coming to Tibet from India and perhaps other places to take advantage of the void created by an anti-Buddhist king, who had suppressed the Buddha’s teachings and driven them to the far reaches of Tibet. Upset by what was happening, the ruler of western Tibet, King Lha Lama Yeshe Ö, invited the greatest Indian teacher of the time, Atisha, to come to Tibet to explain the fundamental teachings on refuge and karma and thus set the people back on the right course to enlightenment.

So Atisha looked at the vast collection of the Buddha’s teachings, which the Buddha had given over a forty year period some fifteen hundred years before, and he arranged them into an order, gave them a structure, that makes it very easy for any individual, like you and me, to identify where we are on the path to enlightenment right now, what we should be practicing at the moment, what we should do next and what we should do after that and so forth, all the way up to enlightenment, up to Buddhahood, up to spiritual perfection, up to developing our mind to its ultimate potential.

When the Buddha taught after his enlightenment, he didn’t begin with some kind of predetermined syllabus or curriculum, where in the first year he gave very fundamental teachings, sort of kindergarten Buddhism, then the next year he gave first grade Buddhism, and the next year second grade Buddhism, and so on like that all the way up to the fortieth year, just before he passed away, when he gave his most profound and complicated teachings—it wasn’t like that. The Buddha taught like a physician treats patients. When a patient comes into a doctor’s office, the doctor gives the patient the appropriate medicine for that person’s illness, and in the same way, the Buddha gave the appropriate Dharma teachings to those who were before him at that every moment. And since everybody’s level of mind is different, since sentient beings have different aptitude and capabilities, the Buddha gave an enormous variety of teachings, and even within Buddhism itself, there are philosophical divisions and there are divisions in terms of the goal of the path, such as the Hinayana teachings and the Mahayana teachings and so forth.

So Atisha wrote this relatively short text, some sixty or seventy verses, which he called A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment,2 and this lamrim genre of teachings became an integral part of most of the various Tibetan traditions, certainly an integral part of the four main traditions: the Nyingma, the Kagyü, the Sakya and the Gelug. In fact the Gelug, which was founded by Lama Tsongkhapa, was also sometimes called the New Kadampa Tradition, since it arose somewhat in continuity with the school founded by Atisha and his followers, the Kadam tradition.

Lama Tsongkhapa was one of the greatest of all Tibetan commentators on the lamrim and he wrote many steps of the path texts, some longer, some shorter, and some in the form of prayers, like The Foundation of All Good Qualities, a couple of verses from which I quoted at the very beginning. His principal lamrim commentaries were a short one, called Lines of Experience, 3 a middle-length lamrim, and then his major work, the Lamrim Chenmo, the Great Treatise on the Steps of the Path to Enlightenment, which has now been translated and published in English and is an essential book for you to study and practice.

One of the main features of Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment was his division of the path into three scopes, or levels, which I alluded to before, when we were talking about motivation. These three scopes are determined by the capability, or capacity, of various practitioners. The practitioner of least capability, or the lower scope or, as Lama Zopa Rinpoche puts it, the path of the practitioner of least intelligence, is motivated simply by the wish to avoid being reborn in the three lower realms and to experience happiness within the realms of cyclic existence. This is all that motivates the practitioner of least capability and is considered by other practitioners a pretty limited goal. It’s like being in prison and working hard to get the most comfortable cell or the cell with the best view. These are limited goals because you are still in prison.

The practitioner of intermediate capacity aims for liberation from all of cyclic existence, aiming to attain individual liberation, to escape from cyclic existence forever, to put a final end to the beginningless suffering of endlessly cycling through the six realms, the beginningless round of death and rebirth under the control of delusion and karma. This result, individual liberation, is an experience of indescribably blissful happiness that lasts forever, yet it benefits pretty much only one sentient being, the practitioner him- or herself, and from the Mahayana point of view is a limited and selfish way to practice.

The Mahayana teaches that there’s no real peace and happiness knowing that even though you’re free, other sentient beings are still experiencing unbearably dreadful sufferings. The Mahayana also teaches that each sentient being, each and every sentient being without exception, is our dear and precious friend, and it’s only through their kindness, the kindness of all others, that we are able to experience any happiness at all, much less liberation and enlightenment. Thus, we owe a debt of gratitude to all sentient beings, and to repay their kindness, there’s really only one way to do this, and that is by leading them to enlightenment.

Now, there’s no way we can lead others to enlightenment if we are not enlightened ourselves, so in order to be able to repay the kindness of others by leading them to enlightenment, we first have to reach enlightenment ourselves, as a kind of tool, or instrument with which we can enlighten others. The practitioner of the great scope, then, is motivated by this determination to reach enlightenment for this sole purpose of enlightening all sentient beings.

These are the three main divisions of the Atisha’s lamrim, and within each division there are sets of teachings that enable us to reach the particular goal of that particular scope. However, even if we’re a practitioner of the great scope, the Mahayana, still we have to study and practice the teachings of the two lower scopes. We travel those paths in common with the practitioners of those paths.

It’s like, if you’re in Chicago and you want to travel on Route 66 to LA, your ultimate goal might be Los Angeles, but you have to travel through, for example, Oklahoma City and Albuquerque. So you travel the first part of Route 66 in common with all the people who are just going to Oklahoma City and Albuquerque, and then you go from Oklahoma City to Albuquerque with all the people who are just going to Albuquerque. Even though you are going to LA, you start out traveling with those whose destinations are less far-reaching than your own. So, it’s like that.

The place of the teachings on impermanence and death in the lamrim

Although the teachings on impermanence and death are found in the path of lower scope and we’re practitioners of the great scope, striving for enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, it’s extremely important that we understand these teachings and put them into practice, and I hope that this will become more and more clear as we go along.

There’s a wonderful psychology to the way that the lamrim is set up, and the teachings at the beginning of the path are those that are most relevant to beginners like us.

First there are teachings on how to identify and relate to a true spiritual teacher. This is very important. For example, if you’re setting out on a long journey, a journey that’s fraught with danger, a journey that you haven’t taken before, it’s essential to have an experienced guide. In the same way, that’s what we need when setting out on the path to enlightenment—an experienced guide. That’s what the guru, the lama, the spiritual teacher is. Having found such a teacher, it’s important to maintain proper relationship with that teacher, and the lamrim explains how to do that very clearly.

The next thing that we need to appreciate is how rare and precious this perfect human rebirth that we have gained really is. How it’s so difficult to find a human rebirth and amongst human rebirths, how difficult it is to find one that gives us every opportunity to practice Dharma to the full. The teachings on the perfect human rebirth—on the eight freedoms and ten richnesses, which allow to identify what the perfect human rebirth is, the teachings that explain its great usefulness, and the teachings that really make it clear how rare it is to find such a rebirth and how difficult it will be to find one again—allow us to really appreciate what it is that we have and to rejoice at the precious opportunity we have. It’s as if we’ve won the greatest of all lotteries, because this life is worth infinitely more than the collected wealth of this entire universe. This appreciation itself is an incredible antidote to the ills that plague so many of us: low self-esteem, loneliness, boredom, alienation, depression, suicidal tendencies, not understanding why we were born, not understanding the purpose of life. Just this teaching on the perfect human rebirth, practically the first step on the path to enlightenment, when really understood and practiced, can overcome so many of the doubts and problems that afflict us and give us a clear perspective on our place in the universe.

Now, when we’ve got to this state of feeling deeply the preciousness of this perfect human rebirth, how wonderful it is, and we’ve generated the determination to make it as useful as possible, to make every moment as useful as possible, the next teaching is on impermanence and death. The next teaching says, yes, this is a wonderful, rare, precious opportunity, but it’s going to end and it’s finishing fast. This teaching makes us realize that we have to practice Dharma immediately; it’s urgent. We must not procrastinate, because life is rapidly running out and we never know when it’s going to be over.

The next teaching tells us what’s likely to happen when we die. Since beginningless time, we’ve created almost only negative karma, the cause of suffering, and even though this time we’ve found ourselves in an upper rebirth, the odds are very heavily in favor of next time finding ourselves locked in the lower realms—in the hells, the hungry ghost realm, as an animal—and once we are down there, experiencing unbearable suffering, it’s almost impossible to escape. Now, these teachings aren’t given to depress us, they’re given to motivate us, to shake us into reality, to show us what’s really going on, to make us understand what’s important and what’s not.

Still, death is not a topic that many people want to hear about, although the popularity of the relatively new TV series “Six Feet Under,” with its gruesome death scenes, mangled bodies and black humor, might be the beginning of a new trend. But even here, our schizophrenic attitude to death, with corpses restored to life-like reality for open-casket services, is still much in evidence. Generally speaking, however, our culture tends to shy away from addressing death, and many people have never even seen a dead body, although death is all around us, and our whole society seems to be in a state of denial, as we ourselves probably are.

Unfortunately, we don’t put our great fear of death to good use. It’s like, well, it’s coming, we can’t do anything about it, so better not think about it, or, what’s the point of thinking about it? But there’s a great point of thinking about it, and I’ll talk about fear of death a little later on.

People’s lack of interest came home to me personally when I was asked to give some talks on Tibetan Buddhism in one of the leafy suburbs near Boston. Actually, I’d given a couple of courses there before, “An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism,” and several people had turned up for those, so this time I thought I should try something new, and suggested to the person organizing these courses that I wanted to talk about death and dying. She said, “Oh no, people won’t come to that; they don’t want to hear about that.” But I thought, “Oh, she doesn’t know what people are interested in,” so I insisted. So they put out the word that there was this four week series on “Death and Dying” happening, and sure enough, it was cancelled through lack of interest. So, she was right and I was wrong, and people really don’t seem to be that interested in this particular topic.

There’s an Indian Buddhist story that illustrates people’s denial when it comes to death.4 In Shravasti, where the Buddha spent something like twenty-five summers in rains retreat, there was a young woman called Gotami who was considered to be very ugly, but had inner beauty that most people couldn’t see, and it was thought that she would never find a husband, which caused her much distress. However, at a certain point she met a very wealthy merchant who recognized her inner beauty, fell in love and married her. But since she came from very poor circumstances, his family never really accepted her until she bore him a baby son, and then she was finally accepted. So she was happy beyond her wildest dreams, that she’d met this wealthy man, that he married her and now they had a baby.

However, the baby got ill and died, and she was inconsolable. She went almost crazy. She ran from house to house with the dead baby in her arms, begging someone to give her some medicine to cure her baby’s illness. But everybody could see that the baby was dead and just ridiculed her until finally she met a kind person who understood that she was simply deranged through grief and said, “The greatest physician of all is nearby,” and sent her to see the Buddha. The Buddha told her, “There’s a medicine, but you’ll have to get it yourself.” Excitedly, she asked what it was, and he said, “Mustard seeds, and I don’t need many, but the only mustard seeds I want are from any house where nobody has ever died.”

Trusting the Buddha implicitly, she went in search of mustard seeds. At the first house she came to she asked, “Please may I have a few mustard seeds,” and they said, “Sure,” and she said, “Has anybody ever died here?” and they said, “Of course,” so she couldn’t accept those seeds.” And so it went with every house she visited, and she could never find a house that had not been touched by death. Eventually, somebody told her that the dead are more numerous than the living, and she finally came to the realization that death comes to all of us and she was not alone in her loss, not unique in her experience, and thus came to realize impermanence, the inevitability of death, and thus the Buddha was able to cure her of her obsession and bring her to an understanding of reality.

She then buried her son in the cemetery and returned to the Buddha, who asked her if she’d gotten any mustard seeds. “Done, venerable sir, is the business of the mustard seeds,” she replied, “Only grant me a refuge.” The Buddha then said to her,

When a person’s mind is deeply attached,
Infatuated with sons and cattle,
Death grabs him and carries him away
As a flood does a sleeping village.

She later became a nun and eventually attained complete liberation from cyclic existence. So, like Gotami, we need to accept death as a natural part of life and learn to deal with it.

Now, in order to understand death, we need to understand life, and to know what life is, we need to understand something about the nature of the mind.

The mind

Life begins when the mind and body come together at conception, when the father’s sperm fertilizes the mother’s egg, but there’s a third factor required in order for those products of conception to become viable, and that’s the mind, the consciousness. So, while our mother and father provide our body, the mind, or consciousness—and we use those terms synonymously—comes from our previous life. If those parents don’t have the karma to have a child or if there’s no child that has the karma to be born to those parents, the fertilized egg will not become viable because no consciousness will enter.

When the consciousness does enter the fertilized egg, that’s when life begins, and it continues until the mind leaves the body. When the mind separates from the body, that is the moment of death.

As we know, death can be caused by a variety of factors, for example, when our karmically determined life span comes to a natural end; when our merit runs out, such as dying from deprivation of the necessities of life; and death from failure to avoid danger.5 We’ll talk a bit more about this later.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains,6

Highest yoga tantra divides consciousness into gross, subtle and very subtle levels. The gross levels include the five sense consciousnesses—the eye consciousness that apprehends colors and shapes; the ear consciousness for sounds; the nose consciousness for odors; the tongue consciousness for tastes; the body consciousness for tactile experience. These are individual consciousnesses with specific spheres of activity—colors and shapes, sounds, odors, tastes and tactile experience.

More subtle than these but still on the gross level is the consciousness with which we think. It is grouped into three classes, corresponding to three types of wind—strong, middling and weak—on which the three classes of consciousness ride. The first group involves a strong movement of wind to its objects and includes thirty-three conceptual experiences…the second group is composed of conceptual consciousnesses that involve a medium movement of wind to their objects—forty conceptions…the third group involves a weak movement of wind to its objects—seven conceptions…when the winds on which all eighty of these conceptions ride collapse [during the death process], the conceptions also dissolve. This allows three subtle levels of mind to manifest in this order: minds of vivid white appearance, vivid red-orange appearance, and vivid black appearance…these finally lead to the very subtle level of consciousness, the mind of clear light, which, if utilized in the spiritual path, is most powerful.

I’ll go into more detail about this in the last talk of this series, but I just wanted to introduce you to the idea of the three levels of consciousness.

When we talk about death, naturally the question arises, what happens after death? The Buddha taught that death isn’t the end of everything, and the mind continues into another life. The mind that continues is the very subtle consciousness, which I’ve just described. It’s this very subtle consciousness that joins with the products of conception. His Holiness the Dalai Lama talks a little bit about this in his book, Illuminating the Path to Enlightenment, where he says,7

From the Buddhist point of view, rebirth is understood in terms of a continuity of consciousness. One of the premises of the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth, therefore, is the continuity of consciousness. In his Pramanavarttika, Dharmakirti states that something that is not in the nature of consciousness cannot be turned into consciousness. His point is that in accounting for the nature and existence of consciousness, we have two choices. Either we posit that the continuum of consciousness has no beginning or that it does. If we posit a beginning to the continuum of consciousness, the question arises, when did that first instance of consciousness come into being and from where did it come? Then our choices are that the first moment of consciousness came from nowhere—from no cause—or that it was created by a cause that is permanent and eternal.

Anyway, we are taught that the mind is beginningless and endless, and it simply changes state from life to life. Even when we attain nirvana, when we attain enlightenment, the consciousness doesn’t stop, it simply continues in a better way.

Now, there’s always a healthy amount of skepticism in thinking about rebirth, but it really comes down to how do we know anything?

Generally, there are three ways in which we know something to be true. The best way is through our own direct, personal experience. Second is through the experience of others, or, we could say, through reliable authority; in religious terms, we could call this scriptural reference. Thirdly, there is logical deduction.

In terms of past and future lives, then—which is what we are actually talking about here—how does our own experience tell us they actually exist? Well, the only way we can really know is to remember our previous lives or achieve clairvoyance such that we can see our future lives. When we have such clarity of mind that we can see far into the past and future, we’ll have absolutely no doubt about lives other than this one. The reason that we can’t see deep into the past or at all into the future is because our minds are disturbed, agitated and extremely clouded. Why they are like this is because we are under the control of destructive, disturbing emotions.

Imagine a huge lake in a storm, being lashed by extremely powerful winds. The water’s completely agitated, and the surface is covered by all kinds of garbage, froth and bubble, and the mud and everything from the bottom of the lake is all stirred up and completely dirtying the water, and when you look into the lake, you can’t see anything but what’s on the surface. However, when the storm subsides and the wind stops blowing, things settle down. The garbage, froth and bubble disappear from the surface and the mud gradually sinks to the bottom, and sooner or later you can see quite deeply into the lake, all the way to the bottom.

So at the moment, our mind is like a lake in a storm, where everything’s stirred up and we really can’t see below the surface. Agitation, attachment, distraction and uncontrolled flows of thought disturb our mind, just like the wind disturbs the water. The only way to overcome this disturbance, to make our mind more clear, is to meditate, to develop mental tranquility, single-pointed concentration. This takes quite a lot of effort, so we need to be motivated to undertake this effort and thereby to experience the result. And that’s why we need to study the Dharma. This will give us at least an intellectual understanding of the benefits of meditation, of controlling the mind and developing single-pointed concentration, and that level of understanding is enough for us to be able to overcome the many hindrances that arise and discourage us from pursuing the path of meditation further.

At the moment, we can’t remember everything that we’ve thought, said or seen even today. We can’t remember everything that happened yesterday, last year. We don’t even remember the first few years of this life; they’re a complete blank. So it’s not surprising that we don’t remember our time in the womb or our previous lives.

Even after a mild head injury people often develop a certain degree of retrograde amnesia. The trauma of leaving our body in our previous life, of dying in our previous life, of being in the intermediate state, of taking rebirth in our mother’s womb, of spending nine months in the womb and then being forcibly ejected through a very narrow canal, our brain all squished up—that’s much more traumatic than a mild head injury, so again, it’s not at all surprising that we don’t remember what came before. However, those memories are in our consciousness, locked deep within our psyche, and they can be released through meditation. This is not my experience, but it’s the experience of our teachers, it’s the experience of the Buddha and it’s the experience of countless practitioners from the time of the Buddha up to the present. Therefore, the way to discover the truth about reincarnation is to meditate and remember your own previous lives.

The next way in which we can know something is true, then, is through the experience of others. Thus, we can study the teachings of the Buddha, who taught reincarnation, and we can understand through looking at who the Buddha was, what he taught, how he led his life and so forth that he is a totally reliable authority.

Furthermore, there are also ordinary people’s experiences. For instance, many children in the East and the West have recalled previous lives, but in most cases, when they have spoken about them, their parents have dismissed their stories as childish fantasies. However, research has been done in many cases where children have remembered past lives, and this research has shown their stories to be true, in that the only really logical explanation for their being able to remember places and people from their previous life is reincarnation.8 Also, under hypnotic regression, some people have recalled previous lives and investigation has also shown their memories to be correct.

Third, there is the avenue of logical deduction, which means understanding the nature of the mind, as His Holiness mentioned in the quotation that I gave before. First, we have to understand what the mind is: a formless entity that has to ability to perceive objects.

The literal translation of the Tibetan definition of the mind is “clear and knowing.” The mind is clear, that is, it is non-material, unobstructed, has no shape or color, not one tiny atom of physical matter; it is like empty space. But it is not empty space because it has this other quality of knowing; it has the ability to perceive objects, just like a mirror can reflect whatever comes before it. And this is the definition of the mind: the mind is that which is clear and knowing, a formless phenomenon that has the ability to perceive objects.

Now, it’s axiomatic that any effect has to be similar in nature to its principal cause. Therefore, since the mind is a causative phenomenon, since the mind is the product of causes, its principal cause, which by definition has to similar in nature, must also be formless with the ability to perceive objects. In other words, as Dharmakirti said, the mind only arises from a preceding state of mind.

How do we know that the mind is the product of causes? Because it’s impermanent. Impermanent means changing from moment to moment, never still, constantly moving, like a stream or waterfall. Anything that is impermanent, transient, constantly changing, is by definition a product of causes. Since the mind is clearly impermanent, changing every moment, it can only be a product of causes, and as a product of causes, it has to arise from a principal cause that is similar in nature. Therefore, the mind doesn’t come from the brain, which is not formless in nature. The brain has shape and color, quite unlike the mind.

So, if the mind has to come from a preceding mind—and you can see by looking at your own mind how this is actually so: when you look into your own mind you can see that each thought moment arises in complete dependence upon the immediately preceding thought moment, and the immediately preceding thought moment arose from the thought moment immediately preceding that, and so on, it goes back and back and back—there could not have possibly been a first thought moment.

If you are going to say that the mind begins at some point in the womb, you have to ask why? Where did it come from? Exactly when did the mind start functioning in the womb? What caused it to function? What was the first thought? What was the second? Does everybody have the same first thought? Many unanswerable questions arise if you start to postulate that.

Some people might think, well perhaps the mind comes from the parents’ mind, but that’s clearly not the case because we can see that children don’t have the memories or experiences of their parents in their mind, and children have other experiences and aptitudes and abilities that the parents don’t have. Some people might postulate that there is some kind of cosmic consciousness where a little bit breaks off and that that’s the person’s mind, and then at death the person’s mind dissolves back into this ocean of cosmic consciousness, but that’s not the case either.

Each sentient being has its own continuity of consciousness that is beginningless and endless and carries its own individual karmic imprints upon it, going from life to life, from death to death, through the six realms of cyclic existence, again and again, and until we understand the causes of this and do something about it, we’ll continue to die and be reborn in the suffering realms of cyclic existence forever.

Thus, there are three ways in which we can approach an understanding of the continuity of mind: our own experience, the experience of others, and logical deduction. Of course, I haven’t exhausted these possibilities; I’ve just mentioned a few of their aspects.


So now it’s time to wrap up this first session. We began with meditation on the breath, and this falls into one of the two categories of meditation; it’s a stabilizing, or focusing, or placement, or concentrative meditation. The other kind of meditation is analytical meditation, where we use our powers of logical deduction to analyze teachings that we read or hear, to see if they make sense for us, to see if they accord with reality, to determine whether or not they are internally consistent, to see if we really believe they are correct.

The topic of rebirth, for example, is an excellent one for analytical meditation. Think about the mind: is it really formless or does it have shape and color? Where does it come from? Does it come from the brain or does it come from a preceding state of mind? All these various things that I’ve mentioned, think about them. See what makes sense for you. Come up with arguments for and arguments against what you’ve heard.

Also, in Meditation 1, on the first meditation CD, there’s a Lama Yeshe meditation on the continuity of consciousness. This would be a good time to practice that one. Remember, however, that these meditation CDs don’t have a lot of space on them and since there are several meditations on each of the Discovering Buddhism topics that we want you to do, we necessarily have to keep those that we put onto the CDs brief, but at least they give you an idea of what that meditation is and how to do it. When you become familiar with what’s on the disk, you can always use the pause button to spend more time on each part of each topic in order to gain deeper experiences of it. You should also use your own creativity to come up with your own analytical meditations according to what you find most effective for your own mind. But, when doing analytical meditation, try to know beforehand what result you’re trying to achieve, what kind of change in your mind you want that meditation to bring. If you don’t know that, you won’t be able to assess how effective your meditation has been.

Meditation 1, which you should practice now, before going on to the second teaching session, also contains some reflections on impermanence and Gampopa’s four contemplations on death, and although I talk about these in the next session, you can start meditating on them now, so at this point, please practice the first meditation.

Remember, death is the separation of mind and body. The body decays, the atoms return to the earth, the mind at its subtlest level continues into the next life.


To conclude this session, then, we need to do a dedication of merit.

There are three aspects to a perfect action. The first is to generate positive motivation, in particular the enlightening motivation of bodhicitta, and we began this session by generating bodhicitta, the determination to reach enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings.

The second aspect is to do an action harmonious with that aim. Since what we’ve been doing—studying the teachings of the Buddha, the Dharma—is indeed harmonious with that aim, we’ve accomplished two out of three.

The third comes at the end of the action: dedication. By performing an action harmonious with our positive motivation, we have created positive potential, good karma, merit—the true and only cause of happiness. Therefore, to conclude, like we put money into a very safe bank in order to protect it, we dedicate the precious merit we have created to prevent it from being destroyed by ignorance or anger, and at this point we can simply say, “Because of this merit I have created, may all sentient beings quickly reach enlightenment.”


Making Life Meaningful, p. 51.  [Return to text]

See Illuminating the Path to Enlightenment, which contains an English translation of Atisha’s text and a commentary on it by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. [Return to text]

Illuminating the Path also contains a translation of this text, along with His Holiness’s commentary on it. [Return to text]

Great Disciples of the Buddha, pp. 273-8, “Kisagotami: The Mother with the Dead Child.” [Return to text]

The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, p. 307, lists nine causes of premature death: overeating, eating something indigestible, eating without having digested the previous meal, failing to expel undigested food that has accumulated in the stomach, intestinal obstruction, not relying on specific medicines for specific illnesses, failing to understand the distinction between accustomed and unaccustomed activities, untimely death [i.e., accidental death], and engaging in sexual intercourse. [Return to text]

Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life, pp. 136-7. [Return to text]

Illuminating the Path, pp. 79-80. [Return to text]

Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Ian Stevenson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980. [Return to text]

Sources for these publications can be found on the References page.

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