What is death like? The Tibetan Book of the Dead has the most comprehensive step-by-step description of the dying process of both the body and the mind. The process of the dying body is called outer dissolution, and this ancient description is being use in today’s hospice work as a guide for the dying.
The text reveals how the elements of our body dissolve and how this is felt through our senses. According to Buddhism and Eastern religion, our body is made up of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. As each element dissolve there is a sense-experience to go with it: “The five inner elements of flesh, blood, body heat, space, and consciousness are dependent on the five outer elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and sky. At the time of death, the five inner elements gradually dissolve into one another.”[i]
The stages of dissolution happen in the following order:
The earth element, which corresponds to the flesh of the body, dissolves into water. At this time the body becomes very heavy and we feel as though we cannot move. The water element, which corresponds to the blood of the body, dissolves into fire or heat. At this time we feel very dry because the water in the body is evaporating…The fire element, which corresponds to body heat, dissolves into air or breath. At this time the heat leaves the body and we feel cold. The wind or air element, which corresponds to space, dissolves into consciousness. At this time we can no longer inhale or exhale; we can no longer breathe.[ii]
When first earth dissolves into water, the experience is weakening as the body is melting. Visual acuity deteriorates and everything seems like a mirage of water. Then water dissolves into fire and the fluids of the body dry out with the sensation of becoming numb. With this numbness, auditory acuity goes away, one can no longer hear well, and there is a sensation of being surrounded by smoke.
Then fire dissolves into wind. Inhalation weakens and the sense of smell goes away. One feels cold and surrounded by a burst of sparks. Then wind dissolves into space, and breathing stops. This is where gross consciousness dissolves, and it is the end of the gross mind-body experience.[iii]
The connection between the mind and the dissolution of the elements is deep and profound, since the elements are created from mind. In Soygal Rinpoche’s book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Kalu Rinpoche reveals that, “It is from mind, which embodies the five elemental qualities, that the physical body develops.”[iv] This means that as the body dissolves into the mind, this is where we feel the sensations of this dissolution, and so, this is the biggest part of dying—the inner dissolution.
The dissolution of the body is followed by an inner dissolution that dissolves the gross mind-body experience. The inner dissolution of the mind is from the gross to the subtle, where the gross mind of confusion is dissolved into the subtle mind of its own true nature. This dissolution is a powerful transformation of consciousness, which happens as the awareness that identifies with the elements that make up the body is transformed into an awareness of the true nature of the mind.
This transformation also includes the powerful experience of leaving the body. The experience of leaving our body is an unusual experience, and in the near-death experience Raymond Moody observes that many people describe being confused.[v] For me, it was an extremely powerful sensation as if I was free falling while my body was dissolving in an internal explosion. Leaving the body and meeting the light is an intensely emotional sensation that the near-death experiencer cannot find words to describe.[vi]
This is when we discover that we have left our body. When the body is alive it is the support of our consciousness, but when we die the body is no longer able to support our consciousness. Therefore, leaving the body is described as the experience of falling, since there is no longer any feeling of weight connected to our consciousness.[vii]
As our consciousness leaves the body, the gross mind is dissolved with the elements, and we find ourselves in the subtle mind of our true nature. The reality that we perceive through our senses is manifested by our senses, and these senses are made from the elements that make our body. The reason we see reality as it is in this physical dimension is that our senses are dependent on the elements that make them. When the elements dissolve, the senses and the awareness connected to the senses also dissolve and our mind awakens to a new reality.
This new reality dawns at the moment that the two elements meet—the gross mind and the subtle mind. The gross mind is the ground of confusion since it is connected to our senses and our relative world. But the subtle mind is the ground of liberation because the true nature of reality dawns from experiencing it.[viii]
The gross mind, which we can also call the conceptual mind, gives birth to the enlightened mind; “What remains when all of these thought states have ceased, is simply the unconstructed nature of mind…it is the naked awareness itself.”[ix]
The Buddhist tradition calls this awakening to the naked awareness the meeting of mother and child. The mother is the clear light of naked awareness (emptiness), and “this is the fundamental, inherent nature of everything, which underlies our whole experience, and which manifests in its full glory at the moment of death.”[x]
The naked mind and the clear light are one, as the true nature of our mind meets its mother as the ultimate reality. The naked awareness is both empty and luminous, which is the fundamental nature of everything. The naked mind and the clear light meet as “old friends,” like a river flowing into the ocean. In this flowing into the ocean all that is left of the mind is space that is “totally free from mental constructs, yet naturally endowed with cognizant wakefulness.”[xi] And as the dissolution of the gross mind is over, we awaken as a mental body—a point of awareness.
The inner dissolution process has the following steps. First consciousness dissolves into space, and then space dissolves into luminosity. Then luminosity, or light, dissolves into union, which dissolves into wisdom. Wisdom then dissolves into spontaneous presence, which then finally dissolves into primordial purity.[xii]
These experiences we also find in the near-death experience. Here among the core experiences we can find “illuminated environment” as luminosity, and “feelings of oneness” as union.[xiii] We also have “profound knowledge”[xiv] as wisdom, and “heightened awareness”[xv] as spontaneous presence. At the point when the luminosity dissolves into union, in the Tibetan tradition, the essence of “peaceful deities” are experienced.[xvi]
The experience of peace is also one of the most common core experiences in the near-death studies, which is experienced in some studies by up to 82 percent.[xvii] The experience of peace is a sensation that is extremely positive and filled with the experience of love and joy beyond imagination. There is a feeling of completeness and oneness that is truly out of this dimension.
Fenwick tells us that,
Not only is the experience felt as complete, but this completeness is a “coming home.” It is as if they had always known this state and that birth, life with its pains, and death, are all a departure from an underlying consciousness.[xviii]
This experience of coming home is experienced as the ultimate truth of reality, exactly as Buddhism describes it to be the fundamental level of reality. Some near-death experiencers feel that they have “seen through the very texture of the universe into its ultimate structure.”[xix] One person describes: “I just knew, the light held all the answers,”[xx] and another explains that “the meaning and purpose of life and the universe itself. I could not possibly know the answers but I did!”[xxi]
From Carl Jung we can learn that,
What happens after death is so unspeakably glorious that our imagination and our feelings do not suffice to form even an approximate conception of it…The dissolution of our time-bound form in eternity brings no loss of meaning.[xxii]
Plato calls this an entry into the sky from where the true heaven and the true earth can be seen in the “true light.”[xxiii] Everything seen in the true light is incredibly beautiful, and much brighter than what we perceive in this dimension. In this place in the sky, all abilities like sight, hearing, and understanding are pure and far superior to anything we know on earth.[xxiv]
Plato also speaks of a wholeness or oneness that can be experienced from there. In this way the true meaning of life is first revealed at the moment of death when we look into the mirror. We now see everything in its true light and this is the whole point of Plato’s message; it is first when we die that we discover the true purpose of life. This is also what the mirror of death reveals to us in Buddhism, and this is what the near-death experience tells us about the next dimension. It is first at the time of death, when we leave the body and enter the next dimension, that the true meaning of the universe is revealed to us.
Here we can also use Plato’s story about the prisoners in the cave, who are watching shadows of reality. Our conceptual mind and our senses have us caught in the cave, watching only shadows of reality. These shadows are what we experience as the physical dimension, and when we leave this dimension, we are like the prisoners freed of our chains, liberated to see the world outside the cave. This fits with Moody’s accounts that describe the homecoming of death as the “escape from jail.”[xxv]
This is what happens when we leave the body; we are liberated from the chains of our physical senses and set free to see existence in its true light. Fenwick tells us that “this emotional state is primary and spreads into whatever imagery arises…the essence of each of these experiences was the ‘feeling state’…which seems to me to shape and define the near-death experience.”[xxvi] He also explains that the “predominant quality” of the light “is that of bliss and universal love.”[xxvii]
There are really no words and nothing in this dimension that can explain this sensation. One near-death account tries to describe it this way:
I was convinced no living person could experience such joy. The only way I can explain it is think of the happiest moment of your life, and when you do, that happiest moment is awful pain compared to what you feel, and I will swear to that.[xxviii]
The best words we have are: ecstasy, bliss, perfect joy, complete happiness, absolute perfection, bursting love, groundless emotion. Still, the true nature of reality is beyond words and beyond our comprehension, but what is certain is that the meeting with this ultimate reality brings about an awakening: “The common ground between cultures and between individuals is that the NDE seems to be an ‘awakening’ experience.”[xxix]
One near-death experiencer testifies that it is the awakening to, “A LOVE so incredibly powerful and intensely deep that I was astounded and even in a state of shock as it went through me. I never knew such a LOVE existed.”[xxx] This is the experience of total awe—an awe awakening to the true nature of reality being love.
My own thought when entering into this dimension was: Wow! I did not know! This was the experience of raw and absolute truth—there is Truth! And this truth is Love. The realization of this totally overwhelmed me. I did not know because I thought that there was no truth.
The next dimension is so overpowering that it leaves us in total awe and absolute humility. The meeting with this new dimension is so powerful, that it makes us awaken in the greatest revelation: It is all love—pure and absolute love—the true nature and fundamental reality of life is love.
[i] Norbu, The Small Golden Key, 99.
[ii] Norbu, The Small Golden Key, 99-100.
[iii] Thurman, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, 42.
[iv] Soygal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, 248.
[v] Moody, Life After Life, 37.
[vi] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 10.
[vii] Norbu, The Small Golden Key, 100.
[viii] Nyima Rinpoche, The Bardo Guidebook, 112.
[ix] Nyima Rinpoche, The Bardo Guidebook, 114.
[x] Soygal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, 263.
[xi] Nyima Rinpoche, The Bardo Guidebook, 117.
[xii] Nyima Rinpoche, The Bardo Guidebook, 14-15.
[xiii] Grey, Return From Death, 31.
[xiv] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 74.
[xv] Grey, Return From Death, 31.
[xvi] Nyima, The Bardo Guidebook, 15.
[xvii] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 69.
[xviii] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 69.
[xix] Ibid, 12.
[xx] Ibid, 74.
[xxi] Ibid, 115.
[xxii] Jung, Letters, Vol. 1, 343 in Yates, Jung on Death and Immortality, 6.
[xxiii] Brann, Kalkavage, Salem, Plato’s Phaedo, 110 B, 93.
[xxiv] Ibid, 111 B, 94.
[xxv] Moody, Life After Life, 97.
[xxvi] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 69.
[xxvii] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 58.
[xxviii] Ibid, 72.
[xxix] Ibid, 168.
[xxx] Ring, Valarino, Lessons From the Light, 43.