I had high expectations from this book. It was going to be the first book to tell me clearly what death was about–whether it brought an absolute end or there was indeed a cycle of birth and death. Do the dead watch over their living relatives or they’re perished forever?
It was an easy read but I still gave it a lot of breaks. Those breaks reduced the fright associated with death. I was able to read through the text in a matter of fact way but found a lot of the initial lessons a reiteration of Bhagwad Gita’s discourse–mainly that life is impermanent so don’t get too attached to your body, possessions or relations… What helped was the author’s repeated advice to meditate on this impermanence, tame the mind as it helps become virtuous, moderates our expectations from the world and helps overcome our fear of death. He repeats through the book that the thought of death being definite shouldn’t be brushed aside as its recognition actually helps us do good and become compassionate. As also ease the process of dying.
What was new knowledge was the 8-phase process of death that the author has described as the appearance of a mirage, then some smoke, fireflies, a flame of a lamp, vivid white sky, vivid red-organge sky, vivid black sky, ending in clear light. This sounded plausible even if not all that reassuring. The author advices that being aware of death helps one practice calmness, pray for the end result–another good life or an end from the cyclic existence–and achieve it because of one’s constant practice or meditation. He also advices against creating disturbance around a person dying. His suggestion is to make that time peaceful and facilitate the process of death. In the first 4 phases, he details how our 4 elements of earth, water, fire and wind dissolve and lead to a closure of the body’s senses and functions. He believes that these phases can occur over months or even in a quick succession.
Most of the book is a description and interpretation of a 17-stanza poem written by the first Panchen Lama that goes over the process of death. While I’ve marked a lot of text to reflect on some more, reading just the Appendix may also be sufficient as it provides a summary of the complete poem.
Something the author could have avoided covering was the political stance of China towards the Dalai Lama and Tibet. A large part of the Foreword and the 2nd chapter is about Panchen Lama’s significance that I found myself least involved in.
Altogether though the book will remain the first for me to have someone’s interpretation of the actual process of death, and it has acted as a reminder that much as we are definitely moving towards our death, we must live a virtuous life to experience a peaceful end.