Beyond Life and DeathAfterlifeMourningWith Eyes OpenIntensive CareWatch and Ward

ResourcesJoin the DiscussionAbout the SeriesTranscriptsViewer Guides

Counsel | Robert Thurmanhorizontal rule

photo of robert thurman

Robert Thurman, Ph.D., is a professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. As a teacher, writer and speaker, Thurman's goal has been to offer the lessons of Tibetan Buddhism throughout the United States and abroad. Thurman was the first American to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and practiced from 1962-1966. In his appearances and speaking engagements, Thurman challenges people to apply the precepts of Buddhism to their daily lives. He is the author and translator of numerous books, including The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bantam, 1994).

Meditation exercise for the process of dissolution during death

Tibetan Buddhism offers numerous practices designed to aid the individual in attaining enlightenment, a perfect state of wisdom, compassion and bliss, through an evolution that takes many lifetimes. The following meditation is based on a traditional Tibetan Buddhist method of preparing oneself to navigate the dying process in a calm and aware state.

It is thought that such preparation for death gives the dying person the greatest opportunity to maximize the potential for enlightenment while dying and to attain a positive rebirth so that one may continue to work towards enlightenment in future lives. The meditation is to be done during regular meditation sessions, and it can also be applied to the processes of falling asleep and wakening.

Complete the entire cycle in each meditation session - beginning with earth dissolving into water all the way to the clear light and then going backwards through the cycle to end up again at the earth element. For more detailed information on this process, please consult my translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
- Robert Thurman

The following text is available as a RealAudio clip.

Stage One: earth into water
Let's get into meditative posture, nice and balanced and comfortable. Close your eyes. It's ideal in the Buddhist meditation to leave them half open so that you have a half curtain window so you don't make a duality between inside and outside. You don't pay attention to either the inside or the outside but you withdraw your mental attention away from your visual field. Then just observe your breathing inward and outward and try to count your breaths to ten. If you lose your count by being distracted by thinking, go back to one. Count on the inhales.

Now imagine that you are dying and you are losing sight and memory of your town, your house or room, the people with you. Also your body starts to go numb, your breathing becomes labored and you lose track of who's drawing breath. You forget to breathe. And then you enter first the realm of hallucination. You feel like a sort of fainting, melting sensation. There's a visual swirl all around you but not in your eyes, you're not seeing. It's sort of in back of your eyes, in the center of your brain behind the eyes. It's a swirling visionary state which is mirage like and illusion like. And you feel kind of a melting. This is the earth element dissolving into water. Don't be frightened. Just let yourself go limp.

Stage Two: water into fire
Stage Three: fire into air
Stage Four: air into consciousness

And then you feel a little warm, kind of a blush of inner heat. Everything seems to be smoky around you like there was a fire somewhere nearby. Don't be frightened of that because it's just the water element dissolving into the fire element. This cools and it's as if the embers are sort of sputtering or as if the blue green light of the fireflies, zillions of fire flies are swarming around you and within you really, because there is no in and out here and they are blinking their lights. Everything is blinking and swirling. And that is the fire element dissolving into the wind element. Then this swirling, flickering pale light solidifies and everything in your whole world becomes a single, still, candle flame. That is the wind element dissolving into consciousness or pure space.

Stage Five: consciousness into luminance
Stage Six: luminance into radiance
Stage Seven: radiance into imminence

Then this candle flame expands and expands and you feel your awareness expanding and expanding and it is no longer in a point but is now a vast realm or environment. And you enter into this state of luminance, into the infinite moonlit sky, white light everywhere and you as infinite, losing your sense of embodiment for the moment. Then this infinite white moonlit sky turns into an infinite sunlit sky, more reddish -orange, more hot and radiant. And you are that vastness of the sun. You feel more balanced in space. You resist retracting back into your body or trying to. When that stabilizes you then move deeper from the realm of radiance of sunlit sky into the realm of imminence, like a dark-lit sky. Everything is dark and you are very, very close to complete unawareness but still lucidly aware in the brilliant blackness, although now you're aware that you are content to be unaware in a more loose way.

Stage Eight: imminence into transparency
Finally you come to the clear light. Everything becomes transparent. There is no sense of being in absolute space apart from things. Differentiated and interrelated things re-emerge within a sense of infinity of space, re-emerge to be experienced from all sides from within, not just from an observer's perspective. Everything is transparent like glass and completely mutually interdependent. You feel very, very calm and peaceful and extremely alert and aware in a multi-dimensional and multi-perspectival way. This is the restful state in the universe, the most restorative, energizing, and liberating. It seems to be so subtle that it seems to be past in a split second. And since we do not feel balanced and content when we are not grasping onto any differentiation or any pattern or recognition, we revert right back into the dark light, and from there into the sun light, from there into the moon light, from there into the candle flame, from there into the firefly zone, from there into the smoke zone, from there into the hallucination zone and from there we go back into our ordinary bodies.

We dedicate the merit of this exploration to our eventual, complete conscious ability to traverse these stages or to be simultaneously aware of all of these levels at once even in our engagement in the ordinary world, which is a kind of definition of the state of perfect enlightenment. And we do this for the benefit of all beings.

These eight states - earth into water, water into fire, fire into air, air into consciousness, consciousness into luminance, luminance into radiance, radiance into imminence, imminence into transparency and then reversed -- transparency to imminence, imminence to radiance, radiance to luminance, luminance to consciousness, consciousness to air, air to fire, fire to water and water to earth -- if you familiarize yourselves with that process, as if it were an arpeggio or something, like a scale, it's considered really, really useful.

From the third Art of Dying Conference, March 2000
© 2000 Tibet House. Used by permission.


Robert Thurman's Recommended Reading
Levine, Steven and Levine, Ondrea. "Who Dies?: An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying."
Anchor, 1989.
Steven Levine is the longest term veteran of work with the dying. His meditations are sophisticated and his approach is not dogmatic.

Longaker, Christine. "Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care of the Dying."
Doubleday, 1998
This is a practical and useful book.

Rinpoche, Sogyal. "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying."
Harper San Francisco, 1994.
This is an accessible digest of healthy Tibetan attitudes about death that is filled with anecdotes and colorful teachings.

Singh, Kathleen Dowling. "The Grace in Dying."
Harper San Francisco, 2000.
Kathleen Singh has genuine experience with the dying and she considers the importance of the individual's spiritual life and image of the afterlife in the process of dying.

Thurman, Robert and Wise, Tad. "Circling the Sacred Mountain: A Spiritual Adventure Through the Himalayas."
Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2000.
This book gives an overview of the Tibetan vision of life, human evolution over numerous lifetimes, and the value of controlled transitions from one state of consciousness to the next.

Thurman, Robert. "The Tibetan Book of the Dead."
Bantam, 1994.
This is an excellent source of information about the Tibetan view of death and beyond.

horizontal rule




©2000 KQED I PBS Online Privacy Policy