Meditation and other Rituals – Chapter 48: Transforming Death into Buddhahood

The famous Tibetan Book of the Dead sets forth a technique for using death and rebirth to progess on the path to enlightenment. Here, death is followed by something called the *intermediate state’ (bar do in Tibetan), a period in which consciousness wanders in search of the next place of rebirth, a period that can last as long as forty-nine days. The intermediate state is followed by the next lifetime. Each of these three stages – death, the intermediate state and rebirth – can, with proper instruction, be transformed from the path of samsara into the path of achieving buddhahood. There are many such instructions in the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and they share a conception of the process of death, a conception developed in the tantric traditions of India.

According to one tantric physiology, during the process of death, the winds or subtle energies that serve as the vehicles for consciousness withdraw from the network of 72,000 channels that course throughout the body. Among all these channels, the most important is the central channel, which runs from the genitals upward to the crown of the head, then curving down (according to some systems) to end in the space between the eyes. Parallel to the central channel are the right and left channels, which wrap around it at several points, creating constrictions or knots that prevent wind from moving through the central channel. At these points of constriction, there are also networks of smaller channels that radiate throughout the body. These points are called wheels (cakras). These are often enumerated as seven: at the forehead, the crown of the head, the throat, the heart, the navel, the base of the spine, and the opening of the sexual organ.

As death approaches, the four elements of the human body – earth, water, fire and wind – begin to ‘dissolve’ in the sense that they can no longer support consciousness. With each dissolution, the dying person undergoes a different sensation. By the end of this process, the sense consciousnesses have ceased to operate. At this point, conceptual consciousnesses dissolve. The winds from the channels that course through the upper part of the body have further withdrawn from the right and left channels and have gathered at the crown of the head at the top of the central channel. When these winds descend through the central channel to the heart wheel, what appears to the mind of the dying person changes from a burning butter-lamp to a radiant whiteness, described as being like a pure autumn night sky before dawn, pervaded by moonlight. This appearance of whiteness is caused by the downward movement of the white drop of semen received from the father at the moment of conception. Next the winds from the lower part of the body enter the central channel at the base of the spine and ascend to the heart. This produces an appearance of a bright red colour, like a clear autumn sky pervaded by sunlight. This appearance of redness is caused by the upward movement of the red drop of blood received from the mother at conception. The red and the white drops surround what is called the indestructible drop located in the centre of the heart cakra. This drop, white on the top and red on the bottom, encases the most subtle wind and the most subtle form of consciousness, called the mind of clear light. At the seventh stage, the winds that have gathered above and below enter into the heart centre, bringing about an appearance of radiant blackness, like a clear autumn sky in the evening after the sun has set and before the moon has risen, pervaded by thick darkness. Here, it is said that the dying person loses mindfulness, swooning in the darkness into unconsciousness. Finally, in the last stage, the mind of clear light dawns with the natural colour of the sky at dawn, free from sunlight, moonlight and darkness. This is death. If this mind of clear light can be recognized at this moment of death and used to contemplate the nature of reality, called emptiness, then death can be transformed into the *truth body’ (dharmakaya) of a buddha. The intermediate state can then be transformed into an *enjoyment body’ (sambhogakaya) of a buddha, and rebirth can become the *emanation body’ (nirmanakaya).

Death is a harrowing experience, and, in order to make this vital transformation, extensive practice is required. There are thus numerous texts that provide instructions on how to transform death, the intermediate state and rebirth into the three bodies of a buddha. The first section of one such text is presented here. It was written by Blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan (1570-1662), a famous scholar who was named the first Panchen Lama by his disciple the fifth Dalai Lama. The Panchen Lama’s text is a commentary on instructions by Tsong kha pa (1357-1419), considered the founder of the Dge lugs sect of Tibetan Buddhism. (Since the Panchen Lama’s commentary assumes that its reader has memorized the manual of the practice, translations of relevant passages from Tsong kha pa’s manual are supplied in a number of places below.)

Instructions for transforming the process of death into buddhahood typically focus on one of a number of tantric buddhas. Here, the wrathful buddha Vajrabhairava is the focus of the practice. He is first invited with his retinue from his buddhafield. Next (at A2 below) the meditator performs a standard sevenfold practice (which is not included in the text because it would be known by anyone performing the instructions; it consists of prostrations, offerings, confession of sins, rejoicing in the merit of others, dedicating one’s merit towards the enlightenment of all sentient beings, taking refuge in the three jewels and gene rating the mind for enlightenment). This is followe d by taking the tantric vows, and meditating on the four immeasurables of love, compassion, joy and equanimity.

The process of death is then simulated, ending with the dawning of the mind of clear light. This most subtle form of consciousness is used to contemplate emptiness, through the use of two mantras. In this tradition, the truth body of a buddha is defined as the omniscient consciousness of a buddha in direct realization of emptiness, and this is what the practitioner is seeking to replicate. With the entire ordinary universe dissolved into emptiness, that emptiness can then serve as the foundation of a new identity: the body of a buddha enthroned in a mandala palace. Prior to this stage, it is necessary to construct a protective enclosure around the site of the mandala, and the excerpt here concludes with instructions on how this enclosure is to be created, with wrathful gods posted as guardians in the ten directions.

Explaining the Yoga of [Taking] Death [as] the Dharma-body, together with the Preparatory Ancillaries for the Practice of Accomplishment


corresponds to the formation of the meritorious karma that serves as a cause for obtaining rebirth as a person in Jambudvipa, born from a womb and endowed with the six constituents [of the physical and subtle bodies], who is a receptacle for practising tantra.

  1. the method of inviting the assembly field [of Vajrabhairava and his entourage]: While there are many methods for invitation, such as invitation from the natural place – for instance inviting the aspect of the form body from the very nature of enlightened wisdom of indivisible bliss and emptiness, or invitation from a particular place such as Akanistha, etc., for this occasion there is a [particular] method for performing it. Visualize yourself as Vajrabhairava with one face and two arms. At your heart are a lotus and sun and moon discs. From the letter hum that abides there [at your heart] emanates a ray of light that illuminates limitless buddha-fields of the enjoyment bodies in the ten directions, and invites, into the space in front of you, Vajrabhairava surrounded by countless peaceful and wrathful enlightened beings that abide there [in those buddha-fields]. The ray of light then dissolves back into your heart.


enlightened wisdom which corresponds to the actualization of the clear light of death.

  1. explaining the basis of purification. There is a method for actualizing the clear light of death by a person of Jambudvipa who is born of a womb and endowed with the six [bodily] constituents. At the time of his or her death, at first when the earth dissolves into water, as an outer sign there is a sensation that the body sinks, and as an inner sign there arises an appearance resembling a mirage. When the water dissolves into fire, as the outer sign the lips and tongue become dry and residue is formed on the teeth; as the inner sign there arises an appearance resembling smoke. When the fire dissolves into wind, as the outer sign the bodily warmth retracts from the extremities, and as the inner sign there arises an appearance resembling fireflies. When the wind dissolves into the consciousness, the movement of the outer breath ceases; as an inner sign arises an appearance resembling a burning butter-lamp. On the occasion of ‘appearance’, when the winds which stir the conceptual thoughts dissolve into ‘appearance’, there arises the appearance of whiteness, which is like the clear autumn sky pervaded by moonlight. On the occasion of ‘increase’, when ‘appearance’ dissolves into ‘increase’, there arises the appearance of redness, which is like the clear autumn sky suffused by sunlight. On the occasion of ‘near attainment’, when the ‘increase’ dissolves into ‘near attainment’, there arises the appearance of blackness, resembling [the clear autumn sky] pervaded with the pitch darkness of night. On the occasion of clear light, when the ‘near attainment’ dissolves into clear light, there arises the appearance resembling the empty colour of the sky itself at dawn, devoid of the three ‘ornaments’ which create contamination. By means of these the clear light of death is actualized.
  3. EXPLAINING THE ACTUAL METHOD OF MEDITATION ON EMPTINESS BY MEANS OF CONTEMPLATING THE MEANING OF THE TWO MANTRAS. [The first mantra is om svabhavasuddhoh sarvadharmah svabhavasuddho ham.] The meaning of this mantra is: the three [components] of the om – a,u and m – symbolize the three vajras of the body, speech and mind…. That these three become one, symbolizes the indivisibility of the three vajras… svabhava is nature, suddhah is pure, sarvadharmah is all phenomena, [and together:] pure by nature are all phenomena comprised by the grasped [the object]. Then, svabhavasuddho is as before, and aham is I, [and together:] pure by nature are all phenomena comprised by the grasper [the subject]. In short, [this mantra] indicates the emptiness of all phenomena comprised by [both] the grasped and the grasper that are pure by nature.

[The second mantra is om sunyatd-jnana-vajra-svabhavaatmako ’ham.] Om has been explained already, sunyata is emptiness, jnana is enlightened wisdom, vajra is indivisible, svabhava is nature, atmaka is essence, and aham is I. That indivisible essence of both emptiness – the objective sphere, and the great bliss enlightened wisdom – the subjective sphere, is I. While contemplating this, set your I-principle at the dharma-body – the mind of the Victorious One, and meditate….

By means of thinking on the meaning of both mantras, [the assembly field, to which offerings have been made] is united with emptiness. In this way, the phenomenal entities of oneself, the assembly field, and all things beside these, are empty by nature, devoid of essence, and free of the four extremes such as eternalism and nihilism. Being dependent on their own basis of imputation, they are mere labels.


of purification. This method of meditation on emptiness by means of contemplating the meaning of the two mantras, is called the yoga of taking death as the dharma-body. With regard to the basis of purification, this [meditation on emptiness] corresponds to a person in Jambudvipa, born from a womb and endowed with the six constituents, who has dissolved successively the twenty-five coarse elements [as in the dissolution at death described above], and has actualized the clear light of death…. At the time of fruition, this [meditation on emptiness] corresponds to the dharma- body, the mind of the Victorious One in which the [objective] realm endowed with the two purities and the [subjective] great bliss innate enlightened wisdom free from obscurations, are fused into one taste. By making such a fruition into the path, you will be established in the special capability of actually being the dharma- body.

In this case there is a reason for calling the meditation on emptiness ‘the ground of enlightened wisdom’. As after emptying the previous vessel-world at the basic state, that very space that abides as total emptiness gives rise to the receptacle of the latter vessel-world, also the emptiness that is meditated upon here is the basis for generating the successively piled elements together with the mandala of the residence and its residents. Therefore [the meditation on emptiness] is called [the ground of enlightened wisdom].

The main purpose for meditating on emptiness here is treading the path in which death is taken as the dharma-body. Furthermore, after accumulating the accumulation of merit with regard to the assembly field above, through meditation on emptiness here, the accumulation of wisdom will be accumulated. This [union of the accumulation of merit and the accumulation of wisdom] would serve for generating the special yoga of non-dual profundity and

clarity that arises as the mandala of the residence and its residents, which appears after objectifying the realization of emptiness.




such a state of emptiness, generate the four [seed syllables] yam, ram, bam, lam. From these, generate the mandalas of the four elements [wind, fire, water and earth respectively] as appears in the practice manual….

[The practice manual states]: From the state of emptiness [appears the seed syllable] yam [that transforms] into a smoke-coloured wind mandala shaped like a bow and decorated with victory banners. On top of that [appears the seed syllable] ram [that transforms] into a red triangular fire mandala, adorned with vajra ornaments forming a blazing garland. On top of that [appears the seed syllable] bam [that transforms] into a white circular water mandala decorated with a vase. And on that [appears the seed syllable] lam [that transforms] into a yellow square earth mandala decorated with vajras.

There is a way of correlating this meditation on the mandalas of the four elements with the basis of purification. It corresponds to the formation of the later vessel-world at the basic state, after emptying the former vessel-world, that begins with the creation of the successive mandalas of the four elements, wind and so on..


[The practice manual states:] On top of [that earth mandala appears] a hum [that transforms] into a double vajra decorated at its hub with a hum. From that, rays of light emanate downwards [forming] a vajra-basis; emanating to the sides, [they form] a vajra-fence; emanating upwards, [they form] a vajra-tent. Beneath the tent and on the fence there is a vajra-canopy. All these are in the nature of blazing vajras, in a single unit without gaps. Surrounding this is a five-coloured conflagration like the destroying fire at the end of the aeon, spreading into the ten directions.

The purpose for meditating on the common protection wheel is so that the hindrances of the obstructers would not arise during the meditation following the proceedings.


You need to meditate on the wheel of protection accompanied by the ten wrathful ones…. The method of forming the protection wheel is in this case as follows. At the centre of the fence [appears] a yellow bhrum that transforms into a yellow wheel of the teaching with ten spokes and a hub. Both upper and lower spokes are like hollowed spears that meet at their bases. The tips of the eight spokes in [the eight directions] beginning with the east have the form of double-edged swords. You should meditate that on each of the following: at the hollow space of the hub, the hollow space of the upper and lower [spokes], and the tips of the eight spokes in [the eight directions] beginning with the east, are laid seats of variegated lotus, moon and sun, without quite touching [these spokes]. The reason that the seats do not touch the spokes of the wheel is because the last chapter of the Guhyasamaja teaches that [the wheel] revolves unshakably. You should meditate that while the wheel revolves quickly clockwise, the wrathful ones are fixed at their own directions without moving. This is the method of placing the wrathful ones on the wheel. First meditate on yourself at the centre of the hub as Sumbharaja together with consort. From the hum at the heart of this embracing father-mother [emanates] a ray of light that hooks the ten wrathful ones and draws them into your mouth. Having dissolved, they enter the lotus of the mother through the vajra-path of the father. Then they transform into ten drops and again into ten long hums and then they become the ten wrathful ones. Then [when you recite] hum, they are sent forth from the lotus of the mother, and are placed on the seats on the spokes of the wheel.

Translated by Yael Bentor from the First Pan-chen Bla-ma, Blo- bzang-chos-kyi-rgyal-mtshan (1570-1662), ‘Dpal Rdo rje ’Jigs-byed kyi bskyed rim dngos grub kyi snye ma’ in Collected Works vol. 2 (New Delhi, 1973), pp. 733-89, this extract at pp. 739-750. The practice manual is by Tsong-kha-pa, Blo-bzang-grags-pa (1357­1419), ‘Dpal Rdo rje ’jigs byed chen po’i sgrub thabs bdud thams cad las rnam par rgyal ba’ in Collected Works vol. 15 (New Delhi, 1975), pp. 498-532.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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