For most kids in this age of the Internet, computers rather than parents are the main source of information about the facts of life. From the Buddhist perspective, the standard description of how the sperm and egg are introduced to each other is insufficient. There is a third factor involved: the stream of consciousness itself. As much as your parents thought they were performing a private activity at your conception, there was someone else present — you. Not exactly your present self, but a ghost-like person in the intermediate state, or bardo, who was karmically attracted to your parents and whose mind was destined to become your mind. Thus, at conception, your genetic inheritance from the chromosomes of your parents was supplemented by your mental inheritance: a collection of karmic potentials, memories, and positive and negative mental propensities from a string of past lives.

The Buddhist tantras say that the mind is the primary organising factor behind the transformation of the fertilised egg into the vastly complicated form of our human body. Mind is the continuum of awareness or subjective experience; its active component is intention, or will, and this is equivalent to karma. It has no physical properties, but is always associated with a subtle form of physical energy called “wind” — in Tibetan, lung. Having been karmically attracted to the situation where its future parents are in the act of conceiving a child, the bardo being dies, its mind becomes extremely subtle and, together with its supporting wind, enters the mother’s womb where it joins with the egg close to the time of conception. The subtle wind and mind abide in a capsule-like structure called the indestructible drop. This is composed of physical elements acquired from both the mother and father and is “indestructible” because it remains intact from the time of conception until just before death. The combination of the very subtle mind and its supporting wind is called the eternal drop because it has existed, as an ever-changing continuum, since beginningless time and will continue to exist forever into the future.

Karma now activates the mind, giving rise to a subtle intention which causes the wind to coarsen and stream out from the indestructible drop in two directions, taking some of the physical elements from the mother and father as it goes. The direction where the wind carries mostly the paternal element will be the upper part of the body, and the direction where the wind carries mostly the maternal element will be the lower part of the body. The indestructible drop remains at the point we call the heart chakra, and a system of branching channels created by the flowing winds becomes the template upon which the embryonic cells organise to form the gross body.

For the first twenty-five weeks of gestation, the mind is active but in a sleep-like state. Now it awakens into a state of clarity where, intuitively, the foetus is aware of the connection between its past and present lives. Seeing how its personal wheel of life functions, the foetus experiences a sense of melancholy, thinking, “Here we go again.”

Memory of the previous life remains even after birth, but the baby is unable to tell anybody because it cannot talk. The immediacy of the new life takes over, and it soon forgets the past life. Even if a child does talk about such memories, it is told not to speak nonsense and hurry up and finish its cornflakes. There are many stories of children from various cultures who have spoken about a previous life. Some of these stories have been investigated to exclude fraud, and such children have been taken to the places where they said they had lived. They were able to recognise homes, describe changes, and name relatives from their previous life.

Life, the period between conception and death, is when our mind uses its body to experience as much pleasure as possible. The consciousness associated with the eternal drop is always present but is obscured by gross mental activity and is not noticed. This combination of the most subtle wind and mind, the eternal drop, is a single entity and is the final basis of designation of the person. Some may call it the soul, but that term carries the idea of an intrinsically existing, independent self, and is better not used. By calling it the “basis of designation of the self,” we are not saying it is the self. It is simply suitable to be called the migrating self because it goes from life to life, bearing the karmic imprints. A self or a person is an abstract entity, the “mere I,” that is simply established by labelling “I” upon an appropriate base, a body-mind continuum.

Throughout life, the mind and its wind energies fluctuate between states of activity, which we call being awake, and inactivity, which we call sleep. Our gross body, however, cannot keep pace with our mind, and it eventually wears out and dies. Death is the gradual dissociation of the subtle wind and mind from the body. It is like going to sleep, but the mind goes all the way to the clear light and then separates from the body. The process of dying occurs in five stages over a variable period of time.

As the gross mind and winds begin to withdraw from the periphery of our body, the first stage of death is characterised by physical weakness and loss of our most dominant sense faculty – our vision becomes blurred and dark. There is a physical sensation of pressure, like being buried beneath sand, or a sudden sense of loss of support; we feel as if we are falling. Similar sensations may occur when going to sleep. From the five qualities of knowledge that, when perfected, become the five transcendental wisdoms of a Buddha, our mind loses the mirror-like quality of being able to understand many different things at the same time, and there is an inner vision like a shimmering, silvery-blue mirage on the desert sand.

In the second stage of death we lose the intensity of our feelings of pleasure and pain. We lose the quality of knowledge that is able to distinguish patterns of similarity in things. Bodily secretions cease and we have dry eyes and a dry mouth. Water cannot alleviate this dryness. When I was in medical school, nurses told me that dying people appreciate sucking on a small piece of ice to relieve the dryness in their mouth. Our hearing fails and relatives have to shout for us to hear them; the inner vision becomes like a room full of smoke.

The third stage of death brings a loss of the ability to discriminate between things. We can no longer recognise our friends and relatives, or remember their names. Starting at the periphery, our body becomes cold, breathing is weak, and we lose the sense of smell. No matter how much our relatives rub our hands and feet, they still feel icy cold. The inner vision becomes red sparks dancing in a black background. While the mind still retains some capacity to discriminate between right and wrong, this is the crucial time when the karmic
seed that will throw our mental continuum into the next life is ripened.

The fourth stage of death brings a loss of volition. Losing the knowledge of accomplishment, we forget our purpose in life; taste and touch sensations cease; the inner vision becomes a pinpoint of light in the dark; and we stop breathing. Although our breathing has stopped, we are not dead until the mind separates from the body. In ordinary people, this may happen soon after breathing stops, or it may take up to three days. One who has developed clairvoyance through meditation can tell if death has actually occurred or not, and that is why Buddhists request a qualified lama to observe and say when the body can be disposed of without disturbing the mind.

With the fifth stage of death, all thought activity, virtuous and non-virtuous, ceases as the mind becomes more and more subtle. The wind energies have contracted inwards and, as the winds from the upper half of the body move down towards the heart chakra, the inner vision becomes white, like the light of the full moon in a clear sky. Then, as the winds from the lower half of the body move up towards the heart chakra, the vision  becomes red, like the red sky during sunset. All the winds then reabsorb back into the indestructible drop and
the vision becomes black. Finally, the last vision of death occurs, the clear light, likened to the first appearance of light in the eastern sky before dawn.

The mind, supported by its subtle wind, now separates from the body, and the experience is like going from deep sleep to a dream. The opening of the indestructible drop is sometimes indicated by a reddish liquid coming from the nostrils and a whitish liquid coming from the sex organ. The subtle wind activated by the mind forms the body of the bardo being, which has the five sense faculties, and the subtle mind becomes the mind of the bardo being. At first, we may see our old body with our relatives standing around crying. We try to communicate with them but they cannot see or hear us. In distress, we lose contact with the past life and spiral away into a pleasant dream or a nightmare, according to the state of our mind as we were dying.

The appearance of the bardo body is similar to its next life, the karma for which ripened during the third stage of death. If one is to be reborn as a cow, it will look like a cow; if one is to be reborn as a human, it will look like a human the size of a six-year-old child. It has the capacity to pass through solid structures; when we think of a place, suddenly we are there. We eventually come across our future parents in the act of intercourse. Our future sex has already been determined by karma and we experience physical desire for the parent of opposite sex. This draws us irresistibly towards the union of our future parents’ sex organs. We feel hostility towards the parent of same sex, and this agitation causes us to die from the bardo state. Our mind, once again in the clear light, enters the egg within the mother’s womb. If conception does not occur, we awaken again, still in the bardo. After seven weeks the vast majority of bardo beings have taken rebirth. And so our personal wheel of life has turned one full cycle, as it has been turning since time without beginning.

 

 

The 5 Stages of Death

1st Stage – Physical weakness and loss of sense faculty

As the gross mind and winds begin to withdraw from the periphery of our body, the first stage of death is characterised by physical weakness and loss of our most dominant sense faculty – our vision becomes blurred and dark. There is a physical sensation of pressure, like being buried beneath sand, or a sudden sense of loss of support; we feel as if we are falling. Similar sensations may occur when going to sleep. From the five qualities of knowledge that, when perfected, become the five transcendental wisdoms of a Buddha, our mind loses the mirror-like quality of being able to understand many different things at the same time, and there is an inner vision like a shimmering, silvery-blue mirage on the desert sand.

 

2nd Stage –

In the second stage of death we lose the intensity of our feelings of pleasure and pain. We lose the quality of knowledge that is able to distinguish patterns of similarity in things. Bodily secretions cease and we have dry eyes and a dry mouth. Water cannot alleviate this dryness. When I was in medical school, nurses told me that dying people appreciate sucking on a small piece of ice to relieve the dryness in their mouth. Our hearing fails and relatives have to shout for us to hear them; the inner vision becomes like a room full of smoke.

 

3rd Stage –

The third stage of death brings a loss of the ability to discriminate between things. We can no longer recognise our friends and relatives, or remember their names. Starting at the periphery, our body becomes cold, breathing is weak, and we lose the sense of smell. No matter how much our relatives rub our hands and feet, they still feel icy cold. The inner vision becomes red sparks dancing in a black background. While the mind still retains some capacity to discriminate between right and wrong, this is the crucial time when the karmic
seed that will throw our mental continuum into the next life is ripened.

 

4th Stage –

The fourth stage of death brings a loss of volition. Losing the knowledge of accomplishment, we forget our purpose in life; taste and touch sensations cease; the inner vision becomes a pinpoint of light in the dark; and we stop breathing. Although our breathing has stopped, we are not dead until the mind separates from the body. In ordinary people, this may happen soon after breathing stops, or it may take up to three days. One who has developed clairvoyance through meditation can tell if death has actually occurred or not, and that is why Buddhists request a qualified lama to observe and say when the body can be disposed of without disturbing the mind.

 

5th Stage –

With the fifth stage of death, all thought activity, virtuous and non-virtuous, ceases as the mind becomes more and more subtle. The wind energies have contracted inwards and, as the winds from the upper half of the body move down towards the heart chakra, the inner vision becomes white, like the light of the full moon in a clear sky. Then, as the winds from the lower half of the body move up towards the heart chakra, the vision  becomes red, like the red sky during sunset. All the winds then reabsorb back into the indestructible drop and
the vision becomes black. Finally, the last vision of death occurs, the clear light, likened to the first appearance of light in the eastern sky before dawn.