His Holiness the Dalai Lama – Guidance on Death & Dying
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.
Aging 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.
Question: When people hear of the luminosity of clear light that dawns at the moment of death they ask why it is called clear light. What has this got to do with light as we know it?
Dalai Lama: "I don't think that in the term clear light, light should be taken literally. It is sort of metaphoric. This could have its roots in our terminology of mental will. According to Buddhism, all consciousness or all cognitive mental events are said to be in the nature of clarity and luminosity. So it is from that point of view that the choice of the term light is used. Clear light is the most subtle level of mind, which can be seen as the basis or the source from which eventual experience or realisation of Buddhahood, Buddha's wisdom might come about, therefore it is called clear light. Clear light is a state of mind which becomes fully manifest only as a consequence of certain sequences or stages of dissolution, where the mind becomes devoid of certain types of obscurations, which are again metaphorically described in terms of sun-like, moonlike and darkness. These refer to the earlier three stages of dissolution which are technically called, including the clear light stage, the four empties. At the final stage of dissolution the mind is totally free of all these factors of obscuration. Therefore it is called clear light. Sort of a light. It is also possible to understand the usage of the term clear light in terms of the nature of mind itself. Mind or consciousness is a phenomena which lacks any obstructive quality. It is non-obstructed.
Oct. 11-14, 1991 New York City. Path of Compassion teaching preliminary to the Kalachakra initiation
...if we remain clinging to this life even for one day, we are misusing our time. In this way, we can waste months and years on end. Because we don't know when our lives will finish, we should remain mindful and well prepared. Then, even if we die tonight, we will do so without regret. If we die tonight, the purpose of being well prepared is borne out; if we don't die tonight, there is no harm in being well prepared, because it will still benefit us.
But when we leave the world of humans, we do so without a protector or supporter and the total responsibility falls on us. We only have our own intelligence to rely on at that time, so we must expend our own effort in order to protect ourselves. As the Buddha said, "I have shown you the path to liberation; know that liberation depends on you." We must put strenuous effort into gaining freedom from the lower migrations, liberation from samsara, freedom from conventional existence and solitary salvation.
The body is compared to a guest house; it is a place to stay for just a short time and not permanently. At present, the guest of consciousness is staying in the guest house of the body, like renting a place to stay. When the day comes for consciousness to leave, the guest house of the body must be left behind. Not being attached to friends, the body, wealth and possessions is the practice of the Bodhisattvas.
from "The Heart of Compassion: A Practical Approach to a Meaningful Life,"
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.
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.