Tibetan Book of the Dead
On the History channel last night I saw an episode about The Tibetan Book of the Dead which reminded me that the older I get, the more I regret how Buddhism lost its original wisdom over time.
Of the four Noble Truths taught by Buddha, the most important is the realization that the only way for humans to to end their suffering is to stop clutching at transitory things. Individual human life and consciousness are both transitory -- they change and eventually end.
Yet The Tibetan Book of the Dead seems to be a desperate form of clutching to both life (after death) and consciousness.
The book is an integral part of Tantric Buddhism, a sect that developed in Tibet after Buddhism arrived from India two millenia ago. Normally, I would welcome any religious sect that views wild and guilt-free sex as one legitimate path to spiritual enlightenment, which Tantra does. But this path is strewn with goblins and other things that go bump in the night.
The human mind has one glaring flaw that causes endless problems: it is capable of posing questions for which there is no real answer.
We know consciousness ceases at death. We have machines that measure consciousness and record the point at which it stops. Yet most of us ask unanswerable questions like:
What happens my awareness after I am no longer aware of anything?
Where do I go after death and what do I see there?
Both questions ignore the fact that there is no "I" without consciousness.
To some degree, this nonsense is understandable. Consciousness is the only viable frame of reference we have ever experienced and we can't imagine existing without it. Because non-existence arouses great fear, we invent a myriad of fairy tales to explain the unexplainable. We picture heaven or paradise or Allah's garden and this helps us to get through bad nights when we cannot sleep.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is one such fairy tale, but like hell, it's not very comforting. The book is divided into bardos or compartments of death filled with demons and other perils. A bardo sounds like an idea George Romero rejected for a movie -- "Demon Realm of the Dead."
Most religions take advantage of our natural fear of death to leverage their influence in our lives. In response to this, I fall back on a piece of secular wisdom I learned a long time ago. We have nothing to fear but fear itself.
"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa