The Tibetan Book of the Dead has the most comprehensive step-by-step description of the dying process of both the body and the mind. The book describes the signs of impending death in the final stages of death. The process of the dying body is called outer dissolution, and when this process sets in the stages of dissolution are the signs that death is near. This ancient description is being used in today’s hospice work as a guide for the dying and it can tell us the signs of a person nearing death.
The text reveals how the elements of our body dissolve and how this is felt through our senses. According to Buddhism and Eastern religion, our body is made up of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. As each element dissolve there is a sense-experience to go with it: “The five inner elements of flesh, blood, body heat, space, and consciousness are dependent on the five outer elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and sky. At the time of death, the five inner elements gradually dissolve into one another.”
The final stages of death and the dissolution happen in the following order:
“The earth element, which corresponds to the flesh of the body, dissolves into water. At this time the body becomes very heavy and we feel as though we cannot move. The water element, which corresponds to the blood of the body, dissolves into fire or heat. At this time we feel very dry because the water in the body is evaporating…The fire element, which corresponds to body heat, dissolves into air or breath. At this time the heat leaves the body and we feel cold. The wind or air element, which corresponds to space, dissolves into consciousness. At this time we can no longer inhale or exhale; we can no longer breathe.”
When first earth dissolves into water, the experience is weakening as the body is melting. Visual acuity deteriorates and everything seems like a mirage of water. Then water dissolves into fire and the fluids of the body dry out with the sensation of becoming numb. With this numbness, auditory acuity goes away, one can no longer hear well, and there is a sensation of being surrounded by smoke.
Then fire dissolves into wind. Inhalation weakens and the sense of smell goes away. One feels cold and surrounded by a burst of sparks. Then wind dissolves into space, and breathing stops. This is where gross consciousness dissolves, and it is the end of the gross mind-body experience.
The connection between the mind and the dissolution of the elements is deep and profound, since the elements are created from mind. In Soygal Rinpoche’s book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Kalu Rinpoche reveals that, “It is from mind, which embodies the five elemental qualities, that the physical body develops.”[iv] This means that as the body dissolves into the mind, this is where we feel the sensations of this dissolution, and so, this is the biggest part of dying-the inner dissolution.
This inner dissolution is the psychological experience of the final stage of death. The inner dissolution of the mind is from the gross to the subtle, where the gross mind of confusion is dissolved into the subtle mind of its own true nature. This dissolution is a powerful transformation of consciousness, which happens as the awareness that identifies with the elements that make up the body is transformed into an awareness of the true nature of the mind.
This transformation also includes the powerful experience of leaving the body. The experience of leaving our body is an unusual experience, and in the near-death experience Raymond Moody observes that many people describe being confused. For me, it was an extremely powerful sensation as if I was free falling while my body was dissolving in an internal explosion. Leaving the body and meeting the light is an intensely emotional sensation that the near-death experiencer cannot find words to describe.
This is when we discover that we have left our body. When the body is alive it is the support of our consciousness, but when we die the body is no longer able to support our consciousness. Therefore, leaving the body is described as the experience of falling, since there is no longer any feeling of weight connected to our consciousness.
As our consciousness leaves the body, the gross mind is dissolved with the elements, and we find ourselves in the subtle mind of our true nature. The reality that we perceive through our senses is manifested by our senses, and these senses are made from the elements that make our body. The reason we see reality as it is in this physical dimension is that our senses are dependent on the elements that make them. When the elements dissolve, the senses and the awareness connected to the senses also dissolve and our mind awakens to a new reality.
This new reality dawns at the moment that the two elements meet-the gross mind and the subtle mind. The gross mind is the ground of confusion since it is connected to our senses and our relative world. But the subtle mind is the ground of liberation because the true nature of reality dawns from experiencing it.
The gross mind, which we can also call the conceptual mind, gives birth to the enlightened mind; “What remains when all of these thought states have ceased, is simply the unreconstructed nature of mind…it is the naked awareness itself.”
The Buddhist tradition calls this awakening to the naked awareness the meeting of mother and child. The mother is the clear light of naked awareness (emptiness), and “this is the fundamental, inherent nature of everything, which underlies our whole experience, and which manifests in its full glory at the moment of death.”
When some people ask: what does heaven look like – they expects to find a physical place similar to something we know in this dimension. However, what we can learn both from the Buddhist tradition and testimonies from near death experiences is that ‘heaven’ is a non-physical dimension with consciousness at the center of the experience. The Tibetan Book of the Dead tells us that the fundamental nature of everything is in fact naked consciousness, what Buddhism calls clear light and what near death experiencers call “the Light.”