250 THE TIBETAN BOOK OF LIVING AND DYING very difficult experience. But if we have had instructions on the meaning of death, we will know what enormous hope there is when the Ground Luminosity dawns at the moment of death. However, there still remains the uncertainty of whether we will recognize it or not, and this is why it is so important to stabilize the recognition of the nature of mind through practice while we are still alive. Many of us, however, have not had the good fortune to encounter the teachings, and we have no idea of what death really is. When we suddenly realize that our whole life, our whole reality, is disappearing, it is terrifying: We don't know what is happening to us, or where we are going. Nothing in our previous experience has prepared us for this. As anyone who has cared for the dying will know, our anxiety will even heighten the experience of physical pain. If we have not taken care of our lives, or our actions have been harmful and negative, we will feel regret, guilt, and fear. So just to have a measure of familiarity with these teachings on the bardos will bring us some reassurance, inspiration, and hope, even though we may never have practiced and realized them. For good practitioners who know exactly what is happening, not only is death less painful and fearful but it is the very moment they have been looking forward to; they face it with equanimity, and even with joy. I remember how Dudjom Rinpoche used to tell the story of the death of one realized yogin. He had been ill for a few days, and his doctor came to read his pulse. The doctor detected that he was going to die, but he was not sure whether to tell him or not; his face fell, and he stood by the bedside looking solemn and serious. But the yogin insisted, with an almost childlike enthusiasm, that he tell him the worst. Finally the doctor gave in, but tried to speak as if to console him. He said gravely: "Be careful, the time has come." To the doctor's amazement the yogin was delighted, as thrilled as a little child looking at a Christmas present he is about to open. "Is it really true?" he asked. 'What sweet words, what joyful news!" He gazed into the sky and passed away directly in a state of deep meditation. In Tibet everyone knew that to die a spectacular death was the way to really make a name for yourself if you had not managed to do so already in life. One man I heard of was determined to die miraculously and in a grand style. He knew that often masters will indicate when they are going to die, and summon their disciples together to be present at their death. So this particular man gathered all his friends for a great
THE PROCESS OF DYING 251 feast around his deathbed. He sat there in meditation posture waiting for death, but nothing happened. After several hours his guests began to get tired of waiting and said to each other, "Let's start eating." They filled their plates, and then looked up at the prospective corpse and said: "He's dying, he doesn't need to eat." As time went by and still there was no sign of death, the "dying" man became famished himself, and worried that there would soon be nothing left to eat. He got down from his deathbed and joined in the feast. His great deathbed scene had turned into a humiliating fiasco. Good practitioners can take care of themselves when they die, but ordinary ones will need to have their teacher at their bedside, if possible, or otherwise a spiritual friend who can remind them of the essence of their practice and inspire them to the View. Whoever we are, it can be a great help to be familiar with the process of dying. If we understand the stages of dying, we will know that all the strange and unfamiliar experiences we are passing through are part of a natural process. As this process begins, it signals the coming of death, and reminds us to alert ourselves. And for a practitioner each stage of dying will be a signpost, reminding us of what is happening to us, andof the practice to do at each point. THE PROCESS OF DYING The process of dying is explained in considerable detail in the different Tibetan teachings. Essentially it consists of two phases of dissolution: an outer dissolution, when the senses and elements dissolve, and an inner dissolution of the gross and subtle thought states and emotions. But first we need to understand the components of our body and mind, which disintegrate at death. Our whole existence is determined by the elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. Through them our body is formed and sustained, and when they dissolve, we die. We are familiar with the outer elements, which condition the way in which we live, but what is interesting is how these outer elements interact with the inner elements within our own physical body. And the potential and quality of these five elements also exist within our mind. Mind's ability to serve as the ground for all experience is the quality of earth; its continuity and adaptability is water; its clarity and capacity to perceive is fire; its continuous movement is air; and its unlimited emptiness is space.