Overcoming the Fear of Dying
The physical definition of death
I am continuing to talk about death and the bardo. As we have learned earlier, the basic, fundamental advice about the fear of death and also for living people is to do one’s best, so that when the inevitable death occurs, we will be prepared positively for it. Now I will talk briefly about the physical definition of death as related to the basic definition of the body.
The life span of a human being like us on this planet in this solar system of this universe is somehow fixed. It is almost a miracle if we see someone live beyond one hundred years.
I cannot say there are more than a few thousand people living on this planet right now who are over a hundred. It is very difficult to live that long, but it is possible. If we think of a few more years, if we think of someone who has lived two hundred years, I would say that we cannot even count one person with such a life span. So while a human being as such might live billions of years, a human being on planet earth of this solar system definitely does not live beyond two hundred years. I say this to make us a little happier. We cannot live above two hundred years, and that says to us that the relative interdependent manifestation of our body has its own fixed mechanism. I think in scientific or mechanical terminology this would be called the genetic or cell structure. You may know more about this than I do, actually. There is something fixed; the physical definition of death as a human being on the planet earth is according to the life span of the body. Of course, we should know that this is relative reality, and it is always possible that one can transcend this relative reality. It is not an ultimate truth that we cannot live more than two hundred years. It is a relative truth.
In order to transcend physical relative reality, one has to have a deep level of realization. Living without dying is in the same physical entity as we call immortality. In Buddhist history quite a few masters have achieved this, and the master who is most well known for this achievement is Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche lives today.
Of course some western scholars have said that is not the case, and quite a few have written about Guru Rinpoche not being immortal. But we all believe that Guru Rinpoche lives even today. He attained realization. I have had discussions about this with quite a few people who do not want to agree with me. That is all right, we have freedom of speech and freedom of belief. Some people like to say that for Guru Rinpoche and other great masters who have attained immortality, it is their mind that is immortal. That I do not agree with because our mind is immortal all the time. We do not have to be Guru Rinpoche, we do not have to be enlightened, and as we are our minds are immortal. The mind reincarnates from one life to another; it never dies. Guru Rinpoche’s realization of immortality is not talking about the immortality of his mind. Guru Rinpoche has realized that the body is manifestation of the mind.
That is how Guru Rinpoche transcended the laws of nature, because nature is part of the mind, part of the ultimate. So once that realization happened, then Guru Rinpoche became immortal.
Immortality is something achievable, but unless we reach that kind of realization and transcend relative reality, our body is mortal, and a mortal body has a life span. Sometimes we like to say that human beings live only about one hundred years. This is inadequate, because a human being means a being in the human realm, which is one of the six realms. A human being is not limited to the human being of planet earth. A human being might live on another planet. The human realm as one of the six realms extends throughout the existence of sentient beings, so some human beings might not look like people that we know. They might look like a carpet, which would seem very weird to us, but definitely it is possible. We look like a tree trunk. So somebody who looks like a carpet may look at us and say “What strange beings, they look like tree trunk.” The human realm is a state of mind and the human body has no real definition; it can be anything. We are the human beings of the planet earth. Looking up, we have something on our head called hair. A being that had never seen us would find this hair very funny, because some people tie it up, some have it down, some cut this way or that way, and some shave it totally. It would seem strange to them, but for us it is one of the ways to beautify ourselves and we take good care of it. Some of us who have lost it polish the pate to keep it clean and shiny and beautiful.
The human realm is such that some human beings on another planet, not because of their greater or lesser merit but because of their karma, might live ten million years according to our calculations of years. Others might live only ten years or three years according to our calculations. It depends very much on the mechanism of the planet, such as how fast the planet rotates and moves, how thick or thin the air, how heavy or light the atmosphere. According to that there may be a bigger body, a taller body, a flatter body, looking like a carpet, looking like a tree, all kinds of possibilities.
The way of appearance can be absolutely uniform, but the level of maturity of consciousness, the mental and physical ability will be human. So that is the human realm. Long life or short life is irrelevant when we look at it from this perspective. Some human beings, if they see that we are living a maximum of two hundred years, will think that this is awfully short. If they live for millions of years, for them it might be something like saying we only live ten years, our two hundred years is equivalent to two thousand years, so that would be very long. It depends on the physical reality. Then for beings in all other realms, as long as they have a dualistic entity, whether it is what we call physical or what we call non physical, as long as it is a dualistic entity that has past, present and future, they will also have death. Time starts, continues, and ends, so there will be a beginning and ending as long as there is time, but physical death as such is very closely associated with body.
For beings who are in the bardo stage, we do not say they are born in the bardo. When I say bardo here, I am talking about the after-death bardo, the bardo from death until we are conceived. The bardo has many levels; right now we are in a bardo too, because from birth to death is one aspect of the bardo. We do not say that when we die we are reborn in the bardo, and then when we were conceived into another life we do not say we died in the bardo. But as far as the time, the past, the present, and the future, is concerned, death is the beginning of the bardo, the stages of death, and when we go a little further that becomes the bardo, and we will remain in the bardo for a period of time. Since we are human beings of the planet earth, we will be there for a maximum of 49 days. The minimum can be any amount of time, but the maximum is 49 days. That is what we call remaining in the bardo, and when that 49 days maximum or whatever shorter period is over and we are conceived into the next life, we call that the end of the bardo. So there is the past, present, future, or the beginning, remaining, and end of the bardo period, but we do not say that the person dies in the bardo and is born into the next life. In principle, however, it is the same thing, because when someone is born, for that person the bardo becomes past. The person passes away from the bardo into the next life. The bardo people, if they still speak the English language and if they still like to say the same things we do may say, “ My friend passed out of the bardo.” It is quite simple, but sometimes we need to talk about it in that order to get it right.
In that way the use of the term death is related to the physical body. I have said these few things about the physical definition of death and also the past, present, and future aspect of the same thing. Now within this context of the physical body and the limitation of a life span, we have teachings as part of the bardo teaching. We also have quite a large number of teachings related to the signs of death. There are many signs of death and there is much detailed teaching on them. I am not going to say a lot about that because it might become very complicated. Also, to tell you the truth, right now I do not remember all the details about the signs of death from the texts. I would have to look them up in the texts and my notebooks, so for that reason and because it would take too much time, I will not go into all the details.
But besides this there is quite a serious reason for not trying to address this topic too much, ant that is because you might really become obsessed about it. Some people always like to know about dreams. They writer them down and then dreams become like a hobby. They invest too much time and energy in it, and sometimes become quite obsessed about it. Likewise, if you learn a lot about the signs of death, you might worry too much, and sometimes you might get false warnings. You might see these in other people also, so you might upset a lot of people, and this would not be very pleasant or nice or helpful. I think, to say the least, that I should be responsible for whatever kind of confusion that I might create in you from a Dharmic point of view. Legally you cannot touch me, but even so, spiritually I am responsible for your welfare, so I must be very careful about this.
But there is one thing I would like to share with you, and this will give you the overall picture of what signs of death mean in the bardo teaching. For that reason I tell you this and also I do not see much risk in telling you this, because if you try this technique it will be very good for your practice. If you try very very hard to keep a record of this thing, it is going to make you better, more organized practitioner. I do not see that it will give you a lot of unnecessary worries and problems. There are many factors involved, which might also mean that to get this really straight will take many, many years of practice. So I really would not worry so much that you will get obsessed about it. I will tell you this so that you can get at least some perspective to know what possibly the signs of death could mean.
Now everything about us and around us is equally real, whatever we think is real solid reality and whatever we think is not so important reality. It is like the definition of superstition. People like to make very clear and appropriate definition, that this is superstition and that is not, but in the general context of the interdependence of everything, it is impossible to make such a distinction. In that way everything around us is equally relevant to us. So in these you should know that there are signs for everything around us. Not only signs of death, but signs of good health, signs of bad health, signs for all kinds of things around us.
Some people learn about certain aspects of it mathematically; we call them mathematicians. Some people learn about it through the principle of zodiac and planets and stars and so forth, we call them astrologers. Other people learn about it through pulses and different parts of the body and blood and so forth, and we call them medical doctors. Some people learn about people’s reaction to things, how they react to emotional patterns and so forth; we call them psychologists. All of these are just magnifying one aspect of it and learning bit by bit about it, becoming an expert in it, and then one can somehow see what is happening and why, and then many times we find out how to improve it.