The Tibetans have a pretty good understanding on how to deal with death. I would like to offer a brief talk on the Mahayana perspective on death.
What Is Death? In Buddhism, death occurs when the life force is cut off.
Life force (Chinese: mìng gen 命根; Vietnamese: mệnh căn) has three components:
Consciousness refers to the eighth consciousness (the store consciousness). At birth, it is the first that arrives. At death, it is the last to leave.
Life After Death
At the time of death, in most cases, people normally go into a state of being called the Intermediate Skandha Body.
This is a state of consciousness (i.e. no body) which dies every seven days. During this seven-day period, the deceased is led before King Yama who decides where the deceased is to be reincarnated. King Yama is an official in the nether world who is in charge of the life spans of ordinary people and has the authority to decide which kind of body the deceased will inhabit next. During this trial, the deeds of the decedent’s past life are tabulated and used to determine his or her next rebirth. For example, if the net result is negative (i.e. more bad deeds than good deeds), it could be decided that we fall into the three states of woes: the animal realm, hungry ghosts or hells. On the other hand, if it turns out to be positive, we could return to the human realm or be headed for the god realm.
The Intermediate Skandha Body only lives for seven days and then dies. This occurs for up to seven weeks. The deceased could be assigned to rebirth anytime during this seven week (49 day) period.
Occasionally, people are immediately reincarnated without going through the Intermediate Skandha Body. For example, those who have accrued good karmas (purely created good karmas), may immediately be reborn to the heavens or Pure Lands. Conversely, those who are very evil could fall directly into the hells.
No Day at the Beach
What happens to us during this Intermediate Skandha Body state?
The Earth Store sutra clearly describes this state: the deceased perceives only total darkness and silence. In other words, one is totally disoriented. Our sense organs are no longer functional.
Also, it feels very cold. For example, one of my students has an uncle who led a financially successful, albeit morally debatable, life. Upon his death, during the first seven days, he was frozen in fear and his legs felt like ice.
The Earth Store sutra further states that during the judgment periods (a total of 49 days), one undergoes many sufferings. Why? It is like owing money to many banks. If they find out that we are about to skip town, they send collectors who come knocking on our door day and night to get repaid, wouldn’t you think? Similarly, those creditors and enemies from our past lives may know that we are going for rebirth, and they too would surround and harass us without mercy, while they have a chance.
Help for the Dead
It is possible to provide assistance to the deceased during this 49-day period. However, one could also make it worse for the deceased.
The Asian culture has the tradition of creating blessings for the deceased to affect his or her rebirth.
For example, many Asian cultures have the custom of going to the temples and sponsoring ceremonies to create blessings to help the deceased obtain a good rebirth. This is a most excellent idea.
Unfortunately, over time, it degenerated into a superstitious custom of organizing a pompous affair to assuage the survivors’ face. Family members would hire ceremony performers (lay people who recite Buddhist sutras and perform various forms of ceremonies and chanting), burn paper money (to provide assets to the netherworld), burn large paper boats (providing for safe passage to the next life) or organize huge feasts where pigs and fowls are slaughtered and eaten. These affairs are quite impressive to the living but are of little help to the deceased.
If you do good deeds (reciting the Buddha’s name, chanting sutras, abstaining from eating meat, etc.) on behalf of the deceased, then these good deeds generate blessings that are taken into consideration every one of the, up to seven, times that King Yama reviews his or her case.
On the other hand, if bad karmas are created in the name of the dead (killing animals for feasts, drunkenness etc.), these result in further burdening the decedent’s case in the courts below.
I’m taking the time to explain this because many of my Caucasian students who have studied Buddhism from the Japanese, Tibetan or South Asian cultures for many years did not know of this judgment day.
Everything we do eventually catches up with us.
During this 49-day period, the decedent desperately wants to scream for help but cannot.
For example, the Caucasian may have the custom of organizing a wake to celebrate the life of the deceased, that may include a feast that includes the consumption of meat and alcohol to send him or her off. This is a very bad idea because it is like the following analogy. Imagine yourself disoriented, treading muddy water with great difficulty (Intermediate Skandha Body). Then your family and friends come over and attach a hundred-pound weight to you, and they have no way of knowing that it is not helping you!
The Right Help
Now that you know, please try to do good deeds on behalf of the deceased during the ensuing 49 days after death. In particular, refrain from creating bad karmas such as killing animals or violating other precepts, because this is tallied up against them!
It’s an excellent idea to sponsor Buddhist ceremonies during this period to assist in the dead’s optimal rebirth. There is no need to waste money on superstitious things such as burning fake paper money, paper donkeys, paper boats, etc., because they are of no use.
I do recommend going to Mahayana temples to ask for help. If you’re blessed, you may be able to enlist some great help for the deceased from some competent monks or nuns. It is of utmost importance because this may be the last and most important thing that you can do for your loved one or friend.
I personally love to practice Chan but decided to specialize in teaching Mahayana Pure Land Buddhism because I believe that rebirth in the Pure Land is the best possible option for all of us in the Dharma Ending Age. I learned my Pure Land Dharma from my late teacher, Great Master Xuan Hua who is the first American Patriarch of Orthodox Buddhism (the main lineage of Mahayana).
We are small time monks and nuns who hope to help others obtain rebirth in the Pure Lands. Over the years, we have been able to send people off to the Western Bliss Pure Land. Amongst them are a Taoist, a Catholic, an atheist, a non-Buddhist as well as many Buddhists. Funny thing: they were informed that they could go back to the human realm or to the heavens. So far, when given a choice (by King Yama), they all opted for the Western Bliss Pure Land.