On Death and Dharma
Joep Ingen Housz

“Live like you will die tomorrow and learn to live eternally”

Mahatma Gandhi

In our western society death is considered by many as a morbid issue and is mostly treated as a taboo. As a consequence most people don’t integrate the reality of death in their daily lives. Only when death strikes a loved-one or ourselves we can no longer turn away from the reality of death. When faced with it unprepared, death is for most people hard to handle. We will be submerged in agony, overwhelmed by emotions and may part from life with intense suffering. At the moment of death we collect the fruits of our life.

It is not possible to live fully our life when we have not integrated the phenomenon of death in our everyday life. The strange paradox is that most people think and act as if they are going to live eternally while we all have one certainty in common, namely that we are going to die. The only thing we do not know is when and how it is going to happen. Numerous people die without being properly prepared, leaving behind their close-ones unequipped to handle their loss.

Take a little moment for the following practice in contemplation and meditation.

Imagine that you are going to die tomorrow. Try to feel this notion of your coming death and think how you will spend your last day in this life. When the feeling is real enough rest for a while in that feeling in a state of meditation.

Next imagine that you just learned that a loved-one is going to die, and find out if knowing this changes your attitude towards that person. When you feel your love and compassion for that person remain for a while in that feeling.

Most people with Near Death Experience testify that their experience changed completely their lives, life got more profound meaning and is lived with more love and compassion. An exercise as described above may help you to live more profoundly and change your attitude towards the world. When we change for better, the world in which we live will change for better.

When one enters the path of personal transformation towards liberation, the path of Dharma, one should integrate death in ones life. The moment of death is an important opportunity for ultimate liberation, once you are well prepared.

Not only can we help ourselves by gaining insight in death and dying, we can also be of invaluable help to other sentient beings, people and animals, when they face death by surrounding them with our love and understanding. Trained practitioners can also accompany the dying and death with spiritual practices.

Once we are motivated to face the issue of death we have to gain better understanding of what death is.

What is actually Death?

Most commonly death is seen as the inevitable end of life. In our western society we consider that some one is dead when a monitor shows a flat-line for the heart and brain activities and the doctors declare a person clinically dead.

What we call Death is in fact an important process of transformation, where body and mind separate. After that the mind no longer controls the body functions and the body starts to decompose, in a process of transformation into different organic matter. In fact the body is permanently involved in a process of transformation, from the time of conception until death. If we look deeper we see even that the process of transforming matter was already going on at conception and will continue after death. After death the body becomes fertile soil from which can grow new forms of life.

But what about the consciousness of the dying person, does that just cease to exist at the time of death, does it turn into nothingness?

Consciousness is equally object of a continuous transformation process. At the moment of conception the individual consciousness unites with the matter of the becoming body. Over lifetime this consciousness evolves and at the moment of death the consciousness disintegrates and separates from the body. What we know about the nature of Consciousness is merely the result of contemplative traditions. Practitioners of those traditions have been investigating the phenomena of mind and consciousness through study, contemplation and meditation for many centuries. Their findings are found in the teachings of their tradition. Robert Thurman even speaks of the Tibetan Science of Death.[1] In mind science there is increasing interest for research to the nature of consciousness.

So Birth and Death are merely milestones in a continuous process of transformation of matter and consciousness and Death is surely not the end of everything!

What is beyond Death?


If death is not the grand final, what happens after that milestone in the ongoing transformation process? Concerning the body it is clear that it comes forth from nature and that it is recycled into nature. With respect to the mind part there is less common clarity. Different traditions have different belief systems. But they have all in common that a form of consciousness goes on after death called either a Soul, Spirit, Atman or Supreme Self.

Again others believe that a human being completely ceases to exist, that the mind turns into “nothingness”. However if we contemplate on the law of cause and effect and impermanence we can see that something cannot come into existence from nothing, or cease to exist by turning into nothing. Something can only become into existence through transformation. Consciousness emerges from an existing form of consciousness at conception and will turn into some form of consciousness after death, independent from the name we give to that form of consciousness.

Where does this consciousness go when it is separated from the body? In that respect beliefs are different. In some believe systems the spirit departs for the underworld submerged in the ocean of darkness, for others the Soul goes either to Heaven or to Hell. In other traditions the consciousness can find rebirth in another incarnation. From testimonies of people with near-death experience we know that they have experiences of going into the light meeting with God and that others have fearful hell-like experiences.[2] Most explicit are the teachings of the Tibetan teachers on death science who explain how our consciousness is traversing different so-called Bardo-states, different states of consciousness. [3]

Independent of belief system or tradition it is clear that some form of ‘our’ consciousness continues beyond death and can reach a state of great bliss or enter a state of suffering and darkness eventually followed by re-incarnation in some form.

Most belief systems share the view that the quality of death and life after death depend on how we live.

Whether we merely care for our selves during our life in a mere egocentric way or we live genuinely altruistic, generous with love and compassion for others the fruit will be accordingly. From near-death experiences and from the teachings on death science we know that at the time of death we see in a flash the account of our entire life. This can lead to immense regret at the time of death if we realize that we did do a lot of harm to other beings during our life, and that there is no time left to correct our misdeeds.

At the moment of Death we have to leave our body, our loved ones and friends and all our possessions, behind. From our consciousness the ego dissolves at the moment of death and only the seeds of Karma and the Merits we have accumulated will remain. Therefore it is more important during life to accumulate merit, to avoid negative actions and purify Karma than to accumulate wealth and enemies. Unfortunately many people act contrary to their interest.

The quality of our death and beyond is the result of the quality of our life. Therefore the time of death is too late to bring quality in our life. Besides our death can be closer than we think, it can be tomorrow or even today.

Facing Death

Sometimes death takes people by surprise in their sleep or in an accident, leaving relatives behind in great confusion. in other cases we know in advance that death is close like I experienced with my father.

Three months prior to his death, my father phoned me to announce me the verdict that he just got from his doctors: maximum three month’s left in his life. Since he was going through the final stage of cancer that had invaded his entire body he suffered from a lot of pain. In spite of that, those three months we spent together are among the most precious of my life. We talked about things we never did before and by doing so deepened our relationship of love from father and son. He faced his faith with courage and when he died, everything that he had to say was said. His death opened my eyes to see what life is really for so that I entered the path of Dharma. It was his precious gift to me.

I have seen many examples of how people deal with death. Some used the opportunity to grow on the path towards enlightenment, and also to settle unfinished worldly businesses. By ending quarrels, paying debts, forgiving and being forgiven for misdeeds they could leave their life in peace and love.

I have seen others leave with hatred and in bitterness for what people and life had done to them. I am intense grateful to all those beings who allowed me to witness their process of dying and death. Their generosity helped me to advance on my path. At the same time I hope that I have been of some help to them.

When facing death people go through a process of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance[4]. Of course as long as there is hope to continue living one should fight for it since life is to precious to give it up easily.

Especially when struck with a fatal disease the dilemma of resistance and acceptance can take some time. A worthwhile book is the testimony of Treya Killan Wilber of her fight and acceptance.[5]

For family and friends of someone who is about to die it is not easy either. They are going to loose a loved one and are confronted with their own emotions. Someone standing in front of death may project his fears on his loved ones and show confronting behavior. The only sensible reaction is one of the heart, one of unselfish love and understanding and not a reaction of an injured ego. Afterwards you will be grateful for the love you gave and deeply regret your selfish reactions.

Precious human life

When I was for the first time confronted with the Buddhist doctrine stating that one should use life to prepare for death and life after death, I felt great resistance. I thought that at the time of death it was early enough to be confronted with it and that life was for living! Now I know how wrong I was, that it was only my profound fear of death that made me resist, and how important it is to be well prepared.

Thanks to the unique combination of a human body and mind, we have the potentiality to transform ourselves, in order to find the ultimate freedom of enlightenment; to become completely free from sufferings of life, sickness old age and death and to attain the state of ultimate happiness.

We can use our life to develop awareness to replace our ignorance and to rid ourselves from the imprisonment by our fear, anger and attachment. Life enables us to grow our capability to love and be compassionate. When we live a life of love and compassion we automatically receive love and compassion. Every sentient being is longing so much for love and at the same time so much hindered to access love because of invading negative emotions. Conquering negative emotions and developing the qualities of loving-kindness and compassion are the main keys for attaining liberation.

At the time of death it is important that we recognize the clear light which manifest as the overwhelming love of God and that we are not invaded by agony. Our future destination depends on our ability to recognize pure love and to master our negative emotions.

When we integrate death in our life we will gain a deeper experience of life and connect to its true value and meaning. We will find freedom, love and happiness on our path. As a next step to put this in practice the exercise described above may be of help. For further study I can specially advice the books of Sogyal Rinpoche and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (see notes). Buddhist practitioners include in their daily practice meditation on death and impermanence. In subsequent articles I intend to give more detailed insight and practical information on Death and Dharma.

[1] Robert A.F. Thurman (transl.) The Tibetan Book of the Death, Bantam Books 1994

[2] Raymond Moody MD, Life after life, Bantam Books 1975; Kenneth Ring: Heading towards Omega: in search of the meaning of the near-death experience, New York, Quill, 1985

[3] see ad 1. And also The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (revised edition) by Sogyal Rinpoche, Harper San Francisco 2001

[4] Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying. Scribner; Reprint edition (June 9, 1997)

[5] Ken Wilber: Grace and Grit. Shambala Publications, Boston 1991

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