The Road Beyond this Life
An individual who achieves a fully perfected Light Body or Rainbow Body in this very life is like a hologram, a gossamer web of photons, a powerful electromagnetic field that holds to human form until that allotted moment when it is time to leave the bubble of flesh behind. In the dying process, such a being can negotiate the after-death or bardo (in between) state with certainty. They may move on to another life consciously, or manifest in a luminous pure land in a far off star system. But what about the rest of us? How can we learn to navigate this uncertain territory with any kind of clarity or direction? The presence of highly developed gurus with masterful techniques would be nice. I have been fortunate to witness such beings literally pluck a lost soul out of the after-death state, or send off an ordinary mortal (even an animal) into a cloud of rainbows on a clear sky day, through the practice of transference or powa. But such people don’t grow on trees. For ourselves, we need a method, a road map and an instruction booklet of some sort. Fortunately these do exist, thanks to the fact that we are not the first to face that precipice! Through the last 1,400 years of Vajrayana Buddhism, many brilliant minds have done the transformational work and traveled the internal dimensions of mind to investigate the territory. Others have died and come back as delogs (literally “returners from the beyond”) and written about their journey. This amazing legacy is available to us, no matter the stage of our development nor the state of our busy lives.
Tibetan Buddhism is vast in its range and depth. But undoubtedly the most well known and popular corner of that landscape is the book collection known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. First translated and published in the West by Walter Evans-Wentz in 1927, this text influenced a generation of thinkers. And in this century, Sogyal Rinpoche’s Book of Living and Dying was a pop sensation some 65 years later. Today we can find more than a dozen such books by Tibetan and Bhutanese masters and Western practitioners alike. They contain a wealth of valuable common-sense and Dharmic advice. Much of the content of these texts is based on Karma Lingpa’s collection of “revealed” texts from the 15th century. But regular readers will not be aware that this is just one of many systems of after-death teachings. Some 300 years earlier, the famed yogi and author Yonangpa relates knowing 16 different bardo traditions. The system of chöd of Tibet’s greatest female saint, MaChik Labdrön (1055–1149), also has a concise and powerful after-death guidance ritual that is quite distinct from the elaborate visions of Karma Lingpa’s Liberation Upon Hearing. Indeed, working with the transition states of living, dying, dreams, and the afterlife were well-established in the 1100s, originating with the teachings of the great 84 Mahasiddhas from 750 CE onward. Tilopa, Naropa, and Matripa were important adepts in the transition of these texts to the snowy fastness of the Tibetan plateau.
Stages of Bardo
The entire bardo process is generally divided into the dying stage, the intermediate or after-life stage, and the rebirth process. The various books of the dead represent very extensive and complex rituals with many moving parts, mostly concerned with the after-death process, extending from seven to 49 days. In this short article we are focusing on the dying process, particularly because it prominently involves a sequential dissolution of the Elements. It is notable that the Shangpa tradition (c. 1100), which came from two remarkable female mahasiddhas of India, Sukasiddhi and Niguma, has a practice focused solely on this dissolution process, a wonderful rehearsal for the act of dying. Compared with the more difficult after-death stage, conscious dying provides an opportunity for taking a massive spiritual leap forward. And it teaches us much about our ongoing investigation of both the Five Elements and the Light Body.
The mindset of the dying process is a huge consideration and discussed widely in Western books on hospice and death caretaking (doola). The advice to be surrounded by smiling friends and well-wishers is not just based on sentiment and compassionate care. Yes, what we did in our life has great import, but there is also something within the Vajrayana tradition called “throwing karma.” This means that what we dwell on in the last days, hours, and minutes of life can propel us forward with either positive or hellish momentum. With regard to others, this is not the time for blame, shame, anger, hatred, jealousy, or a thousand other negative emotions. For ourselves, this is not the time for regret, self-admonition, self-pity, worrying, theorizing, fantasizing—or doubting. Letting go of all that, while appreciating the amazing life journey we have enjoyed, is a solid strategy. That is the karma (action) that throws us (propels the mind) past all kinds of obstacles and can even compensate for all manner of missteps that we have inevitably made in our lifetime. Love and compassion toward our loved ones, our helpers, and toward our spiritual teachers, is paramount. Now we are ready for the stages of Elemental dissolution.
When the Elements drop away, they do so in sequence. If we have practiced working with the Five Elements, learning to dissolve them one into the other on a daily basis, we will already have a familiarity with what is to come. But beyond anything we can train for, something very special is about to happen, something that we would be fortunate to have experienced even once during our lifetime. Because, as each Element appears on the stage of mindbody, a kind of purification happens. One of the great hidden mysteries of our human incarnation is that there are different strata of Elemental forces within us, from gross to fine. We do not yet have a proper nomenclature for this energetic layering, though the basic bones are there. There is the traditional Samkhya or Hindu system of the five koshas or fields. J. G. Bennett provides us with a powerful system of 12 energies in his book Energies: Vital, Material and Cosmic, ranging from the mechanical to the cosmic, based on the works of his teacher, the famed mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. Ken Wilbur in his A Brief History of Everything (1996) and other books has an enlarged schema of eight, 12, or 13 patterns of personal and universal development. These all closely follow our knowledge of the Elements and sub-elements. We can conceive of them in a numerical sense. For example Fire Element appears on different levels: Fire-1 (molecular); F-2 (cellular); F-3 (biological); F-4 (bioenergetic), F-5 (psychological), and so on. Clearly there could be many more divisions and subdivisions, especially on the level of tissues, organs, and mind processes. But for now, this schema provides a framework for the reality of these levels. The deepest gift in all this is that our body contains the highest possible level of these Elemental matrices. Let us call this ultimate cosmic level “Element zero” (Element-0). These finest formative forces are usually not available to us. In life they are inextricably mixed with our material, biological, molecular, and even atomic identity. Much of the work of physical yoga, mantra recitation, meditation, visualization, and other sacred methods are involved with freeing up these primordially pure Elements. Indeed, Light Body formation is not other than freeing, collecting, condensing, activating, and co-mingling these original Elements.
In the Elemental dissolution process as described in traditional Tibetan texts, those pure Elements are described as goddesses, buddhas or dakinis. For many millennia, these indescribable and unutterable phenomena have been personified as spiritual beings, as a kind of bridge to our way of perceiving mundane reality. Since these Elements do entail the highest levels of consciousness, this is quite appropriate. The entire universe is sentient and everything partakes of varying levels of consciousness, from photons to space-time itself, and each strata of the Elements also encompass those stages of awareness.
Signs: Outer, Inner, Secret
Various outer manifestations and inner experiences of the Elements dissolving are extensively discussed in Tibetan texts and their translations. Descriptions of these sensations, sounds and visions help an outside observer to monitor the situation for the dying individual. And they can be useful but these signs can be difficult to grasp in the rapidly evolving situation. More accessible are the major shifts in energy that are taking place. Through familiarity with our usual bio-energy states and with the Elements on a day-to-day basis, we have a better chance of monitoring our process with a dispassionate curiosity and happy expectation. After all, we only get to do this once per lifetime. Before we can outline the stages, however, we need to clarify an important technical detail about the process called “untying the knots.”
Knots that are Not
Symbolic and mythological language is used in describing how the channels in the body are transformed. During yogic practices, or during the death process, there is an unraveling of the so-called “knots” within the subtle channels, particularly those that encircle the chakras. These entwinements need to be straightened out, so it goes, so that the winds or bio-energies can flow freely. Texts show painstaking line drawings of these tangled skeins, as well as a version of straightened channels. We now know that the primo vascular system is an important part of the subtle energy pathways, but the model of a kinked rubber hose should be understood as figurative, not literal. So what is being pointed at? During normal life, energy fields around the chakras have been enmeshed with our biophysical processes. When they are suddenly released—either through inner work or at death—that forcefield is withdrawn. The ultimate atom of the Elements is then set free. Whether this lives at the heart of the DNA spiral or in a different molecular or atomic formation, we can only suspect. But once freed, the process of merging the pure five elements with our impure elements is possible. If the “untying of the knots” is done in our meditative lifetime, through tummo or other tsa-lung (channels and psychic energy) methods, we are helping create Light Body. When it happens at the point of death, it is called the bardo of dying.
Stages of Dissolution
Earth Element is the first element to let go. The forces which hold our structure together, the forces of constructive energy in Bennett’s schema, begin to withdraw from the entire body. Where does it go? According to the Buddhist tradition, it dissolves back into the outer Earth element. This is consistent with the famous “dust to dust” pronouncement of Christianity. It also conforms to the schema of different levels of our Elemental mandala, where a more elevated or sophisticated level of the element downgrades into a more primitive or impure form. Solidity, structure, and stability fall away. At the same time the navel chakra field collapses, releasing the pure Earth Element (E-0). This enters the central channel of the body, the uma, and it is possible directly glimpse the Wisdom form of the Element, as the color yellow, a square, a buddha, a goddess.
Water Element is next in sequence. Traditional texts and their translations talk about Earth dissolving into Water. This should be understood as strictly metaphor. No Element actually merges or slips into another, but rather assumes prominence as its denser counterpart slips away. Fluidity, cohesion, and the connectedness of our “universal solvent” of water slips away. This is Bennett’s sensitive energy. Now the heart chakra bio-field collapses. It is possible to experience pure Water Element (W-0) as the Wisdom Element as a white color, a circle, or a white buddha. Once this happens, Water gives way to Fire.
Fire Element begins to be released in its mundane form. The pilot light of cellular machinery, our internal combustion, begins to take flight. The throat bio-field or chakra plexus collapses. Heat dissipates from the head down to the feet and out (the reverse in experienced meditators) and the Wisdom Fire element is released and slips into the central channel. If our mind is lucid and calm enough, we may glimpse or meet directly, the primal Element of Fire (F-0) as a red color, a triangle, or a red buddha or goddess of the Western direction.
Air Element now takes center stage. The power that moves our tissues, nerve impulses, even the atomic vibration of our molecular structure, begins to lose momentum. The pelvic chakra bio-field collapses, releasing the primal Air Element. The four winds (upper, lower, digestive, pervading) all dissolve into the life-upholding wind, which then enters into the five-element life force channel at the heart. The outer breath stops at this point. And Air “dissolves” into Space. We may experience a green color, a semi-circle, or the form of the enlightened beings that personify this Element.
Space Element. The last step is described differently in various traditions. In the Karma Lingpa cycle, Space Element dissolves first, before Earth. In other lineages, Air is said to dissolve into consciousness directly, and only then into Space. This seems to be a conflation between local space and ultimate Space (i.e. S-1–5 with S-0). Here we follow with logical sequence in which Air finally dissolves into Space. The head chakra field collapses, releasing the pure Space element bindu, which enters the central channel. Finally Space gives way to pure consciousness. The bio-energetic field of our five mundane Elements have all dissipated, releasing the original matrix of the Pure Five, which now travel through the central channel to the heart. The accompanying diagram gives some visual sense to these transitions points, and the meditations which can be built around them.
Death is the Beginning
After these stages, a new series of transformations begins, which brings the upper and lower polarities of our being together, as discussed in my previous essay on uniting above and below.* This is done during the practice of tummo, neidan, and other advanced tantric, alchemical, or yogic practices. This also happens during deep sleep. The descent of the white seed of the father from above—the mind of experience—and the red seed of the mother from below—the wisdom mind—and their merger at the heart, is a story for another day. And much more could also be said about the Elemental journey just described, especially in light of the psychological components that must fall away at each stage. The crucial understanding is that we have no less than five opportunities to step directly through the doorway of Elemental purity. And each of those thresholds leads to illumination, the chance to avoid any further illusory meandering in the after-life landscape. Instead, we can return home, merging into the luminous openness where our limited ego-self is neither useful nor needed.
Anyen Rinpoche. 2010. Dying With Confidence: A Tibetan Buddhist Guide To Preparing For Death. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.
Bennett, J. G. 1964. Energies: Material, Vital, Cosmic. Coombe Springs. Coombe Springs Press.
Cuevas, B. J. 2005. The Hidden History of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Santa Barbara: University of California.
Fremantle, F. 2001. Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Boston: Shambala.
Phuntsok Tashi, Khenpo. 2017. The Fine Art of Living & Manifesting a Peaceful Death. Thimpu.
Sogyal Rinpoche. 1992. Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. San Francisco: Harper.
Wilbur, K. 1996. A Brief History of Everything. Boston: Shambala.