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Dying and the Mind

karastikarasti BreathingMinnesota Moderator
edited March 2018 in Buddhism Today

One of our ferrets is dying. He's an old guy, so it's not a surprise, but the process of course isn't fun. We are watching to see if we need to have him euthanized but right now doesn't feel the right time. He's loving being cuddled and giving lots of kisses. So this morning while I was holding him, I was thinking about the process of dying and everything that goes with it as I pondered how we know it might be time to euthanize a pet and release them kindly from their suffering.

I've read a lot over the years in Buddhism about the dying process. Apologies for no sources because it's kind of a conglomerate in my mind from everything I've read. But I seem to have gotten the idea (which has been largely confirmed looking online a bit) that dying in Buddhism there is a focus on maintaining a good state of mind to influence your rebirth even to the point of not accepting pain meds so as not to cloud the mind.

But why? If the mind doesn't transfer/reincarnate then why focus on insisting on no pain meds or other drugs, no euthanasia etc? If the karmic stream is all that goes on, then why does it matter if the mind is foggy? If nothing about our mind but rather our karma is all that gets re-born then how does the state of mind influence that upon rebirth? I suspect I am missing something :lol: I understand, of course, the importance of maintaining a certain mind state to optimize practice in the human life, but once dying has commenced, is the mind really that important?

Edited to add: For example:
Crucial in this whole process is the state of mind at the time of death, because it is this that determines the situation a person will be reborn into. If the mind is calm and peaceful and imbued with positive thoughts at the time of death, this will augur well for a happy rebirth. However, if the mind is in a state of anger or has strong desire or is fearful etc, this will predispose to an unhappy or lower type of rebirth.


  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran

    Interesting question. I'm not sure I ever heard an answer for that specifically.

    Thinking on it a bit I can say that in TB they teach what is called throwing karma and completing karma. Throwing karma is the last bit of karma obtained in a life that determines the next rebirth.

    I guess they can say what ever they want. But it does make some sense if you say that the last action of a life "throws" the karma onto the next one such that the last state sets the course for the first conditions of the next one.

    I'm just speculating, I'll be curious if anyone has a more certain answer.

  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran Veteran
    edited March 2018

    My teacher Shenpen Hookham wrote a book called 'there is more to dying than death'. I haven't read it yet. I think it might make a difference what you are practicing in life before death so if you have done a lot of meditations to prepare for death then it would be different then if you haven't. I believe my teacher's book (I have read a bit of it) says that it depends on the person what they choose to practice at death. It's not a bad idea to think about what kind of practice we want to do at death (presuming it is not a sudden car accident). I think different people select different practices to go with at their death.

  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Moderator

    @person interesting, I had not heard that "throwing karma" term before. I'll have to look into that!

    @Jeffrey Indeed, I'm sure people do. I always wonder if it's something that most people plan for, or if it comes to them as their lives start the dying process, or if some just go in completely blind. I've spent time with dying people, young and old, and can't say it's something any of them have talked about. They've almost all talked about what they wanted people to do after their death, how they wished to be honored and celebrated etc but never whether they have an idea of what their personal "death practice" might be. It is something I have thought about some, mostly because as I watch others go through it, some things are so automatic that people take them for granted. I wouldn't want someone randomly calling in a pastor from my old church because they didn't know what else to do!

  • federicafederica Seeker of the clear blue sky... Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator

    I have always understood that the 'Mind-set' at the time of dying, makes all the difference between an 'agitated' passing, and one that accepts its unchangeable fate.
    Nobody can avoid dying.
    From the instant we are born, we are destined to cease living at some future point.
    Dying is a common subject for discussion here; that said, we don't talk about it daily, but certainly, it's a topic for discussion far more commonly than anywhere else we venture, off-forum....

    And some people really don't like talking about it. They shy away form the subject, as if not talking about it (at best) or being in complete denial (at worst) will somehow exclude them form the process. THESE are the people who may well enter the journey in a poor mind-state. Those who resist, protest and even while in their final days, simply do not wish to die.
    I am reminded of that wonderful poem of Dylan Thomas', an exhortation to his father:

    "Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage! Rage, against the dying of the light!"

  • lobsterlobster Veteran Veteran

    There is a dervish maxim, 'Die before you die'

  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran


    This article by Pema Khandro may be of interest....

    I think your question may be in reference to esoteric concerns regarding clarity of presence before the moment of death. Some people have suggested that it may be better not to have drugs in order to have clarity of awareness during the passing. However that would be conditional on the individual’s capacity for realization, which in most cases is meager anyway. It is a classical Buddhist slogan that when death is approaching, it is too late to train. So at such a point one is considered to be stuck with what preparation they have or have not done. Therefore the concern is supporting the person to pass through the stage of dying with as little disturbance as possible.Pain and agony can be profoundly disturbing, in that case painkillers would be very supportive. Compassion and mercy should be the guide for these decisions

  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Moderator

    @Shoshin Yes, indeed I can understand that. My point more so is, if we focus so much on the fact that we need to shed so much of the mind, go beyond it, that what the mind does is meant to be surpassed (eventually) why should the mind suddenly be taken into so much account at death? I just find it interesting that there is, especially in Tibetan Buddhism perhaps, so much focus on the "no mind" ideas and then suddenly, the mind is of utmost importance at death.

  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran Veteran
    edited March 2018

    @karasti I think that it can be quite subtle what is understood as the mind in these traditions. For my tradition there is the belief in the Buddha nature. But also let go of attaching to constructs of mind which are impermanent... And the suffering in samsara. Compassion. Bodhicitta. Paramitas. So are these all identical? Is the Buddhanature the same as non-grasping, compassion, bodhicitta, and paramitas? If it is identical then it is not in the sense that it wasn't ever pointless to express these progressively.

    Personally I think what you are seeing is that something doesn't make sense. I think maybe that is the madyamaka level looking at how a view of the self continuing after death really doesn't make sense. It seems what you are saying why if we are letting go of things why at death are we trying to fix things or set them up in some way? I think in some ways that doesn't make sense. But in some ways it does. Like if I have karma to make me have an unfortunate birth with some difficulties maybe I can through resolve or refuge or what have you maybe with those difficulties I can hope to have in my next life reconnect with the dharma. I think a lot of people hope to have an easy next life. But if it is very difficult then many hope that at the least within that difficulty that they can find the dharma again and continue the path.

  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran

    @karasti said:
    @Shoshin Yes, indeed I can understand that. My point more so is, if we focus so much on the fact that we need to shed so much of the mind, go beyond it, that what the mind does is meant to be surpassed (eventually) why should the mind suddenly be taken into so much account at death?

    I think in a way Khandro has also answers this...

    However that would be conditional on the individual’s capacity for realization, which in most cases is meager anyway.


    I just find it interesting that there is, especially in Tibetan Buddhism perhaps, so much focus on the "no mind" ideas and then suddenly, the mind is of utmost importance at death.

    On a personal level I think that when we try to understand what is meant by mind through intellectual means, we fight a losing battle...The more one tries the more questions will arise...that's the intellect for ya ...always wanting to know more of what is unknown to it ....never satisfied so it would seem :)

    In the simplest sense I think that the mind is just 'knowing' and much of what we know comes from karmic conditioning and not through skilful means that is, through self awareness ie, observation ...

    And so at the time of death the moment-to-moment continuum of sense impressions and mental phenomena, (aka the self or better still the sense of a self) continues from one life to another....

    In other words.... The karmically conditioned self (that more often than not lacks awareness ) will ride the mind stream (warts and all) into the next cycle of conditioned birth & death.... Another "I" will arise, out of 'Form's ashes, but not having quite the same mental or physical characteristics/personality as the "I" that went before it... but another craving "I" nonetheless...

    So it could be ~Bodhidharma~ was really on to something, when he is quoted as saying ... "The Mind 'is' the root from which all things grow" (including "warts and all" )

    And I guess the Tibetans were/are onto something too when it comes to the importance of mind training...

    This is just a bit of mental rambling on my part :)

  • genkakugenkaku Veteran Northampton, Mass. U.S.A. Veteran
    edited March 2018

    An internet friend of mine summed the matter of death up in a way I can credit at 78. He wrote, "I'd like to die with a smile on my face, but I guess I'll take what I get." Fussing with death is like fussing with blue sky: The sky doesn't mind and the fussing is slightly more interesting than what's on TV.

    For my own purposes, I put his observation together with a line that once popped into my mind: "Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help." Looking forward to a better or a less-comely future is beyond my pay grade ... maybe so, maybe not. I don't know. Sometimes death is scary. Sometimes not. Either way, the sky is blue and I'll find out when I get there.

    Spiritual discipline is probably a good thing, but I do what I can not to fall off some cliff of belief and imagine I can outflank or understand or bring death under my smile-y-faced control. As everyone dies, so no one can know the future. No one. Daisies die -- why shouldn't I? Daisies replenish the earth. Why shouldn't I? Daisies don't help or hinder ... why shouldn't I? Daisies don't make up stories. Why should I? I had a birthday yesterday, so I figure I get to ask these questions.

    I guess I'll take what I get ... since there's no other option.

    I wonder what's on the sports channel. :)

  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Moderator
    edited March 2018

    Indeed, it's not something I spend a lot of time worrying or even thinking about. Too busy living, generally, just the curiosity came to mind while dealing with death. It has before in the same circumstance I suppose. I guess it turned into more of a curiosity because animals are different (in what we witness, perhaps not the process itself). When my grandma was dying, there was a very palpable moment when whatever it is what makes us, us, was no longer present. Her body was still finishing it's dying process, and that took another full day, even though she had no machines or anything working for her, her death process played out very naturally. So it was just an interesting thing to witness and while it brought some conclusions for me as to my questions about dying, it also brought more questions, lol.

    @Jeffrey I'm sure you are right. I'm sure much of it is an attempt to use the word "mind" to cover so many different things because we don't have differential terms otherwise. Yes, in a nutshell that was there my thoughts were coming from, that if we spend our lives focusing on letting go of certain things, why would they then become a focus? I'm sure it makes more sense if you have a firm grasp of the culture as well and how they use the terms.

  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran
    edited March 2018

    @karasti said:
    My point more so is, if we focus so much on the fact that we need to shed so much of the mind, go beyond it, that what the mind does is meant to be surpassed (eventually) why should the mind suddenly be taken into so much account at death?

    The way I understand it is that “knowledge” is the domain of the mind, everything you have learned is mind-stuff. Actual knowing, instantaneous understanding, is a process that goes beyond the mind, and in that realisation we can find glimpses of enlightenment.

    Some of the best opportunities we have for enlightenment and grasping the nature of mind come during the Bardo, in the first moments at the threshold of death, and that’s why the state of the mind at death can be important, to facilitate the leap from the instant of understanding to a state of knowing beyond the mind.

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