We can all agree that the fear of death is the most fundamental fear that all humans face in their lives. We may try to forget our uncertainty as to what happens in the afterlife, but the fear is ever present, always just below the surface.
What do Buddhists have to say about this wholly natural yet seemingly undesirable event in which all human life culminates?
We found a rare excerpt of one of the Dalai Lama’s speeches from 1994 where he shares his perspective on what happens when you die.
It gets better:
He offers practical advice at the end on how to live a virtuous life to prepare for the final reckoning.
The Dalai Lama describes the process of death
“As a Buddhist, I view death as a normal process, a reality that I accept will occur as long as I remain in this earthly existence. Knowing that I cannot escape it, I see no point in worrying about it. I tend to think of death as being like changing your clothes when they are old and worn out, rather than as some final end. Yet death is unpredictable: We do not know when or how it will take place. So it is only sensible to take certain precautions before it actually happens.
“The process of dying begins with the dissolution of the elements within the body. It has eight stages, beginning with the dissolution of the earth element, then the water, fire and wind elements. The color: appearance of a white vision, increase of the red element, black near-attainment, and finally the clear light of death.
“There is no way to escape death, it is just like trying to escape by four great mountains touching sky. There is no escape from these four mountains of birth, old age, sickness and death.
“Ageing destroys youth, sickness destroys health, degeneration of life destroys all excellent qualities and death destroys life. Even if you are a great runner, you cannot run away from death. You cannot stop death with your wealth, through your magic performances or recitation of mantras or even medicines. Therefore, it is wise to prepare for your death.
“From a Buddhist point of view, the actual experience of death is very important. Although how or where we will be reborn is generally dependent on karmic forces, our state of mind at the time of death can influence the quality of our next rebirth. So at the moment of death, in spite of the great variety of karmas we have accumulated, if we make a special effort to generate a virtuous state of mind, we may strengthen and activate a virtuous karma, and so bring about a happy rebirth.”
Knowing the process of death, how to live your life
In a later part of the presentation, the Dalai Lama shares how to use these insights to live a virtuous life:
“We cannot hope to die peacefully if our lives have been full of violence, or if our minds have mostly been agitated by emotions like anger, attachment, or fear. So if we wish to die well, we must learn how to live well: Hoping for a peaceful death, we must cultivate peace in our mind, and in our way of life.”