Charles T. Tart
University of California
Davis, California 95616
Institute of Noetic Sciences
Published in the Noetic
Sciences Review, Winter 1992, pp 24 and 42-43. The
contents of this document are Copyright © 1992 by the
Institute for Noetic Sciences
"What is it I hope for from this
book? To inspire a quiet revolution in the whole way we look
at death and care for the dying, and the whole way we look
at life, and care for the living."
This is the most important book I have
reviewed for IONS members, but I must start with some words of
First, this review is about death. Parts
of you may not want to read it, and your mind can come up with good
reasons for skipping on to something else. There are so many more
important things to do, aren't there? But it's also about the
quality of your life, for if you won't deal with your mortality, you
cannot have more than a partial life, a shadow of a life.
As this book says,
"If we look into our lives we will
see clearly how many unimportant tasks, so-called
"responsibilities" accumulate to fill them up. One master
compares them to "housekeeping in a dream." We tell ourselves we
want to spend time on the important things of life, but there
never is any time.
Even simply to get up in the
morning, there is so much to do: open the window, make the bed,
take a shower, brush your teeth, feed the dog or cat, do last
night's washing up, discover you are out of sugar or coffee, go
and buy them, make breakfast the list is endless.
Then there are clothes to sort out,
choose, iron, and fold up again. And what about your hair, or
your makeup? Helpless, we watch our days fill up with telephone
calls and petty projects, with so many responsibilities or
shouldn't we call them 'irresponsibilities'?"
As a second warning, I cannot be
completely objective about this book as I have my personal fears of
and problems with death and life.
Like most of us, I have a
"theoretical" interest in death and
what might happen after death.
My interest is theoretical in that I seldom reflect on death with
all my faculties, especially my emotions, but just with my
intellect. Intellect is cool and distancing. Why not be cool and
distant? Despite knowing better, I tend to automatically think of
death, as most of us do, as something that happens to others, not to
I also know, but seldom even think about, that tuning out reality my
death, my life, in this case in any fashion, is costly. But I can
put off thinking about death to some vague future time, can't I?
I had planned to review
Sogyal Rinpoche's book last weekend
but other, important tasks (conveniently?) intervened.
Well, I know about my automatic
tendencies to avoid anything unpleasant, and I try to work against
it. I also pray each day that whatever is higher in our universe
will guide me to learn what is import ant, even if I'm avoiding it.
Perhaps it was a "coincidence," or perhaps an answer to my prayers,
but Sunday morning I suddenly had a severe pain in my abdomen and
ended up taking my first ambulance ride into an emergency room.
It seemed to me that I probably had some
obstruction of the bowels that would require surgery. While the odds
were good that I would survive, I could die in surgery. Was I ready
for my death? Not anywhere near to the degree I would like.
My pain turned out to be due to a kidney stone passing: death was
put off into the vague future again. Well, thank you universe for
this reminder to live life fully, to keep working on understanding
my deeper mind, and to be ready for death. I suppose a few hours of
severe pain is a cheap price for such a good reminder.
But I hope I can get by with more gentle
reminders in the future!
Now, my final warning. I cannot write here in a completely
"objective" manner as only a scientist who has studied relevant
areas and can so give an unbiased report on the book. I am a
scientist who has studied relevant areas, but since hearing
Sogyal Rinpoche lecture almost a decade ago I have regularly
attended retreats of his, for I felt that what he was teaching and
embodying was important to my (and others) spiritual development. So
I am not detached from the book and its author.
On the other hand, no friend has ever
suggested that I tend to become a mindless devotee of anyone. I have
had several spiritual teachers that I have great respect for, but I
maintain my independence of thought and belief, as doing that is
important in the role I see for myself of trying to bridge spiritual
traditions and the scientific world.
So I may be biased in this review in
ways I'm not aware of, but it would be quite remiss of me not to
bring The Tibetan Book of Life and Death to your attention.
Sogyal Rinpoche is what Tibetan Buddhists call a tulku, a
being so highly enlightened and evolved that, at her or his death,
instead of passing beyond our ordinary worlds with their suffering
to realms of ultimate bliss, a tulku deliberately chooses to
reincarnate here in order to continue helping others find the way to
This tulku idea is what the pragmatic
and scientific parts of my mind call "fancy stuff" or "mythological
gloss" that I am not too comfortable with. I have no way of
verifying the truth or falsity of this, and the idea of a tulku
tends to create, in most Western minds, grandiose (and infantile)
fantasies about a magic being who will solve your problems for you.
On a more realistic level, Sogyal Rinpoche is a man I have
known and studied with, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, particularly
a teacher of Dzogchen, a tradition of developing a deep
mindfulness that leads to ultimate enlightenment.
I can't say much about enlightenment
from personal experience, but I can say that Rinpoche is a very
intelligent, knowledgeable, dedicated, and compassionate man, and a
pioneer in attempting to bring the essence of Tibetan Buddhist
understandings to us in a way Westerners can understand and use.
In spite of my need for independence as
a scholar and scientist, in spite of my psychological defenses and
resistances, I have learned a great deal from studying with him, and
so I can say that
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
of the most important books ever published. If you want a better
death and, just as importantly, a better life I cannot recommend
this book too highly.
Let's sample some of the book.
Most IONS members are well aware of how lopsided the development of
our culture has been, of the dominance of materialism and scientism
at the expense of the human spirit.
As Rinpoche points out,
"Sometimes I think that the greatest
achievement of modern culture is its brilliant selling of
samsara [living in a state of illusion] and its barren
distractions. Modern society seems to me a celebration of all
the things that lead away from the truth, make truth hard to
live for, and discourage people from even believing that it
exists. And to think that all this springs from a civilization
that claims to adore life, but actually starves it of any real
meaning; that endlessly speaks of making people "happy," but in
fact blocks their way to the source of real joy."
Now let's look more specifically at
death. In the Tibetan Buddhist cosmology, the time of death is what
we might call one of "high leverage." Normally we identify our
consciousness with our body, which patterns and constrains it.
As the body and brain break down and
consciousness goes through various stages of freeing itself from the
body (discussed in detail in the book), deliberate and healthy
actions of consciousness can have a much greater effect in moving
you toward liberation and/or a much better new incarnation than
similar actions during ordinary life. That's the high leverage.
By the same token, unskilled,
maladaptive actions can make things worse. Thus there is a great
deal of practical as well as "spiritual" as if we can really
separate these two categories advice in the book on preparing for
death, helping others prepare, and acting skillfully during the
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
is much more practical and useful than the old classic
Tibetan Book of the Dead in this way and you don't have
to be a Buddhist to benefit from the advice.
While the word "death" in the title strongly attracts (and repels)
our attention, the way we live our life has enormous effects on how
we die and what goes on afterwards. The best preparation for death
is to become more and more enlightened in this life. Sogyal Rinpoche
frankly amazes me in the way he has distilled the essence of years
of his teachings on how to live and recognize one's inner essence,
one's rigpa, in this book.
Whatever label we put on ourselves Buddhist, Christian, agnostic,
etc. there is a spiritual reality that is our common heritage,
simply by virtue of being human.
If only we had sup port for discovering
our deep nature:
"Despite this massive and nearly
all-pervasive denial of their existence, we still sometimes have
fleeting glimpses of the nature of mind....I think we do,
sometimes, half understand these glimpses, but modern culture
gives us no context or framework in which to comprehend them.
Worse still, rather than encouraging us to explore these
glimpses more deeply and discover where they spring from, we are
told in both obvious and subtle ways to shut them out.
We know that no one will take us
seriously if we try to share them. We can be frightened by them,
or even think we are going mad. So we ignore what could really
be the most revealing experiences of our lives, if only we
understood them. This is perhaps the darkest and most disturbing
aspect of modern civilization its ignorance and repression of
who we really are."
You do not have to accept everything in
this book I don't but it calls to and supports something deep in our
I cannot really "review"
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
in a comprehensive way: there is too much in it to summarize, such
as the gentle yet profound instructions on Dzogchen meditation, and
much of the material is of a kind my heart responds to and wants to
understand and practice, without being able to yet. I can only
tantalize you with a few more glimpses.
Reflecting on the social and planetary consequences of our rejection
of death, for example, Sogyal Rinpoche notes:
"I am reminded of what one Tibetan
master says: "People often make the mistake of being frivolous
about death, and think, 'Oh well, death happens to everybody.
It's not a big deal, it's natural. I'll be fine.' That's a nice
theory until one is dying."
One [type of person] views death as
something to scurry away from and [an]other as something that will
just take care of itself. How far they both are from understanding
death's true significance!
All the greatest spiritual traditions of the world, including of
course Christianity, have told us clearly that death is not the end.
They have all handed down a vision of some sort of life to come,
which infuses this life that we are leading now with sacred meaning.
But despite their teaching, modern society is largely a spiritual
desert where the vast majority imagine that this life is all that
there is. Without any real or authentic faith in an afterlife, most
people live lives deprived of any ultimate meaning.
I have come to realize that the disastrous effects of the denial of
death go far beyond the individual:
"They effect the whole planet.
Believing fundamentally that this life is the only one, modern
people have developed no long-term vision. So there is nothing
to restrain them from plundering the planet for their own
immediate ends and from living in a selfish way that could prove
fatal for the future."
This book is also unique in giving many
glimpses into the life of a person who was raised to be a spiritual
teacher in a now endangered culture that was pervaded by
I will end this review by quoting the
beginning of the first chapter, describing Sogyal Rinpoche's introduction to death:
"My own first experience of death
came when I was about seven. We were preparing to leave the
eastern highlands to travel to central Tibet. Samten, one of the
personal attendants of my master, was a wonderful monk who was
kind to me during my childhood. He had a bright, round, chubby
face, always ready to break into a smile.
He was everyone's favorite in the
monastery because he was so good-natured. Every day my master
would give teaching and initiations and lead practices and
rituals. Toward the end of the day, I would gather together my
friends and act out a little theatrical performance, reenacting
the morning's events. It was Samten who would always lend me the
costumes my master had worn in the morning. He never refused me.
Then suddenly Samten fill ill, and it was clear he was not going
to live. We had to postpone our departure. I will never forget
the two weeks that followed. the rank smell of death hung like a
cloud over every thing, and whenever I think of that time, the
smell comes back to me. The monastery was saturated with an
intense awareness of death. This was not at all morbid or
frightening, however; in the presence of my master, Samten's
death took on a special significance. It became a teaching for
Samten lay on a bed by the window in a small temple in my
master's residence. I knew he was dying. From time to time I
would go in and sit by him. He could not talk, and I was shocked
by the change in his face, which was no so haggard and drawn. I
realized that he was going to leave us and we would never see
him again. I felt intensely sad and lonely.
Samten's death was not an easy one. The sound of his labored
breathing followed us everywhere, and we could smell his body
decaying. The monastery was overwhelmingly silent except for
this breathing. Everything focused on Samten.
Yet although there was much suffering in Samten's prolonged
dying, we could all see that deep down he had a peace and inner
confidence about him. At first I could not explain this, but
then I realized what it come from: his faith and his training,
and the presence of our master. And though I felt sad, I knew
then that if our master was there, everything would turn out all
right, because he would be able to help Samten toward
liberation. Later I came to know that it is the dream of any
practitioner to die before his master and have the good fortune
to be guided by him through death.
As Jamyang Khyentse guided Samten calmly through his dying, he
introduced him to all the stages of the process he was going
through, one by one. I was astonished by the precision of my
master's knowledge, and by his confidence and peace. When my
master was there, his peaceful confidence would reassure even
the most anxious person.
Now Jamyang Khyentse was revealing
to us his fearlessness of death. Not that he ever treated death
lightly: He often told us that he was afraid of it, and warned
us against taking it naively or complacently. Yet what was it
that allowed my master to face death in a way that was at once
so sober and so lighthearted, so practical yet so mysteriously
That question fascinated and absorbed me.
Samten's death shook me. At the age of seven, I had my first
glimpse of the vast power of the tradition I was being made part
of, and I began to understand the purpose of spiritual practice.
Practice had given Samten an acceptance of death, as well as a
clear understanding that suffering and pain can be part of a
deep, natural process of purification.
Practice had given my master a
complete knowledge of what death is, and a precise technology
for guiding individuals through it."