Conversations On The Leading Edge
Of Knowledge and Discovery
With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove
THE TIBETAN VIEW OF LIFE AND DEATH
With SOGYAL RINPOCHE
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Today we're going to explore "The Tibetan View of Life and Death." With me is Sogyal Rinpoche, the author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and founder of Rigpa, an international network of meditation centers. Sogyal Rinpoche was born in Tibet, and studied there with some of the most esteemed lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and subsequently studied at Cambridge University in England. Today he is one of the foremost interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism for a Western audience. Welcome, Rinpoche.
SOGYAL RINPOCHE: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to be with you.
SOGYAL: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: When we begin to look at the Tibetan view of life, and particularly the Tibetan view of the process of death and dying and rebirth, I think the most fundamental thing we need to understand is the nature of mind itself.
SOGYAL: Yes. I think at the outset it's important to know that in the Tibetan teachings, life and death are seen as a whole. And where fundamentally life and death really exist is nowhere else but in the essential nature of mind.
MISHLOVE: The Tibetan view of the mind is a much larger view than our Western view. It contains virtually the whole universe within it.
SOGYAL: One could say that.
MISHLOVE: You use the term the View -- that when one understands the nature of mind, they have the View. Could you elaborate on that?
SOGYAL: See, first of all, I think there are many aspects to mind, but if we simplify them, there are fundamentally two. That is to say, the relative aspect of a mind, which is, if I use an example, they're the cloud level of the mind, which is where all our thoughts are, emotions are, where we desire, all the negative emotion exists. And that is the relative aspect of mind, where we all have the confusion. In fact in that state, there we have change, we have death, we have birth. But then behind the cloud-like mind is an intrinsic nature of mind or fundamental awareness, which is like the sky, which is beyond birth and death. So what the teachings really introduce, is show us to be introduced to this fundamental nature of, intrinsic nature of mind, which in Tibetan teachings is called nature of mind. But when you say -- I want to make this clear, because when you say nature of mind, it's not exclusive to the nature of mind alone. In fact from that comes an understanding, a wisdom which could really have a deep insight into not only the nature of our human experience but also the nature of the universe. So that's really -- the nature of mind, I would say, is the fundamental basis of the Tibetan teachings, and perhaps the understanding of the nature of mind is the greatest contribution, because when you really look into that -- that the mind is the universal ordering principle -- all the happiness and suffering, if you really look and examine, comes from nowhere but our minds.
MISHLOVE: I'm under the impression that this view of the nature of mind is one that's found in not only all of Buddhism, but basically in all of the mystical teachings of East and West.
SOGYAL: I think when we go into the deeper teachings, it kind of ultimately arrives there very much. Because without understanding the nature of mind, without having that View, which is actually the wisdom -- another way of putting it is the wisdom of the recognition of the nature of mind -- without that in a sense there is not really a source for spiritual realization. And when you talk about realization, accomplishment -- for that matter enlightenment is that when you realize the fundamental essence of your mind.
MISHLOVE: You've written about how in your tradition this state of enlightenment is something that is bestowed upon you by your masters.
SOGYAL: Well, that's really something unique. In the book I have tried to give a whole background, because I feel sometimes, you see, in the West I find there is not really very complete knowledge or really the training, or let's say, spiritual education. And this is something that in the Tibetan teachings, when I was brought up from childhood, you know, there's a whole kind of teaching that really exists, and what I in this book tried to really create is a basis of understanding. Because if you do not create the environment of understanding, then one cannot understand. And in many ways the Tibetans have a very unique --
MISHLOVE: It's quite extraordinary to think that an entire nation was focused so one-pointedly on the vision of spiritual liberation.
SOGYAL: That's one of the reasons that I think where in Tibet the development was, is the inner world. Like in the Western the development was the outer world. It doesn't really mean that in Tibet we do not have like minds that could invent machines; in fact, in the nineteenth century there was a great master called [name unclear] Rinpoche -- I mention him in the book. It's believed that he made cannons and watches and all kinds of machinery, planes. But he felt by making them it would distract people from the really important issues of life, which is understanding ourselves and understanding our mind. And so, as we were saying earlier on, in the Tibetan tradition it's a whole training; there's a whole training of meditation -- I mean, first of all I think the emphasis is very much on listening to the wisdom teachings, because in a sense, even though our wisdom nature, or the nature of mind is our nature, but yet in a sense like if you use the example of the face, the face is our face, but we don't see it. We need a mirror to see. So the mirror is like the teachings which help to really recognize our own nature. That's why these teachings are not really something that's been newly given to us, but they're something which is our own kind of nature, which the teaching and the teacher are showing. So in so doing, the teachings help us to -- how would you say? -- kind of really listen to the --as one of my masters said it, "More and more you listen to the wisdom teachings; more and more you hear. And the deeper and deeper you hear, the greater the understanding becomes." So through the wisdom of listening and hearing, and through the wisdom of contemplation and reflection, and then through the wisdom of meditation and application, gradually one creates the climate in which one is -- how would you say? -- through the training prepared to that moment. And then when there are authentic situations -- I will outline this very clearly, what are the three authentic situations, or the three authentics -- that is to say, authentic blessing of the master, the master who really embodies the realization, an authentic and compassionate, wise master, and who has experience of knowing how to really introduce the nature of mind. And at the same time also the student has to be authentic. He or she has the authentic devotion; that means they have really gone through the purification and the openness both of heart and mind, to understand the teachings. And then, the most important of all, the authentic method of individual introduction. When these three authentics come together, there have been many cases of really great masters, of saints, if you look into the history of Tibetan Buddhism, whose realizations were inspired by such kind of when the authentics were present together. So in a sense it's quite extraordinary, this, you see, and I talk about this in the book. In the chapter on the nature of mind I talk a little bit about how I was introduced as a child myself, and show a little bit of experience. Because even though as an Easterner one would not talk about one's experience, in the West I find perhaps by talking of my experience it probably shows people that it's something that is really possible, because otherwise sometimes I think it may be something that people are not aware of.
MISHLOVE: Well, since you brought it up, could I ask you to talk about that experience?
SOGYAL: [Laughs] Well, I remember this one particular moment, especially. It was when I was about seven or eight years of age, and we were traveling; we had left eastern Tibet to come to where the monastery of my master was, where I was born, because, as you know, the Chinese were taking over our country, and we slowly had to escape. And so when we were traveling in central Tibet, and there were many, many holy, sacred places of saints and masters, and one great master called Padma Sambhava, who in many ways brought Buddhism to Tibet; he's recognized as the second Buddha, and who in many ways is the author of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And it was in one of his caves, one of the caves which is said to be blessed by his wisdom mind -- you know, this special cave. I remember when we were there, my master was practicing in this cave, and so he called me over, and I was the only one there, and he just called me over and asked me to sit, and indicated that he was going to introduce me. In some ways it was a complete surprise. And then as he sat there he invoked the lineage masters; he invoked all the Buddhas and the masters, you see, and their blessings. And then, what was extraordinary, I remember him transforming completely. He became like, you know, really a Buddha. I knew he was a Buddha also, but then that to me became really manifest more. And at that particular moment, you see, when he introduced, my mind was just completely blown. In fact it was almost at that particular moment there was no such thing as mind, like in a sense mind was only concepts, and he revealed a kind of gap, an openness, a space in which I could really understand, but without any concept -- a kind of -- it's very difficult to describe in words, this particular state. It was a really direct experience, in that you came to know who you are really, and what life is all about. And you came to really realize what enlightenment is, or what at least the seed of enlightenment is, you see. So it was an extraordinary experience; in fact to this day I remember that place where I was sitting. Somehow that particular memory has been kind of locked in my mind, and it was really extraordinary. It has become really the basis. Then later, then other master's mind who -- really also one way of introducing is not only through that really special occasion like one that my master did, but also through the teachings. When they really give really deep, profound teachings, it opens your mind slowly to the understanding of the nature of mind. It's as if when the clouds move away then you reveal the sky and the sun of your inner compassion coming forth. So that was really an extraordinary effect, and in many ways that was the first seed of my understanding.
MISHLOVE: Compassion is a word that is so often associated with Buddhism, and particularly Tibetan Buddhism.
SOGYAL: Yes, and if I were to talk in connection with the nature of mind, I think it's important to know that, you see, the deepest compassions are really inspired from the deepest state of wisdom. It is that when we really come to understand the nature of our mind do we become free of ourselves; the limitation of our ego dissolves in a sense. As such we see the world in a totally different light; we see beings in a much purer or in a truer way, and so from that comes a kind of limitless compassion. Just as, if you use an example, like the clouds are the ordinary mind, when through the inspiration, maybe say like there's a wind of inspiration, when the clouds are dispersed away, revealing the sky-like nature of mind, and from out of the sky-like nature of mind comes the compassion of the sun that shines forth and you see really kind of unbiasedly, without any bias at all. So in many ways it is said in the highest teachings that meditation is the union of wisdom and compassion, that out of the state of wisdom comes the real compassion. But also at the same time we have also the practice of, you see, developing compassion on a relative level. I think it's very important, knowing Buddhism, is there are always we speak of the two truths, the relative truth, which is conventional truth, and the absolute truth and the ultimate truth. I think it's very important to understand both. Like the View is the absolute; one should have the understanding of the absolute. But then if you really understand that deeply -- because sometimes there's a danger, if you understand the absolute, and if you do not really have the training or the proper training and teaching, that you can become kind of arrogant. You think you've realized something, you know, some extraordinary state, perhaps like enlightenment or something, but then you have no compassion, or there is really no integration. I think it's important, really, once we've really realized the wisdom of our nature of mind, if you really, truly realizeÿthat from that comes compassion, which is really related. Because once you have that understanding, the way you see is very different. And just ordinarily when we have a greater understanding, then we actually are much more compassionate. I think in the world too, as you know, the most important thing we need is understanding. In fact the nature of mind is really the root of understanding.
MISHLOVE: Well, I think it's this cultivation of compassion, it strikes me, that is related to the unique Tibetan perspective on death and dying that I'd like us to focus in on now. So much in the West it seems we don't want to look closely at death, but the Tibetans seem to have looked at it under the microscope.
SOGYAL: Yes. I think, you see, as one great Tibetan saint and yogi called Milarepa said, "In horror of death I took to the mountains, and meditated on the uncertainty and the hour of death. Now capturing the fortress of deathless, unending nature of mind, all fear of death is done and over with." Because you see, ordinarily when we do not have the understanding of really the deeper nature of mind, then of course there is fear. In fact the fear comes ultimately from ignorance. And the ignorance is the greatest way to -- how do you say it? -- in the teachings the greatest way to remove the ignorance is by realizing the nature of mind. When you realize the nature of mind, just as when there's light there is no darkness, the darkness is merely an absence of light. So that's one of the reasons why in many ways, you see that in a sense that understanding the nature of mind is the basis of really the teachings.
MISHLOVE: But you have also warned people, your students, and in your book, about not so glibly acting as if they are not afraid of death.
SOGYAL: That's true, because I think it's -- you see, even for example myself also, when I'm kind of distracted, when I'm not mindful, I am afraid of death. But then I on certain occasions went through the inspiration of the teachings, and then through my own practice, when you come to that particular space -- which in a sense is like the sky, you know, the nature of mind -- when you come to that space then often I really felt myself, "Well, if I were to die in this particular state, I think I will be quite OK." And so in a sense really as Milarepa said, capturing the fortress of the deathless, unending nature of mind is when you really -- what death teaches is to really look into life. For example, you see, I think it might be important to say that two things are really certain. It's certain that we are going to die, but uncertain when or how we are going to die. Because it's uncertain when we or how we're going to die, in a sense in this uncertainty we get distracted. We say, "Oh, that's certain, so that's all right." Then also there are people who say, "Well, you know, death is quite natural, and it will be quite OK," but that's a very nice theory until you die. So the thing is, what the teachings always talk about, as Milarepa said, is contemplating on the immediacy of the uncertainty of death. When you start thinking that really death could happen at any moment, whether tomorrow or this life, which comes first we do not know. In fact to die is extremely simple; you breathe out and you can't breathe in. So when you live with that, it's not really thinking of death, waiting for death kind of in a morbid way; it's not really. But rather when you start really looking into death, in a sense really one is looking into life itself. In fact death is like a mirror in which the true meaning of life is reflected. By doing so one defines one's life; one becomes less trivial; one sees one's priorities more clearly. One has long-term vision, has more understanding of the consequences of our actions, as well as also more compassion. So this kind of thought, in a sense by reflecting on that it gives the greatest pleasure. And also understanding that life is impermanent, in fact in the ultimate that it's futile to actually grasp. So it really drives him to look deeper, to say, "If everything is changing, if everything is impermanent, what is there that really lasts or survives?" When you really ask that question deeper and deeper, one realizes everything in this life is interdependent. Nothing has any inherent existing nature, but yet as everything is impermanent, nature is empty; that one's actions, good or bad -- particularly motivation is more important, good or bad; that really counts, you see. And so then one realizes behind all that impermanence, one discovers something which we cannot say and actually conceptualize, but something deeper which Milarepa calls the deathless unending nature of mind. One discovers beyond the clouds, a sky-like nature of mind, where one realizes there is -- in this domain of the nature of mind, there is both birth and death. And so when you come to know this mind, know this deeper mind, which in many ways is beyond birth and death but yet also birth and death, life and death are also in this state. And this is from discovering that kind of confidence, that you come to know. In fact I have seen some extraordinary cases of masters, like one master called Kunu Rinpoche; he was the teacher of the Dalai Lama. In fact all the teachings of compassion were imparted to the Dalai Lama by this master; the Dalai Lama holds him as really his inspiration of compassion; extraordinary master, really a true saint. And one day when another Tibetan lama went to ask him about the bardos, about the after-death state --
MISHLOVE: The planes, yes.
SOGYAL: These planes of after-death states; bardos are, you see, after you die, before you take on a new -- but that intermediate state. But in fact bardo means deeper things, different states of consciousness also, in life and death. So when he went to ask about the different bardos, like the ones that are spoken of in the Tibetan Book of the Dead -- you know, those -- when he went to ask, what was extraordinary, this lama came back to say that what was extraordinary for him, that the way he spoke, it was like as if he was there. It was like somebody living in London giving a direction to Central Park West, or somebody living in San Francisco giving directions to Golden Gate Bridge. It was as if he was actually there, which showed that someone may really -- what was the greatest teaching for this lama was that if you really understand and go deeper into your own mind, in fact life and death and all the different bardo states are nowhere but in the nature of your mind. Unfortunately at this juncture we only understand a very partial, superficial aspect of mind, and we only understand a little bit about mind. We have not really delved into the depths of consciousness, of the nature of mind.
MISHLOVE: One of the concepts that I find quite fascinating in the Tibetan tradition is that the after-death state is very much like a dream state; it's as if we were in a dream.
SOGYAL: I mean, in fact life is a dream, particularly when we wake up from it. Just as also sometimes when we're dreaming we do not know we are dreaming. It looks very real. And that's why it's interesting, is that in this teaching, for when you're trained, because how can we then come to prepare for the after-death state, in the sense that we have not died yet, so how can we come to know? It's by working with mind. First of all, by kind of -- how do you say? -- by working with, for example, with meditation, to work with the awake state, to really find the kind of openness, the gap into -- like just as when there are gaps in the clouds it reveals the sky. In the same manner, even though we have thoughts, it seems like they seem to be continuous, just as with a movie. It gives the illusion of continuity, but actually there are different frames. So therefore in many ways, you see, there are always gaps in our thoughts. And when the past thought has ceased, and the future thought has not yet arisen, there in this gap is revealed our nature. So there are these gaps of wakening the possibility, and meditation is a tool to work with during the awake time, during the daytime. And the dream yoga and the sleep practices, are to work in the dream state, you know. So both of these are kind of trainings, to train the awareness, because in many ways -- and the Tibetan teachings speak of that, that the bardo, after you die, it's very much like sleep, like a dream, but on a much more gigantic, on a more, kind of -- how do you say? -- enormous, much grander level. That's why the training begins with working with like sleep and dreams, to know just as like when we go to sleep sometimes -- you see, when we go to sleep, just before we dream, we really don't have much awareness left.
MISHLOVE: One difference, I think, that you point out is that an extraordinary opportunity occurs at the moment of death, to achieve enlightenment, or liberation.
SOGYAL: That's true, because I think generally speaking people think, particularly in the modern world, really think of death as kind of a tragedy, something to be feared. But what these teachings offer is the opportunity of transformation. For someone who's really a practitioner -- it is said a supreme practitioner meets death with joy; a mediocre practitioner meets death without apprehension; an ordinary practitioner meets death without regrets. So that what is happening, the wonderful thing about it, from the spiritual teachings that I have tried to outline, this whole teaching, in the book, to give really the understanding, is that when you die, when the dissolution -- that means when the process of death begins -- there is the outer dissolution of our body and the elements, but there is inner dissolution, where what is happening is like -- what is extraordinary to realize is that actually all that clouds our mind actually dies. There is actually a gap, a natural gap; like your anger dies, your desire, all the thought states of desire die, and ignorance dies. And so there comes a gap in which the true nature of mind, which is sometimes, from the teachings related to death and dying in this particular Tibetan tradition, known as the state of clear light, the fundamental nature of clear light, or the grand luminosity, and it's in that, if one has been prepared, familiar with this, during one's life -- that means if you're familiar with the nature of mind -- then at that moment one recognizes. But even though it happens to everybody, if there is not the recognition, then, you see -- like, for example, I have very bad eyesight, so if I take off my glasses I don't see you very clearly. So it's not that you're not there; you're very much there, but I do not see you. Just as if you do not, if the recognition, even though the ground luminosity appears, but that you were not able to recognize it. So the teachings equip you. That's why also when you die, to really let go of your attachment and aversion and yearning; it says at the moment of death to let go of attachment and to enter and to strengthen, to clear what is the teaching, and to create a peaceful environment which really helps, so that you can use it to the understanding and the recognition. That's why in the teaching, in the book I try to show how important for us it is to really create that last moment, the most important moment in one's life, as peaceful, as inspiring as possible. Because there is really opportunity for liberation. As is said in the teachings, "In an instant, complete enlightenment; in an instant, complete confusion."
MISHLOVE: We have only two minutes left, but I want to go back for a second to the teaching about the sleep and dream yoga, because isn't it the case that the state before we have dreams, when it's just a deep sleep with no thoughts, is very similar?
SOGYAL: That is very similar. But also, you see, in the teachings we speak of three different states of bardos. Like if you were to say, there's life, there's dying, there's death, there's rebirth. The life is, you see, this life itself; dying is the process of dying, and when the anger, desire, ignorance, all those that obscure our nature of mind, dies, revealing the fundamental luminosity, and then there comes the after-death state, where the clear light, or the intrinsic radiance, appears, which is traditionally in the teaching called the bardo of dharmata. And when that happens, death. And then the next is bardo of becoming. Now, what is interesting is that actually if you were to use a kind of comparison that when you go to sleep it's like a dying, and that state before you dream, that state which many of us are not aware of, because it's such a subtle state of consciousness that only someone who's really trained in the advanced practice of meditation can be aware of; that is the state of bardo of dharmata. And then the bardo of becoming is because in the state of bardo of dharmata there is no really mental body, only the body of light; whereas in the bardo of becoming, which is before you take on the rebirth, in that transition period, bardo plane, you have a mental body. And that bardo of becoming is compared to like a dream.
MISHLOVE: Sogyal Rinpoche, it has been such a pleasure sharing this time with you. I know your teachings are so deep that we just scratched the surface. I do hope I have this opportunity again with you.
SOGYAL: I hope our to have the opportunity again, I hope.
MISHLOVE: Thanks so much for being with me.
SOGYAL: Thank you very much.
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