Nirbija writes about Osho’s suggestions for dying meditators and loved ones.
Always look on the bright side of death!”
(Lyrics from a Monty Python song)
How can we help, if a mother, a father or a friend is terminally ill? Most of them will spend the last phase of life in hospitals or hospices. We have loved them and now suddenly we go through the pain of feeling deeply helpless. How can we support them in encountering the impending transition – death and the journey beyond? The Tibetan Buddhist teachings called Bardo are immensely valuable for end-of-life care. In these vulnerable moments it can also be a precious experience of compassion for those sitting beside them.
The following is an account of my personal journey to come to terms with death, and how Osho’s teaching supported me. There is no proof for my conclusions and some events may even sound spooky and eerie. They would have looked like that to me, too, years ago.
I knew nothing essential about death. In Rajneeshpuram, out of curiosity I bought And Now, and Here, Vol. 1, Osho’s discourses focused on life and death, from a meditation camp in 1969. It became a lifelong guide and source of experimentation. For the first time, I read about the ancient wisdom of the Bardo. It had its source in the secret Tantric Buddhist teachings of Tibet, starting in the 14th century. The word Bardo means “in-between-space”. If we imagine a cake with 4 separate layers, each one representing a period we go through in every cycle of life and death, then life is just one piece of the cake. The other three pieces are the phases of dying, the so-called clear light and the process of rebirth. And the piece called life is just a preparation for dealing with the rest of the cake. What a blow to our Western common belief, that life is all there is!
My mother’s death
Some years ago I had an eye-opening experience about the usefulness of the Bardo instructions. I was sitting beside the hospital bed of my dying mother, Liz. A stroke had shut down a major part of her brain the day after her 90th birthday. As I wanted to stay overnight next to her, a compassionate night-nurse rolled in another bed. I sat at Mother’s side, creamed her dry lips. The oxygen valve sent regular hisses into the silence. Nothing to do, just sitting there. Finally exhausted, I slept and was awoken by a knock at the door early next morning. It was the nurse: “Do you want a cup of coffee?” “Yes, please!” A blackbird celebrated the sunrise from the rooftop. And I sipped the strongest life-giving drink I ever had – the bright side of life!
Touching Liz’s heart on one of the following days, I sensed that her implanted pacemaker was keeping her heart beating strongly! Her body was by now completely paralysed, her closed eyes had already started sinking in, her mouth was strangely distorted. According to the physician of the stroke unit, she could now be in a coma for up to two more weeks until death would naturally occur. Unfortunately, she had not left any written authorisation for the doctors to turn off the pacemaker. What to do?
According to the Bardo, the one who is leaving the body can be guided through this process step by step with suggestions from a practitioner. Cognitive science has now confirmed the ancient wisdom that hearing remains long after the heart stops. While consciousness separates from the body, the suggestions can alleviate a dying person’s fears and keep her aware. Osho gives us four main key points to suggest to a dying meditator in his answer to a disciple’s question about Bardo in The Path of the Mystic, Ch 7, first question: Bardo is a beautiful process
Firstly, to let go of life without fighting.
Secondly, to be aware of a phenomenon called the experience of absolute awareness,
or the clear light.
Thirdly to consciously enter into another womb.
And finally to remember both the new birth and one’s last life.
In Glimpses of a Golden Childhood, Osho spoke of his own first encounter with death. As a child of seven, he travelled with his grandmother and his dying grandfather in a bullock cart, heading for the faraway hospital. “Stop the wheel,” the old man had said to him again and again, meaning the wheel of life. To comfort him, Osho mysteriously started reciting what only years later he identified as Tibetan Bardo chants. His grandfather left the body radiantly.
Now I felt that my mother needed urgently to be made aware that she should not remain any longer in that dysfunctional body. In other words, it would be good if she could stop the wheel of her suffering.
I pondered for a day about this. Maybe she was under the illusion that she could be healed again, because her little heart was still beating so merrily.
Finally I decided to explain to Liz her medical condition and its consequences. It was strange to talk to her while she was in that state of deep coma. But I experienced her as receptive and responsive. The most difficult part emotionally was to suggest to my own mother that she should leave her body, to spare her a long drawn-out coma. “You will never be able to live in this body again with dignity,” I explained.
The presence of my sannyasin sister at the other side of the bed was a great support to me. About two hours later, we could see Liz’s breath slowly disappearing… and she departed in peace. I don’t with certainty credit this event to the Bardo suggestions. Many other causes may have played their part. But this experience of an intimate communion with my mother has given me a totally new outlook on dying. I bonded so deeply with her in that moment, in a wholehearted intimacy. After her departure I felt gratitude, like a midwife having delivered a baby. As I left the hospital, the winter sun was just setting with a radiant copper-like glow and a fresh intensity. The faces in the metropolitan train looked so human.
All this encouraged me to explore the events around dying with new eyes. Bodhicitta, a doctor and psychotherapist, confirmed in an interview with Osho News (Osho’s Bardo: your travel kit): “My experience with dying people is that there is always a kind of ‘psychic dialogue’. You ask and an answer comes. Even if [the dying] are in a coma the dialogue continues.“
The instructions on ‘Finding the right womb’
Later I wondered why I did not suggest to Mom to look for the right parents before she left the body. Was I too overwhelmed in those exhausting days and forgot about it? Or was it not the right moment? She was not familiar either with meditation nor with the idea of reincarnation. It might have confused her. But I did send out this wish later, during the first weeks of her bodiless journey.
I recently remembered this Bardo teaching when I saw Tibetan drawings in an exhibition called, Tibet’s Secret Temple. In 2015, the anthropologist, author, explorer and Buddhist practitioner Dr. Ian Baker was given the opportunity to present an exhibition about Buddhist Tibetan Tantra at the London Wellcome Museum.
In this skilful show – now recorded as a YouTube video – Ian Baker revealed to a stunned 100, 000 visitors that Tantra is not about sex! He also introduced them to the unknown chambers of a side temple of the Potala in Lhasa, shown in huge photographs. This ‘Lukhang’ temple next to the palace was especially created for the training of the new would-be Dalai Lamas after the 5th one. Its upper floor served as a classroom. The walls were decorated with huge artful murals. They demonstrated as a kind of visual curriculum the methods and practices of transforming consciousness and the art of dying consciously. Ian Baker had photographed them in the late 1970’s during his expeditions and written about them in one of his books.
One scene depicted was especially striking to me. A cartoon-like bodiless soul hovers above and between two couples, who lie on their sides facing each other, making love. Osho referred repeatedly in his discourses to this moment in the transition of a soul migrating to another body – so there is little doubt about its importance. He explains:
A Gautam Buddha dies ultimately, you die only temporarily. Just maybe a few minutes, a few seconds, and you enter into another womb. Some idiots are always making love around the world, twenty-four hours, and you don’t have to travel far away, just in the neighborhood. Around the clock millions of couples are making love, so whichever is the closest couple, here you die and there you are born. The gap is very small.
Osho, Zen Manifesto, Ch 1
Mind you, dear fellow travellers: Osho does not mention here jumping into enlightenment and being finished with the wheel of life and death! I guess he wants to make us alert that this option is not the most probable thing to happen to us! Still there is a path to a conscious death for those who have meditated in their life, he says. If a meditator dies consciously, he can choose the right parents before he enters into another womb. In the discourse of 14th February 1989, 11 months before he himself left the body, Osho gave us an example of such a suggestion:
You can give suggestions to the leaving soul as to what kind of womb will be good – “Choose rightly. Don’t be accidental.” Millions of people are making love, and millions of people are dying. So those souls are roaming around, finding a couple who is making love. This is accidental. Because they die unconsciously, they unconsciously grope in the darkness, and whoever comes close by, just by chance they enter into that womb.
Bardo prevents the accidental. It gives the soul a right direction: “You need a certain kind of womb, so don’t be in a hurry. You have been a meditator, and you have to find a mother, a father, who will allow you to meditate – not only allow you to meditate but who will help you to meditate, who are themselves meditators. So don’t be in a hurry! Choose a couple.”
Sometimes the man of meditation takes time to find the right womb; ordinary persons immediately enter into the womb. Bardo gives two kinds of possibilities: the body can be kept, and the soul can be given a sense of direction where to go. But this is possible only if the man has been deeply into meditation, has been practicing meditation for a long time, and was capable of remaining conscious when death comes, because death is the greatest operation.
Nature has managed it so that nobody should die consciously, just as a surgeon will not be ready to operate on you if you are conscious. First he will give you chloroform or something that makes you unconscious. Then he can operate on you because you don’t know what is happening. You are so deeply asleep that things can be removed from your body, bones can be cut, replaced, anything can be done. […]
Death is the greatest operation, because the whole seventy years’ attachment to the body has to be broken. Nature has managed – this is the wisdom of nature, the intelligence of nature – that a person who is not capable of detachment with the body, who does not know that “I am not the body,” should be made unconscious. Otherwise he will be passing through tremendous anguish and anxiety.
So it is natural wisdom, but it is not applicable to the meditator. The meditator can afford to die consciously without any pain, without any anguish, without any anxiety.
Osho, I Celebrate Myself. God is No Where, Life is Now Here, Ch 2, Q 3
That is good news! The certainty of dying kicks the ball back into my field of everyday life.
How prepared am I for it? Where is meditation on my laundry list? What choices do I habitually make now? How do I rank my online behaviour, playground of unlimited distractions? And I suspect that fear might still be waiting for me at the doorstep of my transition. A helpful preparation is a guided meditation that Osho conducted after his discourses at the 1969 meditation camp close to the shore of the Arabian sea. Under the swaying palm-trees he guided the participants through the steps of a let-go of the body-mind. Gopal later had these words translated in English and recorded them with music. Relaxing the Body-Mind, is still available. And Sudheer made a guided meditation of relaxation that, as a CD, is attached to the book And Now, And Here.
Maneesha and friends have created the Osho Sammasati vision. Its aim is “to help ourselves and others live both life and death consciously and celebratively. To this end we offer workshops, events, sessions and other online resources.” Part of this project is Osho Bardo, which is available now as an App, as a CD, and also as a downloadable meditation through their website.
Being with the dying in such a way can open a chapter full of possibilities for our beloveds in their end-of-life state. Humour is important, too: the Monty Python song, Always Look On The Bright Side… of life and death is among the most requested songs for funerals in the UK and the USA!
Links and recommended reading
- Osho, And Now and Here, Vol 1, discourses translated from Hindi, India, October 28-31, 1969. Available as ebook, $4.95, at osho.com in Engl./Spanish/Italian
- Books by Ian Baker: ianbaker.com
- A valuable traditional guidebook is: Tsele Natsok Rangdröl, The Mirror of Mindfulness – The Cycle Of The Four Bardos, Shambala Publications – amazon.com
- Eric Idle, Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life – youtu.be
- Maneesha James has created valuable tools, audios, and seminars about Osho Bardo and the care of the dying. E.g. A Guide for Visiting the Dying is a free download at: oshosammasati.org