Mahayana views on dying and intermediate state

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Mahayana views on dying and intermediate state

Postby Luke » Fri Nov 15, 2013 8:03 pm

Just about everyone has heard about the Tibetan Book of the Dead by now, but what do standard Mahayana schools think happens during death and the intermediate state?

Are there any sutras which explain these things from the Mahayana point of view?

I would like to understand how the Tibetan beliefs differ from standard Mahayana ones.
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Re: Mahayana views on dying and intermediate state

Postby Malcolm » Fri Nov 15, 2013 8:07 pm

Luke wrote:Just about everyone has heard about the Tibetan Book of the Dead by now, but what do standard Mahayana schools think happens during death and the intermediate state?

Are there any sutras which explain these things from the Mahayana point of view?

I would like to understand how the Tibetan beliefs differ from standard Mahayana ones.


One, there isn't a single Tibetan system regarding the antarabhāva, or intermediate state, there are several, most derived from Indian sources.

Second, there is not much difference, other than Mahāyāna provides no methods regarding how to practice in such a state.
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Re: Mahayana views on dying and intermediate state

Postby Astus » Fri Nov 15, 2013 9:08 pm

Jinul writes (Chinul's Works, p 141; in Collected Works of Korean Buddhism, vol 2):

At the moment of your death, wind and fire will oppress you, the four material elements (mahābhūta) will separate and scatter, and the mind will go mad, feeling stifled and cramped, and become subject to the inversions (viparyāsa) and distorted views. As you have no stratagem for soaring into the heavens above nor any plan through which to enter the earth below, you will cower in fright, bereft of everything on which you used to rely. Your physical body will be left behind as if it were a cicada’s cast-off shell. Confused about the road stretching before you, your lonely spirit will have to go on alone. Although you may have owned precious jewelry and priceless riches, you can take none of it with you. Although you may have relatives from prestigious households, ultimately not one of them can follow along behind to rescue you. This is what is meant by the statement, “What one makes oneself, one receives oneself; there is no one to take one’s place.”

Then quotes Baizhang (p 142),

"[At the time of your death,] all the unwholesome actions you performed throughout your lifetime will appear before you, either alarming or pleasing you. The six rebirth destinies (s.ad. gati) and the five aggregates of being (pañcaskandha) will appear before you, and you will see beautifully decorated houses, skiffs, carts, and palanquins all shining brilliantly. [These sights] make your mind dissolute so that the things you view with greed and lust are all transformed into pleasing sensory objects. You will be reborn at the spot where those sights are most intense, without one iota of choice in the matter; whether as a dragon or an ox, whether of high or low status, absolutely nothing is fixed."

Only enlightened beings are capable of choosing their birth. Jinul quotes Sengzhao (Straight Talk on the True Mind, in "Collected Works of Chinul", p 181):

"Saints abide in existence but are nonexistent; they dwell in nonexistence but are not nonexistent. Although they cling neither to existence nor nonexistence, they do not reject existence or nonexistence. Therefore, their light blends harmoniously with the troubles of the dusty world. They pass between the five destinies, calmly going, suddenly coming. Tranquil, they do nothing and yet there is nothing they do not do."

Therefore, ordinary people cannot do anything once dead to change their birth, and enlightened beings are free from the constraints of karma.
"There is no such thing as the real mind. Ridding yourself of delusion: that's the real mind."
(Sheng-yen: Getting the Buddha Mind, p 73)

"Neither cultivation nor seated meditation — this is the pure Chan of Tathagata."
(Mazu Daoyi, X1321p3b23; tr. Jinhua Jia)

“Don’t rashly seek the true Buddha;
True Buddha can’t be found.
Does marvelous nature and spirit
Need tempering or refinement?
Mind is this mind carefree;
This face, the face at birth."

(Nanyue Mingzan: Enjoying the Way, tr. Jeff Shore; T2076p461b24-26)
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Re: Mahayana views on dying and intermediate state

Postby Huifeng » Sat Nov 16, 2013 1:13 am

Luke wrote:Just about everyone has heard about the Tibetan Book of the Dead by now, but what do standard Mahayana schools think happens during death and the intermediate state?

Are there any sutras which explain these things from the Mahayana point of view?

I would like to understand how the Tibetan beliefs differ from standard Mahayana ones.


Time to take a couple of steps back. In the West, there is a common misperception that the notion of an intermediate state is a product of Tibetan Buddhism. While there may be some aspects which are specifically Tibetan, the notion is basically from Indian Buddhism, and not just Mahayana. Most of the earliest material is Sarvastivadin, and because of the huge influence of this school. and its later Sautrantika spinoff into the rest of Indian Buddhism, it was a very common teaching. As a result, when the Mahayana picked up, it also largely took this on. (One of the problems in the Western take is that many only take the Theravada as a point of comparative reference, but they were one of the few schools that, doctrinally speaking at least if not in practice, did not take on this view.) Thus, it is a basic notion found in all the East Asian forms of Mahayana as well. The details are not the same as that found in the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead (= Liberation by hearing in the intermediate state), but it is definitely there. Just try something as simple, and as non-Mahayana, as the Abhidharmakosa, for some of the basics about the intermediate state. There is also some material on this in the Yogacarabhumi if I recall correctly.

As for the process of dying itself, probably a very similar situation. Though, from my little knowledge, it appears to me that the later Indian point of view that was more developed in Tantric Buddhism provides much more detail than earlier forms. I'll leave that to someone more authoritative than myself to detail, though.

~~ Huifeng
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Re: Mahayana views on dying and intermediate state

Postby Aemilius » Wed Nov 20, 2013 11:18 am

There is a discussion of antarabhava (intermediate state) in Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosa. Vasubandhu mentions several schools and authorities that are in favor of it, and the ones that are against it, and he gives the references to sutras of both camps.
Vasubandhu's own view is that antarabhava is a theoretical necessity. Antarabhava is included in the categories of existence in some explanations in the Abhidharmakosa. The possibility of liberation in antarabhava also exists in Abhidharmakosa.
Antarabhava is mentioned a couple of times in the Lankavatara sutra.
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