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DVD Review: Facing Death & Dying Well

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“…all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die…” Steve Jobs (June 14, 2005, commencement address at Stanford University)

The expected yet early death of Steve Jobs–technology compositional genius
who orchestrated a new age of electronic icons—creates a teachable moment about death and rebirth. I think it is fitting to weave these current events with
cosmic change. Ironically recent remarks above from Jobs set the scene. He
traveled with a friend in 1973 to India returning a shorn Buddhist complete with robes; however, Robert Thurman said he would not consider him a “practicing Buddhist.” But perhaps we can incorporate Buddhist’s beliefs with how Jobs conducted his death as well as his life and Apple Corporation.

On the other hand, we can play the “what if” game about his rebirth in this country. To do that we must fast forward five years—what should we look for if America participated in rituals like those of Buddhists—what would it look like? If Americans worshipped at the technology altar and affirmed a technology lineage, we would seek a male child who has an uncanny knowledge of all things technological and craves going barefoot while wearing jeans and a black T-shirt. I could go on but you get the idea. The child would then be tested as heir by recognizing items that belonged to the former owner.

In this DVD the 14th Dalai Lama spoke about death but did not recount how he was located by the monks who visited his home and tested him with objects when he was just a small child. But full-length movies and documentaries are available that recount his humble beginnings.

According to His Holiness, it is not what the man believes in when he shakes
the mortal coil but how he dies. And this DVD is about helping everyone to face death and to die well. One ingredient that aided Jobs in death was a peaceful setting surrounded by loved ones. The Buddhists believe this is the only (preferred) way to die because it opens the door to a good rebirth.

The discussions in this 165-minute DVD: “Beginning,” “Facing death in a peaceful manner,” “How to deal with death from a Buddhist viewpoint,” “Importance of good preparation for death,” “Value of a peaceful mind at time of death” and Questions and Answers.

The Dalai Lama talks about the four noble truths the Buddha taught. He explains, first is the truth of suffering and it is taught within three characteristics. The first being “Impermanence,” and when talking about the nature of impermanence there are two levels: the coarse level which is the cessation event we call death.The transitory nature of existence means the changing nature is more subtle. The aim of the subtle nature when taught by the Buddha is to get at the basic unsatisfactory nature of existence. Any existence which is brought about by causes and conditions depends on them.

The subtle nature of impermanence depends on causes and conditions. The seed of cause is already there. Ignorant state of mind is the root of our existence and governs it.

On the coarse level of impermanence: Dalai Lama teaches that first reflecting
on the coarser levels leads one to appreciation of the subtler levels. One can
grasp with the eternal or permanent existence after such reflection. It cannot
be done in one lifetime alone.

One of the reasons why awareness of death is so crucial is because the state
of mind at the time of death will determine the next birth or have great affect
upon it.

Secondly, one of the positive side-effects of attaining the awareness of
death is so that one can be in positive state of mind, including meditation; it
will prepare an individual for the death event and he will be better able to
maintain that state of mind.

In Tantric Buddhism it is maintained that the state of mind one has at death is extremely subtle and has a great impact on one’s mental continuum. So we find a lot of emphasis on death meditation. Individuals at the time of death can maintain his presence of mind and subtle state of mind for the realization of calm. In many countries, yoga meditation or on deities, involve reflecting on the dissolution process at the point of death.

From the Tantric perspective, the entire process of existence is explained in
terms of three states: death, intermediate state and rebirth and all are seen as
various states of manifestations of consciousness. The three are just levels of
consciousness. The indications of such fluctuations we find in our own daily
existence. Within a 24-hour day we go through a cycle of awake, sleep, dream
sleep and deep sleep that is comparable or a microcosm of the consciousness, a deep ebb and flow of consciousness.

When talking about the distinction between subtle and gross levels of mind
bear in mind what we mean by “mental consciousness.” Do we mean that there is some sort of autonomous level that is independent of the bodily states, like a soul? I think this is a mistaken idea. His Holiness thinks that if you would examine our mental world you would find that most of our functions have direct physical basis. The brain and nervous system is the base of much of our conscious experience and I agree with the scientists on this. They are linked intimately with the body states so when one dissolves the other dissolves. What gives rise to a cognitive event? His Holiness continues.

What is the mere state of knowing and what makes it possible? Buddhist
explanation: we point toward the clear light state which is independent and the subtlest level of consciousness giving rise to all our consciousness events. There are certain indications of the existence which are more possible for religious persons. A person can be pronounced clinically dead and remain in
that state for days and the body does not decompose.

The Buddhist explanation for this is that the individual is not actually dead but is in the process of dying. Although the mind body nexus may have ceased at the grosser level but it has not ceased at the subtle level. That is the tantric Buddhist explanation for the “near-death experience” which I saw when my own master’s life was suspended for 16 days and his body remained fresh during that time he was consciously away from it.

His Holiness humbly shared his attitude toward death: I don’t know what really
happens at death. Sometimes when I think about death I get some kind of
excitement. My only burden at this moment is if I die what will happen to Tibet. To think about death is helpful to reduce fear about it. When death finally
comes all my preparation may fail (laughter). It is helpful mentally to think
about death and it releases much fear to contemplate death and the next birth
this is what Buddhists do.

He affirmed that if you prepare fully for death then you can prepare for it. So if the moment of death is peaceful then your peace of mind can be sustained and that is the foundation for death. That is a guarantee for a good life the next life. That’s about death…then what else?

Conclusion: for those who practice this belief no matter the religion at the
time of death the peaceful mind is the goal. A religious believer may be looking
for a heaven but regardless to belief a person needs a peaceful mind in the
final hours. If you develop a virtuous state of mind then no matter what you did
in your lifetime, at the moment of death with a forceful positive mind it is
guaranteed that the immediate next life will be a good one.

Those who attend the person at death should not create any factor which will
disturb the person’s mind and should not raise some reminder of negative past
experiences.

The DVD ends with a Q&A session where the audience writes their questions
and they are answered thoughtfully by his Holiness. His ability to not take
himself too seriously elicits laughter from the audience at the disarming
answers from this guru who is not afraid to say that he does not know even when
he does know.

For Western audiences gurus often treat a topic like death as an unknown
experience. In this country death and dying is an academic discipline but an
infant science in practice that will one day lead to the practice of dying while
living.

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