The Bright Mind Between Death and Birth
Q&A with His Holiness Gangri Karma Rinpoche
To many, even most, 'western' readers the title is oddly inverted. Surely life is the period between Birth and Death? But the title is no error, consider: all humans and animals living on planet Earth experience happiness, suffering, and die. This isn’t an article of religious faith; it’s just the way things are.
Buddhism is one of several religions and ways of life to realize that everything we do in this life takes us nearer to, or further from the divine source, and that leaves us at the end of this life with either a debit or a credit of 'good deeds' and 'bad deeds'. That debit or credit is 'Karma' and the fact is that we carry it with us into the next life, the next incarnation, and we must balance the books of Karma before we can merge with the divine, however long or however many lives it takes us. When Buddhists refer to “Mind” they are referring to the immortal spark in each of us.
Buddhists consider that Karma must be balanced but Buddha Shakyamuni was a scientist of the mind who two thousand five hundred years ago established exactly what the nature of that mind is. His teachings can serve as a manual for psychologists in the twenty-first century. The deeper scientists, particularly quantum scientists, investigate the universe, the closer they come to the Buddha’s teachings on the mind.
There is a terrifying experience when the mind leaves the body, but that experience isn’t something independent and eternal; it’s impermanent and entirely created by a power that we ourselves have. If we can understand that, then we can use this power to attain liberation.
We are considering in this little book the question of 'Bardo' and what, you might ask, is Bardo? It is the Buddhist name for the period between incarnations. In short, to the English speaking reader, 'bardo' is just the Buddhist name of the bit between one incarnation and another, between dying and being born … you saw the title of the book? The mind between death and birth.
It would be confusing to begin by describing the process of dying and the subsequent experiences in 'the bardo', so first I will describe the relationship that exists between beings and the universe, and how mind and karma are connected. When that is understood, it will be easier to understand and believe in the experiences the mind undergoes in the bardo. A concise description of what is experienced in the three bardos will then be given: the bardo of death, the bardo of the true nature, and the bardo of becoming.
All these subjects are presented to the Buddhist believer in the form of questions and answers and the rest of this text for the 'western' reader is sometimes a paraphrase of the buddhist questions and answers and more often a direct translation.
1. Is it possible to know the extent of the universe, how many worlds there are in it, and how long ago it was created?
The extent of the universe and the number of worlds within it are incalculable. Even the latest cosmology is only a cautious estimate of stars and galaxies. Therefore, the Buddha's use of the expression “a billion world universe” is a reasonable understanding. Buddhists are certain that, before our universe came into existence, there was a previously existing universe. After it was destroyed its atoms were dispersed in empty space for an eon. These all-pervading atoms are classified in Buddhist literature as forms that cannot be visually perceived, which are called dharma-ayattana (bases for phenomena). Our universe was created from both the energy of the previously destroyed universe and from the karma and prayers of beings.
2. Do scientists believe that this universe, which they originates from a big bang, has a beginning? Do they say the big bang occurred by itself, or that it was the result of causes and conditions?
Scientists say that this continually expanding universe was created between 12 and 15 billion years ago from a 'Big Bang'. Within a few minutes of the Big Bang, as the temperature decreased, the nuclei of the lightest elements formed. Then after a long time, the atoms of the universe gradually formed from these nuclei. Then matter and radiation formed into spheres of fire from which gradually formed perceivable space, the energy of matter, and so on.
They say that light, air, water, and so on were then formed in stages. They have also discovered the all pervading “cosmic microwave background radiation.”
There are many points of correspondence between the scientific explanation of the creation of the universe and the teachings of Buddhism, but if we put this theory of the stages of the Big Bang to the test of debate, discussing it with Buddhist logic then all logicians will agree that the Big Bang has the impermanence of increase, decline, and movement.
Buddhist thinkers and scientists are in agreement that any temporary phenomenon – like the 'Big Bang' lasting seconds - is a specific result that comes from specific causes and conditions. Therefore, when the Big Bang occurred, was it a sphere that had independent existence, or was it the accumulation of many components? What are the conditions that first produced the noise of the cosmic microwave background radiation that was produced by the Big Bang? What is the cause of the conditions that formed the “noise” of that radiation? Was it the reforming of the remainder of a previously destroyed universe? When we thus inquire with such questions, analyzing in fine detail through logical debate on a preceding succession of causes and conditions, it is impossible to find any other alternative to the origin of the Big Bang other than that of dependent origination, as in the teaching of Nāgārjuna and his pupils.
3. Why did the Buddha refuse to answer fourteen particular questions, such as “Are the world and the self, eternal?” “Are the world and the self impermanent?” “Did the world and self have a beginning?” and “Are the world and self beginningless?”
The Buddha didn’t answer those questions because they’re irrelevant to the path of liberation, which heals the mind. For example, if a man has been wounded by an arrow and is in agony, to end that pain he needs to have the arrow removed and the wound treated. The wound isn’t healed and the pain is not stopped by finding out the name of the person who fired the arrow, whether he was fair or dark, tall or short, what town or village he lives in, the size of the bow that fired the arrow, and so on.
Nāgārjuna said that the questions the Buddha did not answer were based on the view that phenomena have self-existing natures. Therefore, there was the danger that if the Buddha gave an answer, people would also assume that phenomena have an independent nature and real existence. That’s why the Buddha did not answer those questions.
Even though the Buddha did not say whether the universe had a beginning or not, he did teach many times, using a variety of analogies, that the creation of worlds and beings is a dependent process, which means that worlds and beings have no independent existence.
4. How does Buddhism describe the formation of this world from the four elements?
The smallest particles of the previously destroyed universe remained in empty vacuity until they became the causes and conditions for the creation of a new universe. They formed the great element that had the energy of their combination that great element, which is like the primary element of this universe, gradually created the four elements with their qualities of solidity, moisture, heat and movement. The element of vacuity enabled the four elements to gradually develop from subtle to evident levels.
5. What is the mutually dependent process of the creation of the evident elements?
The movement and collision of subtle particles of air in empty vacuity gradually formed the evident element of air. Those particles of air acted as the causes and conditions that caused subtle particles of fire to combine and augment the power of their heat until the evident element of fire was created. Those particles of fire acted as the causes and conditions for subtle particles of water to combine and form the evident element of water. Those water particles acted as the causes and conditions for subtle particles of earth to combine and form the evident element of earth, thus expanding to form this present universe.