Dharma Wheel by Bob Jacobson
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The Three Jewels
The Buddha
The Teachings
The Sangha
Three Vehicles
Tibetan Buddhism
F.A.Q.- sheet
4 Noble Truths
Death & Rebirth
4 Immeasurables
58 Meditations
Other Delusions
Funny stories
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Namo Dharmaya !

Hail to the Teachings


"Health is merely the slowest possible rate at which one can die."
Source unknown

Indian Poem
Body and Mind
Bardo - Intermediate stage
The Desire Realms
Meditation on the Death Process


"This day is a special day, it is yours.
Yesterday slipped away, it cannot be filled anymore with meaning.
About tomorrow nothing is known.
But this day, today, is yours, make use of it.
Today you can make someone happy.
Today you can help another.
This day is a special day, it is yours."

In Buddhism, the way to describe the body and mind, is to talk about the five aggregates. The first aggregate is form, which refers to the physical aspect or body of a sentient being, and the next four aggregates are aspects of the mind. All five are:

1. Form - the body
2. Feeling or sensation - this refers to the mental separation of sensations into pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.
3. Recognition, discrimination or distinguishing awareness - in many ways similar to the discriminating intellect
4. Primary Consciousness - the five sense consciousnesses (smell, touch, taste, seeing and hearing) and mental consciousness
5. Compositional Factors, volition - these are all other mental processes, in general "thoughts".

Another essential differentiation is made between the different levels of subtlety of body and mind. Distinctions are made between:
Gross Body: our "normal" physical body of muscles, fat, bones etc.
Gross Mind: our "normal" observed continuation of thoughts and feelings etc.
Subtle Body: the "energy" within our body as it flows in our energy channels, similar to their description in Chinese acupuncture or Indian yoga.
Subtle Mind: the state of mind that we are normally unaware of, and which becomes noticeable during deep meditation. (This is not identical to our Western concept of sub-consciousness, although some aspects may overlap.)
Most Subtle Body / Mind: this is the most essential and subtle part of a sentient being. This aspect of ourselves is extremely difficult to observe; body and mind at this level are inseparable and could be described as 'mental energy'.

The above levels of mind and body are sometimes compared to going to sleep:
When awake, we are aware of our gross body and mind.
When we are dreaming, we have a very flexible body and ideas in our mind that we normally do not experience, similar to the subtle body and mind.
When we are in deep sleep, we are barely aware of both body and mind.

Much more detail on the entire subject of death and rebirth can be found in the popular book "Death and Dying" by Sogyal Rinpoche or the "Tibetan Book of the Dead". It must be noted however, that the last book may be difficult to understand without a proper understanding of Buddhism.

Walking Skeletons

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"No matter where you prepare your last bed,
No matter where the sword of death falls,
The terrifying messengers of death descend,
Horrid and giant; and glare with thirsty eyes.

Friends and family, weeping, surround you.
Eyeing your wealth and possessions,
They offer prayers and enshroud you.
Unprepared, you pass away;
Helpless and alone."

From 'Songs of spiritual change' by His Holiness the 7th Dalai Lama (transl. Glenn Mullin)

Death is in Buddhism defined as 'the separation of the Most Subtle Body & Mind from the more gross aspects of the body and mind'. As this separation is a gradual process, death is not a point in time, like in Western thought, but it describes a period during which this separation occurs.

During the death process, it is said that we have a sequence of experiences. What these will be exactly, how long they last and their exact order may depend on the individual person and the death cause. Generally they are described as "visions", which appear when the various elements dissolve and sense awareness diminishes.

In common sequential order they are:
1. Mirage vision: vision become blurred, mirages and dark images appear, the sense of seeing dissolves.
Earth absorbs into Water: the body becomes weak and powerless, a feeling of sinking or falling.
2. Smoke vision: feeling absorbed in smoke, the sense of hearing dissolves. Feelings of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral cease.
Water absorbs into Fire: the bodily fluids dry up.
3. Fireflies: feeling surrounded by sparks or fireflies, the sense of smell dissolves. Memories of friends and enemies fade away.
Fire absorbs into Air: food and drinks are not digested anymore.
4. Butter-lamp: appearance of a dying flame, the sense of taste dissolves and the body cannot be moved anymore. No more thoughts of worldly activities or purpose etc.
Air absorbs into Consciousness: the breath ceases.
- Somewhere around here one would become "clinically dead" according to Western science -
5. White vision: appearance of a vacuum filled with white light.
6. Red vision: appearance of a vacuum filled with red light, like at dawn.
7. Black vision: appearance of darkness, slowly losing consciousness.
8. Clear light of death: appearance of an empty vacuum. Few people have a sufficiently trained awareness to experience this clearly.
As this state is quite similar to the highly evolved state of the clear light mind, very advanced practitioners are able to remain in this state for weeks by the power of their meditation; clinically dead, but without decay of the body.

A dedication by the Panchen Lama:

"When the doctor gives me up,
When rituals no longer work,
When friends have given up hope for my life,
When anything I do is futile,
May I be blessed to remember my guru's instructions."

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Following the death process, a similar process like the above visions is experienced in reverse order. After the mirage vision, one finds oneself in the intermediate state or bardo in Tibetan. The experiences in this state is described as being similar to dreaming. The "body" moves as fast as thought and - confused as most beings are by death - it can even take the aspect of a kind of nightmare. Of course, nothing but our own karma is at work here, creating pleasant or unpleasant experiences.
Traditionally, it is explained that the maximum period that one can stay in bardo is 49 ordinary days. Within that period, all beings have been attracted to a new body to take rebirth. Every 7 days in bardo, a kind of small death and rebirth occurs.

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In the bardo, one will be attracted to a copulating male and female. At this stage, a kind of small death from the bardo occurs, and the reverse process as described above in the 'visions' is experienced while the most subtle body / mind is connecting to the fertilised egg. With this, contact to a subtle and gross body is established, and gradually the subtle and gross mind will arise again. If one is attracted to the female, one will be reborn as a male and vice versa.

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A short story from 'Zen flesh, Zen bones', called The Gates of Paradise:

A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin and asked: "Is there really a paradise and a hell?"
"Who are you?" inquired Hakuin.
"I am a samurai", the warrior replied.
"You, a soldier!" sneered Hakuin, "What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? You look like a beggar". Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: "So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably to dull to cut off my head."
As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked:"Here open the gates of hell!"
At these words the samurai, perceiving the master's discipline, put away his sword and bowed.
"Here open the gates of paradise", said Hakuin.

The concepts of the different realms in Buddhism can be seen as a direct consequence of the law of karma. When beings accumulate many negative actions, they can be expected to receive "hellish" experiences in return; similarly, many positive actions can give rise to a "heavenly" existence.
The reason that these realms are called "Desire Realms" is that desire (and other delusions) is in some way or another present in all of them.

There is also mention of the 'Form Realms' and 'Formless Realms'; which are more like being in advanced stages of meditation, and are actually results of advanced meditation. Although desire is not really experienced in these states (they are sometimes called Desireless realms), apart from the desire to meditate, progress to enlightenment not possible here.

The "realms" do not necessarily need to exist in different locations or dimensions. Basically, they are described in terms of the main type of experience that beings have. All these realms are all within "cyclic existence", meaning they are all temporary states within the cycles of death and birth.

According to Buddhism, we cannot only be born as human beings the next time, but also as animal, "god", "half-god", "hungry ghost" or even in "hell". Obviously, these words have specific connotations in most religions, and the expressions in Buddhism refer to different experiences than e.g. in Christianity. The main difference is that a stay in none of the realms is permanent. After a life in "god-realm" one could be reborn in the "hell-realm"; it all just depends on our karma ripening.

A brief description of the six desire realms:
1. God-realm: Life is experienced as happiness virtually without any problems whatsoever. The largest problem of this realm comes when the time is near to die, one begins to experience suffering as one can see the next rebirth coming up, which is usually much less pleasant. So a life as a god definitely does not refer to anything like "God" in the Judeo-Christian-Moslim traditions; maybe more like the Greek gods.
2. Demigod realm: Life is experiences at much happiness, the main problems are caused by jealousy. The demigods can see the perfect life the gods are experiencing and become jealous, as the gods have somewhat better lives. They then want to fight the gods, but are always defeated.
3. Human realm: Life is more or less a balance between happiness and suffering. The biggest advantage of being born as a human is that one has the possibilities (and good reasons because of the problems) to change one's karma and do practices to become liberated from cyclic existence or even achieve Buddhahood.
4. Animal realm: Life is ruled by ignorance. Happiness and suffering happen, but understanding it or even controlling it does not occur in the darkened awareness of an animal.
5. Hungry ghost or preta (Tib.) realm: Life is marked by suffering, especially from attachment and craving, without being able to satisfy one's needs. Life here is often described as a continuous suffering from hunger and thirst, but one cannot eat or drink.
6. Hell realm: Life is defined as suffering virtually without any happiness whatsoever. The only positive thing about the Buddhist hell realm is the fact that it is not eternal. After consuming up much of the negative karmic potential, one will die and has the chance to be reborn in a different (more pleasant) realm.

For a very nice traditional explanation of the realms on the web, using the "Wheel of Life", see Buddhanet.

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When you meditate on the death process, in order to make the experience real for you, like a rehearsal of your own death you may imagine a scenario in which you have suddenly come face to face with death. (For several more meditations related to death, see the List of Sample Meditations.

For example you can imagine being in a hospital bed, surrounded by doctors and nurses, maybe some friend or relative anxiously watching your face and clutching your hand. You are on your back in the bed staring up onto the ceiling wondering what comes next.

1. The Earth Element Dissolves
- The earth element loses its power, the body becomes very thin, limbs loose and you feel as if the body is sinking under the earth.
- The aggregate of form absorbs, the limbs become smaller, the body becomes weak and powerless, the luster of the body diminishes and all one's strength is consumed.
- The basic mirror-like wisdom dissolves, the sight becomes unclear and dark.
- Eye sense: one cannot open or close one's eyes.
- Internal sign: appearance of mirages.

2. The Water Element Dissolves
- The water element loses its power, saliva, sweat, urine, blood etc. start to dry up.
- The aggregate of feelings absorbs, the body consciousness can no longer experience the three types of feelings that accompany sense consciousness
- The basic wisdom of equality (our ordinary consciousness mindful of pleasure, pain and neutral feelings as feelings) dissolve, one is no longer mindful of the feelings accompanying the mental consciousness
- Ear sense: one no longer has external or internal sounds Internal sign: appearance of smoke.

3. The Fire Element Dissolves
- The fire element loses its power, one cannot digest food or drink.
- The aggregate of discrimination absorbs, one is no longer mindful of affairs of close persons.
- The basic wisdom of analysis dissolves, one can no longer remember the names of close persons.
- Nose sense: inhalation weak, exhalation strong and lengthy and one cannot smell.
- Internal signs: appearance of fireflies or sparks within smoke.

4. The Wind Element Dissolves
- The wind element loses its power, the ten winds move to the heart and the inhalation and exhalation ceases.
- The aggregate of compositional factors absorbs, one cannot perform physical actions and one cannot experience smoothness or roughness.
- The basic wisdom of achieving activities dissolves, one is no longer mindful of external worldly activities, purposes etc.
- Tongue sense: tongue becomes think and short and the root of the tongue becomes blue.
- Internal sign: appearance of sputtering candlelight about to go out.

5. The aggregate of consciousness absorbs
- The eighty conceptions dissolve.
- Cause of appearance: winds in the right and left channels above the heart enter the central channel at the top of the head.
- Internal sight: clear vacuity filled with white light.

6. The Mind of White Appearance Dissolves
- Cause of appearance: winds in right and left channels below heart enter central channel at base of spine.
- Internal sign: very clear vacuity filled with red light.

7. The Mind of Red Increase Dissolves
- Cause of appearance: upper and lower winds gather at heart and then the winds enter the drop at the heart.
- Internal sign: at first, vacuity filled with thick darkness; then as if swooning into unconsciousness.

8. The Mind of Black Near Attainment Dissolves
- Cause of appearance: all winds dissolve into the very subtle life-bearing wind in the indestructible drop at the heart.
- Internal sign: very clear vacuity, the mind of clear light of death. Focus on this clear light for as long as you can.

When the clear light of death ceases, the consciousness passes back through the stages of dissolution in reverse order.
As soon as this reverse process begins, the person is reborn into an intermediate state (Tibetan bardo) between lives, with a subtle body that can go anywhere, through mountains, etc., to find a place of rebirth.


Leaving all I must depart alone.
But through not having understood this,
I committed various kinds of evil
For the sake of my friends and foes.

My foes will become nothing.
My friends will become nothing.
I too will become nothing.
Likewise all will become nothing.

Just like a dream experience,
Whatever things I enjoy will become a memory.
Whatever has passed will not be seen again.

Even within this brief life many friends and foes have passed,
But whatever unbearable evil I committed for them remains ahead of me.

(By Shantideva)

Due to these merits may
I quickly attain buddhahood
And lead all living beings, without exception,
Into that enlightened state.

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Last updated: April 28, 2001