An excerpt from a teaching called Awakening from Non-Recognition by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo
I would like to talk about a practice that we do in order to prepare for the time of death. This practice is called P’howa. In P’howa, we practice clearing the central channel, opening up the psychic apertures that block us, coming into a state of awareness of what the death experience is. In P’howa we practice ejecting or sending the consciousness through the central channel so that at the time of death we can die consciously—that is to say, not simply have the experience of death overtake us the way life has overtaken us, but rather die intelligently, participating in the transference of consciousness from ignorance to bliss.
In the practice of P’howa we are taught that at the time of death when the outer breath ceases, there is a period of time between that and when the inner or more subtle breath ceases. That time varies according to the conditions surrounding the death, the condition of the person’s mind stream, the karma of the person and his or her habitual tendencies. There are many different factors. But when death actually occurs and all of the breath ceases, both the outer breath that is very visible and measurable and the inner subtle psychic wind, at that moment there are three very important events that happen. It’s critical that as Buddhists we understand this, think about this intelligently, prepare for it and make choices.
The first event is the disengagement of the white Bodhicitta or male spiritual essence that we inherit from our fathers. We perceive this to be seminal substance but it is actually the white Bodhicitta in its mystical form. That white Bodhicitta disengages and drops from the top of the head to the heart area of the central channel. When that happens, there is a corresponding vision as we enter into the bardo state called the white vision. That white vision has two aspects and there are two results. We prepare for that in P’howa.
The second event that happens is the disengagement of the red Bodhicitta or female spiritual essence, which is the mother’s contribution. At the time of death that red Bodhicitta disengages and rises up the central channel to the heart. At that time we have the corresponding vision, which is called the red vision. That red vision has two aspects and two results. Again, you will learn about that when we study P’howa.
The event that I want to discuss is the third event, which occurs when these two substances, this red and white Bodhicitta, meet in the central channel. When that happens, there is the clear or black vision. That particular vision is extremely important because, while everything in the bardo depends upon our capability to move from a state of non-recognition into a state of recognition, the most glorious opportune time for this movement into recognition is when the worldly life-bearing constituents dissolve and we are in that state that I’m describing. Every method that we practice in Vajrayana is geared toward providing that kind of recognition both in the waking state and at the time when the red and white Bodhicitta meet.
That state is a very fortuitous state. To the excellent practitioner who understands the point of the path and who has practiced and achieved some accomplishment, that moment is a tremendous opportunity. The excellent practitioner will look forward to that moment more than to any other event in his or her life because that moment holds the strongest potential for recognition. A mediocre practitioner will say, “Well, you know, it sounds good to me, but I don’t know, I’d rather vacation in the Bahamas!” or something like that. The mediocre practitioner will have some fear about it, which will be more or less according to their level of competency, and will question whether or not that state of recognition could possibly occur at that moment. For the non-practitioner, that state is a complete unknown.
Now, why does this moment hold such a tremendous opportunity for the practitioner, and why is it a completely different experience for the non-practitioner? Non-practitioners are basically in the same position in that state as they were in their lives when they lived in an ongoing, confused and deluded state of non-recognition, thinking that I am this thing that is contained right here in this box of flesh and you are out there totally separate from me, and there is no connection. That state of non-recognition is the mind of duality. It is the mind that separates self from other. It is the mind that experiences acceptance or rejection, hope or fear, and hope and fear mixed up at the same time. There are many different ways to determine what our consciousness is like in the state of non-recognition. Simply look at what your mind is doing right now.
If we were awake as the Buddha is awake, we would understand that duality is not even logical. Coming from the perspective of enlightenment, of realization, of awakening, we would understand that is not realistic at all. It cannot be. So this state of non-recognition is the state in which we seemingly remain in a certain solid condition where everything other than our perception of self-nature seems to be projected outward and seems to be happening to us. We think life happens to us. We seem to be both victim and oppressor, and we seem to experience both the result and the condition of both. According to where we are at that particular moment in our lives, we will think ourselves to be either the victim or the oppressor.
Now, according to the Buddha’s teaching, nothing is happening other than the primordial wisdom nature that is the ground-of-being along with its display, which is very much like the relationship between the sun and its rays. The dance, the movement, the display of the primordial wisdom nature is as much a part of that nature as the sun’s rays are a part of the sun. Yet we experience things in an extremely deluded way. Everything seems to be separated, categorized, dualistic, and so we are lost in a state of non-recognition, not able to understand who or what we are or how things actually occur.
In P’howa, when the red and white Bodhicitta come together, the subtle material constituents, which bind us to our experience into this physical reality, into a time and space grid or a sense of continuum, naturally dissipate. When the body is ceasing its activity, that which we have called “I,” which seems to have existed since time out of mind, we do not perceive to disappear into nothing. We perceive that sense of “I” continues and remains, mostly due to ego-clinging and desire, through the idea of self-nature as being inherently real. However, at the time of death, again when this red and white Bodhicitta come together, there is this brief period of time when all of these constituents dissolve. This is almost like the space or pause between an inhalation and exhalation. Unfortunately, our language is a deluded way to communicate this information because it is not made to convey enlightenment. It’s made to convey only delusion. Please forgive me for that. So there is a moment when the constituents dissolve, when there is this pause where nothing new arises. Even though we are still lost in the state of believing in self-nature as being inherently real, some sort of subtle reassembly has not occurred just yet. The constituents have simply dissolved and there is a moment of pause.
Once the constituents disengage, most people (99.9% of sentient beings) who have not had the opportunity, or for whatever reason did not practice to some level of accomplishment, will not be able to recognize that the components that cause us to engage in the automatic projection of our karma and mind streams into external experience have momentarily ceased. To the ordinary practitioner at that time, consciousness simply faints or goes into what is very much like a sleeping state. That is the experience of dying. It seems as though something ends. There is no recognition of the primordial ground of being that is our nature and that is momentarily revealed at that time, revealed just as clearly as it can ever be.
Now here again listen to the language of delusion, “clear as it can ever be.” If we could conceptualize that nature as an “it,” we’d probably be able to see it at that time. But the constituents have dissolved, and we are simply seeing the naked reality, the naked face of the ground-of-being that is our nature. As non-accomplishers, as those who are still not awake, we do not recognize that moment. It appears to us that it is simply over. It is ended. We have had a certain white vision and there is a feeling of moving through a tunnel and all that stuff they write about in books. A lot of it is correct, but they don’t tell you about the part that happens after that, which is the red vision, and then the experience of dying. As we arise from the state of unconsciousness, our habitual tendency to conceive of self-nature as being inherently reasserts itself. When we’re talking of a habitual tendency, we’re not talking about 75 or 80 years, we’re talking about time-out-of-mind, inconceivable time, time that you cannot name, count or measure. So naturally a habitual tendency simply asserts itself. Then we continue to go through the bardo, again projecting consciousness outward, but it’s a very different experience without the rules and regulations associated with physical life.
What happens to accomplished Bodhisattvas or perhaps even to very good practitioners at that precious moment when all of the constituents dissolve? They recognize the clear, uncontrived, natural, conditionless face that is our nature, that state which is literally free of any and all conditions and therefore cannot be described, which is fundamentally complete and yet without beginning or end. That state is free of discrimination, free of any kind of determining factor, free of time and space as we know it, free of anything that we can name as distinction or condition.
At that moment that state is revealed, and for the practitioner, it is as precious, so close as to be beyond your breath, beyond your blood, beyond your marrow as you understand as a physical being. That state, then, when the constituents all dissolve, is suddenly tasted, understood, recognized—recognized in the same way that a child will recognize its mother and the mother will recognize its child. “Recognized” is the only word that really works.
Those of you who have been parents, particularly women I think, have this kind of experience more frequently. It’s not to say that men don’t have this experience, but women who have birthed a child have a mind bend to see something that was inside of them and now it’s outside of them and they know it. There’s this thing that happens. It’s there in the same way that a child begins to move toward its first cognition, the first thing to which it reacts. You can see this in newborn infants. They will start to look for the sound of their mother’s voice and even be comforted by being held close to the mother’s chest because they recognize the mother’s heartbeat.
This deep, intimate recognition doesn’t even touch the recognition that happens to the qualified practitioner or Bodhisattva when the constituents dissolve and they are free to see their true face. That nature that is revealed at that moment, simply because nothing else is going on, is more intimate than the experience that I have just described. Again, those of you who have borne children and know what I am talking about can really relate, and others of you can relate in your own deep, inmost experience, perhaps remembering from your own childhood.
The revelation of that arising is so intimate and so profound. It is that revelation that we look to accomplish, that we try to understand, that’s the game plan here. At the time of death when the constituents dissolve, we wish to arise from the darkness not filled with desire and habitual tendency continuing through the bardo and through samsara like a bee in a jar like we always do. Instead, we wish to arise in the state of recognition that is the same as what the Buddha described when he said “I am awake.” This is a state that brings us to awakening. That is what awake is: that recognition.
So for the excellent practitioner the hope is that at that moment we will recognize that which is not separate. What is the thing that we recognize at that time? It’s not a thing. It’s no thing, nothing. It is no thing, and yet it is that which is the ground essence that is our nature, the ground-of-being. Isn’t “the ground-of-being” a provocative phrase? We’re not talking about some external divine reality that we have to go toward. We’re not going toward the lake, you know. That’s not what we’re doing here. It is the recognition of that nature that is the ground-of-being, that ground-of-being that is our nature. In that state, indistinguishable, one cannot determine the appearance of phenomena or the appearance of self-nature, or the difference between. One cannot see differences. That recognition is of our true state, our true nature, which is that which is free of such distinction.
© Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo