Death, Rebirth and the Power of Phowa
Interview with Lama Ole Nydahl by Tony Dylan Davis in March 1994 in Calgary, Canada
Tony: One of the greatest fascinations of mankind is death and what survives death. All kinds of religions have been founded upon insurance policies for the afterlife. One of your topics in Calgary was death and rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism and I know it's an enormous subject and we can't hope to cover the whole thing, but perhaps a capsule view for the relatively uninitiated would help.
Ole: It's all based on an understanding of the nature of the mind itself. If we look at mind, it clearly has two sides. There is an experiencer and something which is experienced, an ocean and many waves, a mirror and its pictures. One finds both awareness and that of which one is aware. Mind is both. An examination of what looks through our eyes and listens through our ears shows the observer to be of the nature of space. As it has neither color, weight, smell, size nor form, mind is definitely not a thing. At the same time, there is a clarity which can know and understand, having no limit or end.
An essence which is open, clear, and limitless must be beyond birth or death. As it has never been assembled, it can never fall apart. Though mind is all-pervading and indestructible, very rarely do people notice their underlying nature. Non-meditators mainly know it from their moments of greatest joy, like in love-making, during the free fall in bungee jumping, or before the parachute opens and makes things ordinary again. The rest of the time, people are lost among their changing experiences. Their life is the feelings and thoughts inside and the world outside, both of which of course change constantly. All think that they are a "me," or a "person," that they have a "self," an "ego," an "atman" or something else which their habitual mind perceives as real, but if they look for it, it cannot be found. There's no particle in the body which stays and neither do any conditioned thoughts or feelings. Only the clear light of awareness lasts, which is the same in you, me, and everybody else. Although this is evident, until enlightenment people experience the pictures in the mirror, not its reflective power. They lose themselves among their experiences, and have little awareness of the experiencer.
The understanding that everything conditioned is transient, however, doesn't mean that it has no relative value. Causality functions, creating inner and outer worlds and though nothing stays the same, there is a continuity. Nothing physical or mental remains from the time one was a child through to the time one is later a man, but without the former there would be no latter. One event conditions the next and when the body dies, the sense-basis and object of identification for this flow of experience is lost.
Though quick or slow deaths may appear to be very different, exactly the same process occurs. First, awareness recedes from the skin and other outer sense organs, into the central inner energy channel or magnetic plus-minus axis in the body. While consciousness diminishes, one loses control of the solid and fluid parts of the body, its heat and breath. Then, gradually, the energies from the crown and bottom centers come together at the heart center while the mind has strong experiences of clarity and joy. About twenty to thirty minutes after having breathed out the last time, there is total blackness after which a very clear light appears in the heart center. At that time, people have a unique chance. If they have meditated a lot, have kept their Buddhist bonds and have stayed honest to themselves, there is a chance to recognize and hold this light, making them in fact enlightened. Then, there's no separation between space and awareness inside and outside and one is boundless. All personal limitations have fallen away and one can take countless rebirths in countless universes with many amazing powers to help others.
If, however, beings become unconscious because the light is too strong - as is mostly the case - this unconscious condition lasts for about three days and upon reawakening, one usually neither knows nor wants to know that one is dead. For about a week, mind remains in the continuation of one's most recent life. One goes to places and people one knew but of course they cannot see one. It is also very confusing that due to the lack of a body, one immediately appears at whichever place one thinks of.
Ten days after death, after a week in this situation, one finally recognizes that one is dead. This experience is such a shock that one faints again, and when mind surfaces from this second bout of unconsciousness, the habitual world is gone and one's subconscious comes alive. Deeply stored impressions appear, and within not more than five and a half weeks they mature into a fixed psychological structure, expressing the strongest mental tendency developed during one's last life.
Whether this may be pride or jealousy, attachment or anger, greed or confusion, it colors the mind and at the same time draws it to beings and places which correspond to its content. Thus good actions produce pleasant rebirths in favorable countries and harmful ones bring about the suffering so prevalent in most of the world today.
It has always been like that. Mind moves ceaselessly after death until finding the right slot brings it to a passing but unconscious state of peace. Then it awakens and starts projecting again, as it has since beginningless time. It produces both the countless universes and beings' varying mental states, and mind will remain attached to what is actually its own free play until it recognizes itself to be unborn clear light. When awareness is experienced whether it has any objects or not, the timeless goal has been reached.
Tony: I suppose the question that springs to mind is: how do you know this?
Ole: I know it for several reasons, both personal and general. Shall I give some details? OK. First, I belong to the group of people who have independent proof of memories from their former lives. I am not saying I was an angel but I had great friends, exquisite women and much fun in my past lives. I was mainly fighting Chinese soldiers to protect the civilian population of Eastern Tibet. Already at an age of 2-3 years in Denmark during the war, I had recurrent dreams of fighting soldiers with round faces and protecting men in gowns. This is how I then interpreted the monks robes I saw. I had never seen mountains, they don't exist in Denmark at all, but I still drew pictures detailing how to take out snipers on the steep rocky slopes. My own Lama, the 16th Karmapa called me Mahakala (a Buddhist protector) and Dharma-General and I was born with some signs on my body which are supposed to signify former protective deeds. In 1986, on a secret tour across Eastern Tibet to places where no white man has ever been, my lovely wife Hannah and myself recognized places we knew from our last life, like the village where our main Lama, the 16th Karmapa, was born and where we must have spent time with him. In Bhutan, I had similar experiences. Among other things, I must have helped repulse the Mongolian troops during a great battle in 1642. Actually, I'm more a program than a person and hardly have any private or complicated stuff in my life. I seem to have deeply promised to express certain activities when I'm in this world and these I joyfully fulfill. Protecting and developing beings on all levels, is constantly on my mind.
Secondly, there are other, less personal reasons. Several people have come to me after they died. Real ones - spirits, spooks or whatever we call them in the West. Though some appeared hours earlier than the Tibetan Book of the Dead describes, whatever else happened to them fits completely with its teachings.
Also, Hannah and I received many explanations from living teachers of amazing insight like Karmapa, whose seventeenth incarnation Thaye Dorje was introduced to the public in Delhi in March 1994. His sixteenth rebirth was highly visionary. For no conceivable reasons, he would often know things and frequently simply state who was now driving away from their home and when they would arrive. He always knew what people were thinking and would frequently recognize former incarnations. He confirmed me as a Buddhist protector and stated after my father died that he was in a pure land. He is a major reason I feel I am an expert on death and rebirth.
The place this certainty touches many is through the hundreds of Phowa courses, where people learn how to die consciously. I've taught the practice since 1987, mainly in Western countries but also in Singapore and Japan. About 22,000 people - all but a handful of those who took part - had the full result. In a four to five day intensive meditation seminar, the Buddha of Limitless Light (Amitabha) blesses the practitioners and they receive outer, inner and secret signs of success, proof that they will reach a pure land at death. The signs are very convincing. One receives a small opening through the skull which produces a visible sign on the top of one's head, strong experiences of joy and purification and a growing understanding of what really matters in life and death. People agree that life after Phowa is both different and much better. A high percentage experience leaving their bodies and most reach states of great bliss. To the best of my knowledge, this meditation only exists in Tibetan Buddhism.
Tony: How did you gain the authority to do this kind of work?
Ole: Several conditions came together and especially it was the wish of the Karmapa, the first incarnate Lama of Tibet. He first connected us to a Lama from a closely affiliated lineage, a true expert on the subject. Since 1987, important teachers of our lineage like Kunzig Shamarpa, LopÃ¶n Tsechu Rinpoche, Tenga Rinpoche and recently also the 17th Karmapa, Thaye Dorje, asked me to transmit it to all with a wish to learn, and the results have been extraordinary.
Tony: When I took courses in Buddhism at a University, I think one of the areas which people had the most difficulty with was the idea of personality.....
Ole: Not having it!
Ole: You've got to trust space! If you discover personality to be an illusion, your only chance is trusting the richness of space. You can't rely on anything in the past or the future.
Tony: Then a Westerner would turn around and ask, who's doing the trusting?
Ole: Mind has all kinds of qualities, including the feeling of confidence. Such powers don't need to be anything personal, however. Mind has radiance, compassion, feeling and energy. It can remember, hope, dream and invent. One may compare it to a jewel with many shiny sides all of which are fantastic. The problem is when some of these qualities - always the emotionally charged ones - try to control everything else. Things get very tight when an illusory self behaves like a colonel in a banana republic, and forces some sentimental program or pride program to be enacted. Such a situation is totally different from the open condition where the inherent qualities of mind spontaneously unfold. When conditions are natural, sometimes mind feels, then it creates, then it remembers, then it's artistic. Without the fat rider of ego holding it down, all things will be perfect as they come.
Tony: Don't you think people for the most part associate who they are, for example, what will survive death, with the ego?
Ole: Adherents of faith-religions think they need an ego because they've been told they cannot trust their minds. That's the brainwash about original sin. It makes people unable to simply be. They think they have to keep control because otherwise they might find themselves with some child on their bayonet, or stealing something, or looking into the girl's locker room or saying something strange. Faith-religions manipulate people to distrust their deepest nature, while Buddhism as a religion of experience, teaches the complete opposite. It says, "Truth is all-pervading and you are all buddhas, who haven't discovered it yet. Your timeless essence is fearlessness and joyful compassion." That's the difference between working with faith and with experience. Religions that employ pressure from outer entities and work with fear and sin, instill a disturbed relationship to one's basic nature. Where the goal is fulfillment of mind's potential, however, things are easy. Living one's greatness is the way to benefit all beings.
Tony: The word that never pops into these discussions is the term "God," which is central in virtually every other religion.
Ole: We don't use it. It creates an unnecessary duality which one would have to dismantle later. We see gods as conditioned beings, who are not enlightened and though Buddhism knows of many gods, we prefer to keep a safe distance. We wish them everything good, of course, but do not get involved unless they might come to learn. To understand why, one needs only to examine their words. Gods are pompous, humorless, and some, like Allah, are clearly unfit for civilized societies. Most have character problems. Some are jealous; some are vengeful, none have found peace in their own essence. They all have visible egos and frequently display irrational behavior. They want beings to do this, and not to do that. They're frequently very difficult customers and if one wouldn't want bearers of such qualities as our neighbors, it would be unwise to take them as gods. I know that many people don't like to be confronted with such views and given the mental levels of their followers and the political situations at their times, the gods should also be given the benefits of any doubt. There is no way to ignore their statements in their ancient but still authorized texts; however, the way they still motivate the behavior of their followers today brings so much suffering. As any reader of intelligent newspapers will know, they suppress the greater part of the world's women and regularly erupt into strange and harmful actions even when kept under constant surveillance.
Mind's full development, on the other hand, its clear light and radiant awareness, its consciousness endowed with every freedom to feel, question and do - this is perfect. Rest in that and avoid the personal, difficult, and unclear. Go straight to the radiant, compassionate joy which is always satisfactory.
Tony: How do you do that?
Ole: First, find your nearest Buddhist center from the directory or one of my books. Or call the San Francisco center (415-661 6467). Ask my noble idealistic students for the teachings and meditations used, put forth your bright questions and try to take part whenever you can. This constitutes a broad, powerful way to grow.
Then one will gradually evaluate things less and rest more in the clear space of one's mind. To utilize even a few free moments, one may think of a Buddha sitting above one's head, falling into one's heart and shining from there to benefit all beings. Also, other near-instantaneous meditations will produce a state of surplus to be shared with others. The important thing, at least in Diamond Way Buddhism, is to "behave like a Buddha until you become a Buddha." Be the best you can until it's second nature, and then act from there.
Tony: So there's no sense of getting control of anything that you are talking about here. When we talk about looking at the mind and examining the mind, there's always a gnawing suspicion that what you are doing is going in there to control what happens.
Ole: No. Conscious living is about KNOWING inner processes, it's not about controlling them. As we already agreed, the experience of mind is fearlessness, joy, and active compassion, so nothing can disturb our true essence. What most surprises new students is that one's advance towards enlightenment is not so much characterized by the fact that good thoughts become more and bad thoughts become less. As mind is a feedback-mechanism, this may happen simply through positive thinking or pleasant surroundings. The important thing is that thoughts don't matter very much. As the radiance of the mirror increases, its pictures become less important. Attachment, both positive and negative, to the objects of awareness decreases as mind's timeless power is felt. In the here-and-now state of co-emergent wisdom all experience arises fresh, joyful, and true in its deepest essence.
Tony: How do we do this? How do we live this way?
Ole: Be spontaneous and effortless. Feel at home in life. Consider the best in beings their true essence while not overestimating what they can handle right now. Of course, it's a gradual process. We'll probably always need jails for the heavy cases. We'll still need policemen, but it would be nice to see more in the ghettos and less on the roads, where traffic regulates itself, anyway. Important is the view that people can be perfected. If people would train themselves to experience space more as a container we are all inside of and less as nothingness or something lacking, which separates us, much would be gained.
Tony: In a few words, what is your goal?
Ole: What I really want is to make as many people as possible recognize that their mind is clear light, help them understand that feeling fear is a complete mistake because their essence can never be harmed. I would dearly like to start a landslide of robust, humorous and critical awareness of life's potential. To lead ever more people to find real confidence, truth and happiness in themselves and empower them to share it. That's why I write my books; that's what I have done every evening for the last 24 years at my lectures. That's why we've started 180 groups for Diamond Way Buddhism so far around the world and the reason I've been in a new town every day since then. In increasing numbers, year by year, more and more close friends of mine work for that vision. We know Karma Kagyu Buddhism brings results, that the methods recently brought from Tibet are highly effective. They work with causes and not effects, are neither sentimental nor stiff. The lineage has a wide variety of methods and our success at shaking off Communist Chinese strangleholds and freeing Thaye Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, has even increased its taste of freedom. He is developing amazingly and it is a great joy.
Tony: And when will we be visibly closer to that goal?
Ole: The day people will say a hundred OM MANI PEME HUNG or KARMAPA CHENNO mantras as naturally as they now pop an aspirin. The more we put in, the more we get out. Everything needed is there. If we choose to join the independent intelligence of Western countries with the unbroken power of the lineage, there will be amazing developments and much good will appear in the world!
BUDDHISM TODAY, Vol.2, 1996. Copyright ©1996 Diamond Way Buddhist Centers USA