How Vipassana Meditation Helps Prepare for Death

by | Death and Dying

Just as shamatha meditation prepares the mind for the after death states, we can also look at how vipassana meditation helps prepare for death. One of the main themes in The Tibetan Book of the Dead is “recognition and liberation are simultaneous.” This relates to Vipassana, the practice of insight meditation. Shamatha pacifies the mind, Vipassana, allows us to see it. By seeing our mind more clearly, we’re able to recognize how it works. This helps us relate to it skillfully. In the bardos we’re “forced” to relate to our mind simply because there’s nothing else. Outer world is gone, body is gone, so mind becomes reality. Through insight meditation we discover that whatever arises in the bardos is just the display of our mind. That recognition sets us free.

Just like recognizing that we’re dreaming while still in a dream (lucid dreaming) frees us from the suffering of the dream, recognizing that we’re in the bardos frees us from the suffering of the bardos. Before we became lucid, the dream tossed us to and fro like Styrofoam bobbing on turbulent waters. But once we wake up to the dream—while still being in it—the tables are suddenly turned. We now have complete control over an experience that just controlled us. Whether in dream or death, this level of recognition, and ensuing liberation, is cultivated with Vipassana or “clear seeing.”

Instead of taking the terrifying visions of the bardo to be real, and getting caught in the resulting nightmare, we can wake up in the bardos. We do this by recognizing all the appearances to be the display of our own mind.  This recognition is exercised in meditation. The meditation instruction is to label whatever distracts us as “thinking.” For example, a thought pops up of needing to buy some milk. We mentally say “thinking,” which is recognizing that we have strayed, and then return to our meditation. Our clear seeing melts the distracting thought on contact. Labeling and liberation are simultaneous.

Unrecognized thought is the daytime equivalent of falling asleep. Each discursive thought is a mini-daydream. Drifting off into mindless thinking is how we end up sleepwalking through life—and therefore death. Saying “thinking” in our meditation is therefore the same as saying “wake up!” We wake up and come back to reality—not to our dreamy visions (thoughts) about it. If we can wake up during the day and be mindful, we will be able to wake up in the bardo after we die. This is what it means to become a buddha, an “awakened one.” And this is the fruition of how both shamatha and vipassana meditation helps prepare for death .

In the bardos, mind (thought) becomes reality. What do you come back to if there is only mind? You come back to just that recognition. You realize that whatever arises is merely the play of your mind. Just like in a lucid dream. This allows you to witness whatever appears without being carried away by it. Since you no longer have a body, or any other material object to take refuge in, you take refuge in recognition (awareness) itself. From that awakened perspective it doesn’t matter what happens. It’s all just the display of the mind.[2]

[2]This is why dream yoga is a diamond of a practice for preparing for the bardos, and why shamatha-vipassana is the best way to prepare for dream yoga. This is also our first glimpse of the power of equanimity. Everything that arises is equal in being mind only. See Luminous Heart, The Third Karmapa on Consciousness, Wisdom, and Buddha Nature, p. 14-78, by Karl Brunnhölzl, for more on the subtleties of “mind only.”

Adapted from Preparing to Die: Practical Advice and Spiritual Wisdom from the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition”