We all want to live the good life and die a good death. But most of us are so uncomfortable with the mention of the word "death," that we do not allow ourselves to relate to it.So instead, we gloss over it or pretend that it will not happen for a very long time.
Death, however, is unavoidable. The more honest we can be about it with ourselves and our loved ones, the less shocked we will be when it arrives, and the more joy and meaning we will find in life.
From the Buddhist perspective, life is not just this life we are leading now, but also the infinitude of future lives that extends before us, for Buddhism believes in reincarnation. We die to continue living. Our body merges into the elements, but our consciousness migrates and is reborn in a new body.
Buddhism teaches that everything we think, feel, and do creates a correspondingly positive or negative habit, or karmic imprint, in our mind-stream. Selfless, peaceful, and joyful thoughts leave imprints that give rise to wonderful, peaceful, loving experiences in our future. Selfish, negative, hateful thoughts give rise to unhappy experiences. So whether our next life will be happy or not depends on whether our mental habits were positive or negative.
If we cultivated peace and kindness, we will be reborn in a peaceful world filled with loving beings. We might come back as a wonderful human being. Or we might take rebirth in one of the infinite joyful celestial paradises of light and wisdom that Buddhists call "pure lands." Beings born in the pure lands become enlightened in that very lifetime. Once enlightened, they can manifest in our world by choice to benefit beings -- not because their karma compels them to.
If, on the other hand, we are filled with anger and jealousy and hurt others, we will take rebirth in hellish worlds, for Buddhism teaches that there are many other worlds aside from the animal and human worlds that we see.
When we truly understand the implications of our mortality from the heart, we will automatically want to use every precious day to purify our faults and grow in compassion, peace, joy, and wisdom. Death will then become a launching pad to increasingly better, more beneficial lives until we become a Buddha ourselves.
Tibet has an amazing tradition of people who return from clinical death to describe their experiences. Known as delogs, or returners from death, their experiences are somewhat like near-death experiences, except that delogs leave their bodies for days, sometimes a week, not just for a few minutes.
Learning what Buddhist masters and delogs say about death demystifies it.
When we die, we lose consciousness and our mind exits our body. When we regain consciousness, we are in what is known as the bardo, the transitional passage between death and our next birth.
The terrain that unfolds before us in the bardo is a reflection of our habitual thoughts and feelings. Since we are just mind in the bardo, whatever we think can instantly appear, karma permitting. If we think "New York," we will immediately be there. If the next moment we think "London," that is where we are. If we had strong devotion in a higher being, we could see them.
Delog Dawa Drolma, who was highly devout during her life, for instance, beheld White Tara, a Buddha in female form, in a blazing sphere of light when she emerged from her body at death. She also saw beautiful female deities amidst beams of rainbow lights. Together they escorted her to a pure land.
Another delog, Lingza Chokyi, saw a five-colored light above her head that projected rays of red light. At the end of each ray appeared a menacing creature with a human body and animal head. One had the head of a serpent, another of a tiger, another of an eagle, and so on. Their eyes were huge. They brandished weapons and thundered "Beat! Beat! Kill! Kill!"
All were actually reflections of Chokyi’s mind. Her anger appeared as a snake-headed creature; her arrogance, as a tiger-headed one, and so on. Chokyi was petrified. But the moment she recalled her lama’s instructions -- "Rays are self-rays. Images are self-images. Sounds are self-sounds. All are the self-radiance of your own mind" -- the scary forms dissolved.
If bardo beings could remember and maintain the understanding that they are just mind, they could control their journey.
One delog, who was an accomplished yogi, was traversing a narrow mountain pass over a precipice in the bardo when he came upon a massive rock wall. There was no way around it. The only opening through which he could see to the other side was a hole no bigger than his fist. However, the instant he remembered: "Consciousness can get through anything," he found himself on the other side of the wall.
Without prior training in meditation, however, it will be difficult for us to remember that the bardo is a mental projection, the same way that it is hard for us to be aware that we are dreaming during a dream. In fact, many people don’t even realize that they have died until some time afterwards. Bardo beings imagine that they still have their body due to their past habit. So they see that they have a body. They often try to talk to people they know and join family or friends for meals. However, since no one can see them, they are ignored and may become upset. When family members arrange their funeral, they often insist, "But I'm here. I’m not dead! Can’t you see?"
At some point the deceased hears a voice calling him or her from afar. Following the voice, he suddenly finds himself in an unfamiliar place and senses that now he can no longer turn back, but must keep going forward.
According to Buddhism, our mind is the center of our life. Our physical actions reflect how we think. If our mind is peaceful, we will act peacefully. We will speak peacefully. Our bardo journey and our next life will be peaceful. So it is our mind and thoughts that we must refine. Meditation is one of most effective means for this, as meditation focuses us on positive thoughts and feelings totally and from the depth of the mind.
Buddhism offers many meditations to prepare for death. Whatever we do, though, we need to practice beforehand. Right now, it is easy to change our mental habits, but hard to restructure our circumstances because we live within the strictures of a solid body and society. In the bardo, on the other hand, it is hard to change our mental habits, but easy to restructure our circumstances because at death our habits alone determine our world.
The most powerful practice for death is to realize the true nature of the mind. We all go through the true nature at death, as concepts and emotions dissolve and our luminous innate wisdom, the true nature of mind, shines through. If highly accomplished esoteric meditators are ready, they could merge with it and maintain their realization and could attain enlightenment at death. Their bardo journey would then end there, in Buddhahood.
Another powerful practice that we can do, with or without meditating on the nature of mind, is to meditate on Amitabha Buddha and his Blissful Pure Land, Sukhavati. Amitabha, body of unconditional love, omniscient wisdom, and boundless power radiates blessing lights to all beings throughout the universe limitlessly, which is why he is known as the "Buddha of Infinite Light" (Amitabha). Amitabha and his Blissful Pure Land are actually inseparable–they are manifestations of the universal ultimate truth and its pure qualities. In reality, they are not someone or something else, but the reflections of our own true nature, the enlightened qualities of our own mind.
Rebirth in this Pure Land requires only four things. With total devotion in Amitabha, we need to repeatedly think about him and his Pure Land and feel their boundless peace and joy; accumulate merits (good karmas); wish from the heart to help all beings take rebirth in the Pure Land; dedicate our merits to all beings and aspire that we all take rebirth there.
If we open ourselves to such feelings now at a deeper level of our mind, when we die all appearances can arise as a world of joy, as the dawn of whatever pure land we believe in awakens in our heart.