“To be free from repulsion and attraction or from the wish to take or to avoid – to enter in the mood of complete impartiality – is the most profound of arts”
~ Tibetan Book of the Dead
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, as the work is commonly known, is an ancient text which was written for the purpose of helping the dying – and indeed, the dead – navigate the many geographies and challenges of the otherworld which comes after death; the Beyond as it has been called. It is a testament to the great attention paid by at least some of our ancestors to the dying process. Death after all, is a process, and one which is as natural and regulated as any other in the world.
Belief in the existence of an eternal soul is certainly one of the most common and longest held of all mans ideas. In today’s increasingly non-religious, industrialized world, our notions of what births and constitutes a religion are extremely quaint and far removed from the visceral and deeply real psycho-physical experiences which lie at its core. Those ancient men who stood apart from the institutions which would later build themselves around their experiences – and claim to be the sole arbiters of these mysteries – were the subjects of truly affecting and shockingly personal experiences. This was pointed out by transpersonal psychologist Holgar Kalweit when he wrote, “Ideas about the soul and about such states as the OBE (Out of body experience) are therefore not founded on abstract thought; their origin lies in genuine psychic experiences.” Modern religious institutions and their watered down doctrines are, in practice, worlds apart from those genuine psychic experiences which underlie them; moving experiences which caused man to wonder in solitude at the vastness and beauty of the cosmos, and to shudder in humility at his own place in such a thing.
The idea here is simply to analyse the contents of the Book of the Dead and its descriptions of the realm of death, with relatively modern Near Death Experience (NDE) accounts and their induced contact with similar realms, in order to see if we can account for the key features of the former referencing the latter. In other words, can we look at the myriad set of “universal potential elements” reported of the NDE, in its more modern context, and find similar elements as have been reported in the Book of the Dead? Any resulting implications will be left up to the reader to decide for themselves.
The Near Death Experience
A number of authors in the field have repeatedly identified key elements which occur during the greater majority of NDEs, themes which appear again and again; hence, while looking for parallels, we will lend greater credence to the search, by using primarily those NDEs with such previously established consistencies intact. These include, but are not limited to, the Out of Body Experience, apparent contact with deceased relatives, contact with a being of light, a life review and the perception of a “barrier” or “point of no return” on the journey. There are many more commonalities between experiences, and much more to be said in this regard, but that is far beyond the scope of this particular work. A future piece will however deal with these in greater detail and it is enough to know that there are these established commonalities.
A Reflected World
There is not actually a huge amount of data to be drawn from the Book of the Dead, as it is extremely succinct in its painting of the world beyond – and in many ways it is a necessarily repetitive piece which is less a book in the traditional sense than it is an instruction manual. The text itself is predominantly concerned with those who have found themselves on the other side of the veil and are either too overcome with terror or too wrapt in awe to take the steps necessary in order to proceed to the ‘summerland’ beyond; akin to the experience of the inexperienced lucid dreamer who must similarly learn to hold both the fearful and the numinous aspects of his dreamtime at arm’s length, instead practicing a sort of detachment. This means there aren’t a massive amount of separate elements or phenomena in the text which describe the landscape of the Beyond, and we will therefore be able to cover the majority of key features which its authors have said distinguish the Land of the Dead from our own in this comparative analysis.
Throughout the Tibetan text, many different guidelines are given in the hope that the dead will be aware of them, either by making himself aware of the teaching during the course of his earthly life, or by being guided by its words via someone still in the land of the living so as to proceed without troubles. But there is one particular point that is made more than any other. The text’s authors considered it the height of importance to inform its readers that the apparent limbo-like state which connects this life to the next is exquisitely and wholly responsive to the conscious and subconscious mind of the individual. And this was meant in quite a literal sense as the text explains: “Alas! When the Uncertain Experiencing of Reality is dawning upon me here, with every thought of fear or terror or awe for all [apparitional appearances] set aside, may I recognize whatever [visions] appear, as the reflections of mine own consciousness.”
This is a point made again and again throughout the text and it is representative of a broader theme which reveals itself to readers of the literature on the afterlife, and incidentally, many altered states in general: that metaphor and symbolism are some of the key currencies of communication in these otherworldly realms. As the text goes on to say, “O nobly-born, all those are the radiances of thine own intellectual faculties come to shine. They have not come from any other place.” The world beyond this one, according to descriptions, is uniquely susceptible to the thought processes of the individual and in many ways, at least initially, tailors itself to accommodate those environments and worldly appearances that he is used to. Indeed in many instances of modern NDEs, those beings who populate the Beyond explicitly state that they are appearing in a way familiar to the traveller so as to comfort him during this time of great change and transition. One of the more well known modern accounts is in agreement here, that of George Ritchie, who in the midst of an initially terrifying NDE wrote that “…whatever anyone thought, however fleetingly or unwillingly, was instantly apparent to all around him, more completely than words could have expressed it”.
Consider also the case of a Zuni tribesman who, while visiting the world beyond this one, was told by an apparition that, “In order that this journey, which is long, might not seem strange to you, I have brought a couple of fine horses, such as my people used and I see your people use constantly nowadays.”
Philosopher A. J. Ayers reflecting on his own NDE had this to say. “Did you know that I was dead? The first time that I tried to cross the ‘river’ I was frustrated, but my second attempt succeeded. It was most extraordinary. My thoughts became persons.” Although it seems to be that Ayer did not have a wholly conventional NDE, his words reflect the role of thought not just in the post-mortal realm, but in states of mind which can be attained by a variety of other and related means.
Dr. Raymond Moody, in his work Life after Life – widely credited with revitalising interest in the topic of post-mortem survival – writes, “Interestingly, while the above description of the being of light is utterly invariable, the identification of the being varies from individual to individual and seems to be largely a function of the religious background, training, or beliefs of the person involved.” With this particular point made however, it is very important to note that although this is manifestly the case, it is only to a certain extent and within a particular context, and that for the most part, the NDE is unexpectedly surprising to the dying person. It is generally out of step with what his religions or ideas have told him about the otherworld and it is deeply novel to him in many more ways than it is familiar. It is this novelty which sets these realms apart and which becomes even more intriguing when we consider the mysterious extent to which they are experienced consistently both across cultures and across time. It is enough to know that a defining feature of the NDE is the combination of both elements of familiarity, and their conflation with elements of striking unfamiliarity.
Heightened Mental Faculties
One of the more puzzling and persistent elements which has emerged from modern NDE accounts, and is brought out again and again by many authors, is the subjective experience of an enhanced intellect. Clear and lucid thought reported to be far in excess of what was possible before, and not just thought, but sight and hearing are also greatly enhanced. Even the hard of hearing and those with visual problems have reported these enhanced capabilities. And all this, in the majority of cases during a time of clinical death, flat brain waves and in some cases, deep coma. (Note: The definition of death itself is a rather contentious one. However without going into much detail on these definitions, it is enough to say, that in the case of the NDE, the most important thing in the absence of this information is not whether the person is dead as such, but rather how functional are their brain capacities, particularly those which afford or mediate cognition, during the time of the NDE and the recurring themes in the accounts of those either dead or near death, and indeed whether or not some aspect of the mind is mysteriously projected outward at this stage. It is less important whether or not the individuals biological processes have ceased, than it is important as to whether or not some aspect of the individual has left the body at this stage; this way we can leave the squabbling regarding the exact moment of death up to others.)