The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

The honorific Rimpoche means "precious one." And the essence of that honorific explains why I am reviewing The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. It has had many prestigious reviews in the past and all were impressive. I cannot add to those accolades, but as I read this book I was reminded of how seldom I have to confront the issue of death. This book actually describes the bardos (transitions) from life to death and back again and how to prepare for death and negotiate the bardos. Where else do we find such information. In the Egyptian Book of The Dead, but that is an ancient point of view. What about today? What is this mystery called death? Sogyal Rimpoche gives us much to consider and does this with humor and a deep understanding of both the eastern and western paradigm. The book cannot be more highly recommened than it has already.

However, my purpose for reviewing the book is more personal. Once, long ago, I was attending a seminar entitled "Therapeutic Pessimism and the Aged." After having sat through about a day and half of this excellent NIMH Staff College presentation, I asked what I thought was an innocent question. I asked why we had not discussed the issue of death. The moderator, rose up out of his seat, quite agitated, and said. "We will not discuss death in this seminar, it is terminal!" And with that, the subject was closed. And I cannot ever remember is all my professional experience and training, both formal and informal, ever discussing it again at any length, not even surrounding the services of a suicide prevention facility.

I don't think I am terribly unusual. Although, we are witness to thousands of graphic images of death courtesy of the international news media, I can't ever remember a commetary on death. Eulogies yes, the close ups of the grief of the survivors, yes, solemn ceremonies and elaborate wakes, yet no commentary about death. Not even, that, ringing declaration: death is terminal!

Of course, in Tibet, the phenomenon of reincarnation has been demonstrated to everyones satisfaction for thousands of years. Rimpoche's, the reincarnations of revered lamas, are part and parcel of the tradition. In the west, reincarnation in the preeminent religion, Christianity, is not accepted. Modern Christianity recognizes only one earthly life and then salvation or punishment. Not much to talk about, so it seems. If you are "good" or "saved" for this micro-second of cosmic time, then you will be rewarded. If you are "bad," and unrepentan, down to Hell you go for an eternity of punishment. Pretty uncomplicated and straightforward, except for the Catholic state of limbo, where you are left to wander in some in-between state of existence called purgatory.

Sogyal Rimpoche discusses the near-death experience, a phenomenon that is being discussed among some people. He points out that this experience has been written about in much the same terms for as long as we have records. This phenomenon, while widely reported and widely studied, still does not have any standing among the keepers of the temples of science. Here, once again, the question of death is subjugated to some unfathomable experimental purgatory, left to wander without credibility or recognition.

In discussing the experiences of persons having near-death experiences, Sogyal Rimpoche states:

They are surely beginning to see what the bardo teachings tell us: that life and death are in the mind itself. And the confidence that many of them (survivors) seem to have after this experience reflect the deeper understandings of mind.

What an interesting paradox. Here, on the one hand we find the rejection of death as terminal (the point of view of science) and as such, put out of mind and denied. On the other hand (the spiritual point of view), we find the study and acceptance of death leading to greater comfort and confidence in life. The same experience, death, and yet, two, diametrically opposed positions are reflected. One leading to necessary pessimism (if one doesn't think they have been a very good person in this life) and the other to observable optimism about life. Sogyal Rimpoche has pointed out how death can lead to such different cognitive realms. Of course, he also resolves this paradox by reminding us that it is an illusion. All such scenarios are played out in the mind, the consciousness, and have no substantive reality.

What then is the body and how does it relate to mind? To the Tibetan Buddhist this is not a difficult problem. Consciousness exists outside of the body. The body is a vehicle through which consciousness is manifest. The body is recognized as affecting our perception of the manifestation of the mind, but beyond death, during the transition and in other realms of existence, the body has been shed, like a snakes skin, and will be taken on again at another time.

There are so many things to ponder in this excellent exposition of the Tibetan attitude toward life and death. Whatever your world view, internally note if that world view has answers (even provides opinions) to the issues raised in this book. If not, perhaps, like me, your cognitive map would benefit by some more exploration. I do not know of a better guide.


One Response to “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”

  1. Karma: Why We Have It and How To Resolve It | Healing Base on December 19th, 2011 21:13

    […] (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}In Sogyal Rimpoche's The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, we find this passage about […]

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