The Death Process

Recognizing What’s Going On

These boisterous, punchy, direct, funny, loving and compassionate teachings are from a weekend seminar on death, the intermediate state and rebirth given by Lama Yeshe in Geneva, Switzerland in 1983. Particularly poignant is the fact they are among the very last teachings Lama gave in the West before Lama directly taught the profound meaning of death and impermanence by completely disappearing in 1984. Edited by Nicholas Ribush. Multimedia presentation created by Megan Evart.

During our lifetime we accumulate a great many hallucinated experiences that cause us to experience much confusion at the time of death. Since these are interdependent phenomena, when we are old and our four elements absorb, these experiences energize internal chaos.

Actually, as we age, our sense organ function declines, so in a sense our four elements have already begun to absorb. Our eyes and ears start to fail and our other sense organs can also produce confusion.

If you’ve received teachings on the death process before you’ve probably heard terms like the earth element “sinks,” or “absorbs,” or “dissolves.” It means that the earth element deteriorates. That’s why old people have impaired senses and can’t see or hear properly. Their earth element has begun to deteriorate. Of course, we see this not only in old people; it happens to the young as well.

Not only do our sense organs deteriorate; so do our sense enjoyments. Sense objects no longer bring pleasure. For example, if we are suffering from a serious disease, things that used to give us pleasure, like food, visual objects and so forth, no longer do so. Flowers that we used to enjoy no longer please and might even annoy us: “I hate those red flowers. Get them out of here.”

Not only do our sense organs deteriorate; so do our sense enjoyments.

Lama Yeshe

When our four elements deteriorate we experience certain internal visions. First there’s the hallucination of a mirage; then there’s a vision of smoke; then sparks of fire. These are all internal experiences; there’s no actual water or fire in the room. Still, dying people can say, “Take that water away” or “Stop that fire.” All this produces internal confusion—in our mind, we experience fire; we feel as if it’s coming toward us and that we’re going to get burnt. Although these are hallucinations, we feel as if the water or fire are really there and get very confused.

Our ego normally grasps at certain external objects, but here, the moment we experience them they disappear. This brings more confusion and hallucination and we get very scared. And at the same time we’re especially afraid of losing our ego identity.

Let me explain this again. When we’re in the experience of our four elements sinking, our five sense organs are deteriorating and, for us, our external sense objects are also deteriorating. But we want to hang onto them, just as in life we grasp strongly at objects of attachment. At death time all these things start to disappear, we begin to lose our identity and become terrified.

Usually our companions and possessions are part of our identity and having them close by makes us feel secure. When we’re dying, everything internal and external deteriorates and disappears, so we get very scared because we’re losing our normal security.

Geneva, 1983. (Photo LYWA)
Geneva, 1983. (Photo LYWA)

However, through educating ourselves in the death process and training our mind in meditation, when the death experience comes we’re able to recognize what’s going on and think, “It’s the conditions that are making me hallucinate. There are no self-existent hallucinated objects.” Thus this also enhances our understanding of emptiness.

Losing the Ego

So, what is the self-existent I? The self-existent I does not exist; don’t think that it does. In this way, we first try to educate you with words: “There is no dualistic I.” We push you intellectually, “There’s no self-existent I.” But at the time of death, this understanding is not pushed intellectually; you lose your self-existent identity naturally.

Some people experience loss of identity in meditation and get scared. That’s good. You should be scared. Tibetan monks want to scare you. Westerners don’t like to be scared but we have the skills to make you afraid! Many people have this experience. That’s good.

Why are you afraid? Why are you afraid of losing something? What you’re losing is your self-existent or concrete preconception of yourself; that’s what’s shaken. It’s your projection of yourself that shakes, not your nonduality. Your own true nature isn’t shaken.

Lama Tsongkhapa
Lama Tsongkhapa

Once, Lama Je Tsongkhapa was giving a discourse on emptiness. While he was talking, one of his close disciples suddenly experienced emptiness right at that moment and grabbed at his lapel because he felt himself disappearing. Feeling completely lost and totally shaken, he grabbed his shirt to make sure he was still there. That’s how it should be: experiences and realizations should come during teachings. The way to discover your own true nature is to break the fantasy, or preconceived ideas, of yourself. But don’t misunderstand what I’m saying; the English language has different ways of interpreting the words “self” and “losing the self.”

When I use the word “preconceived” I mean you’re fixing your reality: “I am this, I am that, I am the other, this is me,” creating a strong preconceived idea of who you are, what you are. That’s what I mean by “self.” That self is non-existent. It’s merely a projection of your own ego.

Kopan Monastery, 1976. (Photo Robin Bath)
Kopan Monastery, 1976. (Photo Robin Bath)

For example, a man identifies himself as such and such a woman’s husband. In this way he gives himself the flavor of a self-existent husband. As soon as he decides that he’s this concrete, self-existent husband, he immediately projects onto his wife that she too is a concrete, self-existent wife. These concrete preconceptions lead to misery. “My existence depends on my wife. If she disappears, so do I.” He identifies himself as a concrete husband and her as a concrete wife, and then his life becomes impossible. Because the truth of the situation is that both he and his wife are impermanent, transitory, changing from day to day. In other words, he overestimates reality.

These days we see a lot of confusion among young people. “Society wants me to be someone: an engineer, a scientist.” They feel they need a profession with which they can identify. Part of them believes it; another part does not. So they’re confused. Nevertheless, they do want some kind of identity so they create their own. They drop out, take drugs and become hippies. That doesn’t mean they’re free of ego. They already have an ego but they want another layer to it with which they can identify. They already have a self-existent I; they want to add an extra flavor to that.

It’s quite easy to experience the self-existent imagination of yourself I’m talking about. It’s not difficult. Right now you can observe and analyze your self-imagined identity. And because you have preconceptions about this self you get into trouble. You always criticize yourself: “I’m not good enough.” If you analyze this way of thinking you will understand how you’re deluded and out of touch with reality. You can understand right now.

Geneva, 1983. (Photo LYWA)
Geneva, 1983. (Photo LYWA)

Because you cling to such a limited projection of yourself, such a limited self-image, this becomes the root of all your other limitations. You have limited love, limited wisdom and limited compassion. Because you’ve already decided that fundamentally, you’re narrow, your whole life becomes narrow—your wisdom becomes narrow, your love becomes narrow, everything about you becomes narrow. Just because of your fundamentally narrow projection of yourself.

At the time of death, when your four elements absorb, all your gross concepts about yourself, your pleasures, environment, friends, self-pity love and compassion disappear. That’s why we say that when your air element absorbs into your consciousness, your eighty superstitions disappear.

When your eighty superstitions, your eighty ego-aspects, stop, internally, your conscious experience is that of vast emptiness, a great empty space. It’s like the clear blue sky, totally empty space, clean clear space: this is what you experience internally. Why? Because normally our mind is crowded with concepts, the eighty deluded superstitions; so crowded that there’s no space to see reality. At that moment in the death process, all these dualistic concepts disappear. The result is that you touch a broader reality.

Inner Experiences at the Time of Death

Normally our physical energy also runs in the wrong direction, causing our delusions and superstitions to explode, but at the time of death this energy naturally integrates into our shushuma, or central channel, and brings an experience of great peace and emptiness. Therefore, tantra emphasizes the importance of meditating on the nadis (psychic channels) and chakras (wheels, or energy centers) and drawing the energy into the central channel.

An experience of great peace and emptiness…

Lama Yeshe

If you focus strongly with penetrative concentration on one of your chakras—heart, navel, throat, crown or brow—energy is drawn to that spot instead of going in the wrong direction. So yogis and yoginis control their energy by meditating on the chakras in their central channel and thus simulate the death experience in meditation.

Following the absorption of the four elements, our breathing stops completely, but after that, four visions still arise: the white, red, black and clear light visions.

Now, from the moment of conception we have had within us fundamental male and female energies received from our father and mother respectively. That’s why tantra says that each of us always has within us the union of these fundamental male and female energies.

Geneva, 1983. (Photo LYWA)
Geneva, 1983. (Photo LYWA)

The white vision happens because our male energy is drawn into our central channel and as a reflection of this white energy, our consciousness experiences a great empty space full of radiant white light. Similarly, the red vision happens through the drawing of our female energy into our central channel, resulting in our consciousness experiencing a vast emptiness pervaded by red light.

After the red vision ceases, because now all light has stopped, the black vision arises for a short time. When that stops, the clear light vision arises. Again, it is only an experience; at that time there’s no Swiss chocolate. We experience a gigantic empty space that is pervaded by an impression of clear light. Since it’s just an experience, we call it the clear light experience. At that moment there are no sensory objects whatsoever in view—no sensory colors, no beautiful sense objects; no material sense objects at all. No Geneva ladies; no Geneva gentlemen; no Geneva shops; no UN meetings—completely numb; no busy Geneva at all.

The experience is always with us but we ignore it. 

Lama Yeshe

All our objects of pride have gone, as have all objects of desire, hatred and jealousy; all objects of ego have completely disappeared. All depressed vision has gone, all black vision has gone—the only vision left is that of light, the clear light vision.

Now, this is important. Most of the time, we’re not aware, and because we’re so deluded, inflexible, confused and impure, our sense consciousness always experiences a kind of darkness. If we were clean clear, we’d always have a light in front of us. Actually, I truly believe that that experience is always with us but we ignore it— we’re so deluded that we don’t see it. When our mind is clean clear, some kind of light projection arises; as long as we remain confused and impure, polluted projections will always come into our mind or manifest in front of us. This is important to know—right now!

Geneva, 1983. (Photo LYWA)
Geneva, 1983. (Photo LYWA)

Now, I would really like to know, how many people here have had that kind of experience? Let do; let do like this [asking everybody to raise their hands]: how many of you have had that kind of experience? I’ve said this many times before. When you’re depressed and impure and your mind has degenerated, even outdoors you have some kind of polluted projection. The sun may be shining but you still have a polluted projection. However, when you’re clean clear and pure within and look at something, outside of you there’s a vision of light. That’s what I’m talking about. So how many of you have had that kind of experience?

This is very simple. I’m not talking about higher realizations. Just be conscious of how confused you are in your daily life and how your confusion brings no external reflection, or of how clean clear you are within and how that does bring an external reflection. Analyze your experiences of this. It’s a very simple thing; it’s not some kind of great meditational experience. It’s a question of sensitivity.

We have to try to be as positive as possible and then analyze the resultant vibration.

Lama Yeshe

When you are so degenerate, too negative, you can see in your daily life that something happens to your view of the world outside of you. Conversely, when you’re clean clear and pure, your external view is something else. This is important. It’s not something higher; it’s a question of sensitivity. We always talk about negative and positive, don’t we? That’s our business; it concerns all of us. We have to try to be as positive as possible and then analyze the resultant vibration.

This is logical. Let me explain it another way. Many high lamas’ biographies explain that they always had pure visions of deities. They always had pure vision of Lord Buddha, Manjushri or other deities arising in front of them, but what always comes to us? Objects of anger, craving desire, ignorance, jealousy and so forth. That’s simple and logical. We’re all human beings but some always get pure visions, others get negative visions. This is logical; it’s not complicated.

If every month you’re conscious or aware of the patterns of your mind’s visions, the rhythm and view of your consciousness, you can analyze what’s going on with you. It’s not difficult. Since we are seeking inner experiences we have to know what’s going on in our mind. So it’s very useful to analyze our visions and dreams in this way. That’s how we come to understand karma. We often listen to teachings on karma—“Karma is this, blah, blah, blah; karma is that, blah, blah, blah”—but we’re not convinced. But when we experience our own karma with our own understanding and awareness, when we see what’s going on in our mind and life, month by month and year by year, that makes us really understand karma.

Geneva, 1983. (Photo LYWA)
Geneva, 1983. (Photo LYWA)

You may have heard about many of the great meditators who are able to remain in meditation for long periods at the time of death. When the death process brings them to the clear light, they concentrate on that and can stay in it for days, weeks or even months. That’s possible; that’s the point. Even after their breathing has stopped, they can remain alive for a long time in this way. As long as they’re in meditation they’re alive, not dead.

Therefore it’s important that meditators try to change the laws in their country so that they can be left alone at the time of death; this is their human right. They need to get the government’s permission for their body not to be disturbed until the signs that their consciousness has left their body have appeared.

Some lamas say that the clear light experience is an experience of emptiness. Others say that it’s an artificial experience, not a real experience of emptiness. There’s some debate about this. Those who say it’s not real argue that since everybody goes through the clear light experience and not everybody can understand emptiness, it’s merely a superficial experience of emptiness. Others disagree.

However, whether or not the clear light is a genuine experience of emptiness is not our business; we don’t need to fight over or debate this point. It’s good enough that we simply put a stop to our concrete conceptions and superstitions and experience nonduality or non-self-existence. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the Swiss chocolate and we don’t need to debate whether that’s a true experience of emptiness or not.

Now, intellectually, we can discuss these issues among ourselves. I can ask you, “What is your experience of emptiness?” and you can reply, “At the time I experienced emptiness I saw no girlfriend, no boyfriend, no chocolate . . . .” I can then debate back, “What! You have no problem with chocolate? That’s not emptiness. You have no husband or wife problem, no political problem? That’s your experience of emptiness? That can’t be emptiness.” I can try to convince you that what you describe is not the experience of emptiness.

An intellectual explanation and the actual experience are very different. 

Lama Yeshe

But let’s look at it from the practical point of view. To experience emptiness we have to build up to it gradually from our present complete lack of it. First we need a baby emptiness experience, then a teenage one, then a middle-age emptiness experience, then an elderly one, and finally the great emptiness experience. I’m talking about this from the practical point of view, not an intellectual one. Intellectually, some people think, “Emptiness is this, so when you have the experience it should be that.” That’s just an intellectual trip, not an organic, experiential one. The organic experience is where you start slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly and, as your concrete concepts decrease, an experience of emptiness gradually builds up. It’s slow and gradual—that’s why an intellectual explanation of emptiness and the actual experience are very different.

If you are sensitive and aware you’ll notice that emotions arising in the ignorant mind are associated with certain colors. Craving and desire have their own color; jealousy and hatred have theirs. You should try to be aware of that kind of vision.

Here I’m talking about experiences at the time of death, but we have similar ones when we go to sleep, faint or have an orgasm. We should be aware of all this. We’ve experienced death so many times but we’ve been unconscious, too insensitive to recognize what we’re going through, uncomprehending of the experiences we’ve had.

When the clear light experience stops, signs that the mind has left the body appear. Female energy in the form of blood comes out of the nostrils and clear liquid male energy leaves the sexual organ. After that the visions reappear in reverse order. From the clear light we experience the black vision followed by the red and the white. Then all the superstitions arise once more. So now I’m talking about the intermediate state, the bardo. In other words, we go from the death of this life, the clear light, into the bardo body and experience the black, red and white visions in that order, and from there the ego is rebuilt once more.

So the death process is not an unusual thing; we’ve experienced it many times, during orgasm and so forth, as I just mentioned— the absorption of our elements, the mirage, smoke, sparks and flickering candle appearances, the white, red, black and clear light visions—but because of our heavy ignorance we’ve been unconscious of them. If we can be conscious and sensitive and maintain intensive awareness of our actions, we will notice and understand the death process whenever it occurs in our life. We’ve experienced it frequently, not just since we started meditating.

What’s important is to acknowledge or be conscious of the valuable experiences we’ve had and to bring them to mind, to remember them.

Lama Yeshe

All of us have had valuable experiences in the past. This doesn’t mean we’re great meditators; everybody has experienced the death process countless times. However, what’s important is to acknowledge, or be conscious, of the valuable experiences we’ve had and to bring them to mind, to remember them. Doing so gives us confidence in our practice and helps our spiritual growth. What we’re doing at the moment, however, is unconsciously throwing all our valuable experiences into the garbage. That’s not right. We have all these valuable inner experiences but we totally ignore them, throw them away, and instead put on the concrete blanket of ignorance and wear it everywhere. We discard precious, valuable experiences that money can’t buy and are integral parts of us, ignore them, and put on what we’re not and try to wear that around. It’s completely foolish.

Well, so much for that. Now I’d better get back to our main order of business: OM AH HUM.

The OM AH HUM Meditation

Visualize a white OM in the center of your brain. Recognize it as the pure energy of divine sound making the sound OM. It symbolizes the divine body of a buddha or bodhisattva or whatever else you consider to be pure. Then, when you say OM, much radiant white light streams from that syllable down your central channel, into your body, entirely purifying its impure energy and completely filling it from head to toe with blissful radiant white energy. Feel that strongly.

Geneva, 1983 (Photo LYWA)
Geneva, 1983 (Photo LYWA)

Now recite OMMMM for two or three minutes. As you do, meditate that you’re purifying your body. When you stop, hold your consciousness right there, without discriminating good or bad. Just be aware. Don’t react, don’t engage in any internal conversation, just focus with intensive awareness on the light permeating your body. Put your mind on that, keep it there and let go, without sluggishness or distraction.

Don’t squeeze yourself into what you consider to be the right mediation posture. Just sit naturally, comfortably. Similarly, leave your neck in a comfortable position. Breathe naturally; let your energy flow naturally. Don’t think, “I’m a meditator”; don’t think, “I’m so humble”; don’t think, “I’m such an egotist.” Don’t think anything at all. Just be.

Also, put your hands into whatever position is comfortable. They don’t have to be held in any special way for you to attain single-pointed concentration. Just do whatever’s comfortable.

Now close your eyes, visualize the white OM in the center of your brain making the sound OM, and let’s all chant OMMM together for a couple of minutes. As you chant, visualize much blissful radiant kundalini energy emanating from the OM, filling your entire body and purifying all your impure energy. It’s important here to visualize your whole body full of radiant white light energy; everything is radiant white energy. It’s important to see this. It helps break down your critical concepts of your body.

[Everybody chants OMMMM together for two minutes.]

Good. Now rest in a state of intensive awareness . . . let go . . . without any expectation.

Rest and let go

Your intensive awareness leads you to experience zero, egolessness, total emptiness, nothingness. Comprehend that with intensive awareness and let go.

Comprehend and let go

All right. If we don’t stop meditating now perhaps we’ll lose ourselves. Thank you so much.

More Resources for Study

Learn more about Lama Yeshe.

Explore more teachings on death and transitions.

More video from Life, Death and After Death can be viewed on LYWA’s Youtube channel.

More photographs from the lamas’ teachings can be found in the LYWA website photo galleries.

The full text of Life, Death and After Death is freely available for reading right on the LYWA website.

A paperback and ebook version of Life, Death and After Death can be obtained through the LYWA website.

The full length video of Life, Death and After Death is also available in DVD format.

Big Love Blog offers a taste of the upcoming biography of Lama Yeshe.

Learn more about The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition which was founded in 1975 by Lama Yeshe and his heart disciple Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Life, Death and After Death was edited by Nicholas Ribush.

About LYWA Multimedia

LYWA hopes that these multimedia presentations will serve to immerse you in these precious teachings and will enhance your meditation and practice. By weaving Archive resources together in this multidimensional way we intend to offer you the means to deepen your experience of the teachings – almost as if you had attended the teachings in person.

This multimedia version of Lama Yeshe’s The Death Process was designed by Megan Evart and adds to our growing collection of multimedia titles including Lama Yeshe’s The Nature of the Mind, How to Meditate and Freedom – Courage – Realization, Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s The Merely Imputed I and the Bodhisattva Attitude multimedia series beginning with Everything Depends on Your Attitude. Experience the complete collection of LYWA multimedia titles here.

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