What happens right after death? Dzogchen Rinpoche’s practical description of the taste of that experience is taken from his book Mind Beyond Death.
In the first stage of this bardo, when we still see ourselves as who we are right now, the appearances of the life we have just left can arise for us quite vividly. At this time, we can see and hear all the people that we have known; our family and friends, as well as our teachers and members of our spiritual community. Since we possess a mental body, whenever we think about any one of them, we are there with that person. However, while we can see them and even know to some extent what they are thinking and feeling as a result of our death, they are unaware of our presence. They do not respond to us when we call out to them. We cannot directly comfort them or be comforted by them.
From the perspective of those who are left behind in the bardo of this life, it is important to understand that there is initially some possibility that the consciousness of the departed person may be drawn back into the presence of loved ones and familiar surroundings. Therefore, it is important for those of us remaining to have positive thoughts and to create a positive and stable environment, as this will assist the consciousness of that person and ease his or her passage through this bardo. If we are going through emotional turmoil, then our loved one may be distressed by our pain. If we are feeling angry or indifferent, then that may cause him or her to become angry or despairing, sensing a lack of love and support.
We should also be mindful of our thoughts regarding their possessions and of our actions in regard to the belongings they have left behind. We should handle them with care and respect. If we mishandle them, then the consciousness in the bardo may suffer, just as we would if we walked into a room and saw someone take something that we liked very much and destroy it. We would not be happy. Therefore we should remember that the departed person sees and reacts in the same way that we do; we are all vulnerable to states of confusion and suffering.
Because of the power of mind in the bardo, we have the possibility of helping anyone with whom we have a close connection during this stressful passage. By maintaining a clear, peaceful and positive mental state, we will help them to relax in that state as well. By relating to them with genuine love and compassion, and with the attitude of bodhichitta that wishes only for their happiness and liberation, then we will definitely help this person. That is the best practice we can do.
In the same way, we can also help those with whom we have more distant connections, as well as beings who are unknown to us. These days, we are in a situation where we hear reports from the media about people throughout the world who have died due to various causes: war, famine, disease, natural disasters and tragic accidents. When we read these reports or hear about them on TV and see the graphic images of these events, if we make a little prayer and generate positive thoughts, we will be making positive connections with the beings who are undergoing the experience of death. Based on making this connection, we can actually help those beings. We can help them attain enlightenment, and they can help us attain enlightenment, which is what we call a twofold benefit; benefiting oneself and benefiting others.
This is better than getting angry or simply feeling sad and depressed when we see such things happening in the world. It is preferable to becoming caught up in our beliefs about good and bad, right and wrong, and then generating thoughts of aggression and blame. Such negative thoughts do not ever help those who have died, and they are also harmful to our state of mind. Even though we may not be able to maintain completely pure thoughts from moment to moment, or throughout the period of forty-nine days, at least our first thought can be a positive one. When we can sincerely generate positive thoughts and prayers for the well being of friends and strangers alike, this is immediately beneficial and may even prove auspicious beyond our knowing for their spiritual journey as well as our own.
Traditional Tibetans, when hearing of someone’s death, will immediately recite mantras, or short prayers, so to speak, which invoke blessings and connection with enlightened mind. Mantras are thus regarded as a form of mind protection. There are any number of mantras that can be recited, such as: om mani padma hum, karmapa cheno, or om vajra guru padma siddhi hum. After reciting mantras, we make aspiration prayers and generate positive thoughts. We conclude by dedicating the merit of our positive thoughts and aspirations for the ultimate liberation of those beings.